Courtship Rituals in the ’50s

The Clan Hanrahan 1955

After nine years wrestling with the devil and myself in the Society of Jesus, I now was back, once again a layman, exactly where I had begun, in an apartment in a remote corner of the Bronx. It was not a good time, that winter of ’55. Pelham Bay was as little conducive to optimistic thought as Cartesian Stockholm, and I was not exactly buoyed by the vision of my contemporaries ascending and descending, every morning and evening, the elevated subway platform, like angels on Jacob’s ladder. They obviously had jobs, some gainful purpose that drew them to Manhattan for a day of regular and dignified labor in business suits. I felt so low that I wished I was one of their number, that I worked in the Graybar Building and had a vinyl attaché case of my own.

But I didn’t, and so I indulged myself. After watching TV movies far into the empty Bronx night, I slept almost to lunchtime on a Castro Convertible in my parents’ living room where the Sacred Heart regarded me with a pained expression from the wall. My parents said nothing, however, now apparently content that their grown son spend the rest of his life in that supine pose in their living room.

I might still be lying on my back in that Bronx apartment, I sometimes think, if I had not been saved by others more compassionate and understanding than I could ever have been under the same circumstances. My own heart was numbed in the cloister, in the same place where charity was urged on me almost every day for nine years. Whatever its supernatural origins or intent, charity was the great softener of life in a religious community. It helped us become accustomed to one another, to live in unimaginably close quarters not merely with reserve and a willingness to share, but in the end with a genuine respect for one another.

What diminished our Christian charity was our Jesuit comradeship. The crisis of otherness passed early on in our lives together; we became close, amicable, comradely. We discarded charity toward one another because we no longer had any need of it: we had become something better, friends. And there were as yet no others in our lives on whom we might bestow that charity instead. The future beneficiaries of our Christian love, the poor, the needy, the sinner, were still infinitely remote from our cloistered training grounds.

I’m not entirely sure I would have had anything to give had I survived long enough as a Jesuit to go into the World and put myself at the disposal of the Faithful, to make their needs my own. But there was no indication that the Jesuits were ever going to ask that of me. I was going to be a teacher, a university professor, the omens said, and gladly would I have taught, as I do today, and likely for the same not very spiritual reasons: because it interests and pleases me to do so. The Jesuit system seemed to suggest that I and most of the others would save souls by giving instruction in Aristotle and Horace and Keats. I never questioned the connection; I willingly conceded the Jesuits the end because I so loved the means.

Then in the short space of a few months the whole structure came tumbling down. The former professional celibate discovered that he could now fornicate and adulterate without qualm, if also without a great deal of joyful enthusiasm. And if poverty meant dependence, well then my parents would just have to take over the reins handed them by the Society of Jesus. Obedience, the last of the great triad of vows of the religious life, became simply moot. At twenty-seven I was no longer giving or receiving orders except to and from myself, and they were confused and conflicting.

I went to Mass occasionally at first and then stopped altogether until the day I got married. Confession just disappeared; though I was still willing to make an intellectual argument for virtue, particularly in others, I could hardly conceive of sin, particularly in myself. Of charity I thought not at all. I lay on my parents’ couch and thought only on myself, and not very happily.

Old friends nosed cautiously closer, good friends of a distant adolescence with some of whom I discovered I still had ties, not robust Jesuit bonds thickened by years and years of constantly shared experience, but something more tentative and perhaps even warmer. The World, as it turned out, was not quite so terrified of sharing the personal as was the Society of Jesus. I sat over drinks and listened to fragments and shards of my old friends’ lives, which struck me as happy or unhappy, prosperous or troubled, but never trivial or without value. In some mysterious sense I did not yet understand, these ordinary Christians, “Externs” as the Jesuits called them, seemed to be holding the universe together while I had been indulging myself in the cloister with poets, philosophers and a twice-daily examination of conscience.

And now they were holding me together. I could feel them gently closing in on me like solicitous members of an animal pack, nudging me back into life and process and society. They took me into their own lives, carried me on their social rounds, sustained and interested me without regard to their own time and, often, their own expense. Tabs were quietly picked up, on earth and in heaven.

“I know this fantastic girl,” Joe Santo said. “She lives on 83rd Street. You’ve got to meet her.”

No, I was not being fixed up, though I was sure Joe would have done that as well, if I had asked. But not with Margaret Mary Hanrahan. What Joe had in mind was that I should look and admire and congratulate him on his own extraordinary good fortune in the matter of Miss Hanrahan. Extraordinary was hardly the word to describe the dimensions of Joe’s good fortune. My pious and plain looking Sicilian friend from Regis, whose only virtues were a perfect purity of heart and goodness of soul, had lucked out on some cosmic level only rarely experienced by ordinary mortals and never by Sicilians.

We met, Margaret Mary and Joe and I, one evening at her apartment on East 83rd Street. Those were formal, even courtly days in the mid-50s and so there was even a social pretext. Miss Hanrahan had a roommate, one Theresa Foley, and the four of us were scheduled to go to the movies together. Everybody is a little vague on Theresa: she may or may not have been a redhead, tall or short, plump or thin. Whatever her appearance, Theresa Foley had no speaking role that evening, nor ever thereafter. La Diva Hanrahan, once installed center stage in the living room, was little inclined to allow the chorus to sing even a modest canzonetta, nor would her rapt audience have it otherwise.

Margaret Mary Hanrahan had features delicately chiseled in high relief out of alabaster –her cheek bones were a health hazard to passers-by and hateful to the rest of womankind– crowned with blond hair as long and as fine as silk filament, and then lowered by a generous Creator onto a torso of quite astonishing perfection. Her breasts may have been a trifle small for the over-fastidious, but the hips and the thighs were there, and her long legs extended gracefully and sinuously from their home base in Yorkville to somewhere near the Harlem River. Saint Patsy or Saint Nunzie or whoever it is the Sicilians pray to on Palm Sunday had really delivered the goods for Joe Santo.

We chatted easily that first evening, or rather Margaret Mary chatted easily while Joe was lost in chaste admiration and his hungry friend Frank from the Bronx picnicked silently on Hanrahan cheekbone and thigh. The patient Theresa waited quietly on the sidelines. She had been booked onto so many flights that never got off the ground that she was content to sit there with her seatbelt buckled or else rise and serve drinks while we taxied around the runway.

I cannot recollect what we did on that occasion, possibly nothing, but it was a smashing evening, we all agreed. Joe was delighted that his old friend approved of his beloved, and Theresa allowed, on absolutely no grounds whatsoever, that she had never had a better time. Margaret Mary and the alleged friend nodded, yes, yes, they must all four of them do this again. But what both Margaret Mary and that friend had independently concluded was something quite different: Joe and Theresa Foley would have to go.

Joe had, for all his good fortune, a problem; his job as a draftsman kept him tied down for long stretches of time in Wayne and Dumont and other remote Jersey hamlets. I suffered no such occupational disability. I was still drifting around in a post-Jesuit haze, unwilling to return to school and as yet incapable of work. So I was free to admire Margaret Mary and exclaim at Joe Santo’s good fortune over long lunches with the lady herself.

It was all so delicate. Never did I slip a ski under Mr. Santo; never did Margaret Mary give Joe so much as the slightest perceptible push. All I knew was that Joe Santo went gliding off downhill at a very rapid rate and soon disappeared into the lower valleys to contemplate in private the vagaries of good fortune and Sicilian theology. She was now mine.

Not exactly: I was now hers. Margaret Mary never gave herself to anyone; she merely accepted due services from her courtiers, whose chief I now was. I dined and danced her within my very modest means. She permitted herself to be kissed and fondled with a kind of graceful ease, but well within the same chaste parameters that suited Joe Santo so well. I entertained her with richly embroidered tales of my career as a Jesuit and she seemed to be attending. But she wasn’t. Not really. I had merely penetrated the Lesser Mysteries –her attention, assuredly not her loins– and now I was judged ready for the Greater. These lay not in New York, however, but somewhere out on Long Island, at a place called Port Washington. She and Joe had often spoken of Port Washington and of a great number of people with vaguely similar names who lived there. In my folly I did not understand; I was transfixed by her cheekbones and otherwise occupied in polishing Joe’s skis.

“Why don’t we drive out to Port Washington?”

Why not indeed? What else was a courtier for? At her direction we stopped before a very large and slightly dilapidated house somewhere on the north shore of Long Island. A tough little Turk of about seven raced out and assertively seated himself in the back seat of the car.

“Frank, this is Joseph. Joe always took him to Carvel’s.”

OK. If Joe could hack it, so could I.

The redoubtable Joseph emerged from the Carvel with a double fistful of ice cream cones topped with sprinkles and nuts.

“That’s eight dollars, dear.”

That was indeed six dollars, the first of many. By September I was growling “Tom Carvel, you wretch, I made you!”

“The little nipper has a big appetite.”

“Don’t be silly, Frank. We can’t go back without ice cream for the rest.”

The “rest” were waiting on their porch for theirs, the entire Clan Hanrahan assembled to receive the burnt offerings that were their due. The headcount was never easy in that house because of the continuous presence of retainers, admirers and body servants, but there may have been nine or maybe even eleven in that brood, each begotten upon his sexy, fertile and ferocious Colleen Dewhurst of a wife during Cap’n Hanrahan’s well-spaced shore leaves. Hanrahan Père was nothing if not exact. He kept propagating beauteous females out of his perfect hazel-eyed matrix until he got it exactly right with the nymphet Laura, all the while working, with considerably less skill and interest, it seemed, on the male line: Kevin, Francis, Donald and the terrible Joseph. Satisfied or exhausted, the Ancient Mariner decamped to seas unknown.

The cones were distributed –Joseph had neglected to get one for his still anonymous benefactor– and I was introduced. “Frank, this is Joan and this is Bridget and this is Kathy and this…” Christ they were gorgeous, I thought, every last one of them. “…and this is Laura, she’s eleven, and this is mother.” At once I was seized with a sexual passion for both Laura and mother, together or singly or in whatever order suited their convenience and tastes.

Captain Hanrahan, whom I never met and who was never discussed under that roof except by the most violent and terrible innuendo, had populated the house but had neglected to furnish it, except for an immense coffee pot that was kept, like their expectations, at an eternal boil. I never saw food in the house either; they apparently lived entirely off take-out and the good-will offerings of their admirers, courtiers and the dull and docile husbands the older Hanrahan girls had coolly consented to take hostage to the family. Or had those pitiful spouses all bought into my own wild and improbable expectation of making mother?

I was thrown onto a mattress on the floor and commanded to tell Joseph a story.

“Something amusing happened to me in the Novitiate once, even before you were born, Joseph…”

“Cissy, I don’t like your new friend,” said the winning Joseph. “Where’s Joe?”

“Joe’s dead, Joseph,” I said, tweaking the tot’s ear.

It was my last polite opportunity to say anything. Instead they told me, like some endless and confusing Sigrid Undset saga in Norse, of the Life and Hard Times of the Clan Hanrahan. It was epic in the telling, pathetic in the hearing but pointedly simple in its moral: all men are shits, explicitly Captain Hanrahan, and all the others by attribution. Yes indeed, said their husbands, sons and self-projected lover.

Soon I could navigate the milk run between East 83rd Street and Port Washington with the unconscious ease of a subway motorman. Both Carvel’s and Joseph grew fat on my benevolence, and the back seat of my father’s car soon took on the look and air of a dairy farm. I was greeted and looked at and then ignored or asked to empty the coffee grounds into the garbage can of the people next door. I had tried to join myself to a star and instead was absorbed into a galaxy where I served, like all the others of my sort, as a kind of drone asteroid. And back in the city I was making very slow progress swimming upstream against the angry roil of Margaret Mary’s father-riveted chastity.

Margaret Mary was, if nothing else, a gentleman and so we never discussed how much headway Joe had made against that same mighty torrent of the River Oedipus. But what was clear was that my predecessor had been more useful in achieving a far more urgent, though equally implausible project, grooming the Hanrahan lads for fame and riches, or at least the possibility of a job. Joe had taught Kevin and Francis the rudiments of draftsmanship; they would make it big in ducts, he assured them. My own glands were, alas, ductless. Now if they wanted to learn frond-plaiting or hermeneutics or the occasional enthymeme…

Margaret Mary was the engine that drove that unruly machine. Every sinew and every ounce of her energy was bent on moving them all toward the Holy Grail, a mystical kind of success which she had not yet fleshed out in her imagination but which she and they felt they all deserved. My  conversations with her might start anywhere, on her thigh, for instance, but they inevitable ended up on the grace and elegance of Bridget or the pure and unspoiled intelligence of Kevin. That Bridget was already married to an inconsequential Irish lout and that Kevin bid fair to become another such never troubled her absolute faith in her family. And all the while I was still engaged with her white, untouchable thigh.

Gently though, and with no great urgency. Margaret Mary was her own appeal, and besides, with my very limited vision of how the World and that other, intriguing half of its population worked, I never thought she would yield to my sexual importuning. I didn’t so much lust after Margaret Mary as wonder at her and that quite incredible household in Port Washington. As an only child, I knew nothing of families, and the Hanrahans were my primer, an experience not unlike studying mathematics with Einstein or weaving at the loom of Penelope.

It was all too good to keep secret at any rate.

“Ed, I know this fantastic girl. She lives on 83rd Street. You’ve got to meet her.”

What was there about Margaret Mary Hanrahan that prompted such repetitive outbursts of charity?

An evening was arranged, at the same 83rd Street playhouse as before, except the non-speaking role of Theresa was now played by someone called Betty. I sang a tolerable version of Joe that evening, a trifle spinto in the upper registers perhaps, but I had the words and music down quite pat. Margaret Mary was never in better form, however. She soared up along the familiar narrative line with the full force of her dramatic soprano; she descended into pathos with careless conviction; she handled the difficult aria “Ma dopo questo, chi?” with ease and understanding. And Betty, the critics agreed, performed her small stage business of the drinks with competence and a quite self-effacing charm.

Edward Peter Fitzsimmons was enchanted, not of course by the smooth ensemble playing, but by La Stupenda herself, brilliantly blond, once again center stage in her own living room. He returned at once to his “digs,” as he preferred to call his Bronx apartment, took cloth and wax from his closet and straightway fell to polishing my skis. He was so industrious at his work that within a month I was already drifting slowly downhill, while Ed and Margaret Mary were lunching, I imagined, at the Tavern on the Green. But this time there was an interesting variation. I was not dispatched to oblivion.  The Infanta Kathy Hanrahan was quietly substituted for the docile Ellen, and so while Edward was now quite openly courting Margaret Mary, I found myself escorting the younger Miss Hanrahan.

In the end, I surrendered as gracefully as Joe had. The fraternity of mountaineers was no more professional than we in yielding up that unconquerable Everest to the next brave soul hopeful enough or foolhardy enough to don pitons and try to scale that slippery and untouched peak. Or perhaps I did not yield at all. It was equally likely that I was sent down the mountain, silently discharged from my modest clientage to the Clan Hanrahan on the perfectly appropriate grounds that I was quite unfit to be trusted with the heavy task of their salvation. I was a voyeur, Margaret Mary had guessed, and voyeurs never pull their own weight, much less that of an entire family whose only intent was to be transported from their present low state to some distant and glorious highland.

But the terms of my discharge were not entirely satisfactory. Margaret Mary may have fancied Edward –actually she did fancy Edward, and a little too enthusiastically, I thought– but now I had the dark suspicion that I was being assigned to Kathy Hanrahan on the expectation that I might be just crazy enough to marry her and take her with me to whatever dim but doubtless respectable career the Hanrahans’ gods were planning for me.

It didn’t quite work out, as nothing ever did in that star-crossed universe. Kathy was stunning but dull, and her rock-bound chastity, mindless even by Hanrahan standards, seemed to me as cold and unending as an Arctic night. This was going to be no fun at all, I rapidly concluded, and I drifted off and out. I was so unnerved and exhausted that I even began looking for a job, anything to immunize me against Hanrahan fever and save me from disappearing forever into that household in Port Washington.

Ed nearly made it and I wished he had since I owed a great deal to Edward Peter Fitzsimmons, the Bronx dandy who almost persuaded me to wear an ascot in high school just to test the dress code on ties, and who had by 1955 converted himself into a perfect simulacrum of a young and extravagant English gentleman—Oscar Wilde writ small–though with just enough Irish self-mockery to prevent the balloon and himself from bursting. If Joe Santo’s high minded cultivation of chastity put my own petty Jesuit version of that virtue to shame, Ed Fitzsimmons showed more generosity of spirit every single day of his life than I had in my entire nine years of professional pursuit of charity. And he saved my life, by the simple and unheroic gesture of standing next to his uncertainly tottering friend and saying “I am here.” He took me and restored me to myself.

Ed’s wooing of Margaret Mary followed traditional lines, a trifle conservative perhaps, but unusually successful. He lavishly dosed his intended with that day’s principal aphrodisiac, Frank Sinatra albums. He took her to Broadway plays, jazz clubs in the Village and very late suppers at fish joints only he knew about on the Brooklyn waterfront. Mother Hanrahan received elaborate cosmetics and cute little Laura a cute little dress –myself, I would have reversed the gifts, but it was your play, Ed, not mine– and his rakish charm, his classy good looks, and his perfectly feigned indulgence of Joseph almost got Our Lady of 83rd Street to the altar rail. But she couldn’t or she wouldn’t jump. She never did, with him or with anyone else, alas.

Margaret Mary Hanrahan received the last rites of the Church from the Reverend Joseph LaBella, S.J. and passed quietly away at Mother Cabrini Hospital on June 13, 1967. Joe Santo was present, as was Ed Fitzsimmons and most members of the Clan Hanrahan. Like the Captain, I was out of the country.

I was sorry she died. Not sad really, because her death was so remote and unlikely –no one dies of cerebral thrombosis at thirty-eight– that now its only reality is factual: Margaret Mary Hanrahan is no more. I was consoled by the received version of her passing, that she died in the arms of her first true love, Joe Santo. But everything about her life was so apocryphal, so fretted with wishful thinking, that she may well have breathed her last in the frozen food section of an East Side D’Agostino’s or in a copy editing class at the New School.

There is now a lot of pooled experience on Margaret Mary Hanrahan. The sages disagree on details,  but there is a consensus of sorts. Margaret Mary was pushing, not pulling, that doomed train of goddesses and misfits. She would be, by her own accounting, the last of them to enter Valhalla, and not until the toothsome Laura had married a millionaire and Joseph, the least of his brethren, had installed his first golden duct would she consent to take her rest in bed and bower. It was a noble but impossible task she set herself, and a merciful God relieved her of her burden, in the prayerful arms of Joe Santo.

Curtain. As an extra I had no right to be on stage for the final scene and I was not. I had earlier auditioned for a leading man role and was found unsuitable. I was too remote, too engaged in my own lines ever to play theirs. My place was in the audience where I could follow the Hanrahan melodrama as it unfolded in this or some other part of the forest, weep an occasional sentimental tear and applaud the bravura performance of a family caught up in its own too intense version of life. Theirs, but alas, not mine.

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