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In 1866, my mother’s great-grandparents Eugene and Mary Robinson Bremond bought a house and property on a hill overlooking the Colorado River, in what’s now downtown Austin, Texas. Other Bremonds and Robinsons bought or built houses nearby—two of Eugene’s sisters married two of Mary’s brothers—and created a family compound that eventually filled one block and parts of two others. All the houses on the main block are still standing. They look much as they did in the eighteen-hundreds, except that today they’re surrounded by office buildings. In 1970, the area was designated the Bremond Block Historic District.
The Bremonds sold dry goods, and Eugene opened a private bank in the back of the family store. The businesses were so lucrative that in 1876 a local newspaper estimated that five per cent of all the taxes collected in Austin were paid by Bremonds. My mother’s mother, Anne Bremond, was born in 1894. She grew up at the northwest corner of West Eighth and San Antonio, in a house that had been a wedding present to her parents from Eugene. Because of the three interfamily marriages, her regular playmates included the children of fifteen double first cousins. They treated the alley and open area in the center of the block as a communal back yard.
One of the many thoughts I had when I began to learn about all this was: Hold on a second—shouldn’t I be rich? But the path from past to present, when it comes to money, is seldom short, direct, or free of complications. In 2010, Ann Johnston Dolce—my third cousin once removed, whose great-aunt Catherine Robinson also lived on the Bremond Block, in the house next to my grandmother’s—privately published a comprehensive family history. I’m in the book, but my entry is on page three hundred and twenty-five, and my children’s is sixty-seven pages later. That’s a lot of genealogy for even a huge fortune to filter down through, and this one, whatever it originally amounted to, definitely did not do that.
Having so many relatives I’d never heard of isn’t the only reason I still need to work. In the nineteen-twenties, the family bank, which by then had been chartered as State National Bank, was in trouble. My grandmother’s father was its president at the time. According to my mother, he was so distraught that, in 1925, he drowned himself, in a well by his house. His death certificate listed the cause as a heart attack, but the doctor who signed it was the husband of one of his cousins. The largest of the Bremond Block houses—one of the first houses in Austin with an indoor toilet, built by John Bremond, Jr., in 1886—belonged for many years to the Y.M.C.A. In 1969, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, which already owned my grandmother’s childhood home, bought it and converted the rooms into offices, after removing shag carpeting, showers, and ceiling hooks that had held punching bags.
Other kinds of legacies resist inheritance, too—or so one hopes. No one got rich in Texas in the eighteen-hundreds without contributions from slavery, even after slavery had technically ceased to exist. My grandmother’s maternal grandmother’s second husband, whom she married in 1883, was Alexander Terrell, commonly known as Judge Terrell. He had been a Confederate colonel during the Civil War, and was named a brigadier general just as the fighting ended. He fled to Mexico after the South surrendered, rather than live in the home of the Emancipation Proclamation, and served briefly as one of Emperor Maximilian’s battalion commanders. Soon, though, he returned to Texas. He was elected to the State Senate in 1876, and later served in the state’s House of Representatives. One of his legislative priorities in those years was disenfranchising Black Americans. (He was responsible for the so-called Terrell Election Law, enacted in 1903, which enabled county party committees to bar non-whites from voting in primary elections.) In 1893, President Grover Cleveland chose him to be the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire. Before the Senate hearing to confirm his appointment, according to an account that my mother found in some family documents, Cleveland asked Terrell about a poem that he was rumored to have written shortly after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated: nine fierce six-line stanzas arguing that John Wilkes Booth—“who dared break the rod / Of the blackamoor’s god”—was a national hero. Cleveland supposedly showed him a copy and asked him whether he’d written it:
Judge Terrell replied, “Mr. President, the authorship of this poem has been for long in dispute. Were I to acknowledge it, it would revive a literary controversy, and were I to disclaim it, it would be ascribed to political cowardice; so, with your permission, I will neither affirm nor deny.” Mr. Cleveland folded the poem and returned it to his pocket and simply said, “All that I wanted to say was that it is damned fine poetry.”
My grandmother first told me some version of this story when I was too young to have any conception of what the poem was about. I recall being impressed that someone I was related to had written something that was admired by Grover Cleveland, whose name sounded familiar.
According to Lewis L. Gould, who wrote a biography of Terrell, the poem was actually written by Alfred W. Arrington, who served as a district judge in Texas in the eighteen-fifties. At any rate, Terrell was my step-great-great-grandfather.
My other grandmother—my father’s mother—often told me that I was related to Daniel Boone, and all through grade school I held my head a little higher. Recently, with help from ancestry.com, my son was able to determine the exact relationship: we are Daniel Boone’s first cousins, eight times removed in his case, seven times in mine. I was interested, of course, but I also wondered what one gains by tracing one’s so-called lineage, since if you go back far enough almost everyone turns out to be related to almost everyone else. I was reminded of a koan-like question that my daughter asked, shortly before she turned five, about a different olden-days guy (to whom we are not related, as far as I know): “Why was Davy Crockett real?”
Nevertheless, there are fascinations. My grandmother spent her adult life in Kansas City, but often returned to Austin. During one trip, in the nineteen-thirties, she took my mother to see a parade and realized she had parked in front of the house of a former suitor. My mother was five or six, and her hair (she recalled later) was done up in curlers, bobby pins, or strips of cloth, because my grandmother was trying to give her ringlets, like Shirley Temple’s. My grandmother told my mother to slump down in her seat, because she didn’t want an old beau to see her looking like that. “The man who lives in that house might have been your father,” she said.
Temple’s movies in that period included “The Little Colonel,” which was based on a book of the same name, by Annie Fellows Johnston. The book is about a feisty little girl who brings about a rapprochement between her grandfather, who had been a Confederate colonel during the Civil War, and her mother, whom he disowned when she married a Yankee. The book and its sequels were my grandmother’s favorites. When she was in her nineties and confined to a bed in a nursing home, she read and reread large-print copies, which my mother had taped back together many times, until their pages were almost laminated. The movie’s best-known scene—in which the title character, played by Temple, tap-dances on a staircase with one of her grandfather’s Black servants, played by Bill (Bojangles) Robinson—isn’t in the book. Temple said in her autobiography that it wasn’t in prints of the movie that were shown in the South, either, because Temple and Robinson, during part of the scene, hold hands. The book’s casual racism is appalling; so is its head-spinning superabundance of apostrophes: “Fritz, would you rathah have some ’trawberries an’ be tied up fo’ runnin’ away, or not be tied up and not have any of those nice tas’en ’trawberries?” (Fritz is the Little Colonel’s dog.) It’s a book that no one would read to a child today, I hope.
Will Dusenbury and my mother in the garden of his Portville, New York, home.
I know from a family history compiled by my mother that my grandmother married my grandfather, Carl Dusenbury Matz, on October 5, 1918. Carl was an Army captain. At the time of the wedding, he was stationed in Austin, at the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of Texas, but he wasn’t a Texan. He was born in Hoosick Falls, New York, in 1887, and he had degrees from Williams College and Harvard Law School. He was thirty-one, and my grandmother was twenty-four. During the ceremony, he had a severe case of the flu—and it was probably the Spanish flu, which was spreading in Texas at that time, especially in places like military bases and college campuses. He was lucky, though, and didn’t die. (It’s always interesting to contemplate the innumerable accidents by which one nearly failed to come into being.)
If I could choose one end of my family’s gene pool to swim in, I’d choose Carl’s. His grandfather Otto H. Matz grew up in Berlin, and his family owned a company that made silk clothing and furnishings. In 1848, when he was eighteen, Otto joined a large crowd in front of the Royal Palace, which was across the canal from his father’s factory, on Unterwasserstraße. This was the beginning of what became known as the March Revolution. Friedrich Wilhelm IV spoke from a balcony, and announced a number of reforms. The crowd became disorderly, officers fired two musket shots, and mounted soldiers beat back panicking spectators with the flats of their sabre blades. “With some difficulty crawling out from under and between the legs of the horses, I got disentangled,” Otto wrote, almost fifty years later, in an unpublished memoir. He moved with the mob into the adjoining streets. The rioters overturned wagons, armed themselves with pickaxes and crowbars, and pried up paving stones. For two days, he was unable to return home. “The rattling musketry and booming of cannons became terrific,” he wrote. Fires burned throughout the city. He suggests in his memoir that he was a spectator only—“The military always had a great attraction for me, so I managed to be close up to it”—but he helped to carry the dead and wounded into nearby churches, and to place them in rows around the altars, and he returned later to watch a long funeral procession, for around two hundred of the dead, “each coffin being carried by six working men.”
Otto’s oldest brother had been among the soldiers sent to contain the rioters; when the fighting ended, his regiment was “ordered north to assist in the struggle between Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein”—one of the many conflicts taking place in Europe at that time. Soon afterward, their father found his name on a published list of casualties. The family was devastated, but the listing turned out to be a mistake.
The next year, Otto’s sister Marie, who was five years older, ran off with a young man her parents didn’t approve of. “Mother was crazed with grief and heartbroken,” Otto wrote. “It was finally ascertained that they had left by way of Bremen for America, but not on what vessel or for what port.” He volunteered to find her, perhaps partly to avoid being called up by the Army. “But now the question arose, whether I shall go to North or South America?” He decided to “cut the Gordian knot” by taking the first ship that cleared, and ended up on the Franklin, a wooden sailing ship bound for New York. There were five dozen other passengers, all but two in steerage, and the crossing, in miserable weather, took almost two months. Some of the passengers stayed below the entire trip, but Otto spent most of his time on deck. “I often went into the rigging with the sailors and made myself generally useful,” he wrote. The captain liked him, and had a bunk for him moved into his own cabin, which was the size of a large closet. During one particularly fierce storm, a chicken coop that Otto was clinging to on deck broke free. He would have been swept overboard, he wrote, if the first mate hadn’t grabbed his leg as he slid past. The chickens went into the ocean.
Otto eventually did meet up with his sister and her lover, who had landed in New Orleans, married, and settled on a farm near St. Louis. They were incompetent farmers, but they didn’t return to Berlin. Otto didn’t, either. Before leaving for America, he had decided to pursue “the building arts” as a career, and when he arrived in New York he lived at first in a German boarding house and divided his time between learning English and wandering through the city sketching buildings, which were different from the ones he had studied at home. After reuniting with his sister, he found work as a draftsman in Galena, Illinois, two hundred and sixty miles north of St. Louis, and eventually got a job as an architect for a railroad company. In 1861, shortly after the Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter, he enlisted in the United States Army, and served mainly as a surveyor and mapmaker. He conferred with many of the Union generals you read about in books. “In their retreats, they generally insisted that their lines were marked too close to the Tennessee Landing,” he wrote, referring to Shiloh, “and in their advances not close enough to the retreating column of the enemy.” During the Siege of Vicksburg, he met General Grant’s oldest child, Frederick, who was accompanying his father. Frederick turned thirteen shortly after he arrived. “He had been presented with a handsome Indian pony and to our great amusement we saw the General mount the pony and race along the ridge between the two rows of tents, his legs almost touching the ground.”
One night during the siege, Otto recounted, General Grant stepped into his tent, asked to see a particular map, and fell asleep on Otto’s cot. “Every little while General Rawlins looked in but concluded not to disturb him, though it was midnight,” Otto wrote. “Towards sunrise and finding me still sitting on my camp chair in front of a desk made out of a dry goods box, having burned one candle after another, he arose with great astonishment and excused himself with his usual politeness for having robbed me of a night’s rest, though blaming me for not having awakened him, he added that he had not slept so well for a long while.” After the surrender, Otto and the other soldiers proceeded into the city with Grant. “After a six mile ride over a dusty road we reached the enemy’s headquarters and the officers of both armies were soon fraternizing and chattering over old times when they were chums at West Point,” he wrote. Grant later ordered Otto to take his Vicksburg map to St. Louis, to have it photographed, and then send it to Washington. He travelled to St. Louis by riverboat, and met Grant’s father during the trip. “He talked a great deal about Ulysses to anybody who was willing to listen to him for any length of time,” he wrote. “His whole demeanor was rather childish, but his eyes glistened when he talked of his son.”
Not long after Vicksburg, Otto left the Army as a major and worked as an architect in Chicago. Among the buildings he designed was the Nixon Block (named after its developer), at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Monroe. In it, he experimentally used a variety of fireproofing construction materials and techniques—including thickly coating the iron frame with plaster of Paris—and the building was nearly finished when, in 1871, the Chicago fire broke out. Until the Nixon Block was torn down, twenty-two years later, an inscription on a cornerstone read “This fire-proof building is the only one in the city that successfully stood the test of the Great Fire”—not strictly true, but almost.
After the fire, Otto helped to rebuild Chicago. The only structure of his that’s still standing, as far as I know, is the old Cook County Criminal Court Building, on West Hubbard Street, inside which Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago, were convicted of kidnapping and murdering Bobby Franks, a fourteen-year-old cousin and neighbor of Loeb’s. (The case was referred to at the time as “the crime of the century.” Leopold and Loeb had planned the murder as an intellectual exercise, and assumed they were too brilliant to be caught. At their trial, they were defended by Clarence Darrow, but both were convicted, and sentenced to life in prison plus ninety-nine years.) The Chicago Black Sox trial took place there, too. The building was designated a city landmark in 1993, and is now called Courthouse Place. My brother was in Chicago on business in 2012. He happened to be walking down Hubbard Street, and was startled when he noticed his great-great-grandfather’s name on a plaque.
When I was growing up, there was a glass-topped display table in my grandmother’s living room. The most fascinating item inside it was a small gold case, on the lid of which the tughra, or monogram, of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire had been densely inlaid with tiny gems—a gift from the Sultan to my great-great-grandmother during Judge Terrell’s posting in Constantinople. (My grandmother’s parents visited them there, and spent more than a year travelling around Europe. My great-grandmother kept a diary, in which she wrote that she was unimpressed by the Sultan, the Orient Express, and the women in France, whom she described as “certainly not pretty.” My grandmother was born shortly after she and her husband got back to Texas.) I loved gazing at the gold case, which Mrs. Terrell had given to my grandmother as a wedding present, and sometimes I was allowed to take it out and snap it open and shut. It was originally meant to hold cigarettes, but my great-great-grandmother had had a jeweller in Austin turn it into a compact for face powder. Throughout my childhood, I assumed that it must be worth millions, but its actual value turned out to be so much less that no one in my family even remembers what happened to it.
Other family legacies came to similar ends. Between 1931 and 1941, my mother and grandmother spent most of every summer in Portville, New York, as the guests of Will Dusenbury, a wealthy relative of my grandfather’s. They stayed in a big Queen Anne-style house across the street from his, and they often visited a retreat that he had built on thirty-nine wooded acres not far from town. The retreat, called Hilltop, had a main house with a large living room that was filled with leather furniture, fur rugs, and stuffed and carved animals. It also had a panelled dining room in which the table—made from a single immense tree trunk—could seat twenty-four, my mother recalled. The landscaping was created by gardeners whom Will had brought from Germany, and a German couple lived on the grounds and did the cooking, some of it in a charcoal oven that had its own room, next to the kitchen. There were several outbuildings, including a guest house and a large kennel, where Will kept English and Irish setters. He used Hilltop to entertain friends, business associates, and the occasional celebrity—the actor, singer, and bandleader Rudy Vallée was one—and as a place to escape from his work, as the president of a bank and an investor in lumber and oil wells.
Will died in 1942. He left Hilltop to his younger brother, Duncan, and later it was owned by people who tried to run it as a restaurant. My mother, my father, my brother, and my brother’s wife had lunch there in 1990, after attending a burial service for my grandmother. “The food was mediocre, but you could see a tiny bit of what Hilltop had been like in its glory days,” my mother told me. In the summer of 2019, during a leisurely solo road trip from Connecticut to Kansas City, I myself went looking for Hilltop, which I’d never seen. Its last commercial iteration, a “glampground,” had folded, although a Web site still existed. (A one-star review on Yelp from 2012 said, “Our room reeked of urine and mold, the door did not lock, no screens on door or windows, no air conditioning, no refrigerator or microwave as advertised, restaurant no longer open.”) I drove to the spot where Google Maps indicated it ought to be, but didn’t find it. I was about to give up when I spotted two listing stone pillars, inscribed “Hilltop est. 1928.”
The driveway was half a mile long. What was left of the place looked like a rundown commune: lots of old pickup trucks and cars, buildings falling down, broken windows, a lone duck swimming in green water in what had once been a fountain. I had passed a dozen rusting mailboxes mounted in a row just outside the entrance, so I assumed that at least that many unrelated people must be living somewhere on the grounds—including, maybe, in three derelict R.V.s I saw parked together. A big television screen was glowing inside the main house, and I idled for a while in front of a window. But no one came out, and I was afraid to knock.
Will gave away a lot of money, both during his lifetime and at his death. He left a substantial amount to Duncan, who had epilepsy and several learning disabilities, and hadn’t gone to college. Duncan lived with his mother until she died, when he was in his thirties, and worked mostly as a farmer. He lived in Will’s old house, which I remember, vaguely, from a visit my family made to Portville on our way home from the New York World’s Fair in 1964, when Duncan would have been in his early seventies. Wondering to whom Duncan would leave what was left of the family fortune kept my grandmother alive for several years (she thought the money ought to go to my mother); then, after Duncan died, her fury at him for leaving much of it to Lawrenceville and Princeton (the prep school and college that Will had attended) kept her alive for several more. No one except my grandmother had ever thought that those millions had anything to do with my mother. And—as is often the case with inheritances of all kinds—it’s probably for the best that they didn’t. ♦