- - Sunday, November 6, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NORTH OF CRAZY: A MEMOIR

By Neltje

St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 275 pages

When Steve Forbes was running for president in another, less fraught season, he came in for a goodly dose of ribbing for mentioning the sadness he felt going to boarding school when asked about travails in his life. Since so few of the electorate to whom he was appealing shared that particular experience, it wasn’t the smartest political gambit, but those of us who did, indeed felt his pain.

I was reminded of Mr. Forbes while reading this memoir by Neltje Doubleday Sargent Kings, who as artist and author goes just by her distinctive first name, for it is easy to dismiss her as just another “Poor Little Rich Girl” telling her tale of existential woe in a world of material privilege. But to some extent anyway, it is necessary to take a life, the person who led it, and her account of doing so on their own terms and judge it accordingly. My qualifier is because I balk at someone who can feel LSD could make her better understand her life and a few other such solecisms, but on the whole “North of Crazy” has a good deal to commend it.

Most striking of all is its author’s use of tense: when Neltje is describing her horrendous childhood with indifferent, alcoholic parents, detached siblings, alternating governesses loving and unkind, a family friend who molests her, she uses the present tense. Most of the rest of the book reverts to the past, but sometimes lapses back into the present, a sure indicator of just how fraught she finds these particular “remembrances of things past.” It is an unusual and very effective way of underlining her feelings to the reader.

If Neltje spares us little of the miseries she endured, she also shares a lot of fun times. Like getting to know Gertrude Lawrence and Daphne Du Maurier and, through the latter, the British royal family, observing Princess Elizabeth visibly pregnant with Prince Charles and literally bumping heads — twice —with her mother Queen Elizabeth as they try to retrieve a spilled deviled egg. (Prince Philip neatly accomplishes the task without collision.) Those who have read in various biographies of Du Maurier of her sudden unrequited love for Neltje’s mother Ellen will relish Mrs. Doubleday’s bewildered reaction, as in her cups she wonders if she must be a lesbian to engender such passion.

Somerset Maugham is a somewhat forbidding houseguest on the Doubleday estate in South Carolina where he lived in exile during World War II and an even more astringent host when back home on the French Riviera. There are lots of fascinating encounters with other writers from Bertrand Russell to Theodore Roethke, for after all the family business is publishing.

But business and family are very much intertwined and there is a lot here about struggles over inheritances and stock options and control of Doubleday: “The intricacies of family were a Galsworthian tale,” writes Neltje with ample justification. Her tale is no “Forsyte Saga,” but she leaves us in no doubt as to how caustic and damaging all this was to her familial relationships, especially with her mother and brother Nelson.

Fascinatingly, despite the fact that both Neltje’s parents failed her, her reactions to them are wildly different. Although she nurses her elderly mother as she dies a lingering, terrible death from cancer, her emotions are complicated:

“I loved her, and all my life I wanted her to love me. She couldn’t, not wouldn’t. But I did not like her. And I ended up feeling the same way about Nelson.”

But even now she still cries out to her father in the final words of “North of Crazy”:

“When my father died, I was so young, only fourteen. I had to withhold my grief then, and the gut-wrenching rage that filled me. NowI weep — great racking sobs for the father who vanished just as he became a fatherHow unfair. I love you, I need you, I miss you. Come back, be with me. You might even like me now.”

So many of the phrases (apart from the title, obviously) in Noel Coward’s song “Poor Little Rich Girl” apply to Neltje that it’s uncanny. He may have been one of the few literary celebrities whom she didn’t get to know, but when he was writing “The life you lead leaves your nerves all a-jangle,/Your love affairs are in a hopeless tangle,/Though you’re a child, dear/Your life’s a wild typhoon./Poor little rich girl,/you’re a bewitched girl./Don’t drop a stitch too soon, he might have been describing her. Neltje’s triumph as she looks back from her serene 80s at the wild ride of her earlier life is that, despite all those dropped stitches, as an artist, businesswoman and conservationist, she has finally managed to weave her life into a colorful, satisfying fabric.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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