By Joe Whiteman:
“Families are always rising and falling in America.” – Nathanial Hawthorne [pictured]
Between 1620 and 1849, as best I can tell from the research available, my family lived in Massachusetts and New York. Members of my family fought in the Revolutionary War. There is a famed public event I am told was founded and named after my family in New York.
When the Civil War broke out, my ancestor Jason Edgerly joined the Massachusetts 101st Infantry. Abraham Lincoln became very worried about acts of espionage, treason, Confederate infiltration of Washington, assassination plots, and the like. He employed Allen Pinkerton to begin the Secret Service, and at some point Lincoln, recalling Edgerly’s “skill set” during the campaign, asked young Jason to come to Washington.
Edgerly was tasked with riding around Washington and environs, into taverns and public gatherings, keeping his ear open for plots or conspiracies. Eventually he rode his horse into northern Virginia, which was Confederate territory controlled by General Robert E. Lee.
Edgerly somehow managed to make his way into Lee’s tent, where he stole battle plans for an attack on a Union outpost in Willow Springs, Virginia close to the Federal city. He brought these plans to Lincoln himself, who called Edgerly “the Flea.” If the family had wealth, some members of the family had some, while others it would seem did not, because in 1849 members of my family ventured to California for the Gold Rush. Few of the settlers who experienced these hardships came from money or had many connections. In 1850 my great-grandfather was born in Fresno Crossing, California, a known gold prospecting site.
At this point I can trace my family in California using ancestry.com, although another family member had researched going back to the 1620 ship landing from England. Somebody in my family married into hers, an Italian family. There is no record that my family discovered much if any gold, but they did move to San Francisco. My great-grandfather did become at attorney and an officer in the California militia, a post-Civil War wing of the U.S. Army. He prospered.
He married and had two children. The eldest became a very successful Shakespearean stage actor who helped found The Mountain Play, a popular outdoor event held on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County to this day.
The other was my grandfather, who was born in San Francisco in 1880. Granddaddy became a journalist and worked for newspapers in San Francisco, covering events such as the Great Earthquake in 1906, and the Pan-Pacific Exposition in 1915.
Granddaddy married a woman of Prussian ancestry and they had three children, two sons and a daughter. My dad was the youngest, born in 1918. Around 1924 or 1925, my grandfather divorced my grandmother. The first two kids were older, but Dad was still just a little kid.
Granddaddy apparently decided that Hollywood, where “talkies” were coming into rage, was the future for a young writer. He moved there and may have thought he could write screenplays to be produced and starring his brother, the Shakespearean actor. If he did endeavor to do this, little if anything came of it.
He also tried to start a magazine called <ital>Out and About in Hollywood<end ital> which I suppose would have been like <ital>Daily Variety<end ital>, perhaps more scandalous. By this time it was the Great Depression, and the magazine failed. My father lived in Los Angeles over the course of several summers, but remained with his mom, in Kentfield and San Francisco, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Returning to San Francisco, my grandfather eventually became editor of a veterinarian’s magazine and president of the San Francisco Press Club.
My dad’s sister married a man who became successful, and his brother entered the University of California, where he had to join the ROTC in order to cover the $29 tuition in 1929.
This is where the story gets interesting. It could be said our family was “prominent,” to some extent at least, in that they went back three centuries in America; had founded a sporting event in New York; had apparently fought in the Revolution and had Lincoln’s “personal spy” in the Civil War.
On the West Coast, there was a grandfather who was a lawyer and Army officer, a son who attained some fame on the stage; and another son who was respected in journalism circles, but seemed to have failed in Hollywood.
There was a Prussian grandfather who owned some land, and his daughter who was divorced and forced to raise three kids on her own.
How prominent my family was, if at all, is in dispute. There does not seem to be privilege or place in society accrued to us other than being white Americans living in California. To the extent there ever was wealth, it went to some, not to everybody. If the family of an actor and his brother the writer were in any way people of stature, they certainly were not in 1932, when my father recalls a “welcome wagon” stopping at their apartment in San Francisco to give them food for the poor. There does not seem to be much in the way of privilege. This was the heart of the Great Depression.
Start with my father. He started at Galileo High School in San Francisco, where he was a friend with Dom Di Maggio, younger brother of Joe Di Maggio.
In his senior year he moved with his mom to Hopland, where they acquired a cabin with no running water, rattlesnakes prowling the property, and scorpions living in the dirt. My father still thrived, starring in baseball and basketball, making straight As, and earning his way into Cal.
At Cal he ran track, played football and baseball. He married a woman of means, worked nights to pay tuition, but dropped out to better support the family after my brother was born. He finally returned to school and graduated in 1944. He immediately enlisted in the Navy. During basic training an officer told him he saw that he was college graduate, and asked if he wanted to enter a special officer candidate school called “90 day wonders.” My dad agreed, went through the program at the University of Arizona and Harvard, and found himself on an aircraft carrier in 1945.
After the war he returned to San Francisco, where he was one of the first high school coaches to coach integrated teams, since the shipyards had brought in many black families. I have spoken to many of these black track stars my dad coached, and they all loved him from the bottom of their hearts. He was called into active Naval duty during the Korean War, but returned to teaching and coached until the end of the decade. Eventually my dad divorced and married my mom, who had gotten her nurse’s training in London during the Blitz and later when V-2 rockets were reigning down. She became an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and after the war moved to San Francisco, where was a nurse when she met my father.
My parents were able to buy a home in Marin County only because my grandmother passed away and left them some money. My uncle, as mentioned, attended Cal on an ROTC scholarship because he could not afford the $29 cost. Because he was in the Army, he was an officer when World War II began. He spent the war years teaching a course at the Presidio of San Francisco. Why he never was sent into a combat theatre I do not know, but he made valuable political contacts. He remained in the Army Reserve after the war and rose to the rank of colonel.
My uncle got into the real estate and construction business, a very lucrative endeavor in the post-war years in California. In 1952, frustrated at political interference with his business, he decided to run for state Assembly. He was then contacted by a young lawyer, Caspar Weinberger, who told my uncle that he was running for the same seat, had served as chief of staff to General Douglas MacArthur during the war; the general was going to campaign for him; and for these reasons my uncle could not win the Republican primary.
But Weinberger made an offer to my uncle. This was that if he pulled out of the primaries he would back legislation favorable to the construction industry, and would introduce my uncle to the top Republicans in the state. My uncle agreed. Weinberger won and was true to his word. My uncle made valuable contacts with Senator William Knowland, Vice-President Richard Nixon, eventually Governor Ronald Reagan, and many others. My uncle remained very active in California GOP politics until the 1970s, and of course Weinberger became Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, where he was a major architect of our victory in the Cold War.
My uncle began buying blue chip stocks in the 1940s and held onto them. He was very conservative with his money, and became a multi-millionaire. I cannot verify for sure, but I am told he gave $50 million to the University of California, and upon his passing may have been worth $100 million. My dad never benefited from his brother’s wealth or connections – a Weinberger law firm job was never proffered – although he did make some strong stock purchases based on his recommendations.
My uncle’s son graduated from Cal and had a long career as an engineer with the Standard Oil Company. My brother was a submarine officer in Hyman Rickover’s nuclear Navy, and was in Vietnam, including the Gulf of Tonkin. I played college baseball on a full ride scholarship, then a few years in the minor leagues, before graduating from USC, getting married, having a daughter, buying a house in Orange County, serving in the Army, and attending law school. At one point in the 1980s I was considered a young man with political potential in Orange County, but that did not come to pass. I asked my uncle for help in politics; to work in the Reagan Administration, for Weinberger in the Pentagon; or any kind of job in Washington. While I was certainly qualified, for reasons I never understood, my uncle never did one single thing to help me, or my daughter. I got $13,000 of his reported $100 million near the end of his life, when he gave away a few grand to all of his relatives for a few years.
Between the ages of 28 and 35 I might truthfully be called a “loser,” but I rallied when I developed a passion for writing. I spent years in Hollywood struggling as a screenwriter (like my grandfather), then finally broke through, first covering prep sports for the <ital>L.A. Times<en ital>, then as a columnist for a magazine in Marina del Rey. I then became a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and after that wrote a series of successful books, coinciding mostly with the success of USC football in the Pete Carroll era. This allowed my to pay off my debts and accumulate some wealth.
My daughter attended the University of Oregon but dropped out because, despite saving since her birth, I had failed to accumulate enough to pay four years of out-of-state tuition. She then made a brilliant move, which was to study at a culinary academy and develop a successful career as a baker. She is the hardest worker I know She is married to an equally hard-working man in the tech industry and with my help owns a home in the Portland area.
In looking back over the history of my family, I do not know where white privilege ever played a role in our success, or failure for that matter. I for one experienced my fair share of that, as did my grandfather. It is hard to account for the family from 1620 to 1849. As best I know they were Christian abolitionists. I cannot account for the sporting event in my family’s name, but have no reason it was stolen and gained in any kind of nefarious manner.
My great-grandfather seems to have succeeded as a lawyer and Army officer. My grandfather’s brother earned some plaudits as an actor but does not seem to have risen with the help of anybody. My grandfather basically failed in Hollywood. His becoming president of the press club indicates some jocularity among a “good ol’ boys” network of San Francisco journalists, but I do not think he became wealthy because of it.
My own dad just plain worked harder than everyone else. He was a total striver. He was smart but not that smart. He had his faults but was a wonderful man. I can say unequivocally whatever wealth he accumulated was hard earned and came from diligent toil. He became a tax lawyer and only had one of his returns audited. He acknowledged the mistake was his and did not charge his client. He was truly an “honest lawyer.” The key year in pointing to “white privilege” as a myth at least as far as my family is concerned comes in 1932, the height of the Great Depression. If at some point, or during a different time period, the family was “prominent,” or had “old money” on the East Coast, or if our name carried any weight before the 1920s, this went out the window when my Grandfather divorced my grandmother around 1925. The Depression crashed down on us and we were just plain poor.
So between 1932 and 2005, when my uncle died, my California family accumulated perhaps as much as $100 million, although the beneficiaries of this money were very selective and certainly did not include me. I was taught hard work and applied that ethic in baseball and to become a successful writer. I was in my 40s before I ever made good money, and felt I let my daughter down when she was a kid, not providing for her as I would have hoped.
But the wealth accumulated virtually without question came about honestly. It was not stolen from anybody. The first rule of capitalism is that a man with $10 million cannot steal $100 million from a man with $10,000. Even if there were favors provided, friendships that were valuable, a man must rise or fall on his own merits in the long run.
“Families are always rising and falling in America,” wrote the great Nathaniel Hawthorne. My own has risen and has fallen. My dad has known suffering and poverty. There were lean times even in the years after I was born. He just persevered and worked hard. Our family has always rallied. We are winners.
Personally, I am very grateful to be born in America and to grow up in California during the state’s golden age. Beyond that, everything I ever attained, from athletics to literary success, came courtesy of my own hard work even though I had an uncle who could, but chose not, to lift his little finger to help me.
I have nothing to apologize for. May God bless America.
Joe Whiteman” is an alias. The author does not wish to reveal private facts about his family.