In the spring of 1947, when I was twelve years old, a passenger plane crashed near Narragansett Bay. It was a small craft, newly built, operated by a nascent aviation outfit called Boston Airways. Color photographs show that the nose and tail of the plane were painted the yellow of a girl’s Easter dress. Because of this, in the hangars where it was stored, its name was Bunny, or Chickadee; both names are listed in the official testimony. The intended flight path that afternoon had the plane headed first to New York and then to Miami, and then, if weather permitted, back along the edge of the Atlantic to land in Baltimore.
Lately I’ve begun to collect artifacts from the crash: a shard of the captain’s seat belt; the sleek, burnished blade of a cracked propeller; the top flap of a carton of Fatima cigarettes, remarkably well preserved, a greasy, spectral fingerprint smeared across the red crescent moon of the logo. Filed away on a computer, I have recordings of the few radio transmissions that exist. The pilots are calm before their death. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve listened to them dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Everything in my story depends in some way on this crash.
Takeoff: eight past noon, out of Logan. Estimated arrival: half past one.
Sixty people were on board, fifteen of them were children; no one survived.
At the time of the crash we were living in New Haven. I was out in the yard when a man pedaled by me on a bicycle. He was in a gray suit and a black felt fedora. “Plane’s gone down outside Providence,” he said, slowing to tell me the news. He had a calabash pipe in his teeth, and the smoke from it was sweet, like apples cooking. “Guess it took off out of Boston and couldn’t get airborne. Just sort of floated above the trees all the way down into Rhode Island.” He put up his hand flat into the air and made a nosedive with it, his voice adding to the effect. A moment later, he was gone, off on his bicycle, the tails of his sports coat fluttering up as he wheeled away.
My mother was standing in the kitchen. I could see her from the lawn. There was a square window framed by a wheat-colored curtain. She had the glass open, bugs at the screen, a breeze frittering at the fabric. Her cheeks were flushed. Steam in the kitchen from a kettle. Maybe a trace of cinnamon, baking, from the stove. Only two months earlier she’d celebrated her thirtieth birthday, but if you were to look at her straight, and in good light, you’d think she was a college girl. For the occasion my father had bought her a fake sapphire ring, a solitary costume stone set up on a pewter band; it’d cost him three dollars and she hadn’t taken it off since.
When I came in to tell her, she already knew. The radio was on, a man’s voice, grave, full of baritone. He rattled off what was known at that point, the plane’s type, its supposed location upon impact, the assumed number of fatalities.
My mother—and I have always remembered this—became angry at the news.
“How can something that large just fall out of the sky?” she asked me. She slapped at the linoleum with her open hand. She’d been frying an egg. Her ring clapped the air. “All those children! Who is flying these things!”
My father’s connection to the crash was tenuous. A man on board had been the brother of a classmate of his. There were telephone calls, so many of them, and then a frantic hustling on my father’s part that culminated two weeks later in an office near Hartford, where he agreed to represent ten of the affected families. By then my father had collected enough information to believe he had a case: there was evidence that executives from the airline knew the plane’s engines were damaged; at airports along the coast, word had spread of lazy safety upkeep, mechanical ignorance, pilots capable of flying a six-ton bomber but unfamiliar with the relative delicacy of such a small aircraft. One night before it all really started, I found him at our kitchen table in his underwear, blueprints and memos and cigarettes scattered in a mess. It was a new plane, and apparently something this new shouldn’t have crashed. “Can you win?” I asked. He moved to make a space for me at the table and asked me to sit down. “What do you see?” he asked, pointing to the diagram of an airplane engine. “Gibberish,” I said. “Squiggles.” He laughed. “Me too.”
He wasn’t the best person for the job, something he likely kept to himself. He had been an ambulance chaser before all of this — your average slip-and-fall-and-sue attorney —and if for any reason my mother needed to get ahold of him in those days, her best bet was to search the waiting areas of the city’s emergency rooms, where, invariably, he was sure to be camped out with his coffee, his cigarettes, and a stack of his business cards. His arrogance was often mistaken for the genuine artifact: skill, or competence, or some combination of the two. His strategy was to charge only a small retainer fee, enough for us to pay our rent and to eat and occasionally to see a movie. In return he demanded a larger-than-usual portion of any potential winnings. He claimed that it would be difficult to emerge with a victory. The arrangement, he told his new clients, was a safe bet.
The number of plaintiffs grew. These calls came sparingly at first, waking us at night, a bereft mother sneaking away to call my father while her husband slept; a PFC in the army, stationed in Okinawa, whose father had died and whose brother could not be reached. Letters arrived. Two Cuban women had stood waiting at the airfield in Miami, unknowing, before word arrived. The abbess of a Connecticut orphanage wrote, claiming to represent one of the children; the girl had been on her way to New York to meet her new parents. With every call the case became larger, the potential purse of damages fuller, the bustle in our small rented house busier and noisier and filled every night with the whispered idea that maybe, possibly, if things went perfectly, if the judge saw something the right way, or if the opposing counsel decided to take a certain tack, we —it was always we — might win.
The first press photograph of my father was published in the New York Herald in August 1947. It shows him emulating one of Hoover’s G-men: a fedora tipped low, covering his face; a fussy double Windsor; black jacket, black pants, black belt, black shoes; an Old Gold cigarette on his lip; a charcoal Chesterfield trench coat and a leather briefcase.
“What do you expect to happen here?” a reporter is quoted as asking him. “Are you hoping to bring down the entire passenger aviation industry? Do you expect us to revert to the railroads to get around? Is that what you want, Mr. Wise?”
“Bring down!” my father answered, laughing. “What a terrible choice of words!”
My father was a handsome man. All my life people had said this to me, but I had never really seen evidence of it until he began to appear in the papers: his thin face, pointed cheeks, a cupid’s smile, a rumor of white in his widow’s peak. The first time we saw his picture in the news, my mother told me that publicity made a man more beautiful. She put her fingers down onto a photograph of him. “His eyelashes,” she said. “Look. He’s got the eyelashes of a lady.” The attention didn’t surprise my father. He had a certain glint in his eyes that seemed to imply he’d expected something like this all his life.
Lucky for him that in those days the class-action suit seemed revolutionary. The idea that big business could put lives at risk without recourse seemed to tap at some primal suspicion seeking a new home after the war. People love an enemy, and without the Germans or the Japanese, my father was smart to cast Boston Airways the way he did. In an article in the Times later that same summer of 1947, he actually paints it that way. “Left unchecked, this is the biggest threat to civilian safety since the Blitz.”
His partner’s name was Robert Ashley. They’d met as infantrymen in Cherbourg, where Robert had saved my father’s life, an act that forever placed him in Robert’s debt. Afterward they enrolled in law school together. Robert was a kind man, taller by a head than anyone I had ever seen, a pale and gawky Kansan with a flat accent, a taste for rye whiskey, and a reputation for kindness that did well to offset my father’s often repellent brashness. As far as I could tell, Robert’s primary responsibility was to keep my father’s worst impulses—and he had so many of them—in check. It is worth noting that there are no photographs of Robert from this period, no interviews, only the nominal mention in the firm’s name: Wise & Ashley. In my research, he is largely absent. He is a shadow in the court transcript, often interrupting my father’s questioning.
A typical interjection, taken from the first week of courtroom proceedings: “My colleague is motioning to me, Your Honor. I apologize. Allow me a moment.”
The trial seemed to go on forever. I was twelve when the plane crashed, thirteen when we won the first round, and seventeen when the appellate process was exhausted. Because my father needed to be closer to the court of appeals in New York, he decided to move us all out of New Haven my senior year. He rented us a house in a town called Wren’s Bridge, a bedroom community a half hour north of Manhattan. I hadn’t wanted to go. In New Haven I’d pitched for our middling excuse for a school baseball team. My best friends filled out the rest of the infield. I was popular in the way that most pitchers are popular, and I had for those few seasons something of what made my father so effortlessly confident in a room full of strangers. When people put their confidence in you, it’s not so difficult to let some of that hope and faith and trust change the way you act. I figured that if I was lucky, after graduation I’d get to play baseball in one of the less competitive collegiate divisions or that I would join the army, the way my father had. Leaving New Haven, leaving my friends, my ball club, that infield —all of it devastated me. I was seventeen, and devastation came easy.
Our new house was plain, decent, set on a quarter acre of crabgrass. Our lawn was sloped like a shallow soup bowl, and in the winter it flooded with rain and snow and then froze so thick, my mother could skate on it. We were, I’m sure of it, the first family of Jews on our street. Occasionally I was teased by some boys eager to get a rise out of me by chanting something about ovens or Germany, or by throwing pennies at me and daring me to fetch them. It was the fall of 1951. People are sometimes surprised to hear me say these things, but wars do nothing to end the cruelty of boys. In my first week there, I got myself into a half-dozen fistfights. In most of these I managed all right; in only one did I get my lip split and my nose cut open. This isn’t to say that Wren’s Bridge wasn’t a nice town. It had some good places to eat, a passable movie theater, and from a high peak called Traverstock you could see the tip of something that sort of resembled the very tallest point on what some people claimed might be the Empire State Building. The people there were nothing if not exact.
And on the far west side of town, about as far from our house as possible, there was an indoor skating rink where on cold days you could get on the ice for a small fee. If you weren’t half-bad, you had a good chance of impressing some girls. I had my first kiss there, against the visitor’s penalty box, with Pauline McNamee. Of course, the twelfth grade was late for a first kiss, but I didn’t let on to Pauline. Before she kissed me, I’d had a sinking feeling that she liked me because she knew who my father was, that she’d seen him in the papers looking serious and important and blathering on about engines or mechanical failures. I was right. Afterward, as she pulled away, and while there were still strings of our saliva connecting us, she asked if she could meet him. “Maybe just once? Nobody knows this, but I really want to be a lawyer when I grow up. I just love Perry Mason.”
Soon after I started school in Wren’s Bridge, I was drafted into our debate club. Again, this was mostly because of my father’s reputation. I was a lousy debater. I’d wanted to play baseball, but we’d arrived too late for me to grab a spot on any of the teams, and so most afternoons, when our practice sessions ended and I’d exhausted myself with weak exhortations on Stalin or Trujillo or Happy Chandler, I went over to the Warren Fields and watched the local American Legion team practice their fungoes. All I’d ever wanted to do was to play ball, or to watch it, or to find some way to be around it. But everything in Wren’s Bridge centered on our lawsuit. For those first few months, my father did nothing but work and litigate and argue and appear with some regularity in the press. I wanted to go back home to New Haven. So suddenly I’d gone from being a normal, even popular, kid to being the son of a loudmouth, rabble-rousing attorney. I could divide all the people I knew into two camps: those, like Pauline McNamee and my debate coach, who wanted something from me, who wanted some of the sheen of my father’s fame to rub off on them; and everyone else, who saw the groveling and brownnosing, and decided because of it to hate me, or to ostracize me, or to throw pennies at the back of my skull while I tried to walk home.
I missed New Haven, the toughness of our neighborhood, all the Italian guys who lived on our street and hung out on their porches, shooting the shit and betting their paychecks on the Giants game. I missed the big arch of the New Haven Railroad headquarters, where the pigeons liked to roost, and I missed the stinking river weeds on the Quinnipiac. I hated Boston Airways, that their plane had crashed, that my father had taken the case. Soon, things began to crack. I stopped seeing Pauline, stopped keeping up with my assignments, and I picked a fight with the boy in my class who pitched for the high school team. I wanted what he had —his varsity letter, and the chance to throw every third day. We were in the cafeteria. I tripped him. When he got up to challenge me, I hit him in the teeth with a decent jab, walked out of the school and up a few blocks, to a spot on Adams Street, where I hailed a taxi. Ten minutes later I boarded a train to New Haven.
My father was the one to fetch me that day. When he found me standing in the cold on Elm Street, shivering in my car coat, searching for a familiar face, any familiar face, he laughed. He was proud of my gumption. I’d been standing on the corner by the Triumph Theater, staring at the movie bill for High Noon, Gary Cooper brandishing his pistol. Apparently, I’d been sold out by the guy I’d clobbered, and my father had come to get me not even a half hour after I’d gotten off the train.
“I know you hate it in town,” he said once we were in the car. “But you can’t just up and leave when things get tough.”
I turned up the radio. I’d been listening to him rehearse his arguments in the kitchen all year. He used my mother as his jury. Whenever he talked to me, I couldn’t help but think he thought of me as his opposing counsel.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I think you should let me re-enroll here in New Haven. I’m old enough. I can live on my own.”
“I don’t think that’s happening.”
“Why’s that? It’s a perfectly fine city. And I like it. We all used to like it.”
I despised him for moving us. This was the beginning of everything for him and me. All of our trouble came from that one decision. And I think he knew it before I did. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. What he wanted to say, which is obvious to me now, was that New Haven was too small for him. Already he’d begun to field offers from the big white-shoe Manhattan firms, the kind of places that sent over a baby-blue Lincoln Cosmopolitan, just for you to borrow, just to see how it would be if you were part of the company. He was happy to have the attention. That much was easy to tell. Each successive offer brought with it all sorts of celebrations in the house. Cheap champagne that they drank from coffee mugs, because all we had were coffee mugs. Or bottles of Moxie soda. Or just a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs one time on Mulberry Street. My mother seemed wild at the notion that her lifetime of near poverty was over, or nearly over. What was actually over for us was our life in New Haven, and as we rode away, I had to stop myself from turning around to see it pass behind me.
For a long while we drove in silence, down through the Connecticut River Valley, through Bridgeport, into Stamford and then west, where we crossed the Hudson at Wren’s Bridge and glided slowly back home. The sun set behind us. I remember it as a spectral sunset, full of heat, like all of New England had somehow caught fire. Beyond our car, and my mother’s ring, my father owned one suit, two pairs of loafers, a knockoff English wristwatch, and his old service revolver. Everything else, even the food we ate, was bought on credit. Everything in our lives hinged on the idea that his case was impossible to lose.
“What would you do if, say, you were to have more money than you’d ever thought possible?” He asked me this as we rolled up to the house. My mother was sitting on the front steps in a striped housedress, smoking a cigarette fitted into a short, stubby black holder. More and more, I saw her begin to assume these small affectations of what she believed aristocracy might be like. Being wealthy, I knew even then, was just an idea for her. She’d never known a rich person.
I shrugged. “I’d buy tickets to some ball games,” I said.
Beside me, my father tried to suppress his eager joy. “How about a gift, then? If I were to get you a gift. Anything you wanted. Anything. What would it be? Would you like a trip overseas? Or how about a car?”
He wanted me to go bigger, so I did. “How about a baseball team?” I asked. He laughed. Then I laughed. “You asked me, didn’t you?”
Robert Ashley came out onto the front steps then. He had a copy of the newspaper in his hands. My father was on the front page, a photograph of his face set beside a picture of that Boston Airways plane. Robert smiled, flashed us a thumbs-up.
“What’s he so happy about?” I asked.
“We’re getting close. That’s what.”
One week later, while I sat through a discussion of John Keats and his tuberculosis, our principal came into my class, whispered something into my teacher’s ear, and then navigated the rows of wooden desks to hand me a small envelope. He had a delirious smile on his face, as if he’d only just finished a laughing fit before coming to find me. The letter was handwritten and had only two words on it: We won! I knew right away what it meant, of course, and because the kid beside me stole the card and passed it around to all my classmates, so did everyone else.
Hours later, the news had spread, and while I was trying to eat my lunch in the cafeteria, a crowd gathered around me. My name is Hilton Samuel Wise —named after each of my grandfathers — but I have always been known as Hilly. That afternoon in the lunchroom, everyone around me began to clap and say my name — Hilly, Hilly, Hilly —as if I, and not my father, had done something extraordinary. When I left that day, walking the short distance back to our house on Hamilton, I turned at the curb to look back at my classmates, some of them lingering around to watch me go. Pauline McNamee was there, waving. So was Anthony Jackson, the pitcher for the school team whom I’d punched a few weeks earlier. They’d all gathered to see evidence of what had already spread around our school in that cunningly quick way of a good rumor: the Wise family had won.
In my research, I’ve come across a printed interview from Thanksgiving 1952. I will reproduce its most interesting section below.
Q: What happens now, Mr. Wise? Will you continue to take on the airline industry?
A: (Laughter) If they continue to keep me interested.
Q: Do you think you are the most famous young lawyer in America?
A: Famous? I don’t know how those things work. Who measures? I’d like to meet this man. Are you him? Are you that man?
Q: What about the best? Are you the best lawyer in America?
A: No. Definitely not the best. I didn’t do anything special here. There are men like me in every city. I’m not even close to the best.
Q: The luckiest?
A: How about the richest? How’s that? Print that. I’m probably the richest. That’s probably true.
Between 1948 and 1952, hundreds of airplanes crashed across the globe. Some of these were military aircraft. Some of these were cargo planes, the only passengers onboard the skeleton crew required to bring the plane from one place to another. But a good deal of these were commercial aircrafts carrying innocent, unsuspecting passengers. Out of these disasters, my father became the lead plaintiff’s attorney in dozens of class-action lawsuits similar in design and scope to the one that had ruined Boston Airways. He had found a strategy that worked, and people wanted him on their side. Rather than battle in court with him, the enormous corporate defense firms hired to represent the affected airlines offered settlements as quickly as my father filed suit. They wanted nothing to do with him. The money came fast, and it was huge. We were rich.
What I remember is the instant accumulation of wealth: overcoats from Harrocourts; shoes from Dunbartons; silk ties from Saks or Bloomingdale’s; shoes straight from Italy, delivered by parcel; a pashmina from Afghanistan for my mother; a walking cane cut from Brazilian wood for my father, something he looked at, laughed at, and then put away until he said he might need it. There were steaks at Honey’s on Fifth; lobster at Nero’s; caviar from Zabar’s in the tin at midnight; spaghetti and clams at Lucitti’s. There were my mother’s cigarettes from Nat Sherman, arranged in the colors of the rainbow, held in a pewter clapping case. She smoked, always, from violet to red, right to left, like the text of the Torah. There was a silver-plated revolver, bought for my father by Robert, and then a matching one, except in gold, bought for Robert by my father. I remember a leatherbound collection of Heraclitus, Herodotus, Sophocles, in the original Greek. I don’t have a memory for what came when, and to whom it went. But there was more. There were furs, I know, never taken from the box. They were still there twenty years later, sitting in storage in the basement of Bergdorf’s. There was art: Chagall. We are Jews, and so we bought Chagalls. There was jewelry: bracelets fitted with Ethiopian turquoise; diamonds mined from West Africa; hematite strung up on a flossy gold necklace, imported from New South Wales; Chinese jade; pearls pried loose from Bora-Bora oysters; Siberian lapis lazuli; gold-rush nuggets dug from the earth at Mount Shasta and melted into rings.
There were also houses. First, there was the house on Riverside Drive, which my father allowed my mother to choose: a freestanding beast off 107th Street that had belonged once to a Turkish tobacco magnate —so much white marble; one enormous parlor, fit with a Venetian chandelier; a half-dozen fireplaces; and a limestone patio with a view of the flatlands in Edgewater. My mother thought that corner of Riverside was the prettiest, with the park out front, all of Manhattan to the south, Jersey to the west, and, from the roof, a gray-green hint of the Atlantic Ocean.
Because of this house, I’m a New Yorker, quick to anger, difficult to shake, able to pass unmarked through a crowd, capable of simultaneously managing a sandwich, the 7 train, and a detective novel. But because of what my father bought next —the big thing, the best thing, my favorite thing, the only thing he ever really demanded we buy—some part of me has always felt most at home in New England. Then, men like my father gave their houses names the way they gave their dogs names, but for whatever reason — ignorance, stubbornness, a rare show of modesty—he never did this. He made the purchase over the telephone, and I remember that when he hung up the receiver, he turned to me, and said, “My grandfather milked cows in the coldest, worst part of Poland, Hilly. Now your grandchildren are going to have their own god-damned piece of the American coastline to call home.” And then he leaned back, took off his glasses, and laughed. He slammed his fist down against the table. It was as if he’d just pulled off a magic trick. “What do you say, Hilly? How do you like that?”
Excerpted from Wise Men by Stuart Nadler. Copyright © 2013 by Stuart Nadler.
First published 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York.
First published in Great Britain 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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