Search the whole artnet database
Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button








ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

7. DRAFT DODGER

My 1952 summer job after sophomore year was as a service executive at the New York Bonwit Teller. One of the most pleasant things about working there was my friendship with the chief doorman, Pat DiVecchio. He was entranced with the tales of my straight-laced father and martinet stepmother and remarked that he suspected Walter treated his employees better than he did his own son.

I started keeping a daily journal and tried to be crisp and brutally frank. For example, Pauline had created a gift cart for Bonwit's, an elaborate trolley about the size of a small truck stuffed with chic gifts. It became the rage of the store but I hated it.

"How this gift shop is filled with the best of fashion and good, oh, so good, safe, golden taste. Everything is white, all milk glass. All life has been boiled out of the stuff. It is all so shitty proper. Taste! Little fakes of Falconet sculptures abound. Taste! Those stinking beaded flowers! Those stinking black wax fruits! Those black and white wax bananas resting in a fake Etruscan Bucchero black vase! Taste! I really loathe it."

Since then I have always said that taste is an enemy of high art. I mean does Michelangelo’s Last Judgment have taste? Or Donatello’s poignant wooden sculpture of the wasted prostitute Mary Magdalene?

Now that I had a serious girlfriend who was at Vassar College where no trains seemed to go, at least from Princeton, I had to get a car. I searched the used car lots and what mesmerized me was an enormous Buick Phaeton, the kind with a cramped front seat for the chauffeur and a luxurious back compartment with jump seats, toiletry cupboards, a cooler for Champagne and almost enough room for waltzing. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that I would always have to scrunch my six foot two and a half inch frame into the tiny front seat. I suffered cramps the whole time I owned the damned thing. It cost a mere $200 -- whatta deal!

Being caught driving a car at Princeton meant instant expulsion, so I hired an "uncle," Max, who worked at a gas station some five miles away. The Buick was parked there and Max would drive in to Tiger Inn to pick me when I called him. Something of a wag, Max would dress up in a suit and a straw boater (no matter what month of the year), would cruise by the club and, in a thick Latvian accent, call out, "’Artful Tommy’, Uncle Max is here!" He was frequently smashed. Miraculously, we never got caught.

After a hundred miles of contented purring, the car began to spout plumes of black and gray exhaust smoke. Max found traces of bananas in the crankcase -- one way of disguising a badly worn engine. To keep on trucking, I bought used oil in ten-quart cans, my splendid vehicle soaked up five quarts going to Vassar and back. The ballroom-sized back seat sure came in handy as oil storage. I'd asphyxiate others in the Holland Tunnel when I passed through and got the finger countless times.

When cold weather set in, I'd park the majestic Phaeton on hills so I could roll into a gearshift start. The engine got so cranky, I'd have to unscrew a couple of the plugs, drop in some ether with a special eyedropper, hastily screw the plugs back in, hurriedly jump in and turn the key. With luck I'd hear a loud detonation and I'd be on my way. Just before graduation in 1953 I pushed the poor dead thing into a junkyard and I actually got fifty bucks for parts.

As a senior I had one history elective still dangling from sophomore year and I chose modern Russian history. I never attended a lecture, glanced at the texts for the finals for maybe an hour and received the lowest grade imaginable -- a 7.0. I could care less if I failed since I was getting consistent 1.0 grades in my art courses. But that 7.0 did drop me out of contention for Phi Beta Kappa. I didn't give a damn, since I was only interested in art.

My senior thesis, an exercise at Princeton only for students with superior grades, outlined the physical development of the early Christian basilica. I prepared it under the tutelage of Earl Baldwin Smith, the head of the art department, a dour, plodding professor of the history of architecture. He had been working for decades on the canonical study of the early Christian basilica, one filled with thousands of meticulous drawings of the ground plans of every early sanctuary in the Middle East. I wasn’t proud of my thesis; it was a rip-off of his work, but that, of course, enhanced it in his eyes. My hundreds of drawings -- all slight variations on the image of a rectangular ground plan with an apse and dots for the side-aisle columns -- were impressive. I received a spectacular 0.8 and the thesis was displayed in the lobby of the main library in a glass case set aside for theses worthy of high honors.

Halfway through the second semester I began receiving letters from the draft board claiming that I'd failed to register. The Korean War was raging and I was warned I could be prosecuted for draft dodging with severe penalties, meaning I could be shot, I thought. I made several telephone calls to headmaster George Van Santvoord at Hotchkiss, who had been responsible for signing me up for the draft, but he never returned my calls. I felt sure he’d deliberately failed to register me because he hated my woeful lack of school spirit.

Having a yen for learning to fly, I decided to sign up for the Air Force.

My love affair with Nancy, despite some rough spots, grew hotter and hotter. When she was tired or had a cold, she could be curt and unsympathetic. When I became exhausted or had too much going on, I got short-tempered and at times verbally abusive. Believing that she was actually smarter than I was, I got irked when she was slower than me picking up some fine point or other. That attitude continues, sadly, until today. I should have figured out that she wasn’t slower; she was just a deductive reasoner. We would always make up -- passionately -- so it was almost worth the occasional argument.

In October I proposed. On my knees, both of us with a straight-up martini in hand laughing and fondling each other and, finally, making uproarious love.

To ask formally for her hand in marriage, I met Papa Elliott Bell at the Century Association in Manhattan, that venerable, oak-lined club for intellectuals, writers and artists on 43rd Street just off Fifth Avenue. How typical of Elliott, I thought, to be a member of a club where social standing or legacy wasn't considered! My father, I was sure, would have looked askance at the Century, where all business talk was banned in the dining rooms. We met in a visitors' lounge and ordered a pair of the Club's special drink, a Silver Cup, sort of a gin fizz. My silver cup was engraved with the name, "Royal Cortisoz," the pen name of a New York art critic of the 1920s.

When I told Elliott I wanted to marry Nancy, he smiled and said, "This is not entirely unexpected; thanks for the formality, but it's my daughter's choice, not mine."

The art critic's name was an entrée into my brief pitch on what I intended to do to support his "Junior." I explained that I believed I wanted to become an art historian but had to enter the service before going to graduate school. Bell knew that I had nothing beyond a meager allowance; he’d been told by Nancy that she had lent me money on occasion when my allowance check hadn't shown up.

Elliott counseled me to marry after I became an officer. I agreed. That put off the wedding schedule a year, but Nancy and I were determined to go ahead with the engagement announcement in late November. I met my father and Pauline for dinner at Riverhouse and had a fascinating time hearing about his latest retailing triumph, his recent purchase of Tiffany & Co -- in the winter of 1951. The old family-owned jewelry store on Fifth Avenue and 57th had fallen on sad times.

My father had gone from one shareholder to another and had bought up all but a thousand-share block that would give him fifty-one percent control. These shares were in the possession of an elderly woman who lived in New Hampshire. My father, who had become even more enamored with Jesus Christ, told me the story of how he’d chartered a small plane at LaGuardia to fly to where she lived and make a pitch for her stock. The airport was fogged in and his pilot told him they’d be delayed for hours, if they could fly at all. He knew if he didn't take off soon, he'd never see her and he would be shut out of buying the store. He got out of the plane and, kneeling on the ramp, prayed to the Lord to lift the fog. Suddenly the pilot called to him to get in; he’d received an unexpected message on the radio -- theirs was the only plane permitted to depart that day.

When he got to the shareholder’s house after putting a hand-written message in her mail slot asking to talk about her shares, she refused to let him in. He stood on the lawn outside the woman's front door, "visibly praying to our Lord."

The Lord responded again and the woman invited him in and did sell him her crucial shares "The Lord gave me Tiffany," he intoned. "And the Lord told me to have the first sale in the history of the place and I got rid of those ugly Damascened silver tea sets -- $18,000 marked down to $250. That got nationwide publicity and we have been going strong ever since."

When I told him I wanted to marry Nancy Melissa Bell, the proverbial shit hit the fan. He accused me of being a liar for not having told him at once about the engagement announcement. He told me what he said to Elliott Bell a week before, that he was "unalterably opposed" to any match. He said he'd do everything in his power to break off the union. He’d continue to pay my way through Princeton, but nothing else -- ever! If we announced our engagement, he would deny his blessing, consider it to be rank disobedience and hold a press conference to denounce the engagement. He called us both irresponsible and said he thought we were conspiring to live off his and Elliott Bell’s money. My father summed it all up by saying any engagement or marriage at this point would be "financially ridiculous and an act of dishonesty that would weigh heavily on your conscience – if you still possess a conscience in your degenerated soul."

He concluded his tirade by telling me that Bell had stated to him that if it were up to him, he wouldn't choose "unambitious" Tommy Hoving for his daughter. (I figured he was twisting what Elliott actually did say -- that marrying me was his daughter’s, not his, choice.)

I briefed Nancy about the tirade in a letter and ended with: "My lovable Dad told me that your father, to him a 'profoundly unsympathetic man,' said something to him that was so insulting that he almost walked out of the meeting -- Papa Elliott had remarked, 'Really, Walter, the only thing you are fighting is the economics of this matter’."

Pauline sat there throughout the tirade, smiling like a Cheshire cat. She muttered only one thing, that Nancy was not the sort of "little girl" she had hoped I would become attracted to.

After we got over our anger and hurt we decided to call off the engagement announcement until I had earned my lieutenant's bars in the Air Force. But my hopes for an Air force commission disappeared when I took the physical. I was in great shape but because of my bad teeth -- owing, I suppose, to my addiction to Bubble-Gum and Cokes -- I would be unable to fit into an oxygen mask and thus was rejected.          

I took the Coast Guard test but failed the mathematical parts. They didn’t ask me a single question about the Baroque or early Christian basilicas.

I decided finally on the Marine Corps because I didn’t like the Army and because of an experience of a friend, a young married senior at Princeton, who had been expelled for drunkenness and who had enlisted in the Marine Corps where he won a battlefield commission in Korea. He told me a story that made up my mind to join the Corps. On a night patrol behind the Chinese lines a shell had buried him. One of the immutable beliefs of the Marines is that your troops will return no matter what to retrieve your wounded body or your corpse. The next night his troopers went after their lieutenant and found him with not a scratch on him, trying to dig himself out. One of the rescue party was killed in the action.

Don Kennedy and John Wintersteen also decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. We three firmly believed that guys like us who’d come from privileged backgrounds and had received advanced education should become officers and be leaders.

We made fun of the forthcoming rigors. We joked that short-legged Wintersteen would never hold up in the grueling marches. Because of his short legs beneath a muscular upper body, we had taken to calling him "Toulouse" after the stunning movie about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec starring Mel Ferrer.

My friends, especially wrestler Chauncey Loomis, begged me not to join. I was, they pointed out, a "97-pound weakling." "Artful Tommy,’ you'll never make it!"

My father told me I was not officer material.

Although I never let on, I was scared shitless. Nancy was scared, too, although she never uttered a word about her fears. Papa had told her that the gifted son of his close friend, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, had been so severely wounded in Korea that he would be a vegetable for life if he survived.

The Master Sergeant at the Princeton recruiting post happily swore me in to the Officer Candidates' School starting in early July 1953. I'd go to Quantico Virginia for a thirteen-week boot camp ending in mid-September. The Officer Candidate boot training was said to be easier than the enlisted men's "Hell" at Parris Island. I would then go to Officers' training for five months and, after that, to Korea. I never told Nancy or her parents that the life expectancy of a Marine second Lieutenant in Korea at that time was twenty-two minutes.

My father came to Princeton graduation day and sat far away from Nancy and my mother. Pauline didn’t bother to show. Walter Hoving was anxious when my name was not called out in the alphabetical order of degree winners. The reason was that honors students went to the podium last. I had won Highest Honors.

He stiffly congratulated me, nodded curtly to Nancy (my mother had fled at his approach) and suddenly came very close to me, not to hug me, but to slip into my palm a thousand dollar bill.

"This is the last money you shall ever receive from me for the rest of your life."

It was like getting a fat tip.

Nancy and I had decided to announce our engagement in mid June and my father didn't hold the press conference denouncing the union he’d threatened. Nancy was treated by her family to a postgraduate European grand tour (she, too, had graduated that June from Vassar College) and she sailed off with a friend while I prepared myself psychologically for what I guessed would be the worst time of my life.


This is chapter 7 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email



 



artnet—The Art World Online. ©2014 Artnet Worldwide Corporation. All rights reserved. artnet® is a registered trademark of Artnet Worldwide Corporation, New York, NY, USA.