I don't want to break my appreciation of books or yours, for that matter but writing about books sure takes a lot of the joy out of reading them. It's sort of making me want to stick a fork in my temple, or possibly in the temple of my editor, Will (who recently referred to me as "the kid sister I never wanted," and also yesterday greeted me by barking "READE! What the fuck is your problem!?"). He's a good guy, though he makes me read bad books.
Which brings us to S.F. socialite-cum-dubiously successful humanitarian Pat Montandon's memoir Oh the Hell of It All. The book shouldn't replace Lord of the Rings on anyone's reading list, but it is most certainly a chaser that all impoverished San Franciscans should consume after celebrating their paltry tax returns with an extra Fernet shot or two. This book encapsulates two generations of people completely conquering this city, in a time when the very idea seems laughably naive. It also reminds us youngsters that we are far cleverer than our parents.
Montandon was recently a bullseye of her son Sean Wilsey, in his best-selling and snarktastic 2005 memoir Oh the Glory of It All, a far more entertaining and purposefully funny read than her response. That's not to say that Oh the Hell is not something of a good time. It's just that there is a generation gap between the two accounts, Wilsey's era and tone being kin to Dave Eggers' postmodern precision, and Montandon's being your mom's diary. "Al had turned from Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde," she notes thoughtfully after her husband tells her he's leaving her.
Both books illuminate the perennially entertaining world of totally batshit-insane ultra-rich people, and while that story never gets old, it's much more enjoyable to read it from Sean's biting and hyperactively self-aware perspective than from Pat's dutiful and occasionally on-the-ball account. She has some good zingers, like this one about losing her beloved country home to her ex-husband, Al, and (even worse) his new wife, Dede Wilsey: "I felt like a fish gutted for my eggs so Al and Dede could eat caviar." But that line is tucked in a long passage detailing the visualization exercises her therapist walks her through. Other people's visualization exercises are about as entertaining as other people's dreams, it turns out.
Montandon's storytelling shortcomings, however, cannot dampen the sheer nuttiness of her story. She was raised a preacher's daughter in Oklahoma, picking cotton and sensing sin at every turn. Then she married a loser at 17, divorced him at 31, moved to S.F., and became a shopgirl at Joseph Magnin. This she parlayed somehow into a career as a Frank Sinatra-dating debutante and media doyenne on etiquette and society matters. Then there was another, more publicly disastrous marriage (questionably undertaken in a Shinto ceremony in Japan) to star lawyer and apparent nutcase Melvin Belli. Once that was behind her, Montandon ended up, at 40, married to Al Wilsey, a man who'd made a fortune from individually packaged butter packets. They had Sean and raised him together until Al left Pat for her best friend, Dede, taking his money with him.
All of this should clearly make for entertaining reading, but Montandon's blithely unaware writing torpedoes the fun: "Every weekend we had long al fresco lunches and ate and ate and consumed bottles and bottles of Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot." Good for you, Pat.
Eventually, Pat embarks on a well-publicized campaign to achieve world peace, which, along with her alimony squabbles with Al, and her most self-consciously gracious visits to the Third World, the Pope, and various swamis, consumes most of Oh the Hell.
For a tell-all memoir, there's more grandstanding than gossping. We don't even get to enjoy a weepy confession followed by an uplifting comeback.
We know from Sean's book that Mama Montandon suffered from serious depression. According to Glory, Sean's relationship to his mother was transformed when Pat, rejected by husband and upper-crust society, suggested to her 11-year-old son that they kill themselves together. He later realized she was probably thinking Nembutal, but in the moment a moment that still haunts him now he figured that she wanted them to jump off the deck of their high-rise apartment: "Its drama appeals to her," he wrote in Glory. "The beauty and power of falling into and smashing herself on a city that used to love her and now does not, taking with her the boy who used to love her and now does not."
Pat's account of the episode is a skimpy page long. The bare facts align with Sean's memories, but she doesn't exactly acknowledge the sheer horror of pulling her young son away from his beloved Lord of the Rings and asking him to end their lives then and there. She keeps bringing up the dramatic rain outside, and then leaves it at "Death was inviting. Sean did not want to be here either, I thought." What? Because of the rain? She makes the fateful suggestion, notes the rain ("pouring rain," "wind driven rain"), takes some aspirin and goes to bed, awakening to a "clear dawn." End of story.
Pat probably wouldn't have written this book if it weren't for Sean's scathing account of his adolescence. But her response like the "explanation" of asking her son to commit suicide is unsatisfying. Sean comes out the victor as far as spinning a miserable family life into winning writing, but both memoirs make a solid case against envying the rich.