- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005


By Sean Wilsey

Penguin, $25.95, 482 pages

Sean Wilsey takes the title for his very readable memoir, “Oh the Glory Of It All,” from a phrase he’d say out loud to himself when he was a kid and things were going well. “Oh, the glory of it all!” he’d gush, blissfully. Mr. Wilsey wasn’t yet a teenager when those happy days came to an end. His dad, Al, divorced Pat, his mother, and quickly hooked up with Dede, who had been one of his mom’s best friends. From that time on, Sean lived one week with his father, followed by a week with mom. “I packed a bag and switched houses every Monday,” he recalls.

Sean was 11. Lots of parents get divorced in America and many boys acquire stepmothers, but Sean Wilsey wasn’t just any boy. His father, fabulously wealthy, had made a fortune made in the dairy business, food and real estate. His mother, a famously beautiful and legendary Bay Area hostess, had her own TV program and wrote the society column for the San Francisco Examiner.

They were a stellar couple, often photographed and envied by many. When their marriage came to an end in 1980 it was with a very loud bang indeed. Bay Area newspapers gleefully carried details of what was dubbed the most expensive divorce ever, with Pat Wilsey asking for $33,000 a month in alimony. Mr. Wilsey says this estimate was low by nearly a half.

The don of San Francisco journalists, Herb Caen, called her “the blonde dumbshell” and “Pushy Galore.” But Pat got a big chunk of her former husband’s wealth, including the penthouse apartment 800 feet above the city, where the three Wilseys had once been a close-knit, “happy to excess” (in Sean’s words) family, and where young Sean grew increasingly unhappy, hostile and eventually downright wild and unmanageable.

Mr. Wilsey’s memoir is Dickensian, replete with obnoxious, boorish adults who frighten small children, grotesque eccentrics, schools that don’t teach and are more prison than classroom, and a mean-spirited, relentlessly selfish stepmother, who makes it very clear early on that Sean counts for little in her scheme of things, while the two sons she brings to her new marriage count for very much.

That’s the way Mr. Wilsey describes it, and it must have seem like that to the boy rendered vulnerable by being shuttled between two households, neither of which had anything good to say about the other, and much that was bad. Stepmother Dede was the great grandaugther of the founder of Dow Chemical, and the Washington, D.C.-born child of Wiley T. Buchanan, Jr., close friend of Richard Nixon and one time ambassador to Luxembourg. She came from privilege, but grew up lonely and surrounded by celebrities, writes Mr. Wilsey, “a lot like the way I was raised.”

Despite her background (or perhaps because of it), Dede turned out grasping, materialistic and more than eager (in the author’s opinion) to do whatever necessary to add to her already considerable wealth. The picture of his stepmother Mr. Wilsey draws is devastating: “She had a machinelike way of going on about a topic, as though she were speaking to imbeciles.” “She was a master at engendering hopelessness” — a talent she directed with singleminded zeal toward her stepson.

His real mother could likewise be a problem. Not long after the divorce Pat told her son that she had no choice but to commit suicide, and asked him to join her in the act. Sean turned her down, but it was an extraordinary burden to place on a young kid, who remained fearful that she might do as she promised. She didn’t. On another occasion, Pat told him she was dying of cancer, which also turned out to be a lie (she had a benign tumor, he was to learn much later).

His mother — the daughter of mom and pop Nazerene evangelical ministers who toured the mid-West preaching when she was a child — was (and is) more than a little flakey, though Mr. Wilsey obviously loves her and forgives (while remaining uncomfortable with them) her many excesses. Mother Pat, for example, wrote an 81-page epic poem about their relationship, had it leatherbound and presented it to her son on his 18th birthday. She also carried a very valuable Rodin sculpture around in the trunk of her car, hoping to sell it some day to fund her “work.”

Pat’s “work” was organizing children to promote world peace. Mom had “always been beautiful,” Mr. Wilsey explains. “Suddenly she saw her beauty’s true purpose: She would save the world’s children from nuclear annihilation with her beauty.” She thought that her beauty, allied with that of the hundreds of children she traveled around the world with would prove irresistable to world leaders, who would decide that peace was the only option.

With her young folk in tow (and sometimes Sean, until he grew older and difficult), Pat visited Moscow, cultivating friendships with Mikhael and Raissa Gorbachev. Anwar Sadat’s widow became a bosom buddy. At the Vatican, she and a few of the children met with Pope Jean Paul II. So convinced of the importance of her work did she become that in 1986, when she learned that Elie Wiesel and not she won the Nobel Prize for that year, Pat threw a major fit, “locked herself in her room, pulled the drapes, and ate ice cream.”

Where was Dad amidst these overwhelming women? In the thrall of Dede, partly, but mostly absent from his son’s life. He makes a few appearances, but usually they’re to chastise Sean for turning bad. And Sean does turn bad. He steals from his parents, lies to them endlessly and daily uses drugs and alcohol. He succumbs to that very common and most unhealthy trait of teenagers, a smug and superior sarcasm that boasts contempt for everything and finds nothing worthy of looking up to.

His dad, with mom’s approval, sends Sean off in succession to two New England prep schools and then to a school for incorrigibles in California. Nothing works to break his downward spiral. Mr. Wilsey’s describes that spiral in detail, the worthess, destructive pedagogy of the schools, his own deceitfulness and unwillingness to change his ways.

But then something does take — Amity — a school set up in a Renaissance villa in Tuscany, Italy. Sean is ready for change. He had just been arrested joyriding on a stolen motorscooter in San Francisco. Then comes Amity where, gradually, he sheds his by now knee-jerk sarcasm and discovers there’s other ways to be than supercool. He cries a great deal, talks a lot about his bad habits, all part of Amity’s program and under the guidance of sympathetic advisers. He makes friends. “I remember thinking, when I first arrived, that I’d never been close with anyone, and then it came as a revelation that I would and could be,” writes Mr. Wilsey.

The author has his parting shots at Dede, describing a family Christmas where his stepmother pins one $200,000 brooch after another to her bathrobe, as his dad sat nearby very ill. Mr. Wilsey also has great fun describing how Dede, who still reigns over San Francisco society, manipulated his father’s wealth to end up with everything when his father died, even the money that was to go to a foundation slated to do good works.

“Oh the Glory Of It All” is overlong and could be cut in each of its several parts. But at its best, it is an pungent indictment of the way we (at least some of us) live now, and of the tragedy, for anyone, but especially the young, when cynicism becomes their daily way of meeting the world. That Mr. Wilsey has made this often sad material full of life and humor and yes, even at times, wisdom, is a powerful achievement.

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