THERE'S THE AMERICAN DREAM, and then there's the Anglo-American Dream. The former, an exportable commodity, presently undergoing drastic revision, revolves around the acquisition of money, position of goods through faith and works regardless of the circumstances of one's birth and condition. Like all myths, it has been responsible for many follies and mistakes - Andrew Carnegie, the films of John Garfield, endless suburbs, Bert Lance, and the gas crisis, among others - but like all durabe myths, it also sometimes worked, and it was ever a sustaining source of hope.
The Anglo-American Dream is quite different. Drawn, in its purest and most lugubrious form, from the pages of old Town and Country magazines, the catalogues of the late Abercrombie & Fitch, and the motion pictures of Sir Alexander Korda, it involved a major confusion between the British aristocracy and the British artitocracy's toys. It was fostered by the tempting if staggeringly ignorant delusion that membership in a ruling class was identical with leisure, tins from Fortnum & Mason, hacking jackets from Huntsman, noble crests, collapsible silver drinking cups, architecture, a "varsity education," servants, a certain manner of speaking and a miraculous absence of bills. It is less a myth than a silly misunderstanding that has resulted in the present sorry state of Britain, The Great Gatsby, credit cards and a number of the proximate causes of the American Civil War. And on a small but tragic scale, it was the engine of describtion that drove the father of Geoffrey Wolff, the critic and writer, to his inevitialbe doom.
Wolff's description of this pathetic crackup is to be found in The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father. I should say at the outset that it is not the sort of book that is usually my cup of tea, containing as it does a dead dog, a sensitive but misguided youth and various graphic episodes of pre- and post-adolescent stupidity such as we all suffer through, have suffered through from the days of the caveman, and will continue to suffer through long after the electricity has finally gone out for good. Even in the hands of a gifted writer, even if the gifted writer is telling the precise and literal truth, such devices usualy call forth empathy at its cheapest, bringing as they do a guaranteeed lump to the throat and a reminiscent jangle to the nervous system. Like all those books about bravely dying small girls (a genre that never goes out of vogue), they are both maddening and maudlin, failures because they succeed all too easily and all to well: life is not beer and skittles, kids do dumb things, death is the final portion of us all, misery is commonplace, and joy is hard to define. Swell. So what else is new?
It is never any excuse to say something ought to be written down because it happened. Books don't work that way; only a rare one can survive cheap empathy, and only a remarkable deploy its usual occasions and use them to good purpose. The Duke of Deception is one such remarkable book. The dog's death (actually, its disappearnace) is not important because canine expiration is intrinsically a sad thing; it is important because the dog is the only entirely sane and normal creature to accompany young Wolff through his childhood, including the owner of the face in young Wolff's bathroom mirror. His sensitivity escapes bathos because it was the vehicle of his salvation, not his downfall, and his early wrenching gaffes were not the gaffes of the rest of us, despite superficial similarities - they were the horrible mistakes of a child who, like his father, equated people with objects and objects with happiness.
Arthur Wolff, Jr., Arthur Wolff III, or Saunders Ansell-Wolf, depending on where in his long downward slide one happened to encounter him, was a figment of his own imagination, a posturing stage aristocrat who claimed Deerfield Academy, Yale, Skull and Bones, and the Sorbonne when reality was a series of minor prep schools, most of which kicked him out, and the University of Pennsylvania, which he flunked.
Ironically, he was dreaming the wrong dream: he would have gone just fine if he'd stuck to John Calvin and Horatio Alger, for this status-crazed fantast was also, entirely in his own right, a gifted industiral organizer. As a result of one of his many cons and with absolutely no training in the field whatever, he became an important member of the team that rushed the P-51 Mustang fighter plane into production after a scant 120 days of development, and whatever laurels he won there, he won honestly. Sacked for looting his expense account in London, he next proved to be a sensational whiz at modifying B-24 and B-29 bomber aircraft, using midgets to work in the narrow parts.
If only he could have controlled himself, he might have gone on to achieve a high an honored place in the aircraft industry; even John McCone, who fired him from the modification program of V-E Day, acknowledged that his intolerably medacious and extravagant employee was a genius. But the genius played with his toys instead, made his grand gestures, ignored his creditors, destroyed two marriages, descended from nearly wrecked his oldest son, and died penniless and alone, an old ex-jailbird in a furnished room in California.
Like many people, he didn't find his own life interesting enough, so he made up another; he hungered for spendor and ended up with dregs. It was not until Geoffrey Wolff was past voting age, lona accustomed to his father's tricks, and on the verge of marriage, that he discovered the Duke's last, more pitiable, and least forgivable lie. Arthur Wolff, Jr., a.k.a. Arthur Wolff III, a.k.a. Saunders Ansell-Wolff, was Jewish. Lost in his weak and glittering dreams, Arthur Wolff, Jr. committed suicide decades before he died. On his signet ring was engraved the motto: nulla vestigium retrorsit. He though it meant "don't look back." It actually means "not a trace left behind." In the end, there was nothing to leave. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, BY SUSAN DAVIS