Last Sunday, while watching the Oscars, my 8-year-old stepson Kevin turned to my husband and asked if he had ever gone to the Academy Awards with Grandpa Frank.
“No, Sweetie” said Atticus. “Grandpa Frank didn’t like going himself. But the studio made him go the year one of his movies was nominated for Best Picture.”
My husband’s father was a Hollywood legend. His Horatio Alger career trajectory, not unheard of in the golden years of Tinseltown, is all but impossible today, when success generally requires attending an Ivy League, being related to the right people, having a yachtload of cash. Preferably all three.
“Frank” grew up in New York City, the son of a destitute immigrant who dropped out of 5th grade to become a milk truck driver. How could this happen, you ask? Frank’s father was tall and orphaned.
Propelled by the kind of ambition born out of poverty and desperation, Frank attended college on the GI bill, got a job in a network mailroom, and hustled his way up the entertainment ladder, directing TV at age twenty-three.
After winning an Emmy, Frank moved west and began helming movies. While still a young man, he directed a classic Hollywood film that won in three categories during that year’s Oscars. With the acclaim of that film, Frank was now in an elite circle of Hollywood Big Shots.
Frank made a movie every year for 15 years, so Atticus hardly remembers seeing him — except when he visited his father’s movie sets. On set, the dapper Frank — in his uniform of Brooks Brothers khakis and button-downs — was the essence of decorum, a true actor’s director who never yelled and whose calmness trickled down to his crew, who followed him from picture to picture.
Offset was another story. After Atticus’s parents divorced when he was nine, Frank instantly remarried and moved to an impeccably-appointed house in the hills of Bel Air. Atticus and his two siblings would visit for Sunday dinner and steel themselves as Frank sat in his armchair, downing cocktail after cocktail, verbally skewering each child for some transgression clear only to their father.
Frank particularly had it in for Atticus’s older brother, and would thwap him on his head if he came within thwapping distance. Frank’s new wife would disappear into the bedroom, leaving the kids alone with their drunk and raging father. Only Atticus’s sister was allowed to spend the night — Atticus and his brother were sent home to their mother.
Frank’s behavior wasn’t just abusive, it was also ironic. He was renowned in The Biz for his ability to elicit nuanced performances from child actors.
For reasons still unknown to Atticus, Frank barricaded his children from all of his relatives, which included his four brothers. Frank’s mother’s death drove a wedge between Frank and his brother “Michael,” then a struggling actor. The two didn’t speak for ten years, and Atticus remembers meeting his uncle only a few times.
When Frank was on his steep Hollywood ascent, Michael scrambled for bit parts and slept in his car. Frank never helped out, never offered him a bed to sleep in. Then, when Frank’s career was on its decline, Michael’s took off and he became a successful actor in film and TV.
Frank and his producing partner split up, amicably, and the latter went on to direct movies himself, making a slew of classic films in the 70s and 80s. Now solo, Frank had a difficult time finding good material and his movies were routinely panned.
The film business was changing, and Frank couldn’t seem to find his place. He despised small talk and nice-making. He responded contemptuously to journalists’ queries about his oeuvre, derisively referring to his role as being a “carpenter.”
Either unable or unwilling to work a room, Frank didn’t jive with the progressively younger studio executives. He made his last film in the early 90s, then retired with his wife to a small, woodsy town in the northeast, where he spent his remaining years reading and painting watercolors.
Atticus felt that despite Frank’s unrelenting ambition, he was tortured by his success. Whether it was his guilt from making it out of poverty when his parents didn’t, or his disdain for Hollywood schmooziness, he was never truly able to bask in the social station he had clawed his way into.
I met Frank only once, and it was the most uncomfortable dinner of my life. He wore a Brooks Brothers suit and a yellow bow tie, and instructed the waiter in great detail about the preparation of his omelette. He had stopped drinking by then, but he still had the air of someone who might rip you a new one at any moment. He asked Atticus and me a few questions, but seemed utterly disinterested in our answers.
Frank died a year after that dinner, from heart disease brought on from years of smoking and drinking. He left almost his entire estate to Atticus’s stepmother, with small allotments to Atticus, his siblings, and my younger stepson Kevin. (Frank had cut my older stepson Caleb out of his will, which is a long story worthy of a blog post of its own).
Years of buried resentment erupted and Atticus’s two siblings sued their stepmother, Elaine, over royalties from Frank’s movies. They lost and Elaine gave some of Frank’s possessions to Atticus, the choicest being his vintage Porsche. The Porsche was a money-guzzler and we sold it soon after receiving it in order to pay for part of my custody battle.
Not long ago, Elaine sent Atticus an old scrapbook filled with photos and memorabilia from Frank’s early years. Inside was a typed letter from Frank to his father, who lay dying in a hospital bed.
The letter was crafted in artful and tender prose. In it, Frank reminisced about mornings and evenings huddled over the breakfast table with his parents, drinking coffee and confiding his uncertainty about what to do with his life, his fear that he wouldn’t be successful. His words conveyed his parents’ devotion and support, their unwavering belief in his ability. He stressed his love for his father, and how he credited him with his success.
After reading the letter out loud, incredulously, the usually stoic Atticus looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes.
“I had no idea he was capable of this depth of emotion,” he said.
After a pause, he said what we were both wondering:
“If he grew up feeling this kind of love and support from his parents, why couldn’t he give that to us?”
When Frank and Elaine made their annual visit west, they would rent a suite at the Bel Air Hotel and have Atticus’s older son Caleb stay with them. Frank had taken an interest in Caleb, an interest he had never shown in Atticus, and for years sent his grandson meticulously rendered watercolors he turned into postcards.
During one visit, as Frank watched Atticus with his son, he turned to him and in a rare moment of reflection and vulnerability said:
“You are a wonderful father. I don’t know where you learned it.”
Atticus took Kevin up to bed before the Oscars were over. I watched the rest by myself, my mind more focussed on thoughts of Frank than on the final wins. I thought about Frank’s comment to Atticus, how Frank had grown up with a template for good parenting but was such a lousy parent himself. I thought about how Atticus grew up with a blueprint for abusive parenting, but became a father whose primary goal in life is to give his children the emotional security he never had.
Perhaps the difference was that Frank never really wanted children, but came of age in an era when people just had them because that was the thing to do. Perhaps Frank suffered from a clinical depression he was medicating with all that booze and vomited his feelings of self-loathing onto his children.
I believe we all do the best we can, although some people’s “best” sucks. But we all make our choices. And one of the choices I made when I met Atticus, was to marry this man who could demonstrate to my own children what being a real father looks like.