There is a story in my family of a terrible, unforgivable loss. My father’s mother died when I was five and one of her last requests was for my uncle to burn her diaries, which he did.
I heard about this repeatedly over the years. In my immediate family it was always described as the almost criminal destruction of family history and precious documentary material about a half-century of New York show business.
My grandparents eloped in their teens when Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States. They became “hoofers” (dancers with a comic or sensational specialty act) on the Vaudeville circuits in New York and elsewhere, under the name Martin and Fabbrini. By the time they quit in 1918 — my grandfather seems to have felt pushed out of the marketplace by the hoards of soldiers returning after the First World War — they were very well connected in what we now call the entertainment industry. My grandfather took up cartooning and had a flourishing career, and the two of them found themselves able to afford to play host to a huge circle of show business people, famous and obscure. Or so I am told. In the thirties and forties, it is said, they knew everybody. What a record that diary would have been! And instead of being put into an archive to rest for half a century and then speak clearly about those days and those lives, it was burned up, all its precious contents gone forever. An irrecoverable loss, and one that had a big effect on me — perhaps in part because I often heard about family records destroyed, I developed a passion for preserving information and interviewing people.
A few times I asked my uncle, late in life, why he burned the diary. He always refused to apologize for it. He said, “Well, my mother asked me to burn it, and I saw no reason not to. A person has a right to something like that, and she asked me to do it. So I took it out into the yard and burned the whole thing.”
My uncle died a couple of years ago. In his crammed attic his children found the diary, or much of it, intact. The newest of the volumes is around fifty years old, and I feel the whole diary can now be read and made public.
It consists of five-year diary volumes. I don’t know that those are easy to find any more so I’ll describe them. These are small bound volumes, 6-1/2 by 4-1/4 inches, and most of them can be locked, though not very securely. Each page covers a single date across five years. For instance, the “March 11” page shows March 11th in each year between let us say 1940 and 1944, or whatever five years you care to use it for. There are four lines’ space for each year-entry for each date, about an inch. My grandmother wrote in long-hand and I begin to doubt just how much “treasure” is there:
Thursday, May 22, 1935. Shopped. New permanent. Met Daddy at studio.
Thursday, Aug. 26, 1937. Doctor early, left for Mahopac. Martin, Bessie, and I. Stopped at Dean House. Party.
Tuesday, Mar. 7, 1939. Treatment. Saw Bender home on bus.
The whole thing reads like that. In the hands of a historian the diary might be of value, since it records people’s activities, along with terse entries like “Felt bad” and “Marketed, shopped, etc.” How often did my grandmother have her hair done or see the doctor? But there is no reflection, no description, and almost nothing but disjointed detail. The treasure I always heard it contained is not evident in any refined form — any gold dust there will have to be panned and sifted, washed and treated with muriatic acid and so forth, before it can be appraised.
I think the idea that an incomparable historical record had been lost must be a remnant of the bitter personal struggle between my father and my uncle, and not to be credited.
And what of the story that the whole thing was destroyed? My uncle swore he burned all of it. Possibly some of it was burned — I don’t think we have any volumes from the elopement in 1907 (she was fifteen) through the 1920s. We have a little of my grandfather’s record, in caricature and cartoon form, of their life on the road as Vaudevillians, and we know of certain harsh personal experiences that led him to accept Catholicism and break off with most of his family. I have a letter from the period of the diary in which he replies to his brother, who is trying to blackmail him by threatening to tell his show-business friends that he comes from a Jewish family, and my grandfather angrily avers his Christian faith and dares his brother to do as he likes. I think I know something about what went on in his life and the evolution of his mind, even without a detailed diary from my grandmother. What was going on in my grandmother’s mind through all this can be guessed at from other family stories.
My mother thinks that what was burned was actually a different set of documents connected to my grandfather’s philandering after he made his fortune. How that might relate to my uncle’s account is for someone else to judge, though.
For me, anyway, all this is a personal lesson as to the nature of records.