Beats the alternative

Today I turn 56. I am so grateful for my life. My stock phrase whenever someone I know grouses about turning another year older is: “it beats the alternative.”

I received news that my godmother died Thursday in London at age 80, after a long cancer battle. Her husband, my godfather Michael, died nearly 20 years ago when he was just 62, of a brain tumor. I was able to visit my godfather a few days before he died. The whole family was at their home in Wellesley at the time, a grand Victorian-era brick estate overlooking the lake, with a sweeping view of Wellesley College on the far shore. Michael was in bed and I went up and sat with him for a little while. He was a man of towering intellect with a commanding presence and a keen sense of mischief. You had to stay tuned for high frequencies around Michael. If he’d been anyone other than my godfather, I would have found him terrifying. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Oxford University that he somehow parlayed into a career in international investment banking, playing a seminal role in the invention of Eurobonds and Euro currencies. He was also a leader in the development of London’s Canary Wharf, and he co-created the first restaurant in the UK to receive a three star Michelin rating. At the time of his death, he was President of Templeton College at Oxford University.  This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his voracious appetite for intellectual challenge.

When I was 18, the summer before I began college, I went to work for him in London at the investment bank where he was a director. The bank was engaged in top secret merger negotiations that summer, and there were many hushed conversations in shadowy corners of the office. I lived with Michael and Lisa in their Kensington home, bunking down in one of their daughters’ rooms, eschewing a ride to work with Michael in his town car for the underground from Notting Hill Gate to Bank Street. I felt very young-professional.

My “job” at the bank consisted mostly of sitting in on meetings and writing summary notes that Michael would discuss with me at the end of day, to gauge how well  I understood the technicalities of investment banking, which was “not very”. I was also assigned the task of reading through major European and US financial newspapers and clipping the “tombstones”–-ads announcing bond issues underwritten by investment banks, in which the names of the underwriters appear in order of their financial participation, with the largest investors most prominently displayed in large type at the top, the small players crowded at the bottom, much like the billing on a movie poster. I had a desk of my own out on the trading floor, where I could absorb all the lingo of the traders on their phones, making deals, shouting out to each other in intriguing English or Swiss-German accents. Michael had a corner office, and when he was ready to scoop me up for a meeting, he would appear at his door and holler across the floor, “Holly Berry! Your presence is required.”   In our feminist age, this may strike you as horribly demeaning. But it made me feel like a rock star. “Off you go, then, Miss Berry,” the trader next to me would whisper impishly.

Years later, when I was living in Chicago and working in advertising, Michael was in town closing a deal, and I met him for breakfast at the Drake Hotel.   He probed me on my decision to take an advertising job, rather than to pursue work in academia or the arts. He wasn’t fooled by my assertion that the ad biz was a great fit for me because it combined creativity and business. He said, “well, it’s as good a place as any to start. Just don’t let the poet or the performer in you die. That would be a shame.”  I think this may have been the first time in my life that someone in a position of conventional authority suggested the arts might be a legitimate career path. I’ll never forget that gift. After breakfast, he gave me a ride to work in his limo. When the car pulled up to the curb, I saw that the president of our ad agency, whom I had never met, was chatting with a couple of high level mucky-mucks right by the main entrance to the building. Oy, how was this going to look, a young assistant account executive climbing out of a limo at eight in the morning? “Just hold your head high,” Michael suggested.  “Walk on past like this is how you get to work every day. That’ll keep them on their toes. “

Aunt Lisa was the perfect foil for him. An unpretentious auburn-haired beauty, she was impeccably educated, an erudite Bostonian who was no less strong-willed than he, just not as showy about it. Michael called her by her middle name, Bronson. She had that wonderfully flinty Yankee resolve that I’ve come to recognize from my twenty years living outside Boston, where established “Brahmin” families avoid ostentation like a Pamploma runner flees bulls.  Her opinions were strongly held.   Lisa immersed herself in the close-knit London community of bookbinders, a very different breed of people from the international jetsetters who abounded in Michael’s line of work. She loved the artisans’ crowded studios, their dusty shelves, the smell of leather and glue.  She told me once that she lived two lives;  the humble, bespectacled craftspeople of her bookbinding circle would be astonished by the glitter of the I-banking set. The summer I lived in London, she took me to an exhibition of art-bound books, bindings sculpted in leather, hand-tooled, many of them with beautiful gold leaf lettering. I remember one art book of M.C. Escher designs, bound by a flock of birds in contrasting leathers, creating an optical illusion reminiscent of the prints inside. A Grimm’s fairy tale volume depicted the witch’s candy house from “Hansel and Gretel” in a 3D sculpture of hand-dyed leathers and colored embroidery. These “books” were works of art, covers exquisitely complementing content.   Lisa loved it all: book, cover, craft and the bookbinding culture.

At the end of that summer, when I was packing for my flight back to the states, she came up to my room and handed me a small package. I unwrapped it to find a slim antique eternal calendar she had rebound for me in mossy, marbled green paper. She constructed the hard sleeve casing herself. I still have it, marked with important dates – our wedding, the kids’ births and christenings, the birthdays of my fourteen nieces and nephews, my in-laws and friends. Flowers are pressed in its pages, ivy from my bridal bouquet, iris John gave me when we discovered I was pregnant with Mia, a freesia from a floral arrangement at Michael’s memorial service on November 19, 1997. Now I shall have to press a blossom for my dear godmother Louisa Bronson Hunnewell von Clemm. It’s been too many years since I last saw her – perhaps five or even six–but her memory is indelible.

pressing-flowers

Lisa would have been about 53 that London summer I stayed with her, three years younger than I am today.   She was in her early sixties when Michael died. They were such a unique and forceful pair, it was hard for me to imagine at that time how she made sense as a solo act. And look: she lived another nineteen years in England, close to her daughters and grandchildren, helping to run the Michael and Louisa von Clemm foundation, supporting artisans, book conservationists, students, education and much more, serving on boards in Boston and London.  I am reminded how very much living we all can do, at any age, if we choose to.

2 thoughts on “Beats the alternative

  1. Thank you, Holly, for this touching memorial. Your Aunt Lisa was my high school classmate. I remember her fondly, and also mourn her passing.

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    1. Lucy, thank you for your kind note. Were you at Winsor then? Aunt Lisa was such a passionate advocate of rigor and high standards in schools, and she always spoke of Winsor with pride. All best, Holly

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