I have no memory. I always say to my friends, “Don’t tell me anything you don’t want repeated. I just can’t remember not to.” Invariably I forget and I repeat everything.
In 1923 I began to write my memoirs. They began like this: “I come from two of the best Jewish families. One of my grandfathers was born in a stable like Jesus Christ or, rather, over a stable in Bavaria, and my other grandfather was a peddler.” I don’t seem to have gotten very far with this book. Maybe I had nothing to say, or possibly I was too young for the task which I had set myself. Now I feel I am ripe for it. By waiting too long I may forget everything I have somehow managed to remember.
If my grandfathers started life modestly they ended it sumptuously. My stable-born grandfather, Mr. Seligman, came to America in steerage, with forty dollars in his pocket and contracted smallpox on board ship. He began his fortune by being a roof shingler and later by making uniforms for the Union Army in the Civil War. Later he became a renowned banker and president of Temple Emanu-el. Socially he got way beyond my other grandfather, Mr. Guggenheim the peddler, who was born in St. Gallen in German Switzerland. Mr. Guggenheim far surpassed Mr. Seligman in amassing an enormous fortune and buying up most of the copper mines of the world, but he never succeeded in attaining Mr. Seligman’s social distinction. In fact, when my mother married Benjamin Guggenheim the Seligmans considered it a mésalliance. To explain that she was marrying into the well known smelting family, they sent a cable to their kin in Europe saying, “Florette engaged Guggenheim smelter.” This became a great family joke, as the cable misread “Guggenheim smelt her.”
By the time I was born the Seligmans and the Guggenheims were extremely rich. At least the Guggenheims were and the Seligmans hadn’t done so badly. My grandfather, James Seligman, was a very modest man who refused to spend money on himself and underfed his trained nurse. He lived sparsely and gave everything to his children and grandchildren. He remembered all our birthdays and, although he did not die until ninety-three, he never failed to make out a check on these occasions. The checks were innumerable, as he had eleven children and fifteen grandchildren.
Most of his children were peculiar, if not mad. That was because of the bad inheritance they received from my grandmother. My grandfather finally had to leave her. She must have been objectionable. My mother told me that she could never invite young men to her home without a scene from her mother. My grandmother went around to shopkeepers and, as she leaned over the counter, asked them confidentially, “When do you think my husband last slept with me?”
My mother’s brothers and sisters were very eccentric. One of my favorite aunts was an incurable soprano. If you happened to meet her on the corner of Fifth Avenue while waiting for a bus, she would open her mouth wide and sing scales trying to make you do as much. She wore her hat hanging off the back of her head or tilted over one ear. A rose was always stuck in her hair. Long hatpins emerged dangerously, not from her hat, but from her hair. Her trailing dresses swept up the dust of the streets. She invariably wore a feather boa. She was an excellent cook and made beautiful tomato jelly. Whenever she wasn’t at the piano, she could be found in the kitchen or reading the ticker-tape. She was an inveterate gambler. She had a strange complex about germs and was forever wiping her furniture with lysol. But she had such extraordinary charm that I really loved her. I cannot say her husband felt as much. After he had fought with her for over thirty years, he tried to kill her and one of her sons by hitting them with a golf club. Not succeeding, he rushed to the reservoir where he drowned himself with heavy weights tied to his feet.