The Way It Wasn’t: From the Files of James Laughlin
edited by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch
New Directions, 342 pp., $25.00 (paper)
Heir to a steel fortune, James Laughlin IV grew up in a mansion in Pittsburgh where the “inside” servants were Irish and the “outside” servants black, where, in the summer, the windows were fitted with frames of cheesecloth that had to be washed of soot every day. The Mellons lived across the street; the Carnegies nearby. Henry Clay Frick, who brought in the militia against the striking Homestead coal miners, was a great-uncle. Strict Presbyterians, Irish who pretended to be Scottish, they were religious provincials who had found sudden wealth, much like today’s oil sheikhs. “At one house,” Laughlin wrote, “the butler passed chewing gum on a silver salver after coffee.” There were daily prayers and Bible readings, with the servants standing in attendance. (The Catholics were excused.) The Sunday comic strips could not be read until Monday. “Books were used for decoration in the living room. The only person who ever took them off the shelves was the parlor maid who dusted them.” The family traveled in its own private Pullman car.
His grandfather, James Jr., had made the money. His father, Henry, quit the business on the day James Jr. died, and devoted himself to duck-hunting and fly-fishing, yachting and golf, chemin-de-fer in the casino at Deauville, race cars at Chantilly, and, in the words of his son, “the pursuit on two continents of oiselettes, whom he always treated with liberality and kindness.” Stuck babysitting his two young sons on an afternoon in London, he took them to a brothel and hired one of the ladies to play checkers with the boys while he was occupied upstairs. His mother “could not wait to go to Jesus.”
James III was an eccentric uncle. James IV, born in 1914, attended Le Rosey in Switzerland, where, according to his maternal grandfather, he was unfortunately overexposed to “medical knowledge”; a classmate was the future Shah of Iran (“a stinker”). At Choate he was “Best Boy” and excelled at midget football. The Laughlins were Princeton men—they had endowed a Laughlin Hall on campus and his brother in adult life had a large collection of tiger knickknacks—but James scandalized the family by choosing Harvard, where the Brahmins considered him a yokel from the “West.” Harvard in those days was a place where decorators furnished one’s dorm room, maids cleaned it daily, and tailors came to measure the lads for the evening wear required for the regular debutante balls. James’s pal Joe Pulitzer kept a French mistress in the Boston Ritz.
At fifteen, his father gave him a thirty-foot yacht to cruise the inland waterways on their trips to Florida. At twenty-one, in the midst of the Depression, his father wrote him a check for $100,000—in today’s money, many millions—to get him started in life. James grew up to be a handsome playboy and a competitive sportsman, at home in the Lichtenstein Palace, in the pages of Town & Country, on the golf links with Rockefellers and …