Looking Beneath the Surface of Things: Norwich Couple's Two New Books Examine Lives and Institutions With Secrets

Friday, March 29, 2013
Families are complicated. So said Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, and so say Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen and Anne Tyler and almost every other writer under the sun.

But while the evasions and repressions in Susan Gillotti’s family made the family dynamic more complex than some, they were characteristic of the 20th-century species Waspus Americanus, a subset distinguished by its intellectual accomplishments, but also by its snobberies, its emotional chill and reliance on alcohol as the opiate of choice. It’s the kind of dysfunction that has kept generations of psychiatrists (and writers) gainfully employed for years.

Gillotti, whose new book Women of Privilege: 100 Years of Love and Loss in a Family of the Hudson River Valley, released by Academy Chicago Publishers, recounts the history of three generations of women in her family, and has uncovered a story fraught with deep unhappiness. Tortured relations between women and men, women and women, and children and parents are the order of the day. There’s more than a note of intentional irony in her title.

How many of us, after all, can say that our grandmother was tailed by Pinkerton agents over the length and breadth of Manhattan?

Gillotti has the original reports, typed in 1913 on translucent paper and submitted to the lawyer of her grandfather Maunsell Crosby, who was seeking evidence of infidelity, mental instability and any other peccadillo that might give him legal advantage over his estranged wife. Elizabeth Crosby had a young daughter fathered by Maunsell; she called the girl “the kid”; he was skeptical the girl was his and wanted to avoid paying child support.

That child, Helen Crosby, was Gillotti’s mother.

Gillotti stumbled on these extraordinary dispatches while looking through an archive of diaries, letters and documents left her by her mother who died in 1995 at the age of 84.

Until her mother’s death, “there was no clue at all that they existed,” Gillotti said in an interview in the home she shares with her husband, Al Gillotti, in Norwich. She sits across a table from her husband, whose new novel George Evans has also been released by Academy Chicago, a small, family-run publisher.

Although one book is about the lives of women, and the other is about international banking in London in the 1960s, the two books have more in common than might seem apparent at first glance.

The Patrician Life

Gillotti writes about a late 19th- and early 20th-century patrician family living along the Hudson. Centered in and around Hyde Park and Rhinebeck, N.Y., Gillotti’s grandparents and great-grandparents, the Schieffelins, were friendly with the Roosevelts and Daisy Suckley, who became Franklin Roosevelt’s confidante. Large estates were the norm, as were trips to Europe, silver services and boarding schools. But generations of Gillotti’s family were also plagued by emotional neglect, erratic parenting, mental illness and alcoholism.

Born Susan McCabe in New York City, Gillotti lived most of her childhood and adolescence in Rockville, Md., near Washington, D.C., with her mother, two younger sisters and her father, Lewis McCabe, who suffered from depression and anxiety. Gillotti’s mother, Helen Crosby McCabe, did the best she could, given the way she’d been raised, and her continuing questions about her own unresolved sexuality, but she also became dependent on alcohol in middle age.

The question was, why did Helen McCabe leave behind a trove of such candid material? Gillotti, a woman who exudes supreme poise and intelligence, believes her mother wanted her three daughters to understand why their family history had been as volatile as it was, given that painful issues were not openly discussed.

“It was important to know whence we came,” she said. What was their “psychological DNA?” And why, Gillotti said, “was there so much alcohol, mental illness and sexual identity confusion?”

On his side of the table, Al Gillotti listens carefully to his wife. They met his senior year at Yale; she was in her senior year at Vassar and, through a series of connections, she arranged to find a blind date for Al. The course of true love does not run smooth, however.

“She didn’t like me,” he observed.

“That’s true. I thought he was puerile.”

And was he? “Of course,” Al Gillotti said, laughing. He is tall, quiet and watchful, with a thick head of white hair. Last year he had brain surgery, which left him with mild aphasia and sometimes his words arrive slowly. But they arrive.

Both 74, they have been married for 50 years. Their house in Norwich is large and open; numerous windows keep the interior light and expansive, even on an overcast March afternoon. Works of art are placed at discreet intervals. They didn’t have children, but they do have books by the hundreds, which is another kind of family. Susan Gillotti recently retired from a practice as a Jungian psychoanalyst, and Al Gillotti left a long career in banking in 1995.

Growing Up in Danbury

Al Gillotti grew up in Danbury, Conn., an Italian-American stronghold. Contrary to the stereotype of the boisterous, close-knit Italian family, his was a “difficult family,” he said. He was an only child, and his parents separated. His mother cast his father, who worked for Stetson Hats, as the culpable party.

“I didn’t understand for a long time that my father was really the good guy,” Al Gillotti recalled. “I was very happy I was away at college, without knowing why.”

“Who of us dared to say there was anything wrong with our family?” his wife said. “We both knew we wanted to travel and we both knew we didn’t want to go back from where we came from. Danbury was not a place to be and we resisted going back there.”

“That’s right,” Al Gillotti said, nodding.

“It wasn’t about living an affluent life, or a trophy life,” Susan Gillotti said, “but about living a life filled with art, music and literature.”

Both Susan and Al Gillotti left their families behind and moved to Germany in 1963, where they were married. He’d been taught Russian by the Army and was in Army Intelligence at the time, listening to Russian troop movements on the radio.

After leaving the military, he went on to pursue a doctorate in English literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but decided after a year it wasn’t for him and went into banking in the mid-1960s. He worked for years in risk management at the now-defunct Bankers Trust, which was swallowed up by Deutsche Bank in 1998.

All of Gillotti’s novels — Death of a Shipowner, Skim and now George Evans — are set in the arcane universe of international finance. Skim, in particular, published in 1984, predicted the double-dealing, chicanery and ultimate collapse of some of this country’s once most-respected financial institutions. Gillotti finally left Bankers Trust because of what he saw as an abrogation of the public trust. “It was a terrible, terrible atmosphere so I finally resigned.”

George Evans is set in London from the the 1960s through the 1980s. (The Gillottis lived in the city from 1980 to 1995.) The title character is one of those tippling, old boy Oxbridge types, given to dropping foreign phrases into his speech, and so accustomed to speaking in a tone of lightly supercilious irony it’s not clear he would know how to talk any other way. He’s a rascal but honest about his failings. The book deals out a vivid hand of affairs, convoluted financial transactions that blur the line between legal and illegal, and familial strife.

Both Al and Susan Gillotti say they have come to terms with their own familial inheritances, good, bad and indifferent.

Once they were adult enough to understand what had gone on, said Susan Gillotti, she and her sisters decided not to continue the misery of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. “I am not buying into that,” she said. “I was angry at my mother but I’m not now. ... She was a lonely woman who wanted to be known. The more I got to know her, the more I came to love my mother in a new way.”

What sustains the couple, apart from their shared interests, is each other.

When asked what drew him to his future wife, Al Gillotti, standing in the living room, lowers his head and reflects. His wife stands a few feet away. “I think it was because she smiled.”

“ Oh, Al!” Susan Gillotti said. This was the first time she’d heard this, she said; and for a moment her eyes looked moist.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.