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Essay

My Father's Confession

Why He Kept His Secret Until Age 95, and Why He Finally Gave It to Me

June 13, 2004|Joseph Honig | Joseph Honig last wrote for the magazine about the vanity of older men.

Alone in his room, late in the evening, my father talks to the dead.

To long-gone friends and acquaintances. To cabdrivers and bank tellers. To my late mother, his wife, who died in his arms. When he's my guest, I wake to his voice. I am rattled. I am scared. For him and for me. Because during the day, he is in command. Though 95, he knows precisely what happened yesterday. Last year. A lifetime ago.

My father is a walking history text. A documentary in arch supports. He recalls President Woodrow Wilson in a World War I victory parade. In 1929, he worked the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The market--and the country--crashed around him. In the '30s, L.A. became his oyster. There was sunshine. There was promise for a worldly operator who could charm and sell at the same time. The 20th Century Limited train made him bicoastal before the term was invented. He loved the Biltmore and Brown Derby and deal-making in an on-the-make Los Angeles. The city was young. He was young. It was one terrific match.

I know these stories because I have heard them many times. His memories belong to me. They are in my soup: The night he danced with Lena Horne. Escorted Dolores Del Rio to the Cocoanut Grove. Joined Eleanor Roosevelt for lunch. And met my mother on a blind date in Peacock Alley at the Waldorf. I am witness to his Russian novel of a life. Until recently, I thought I knew it all.

I didn't. There were secrets.

Two years ago, my father started to come clean. We were at the beach in Santa Monica and he struggled to walk to the shore. So long ago--I was 3, maybe 4--he held me in those waves. Now I braced him against the arthritis that has robbed him of ease and stature. "There are some things you should know," he told me. "They are not good things and I am not particularly proud of them. But there were choices I made to take care of our family. Maybe you will understand."

Throughout his working life, my father's fortunes were rarely subjects for dinner talk. I knew he made and lost money. I knew there were highs and lows. But our lives never radically changed. Mostly, we lived well. Nothing flashy. If an enterprise didn't fail, we vacationed. We had a summer home in varying states of repair. My father bought, sold and manufactured all kinds of commodities: dyes, chemicals, candy, tobacco. There were fliers on laundry detergent and sparkling water. I understood things sometimes went bad, but who could keep track? I was a kid. He went to an office. He traveled. I went to school.

Then, for a couple of years--I was 10 when it started--my father went silent. No laughter. No good times at the beaches he dearly loved. No packets of money. No cash to speak of. My parents often whispered to one another. The FBI came to our front door.

"It's nothing, really nothing," my father said after two humorless feds appeared around dinnertime. He closed the door and talked to them, briefly, outside. "It was a mistake," he said. "Just some screw-up. Wrong guy." As I recall, agents visited four, maybe five, more times during the next two years. Always near dinner. They got nothing from Dad. I got nothing from him. Nothing until he stared at the Pacific Ocean, an ocean he'd been looking at, well, forever, and said: "There are some things you should know . . . "

"Like when the money went away?" I asked. "Like when the FBI visited and you stopped talking? Those things?"

"Did you know I couldn't work for two years?" my father asked. "That I didn't have any business? So I did something. I loaned money."

My father, the loan shark. This was his confession. My father, with a graduate degree, with a straight-arrow family, was in the street-money business. Say 20% a week. He said it had been an easy decision.

"I knew people who needed money. I knew other people who made sure I was able to collect. They were not necessarily nice, or people you would approve of. But they helped me--helped us--get through a terrible time. And I wanted you to know."

In the spirit of full disclosure, I come from a family with more than its share of crooks: bootleggers, stock swindlers, bent politicians, rake-off artists. Go back far enough and you will find several morphine addicts and two large-scale bookmakers. When I knew them, they were men in their 60s and 70s. Retired. No more breaking up stolen jewelry. No more cocktails with Bugsy. They were, to my young mind, colorful, lovable rogues. My dad was the honest one. The businessman with an office, secretaries and rich leather furniture. Always home for dinner. And now he had secrets.

"Dad," I asked, "is this all? Is this everything?" I prayed it was. I suspected it wasn't. There was more to tell, and he told it: failed attempts to confuse the IRS by cooking up burglaries of company files, and foreign trips with remarkable amounts of cash. There were serious gangsters on payrolls who never showed up for work. They collected for my father, the loan shark.

"You should know," Dad said in his defense, "that no one ever got hurt. People who needed money got money. Banks would have laughed at them. Some of my customers saved their businesses. This was not the movies.

"If you want to think less of me, that is a choice you can make. If I were smarter or stronger, I would have found better solutions."

My father, the hero of my youth, had been weak and crooked. He did what he did for me. He didn't suffer shame or jail. Now he looked at the waves through bifocals and glaucoma. In the middle of the night, he had crazy conversations with the dead.

"Why, Dad, why now? Fifty years and you've decided this is the time and place to tell me. Why?"

My father held my hand, something he hadn't done since I was a child. He held my hand and touched my shoulder.

"Because, someday," he said, "if you don't already have them, you will have secrets of your own."

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