Friday, April 2, 2010


By Brooke Newman

Harmony Books, $24, 320 pages


Brooke Newman’s memoir “Jenniemae and James” records her life from the late-1940s to mid-1960s, when she was growing up in Washington, D.C. with her parents and their black servant Jenniemae. They were all odd, not to say peculiar and certainly unpredictable, so her account of their doings is often sad, but also sometimes comical and never less than fascinating.

The household revolved round James Newman. As a child he suffered a life-threatening bout of rheumatic fever that left him with a weak heart and a compromised immune system that exposed him to frequent illnesses. Nonetheless, he was a mathematical prodigy. He began college at 14, graduated from law school at 20, and then did graduate work in mathematics and physics. He was equally precocious in his relationships. He married and divorced three times before marrying Ms. Newman’s mother, Ruth, when he was 30. He did not settle down, however.

As his daughter explains, he had “an insatiable need for a lover other than his wife - possibly because two offered more security, possibly because his appetite was never sated, possibly because he was egotistical, or possibly because he had a sadness and fear and disquiet that could not easily be resolved.” This often caused strife, though at times Ruth Newman let some of his lovers move into the house.

Ruth Newman was also talented. In the 1950s, when few women with children undertook graduate work, she got her doctorate in psychology. While James Newman had “imagined illnesses that were difficult to differentiate from his real illnesses,” Ruth Newman “had night terrors, migraines, black periods, claustrophobia and borderline schizophrenia.” She became a successful clinical psychologist, but ironically “never quite figured out how to apply her reasoning to her own life and that of her family.” She liked being alone. She said her best friends were her cigarettes. She was not cut out to be a stay-at-home wife and mother - the roles so heavily touted in post-World War II America.

While James Newman certainly loved his children, his twin careers as author of mathematical books and counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Atomic Energy precluded much hands-on time with them.

The person who took on many of the Newmans’ parental responsibilities plus all the work of the house was Jenniemae Harrington. Ms. Newman describes her as an “underestimated, underappreciated, extremely overweight woman who was very religious, dirt poor and illiterate.” She was also “extremely clever, and quietly cunning.” She began each day by sharing a saying. These were no simple nostrums for a better life but “warnings about particularly ominous possibilities.” She also placed her bet on the numbers game.

“She won a high percentage of her bets … much higher than normal.” As a mathematician, James Newman was fascinated, and his daughter believes that this fueled the deep friendship that developed between him and Jenniemae.

“Both playing the daily numbers game and working with higher mathematics require a certain degree of obsessiveness,” she writes. “Both Jenniemae and James had obsessive personalities. Both of them liked order, routine, regularity; both were intense and rarely gave up on a subject once it was presented.” Jenniemae never abandoned her determination to keep her winning numbers secret until the day in 1965 when she heard James Newman deliver the commencement address at Johns Hopkins, and honored him with the revelation that next day the No. 6 horse would win the Preakness. She was right.

Ms. Newman’s thesis - that their interest in numbers brought Jenniemae and James together - entices rather than enlightens. Indeed, after its introduction it rarely appears again. What stands out from her memoir is not the untroubled calm, the growing prosperity, the American confidence conventionally associated with the 1950s, but rather the anxieties and difficulties of the era.

For James Newman, the most horrifying was the development of nuclear weapon technology in other countries, and the jauntiness with which Americans adopted the absurd idea that shelters would enable them to survive a nuclear attack. He wrote numerous essays countering this belief and campaigned against it with scientific colleagues, including Albert Einstein.

Meanwhile, as a black woman, Jenniemae did not benefit from the postwar full employment and new technologies. As Ms. Newman notes, “The country was still very divided by race, culture, and class. People who were white and wealthy could enjoy … new material goods and gadgets, but those who were black or poor were not about to see much change in day-to-day living.” Jenniemae thus left home before light and returned after dark six days a week to work for the Newmans, and though they were good employers, her life was difficult, especially when she became pregnant after being raped. Her child was born at home, without medical help, and she was back at work the next day.

Ms. Newman’s account of the early-1960s, when the civil rights movement was having successes and the brinksmanship of American and Russian foreign policies was being exposed, is as suggestive as her description of growing up in the 1950s. Indeed, this memoir is a stimulating recollection of an era. It is also an impressive evocation of the characters of James and Ruth Newman. Jenniemae is less well-developed, not least, perhaps, because Ms. Newman knows only the part of her life she lived in the Newmans’ house, not the life she lived in her own home and community.

The gnomic sayings, the amazing success at the numbers game and her sheer grit are vividly - and perhaps somewhat repetitively - presented, but much remains mysterious, which, it seems, is what Jenniemae wanted.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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