And so the root
Becomes a trunk
And then a tree
And seeds of trees
And springtime sap
And summer shade
And autumn leaves
And shape of poems
And more than tree.206
THE NORTH AND WEST, 1970
THIS WAS THE YEAR that demographers called the turning point in the exodus of black Americans out of the South. It was the year that the revolutions of the 1960s began to bear fruit and black children were entering white schools in the South without death threats or the need for the National Guard. The people from the South continued to go north in great waves because nobody told them the Migration was over, but fewer were leaving than in previous decades and nearly as many blacks in the North and West, particularly the children of the original people of the Great Migration, began to contemplate or act upon a desire to return south, now that things appeared to be changing.
Ida Mae, the sharecropper’s wife from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, was not among them. She was like the majority of the original migrants, people who were not really migrants at all but who had left for good and didn’t look back. She was fifty-seven years old now, a grandmother, and had been in Chicago for more than half her life. The elevated train, the three feet of snow falling in April when it had no business falling, the all-white neighborhood that had turned black in an eye blink—it was all part of her now.
Her life revolved around family, church, and work, really no different than the order of things would have been in Mississippi, except that the city that brought freedom also brought unforeseen hazards and heartbreak.
She had gotten used to the concrete and congestion, the press of buildings in place of the expanse of field. She had learned to quicken her step as she walked to or from work, but she still smiled at people on the bus or reached out to help young mothers balancing babies and strollers. She was even getting to know the gangbangers who had begun to position themselves on the street corners to establish their turf and organize their drug inventory. She spoke to them and they spoke back to her, calling her “Grandma” and watching out for her, to the dismay of her own children, whose objections she largely ignored because the gangbangers and their little lookouts were God’s children too, to her way of thinking.
She was in the city but not fully wise to it, nor seeking to be.
One day, coming home from work, she stepped off the curb at the green light for pedestrians to cross Eighty-seventh Street at the Dan Ryan Expressway. The right turn on red had just been made legal. A man in a late-model sedan pulled out in front of the bus just as she was trying to cross. She fell onto the hood and then tumbled to the concrete.
“That was a good fall,” she said. She was sore but not much else.
The man who hit her was worried for her and drove her to Jackson Park Hospital, where she was declared fine, save for a few bruises to her legs, arms, and ego. They called her husband to tell him what had happened.
“Oh, he fussed,” she said, which looked to be the only way he knew to show he cared.
“You should have watched where you were going!” he told her when she got home. The idea of losing Ida Mae seemed to incite as much anger as worry in him.
There was already a sense of lingering sadness in the house. Their beloved Velma, the little girl Ida Mae hadn’t wanted at first but whom she had held close and cherished and who had ridden next to her, along with little James, on the train ride north, was gone now. There had been a car accident a few years before. The details of the crash somehow didn’t matter so much in the eternity between getting the call and making it to the hospital. Ida Mae saw her firstborn trying to hold on to life and then slip away. Ida Mae almost fell apart. Decades later, it would be the one thing she rarely talked about, as if not talking about it made it less real. And even though she knew full well that it was, she couldn’t bear to let the thought of it slip into her subconscious. She acted as if it had never happened, and if it came up, her voice went uncharacteristically flat, and she quickly found something else to talk about. “The police,” she would say, “they was riding last night.…”
Ida Mae and her husband had settled into whatever they were going to be in the North. They were blue-collar, churchgoing, taxpaying home owners with now two, instead of three, grown children. Ida Mae now had six little grandchildren, all of whom had been born within the bonds of holy matrimony, even though Eleanor’s didn’t manage to last, which perfectly reflected the demographics of the times. Ida Mae’s husband was a deacon in the church whose pastime was cheering the White Sox on television with their grandson Kevin and instructing him on the strategies of the game. Ida Mae and her husband were never going to go to college or rise much beyond where they were, but they had come a long way from where they had started, and that was an accomplishment in itself.
Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense of the quiet, obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.
There were two sets of similar people arriving in Chicago and other industrial cities of the North at around the same time in the early decades of the twentieth century—blacks pouring in from the South and immigrants arriving from eastern and southern Europe in a slowing but continuous stream from across the Atlantic, a pilgrimage that had begun in the latter part of the nineteenth century.207 On the face of it, they were sociologically alike, mostly landless rural people, put upon by the landed upper classes or harsh autocratic regimes, seeking freedom and autonomy in the northern factory cities of the United States.
But as they made their way into the economies of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other receiving cities, their fortunes diverged. Both groups found themselves ridiculed for their folk ways and accents and suffered backward assumptions about their abilities and intelligence. But with the stroke of a pen, many eastern and southern Europeans and their children could wipe away their ethnicities—and those limiting assumptions—by adopting Anglo-Saxon surnames and melting into the world of the more privileged native-born whites. In this way, generations of immigrant children could take their places without the burdens of an outsider ethnicity in a less enlightened era. Doris von Kappelhoff could become Doris Day, and Issur Danielovitch, the son of immigrants from Belarus, could become Kirk Douglas, meaning that his son could live life and pursue stardom as Michael Douglas instead of as Michael Danielovitch.
A name change would have had no effect in masking the ethnicity of black migrants like Ida Mae, George, and Robert. It would have been superfluous, given that their surnames, often inherited from the masters of their forebears, were already Anglo-Saxon. They did not have the option of choosing for themselves a more favored identity. They could not easily assimilate whether they sought to or not. They could send their children to northern schools that were superior to anything back south, acquire a northern accent, save up for suits to replace the overalls and croker sack dresses of the field, but they would never be mistaken for an English or Welsh arriviste the way a Czech or Hungarian immigrant could if so inclined. Black migrants did not have the same shot at craft unions or foreman jobs or country clubs or exclusive cul-de-sac lace-curtain neighborhoods that other immigrants could enter if they were of a mind to do so.
A daughter of white ethnics could instantly escape the perceived disadvantages of her origins by marrying a man of northern or western European descent and taking his surname. She and whatever children she bore could thus assume the identity of a more privileged caste. With the exception of extraordinarily light-skinned blacks passing into the white world for these very same privileges, the daughter of the average black migrants would gain no such advantage by intermarrying. She would still be seen as black and be subject to the scrutiny of the outside world, no matter whom she married or whose name she took.
Even without trying to pass oneself off as anything other than what he or she was, an ethnic immigrant would not likely be distinguishable from any other white person boarding a train, lining up for a foreman’s job, or waiting for a loan officer at a bank—public situations that opened black migrants to immediate rejection but that white ethnic immigrants were protected from by virtue of their skin color.
Ultimately, according to the Harvard immigration scholar Stanley Lieberson, a major difference between the acceptance and thus life outcomes of black migrants from the South and their white immigrant counterparts was this: white immigrants and their descendants could escape the disadvantages of their station if they chose to, while that option did not hold for the vast majority of black migrants and their children.208 The ethnicity of the descendants of white immigrants “was more a matter of choice, because, with some effort, it could be changed,” Lieberson wrote, and, out in public, might not easily be determined at all.
The hierarchy in the North “called for blacks to remain in their station,” Lieberson wrote, while immigrants were rewarded for “their ability to leave their old world traits” and become American as quickly as possible.209 Society urged them to leave Poland and Latvia behind and enter the mainstream white world. Not so with their black counterparts like Ida Mae, Robert, and George.
“Although many blacks sought initially to reach an assimilated position in the same way as did the new European immigrants,” Lieberson noted, “the former’s efforts were apt to be interpreted as getting out of their place or were likely to be viewed with mockery.” Ambitious black migrants found that they were not able to get ahead just by following the course taken by immigrants and had to find other routes to survival and hoped-for success.
Contrary to common assumptions about childbearing and welfare, many black migrants compensated for the disadvantages they faced by cutting back in every way they could, most notably by having fewer children than the eastern and southern Europeans arriving at the same time. Ida Mae, for example, bore no more children after the one she carried in her belly from Mississippi at the age of twenty-five, despite the many fertile years she spent in the North. She and her husband could not afford another mouth to feed.
It turned out that, during the first three decades of the Great Migration, fertility rates for black women migrants from the South were actually among the lowest of all newer arrivals to the North, according to Lieberson’s compilation of census data.210 In 1940, for the fifteen-to-thirty-four age group, Ida Mae’s at the time, there were 916 children per thousand black women, as against 951 for Austrians, 1,030 for Russians, 1,031 for Poles, 1,176 for Hungarians, and 1,388 for Italians. Czech women were virtually tied with black women at 923 children per thousand women. The disparities only widened with age. Among those in the forty-five-to-fifty-four age group, central and eastern European immigrant women had borne, in some cases, twice as many children per thousand as black migrant women in the North in 1940, with the Russians having borne 3,111, the Hungarians 3,305, the Austrians 3,683, the Czechs 4,045, the Poles 4,192, and the Italians 4,638 compared to 2,219 children having been born to black women by the same point in their lives in the North.
Clyde Vernon Kiser, a political scientist at Columbia University, studying the black migration from south Georgia to the Northeast in the 1930s, also found fertility to be “significantly reduced by migration” among black couples who went to both New York and Boston.
“The differences in most cases are of a massive nature,” Lieberson reported.
Blacks, though native born, were arriving as the poorest people from the poorest section of the country with the least access to the worst education. Over the decades of the Migration, they came with every disadvantage and found themselves competing not only with newcomers like themselves but with second- and third-generation European immigrants already established in apprenticeships and factory jobs that were closed off to black migrants, the immigrants and their children permitted into the very trade unions that prohibited black citizens from joining.
Because they were largely excluded from well-paying positions in even unskilled occupations and were concentrated in servant work and other undesirable jobs, blacks were the lowest paid of all the recent arrivals.211 In 1950, blacks in the North and West made a median annual income of $1,628, compared to Italian immigrants, who made $2,295, Czechs, who made $2,339, Poles, who made $2,419, and Russians, who made $2,717.
“There is just no avoiding the fact that blacks were more severely discriminated against in the labor market and elsewhere,” Lieberson wrote. They “had to work more hours to earn less money than anyone else,” the historian Gilbert Osofsky wrote.
The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went. They incited greater fear and resentment in part because there was no ocean between them and the North as there was with many other immigrant groups. There was no way to stem the flow of blacks from the South, as the authorities could and did by blocking immigration from China and Japan, for instance. Thus, blacks confronted hostilities more severe than most any other group (except perhaps Mexicans, who could also cross over by land), as it could not be known how many thousands more might come and pose a further threat to the preexisting world of the North.
The presence of so many black migrants elevated the status of other immigrants in the North and West. Black southerners stepped into a hierarchy that assigned them a station beneath everyone else, no matter that their families had been in the country for centuries. Their arrival unwittingly diverted anti-immigrant antagonisms their way, as they were an even less favored outsider group than the immigrants they encountered in the North and helped make formerly ridiculed groups more acceptable by comparison.
Ida Mae was so isolated, living as she was in the all-black neighborhood of South Shore, that she had little contact with other immigrant groups except perhaps at work. She tried to make the best of it since she had no control over who had gotten to Chicago before she did or how they lived or what they thought of her. Her world was small, purposely so, built around her family and the people she knew from back home in Mississippi, and that was the way she and her husband preferred it.
NEW YORK, 1970
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
THIS IS WHAT GEORGE STARLING’S LIFE had become at its midpoint.
He had made it up north, alright, as he had dreamed so long ago. But he had an unhappy wife who could not be made happy and two teenage children who were good at heart but had been swallowed up by the worst aspects of the North and South while he and his wife were out working long hours to give the kids a life they themselves had never had. He had a two-year-old by another woman that he had to support and a decent-paying but dead-end job as essentially a servant to railroad passengers needing help with their luggage, directions to their seats, another pillow, their shoes shined.
He turned fifty-two in 1970. He had been in the North for a quarter of a century. He would never be the chemist or accountant he had seen for himself in his mind, would never work a white-collar job or any kind of job that would make use of his intellect. And, by an accident of birth, he had managed to suffer the terror and injustice of Jim Crow but just missed the revolution that opened up the best in education and unheard-of career opportunities for black people with the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960s. The revolution had come too late for him. He was in his midforties when the Civil Rights Act was signed and close to fifty when its effects were truly felt.
He did not begrudge the younger generation their opportunities. He only wished that more of them, his own children, in particular, recognized their good fortune, the price that had been paid for it, and made the most of it. He was proud to have lived to see the change take place.
He wasn’t judging anyone and accepted the fact that history had come too late for him to make much use of all the things that were now opening up. But he couldn’t understand why some of the young people couldn’t see it. Maybe you had to live through the worst of times to recognize the best of times when they came to you. Maybe that was just the way it was with people.
He did not dwell on this long or let it get him down. He stood as straight-backed now as he had when the South told him he didn’t have a right to. He started going to church and found solace in that. He started singing in the choir. He had a way of sitting back and shaking his head at absurdities—whether segregationists training their terriers to mock black people in the South or black people with no hope or home training shooting each other over a nickel bag in the North.
The young people were letting their hair grow out and wearing Afros that his generation would never have been seen out in public with. They were living together—shacking up, they called it—in a flouting kind of way that even now, tortured as his marriage was, he couldn’t bring himself to do. They were taking things farther than he ever would have had the nerve to contemplate, preaching black power, calling the white man a devil, walking arm in arm down the street with white women, all of those things that would have gotten him killed when he was their age.
The young people picked up on something strong and unnameable in him. They never bothered him as he climbed the stairs out of his basement apartment with his creaky and now-arthritic knees, heading to work at Pennsylvania Station or returning late at night from a forty-eight-hour run.
He knew more than most people of his generation precisely what he had missed out on, and what his life could have been. He had had a taste of college, knew he could do the work, and was convinced he could have succeeded.
How complicated had the ending of his college career been. Looking back on it, the course of his life had turned on that moment. He would not have been working in the citrus groves or had the standoff with the grove owners that had forced him to flee to the North if he had stayed in school. That moment would gnaw at him for as long as he lived. What if his father hadn’t gotten it into his head that George had had enough schooling, if his father had helped out with the tuition George needed, if his father hadn’t had a new family to support and chosen that obligation over college for his son? Then there was segregation. What if colored students had been allowed to attend the state schools near Eustis in George’s day, as they could after the civil rights movement, where it would have been easier for George to make a go of it, work and go part-time if he had to?
Then there was George himself. At midlife, George had to search his soul and live with the regrets of his own missteps. If only he hadn’t rushed to get back at his father by marrying a woman from the other side of the tracks, giving his father further reason to withhold his support and leaving George with a wife to take care of besides, perhaps he would have gotten the education that would have allowed him to fulfill his potential. As it was, he had only to look at Inez to be reminded of what could have been.
“It was spite,” George would say of the decisions he made at that moment in his life.
He took every chance he got to warn young people not to make his mistakes, not knowing if they heard him but feeling he had to get it out.
“That’s why I preach today, Do not do spite,” he said. “Spite does not pay. It goes around and misses the object that you aim and comes back and zaps you. And you’re the one who pays for it.”
LOS ANGELES, 1970
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1970, Robert P. Foster turned fifty-two years old. He had been in Los Angeles for seventeen years. But, for some reason, he was unable to fill up on what he had acquired any more than he could carry fog in his satchel.
He had a practice that minted money. With all those migrants from Texas and Louisiana, he had patients spilling out of his office and into the hall, sitting like refugees on the floor all day, waiting for him to check their blood pressure.
By then he found it hard to walk down a hospital ward without orderlies and scrub nurses hailing him from closing elevator doors, “Hey, Doc! Remember me?” from some long-ago operation, and his feigning recollection so as not to disappoint them.
He was comfortably situated. There was the well-born wife, the three beautiful daughters, and the 3,600-square-foot house west of Crenshaw—if only by a block—with the white Cadillac in the driveway. He was famous even. Ray Charles’s song about him, “Hide Nor Hair,” spent seven weeks on the Billboard charts back in 1962. But he woke up that morning with the feeling that nothing mattered but the events that were about to unfold that day.
Until this moment, he had lived his life with the perpetual sense of watching a reception through a keyhole, of arriving too late and without the proper documentation. There he would be at the front gate, all dressed and superior to the people inside but afraid of being denied admittance. He craved acceptance from those most determined to withhold it from him and met slights and rejections at nearly every turn. The small-minded people in that Jim Crow town. Rufus and Pearl Clement scrutinizing his every move since the day he married Alice. The colonel from Mississippi who wouldn’t let him operate on white women. The motel clerks in Phoenix who denied him a room. The colored people who happened to have gotten to L.A. first and wouldn’t lend a newcomer a hand. That hotel in Vegas.
After all this time, he still couldn’t shake these things. Rufus Clement had been dead for years. The run-in with the motel clerks in Phoenix—that was seventeen years ago. The colonel farther back than that. All the good and extraordinary things that had happened to him seemed never to make up for the rejection he had endured, and he set out to prove that he was better than what they took him for, even though the people who haunted him would never see it, no matter what he did.
Because of the fifty-one previous years of his life, he had a number of complexes. He had a Napoleon complex, a southern complex, a baby-of-the-family complex. He had both a superiority complex and an inferiority complex, and, because he was born on Christmas Day, a Christmas baby complex.
He had never had much of a birthday party, a fate known to just about anyone who enters the world on Christmas. His mother had tried to give him a birthday party once when he was a young boy in Monroe. She invited all the children in New Town. Only four came.
That would not happen this time. He finally had all the pieces in place to celebrate his having arrived. In a few hours, he would give a gala in honor of himself. It would make up for all the parties he’d never had, all the slights he had ever suffered. It would prove to everyone that he had put Monroe and the South behind him and made it in L.A. He had worked it all out in his head.
He would have guests from back east and up the coast and from all over the country. Monroe, too, of course. The best hams and the finest heavy bond paper for the invitations. Anything that anyone had ever thought of for a party, he would have. It would cost in the thousands, like the major motion picture wrap parties over in Beverly Hills, and he wanted the guests to see every dime of it. He had rehearsed the whole thing in his mind.
That morning he woke up early, just like when he was a teenager back in Monroe racing to lose himself in the celluloid illusion of California sophisticates from the colored balcony of the Paramount. Now he was in California, finally a sophisticate himself, and the urine-scented steps of the Paramount were from another lifetime.
But as he rewound a tape that had yet to be recorded, a thunderstorm gathered in his stomach. He could hear the sounds of a party forming on the first floor. Footsteps on linoleum, the help skittering between the refrigerator and the sink and around the avocado green Formica island back to the refrigerator again. The low screech of high chairs being positioned at the bar, the setting down of serving pieces and highball glasses, the opening and closing of the heavy front door with the arrival of roses and ice. He had done all he could, and now it was up to the workers, who, sweet though they might be, could not possibly understand how crucial it was that there be only cashews and almonds and, for God’s sake, no peanuts in the nut bowls.
The sound of urgent disorder rose up the staircase and into his room. Rather than being pleased that all was going more or less according to plan, he was sickened at the prospect that, for all his preparation, things might be less than perfect.
He could hear the assembling of a party. The storm grew worse in his stomach.
For most of 1970, Robert had devoted himself to the second job of planning his own arrival party. He had told his wife, Alice, and daughter Joy and his mother-in-law, Pearl, as soon as the thought had occurred to him. He told Bunny and Robin in Chicago to be in Los Angeles that Christmas and sent them checks for their gowns with instructions to start shopping immediately. He told his nephew, Madison, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, that he expected him in from Ann Arbor. He told Madison’s mother, Harriet, that he wanted her in from Monroe.
He alerted the members of his wedding party, the former groomsmen in black tails and white kid gloves and the bridesmaids with tiaras planted over their Bette Davis curls, so they could mark Friday, December 25, 1970, on their calendars. Leo, the maître d’ at L’Escoffier, a French restaurant at the Beverly Hilton, would oversee the whole affair. The date fell within weeks of Alice’s fiftieth birthday, as well as Bunny’s and Gold’s birthdays. But the party would be essentially for him.
Robert began devising the guest list as if it were a state dinner. He began thinking menu and decor. A tent over the patio. Belgian lace for the tablecloths. Open bar with unpronounceable top-shelf spirits. He slept with the thought of it. He carried it in his head to work. During breaks in the day, he would think aloud to a nurse about this or that entrée or particular band, not necessarily because he wanted a second opinion—he would not have turned to them for that—but because he assumed everyone was as captivated as he was.
In fact, some were. At the office one day, a patient overheard him buzzing about the party. The patient joined in and offered to help. He said he did a little printing work and could make Doc Foster some nice invitations for the party. Robert was horrified at the notion and thought it should be obvious that no ordinary printer would do for a party of this caliber.
“Thank you very much,” Robert said, “but they’re already taken care of.”
In truth, he had not begun looking. But he was grateful for the reminder and would track down an engraver immediately. “It had to be the best person in the city,” he would say years later. “And I knew the best couldn’t be a patient of mine.”
He dispatched his mother-in-law to get on it right away. Her southern socialite airs would come in handy about now. It would give her something to occupy her mind and less time to scrutinize him. She spent an entire month choosing between white and ecru and the proper weight for the card stock. They found the invitations at the old Bullock’s Wilshire in Beverly Hills, off Rodeo Drive. They had them engraved on Crane’s paper, white with red lettering and a red border along the edge. “Etiquettely,” he said, “it was perfect.”
The invitations read:
Doctor and Mrs. Robert P. Foster
Friday, the twenty-fifth of December
At nine o’clock in the evening
1680 Victoria Avenue
Regrets Only Cocktails—Dancing
Two hundred invitations went out, and as Robert was at the peak of his practice and popularity, 194 accepted. “We counted all but six R.S.V.P.’s,” he said, “and the six that declined were all out of town.”
That raised the stakes for everything else, beginning with the costumes for the principals. He was the star and would have to look it. He went to the Beverly Hills couturiers, the tailors to Sammy Davis, Jr., who, from across a blackjack table some people said he favored, and found a suit to his liking. Crushed velvet had just hit the scene, very Fifth Dimension, Age of Aquarius, and all that. So that’s what he would wear. Black crushed velvet suit. Black crushed velvet bow tie. Black velvet Bally slippers with a gold medallion above the instep. The suit had a red lining to match the red silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, and the shirt cuff fell precisely one inch below the jacket sleeve, just as it should.
Finding something for Alice would take more time. He was the show-off, just waiting for somebody to say, Bob Foster, you too much. They went all over Beverly Hills, to the back rooms of the designer floors of the finest department stores, Robert watching, advising, critiquing, and, for one reason or another, dismissing and rejecting as Alice tried on hanger after hanger of dresses.
One night after work, rather than heading straight home or to the track, Robert drove north and west from his medical office toward Beverly Hills. He went directly to the French Room at Bullock’s Wilshire, which he had been known to keep open in search of the right attire. They had been there already, but he wanted to check again.
This time, he saw an organza gown loaded with beadwork. It was gaudy like New Orleans, and the skirt looked as if somebody had thrown rubies on the sidewalk. Robert told the salesclerk to wrap it up immediately. He carried it home and ran up the steps to show Alice. It was late, and he woke her up.
“Try it on, baby,” he said.
She got up, and he positioned himself three feet to the right and rear in a corner of the yellow-trimmed bedroom to watch her move in it.
Come to me.
“It became alive when she walked,” he said.
In Ann Arbor, his nephew, Madison, awaited word on the big party between sociology colloquia and trying to take over the administration building at the University of Michigan. He was a three-piece-suited militant who knew how to use a fish fork. Robert had given him a year’s notice about the party. All year long, if the phone rang and it was Robert, he knew what it was about. I’m having Mrs. Williams roast the nuts for the party. Hampton Hawes has agreed to do the jazz set. I’m flying the Smithfield hams in from Virginia.
From the moment they accepted, he and the 194 other people on the guest list (and the guests they were bringing with them) were on a low-grade state of alert whether they liked it or not. Anyone deemed close enough to be invited also knew that Robert would expect them to look and act the part he assigned them. He wanted them to have a good time, of course, but he would also be sure to make note of the cut of their jackets and where a dress hem fell in relation to the ankle or knee. He would be judging them all. It was just how he was, and he couldn’t help it.
Madison felt the heat as much as anyone. He was the only child of Robert’s deceased oldest brother. Theirs was the closest that either had to a father-son relationship. They were the only Foster men left after all the deaths in the family. Big Madison, when he was alive, had made a point of not leaving the South, not running away and chasing a dream as Robert and millions of others had done, but staying and making the most of the angst and subtle shifts in sentiment of southern whites watching their meal ticket disappear on north- and westbound trains. Little Madison had thus been raised in the South, with the pride and insecurities that came with it, and, despite his father’s decision to stay, looked up to his Uncle Robert, who had made good out west.
A visit from Robert was a cause of great anxiety. Robert once visited Michigan in the midsixties. Madison did his best to impress him. He took him to the fanciest place he could afford. It took some time for the guests to figure out what they wanted from the menu. But they ordered and had a fine time. On the ride back, Robert gave his assessment of the evening.
“That was B+,” he said.
Madison sank into his seat and waited to hear what he had missed.
“You shouldn’t have let your guests struggle with the menu,” Robert told him.
Madison never really got over it. Almost forty years later, and he was still second-guessing the evening. “I didn’t preorder the food,” he would say long afterward. “It was a painful lesson. I learned it.”
He was southern and did everything he could to prove himself. He tried to pull Robert’s daughters back to their Louisiana roots, but they looked upon him as their country cousin from back in Monroe, a place they cared little about, growing up as they did in California.
Madison was a graduate student when Robert’s oldest daughter, Bunny, got her master’s at the University of Iowa. He didn’t have the money for a new suit. He flew in anyway. At the commencement, Robert pulled him aside.
“Your suit pants are shiny,” Robert said. “You shouldn’t go out like that.”
Madison would not let that happen again.
He had a year’s notice on the party and made use of it. He went to a tailor and had two suits cut for the occasion, hoping that one of them might meet Robert’s exacting standards.
December 25, 1970. A Friday. The florists draped pine leaf garlands down the railing of the front staircase. To the branches they fastened red plastic birds with glitter on the wing tips so that every four feet there was a little bird in flight.
The caterers moved the dining room table in front of the gold draperies. They covered it with $250 worth of white Belgian lace and set sterling candelabras on each end, as the Clements would have done. The Smithfield hams arrived from Virginia. The shrimp gumbo was set out with instructions that it never hit empty.
The barkeep lined the liquor bottles behind the highball glasses at the bar. “I told the bartender to give everybody two shots whether they wanted it or not,” Robert said.
All day, the heavy front door opened and closed with the arrival of supplies, and the telephone rang on and off, people just landing at LAX, people needing directions. Dusk fell, and the time drew near. Robert began to feel sick. The thunderstorm grew worse in his stomach. He felt weak and exhausted. His knees gave way. He fell back, collapsed. He had to be helped upstairs, lie down, gather himself. He lay there staring at the yellow walls in the master bedroom, fretting and unable to face the possibility of imperfection.
He closed his eyes. He tried to rest. Soon, outside his window, he could hear the rumble of car engines rounding St. Charles Place and turning up South Victoria. The screeching came to a stop. The creak of the passenger door of a Cadillac opening and the thud of its closing. The engine shutting down and the valet taking the keys. The first guests had arrived and were walking down the red-carpeted sidewalk he conceived of months ago.
Round the corner and down the stairs, he could hear muffled conversation, a party being born. He reminded himself why he had spent the better part of a year and really all of his life planning for this moment. He got up, steadied himself. He checked himself in the mirror, practiced his smile, and straightened his crushed-velvet tie.
“Let’s get on with it,” he said to himself, liking what he saw. “It’s on.”
He is wearing mutton-chop sideburns, flecked gray, and an Afro shaped like a mushroom cap. Hip as you got in those days. He greets his guests with a cigarette between his fingers and his legs purposely slew-footed, as if he were posing for Esquire. It will make better pictures for the photographer he has hired to trail him and the guests all night.
Soon the set piece begins to take shape. There’s Joe Luellen, who hit town back in the thirties and played in The Great White Hope. And three men standing together in velvet suits that forewarn the fashion crimes of the seventies.
On a foot-high stand above the crowd, Sweets Edison is on trumpet under the green-striped tent over the patio. Hampton Hawes is playing piano with his head reared back. Everybody has a glass of something in one hand and a cigarette in the other like jewelry.
There’s his mother-in-law near the hot pink tulip-upholstered love seat, in a four-hundred-dollar gown and a solid gold bracelet he bought her and which he complained she never gave him credit for. And she’s greeting and upstaging as if she paid for the whole shebang. (“I ignored it, I ignored it,” he would say years later, betraying that he most certainly had not.)
There are two or three wet bars, help everywhere, dressed in maid’s uniforms and monkey suits, people checking coats, people parking cars, people pouring martinis, people picking up dishes before they have a chance to clink the top of an end table.
There’s Bunny sticking her tongue out at the camera. And Ray Charles under the tent over the patio by the band. And Robert’s bookie. And a judge. A postmaster. And a dentist. Robert’s sister, Gold, in pink chiffon on a barstool, holding a pack of Marlboros. Keisha Brown, a gospel rock singer, sweating on stage in blood-red velvet. Madison, in a three-piece suit that thankfully met Robert’s approval, doing the funky chicken with a woman in white bell-bottoms. Alice in her cat-eye glasses, posing for pictures, calm and dignified in that heavy beaded dress by the staircase.
The following Thursday, December 31, 1970, a breathless review ran on page C2 of the Los Angeles Sentinel, declaring it “certainly ‘The Party of the Year,’ without a doubt” (phrasing that unwittingly introduced the very doubt it sought to dispel). The column ran without pictures and began like this:
One of the Angel City’s most fabulous parties to date was given by the Robert Fosters on Christmas Day, at their home on Victoria Avenue. The prominent physician and his wife, who is president of the L.A. Chapter of the Links, had their large back yard area tinted [sic] for the occasion, and the View Park decorators had a field day.…
For her party, Alice wore a Malcolm Star original that fairly sparkled with jewels.… Mrs. Rufus E. Clement, formerly of Atlanta, and Louisville, Ky., now makes her home in L.A. with her daughter and son-in-law, and assisted in receiving the 400 guests.
Who was there? Well, we could easily say the Who’s Who of L.A. Society.… And believe it or not, at times there were as many as 200 beautiful people, milling, sipping, and just having a marvelous time on Christmas Day at the Robert Fosters.… This was certainly “The Party of the Year,” without a doubt.
Robert had a photo album made of the night’s festivities. It was made of brown leather, and etched onto the front was “Robert’s Birthday” in gold italics. Over the succeeding decades, he would pull out the party album before he would his wedding pictures or his medical degree. The brown leather got worn in spots from the viewing. Usually, he would not bother to mention the Sentinel story nor the party itself so much as what went into it.
“For some reason, it drops,” he told me years later when I asked him about the particulars. “It’s not any less valuable or delicious. But for some reason, it didn’t seem as important as when I was putting it together.”
Some of the guests he never saw again. Some died. Some lost touch. It was a wrap, and everyone was marvelous.
He took comfort in any sign of the night’s immortality. One day he passed the stationery department at Bullock’s. The invitations to his party were mounted and on display. “I went in once and told the lady, ‘That’s mine,’ ” he said. “She looked at me like I was a fool. I just smiled.”
Talking about it kept the party going, and so it never really ended in his mind. He did not wait for reviews, he solicited them. He called Jimmy Marshall, one of his oldest friends from back in Monroe, right after the party.
“Jimmy, did I wig ’em?” he asked.
“Yeah, you hit it,” Jimmy said.
What are they saying, what are they thinking? Robert asked Jimmy. Everyone was bowled over, of course. Jimmy didn’t want to say it, but the Monroe people thought he had gone too far. The black maid in the black-and-white dress and white bow in the foyer was over the top even for Robert.
“We’ve been maids long enough,” Jimmy told Robert. “People didn’t go for that.”
Robert didn’t take it too well. “Either he answered or cussed,” Jimmy said decades later, “which I didn’t care, in either case.”
As long as the two had known each other, Robert’s fixations never made sense to Jimmy. “He always sought approval,” Jimmy said. “And I never understood it because he had it all.”