Inside the Fortress

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Henry Grossman
Maisie Houghton with her father, Francis Parker Kinnicutt, at her graduation from St. Timothy’s School, Stevenson, Maryland, 1958

Instead of the characteristically self-deprecating title she has given the account of her youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with idyllic summers spent on an island off the coast of Maine, Maisie Houghton might well have entitled her beautifully written autobiography What Maisie Knew. For her penetrating account of growing up in a dysfunctional upper-class family is inevitably bound to evoke for the reader Henry James’s keenly observant protagonist. Both Maisies are astonishingly perceptive; both Maisies are trying to figure out how they fit in and who they are.

Maisie Houghton’s father, Frankie Kinnicutt, great-grandson of the distinguished physician who attended Edith Wharton’s feckless husband and brother of a redoubtable dragon of interior decoration, Sister Parrish, was the handsome, charming, martini- loving scion of a distinguished Wall Street family. Her mother, Sybil Jay Kinnicutt, was a direct descendent of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court as well as of John Jacob Astor; as if that were not enough, she was also a royal descendant of six kings of France and England. Such dazzling ancestry was, of course, artfully downplayed, if tacitly taken for granted, by both parents in the plain-living, high-thinking world of Cambridge in the 1950s, all the more so as the large amounts of money implied had, by the time Maisie Kinnicutt was born in 1940, much diminished. Her father still had enough, however, that he wasn’t obliged to pursue the serious career in law that was intended for him; instead, following his years as a naval officer in World War II, he decided to indulge his nostalgia and prolong his youth by returning to Harvard to work in the admissions office, attend the Saturday football games, and hang out at the Porcellian Club.

Residing in a relatively modest house on leafy Larch Road off Brattle Street, Frankie and Sybil Kinnicutt raised three daughers, of whom Maisie was the second. (“I have always known how to play both sides of the street. I am not the middle child for nothing.”) From the outside, they might have seemed an enviable family—attractive, intelligent, well-off, sophisticated, cultured, friendly. The inner reality, however, was something else. Maisie, her older sister, Sybil, and her younger sister, Tizzy, anxiously struggled with the puzzle of “parents who lived together but were estranged”:

Nothing was easy in our gray- shuttered house. There was, in fact, a distinct dis-ease between my mother and my father. In typically muted, well-bred fashion, nothing dramatic or violent ever happened. Occasionally voices were raised and doors slammed, but it was more what was not said, and what was not done. My parents did not touch each other. They barely looked each other in the eye. My sisters and I watched and listened, though we never said anything, particularly to each other. Our parents seemed to meet only in their comings and goings: my mother returning …

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