The cocktail party was the main adult social event for upwardly mobile couples in the 1950s. If you were going to host one of these parties, it was important that your home had some essential elements. The first was a large living room that could facilitate the various groups that would inevitably congregate. Our living room was 45 x 45 so that worked. The next thing was a bar area, preferably a wet-bar that could handle a large party if necessary and still be accessible to the living room. Ours was a separate area between the kitchen and the living room, perfect. And lastly, some works of art or other status symbols that could be seen, remembered, and talked about later. Ours were the shiny black Steinway baby grand piano with the sterling silver candelabra, and the state of the art stereo system, see The Piano, everything was perfect.
My father had become a Vice President in 1954 so he was often the host to many of these parties. Naturally, he found this to be the perfect environment to measure people away from the office. My mother was also trained in this art and they would later compare notes of what they had observed once the guests had departed. But most, if not all of the guests were engaged in this measuring art as well. They measured both my father and mother of course, but also who was invited, who wore the latest fashions, the quality and types of liquor that were provided, and even the hors d’oerves that were served. It’s true that it was called a party, but it was clear to everyone there that there was political work to be done that could alter a family’s future. Those that understood this principle would go far, or at least not fall behind. Those that didn’t would fall by the wayside.
My father’s drink of choice was bourbon, either on the rocks, with a splash of water, or neat. It was a man’s drink unlike my mother’s preference for the Manhattan or Old Fashioned which he considered women’s drinks. While the bar was stocked with everything you could ever want, I never saw him drink anything but bourbon. Sure on a hot day he would have a cold beer, but the serious drinking always began at 5 o’clock. Growing up I never got the impression that he had too much to drink. I think the combination of an astonishing tolerance to alcohol and an amazing ability to appear completely coherent always gave me the impression that everything was completely normal.
As the years went by the large cocktail parties gave way to smaller and smaller gatherings. Eventually as the children got older and were in need of career advice, my father, ever the teacher, would sit for many hours discussing every aspect of the business world. And all the while the bourbon would be flowing. My older brothers-in-law and cousins would occupy 3 or 4 nights a week ending in the wee hours of the night. These conversations would produce a President of a large textile company, a President of a wholesale food distribution company, and 2 very successful restaurateurs. There was no denying the value of my father’s business advice and the value of these long sessions into the night. But the bourbon was beginning to take its toll.
More and more I could see his inability to hide the impairment that the bourbon was causing. It took fewer drinks to cause it and the effects were much more pronounced. I was long since of drinking age by this time but I found that I would not drink with him. I thought that perhaps if I didn’t want a drink, perhaps he wouldn’t either. But he would just be disappointed that I wouldn’t join him, and still go ahead and pour another one for himself. It was now my time to engage in these business discussions that were founded in bourbon into the night, but I couldn’t stand to see what was happening to him. I had wanted to be able to sit and talk to him about so many things during these years but it had now become impossible for me to sit and watch him. And I didn’t really understand it. He was under no pressures, he had no money worries, and his family had all grown up, moved away and become successful. But every night he would drink his bourbon until he was toast. I learned that if I had something that I wanted to talk about it had to be in the morning and even then only briefly.
I felt somehow cheated. Since I was by far the youngest in the family, I had to wait my turn for everything. Generally that was OK with me, but this time was very different. There was still a lot of knowledge in him that I very much wanted but increasingly it was too late. I had been able to sit in on many of the earlier discussions with my cousins and brothers-in-law, but I was really too young to understand much of it at that time. But I was able to apply many of the lessons that were taught then to my career going forward.
In the mid 1970s when he was nearing retirement, I thought that perhaps leaving the business world would also allow him to relax more and no longer feel the need to drink so much. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The family didn’t see as much of him since he now had the time to travel and establish a winter home in Florida. But each time we saw him, we would all recognize the subtle differences that his increasing lack of tolerance to bourbon was causing.
By the mid 1980s we all knew something was terribly wrong. There was talk of dementia, possible alcoholism, and by the early 1990s even Alzheimer’s. I had been transferred to Virginia by then but we wanted to make sure our summer vacation was spent on the Cape each year. Then it became official that he had Alzheimer’s. By 2001 the Alzheimer’s had forced him into a nursing home and on March 22, 2003 he was gone. This was the strongest, proudest, most domineering patriarch my world had ever known, who in the end had been reduced to only a shadow of what he had been. He was a pure business genius whose first love was teaching and sharing what he knew. Did the bourbon cause the dementia and then the Alzheimer’s? I don’t know and I’m not sure anyone knows. But the bourbon took many years away that I needed and would never get back. In the end he knew nothing, it had all been wiped away. In the end it would be my brothers-in-law, my cousins, and me that would try to carry his extraordinary knowledge forward to be passed along to the next generation.
More than anyone else I was the beneficiary of my father in his prime. My first 10 years of life was with a father full of wit, humor, and wisdom. I think by then my sisters had more interest in their lives at high school than these clever dining room discussions. As no doubt you can tell from the many other stories, I was captivated. But I paid for those first 10 years by losing the last 10 years. He was tough, domineering, bull-headed, obstinate, had the driest sense of humor imaginable, and was an absolute delight to be around. I wish he still was.
© J T Weaver