Tuesday, June 30, 2009
His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament:
I am feeling pretty sad, because it looks like I won't be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I'm just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.. I know if you were here my troubles would be over.. I know you would be happy to dig the plot for me, like in the old days.
A few days later he received a letter from his son.
Don't dig up that garden. That's where the bodies are buried.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That's the best I could do under the circumstances.
Love you, Vinnie
Monday, June 29, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Posted: 18 Jun 2009 06:22 AM PDT
“Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there.”
–Shakespeare, King Lear, III.iv.
While untroubled souls seek refuge from the storm, Lear seeks refuge right out in the open heart of it: “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” When we awake to the flash of lightning and crash of nearby thunder, perhaps in an unfamiliar room far from home, we may experience a peculiarly heightened sense of comfort. However distracted, dislocated, or out of sorts, our perspective with regard to our internal state is shifted by the fury of the heavens. If nothing else, in our upset state we may feel, for once, that we are at least matched by the cosmic clamor: shudder for shudder, it’s as if we and the heavens were each other’s mirror. There is a companionship in this, a sense of tangible reciprocity. Calm weather, by comparison, is cold and existentially heartless from the perspective of a soul in any kind of turmoil: it stands as a reminder that the heavens are indifferent to us, that there is no correspondence, no relation.
If we are calm ourselves, the raging weather outside only heightens our snug sense of comfort. We certainly feel no obligation to accompany the heavens in their fury–but we are possessed not by indifference, but by gratitude: our recognition of the modest comforts of this unfamiliar room far from home is heightened, the lightning’s white flashes etch humble details in memory.
Memory links to memory: this morning’s Georgetown storm carries me back to storms in other faraway places, even to storms of childhood. I can still smell the summer rain coming across the dry plains of Castilla, can still remember showering naked in the night beneath the falling sky of Vieques, hunkering in a dry spot beneath a boulder in the Laguna Salada wilderness.
The heavens do not mirror the mind’s tossings and tempests with anything like sufficient frequency. Our flight, we may feel, does lie “toward the raging sea”–that’s the anxiety of our mortality–and more often than not we have no bear to turn to face instead, but only the plodding calm of indifferent days, uncounted and unremembered. We do well, then, perhaps, to take a lesson from these cosmic proportions and trust that the raging sea ahead is more likely an expanse of unremarkable calm into which all of our own tempests will subside. Embrace, then, every bit of the tossing–inside or out–it is the thunder crash and lightning of our brief vitality.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Posted: 04 Jun 2009 08:56 AM PDT
Next on the top shelf: The Poetical Works of Chaucer, edited by F.W. Robinson and published by the Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston in 1933. My father gave this volume to me when I was in college, though it’s not the book I used there.
My memory retains the first several lines of the General Prologue, and my mouth still forms the sounds of this Middle English (as rendered on the tapes I studied in my college Chaucer class). Foreign and familiar: Chaucer’s stories and language are traces of a lost world. I remember, particularly, the “verray, parfit gentil knyght” who “wered a gypon al bismotered with his habergeon.” Bismotered is the word, of all of Chaucer, that has stuck with me…along with its subversive tainting of this image of chivalric perfection. Bismotered. I say it to myself with fair regularity…it’s become part of my private lexicon, the language that I speak in my head and that no other understands completely.
An important aspect of wholeness is the dream of perfect understanding: we may yearn for some recognition of our every lilt and nuance of personal significance. We may dream of one who will make us whole, who will get us completely, and not be deaf or uncomprehending in the face of our private vocabularies, the words we repeat to ourselves, mantra-like, as we shape our days.
Chaucer’s pilgrims, all pilgrims, travel in pursuit of this wholeness. In this yearning for completion, for comprehension, we find that we are already one. All languages, ancient and emergent, are the tentacles of our feeling for completion.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Well, that’s $49 billion in today’s currency, based on compounded interest at seven percent.
What General Motors actually paid my great-grandfather, Louis Henry Perlman, was $3 million for his invention, at a time before there was any income tax.
Had Louis taken the money and left it in the bank (a stable, reliable one, at that) it would have propelled his heirs – me included – into the stratosphere of wealth shared by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. $49 billion is a lot of cash.
The invention that made Louis Henry Perlman wealthy?
Believe it or not: the spare tire.
Or the “demountable rim for motor-car wheels,” as it was called in 1906, when my great-grandfather filed his application with the US Patent Office.
Until Louis Perlman invented the spare tire, early motorists had to pry a punctured, deflated tire off the fixed rim of a car wheel, replacing it with a new pneumatic tube. They then had to huff and puff, and inflate the new tire on the spot. The whole process was laborious and dirty.
Louis Henry Perlman, inventor, journalist, photographer – and my great-grandfather.
Perlman’s invention permitted motorists to carry a spare rim on their car, with tire affixed and already inflated. My great-grandfather’s invention enabled drivers, for the first-time ever, to take the wheel off the axle by removing a few bolts. How ingenious. How simple. How quickly stolen by several manufacturing companies. More about this saga in a minute. First, the family lore.
Louis Perlman was a kindly man, according to stories my mother told. But also an eccentric man, a wealthy man, and in the end, a destitute man.
Louis H. Perlman, my mother, Anne, on the left, and her sister, Grace, at Montrose, NY, circa 1925 or 1926.
I was inculcated with family lore about Louis Perlman whenever we visited the property in Montrose NY, which he had owned and which my grandfather maintained through the 1960s.
Montrose was a wooded, 55-acre estate which Perlman bought from former Secretary of State William Seward’s family with the cash that he made selling his demountable rim to General Motors in 1904. My family said that they first put it on their car, called a Welch, in 1906.
In addition to getting $3 million in un-taxed cash and GM stock, Perlman was also promised one new GM car each year for the rest of his life, without having to return any of the previous year’s cars.
I vividly recall the barn extension at Montrose, which workmen added to annually, to cover each new car, which my great-grandfather was given. There were dozens of one-year-driven models, lined up side by side, in the long barn extension, with an overhanging roof to keep the cars dry and clean.
My mother (left) and her older sister, Grace, at Montrose, NY, in front of one of their grandfather's GM cars.
Along the way, family lore seems to have covered up some of Perlman’s strengths and weaknesses, as evidenced by some recently discovered historical material.
Lore may also have mis-attributed the source of Perlman’s wealth. It may not have come directly from General Motors, as my family said, but there sure as hell was major GM money in Perlman’s life; by 1916, my great-grandfather was president of the Perlman Rim Corporation, capitalized with $10 million of private money.
One of Perlman’s business partners was W. C. Durant, president of General Motors. Although they headquartered Perlman Rim Corp. in New York, the firm built the largest – and only exclusive – demountable rim plant in the world, in Jackson, Michigan. The plant, covering five acres, produced 5,000 sets of demountable rims every day, according to an out-of-print Who’s Who of American Industrialists. Enough rims to equip 1.5 million cars annually.
Louis H. Perlman and my mother, Anne, at the family home in Montrose, NY, beside the barn.
Had great-grandfather Perlman just socked the dough away that he made for his heirs, of whom I am one, the family fortune today would dwarf the wealth of many of today’s Forbes-listed billionaires. But fate wasn’t kind to grand-pappy Perlman; he lost most of his wealth in the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing years of the depression and my grandfather was still paying off Louis’ debts in the 1950s, as my mother used to tell me.
But, oh! Was my great-grandfather colorful. Certainly as memorable as a Diamond Jim Brady, or an early Rockefeller, though Perlman’s story, unlike theirs, has been lost in space and time.
Perhaps a few highlights of his career need to be added here, simply to set the record straight. (And to tease any would-be movie producers looking for a good story for the Big Screen; be sure to call napaman for the screen rights!)
My great-grandfather was born November 26, 1861, in Kovno, Russia. Louis was one of three children born to Lesser and Celia Perlman. Lesser, his dad, was a rabbi, who deeming it essential to seek a better life for his family, emigrated to America in 1862, several years ahead of the rest of the family.
Once landing in the US, Lesser moved across the face of the nation, a virtual serial spiritual seeker. He found or started new congregations in Cincinnati, then in St. Louis and then in Charleston, SC. Within two years Lesser had saved enough funds to bring his family to America. They moved to Utica, NY, where Lesser found a newer, larger congregation.
In his father’s snaking spiritual shadow, young Louis also lived in Providence, RI and New York City.
The younger Perlman, my future great-grandfather, completed his elementary education at Christie Street Public School No. 7 at the age of 15 and then enrolled in the College of the City of New York, where he majored in stenography, bookkeeping and accounting.
Perlman’s skills in stenography led him to a career in journalism and photography (I appear to have his journalist’s DNA and his entrepreneurial spirit… just not his money…).
Perlman was a co-founder of the Pictorial Associated Press, the first-ever agency to syndicate images and photos to newspapers across the country. My great-grandfather even took and sold the first half-tone illustration ever published in the New York Sun – a portrait of congressman Holman of Indiana.
While the idea of a demountable rim came quickly to my great-grandfather, the financial windfall from it did not. Family lore has it that Perlman got his cash up front from GM in one fell swoop. According to records, which have recently come to light, this was not the case.
In fact, Perlman had to litigate and scrape his way through appellate courts for years to get what was rightfully his from the start.
Although Perlman’s patent application for the demountable rim was dated May 21, 1906, a number of manufacturing firms began to infringe on the application. Records indicate that Perlman was (you should pardon the term) tireless in his pursuit of justice; he defended his patent application in court after court and after seven long, wearying years, at the appeals circuit level, he was finally granted, on February 4, 1913, US Patent 1,052,270 for “the demountable automobile rim.”
In October of the same year, after months of trying to persuade large manufacturers who were making demountable rims, and infringing on his patent rights, granddaddy Perlman sued the Standard Welding Company of Cleveland, Ohio, the nation’s leading maker of demountable rims in the US District Court of New York.
Back into the courts, Perlman waited for a verdict; it came two years later, in August, 1915, when the court ruled that Standard Welding had indeed infringed on the patent. Standard appealed the case but an appeals court, in 1916, ruled in favor, yet again, of Perlman and ordered Standard Welding to pay my great-grandfather millions of dollars in back royalties.
With his earnings, Perlman decided that it was time to by a suitable, sizable tract of land. He chose Montrose, NY, a tiny hamlet that is actually within the jurisdiction of Cortlandt, a small town located, for those without access to Google Maps, near Croton-on-Hudson, in Westchester County. Now do you picture it?
Montrose had been owned in succession by two Sewards. First, by William H. Seward (1801-1872), who had been Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln. Then by his son, Frederick Seward (1830-1915).
For the record: Seward the Elder was responsible for purchasing Alaska from Russia for $7 million. At the time, the seemingly goofy acquisition was called "Seward's Folly," or "Seward's Icebox."
William Seward, former Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.
Frederick, the son, was a journalist and diplomat. Like his dad, he became politically active and was named Assistant Secretary of State, working under – who else? -- his father. Long live nepotism!
When Seward the Younger died, the estate was put up for sale. Along came my great-grandfather.
According to Wikipedia, the Seward Estate covered 30 acres, though I remember my parents telling me that it was a 55-acre estate. It had a stately, rolling, verdant, manicured front lawn that swaled from the huge main house down to the gray waters of the Hudson River, which lapped at the foot of the property.
The mansion, in which I spent summers with my own cousins and an uncle who was one year older than me, had a large dining room, and an adjacent restaurant-sized kitchen. Oh, and let’s not forget what else it had: that barn out back with the added-on-extensions to cover all of Louis Perlman‘s General Motor cars.
Louis was a reasonably private person and does not appear to have had many close friends. My mother always told the story that before he lost all his money in the Depression, Louis would go to New York City, hire a huge ballroom at the Essex Hotel, and invite upwards of 2,000 people off the street to join him for a festive party in the hotel. These were complete strangers.
I can’t determine whether this is strictly family folklore, but I can attest that it was told to me -- it’s what my family recounted when I was a boy.
Louis went on to lose everything in the stock market crash, and left family, not funds, as his only legacy. He had a daughter, Grace Helen Perlman, who was my mother’s mother, and he had a son, Jesse Burke Perlman, who was an ensign in the US Navy.
I remember my mother recounting stories about Jesse’s skills at playing cards, especially bridge and canasta. About the rest of the family, or Louis’ wife, I know very little.
What any of this has to do with Napa Valley, I haven’t a clue. Except, perhaps, that I am the multi-generational byproduct of Louis Perlman and I live in Napa Valley… and as I have no other place to tell this story, so it will be told here.