David Copperfield begins, “I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.”
Five weeks before my eyes opened, father’s eyes closed forever. Sharing as I do this experience, I feel close to David, as did Dickens, who wrote in the preface to the novel, “I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”
By mother’s bed in our New York City apartment hung a photograph of father in military uniform. He had served in the Judge Advocate General’s Department during World War I. I remember his army trunk. In the linen closet I came upon a bottle of bay rum he used as shaving lotion.
A word about mother. In 1919, mother left family, friends and country to come by herself to the United States, traveling as a refugee from the Russian Revolution on a Nansen passport. (Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and diplomat, issued passports to stateless persons before, during and after World War I.) At age 16, mother lost her country. At age 33, she became a widow after seven years of marriage. Father was 45 when he died. My sister was two. Mother never remarried.
On occasion, I would be taken by mother to visit Charles C. Burlingham, a distinguished lawyer whose clients included the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, and a towering civic leader who played a major role in the election of Fioriello LaGuardia as mayor of New York.
Father practiced maritime law at the Burlingham firm and had been made a partner just before his death. He worked very hard, providing financial assistance to his parents, sisters and brother in Kentucky, as well as supporting his family in New York.
CCB, as he was called, helped mother with father’s burial arrangements. Father, now joined by mother, is buried in Valhalla, N.Y., not far from the Burlingham family plot and near—this would have pleased mother—the burial place of Rachmaninoff.
Mr. Burlingham would talk to me about father, but I retained little from these exchanges. I was very young and he was in his 80′s—he lived to be 101—and in these pre-hearing aid days, used an earhorn. Communication was not easy.
I had scraps of information about father, but in reality knew almost nothing about him. I should have pressed mother for more information, or she should have volunteered it, but she was busy earning a living to support her young family and may not have wanted to relive two happy periods in her life—childhood and marriage—marred by tragic endings, exile and widowhood.
Four years ago I learned with interest of a book about to be published on Mr. Burlingham’s life, “CCB: The Life and Century of Charles C. Burlingham, New York’s First Citizen, 1858-1959,” by George Martin (Hill and Wang, 2005). I reviewed the book for the New York Law Journal.
And then an interesting thing happened. A former member of the Burlingham firm, who had seen the review, sent me a two-page memorandum prepared by a lawyer at the firm following father’s death on Dec. 3, 1936.
From the memorandum I learn for the first time the date and place of father’s birth: May 29, 1891, in Godman, Kentucky. (Albert Camus’s father died in France during World War I when Camus was a young child living in Algiers. Only decades later did he learn the date of his father’s birth. In his book, “The First Man,” Camus concludes, with deep regret, that he can never know his father, the first man in his life.)
I learn that father attended Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Like many talented and ambitious young American southerners in the early 20th century, father came north to study, in his case, at Harvard Law School, and then to practice law in New York City.
I learn that as a lawyer father was considered by his colleagues “thorough, resourceful and tenacious, yet always fair and courteous to his opponents,” and that in discussions he “displayed a liberal temper and freedom from bias.”
I learn that in connection with insurance litigation involving the authenticity of paintings, father made an exhaustive study of the works of Leonardo da Vinci and other old masters, visiting European galleries and consulting art experts. Now I understood why our living room bookshelves were filled with art books, many on Leonardo.
Father had met mother in New York City at the Foreign Policy Association where she worked after completing her undergraduate studies at Radcliffe; her master’s at Yale, and her doctorate at Harvard in international relations. The organization had been created in 1918 to inform Americans on foreign policy issues following the entry of the United States into World War I.
Father shared mother’s deep interest in foreign affairs. Together they “traveled extensively in Europe, studying political and economic conditions.” (I do remember mother telling me that she spent part of their honeymoon sitting in cafes in Trieste reading newspapers while father attended to a maritime accident in the harbor.)
Unlike my classmates, I had a very modern upbringing like many of today’s children who live in single-parent households with a working mother. This meant I saw far less of my mother. Still, she was my greatest teacher, introducing me to an exciting, wide-ranging view of life and the world, her spending priority for the family being education, including that most delightful branch of learning, travel.
Though knowing very little about the legal profession, and without giving much thought to the matter, I followed in my father’s footsteps, attending law school and then practicing maritime law.
It did not take long for me to realize that my contribution to the world of commerce was going to be nil; that the work I was doing went against my grain. And so I sought out, and was fortunate to find within the legal profession, positions that played to my interests and strengths.
As I look back over the years, a part of me feels shame for not having learned more about my father, the man whose name I bear.
And a part of me questions proclaiming this shame. Here, at least, I can invoke the words of Montaigne: “Many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send most faithful friends to a bookseller’s shop….”
But I have, over the past four years, come to learn more about father than I knew before. What has emerged are the outlines of an admirable human being.
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.