South Mountain Road A Daughter's Journey of Discovery

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  • Copyright: 2002-04-26
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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"My mother killed herself on the first day of spring." So begins South Mountain Road, Hesper Anderson's elegant, wrenching memoir of death and deception, family secrets and memories, and of a young girl's trauma of self-discovery. When Hesper Anderson, the daughter of famed Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson (What Price Glory?, Winterset, Key Largo, The Bad Seed), got the phone call informing her that her mother, the beautiful, enigmatic Mab, had committed suicide, she knew that her world would be forever changed. A woman of baffling remoteness and alienating beauty, Mab Anderson had been the dominant figure in her daughter's life. What Hesper did not realize, however, was that beyond the inevitable devastation of loss lay a whole chain of discoveries that would link her irrevocably both to her mother's past and to secrets that would turn her world upside down. Hesper was a shy young girl, insecure and -- to her mind -- inadequate. As a result, she spent much of her childhood adrift, rendered all but invisible by the alienating shadow of her mother, surrounded (but not impressed) by the brilliance and celebrity of her parents' friends and neighbors -- people such as the composer Alan Jay Lerner, cartoonists Bill Mauldin and Milton Caniff, playwright/composer Kurt Weill and Weill's wife, actress Lotte Lenya (who was also Mab's best friend) -- all of whom lived on or near South Mountain Road, in a rural community outside New York City. It was to be expected, then, that when a handsome young author, himself an outsider, brought into the charmed world of South Mountain Road by Maxwell Anderson, showed Hesper special attention, she developed a schoolgirl crush on him. It was an attachment that endured for years and continued to haunt the impressionable young girl to the brink of womanhood and beyond, leading, perhaps inevitably, to an emotional crisis almost as devastating as her mother's death. Hesper was away from South Mountain Road, off at college, when she got the call that her mother was dead. When that call came, Hesper began what was in effect a journey of discovery -- an immersion in the past that revealed unexpected facts about herself, about the world she had grown up in, and most especially about the two people who were her parents. What she discovered in the end was a series of shocking secrets, some terrible truths, and her own broken heart. South Mountain Road is a startlingly personal and beautifully conceived and written story of a young girl's coming of age through the suicide of her mother. Featuring a virtual Who's who of literary celebrities of its time (the late 1930s and 1940s) and place (New York and its environs), it is a remarkably novelistic and delicately wrought memoir of immediacy and grace.


Chapter One

My mother killed herself on the first day of spring. Her crocuses must have been coming up, small green shoots between patches of old snow, as she crossed the driveway for the last time. No other green would have been visible yet. That would come later, in April and May, all the shoots and then flowers of the hyacinths, daffodils and tulips that she'd planted and tended. The forsythia, lilacs and dogwoods that bordered the driveway wouldn't have stirred yet, and her roses around the fishpond would've still been covered in burlap.

I don't know just what it looked like on that last night, because I wasn't there. I don't know if it was raining or if the moon was new or clouded when my mother, in a negligee and mink coat, walked out the glass door, across the flagstones, across the pebbled drive and entered the garage, determined to die this time. It was her eighth try and couldn't be construed as a cry for help because she'd made sure that everyone was away and that she'd have the necessary time. But even though I don't know what the night was like, how dark or how cold, I know what her gardens must have looked like. I'd lived in those seasons all my life and knew, without thinking, when the willows first turned a pale green, when the dogwoods were white and when the berries were red, when the lily of the valley appeared in the woods and when the hazelnuts were ripe.

When my brother called me in North Carolina, I knew that the crocuses would just be coming up at home -- it was that time. I was in my second year of college and doing well, even though my parents had separated the past fall and I'd been the one to save my mother on a couple of those seven earlier tries. I thought it would be my mother calling, as I ran down the dormitory stairs to the phones on the first floor. I was starring in a play, and she was supposed to drive down the next week to see me. I was excited; she and I were making up. We were starting to be friends. I ran into the little room off the hallway where the phones were, happily picked up the receiver and then heard my brother Alan's voice.

"Hep?" he said, using my nickname as he always did, because he was the one who'd given it to me.

"Alan!" I said, surprised. I loved my brother dearly, but he didn't usually call me at college.

"Hep," he said slowly, "your mother died last night, or this morning -- I'm not sure. Lenya found her this morning, in the garage. You have to come home."

"But -- but the play," I said, the shock just beginning to set in.

"I know, honey, I'm sorry. You have to come home. Daddy'll meet you."

"Where's Daddy?"

"He's flying back. He'll meet you."

That's all I remember of the phone call, but I can vividly see the little room in which I was standing, the glass of the phone booth opposite me, the shadows and giggles of the girls in the hallway. The shock was moving all through me in those minutes, numbing parts of me that wouldn't thaw for years.

The next day my father picked me up at La Guardia Airport. There was a crowd around our car -- reporters and flashbulbs -- that unnerved me. I was used to my father being famous, but, as a playwright, his was an anonymous kind of fame. His name was known, but not his face, and my father always avoided publicity, so we were relieved as Lester, our chauffeur-handyman, maneuvered the station wagon away from the curb and photographers and into traffic. I kissed my father then and took his hand. And even though he smiled, I had the sense that all of him was sagging -- his eyes, his jowls, his chin, his arms -- sagging with more despair than he'd ever carried before.

I sat back on the leather seat and picked up the New York Daily News that he'd tossed there. The date was March 24, 1953, and my mother's picture was on the front page of the paper. The headline read, MRS. MAXWELL ANDERSON A SUICIDE. As I stared at the picture I understood the reporters and flashbulbs; we'd never been front-page news before. I stared at my mother's face, grainy black-and-white newsprint, a pretty, fixed smile, and wondered why I always knew when a smiling face in a newspaper was alive or dead. There was something about the dead faces, smiling straight out -- I could always tell. And I knew in that second, looking at my mother's dazzling smile, that she really was dead.

Lester drove in silence, his cap pulled low, making himself scarce, as we made our way to the West Side Highway, across the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson below filled with whitecaps, and, finally, entered the woods and fields of Rockland County. I knew that I wasn't supposed to be happy on this day, but I was happy to see them, always happy to see those familiar fields and signposts. We were almost home.

I held my father's hand all the way, loving the feel of his warm, stubby fingers, but we said only a few words. I asked about his life in Los Angeles, about Gilda, the woman that he was living with, and he asked about college. We'd written every week and talked on the phone often since he'd left, so we didn't have much catching up to do. Silence was comfortable between us, and we let it be. I gazed out the window, savoring the oaks and birches and underbrush, the little towns -- Congers, Tappan, New City -- everything that said that we were coming closer and closer to South Mountain Road.

On Route 202, I sat straighter, peering ahead, waiting for the first trees of Conklin's orchards. And then there they were, acres of fruit trees, the weathered barn and the sign at the roadside, CONKLIN'S FARMS. I leaned forward, squeezing my father's hand, my heart lifting as it always did as we reached the huge elm and turned right onto South Mountain Road. If we'd gone straight for about a mile we would've come to the tiny town of Mount Ivy, where Burgess Meredith lived in a converted barn and Alan Jay Lerner lived in the restored, whitewashed brick house that had been Mad Anthony Wayne's headquarters during the Revolution. Lerner had written Brigadoon in that house, and he was a friend. Burgess had starred in a couple of my father's plays, and he was a friend as well. They'll be at the house, I thought. They'll all be there.

My thoughts came back to the road; it was always called "the road," as if there were no other. I looked above the trees and fields to the low ridge of mountains and found High Tor and the beacon that meant that we were really home. During my childhood the airplane beacon on the granite ridge, the highest point of South Mountain, had been my North Star. Seen from my bedroom window, and for miles around, the High Tor beacon blinked red and white, red and white, all night long for as long as I could remember.

"There's our mountain, Daddy," I said, squeezing my father's hand even more tightly. He nodded and smiled slightly, gazing at the mountain that he'd saved. I was very proud of him for that. It had happened in the late thirties, when I was too little to know what was going on. The local traprock company had come up with a dreadful plan. They intended to leave the part of the mountain that faced the Hudson intact and dig great quarries out of the back part, the Tor, that South Mountain Road and our houses faced. In a sustained rage, my father wrote the play High Tor. He depicted the traprock company as a bunch of money-grubbing fools, trying to displace the rightful owner of the Tor and the Dutch ghosts who, in the play, are waiting for their lost ship to sail back up the Hudson. The play starred Burgess Meredith and Peggy Ashcroft and was a success in every way -- it won the Drama Critics' Award that year, and it saved the mountain. High Tor was turned into a state park; the traprock company couldn't touch it, and our star-beacon went on blinking red and white for years to come.

The road started winding downward after Conklin's orchards, where, during the summers, the trees grew together overhead. But in March they were still bare and as brown as the thick woods and the old stone walls that we passed. The walls had been built by the original Dutch settlers and marked property lines that no longer existed. We passed a mailbox that said Mowbray-Clarke, and a rutted driveway that led deep into the woods. My father nodded toward it.

"How are the Hyphen-Clarkes?" he asked, a hint of amusement in his tired eyes. It was a "road" joke, and I smiled and shrugged. Old Mary Clarke -- with her two canes, her long, white braids -- and her granddaughter, Sandra, lived in a rundown, eighteenth-century house beside a ravine at the end of that long driveway. Mary Clarke was proud of her aristocratic ancestry and insisted upon the Mowbray-hyphen-Clarke, which was shortened, along with amused glances, to the "Hyphen-Clarkes" by those who counted along the road.

After the thick patch of trees and the Clarkes' driveway, we headed down toward a cluster of those who counted. They counted as friends and as an elite little band of artists who had settled on the road. They had their own in-jokes, their own rivalries, their own histories, their own inbred snobbism, and they walked through the woods and in and out of each other's houses at any time of the day or night. Anyone who didn't belong, and that included everyone except other successful artists, were spoken of with the same kind of amused smile that my father and I had exchanged. Amused smiles and slightly raised eyebrows were a kiss of death on South Mountain Road.

Both the women and the men indulged in the snobbery, but it didn't apply to the women in the same way. The only thing that was required of a woman was beauty. An artistic, successful husband helped a lot as far as status went, but beauty was enough. Talent, even a woman's own success, didn't count for much, and, if she were homely besides, it barely counted at all. On the other hand, if she were homely but married to "somebody," she counted to an extent. Those were the rules, never stated out loud, of course, but as pervasive as the scent that came from the honeysuckle that tangled along the road, or the smell of the wood smoke that, when I was a small child, drifted from the smokehouse and entered my pores, and the delicately forming cells of my mind.

I was thinking about this as we rounded a sharp curve and passed the Poors' driveway, because Bessie Poor had always seemed a prime example of the road rule, of what not to be. Bessie, gnomish and vibrant, with an acid tongue and a cackling laugh, was tolerated because she was married to Henry Varnum Poor, a distinguished painter, potter and architect who had designed most of our houses -- granite or cinder-block castles, set deep in the woods. Henry was large, handsome and warm, and no one could understand why he had chosen Bessie over more desirable prospects. The story that everyone told behind Bessie's back was that she won out over the other single women on the road by coming down with a case of flu at Henry's house and never leaving. No one seemed to notice or be impressed by the fact that Bessie, as Bessie Breuer, was a beautiful writer, whose short stories appeared regularly in the New Yorker, and in every collection of the best short fiction.

"Bessie's going to be a mess," I said aloud, picturing her at the funeral, or whatever was going to happen -- I didn't know and hadn't asked yet. My father nodded and raised an eyebrow, giving me the "Oh-my-God-Bessie" look.

"And she's going to have to deal with Lenya," I added, as we continued down the hill and approached Brook House, nestled against the road, on the right. Brook House had belonged to Kurt Weill, the composer, and Lotte Lenya, his actress-singer wife, always called Lenya by those who knew her well. Bessie's house was only a short walk through the woods, but Lenya and Bessie had feuded for years. I'm not sure, but I think it was mainly about my mother, whom Bessie had loved and championed when the rest of the road had considered her an interloper and a poor replacement for Margaret, my father's beloved first wife. Bessie and my mother had been best friends, and then Lenya had moved to the road and my mother and Lenya became inseparable.

"There's Woolly's spot," I said, and my father smiled that same sad smile as we both remembered Woolly, Kurt and Lenya's sheep dog, who used to stretch out in the middle of the road and sleep and stop cars. Woolly was gone too but, amazingly, had made it to a ripe old age.

We passed the high, ivy-covered wall that shielded Brook House, and my mind wandered to the secret gardens behind it. I'd always loved knowing that they were there, gardens that I could escape to and pretend in whenever I'd felt like it. As a child I'd had the run of Brook House; the gardens were mine to play in, and the back door was always open.

The brook that flowed from the top of the road, through Mary Clarke's ravine, past the Poors', ran right beside Kurt and Lenya's, beneath an arched stone bridge and a huge, gnarled willow tree. It was another of my favorite spots. But the best of all, everyone's favorite spot, was the grape arbor at the back of the house.

We'd sit there, during the late summer and fall, shaded by the clumps of grapes and the thick vines that were as intertwined as our lives. My father and Kurt only wrote two musicals together, but they shared all their work with each other and with Lenya and my mother. The path between our houses, through the woods, was worn down to packed earth by the countless footsteps -- Lenya coming to play canasta, Kurt coming with pages of sheet music. My father would write a lyric and give it to Kurt, and Kurt would appear the next morning with five melodies. He'd play them for my father, sometimes on the upright piano in his third-floor study, sometimes on the blond baby grand in our living room, then look up expectantly: "Vitch von do you like, Max?"

Sometimes, they even asked me. During rehearsals of Lost in the Stars, it was decided that a respite was needed between the heartbreak of the choral "Cry, the Beloved Country" and the quiet sadness of the ending. My father and Kurt played three songs for me, Kurt singing a South African boy's song in his thick German accent. I've forgotten the other two but I chose "Big Mole," and it went in and became a show-stopper.

"Kurt won't be there," I said, more to myself than to my father. He didn't answer, but his face sagged a bit further. Kurt had died three years before, also at the beginning of spring. It was sudden. He'd had a heart attack -- he was only fifty, but he seemed to be getting better. In the hospital he and my father worked on Huck Finn, which was to be their next musical together. Only seven songs were finished...then a second heart attack, and Kurt was dead. That night my parents came in the glass dining room door, and I looked at them and said something really stupid like, "God what's wrong? You both look like somebody just died." They told me, and I felt both shock and foolishness. It hadn't occurred to me that Kurt would die; it hadn't seemed possible.

The next day I walked through the woods to see Lenya. She was drunk with grief -- sodden, exhausted -- and she held me and then took me upstairs to the rarely used front room where Kurt lay, white in a white turtleneck sweater. I didn't know what to say and murmured that the flowers were beautiful. "Kurtie is beautiful," Lenya said, and I nodded and stood there, as frightened by her grief as by my first sight of death.

"George will be there," I said aloud, and my father shrugged, saying silently that George, whom Lenya married a year later, was barely a replacement.

"I love George," I answered, a bit defiantly. George Davis was a gentle, witty gay man, who had been an editor at Harper's Bazaar and Flair and was now devoting his life to Lenya and the Weill music. It took all of his persuasiveness to get her back onstage, for the first time in years. He was the impetus behind the revival of Threepenny Opera, which opened in March 1954, at the Theatre de Lys, and in which Lenya once again became a star. For her, that wasn't the point; it was all for Kurt; and for George, it was all for Kurt and Lenya. He said to me one day, sitting under the grape arbor, a dry smile in his voice, "I am the husband of the Widow Weill."

I turned to my father and let it go -- my fondness for George, the bit of defiance -- it didn't matter right now. I looked past him, across the road, as we passed the Hargrove house, which was now the Mauldin house. For me it would always be the Hargrove house, with Marion's hand-lettered sign at the foot of the rutted driveway -- THE OLD BAILEY. It was a nasty joke, to say to the world that your home was a Dickensian prison, but I thought it was funny. I'd been in love with Marion Hargrove for most of my eighteen years and, therefore, thought that everything he did or said was either brilliant, or funny, or both. It took me years to figure out that, after a time, I was the only one who thought so. Increasingly, Marion attracted a lot of stifled yawns and raised eyebrows from those on the road. He'd left the house and his marriage the year before Kurt died, and Bill and Natalie Mauldin had moved into the Old Bailey. It was odd that two young men, thrust into fame by World War II -- Marion with See Here, Private Hargrove, and Bill Mauldin with his funny and poignant cartoons of the mud-splattered GIs Willie and Joe -- both landed, one after the other, in a remodeled farmhouse, nestled against South Mountain.

I didn't mention Marion as we rounded the curve below his house. A burned-out chimney, covered with honeysuckle, stood next to the road, and near it a steep path that was a shortcut to Marion's back door. I glimpsed him on the terrace, a flash of him, a ghostly imprint, the sun reddening his hair, bringing out the light freckles on his arms, and then I turned away, to the other side of the road where the brook ran just below us, heading for our bridge and Alan's pond.

We both looked straight ahead, and I gripped my father's hand again as the road evened out and Lester swung the car left before making the sharp right turn into our driveway. He stopped the car and turned to us for the first time.

"Check the mail, Mr. Anderson?" he asked.

"Why not...?" my father murmured, and Lester got out of the car and crossed in front of us to the mailbox beside the stone wall. The wall continued on the other side of the driveway, interrupted again by Alan and Nancy's front gate. My father was looking toward their house -- his first house, the one he'd found in 1922 -- barely visible now behind the huge pines that he'd planted as saplings, thirty-some years before. He'd come, with his first wife, Margaret, and their boys, to visit Henry Poor, and Henry had shown them the small farmhouse on the edge of a ravine and a waterfall. They'd fallen in love with it and bought it, along with sixty acres of woods, for almost nothing. The house had no electricity or running water, and my father had showered under the waterfall, even in winter, he told me, with icicles hanging like crystal stalactites.

He'd written his first plays here. He was a newspaperman then, writing editorials for the New York World, and had never seen a play -- or so the story goes -- when a neighbor on the road wrote a play and had a reading of it at his house. My father went, listened, went home and said, "If that's a play, I can write one." He rode his bicycle five miles to the Haverstraw station, took the train to the city to work, wrote during lunch hours at the New York Public Library, took the train back, rode the five miles home and worked in the attic at night. His first play, White Desert, written in blank verse, won critical approval but none at the box office. His second play, What Price Glory?, written with Laurence Stallings, was a success, and my father finally quit his job at the paper. He and Margaret added onto the house and got indoor plumbing and electricity; and the original manuscript of What Price Glory? can still be seen, under glass, at the New York Public Library, where most of it was written during lunch hours.

Lester returned to the car, handed me the mail and sent the car rolling down the hill toward our stone bridge. The same brook that flowed from the top of the road flowed beneath our bridge, over moss-covered rocks, and emptied into Alan's dammed-up pond, our summer swimming hole, our winter skating rink. My father and the boys -- even as older men they were always "the Anderson boys" on South Mountain Road -- had built the dam themselves. Beyond the pond and the dam, the brook tumbled over the waterfall, through the ravine, past the old Indian caves on either side, then made its way into Lake Lucille and, finally, the Hackensack River.

We crossed the bridge, headed up the long driveway lined with low walls, brush and overhanging trees, and I glanced at the letters in my lap. The one on top was from me to my mother, mailed a few days before from Greensboro. It was like looking at her smiling picture on the front of the Daily News ...My mother would never read this letter. It was just a silly schoolgirl letter, full of the drama club and a dance at Chapel Hill, but she would never read it...she was dead.

I was afraid of the dead. I'd always been afraid of the dead. Even before seeing Kurt in his white sweater, I'd been afraid of cemeteries and the walking dead. I'd been afraid of the eighteenth-century cemetery with its slanted gravestones, behind Mary Clarke's house, and wouldn't stay overnight with my friend Sandra. The couple of times that I did manage to stay there, I'd made sure that Sandra went downstairs first in the morning. I was certain that one day we'd find Mary Clarke, with her canes and her white braids, dead as a doornail in her high, single bed. I'm not sure why I was so frightened. If you'd told me, as a child, reasonably, that the dead were dead and couldn't get up and couldn't hurt me, I wouldn't have believed you. I knew that Margaret's ghost haunted our house and would've killed me if I hadn't slept with the sheet tucked tightly over my head.

Margaret had died young, in her early forties, of a broken heart, so my brothers had told me when I asked them. I don't think I ever mentioned Margaret to my parents, but I knew that my father kept her ashes in a small urn in his cabin in the woods. But then one day I found the urn in a cedar chest filled with Margaret's letters in the attic storage room. Another day I thought I saw the urn on the mantelpiece in the living room. I was secretly terrified, somehow sure that my parents had caused Margaret's death, which in a sense they had, and that Margaret's revenge was directed at me. Later, as a teenager, trying to develop a sense of humor about the whole thing, I referred to the wandering urn as "Margaret's floating ashes."

Now my mother was dead, also fairly young at forty-eight -- another broken heart. Would she be in a casket? In an urn? Would I be afraid? I would know soon enough, because the car had reached the curve in the driveway, another spot where my heart skipped. Around the curve the house came into view -- a sprawling, white, cinder-block castle. On the right, the huge lawn, dotted with birches and red maples, sloped up to the house. On the left were the fruit trees -- cherry, apple, peach -- and at the end was a circle formed by the driveway, its center filled with white birches.

Lester parked by the dogwood, just outside the flagstone terrace, next to the kitchen window and the dining room doors. To our left was the garage and the parking area -- there were lots of cars there already. I got out on my side, while Lester opened my father's door, and I glimpsed Martha, our housekeeper, through the kitchen window. It took me a minute to realize that Little Terry, Martha's nine-year-old son, was perched above me on a limb of the dogwood, and he was crying.

"Hi, Terry," I said quietly. I didn't try to comfort him. I didn't know how, and I was surprised by the idea that he'd loved my mother enough to cry. I knew that she'd given him her little spaniel the year before, but I'd never noticed a closeness between them. Of course, I'd been away a lot that last winter, and my mother had been very alone. She'd written to me saying how silent the house was, saying that she'd give anything to hear my father's footsteps coming down the brick stairs, the sound of my voice, even if we were fighting, which half the time we were. She'd been left alone in the silent house with Martha, who cared for her and hated her, and Little Terry, a watchful, silent child, who had once killed a kitten.

My dog, Toby, a beautiful, ungainly golden retriever, bounded toward me from the woods, and I sank to my knees on the cold flagstone and let him lick me all over and hid my face in his tawny coat that smelled of moss and old leaves. He followed me in through the dining room door, the closest, most-used entrance, and I stopped briefly, savoring the empty room -- I was home.

I reached up and touched the suspended circular staircase, Henry Poor's pride and joy when he built the house, and glanced at the round dining room table that had been made for my mother by Carroll French, a neighboring artist and craftsman, and noticed that something was slightly off. There were covered plates, napkins and silverware, but it wasn't set the way my mother would have done it. My mother knew how to entertain, how to arrange the silver and the flowers, and it suddenly struck me that we were entertaining today, and that my mother wasn't here to do it right, to make it all go smoothly.

Copyright 2000 Hesper Anderson. All rights reserved.

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