La Vita… Not so Dolce


I’ve written a number of blogs about friendship and recently read a study showing that social relationships (friendships) are as important as an active lifestyle and good nutrition when it comes to longevity.

My best friend, Harry Bingham, had all those elements in his life but still didn’t make it. Occasionally, personal pain or a faulty gene gets in the way. It happened to Harry. A graduate of St. Paul’s, Harvard, and Tufts Medical School, he committed suicide and denied us a lifetime of shared friendship and adventures. He was 36 years old.

We met in Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class at Quantico, Virginia, and twelve weeks later we were commissioned 2nd Lieutenants. I was the public-school kid from the West Coast. He was an Eastern aristocrat. In the barracks at Quantico, he had the upper bunk and I had the lower. On our first day, as we were sitting on our bunks sorting our newly issued 782 gear he dropped a steel helmet on my head. It’s how our friendship began.

We were very different, Harry and I. Not just East Coast versus West. Not just private school versus public. We had different temperaments as well. I was confident and cool. He was geeky and unsure of himself. It was a new environment and unfamiliar for all of us, but for some reason it was easier for me than it was for Harry. I could tell what the drill sergeant wanted, kept my head low and did what was expected. Harry couldn’t figure it out, and that set him up as an object for bullying and punishment. Everyone in the platoon liked him and together we helped him get through.

Despite our differences, there was something each of us admired in the other. That was our bond. It’s hard to know exactly what it was, but it started at Quantico, and our friendship flourished until he killed himself 13 years later.

When he died his mother sent me his skis – a pair of original Head 360’s. She knew how much we enjoyed the sport and wanted to share something of his with me. I kept them for years, occasionally taking them out for a remembrance run. I even took them along on a helicopter ski trip to Canada and made one delicious powder run on them.

Harry’s father was an aristocrat. He inherited money and houses in Vermont and Hobe Sound as well as an apartment on Park Avenue in NYC. His grandfather traveled to France annually because “Vouvray and Nouveau Beaujolais don’t travel well.” And, then there’s the room in the Metropolitan Museum… his grandfather’s name carved in marble above the door and his Rubens painting of Adonis and Venus hanging inside.

Apollo and Venus

His parents were divorced, and his mother split her time between Owl’s Head, Maine, and a full floor apartment on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 66th Street in Manhattan. I envied his advantages, but was glad they weren’t my parents. As a middle-class kid from the Northwest, I was awed by the wealth but learned quickly that all that money, the best schools, and a listing in Who’s Who in America don’t always lead to a stable and healthy adulthood.

I’ve heard all the arguments for nature versus nurture. I don’t know the details of Harry’s childhood, but I do know his father’s emotional distance and high expectations nagged at him. In spite of his accomplishments at St. Paul’s, Harvard, the Marine Corps, and medical school it was never enough. He was never able to please his father. Was this what drove him to suicide, or was it a bad gene and predisposition to depression?

It’s been 46 years since he committed suicide. Except for a couple of years in and around Laguna Beach in California, we never lived in the same place at the same time, although we managed to see a lot of each other during the 13 years of our friendship. We beached it in California and skied together in Aspen and Squaw Valley. I once flew a Marine A4 from Alameda to Boston to spend Thanksgiving with him and his wife Diana, and he met my wife and me in Paris and shared our VW camper on the way to join a group of his friends at a lovely villa near on the west coast of Italy. The last time we were together was at our house in Mill Valley. He was visiting just before he swallowed a bucket of pills. He was saying goodbye to us.

Despite the differences in our backgrounds, Harry and I did have things in common. We liked gin, poetry, skiing, the Beach Boys, and the Marine Corps. We both married and divorced young. He married a family friend, his sister’s sister-in-law. Very New England incestuous. When he divorced, I couldn’t figure it out. I knew they loved each other deeply, but one summer while she was traveling with a family member in Europe and he was in his surgery residency in New York he had an affair with a friend of a friend. More New England incest? A Catholic convert, he was tortured and couldn’t forgive himself.

The following summer he joined Abby and me in Europe – and brought the woman with whom he had been unfaithful. We disliked her instantly and thought she was an arrogant unattractive bitch. When she discovered we were camping in a VW van on our way to Italy she nearly left us. I recently discovered that she was Faddle, one of the pair of White House interns known as Fiddle and Faddle, infamous for skinny dipping and boffing JFK in the White House swimming pool during their internships.

When we arrived at the Italian villa, we met Fiddle, who was, by then, married to Harry’s lifelong friend, A. Whitney Ellsworth, the founder and publisher of the New York Review of Books. All very East Coast incestuous. Fiddle and Faddle. Whitney and Harry. Jack and Abby along with assorted cousins and wannabes.

We were there because Whitney had traded his Upper East Side apartment for a Roman architect’s hillside villa near Porto Ercole, and the trade included a guest membership at the nearby private beach club where deeply tanned, unselfconscious, slightly overweight women in tiny bikinis sipped Campari and lounged around on striped mats under beach umbrellas. All very La Dolce Vita.

Il Pellicano Beach Club

The “assorted cousins” in the entourage were two delightful college girls related to Fiddle, and every night, after a day at the beach, we flopped on overstuffed couches to listen to the girls’ newest discovery, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album. We were all smitten, and the cousins breathlessly gave us the history and provenance of James and the Taylor family – the father a professor, siblings James, Kate, and Livingston all singer songwriters, their discovery by the Beatles label in London, and later drug problems. We were in the prime of our lives and drunk on La Dolce Vita. 

All that took place years ago, but I’m reminded of Harry almost every day. My middle son is named Douglas Payne Bernard – my middle name and Harry’s – and my daughter Diana is named for his wife. Last summer, M and I spent a week with the older Diana and her extended family at their small compound in Little Compton, Rhode Island, where I first visited them 52 years ago. We were welcomed warmly. We are all family now. I’m so sorry Harry didn’t stick around to enjoy it with us. I’m still mad at him.

Comments

  1. Did his grandfather discover Macchu Picchu?
    Was his father the Consul at Marseille during WW 2 who helped so many Jews escape from Europe?

    If so, my Viennese Uncle wrote a letter to the father while he was Consul in his childish English asking for help leaving Europe. I have seen the letter, and when my aunt showed it to me, I recognized the Bingham name. He did not offer help to my family but my Uncle ultimately escaped Europe and survived the war through the Kindertransport program: he lived in England with several families for most of the war. When he turned 18, he came to the US and joined the navy, where he worked as a German translator…

    Life’s web of coincidences…

    • Laura: I did get the comment. Let me know if you get this reply. Harvey Bingham was not the grandfather. He may have been a relative but not in the direct line. It’s astonishing how insulated and insular Americans were until the Japanese jumped us at Pearl Harbor. Much like what’s happening today.

  2. Jack, it’s just plain wonderful how you, a blue collar guy, had, and still has, so many good times with the upper crust and the big bucks. Somewhere you must’ve learned to speak their language and make their moves on the dance floor.
    Very sad about your friend Harry. Maybe it’s definitely better to be born in and spend your life in the trenches as we have, fewer opportunities to mess up.

    • Thanks, Walter. I’ve been fortunate to have so many good friends. Harry was an especially sad case. We’ve had pretty remarkable lives, Pencil Cat. As Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, they may be gaining.”

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