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2/18/10

Family Values - Part 1 (From Cousin Ann to Prince Knud)



My cousin Ann and I were the same age, but we grew up in very different environments. My mother's four husbands ranged from my father, who abandoned her before I had my first birthday, to a loving self-made millionaire, and two neer-do-wells to whom she could have been a mother. In between there were the also-rans, who included a Danish matinee idol who starred in horrendous but popular movies, the star tenor of the Danish Royal Opera, and an assortment of British and American military officers. Needless to say, I had a chameleonic upbringing that in many ways compensated me for having only spent a total of five years in school.

Ann, on the other hand, grew up in Bix Manor, her grandparents' well-servanted (my word) stately home in Henley. There, she saw more of her nanny than she did of her mother. I recall visiting Bix Manor in my childhood and finding it odd that Ann's only contact with Aunt Kathleen was the quick kiss on the cheek before bedtime. Ann had everything a child could possibly wish for, except love. When the time came for her to leave the nest, she demonstratively turned her back on the privileged childhood I use to envy, and rebelled against her parents by eloping to France with a miserable, penniless cad of a Canadian musician. It was not an act of love, it was revenge.
My cousin Ann and I at Bix Manor, Henley-On-Thames - August 1933

Ann was rarely mentioned in the mid-Sixties, when I paid Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Christian a couple of visits at their house in Nettlebed. I was in my post-WBAI period, making trans-Atlantic commutes to the BBC in London. They were a gracious couple and the house reflected my aunt's socially correct upbringing—every room was camera ready and the scent of fresh-cut flowers made smooth transitions from the lovely garden.

I visited the house again in the late Seventies. My aunt and uncle had died a few years before and Ann, leaving a trail of broken love affairs in her wake, had made it back. Now she lived alone in that beautiful house, but the beauty lingered only in my memory as I looked around at a home blighted by deliberate neglect. It now had the look Dickens gave poor Mrs. Faversham's dining room in Great Expectations. The sun no longer streamed through the windows and lace curtains, the fragrance of flowers had turned to the fetor of decay, but nothing had been moved. Camilla, our Great Grandmother still gazed down from the huge painting that hung just beyond the bend of the wide staircase, and other family members stared from other walls, silent witnesses to Ann's ongoing revolt. The library's books were rotting away, many fine volumes among them, and my Aunt Kathleen's rose garden was a dried-up mess. I recalled how she cut a rose each morning and pinned it to my Uncle Christian's lapel before he took off for London. "That was so sweet and it stayed with me through the years," I told Ann. "It was all a charade, my dear," she said, flicking into the air the ashes from her cigarette, "Mommy was a lesbian."

Ann's father, my Uncle Christian, was one of my grandparents' five children, the youngest being my mother, Yvonne. That's the name she preferred out of the many she had to choose from. In 1961, when I sought citizenship, the application asked for "Mother's full name," so I turned the form 180° to the left and wrote: Yvonne Karen Margrethe Anna Christina Augusta Broberg. Well, there had been much discussion in 1913, when a name had to be decided upon—both my grandparents liked Yvonne, but suppose she married an Olsen or Hansen? Any typical Danish name would clash with Yvonne, so they came up with Anna, Karen and Margarethe as acceptable alternatives. August or Augusta was simply mandatory, every family member on my grandfather's side was saddled with that one (luckily, I became an exception).

My great grandparents were also ambitious when it came to procreation. They named their children in alphabetical order, intending to get as close to Z as possible. They stopped at F....hmmmm.

Christiern (my grandfather), Bodild, Anna, Dorrit (Dodo), and Edwin

None of the five children settled down in Denmark. Uncle Christian married the aforementioned Kathleen Cousins, the daughter of a well-to-do Fleet Street newspaperman, Uncle Torben married my Aunt Amanda in Santo Domingo, where he raised a family and lived until his recent death, Uncle George—the youngest boy—departed abruptly for New York in 1922, when he was 19. My mother never received an explanation for his early departure, although she often asked about it. She was only 9 at the time but, being the youngest they were very close.

Uncle George loved cars
Mother finally got the answer in the late 1940s, when I came across a box of old letters and found a particularly interesting one addressed to my grandfather from Prince George of Greece. It was written in 1922, shortly after Uncle George (his Godson) left for the U.S. as a crew member on the S/S Hellig Olav. As so often was the case when Grandfather and the Prince corresponded, the letter was essentially about a loan my grandfather had either received or requested, but this time there was also a line that answered my mother's old question. "Dear Christian," wrote the Prince, "don't you think your decision to send George to America was rash? After all, syphilis is not what it used to be."

Future Tsar Nicholas and his cousin,  Prince George
Well, that settled that question. As things turned out, Uncle George overcame that obstacle, married twice, raised a couple of families, and lived to a ripe old age. More about him later. George, who was also Prince of Denmark, had, around 1900, secured for my grandfather a prestigious position on the island of Crete, where he himself was High Commissioner. This is where my uncles Christian and George were born.  The Prince is perhaps best known for having saved the life of his cousin Nicholas from an attempted assassination during a visit to Japan. Nicholas, of course, went on to become Tsar of Russia and the victim of a more memorable and successful assassination.

Aunt Flavie and Mother in Iceland with Prince
Knud and two Icelandic gentlemen. 1933
My Aunt Flavie was named after a young black lady whom my grandfather became enamored with while my family lived in the West Indies. She eventually married a Commander Hudson, a wonderful British Royal Navy skipper, and settled in England, but not before having a lengthy fling with Crown Prince Knud of Denmark. He was a rather eccentric, somewhat rebellious man, which is probably why his younger brother, Frederik, was given the gig when the time came to succeed their father, King Christian X.

I was a baby when Aunt Flavie and Knud were carrying on their affair, and there were times when they babysat for my mother.  Many years later, in the late '40s, my mother, grandparents and I were invited by Knud for lunch aboard Dannebrog, the royal yacht.  In the course of the lunch, Knud said, "Yvonne, when am I to give Gunnar his watch?" Mother laughed and said she hoped that day would never come. (I was known by my middle name, Gunnar, until 1954).

Later, she explained to me that Knud had vowed to give me an inscribed, double-capped gold watch the first time I caught syphilis—there was no first time. Well, I told you he was peculiar. I have several of his letters and cards to my grandmother, where he almost always addressed her as "mother-in-law." Here's one of them.

I took this photo of the royal yacht, Dannebrog, in the summer of 1961


When his chicken caught diphtheria and wild hogs trampled down his young coffee plants, my Grandfather decided to leave Santo Domingo, where he had taken the family to live, and return to Denmark. My Uncle Torben, the most sensible of the five children, had a decent menial job in a local sugar factory, so he decided to stay behind. He worked his way up to the top position and in 1930 married a beautiful young lady from Mallorca, Amanda Forteza, whose father was a Puerto Rican merchant.

This is where I'll leave it for now. I hope this isn't too boring, because there are further installments and revelations. Do you wonder why I religiously watch The Young and the Restless every day, and why it in some ways stirs up old memories?

Stay tuned...



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