Thursday, February 22, 2007

19 Gramercy Park.

233 Khetwadi Main Road where I grew up – and spent fifty three years of my life – had neither the glamour nor the grandeur nor the opulence nor the august lineage of owners of the 37-room, 18,000 square-foot mansion in New York (19 Gramercy Park) at the southeast corner of 20th Street and Irving Place, directly overlooking Gramercy Park. Here’s where Ben Sonnenberg, also born in 1936 like me, grew up. According to an architectural report at 19 Gramercy Park was built by a Whig politician in 1845. It was later owned by the Stuyvesant Fish family and, from1945 on, by the legendary “flack” (the father of modern PR and spin doctoring for which, according to his son, he was “scandalously well paid” by Philip Morris, Pan Am, Pepsodent, Texaco and Sperry-Rand among others) Benjamin Sonnenberg. This Russian Jew who came to New York from Brest-Litovsk in 1905 when he was just four turned into the most ardent capitalist. It was he who combined 19 Gramercy Park with the six-story apartment building next door at Number Twenty after evicting the tenants, the pacifist socialist leader and Socialist Party Presidential candidate in 1940, 1944 and 1948, Norman Thomas, among them. (Interestingly, Thomas also happened to be also a Conscientious Objector to the Great War which he thought was an "immoral, senseless struggle among rival imperialisms". His brother shared his views and went to prison for resisting the draft. By contrast, Ben dodged the draft by joining the “Company” as his handler called the CIA.) Both Ben and his father led what can be succinctly described as bizarre, make-believe lives. Ben confesses to hating his father. They spent time with each other taking long walks in the neighbourhood since the time Ben was ten till he was in his thirties. Apart from that, Benjamin joined from time to time the self-exiled Ben who was busy running up his debts and running down his trust fund in Cold War Europe of the fifties. The reasons for Ben’s hatred were never spelt out clearly. Benjamin paid most of Ben’s extravagant bills admonishing him from time to time like any normal father. Benjamin’s only fault seemed to be that he was overbearing and over acquisitive, a Collector, which made Ben “a Collector’s Child”. Both father and son quoted widely from various authors. On various occasions, Ben claimed to be living apposite roles of characters from exotic novels. A weird but fascinating tale of the listless and pointless life Ben led with too much happening to him too soon including the CIA and multiple sclerosis is what Lost Property by Ben Sonnenberg is all about. P.S.: In retrospect, it did remind me of Truman Capote's unfinished novel, Answered Prayers especially because of so many NHRN (Not His/Her Real Name) characters strewn all over it as also a "rootless, intelligent and detached" raconteur like Ben was once described by an ex-CIA operative whose name he promptly forgot after using his swimming pool for an entire summer. Ben wrote his memoirs with uncomparable grace, extreme economy and delicious irony - and sometimes lobbing at you obscure words like "banausic" (= merely mechanical or routine) and "emulously" (= with a desire to emulate or competitively) - and refusing to explain them.

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