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January 1932: Ben MacCarthy and his father watch a vagabond variety revue making a stop in the Irish countryside. After a two-hour kaleidoscope of low comedy, juggling, tumbling, and other entertainments, Ben’s father, mesmerized by Venetia Kelly, the troupe’s magnetic headliner, makes a fateful decision: to abandon his family and set off on the road with Miss Kelly and her caravan. Ben’s mother, shattered by the desertion, exhorts, “Find him and bring him back,” thereby sending the boy on a Homeric voyage into manhood.
Interweaving a host of unforgettable creations—“King” Kelly, Venetia’s violent, Mephistophelean grandfather; Sarah Kelly, Venetia’s mysterious, amoral mother; and even a truth-telling ventriloquist’s dummy named Blarney—Frank Delaney unfurls a splendid narrative that spans half the world and a tumultuous decade.
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Frank Delaney is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Ireland, as well as Tipperary, Shannon, and Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea. A former judge for the Man Booker Prize, Delaney enjoyed a prominent career in BBC broadcasting before becoming a full-time writer. Born in Tipperary, Ireland, he now lives in New York City and Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She sprang from the womb and waved to the crowd. Then she smiled and took a bow. That's what her mother told me, and so did the midwife, Mrs. Haas. During the birth, the wind howled outside, and the snow whirled in a blizzard of frightful depth and terror. People died on the streets that evening, overwhelmed by the weather. When the blizzard cleared at around ten o'clock, the stars came out bright and brighter, salt grains and diamonds, high above New York. The wind had stacked up the snow in hefty, gleaming banks against the bases of the tall buildings. By then the infant was pink and asleep, tiny hands wrinkled and clenched. Venetia, her name was, chosen the instant she appeared, and she was born, her mother insisted, in mythic circumstances: "Moses"; "bulrushes"; "nativity"-she murmured those words, to herself as much as to me.
You are reading the story of Venetia Kelly, that "mythically" born baby. She became a young woman of remarkable talent and passion, and when she was thirty-two years old-the year I met her-she was drawn into a terrible intrigue that had a profound effect upon my parents and me.
I've waited a long time to write it down. My reasons for doing so at all? Simple: The story isn't over, and I'm telling it now to try to secure its ending. I'm aware that I'm like a man running after his hat in a high wind: I may never retrieve it; at moments I shall seem ridiculous; and finally the forces against me may deny me the result that I want. But there it is.
Venetia Kelly's story became my story too; it determined the direction I would take at one time, and has controlled how I've lived ever since. I can't say whether I might have had a different life if I'd never met her, but such has been her impact that I've never looked for anything else. In other words, the existence that I lead keeps me as close to her as I can get under the circumstances.
As you read, please know that I'm a man of mature years telling the story of himself when young, so forgive me if at times I make the young me seem and sound older than eighteen. In fact, I don't think I've changed that much; certainly I recognize myself easily. And I wasn't a complicated young man, but an only child is always a little different. My parents treated me almost as an equal, and I perhaps had more adult sensibilities than were good for me at that age.
I think that I might have found it easier to write about myself as a younger child-the small boy who dug for gold on the farm so that he could buy his parents gifts; who worried that they worked too hard; who bought his mother tinned pears for her birthday. At eighteen, some of that survived, but by then the sense of responsibility with which I am cursed had begun to grow all over me like an extra skin. I feel it every day, I feel it now; it too spurs me to try to put this account in your hands. But I'll endeavor to assemble all the reasons, as I think of them, and as they arise.
Tiny Digression (more Digressions later too): Is there an ideal age at which momentous events should happen to us? Is there a certain plateau we must reach before we're capable of taking on "big things"? I have no idea, and if anybody ought to know, I should.
As you'll see, I can't tell you this story without the detailed inclusion of the mother, Sarah Kelly, also an actress. Sarah, when telling me about Venetia's birth, flung about the word "auspicious." That afternoon, in an attempt to induce birth-Venetia was two days late-the mother sang something from Donizetti; she said that women in the theater had told her a high note could bring on labor.
As she hit the note, a horse in the street below neighed so loudly that the two expectant women, Sarah with her massive bump and Mrs. Haas with an armful of warm towels, went to the window and looked down. Sarah said, given the tricks of the light, that she thought she was "looking at a unicorn."
That same morning she had a letter from a school friend repaying an old debt.
"Auspicious," she said, waving a hand like a frond. "Wasn't it all auspicious?"
The father wasn't there that snowy night of the birth. Nor did he ever appear in Venetia's childhood. He did speak to me eventually (once the others had agreed to be interviewed), and he then, this unpleasant, aloof beanpole, tried to buy my silence. This was a fellow so measured that people said he never changed his clothes-always a black double- breasted suit, startling white shirt, dark red tie.
So: born out of wedlock, the daughter of a rich and prominent man and a glamorous and already renowned actress, a storm-tossed birth, a foot of snow in the streets, pedestrians hurled to the ground by winds of hurricane force, perhaps a unicorn, plus a recompense coming from afar. Was it mythic? It's tough to say no.
"We have myth to correspond with the great moments of life," Sarah Kelly said to me all those years later. She was prepared only to talk about such things as the birth or Venetia when young, and had condemned Mrs. Haas to the same restrictions. " 'When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.' And every mother knows the exact, the precise, the meticulous details of the birth of every child she has ever borne- that's her own, private little myth. So I can tell you-this was a birth from a legend. If you want proof, see how remarkable the child became."
Now, looking at my notes of that conversation, I can analyze what Sarah said. In essence, she linked the birth of her daughter to the birth of Jesus Christ, and she supported her thesis with an unattributed quotation from Shakespeare, the remark about beggars and comets, and so forth.
If you want to put yourself in good company, reach for the top. That was Sarah-dramatic, resplendent, with a long, elegant slope of a nose, and born without the gene of shyness. And that, in essence, was the level of sophistication we came up against, my family and I. Plus, not far away from Sarah, crookedness, thievery, danger, and death.
Nobody here in Ireland recalls snow that night, or planets crashing, or at the very least some thunder and lightning. I've made local inquiries, and I've checked the meteorological office records-rain here, frost there, fog somewhere else, temperatures between 28 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit, nothing abnormal.
Where Venetia Kelly was born, the weather also looked as though it would stay ordinary that day-a dry and sunny New Year in New York, the first of January, 1900. In fact, it was unseasonably warm on Park Avenue. And then, in a matter of hours, the blizzard swept down from the Great Lakes faster than a rumor. No wonder Venetia often complained of the cold.
Sarah had to leave the house that night where she gave birth; she had to get out before the Andersons returned. That, apparently, was part of the deal. The conception of the baby had taken place in Mr. Anderson's study on Park Avenue-"on the desk," she told me. Sarah had always wanted to see his home, observe the things that comforted him; so, his wife away for Easter, Mr. Anderson had invited her over on the Sunday afternoon.
When she discovered that she was pregnant, Sarah then told him that she'd like the child to be born in the house in which it had been conceived, because she understood that great good luck attached to it.
"It's what the Chinese believe," she told me.
I myself have had the good fortune to know some Chinese folklore scholars, and none of them has ever told me-or confirmed or found for me-such a nostrum.
The blue-blooded wife knew nothing of their affair and its arrangements-although Mr. Anderson mused that if she had known, she might well have agreed; she possessed, he said, that kind of eccentric tolerance, she was an American WASP. But in any case Mr. Anderson maneuvered things so that, once he knew roughly the date, he would make sure that they would be in Connecticut for their annual Christmas sojourn.
"The arrangement was," said Sarah, "that I had to get out as soon as I felt able, no room at the inn, so to speak." After the birth, Mrs. Haas was to send a message to Mr. Anderson in Greenwich, using Sarah's code: "The workmen have left the house."
Everything turned out as planned, although Sarah said she could have done without the rush to her father's house on that cold night. Even so, she was to live there for eleven years until she came to Ireland.
Sarah Kelly eventually fetched up in Florida, retired and elegant, well cared for. She had spent most of her life in an ivy-covered house on the edge of Dublin, where I went to see her a number of times.
With her help (up to a point), and constant research and questioning, I've spent years trying to piece together this story. The decision to assemble it finally became a matter of inner peace. There had been so many days when I'd asked myself whether I'd really lived through it, whether it had actually happened. Over and over I've had to interrogate the plot. Not to mention the sense of loss.
And I've longed for-I still long for-any clues of any kind to Venetia's character, temperament, behavior, childhood, talent, anything. I want to know more and more and more about her; I never got enough of her.
Sarah didn't help much in supplying any of what I wanted because Sarah couldn't stop acting. After each and every meeting with her I spent so much time trying to determine how much was true, and how much performance. For example, as long as I knew her, she continued to give the impression of being airy, delicate, unknowing, and vague. She wasn't; she was as sharp as a tack and as smart as green paint. The proof is that she ended up unscathed by the entire incident, unmoved. And she died very rich.
Those peculiar visits to Sarah brought mixed pleasures. To begin with, I always caught my breath when I saw her, because it was like looking at an older incarnation of Venetia. She'd stand at the fireplace, looking regal. Or under the huge tree in the garden, beckoning to me, and looking mysterious. Then the hand on my arm, the sigh as she looked at me and shook her head as she murmured: "Adonis, still an Adonis."
Time was not the enemy of this beautiful woman; Sarah grew more beautiful. As she aged, she kept her figure splendidly, and-her actressy gifts-she constantly seemed to show it off to me, turning this way and that. Once or twice, I even thought she was giving me the old come-on. I never tested it, never did anything about it; I couldn't. More to the point, I wouldn't. But I often wonder if I should have; and then I think, What if I had fallen for her? I could have-the psychological conditions were in place. That was, of course, the trick; and she knew how to pull it off.
At the end of every visit, I came away cleft in twain by those mixed feelings: desire with distaste; liking with discomfort; warmth with repulsion. By the time of our last "appointment," as she called our meetings, I'd learned enough not to succumb, knew that I had to handle myself carefully.
Over the years, then, gliding about her in her ivy-covered house, or walking like a stork in the garden, Sarah, still the grande dame of the Abbey Theatre, told me her version of what happened on the night of Venetia's birth-how she turned up on her father's doorstep, infant in her arms, like a character from a melodrama.
"I was like Mary without Joseph. But elated, my dear. It was the first day of the week, the month, the New Year, and the new century, and there was I with a new life in my arms. I was so proud, and I felt vindicated in having her, even if she was technically illegitimate."
"Which is, I presume, why she bears the name Kelly and not Anderson?"
"I know, my dear Ben, that you have your own reservations about my father, the wonderful King. I understand. But that night-oh, my dear, he was supreme. He took his new granddaughter from my arms, carried her into the house, and sat by the fire, rocking her, crooning to her. He never reproached me, he never made a comment. Audrey was with me, and she adored my father."
The idea of Sarah's father being "supreme" is something you'll come up against as you read on. And by "Audrey" she meant, as you'll have gathered, Mrs. Haas, whose real name, Venetia told me, was not Audrey. She was Gretchen, Viennese-born. And she hated King Kelly-I mean true loathing.
Sarah called her Audrey after a character in As You Like It. Shakespeare gives the oaf, Touchstone, a girlfriend named Audrey, and she is described-by Touchstone-as "a foul slut." Mrs. Haas, so far as I could tell, never found out.
And that gave me another side of Sarah, not at all her managed demeanor of sweetness and light. The "Audrey" thing was amusing and tart, yes, and witty-and even ironic, given Mrs. Haas's efficiency and domestic flair. But it was bitchy and unjust, and it peels back a corner, just a tiny flap, of the other side of Sarah.
That sidelong detail gives me the appropriate moment to warn you of something. As I've already hinted, I'm prone to Digressions. Like my anger, it's a matter of character with me-meaning I have difficulty controlling it. I digress when I'm in conversation, I digress when I'm teaching, I digress-dammit-when I'm eating. If you can accept that about me without too much harsh judgment, you might even find me entertaining.
So, throughout this story you can expect three kinds of sidestep: Important Digression, which will usually be something to do with factual history; Relatively Important Digression, where a clarification needs facts and I will ferry them in from a side road; and-my favorite-Unimportant Digression, which can be about anything.
I ask your forgiveness in advance. We Irish do this digression stunt. We're so damn pleased with our ability to talk hind legs off donkeys, that we assume people like to listen.
And now, to drive home the point, here's one of those Unimportant Digressions; it's regarding Mrs. Haas and a peculiarity that puzzles me to this very day and for which I felt that I could never ask an explanation.
She was a lanky woman, and she wore "unusual" shoes-brightly colored, of shiny leather (I think she must have applied some kind of dye to them), and they always had high heels. The rest of her clothing leaned toward dull; I suppose that nobody in Sarah's orbit dared to dress outstandingly.
Anyway, when sitting down, Mrs. Haas used to kick off her high-heeled shoes-and then, and instantly, begin to scratch her behind. She often went to great lengths to achieve this, shifting in her chair and twisting this way and that. Off would come the shoes and the scratching would begin. Nobody paid a blind bit of notice.
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