Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part Two: Dinner Chez Nixon

After Richard Nixon departed for the Harvard Club, Julie suggested that Tricia, she, and I repair to her bedroom, where we could chat until dinner was ready. She led the way to a large room containing two twin beds covered with frilly, feminine spreads. I sat on one bed and Julie and Tricia took the other.

Tricia, a giggly blond, seemed less earnest than her younger sister, who wanted to know all about me--whether I had siblings, how I'd gotten interested in Smith, what I planned to study. Julie's rapt attention to my answers made me feel as if I were a fascinating and important person. Although I attempted to make polite inquiries about her, somehow the conversation was all about me. It was my first experience of Julie's remarkable ability to deflect the focus from herself onto the person with whom she was speaking. Perhaps because she'd been raised in the public eye and subject to media scrutiny her entire life, she'd become adept at directing attention outward, away from herself, a protective mechanism that preserved her privacy.

We had only been in the bedroom a short while when, to my surprise, Pat Nixon joined us. She took a seat next to me on the bed and seemed as interested as Julie and Tricia in hearing about my mundane high school life. And she loved my outfit! She especially admired the black Danskin top and wanted to know where I'd purchased it. She suggested to her daughters that they go shopping with her in search of similar tops.

It seemed to me at the time, and still does, that Mrs. Nixon loved being a mother, loved hanging out with her daughters and their friends, and wanted nothing more than a low-profile life as a wife and homemaker. In the kindly light of Julie's bedroom, Mrs. Nixon's face softened and her smile seemed more natural than the pained expression I came to associate with her television appearances. I don't know whether she'd been invited to the Harvard Club shindig along with her husband that evening, but clearly home is where her heart was.

When dinner was ready, we sat down to eat in the formal dining room, complete with silver candelabra in the middle of the table. The meal was served by Fina Sanchez, the Nixon's Cuban cook. Her husband, Manolo, served as driver and all-around valet to the Vice President (more about Manolo in a future installment). Mrs. Nixon was a delightful hostess, engaging me, along with Julie and Tricia, in conversation about what I might expect at Smith College. Our discussion, thankfully, was more about academics and social life than plumbing.

All would have been completely lovely were it not for the fact that the candelabra, with its glowing candles, was directly between Mrs. Nixon and me. Still on my best behavior, I endeavored to look at Mrs. Nixon while talking to her. My eyes became bleary and I craned my neck in an attempt to see over the candles, leaning first to the right, then to the left, all the while endeavoring to sound intelligent. Mrs. Nixon appeared not to notice anything amiss. I felt too unsure of myself to request that the candelabra be moved.

Having gotten a quick glimpse of the Nixons' lives, I was tempted to draw all kinds of broad conclusions. I gave into that temptation, bigtime. In the foyer, earlier, I decided Dick Nixon was a man who focused on the inner workings of things at the expense of the big picture. Later, in Julie's bedroom, I saw Mrs. Nixon as the very paradigm of a devoted wife and mother. Now in the dining room, it occurred to me that Mrs. Nixon and her daughters might be as insecure as I about matters of etiquette. It takes a certain amount of confidence to know when to break the rules and move the candelabra.

Overall, my impression of both Julie and her mother was of two genuinely caring individuals. Regarding Tricia, I couldn't tell what kind of person hid behind the giggles, which may have been her defense against invasions of her privacy. As for Richard Nixon, although I believed I'd learned something about his world view, I still felt clueless about the man's own inner workings.

Next installment: The Squash Connection

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part One: Meeting Richard Nixon, or Plumbing on the Brain

It was summer, 1967. I was eighteen years old and about to begin my freshman year at Smith College. I lived in Rockville Centre, a suburb of New York City, with my solidly Democratic parents and two younger sisters. Richard Nixon lived not far away, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, with his wife, Pat, and daughters, Julie and Tricia. He practiced law at his firm, Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander, and he bided his time. He intended to run again for President of the United States.

Though I lived geographically close to the Nixons, we were worlds apart. Nixon had served as Vice President for two terms under Eisenhower and his daughters had grown up virtually in the shadow of the White House. My father was a German refugee and my mother the daughter of poor Russian immigrants. I was about to become the first in the family to attend college, a Seven Sisters school, no less. I'd navigated high school well, but I had no idea how I'd fare among the daughters of the elite. Then a letter arrived. It was from Julie Nixon.

Julie wrote that she would be my "big sister" at Smith. She was entering her sophomore year and lived in the dorm to which I'd been assigned, Baldwin House. I later learned that big sisters were chosen according to geographic proximity, in the hope that incoming students would have a chance to meet their new mentors before school began. Her job, Julie said, was to help ease my transition to college life.

Her letter brimmed with advice--about New England weather, appropriate attire (she favored skirts)--and she encouraged me to ask her any and all questions I might have. The letter ended with an invitation to join her for dinner at her family's New York apartment.

Talk about an offer I couldn't refuse. Here was a chance to get an inside glimpse of the life of someone powerful and famous. Nixon wasn't a man I admired, far from it, but even then famosity had its hold on me and I was excited by the prospect of seeing how he and his family lived. At the same time, I was terrified. I wondered what to wear, how to behave, what to say. I imagined myself committing some dreadful faux pas that would haunt me forever after. But not for a minute did I consider turning down the invitation.

Both my mother and I considered a new outfit de rigeur for the upcoming occasion. But what should it be? After much shopping, we settled on a wool suit from B. Altman, with a short jacket and A-line skirt in a rust, gold, and black plaid pattern. We completed the ensemble with a black long-sleeved Danskin top.

On the appointed day in early September, I made the thirty-five minute trip from Rockville Centre to Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad. From there, I took a taxi to the Nixons' apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue. Just taking a cab by myself was a new and heady experience. I'd been tutored by my dad on how to tip. I felt very grown-up and incredibly young at the same time.

The doorman directed me to the elevator. I'd been in a doorman apartment before, when I'd visited my cousin on the Upper East Side. But I'd never had an elevator experience like the one that awaited me. When the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor, they opened directly into the Nixon's apartment. It seemed the height of luxury.

When I stepped out of the elevator, Julie, her sister, Tricia, and their mother were waiting to greet me. They ushered me into a darkly-furnished foyer and were very gracious in making me feel welcome. Mrs. Nixon wanted to know if I'd had any trouble finding the place and Julie told me how glad she was to meet me. Mrs. Nixon said she wished her husband could join us for dinner, but he had to give a speech at the Harvard Club that evening. Just then, the Vice President himself strode into the foyer.

With an enthusiasm I would come to know and appreciate, Julie introduced me to her father.

"Daddy, I'd like you to meet Barbara. She'll be a freshman this year at Smith and she'll be living in Baldwin House. She's my little sister!"

Nixon shook my hand. "Has Julie warned you about the plumbing in Baldwin House?" he asked. "They've had a lot of problems with leaks in the bathrooms there."

I kid you not. These are the words with which Dick Nixon greeted a shy and impressionable eighteen-year-old. Not "Smith is a wonderful school. You must be looking forward to studying there," or "Julie's had a great experience at Smith so far. I hope you will, too." No. Richard Nixon focused on the plumbing.

At the time, I thought it a very odd comment and decided it must be indicative of Nixon's world view. He was, I concluded, a man mostly concerned with form and not substance, with the mechanics of things rather than their meaning. In light of subsequent events, his casual remark took on a far more ominous quality and seemed frighteningly predictive of Nixon's paranoia about leaks during his Presidency.

As many will recall, the Plumbers was a White House Special Investigations Unit established in July, 1971, whose mandate was to stop leaks of confidential information to the media. The Plumbers was formed in response to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. Its members went on to commit many clandestine and illegal acts, including the Watergate break-in.

Back in September, 1967, Richard Nixon's presidential aspirations were barely a blip on the public radar. But even though I felt awed at the time to meet such a famous personage, I was struck by the weirdness of the man. History has confirmed my reaction, and then some.

Next installment: Dinner Chez Nixon

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Foam Flecks and Bobbing Coconuts

The other day, I stood on a sea wall gazing out at Biscayne Bay, mesmerized by the soothing chop of the water. My eyes were drawn to two broken white lines on the water's surface, between the pilings that guide boats into the nearby marina. I assumed at first that the lines were foam, probably from the wake of a boat that had recently passed. But I hadn't noticed a boat. Surely I wasn't in so much of a trance that one could have passed right by me without my seeing it.

As I watched and wondered, the white patches seemed to undulate on the water's surface with something more than the lightness of foam. I thought I could also see patches of gray. If this were merely the wake of a boat, wouldn't it have dissipated more quickly? Not having binoculars, I was forced to rely on my own vision in the brilliant mid-afternoon sun--my own vision coupled with a wishful imagination.

Soon I felt sure there was something alive in the water and I believed I knew what it was--manatees. Not one, but a small group of them, grazing on the abundant plant life in the shallow harbor. I came to that conclusion logically, since this part of the bay is known as a favored feeding ground for the gentle sea cows. In fact, boats are required to travel slowly as they make their way out to the open bay, lest they injure the endangered creatures with their propellers.

I recently read that manatees sometimes congregate in groups, so the idea that four or five of them might be just offshore didn't seem too farfetched, even though the total number of manatees in Florida's waters is probably under four thousand. And the fact that their coloration is normally a uniform gray didn't give me pause. It seemed likely that time (manatees can live for up to 60 years) and run-ins with boats and other obstacles could produce the mottled skin that appeared to be just under the water's surface.

I'd also read that from the shore manatees look like bobbing coconuts, an effect created when they break the surface with their rounded snouts to take in air. (Like whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, manatees are mammals.) I had to admit that amid the roiling, mottled water I didn't see anything that reminded me of a bobbing coconut. Still I watched, riveted, as the manatees seemed to migrate slowly toward the opposite shore. I didn't want to believe that what I was seeing was merely flecks of foam being pulled by the current. I wanted to believe that manatees were out there. The idea that I might briefly be witnessing their lives in the wild thrilled me to the core.

The following evening, at sunset, as I walked by the same spot on the sea wall, I saw a long double white line leading through the channel directly to the marina. This time there was no doubt--these lines were made by the wake of a boat. They were too regular to be anything else and they led directly to one of the boat slips. Apparently, even though the boat had passed sometime earlier, the foam left in its wake lingered. So the mystery of my supposed manatee sighting was solved. The forms I'd imagined in the water had merely been a wake's foam after all. In the wake of that realization, I was left with a feeling of sadness. A momentary connection with the wider universe seemed to have been lost.

But I haven't given up. I'm on the lookout for bobbing coconuts that aren't actually coconuts.