During her residency at CLAGS as a Rockefeller Fellow in the Humanities, Esther Newton devoted her efforts to a book project entitled My Butch Career: A Queer Life in Anthropology. Newton presented her project this year at a well-attended CLAGS Colloquium. What follows is an excerpt from the first chapter of her memoir, on her father:
I’m sitting on a bus going east on 72nd St. in Manhattan on my way to one of those doctors appointments that becomes increasingly frequent in middle age if one is lucky enough to have health insurance, wondering why I’ve always come back to New York. My mother didn’t like New York, for her it was just a devastating interlude. But I was drawn to the milieu of my fathers, those Jewish guys who joined the Communist Party and breathed out that New York City atmosphere like fiery dragons that I inhaled growing up, so that I was never comfortable in my mother’s chosen state, California, with its big blondes and bland Republican attitudes.
I consider myself the quintessential American, or at least the quintessential American of the mid-20th century, the offspring of a Mayflower WASP mother and three Jewish immigrant men, and therefore I am the biological and cultural proof, the all too human amalgam of the clash and attraction between the old European American stock and the immigrants who came at the turn of the last century. Or at least I am the quintessential white American, what white became after the Irish and Jews and Italians and Poles elbowed and charmed and fucked their way in.
As a good American then, and therefore of course a “unique individual,” why not, in telling my story, just start at my birth? Or even when I first had sex with a woman, my rebirth in the heaven of erotic love and the hell of pariahdom? Or other turning points, times when I reinvented myself by moving to Paris, for instance?
My birth is not the beginning because I was born into a situation nested inside the situations of my parents and even their parents; without this context my story makes no sense to me. In this as in other ways my historical mindset rubs against the grain of popular thinking. The “primitive” peoples I studied in graduate school were right, it seems, in their ancestor worship if by “worship” is meant giving full due to the ways the ancestors set the parameters of our lives. So I’ll start with my fathers. Which one of the three was “really” my father, though? This was a question I faced after Saul Newton’s death—since I did not have his “blood,” was he my father? Since my mother and I had only lived with him as a nuclear family for a couple of years, was he my father? How authentic was my mourning? How appropriate? Saul had claimed me as his daughter, given me his legal recognition, his name and his money, which my “biological father” had withheld. Perhaps only now, writing this, have I fully accepted that although he could never be my only father, he was the only man who inhabited, who lived the role of father, in however unsatisfactory a fashion. The other two were the shadow fathers, the ones my mother wouldn’t talk about, figures who were absences, mysteries.
So let’s say that my American history through my father Saul Newton starts on Ellis Island back in the 19th century, when an immigration officer changed my father’s father’s name from Aronoff to Cohen. I don’t say that this Aronoff was my grandfather. This is not just because I am not Aronoff’s “blood” descendant, since the two men whose genes are one half of my physical endowment don’t feel any more like grandfathers than does Aronoff. My never having known these grandfathers, any of them, is symptomatic of my disentangled paternal line, which is too late 20th centuryto support any role so unambiguous as a “grandfather” without the quotes. And in this too I am so American. Back in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the decline of the paternal principle in American life. Despite the fact that both Aronoff/Cohen and my mother’s father General Bash were dominating, patriarchal figures, their links to me, their cultural and/or biological progeny, were compromised. In fact I could hardly say I have a “family,” rather I have relatives, a post-modern kindred perhaps, people who are my “half- brother,” “half-sister but I’ve never met her,” “cousins – well, my adoptive father’s nieces and nephews” or “I’ve only heard of them” and in that way my disordered childhood, so deviant in the post World War II period, has become the way most Americans live.
Last summer I had to put my mother in a nursing home. Inside her address book I am astonished to find a romantic snapshot of my father in his army uniform. When I ask my mother about it she looks up from her wheelchair with a naughty smile. “He was the love of my life, you know.”
They were divorced back in 1950 and this is 49 years later. “Oh Mom,” I blurt out, “he was a terrible man.” Underneath the photo of Saul the soldier is one of Saul the father, kvelling, glowing with pride as I show off the cast I got breaking my wrist on the jungle gym, and underneath that, three pictures of me, ages maybe five to eight, all in boys’ bathing trunks at a public playground. Presumably my mother ranked these photos in their order of importance to her.
My first memory of Saul is in that U.S. Army uniform. Suddenly the War was over and he came into my life – about 1945 — with a captured German revolver and a battered helmet, telling scary war stories—almost to the day of his death he was a compelling storyteller. He had a dark, sexy energy that had bowled my gentile mother over ever since she had first fallen in love with him back in 1933 in Chicago, when they were part of a network of young leftwing radicals around the University.
The inspiration for this memoir came from working on the 1996 Kessler Lecture, so my debt to CLAGS is profound. I was a founding member of CLAGS back in the 1980s, before it was affiliated with CUNY, but I never dreamed that I would benefit from it so personally— I have become a poster dyke for the difference that CLAGS can make in the lives of scholars and writers.
CLAGS Rockefeller Fellow