"Letters from Pop"
Excerpt from Rose Styron's Foreword in the newly released, "Letters to My Father," by William Styron (Louisiana State University Press, 2009. 238 ppg; $28).
When, after our years in Italy, we returned to the States, Bill and I went to Newport News for a visit. On that first trip Pop, from his verandah, pointed out the sights of the Tidewater Virginia shore, instructing me in the history of Hampton roads and the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac exactly there. He was a welcoming host and a fine storyteller. Pop was wonderful to me, as my Mom had always been. Bill and I felt blessed in having parents we admired, who stood by us and then by our own children.
I was actually introduced to Pop, and continued to receive insightful bulletins about his life over the decades, via his letters to his son. Alas, most have not survived for this collection, but I'll note a few I recall well. They invariably were bookended between "Dear Son" and "Your Devoted Father."
The first letter from Pop that Bill read to me, pre-Christmas 1952, was opened in Paris. It was mailed to Peter and Patsy Matthiessen, who had left it for our arrival on the bed we sat on in the little pensione they had found for us near their apartment, not far from the first office of the Paris Review.
The letter began: "Dear Son, What kind of trouble are you in? You can tell me. A gumshoe from Washington came down on the boat and is asking questions about us from all our neighbors. Son, you can tell me. It's okay." At that instant I suspected correctly that my mother had sent the detective. I remembered that she had once checked on a potential fiancée of my big brother's and on several of my big sister's. Like Bill, none were from Baltimore. In Paris, Bill and I were young and embarrassed and angry. But Pop understood: it was a different time, and Mom, a wise widow, felt she had the right to be sure her impulsive youngest daughter was marrying into a "good" family.
Bill Styron had proposed to me a few weeks earlier (at the bar of the Hotel Flora on the Via Veneto in Rome, before we drove to Paris), and I had accepted. Now I told him there was no way I could let him marry into a suspicious family like mine, and he agreed. We went on to have a great time in Paris, cementing friendships with the Paris Review gang, which included Peter (first and always), George Plimpton, John Marquand, and Billy du Bois. But soon after returning to Rome I moved to Florence with the intention of breaking up with Bill forever. Less than two months later, Bill's friend from the American Academy, the sculptor Bobby White, came to Florence and persuaded me to return to Rome for a weekend visit. The first night he and his wife, Claire, produced Bill. I never went back to Florence.
Instead in that early spring of 1953, Bill and I moved to Via Angelo Masina 5B, a tiny basement apartment adjacent to the grand American Academy, which had been designed by Bobby's grandfather, Stanford White. Letters came, many from Pop - delivered by Giuseppe, the Academy doorman, huge and impressive in his long gold-buttoned coat with its shiny epaulets. He'd descend the steps, knock, smile, and give us our mail, plus news from Janiculum Hill.
The first letter from Pop that we received there arrived the same day as a bill from the London publisher Hamish Hamilton for £127 that they said Bill's first novel hadn't earned back from the advance. Bill was hurt and wrote his father immediately. At that moment his nearly lifelong Anglophobia began, mitigated 48 years later by the splendid Covent Garden production of the opera of "Sophie's Choice." Bill was stunned and overwhelmed by the applause for him on opening and closing nights. Lunch at Claridge's with the opera's star, Angelika Kirchschlager, was a highlight of his later life.
The next letter I remember arrived soon after our wedding on May 4, 1953. Tom Guinzburg and Irwin Shaw had moved from Paris to Rome and had become special friends of ours. Irwin gave us our wedding reception at his Parioli apartment, swelling the Academy guest list with not only the Paris Review guys he had telegraphed, commanding them to come ("Don't you realize a man only gets married two or three times in his entire life?"), but with blacklisted McCarthy-era writers living abroad - most memorably, Lillian Hellman. The letter came to Ravello, where we'd begun our eight-month honeymoon. It described Pop's taking the boat from Newport News to Baltimore in order to meet my mother. The letter was glowing. He described her as lovely, elegant, welcoming. The two developed a lifelong friendship, enhanced by other trips he made to Baltimore when Bill and I and the children descended on my mother's house at 2707 Lawina Road for one holiday or another.
Back in the States, unable to stay in the New York apartment we had sublet because it was too noisy to permit Bill to write, we bought 14 acres with an old farmhouse and cottage in Roxbury, Connecticut, and lived in it for 50 years. Soon Pop appeared. I remember him sitting on the lawn in the morning sunshine holding baby Susanna, Bill on the grass smiling happily. Seven cows from the adjacent farm watched at a nearby stonewall. When I'd sit there nursing Susanna, I sometimes wondered if their milk was swelling too.
Rose Styron will read from "Letters to My Father," by her late husband, William Styron, on Friday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 pm at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.
She will also be introducing "The Suicide Run, Five Tales of the Marine Corps," by William Styron, posthumously published this month by Random House.
Rose Styron, a poet, journalist, and human rights activist, divides her time between Martha's Vineyard and Connecticut.