Accidental Legacies

by Mara Jebsen

Photo 509Every once in a while, a book comes out about the Dulles family. It is in the interests of the writers, of course, to remind the world who the Dulles’ were, because the world has mostly forgotten. There’s the airport, but not that many people know the fellow it is named after. At one time the Dulles’ hobnobbed with the Rockefellers, and were even compared to the Kennedys, but now they aren’t–and nobody minds. Few of their progeny carry the name, and in many ways, the Dulles’ have disappeared. However, every once in a while, historians and political scientists and writers of spy novels like to conjure them, as they get taken with the tales of a forgotten American family, one that included three secretaries of state, a director of the CIA, the head of the Germany desk, and cardinal.

I hate to disappoint, because of course the story of these political men (and one woman) and what they did, and what they meant, is what is most sexy and most scary and most pertinent to most people—but the truth is, I have very little knowledge about it and if I did, I wouldn’t share it. In fact, I am much less interested in Allen Dulles, Director of CIA and John Foster Dulles, secretary of state, than I am in Allen’s wife, Clover (hostess, mother and poet.)

This is largely because I am a woman, and because heredity and legacy, and the randomness of the traces our lives leave behind, is a topic that has always mystified me. Clover Todd Dulles was my great-grandmother, and though I’ve never met her, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at this photograph, trying to read this particular expression.

The picture makes me ask: What kind of person is this and what is it like to be marrying the future director of the CIA under Eisenhower–someone who, some say, will be one of the most powerful men in the world? By most accounts, it is difficult.But no one bothers to make accounts that are even close to complete, because the wives of famous and infamous men are not really of interest. And anyone's marriage is difficult to describe, and thier own business, anyway.

Still, I am interested in Clover Todd; Clover Todd who worried all day that she’d gotten the wrong cut of meat for the party; Clover Todd who had unusual beliefs; who gathered up dozens of nieces and nephews to take them to the farm to get kittens, who became outraged at the state of prisons, and sometimes got lost on the streets when she’d forgotten the name of the hotel she was occupying. I am not sure about this, but it seems to me that Clover Todd was dreamy, forgetful, sensitive, ambitious, undomestic, and often sad. She also wrote with a searing, vivid, violent style that was really a kind of poetry, and when I read it, I thought: she would have traded places with me in a shot: to be broke, single, and a writer–a person who writes as much as she likes, and can take long walks whenever she wants, and who doesn't have to host parties. . .

But who knows? One of the interesting things about heredity and storytelling, is that you just need enough of a story to interest and half-satisfy you, and you have a place in the world.What I mean is—I ignore my male ancestors because I don't really identify with them, and in any case, every one of us is walking around, basically not thinking about the fact that we have four great-grandmothers, and four great-grandfathers, and, often, some of those people get their stories told, and some do not. We work with what we've got, and usually find that its enough. If there is just a shred of information on at least one or two of our forbears, we can make enough of a story to find a sort of place in the world– but that shred is really nothing, and only one part of one person, who is just one tiny spot on the enormously expansive family tree. So much is lost, and yet we don't mourn that, because we coudn't process it all, anyway. Here, there is an interesting parallel between the lives of our ancestors and the fate of 'greater' and even lesser writings. Montaigne wrote that “We do not posess a thousandth part of the writings of the Ancients: it is Fortune's favour which grants them a short life or a long one.”

I saw this epigraph in “Unflowered Aloes” from Tom Bissel’s collection “The Magic Hours.” In the essay, Bissel writes that “Destiny—the quaint notion that things happen as a matter of necessity—no longer retains much intellectual currency. But a curious vestige of faith endures in many otherwise skeptical intellectuals, and nothing indicates it more than how they view literature. For intellectuals, destiny as it applies to life is a ludicrous thought, but destiny as it applies to works of fiction and poetry goes largely unquestioned.”

Bissel, in this piece, offers accounts of how much of Kafka’s work got ‘torched’ by a girlfriend obedient to his wishes, and offers parallel accounts of publishing houses, where one grumpy colleague can figuratively torch a writer's fate with an off-hand comment. His essay is uncomfortable to read because it reminds us how power and randomness account for the ways we've come across the particular pieces of information that we use to 'inform' our thinking.

Clover Todd, I’m told, spent some time with a Jungian therapist, and she left a number of the journals of her dreams, and the other things she was asked to write down. She even leaves an account of meeting Jung, and being unimpressed. Accounts of her interior life, from the portions of her journals that I've read, reveal the turbulent, intuitive underbellies of the thoughts and emotions of a person who is trying to be 'good' and it somewhat tormented by the instinct that it is impossible. They do not give a full portrait of a woman, any more than the sentences here and there in other people's biographies could.

I have been reading a lot of Tolstoy lately—”War and Peace” is my latest—and he makes me feel like I am reading from some magical place between the night stars over Russia. On gets little flashes of the egos and interior lives of characters; then one spins unnoticeably out into the larger, blundering ballets of the drawing room and the battlefield. A life, I suppose, is too big to comprehend, even as we are living it, and certainly too big to be understood or remembered properly, three generations in the future. To be a poet married to a spy–it sounds romantic, but I'll bet it wasn't. It is ok that nobody cares. At the moment, I am missing one of my journals—its somewhere in New York. Amongst the barrage of blog-posts, tweets and tell-all novels, I’m sure it is ok that it will likely vanish into the larger noise that all our personal lives are making. Still, it is hard not to hope that it will be returned to me, or that, one day–even if that day is sometime, three generations from now–the right sort of person will read it.