Alexander Stille excavates his parents’ past and stormy relationship in ‘The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace.’
When Alexander Stille’s mother died in 1993, she left few papers behind — just some letters, photographs and remnants of the lists she maintained to organize her life. Everything was in its proper place; her bills were paid and her will was signed.
His father died about two years later, surrounded by mountainous piles of newspapers and books. A man who had been displaced twice in his life — first from Russia and then from Italy — leaving everything behind, he had a hard time throwing anything out. “His closet was kind of a rest home for retired clothing: shoes that had curled in half with age … moth eaten sweaters and shirts frayed almost to rags,” he writes in “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Elizabeth Bogert was born in the American Midwest to wealthy Protestant parents; Mikhail Kaminetzki was a Jew born in Moscow. She almost never raised her voice and didn’t like to argue; he shouted a lot and rarely backed down from a fight. Opposite in how they approached much of life, their marriage was stormy.
The story of how they met is family legend. “One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father.” About a year after the party, which had been a celebration of Truman Capote’s first novel, Bogert married Kaminetzki, the noted Italian journalist also known as Ugo Stille and called Misha.
“How these two very different people came together and, more incredibly, how they stayed together was perhaps the central mystery of my early life,” Stille writes. He looks closely at his parents’ complicated marriage, their origins and the historical and cultural forces that shaped their lives. This book grew out of an earlier work, the highly recommended “Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism,” a study of the impact of the Holocaust on Italian Jews. Stille is a fine writer, shifting gracefully from memoir to history, from details to context.
In an interview in his Upper West Side apartment, he explains that while he was growing up in New York City, his father said little about his Jewish roots or their family history. “I understood,” he says, “because it wasn’t talked about, that it was very important.” His living room speaks to his inherited love of books, but there’s little clutter.
When Stille was researching Italian families for his 1992 book, he also hoped to excavate his own family’s story. Since his father’s papers were an epic mess, with important documents mixed in with all the newsprint, he had few resources until he uncovered a battered suitcase full of important family papers in 1989. He found the suitcase only after doing an intervention in the apartment of his aunt Lally, his father’s sister, who lived where her parents settled when they came to New York in 1941; she too was a pack rat, her apartment overflowing with decades of accumulation and debris. His parents agreed to be interviewed only at the end of their lives.
On his mother’s side, he found documents in the attic of his grandparents’ farm in Michigan, long after they lived there. His mother, whose father served as dean of Cornell Law School before moving to the University of Chicago, grew up in a world in which anti-Semitism was a widespread and accepted attitude — it was “an automatic, unreflective posture of distrust and disapproval.” In marrying two Jewish husbands, she was finding her own course, rebelling against her powerful father.
As Stille did research, he came to see his parents and close relations as figures he had encountered earlier in historical archives. “Whether we know it or not, we are born into history and pass through a stretch of it,” he writes. “Like pollen in springtime, or the fine, almost invisible dust that has covered the furniture when you return home after a long absence, history attaches itself to everything, affects the way we think and talk, the possibilities we imagine for ourselves, the choices we make or fail to make.”
As a child, Stille didn’t see much of his father’s parents. He remembers that their apartment was filled with heavy and uncomfortable old furniture brought from Russia and Italy, including an elaborate wooden grandfather clock they managed to get out of Russia in the middle of the civil war. In New York City, though, it no longer kept time.
His grandfather had been a dentist in Mir, in Russia, before fleeing to Italy with his wife and children. At first, when they lived in a small town between Rome and Naples and weren’t legal residents, they hid their Judaism from everyone, including their children, fearing for their safety. When they moved to Rome, they returned to some tradition. For Mikhail, learning that he was Jewish in 1931was not good news. “This element of hiding and then feeling shame marked him quite a bit,” Stille says.
“My father was profoundly Jewish without knowing he was Jewish,” he continues. “Hiding Jewishness is very Jewish and part of our background.”
When Italy passed its racial laws and Jewish doctors were no longer allowed to practice, his grandfather was put on trial for disobeying the laws and was convicted. The family was helped by someone originally from Mir, who had done well in America — the man didn’t know the Kaminetzkis but recognized the name as benefactors of the yeshiva he attended as a child on scholarship.
Before the family fled for America via Lisbon, the author’s father already had a considerable reputation as a journalist. He invented (and shared) the byline Ugo Stille with his best friend in Italy; he kept the name to honor his friend, who was not Jewish, who fought in the resistance and was killed.
He was soon drafted by the U.S. Army, which put him on a fast track to citizenship. In Fort Dix, he quickly befriended other soldiers, sharing advice about their love lives and helping them interpret their dreams. (He had studied some Freud). He was sent back overseas to do intelligence work, and after the war became the sole U.S. correspondent for Italy’s largest paper.
When Ugo Stille, with his thick glasses and thick Italian accent, met the beautiful Elizabeth Bogert, she was a dream, as he told his son, who writes, “she was very much a product of the America he had come to love.” He was drawn to her freedom, naturalness, irreverent wit, beauty, and impeccable manners. And she was immediately attracted to his intensity and intelligence. He was a great talker who “spoke with the authority and feeling of one who had lived history directly on his own flesh.”
Together, they had a rich social life. Their circle included Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Arthur Schlesinger, Irving Howe, Philip Roth and even Twiggy, Warren Beatty and Abbie Hoffman.
In spite of the chaos around him and the anxiety that never left him, Ugo Stille wrote with great clarity and later became editor-in-chief of the Italian newspaper Corriere. Elizabeth worked as an editor and made some unfulfilled attempts to leave the unhappy marriage that bounced between huge fights and passionate reconciliations..
Alexander Stille, who teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His other books include “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic” and “The Future of the Past.” He says that he couldn’t have written this book if his parents were still alive, as he was committed to not censuring himself. While he speaks of them with love, he came across some uncomfortable truths that he reveals.
He also raises interesting questions about who owns memories. In a coda, he tells of sharing the manuscript with his aunt Lally, who was very upset by his portrayal of her. He came to appreciate how difficult it can be to see someone else’s version of your story, but he ultimately convinced her that it was his particular point of view, and that her story was one piece of the larger story he was trying to tell. In a generous and funny counter-narrative, he explains her objections, but he gets the last words.
Alexander Still will be speaking about “The Force of Things” on Monday, May 6 at 6 p.m. at New York University’s Casa Italiana, 24 W. 12th St., Manhattan.
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