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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 9
April 2006: Immaculately Yours

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

"You speak, I listen" -- the machine message of a publisher I called. The voice was male baritone, the tone intimidating. If you dared take him up on it and leave a message, do you think he'd call you back, or care for what you said if he did? I hung up anyway to obviate these possibilities, slamming the phone down like it was a potato on fire. Days later I tried again and got him live. Now naturally I was tongue-tied, though I managed to mention my name. Then in undue course, my name became a signal around which to have some promising exchanges, by word and e-mail, especially by e-mail when he wrote that once I got his book catalogue, I would wonder why our paths had never crossed before. You must have a name if you expect anything in a profession like mine to happen. Any old surname will do. Though as we know, diverse factors enter into its usefulness -- or superfluity, if not liability. For the Speak & Listen people, the name must have a recognizable contour; otherwise you may speak but they won't listen. I enjoy just being "Jill" with my friends and family. With them, the voice is enough. My agent knows it too, and so does Betsy, a friend of the professional type. With Ingrid, the walls hold and reflect all our sayings. Where business with unknown people and futures is involved, my father's surname is necessarily the ticket. But his surname is known to the Speak/Listen folks only through me. I mean they never heard of him, but they know of me, thus he lives so to speak through me. All these 50 years that I've been writing, he lives through me. Now I want to live through him. I believe I would do better. Like being a Fonda, as in Jane, who became an actor in her father Henry's name. She might have been one of those children who suffered from having an "interesting parent" as Ingrid puts it, making them feel left out or ignored. But at length, Jane became interesting herself. Still, you could say she got there through a high contour paternal surname. I'm coming at this thing backwards. I have to make mine famous in order to justify the use of his name. It's a death-defying Catch 22. And he wasn't even an American. My first chance to be his kingmaker, as it were, was in 1969 when I signed a book contract with a major publisher having the working title of "Autobiography," which would clearly give him top billing. However at that time I had no idea how to write a book, much less one that would feature him, since I knew virtually only his name, nationality and profession; and serious research was not yet an activity with which I was acquainted. So nothing came of it. Several years later another prominent publisher paid me to write a volume titled "My Father in America." Here obviously I had him in the right country -- and indeed he made many visits here -- but again my knowledge of him was extremely limited. I got around that by writing a book, a very long one in fact, not even mentioning his name. I was living on a remote country road bordering a crick river in southwestern Massachusetts, in a house I had bought with a contract advance that only my surname -- taken in vain (i.e., illegally) by my mother -- continued to make possible. I felt very responsible, and spent 10 thou restoring a derelict earthen-ground carriage house on the property to create a writing studio. At first, some awesome machinery mounted my driveway to pour a cement floor. In the end I installed an oaken table held up by impressively carved lion's claws. With all its leaves inserted, the table extended the full length of the new cement floor -- at least 25 feet. Now on its surface I laid out hundreds of 3 by 5 cards, staggered Venetian-blind style, upon which I had typed mythological quotes from many sources that would form the "found" basis of my book. It was the early-mid 1970s, when unreadable books by dead authors like Joyce and Stein were popular. And my elusive subject seemed just right for an ambitious attempt at the unreadable. It wasn't exactly the right genre for fulfilling a goal of living through my father's name, when the name could not even be found in the text. One way to view the venture, unreadability aside, is that I needed the money, and still didn't know how to write a book. Anyhow when I was done, with 430 pages written in a single paragraph, unrelieved lower case, and minimal punctuation, my publisher/editor was duly astounded and, well, furious. It looked as if I'd written a superior piece of fiction, with its title character missing. He remained missing in every way for another half decade, in the middle of which I signed yet another contract in his name that would be impossible to establish. Then I met Ingrid whose credentials for research are outstanding and who wanted to spearhead a movement here and abroad to find out just who he was. He became our child in a way. We brought him up. If he were alive today he would be one hundred and twelve. So I have a father who lived two centuries ago. Pretty amazing, huh? And what else, you may ask, recommends him? It's interesting of course that I never met him. And that I now know more about him than anyone alive, save Ingrid, and I should add my half sister Rosemary who after all lived with him -- until she was 13, her age at his death. In establishing a father, the matter of what he did or made is of consequence, and here I have long suspected a problem. He was to be sure a mere manufacturer. And the thing he made is so ubiquitous in the world, so utterly taken for granted, that no one can even imagine that it is made at all. When I first met Rosemary (in the year 2000), she said that when she tells people what her father did, they say they never heard of it. We both think he was very grand nonetheless. And we want the world to know about him. Rosemary and her immediate family -- her mother (now deceased) and brother (likewise), survivors of the manufacturer -- had planned a book since at least the time my own research was launched, in 1981. However they had no one to write it. Then when they found out that I was doing it -- an easy discovery once I sought them out for their cooperation -- they feared, as well they might, for the future of his name! I needed the name to justify my use of it. We wanted the same thing: a book. But as they were legally endowed with the name, they needed only its consecration through this kind of brief, a ritual recognition of an amazing career. Manufacturing in his case had never been so transcended and exalted. Every book is a brief -- an appeal to the world, often over the heads of family, for acceptance or acknowledgement. Rather obviously, my appropriated name as author of such a document could in the family view compromise our subject, nullifying his accomplishment or making it less convincing. I have on occasion, I confess, longed for someone like Winston Churchill as a father. To drop his name this way would be some kind of ultimate exultation. I wouldn't have to write at all. I could just live off the fat of his name. When WC, who lived in the same time span as my father, was making his post-WWII victory tours, I went to see him at Carnegie Hall on 57th Street and 7th Avenue. From the last row in the highest balcony, he was a thrilling speck, a decorated ant crawling to the podium, accompanied by the Philharmonic Orchestra tumultuously playing "Rule Britannia," or "Land of Hope and Glory" or both, exciting me beyond reason. But if I had Winston's surname under similar circumstances as the one God gave me, I would need even greater proof of identity, a much bigger brief in other words; I wouldn't be looking at him from the last row of the highest balcony anywhere, and people would think I was mad. I'm mad already no doubt to spend so many years, on so many contracts, on so many words, on an extremely simple matter. Try to imagine a hefty book brimming with facts and stories fitting into a space the size of a thumbnail -- a blank on a birth certificate in a foreign country under the word "Father." I own this certificate, where I appear immaculately in the name of my mother's father, i.e. her maiden one. In 1968 I bought a copy of it in London at Somerset House. I think immaculate is cool, but that blank is a conspicuous commentary. It says, coupled with the name of the maternal grandfather, that since pre-historical times when paternity was in doubt and in fact may not have been responsible for your birth, it is now the indelible law of every land. If there's a blank, your mission is to fill it in. And within the year after buying the certificate, I had signed my first contract toward that goal. Like other addicting substances, this work creates a hunger for itself. And my decades are numbered. Lately, Ingrid and I have been tiring ourselves in the evening playing scrabble. I mentioned this to a close friend, who was trying to talk us into playing a different game, one I never heard of. I threw up my hands and dilated, "No, no, I don't want anything new." And my friend exclaimed, "Oh Jill, you're canonizing yourself."


©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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