MY FATHER was odd about children," writes Lance Morrow in this beautifully written, disturbing book. "Of course, he had ten of them, but I was never sure that he liked them."
Hugh Morrow, a former Washington editor of the Saturday Evening Post, was for 20 years chief flacktotem to Nelson Rockefeller. He wrote speeches for him, handled the press, and drove Megan Marshak home after she and the governor had stayed up till all hours working on the "art book" that eventually brought about the fatal heart attack. These and other humiliations the father bore gracefully and without resentment. The son did not. About a fifth of the book is spent settling the score. Henry Kissinger, who "regarded Rockefeller as a first-rate judge of character principally because Nelson Rockefeller thought so highly of Henry Kissinger," is a tangential target. Then there is the contempt for Hugh Morrow himself. This is the sort of memoir more comfortably published after its subject has passed on to more eternal concerns.
This is hardly a Daddy Dearest, on the other hand. Far from it. Parts of it read like a Norman Rockwell elegy to the '40s-vintage Ur- Dad. He describes with a novelist's skill the blue smoke of his father's Camel cigarettes curling upward, or his wondrous, incomprehensible ability to drive the dark and winding Maryland roads while drunk.
But Hugh Morrow was -- is, damn it -- a tricky case. A man with a sprawling family (by two wives), he recoils during a family photograph when one of the sons exuberantly embraces him. This aversion to displays of affection came from his own father, a Pennsylvania country doctor of Scots-Irish descent. "He was a little remote," Hugh tells Lance wistfully. "I guess I inherited that from him."
Despite, he was a good father, by almost any standard: proud, long-suffering, patient, gentle, not heroic, exactly, but "elegantly forbearing." At the onset of middle age he changed wives and careers. Lance did not get along with either, so to speak, and an informal estrangement sets in which provides the focus and emotional tension of the memoir.
One of the processes Morrow understands so well is the way fathers become sons and sons, fathers. He tells of the time his father came to visit him at his first job. He was a page on Capitol Hill. Hugh is embarrassed. Finally he gets up the courage to ask his son if he can borrow some money. The 13-year-old proudly hands over his entire weekly salary with manly satisfaction.
When Lance has a heart attack at 36, he feels he has "usurped one of the ceremonies of fatherhood." After all, "having a heart attack seems the sort of thing that a father does, not what is expected of a son."
In another scene, Lance is driving Hugh to his second wedding. (Lance is to be best man.) Hugh has an allergic reaction to a shot. "I had to drive the station wagon down from Washington to Alexandria while he sat in the front seat beside me, writhing and moaning in pain. I felt, once again, like a kind of faithful sevant to the emotional life of his generation."
It was hard, on the other hand, to be a faithful servant to his father's financial realities: the 10 children, two of them new babies, six still in school. His father leaves the world of respectable but ill-paying journalism to work for Nelson Rockefeller.
At Harvard, meanwhile, young Lance finds himself working in the dining hall, where at mealtime he serves food to the young Aga Khan, among others. "He was a tall, swarthily handsome student prince with an entourage . . . . I served him mashed potatoes one night. I ladled out a fat glop. I gave the poon a smart flick on my wrist so that the potatoes traveled their last inch in midair and landed with a small splat on the Aga Khan's tray. The effect was lost to everyone but me." Not on the readers. The princeling passes along the serving line with his entourage, leaving Lance to think, "There I was in the servant class, giving mashed potatoes to a dynast. Not even American. My father would be serving up words to Rockefeller."
The downstairs mentality endures. If this were Europe, he'd have gone on to kidnapping American businessmen with the Baader- Meinhoff gang. Not here. Years later Lance is successful journalist for Time magainze. One night, hitching a ride down to D.C. from New York about the Rockefeller plane, he and his wife and father sit in the front of plane. Nelson is the back, Happy winding her knitting wool around his domestically upheld hands. "We did not speak to the Rockefellers during the flight. We had become part of . . . the servant corps."
"Servant corps" -- indeed a wounding phrase, adroitly self-inflicted. Aside from the Megan Marshak business, Nelson Rockefeller is not observed here eating babies or foreclosing mortgages. In his encounters with Lance he is cursory but courteous. When Hugh's second wife is dying of cancer he sends a check for $25,000. He appears as a kind, but remote figure; in an odd, symmetrical way, something like Hugh Morrow.
"It was a strange configuration: I believe that Rockefeller was my father's father, in some sense -- generous, irrationally demanding, punitive and beneficent. Perhaps, to me, my father somehow ceased to seem my father in precisely the degree to which he functioned as the seigneurial Rockefeller's page boy or, more closley, his Polonius. Children judge hard and sometimes stupidly: in my sight, Rockefeller cost my father something of his manhood."
There, finally, you have the inversion: a son's disappointment in his father for laughing too readily at the bully's jokes. But if one is left feeling that Morrow fils has some of the remoteness of Morrow pere this is ultimately a tender, moving book by a hugely gifted writer.