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Hadley Freeman on a Very Special Family History

Posted on 28th February 2021 by Mark Skinner

A remarkable piece of literary detective work, House of Glass details the lives of Hadley Freeman’s grandmother and her siblings across the globe and through a turbulent twentieth century. Pieced together from a box of family mementoes and journals, this thoroughly involving history is a kaleidoscopic journey from euphoria to tragedy and back again. In this exclusive essay, Hadley describes the sensation of writing such an intensely personal work. 

When I started researching the book that would, eventually, twenty years later, become House of Glass, I was certainly not thinking about me. Instead, I was thinking about my paternal grandmother, Sala Glass Freeman, who had died when I was 16. Sala loved me, very much, and I loved her, but I never allowed her to get close to me, because a kind of sadness hung around her, like one of the designer silk scarves she wore around her neck, and I was too young, too sheltered and just too emotionally immature to understand that adults can be sad, too. So instead, I fled from her, outwardly dismissive of her but inwardly unnerved by her, and after she died I determinedly didn’t think of her at all.

That determination lasted half a decade. When I was 21, I suddenly couldn’t stop thinking of my grandmother. There was something about her wistful melancholia that wound itself around my heart and my brain: I knew there was a story there, but I had no idea what, or how to find it. And so, I began the obvious way: I went back to her home

My uncle Rich, Sala’s youngest son, lived in my grandparents’ former home in Miami, Florida, and, very fortunately for me, he hadn’t thrown away any of her belongings, or even really gone through them. On a sunny afternoon in Miami, I sat down on the floor, and went through my grandmother’s closet. My grandmother had always been extremely chic, and looked more like a Parisian fashion follower than a typical Jewish grandmother in Florida, so I thought there might be a story in how she used clothes to assert her identity: with every Chanel-style jacket she wore, ever Dior-style skirt, she was saying that she was French, not American, even half a century after she fled Paris shortly before the war and came to New York. But in the back of her closet, I found a something that had nothing to do with clothes at all. Instead, it was a shoebox, filled with photos, letters, seemingly unidentifiable keepsakes and a sketch by Picasso.

This shoebox was what I focused on for the next two decades, as it helped me to unearth the true stories of my grandmother and her three brothers – Henri, Jacques and Alex – all of whom stayed behind in Paris after my grandmother went to America. I had known Henri and Alex, who died in the late 80s and 90s respectively, and I remembered them as fascinatingly elegant old men. Henri had been a brilliant engineer and always dressed impeccably, even deep into his 80s, in three piece suits and perfectly ironed pocket handkerchiefs. Alex had been a couturier in mid-century Paris, before switching to becoming a phenomenally successful art dealer, and he lived in what must have been the most beautiful apartment in Paris, filled with works by Matisse, Picasso, Monet and Braque. When they were alive, Henri, Alex and Sala fascinated me, but seemed opaque, unknowable. After they died, I spent two decades belatedly trying to get to know them, using letters, national archives and memories from their contemporaries to learn the truth behind the carefully designed facades, and this was my focus: them, most definitely not me.

After 18 years of research, I finally started writing the book, and friends and editors would occasionally say I should bring more of myself into the story. This irritated me a little. Why must all writing these days – especially writing by women – descend into the first person? And what on earth could I add to this story? These people had gone through the war, the Holocaust, arranged marriage. Could you imagine anything more narcissistic than me forcibly inserting myself and my decidedly less interesting life into this story? I was mortified at the very thought.

But when you write about your past, the present has a way of making itself felt. After my grandmother and her brothers died, my family drifted apart, and I hardly knew any of my French relatives. I got in touch with some of them while writing this book, but others turned up in more unexpected ways. For reasons I’d never really understood or investigated too deeply, after university I decided to work as a fashion journalist, and I was on the fashion desk of The Guardian for a decade. I loved it, but it was, undoubtedly, a slightly strange place for me to end up, given that I – as my parents frequently pointed out – had never really been that interested in fashion. But something clicked inside of me when I was 21, around the same age I started thinking about my grandmother, and this was the career I wanted. It was through working in fashion that I made contact with several of my French cousins, including Henri’s grandson, because we all, improbably, ended up working in the fashion world. It turned out that our grandparents’ love of style and clothes was something we’d all, unknown to us all, inherited.

I also became even more conscious of being Jewish than I already was. Judaism was always an important part of my identity, but writing the book in the shadow of the antisemitism arguments in the Labour party, and then for the book to be published in the wake of the Tory government closing the door on the kind of poor immigrants my grandmother and her brothers once were, inevitably made me think how the past is never dead – it’s not even past, as William Faulkner wrote. We are living in an era of the rise of nationalism, just as my grandmother did, and I now know all too well how the political affected, and in many ways destroyed, the personal.

My grandmother gave up everything so I could live the life of her dreams, and my life is unimaginably easier than hers ever was, thanks to the sacrifices she made. But thanks to my grandmother’s story, I know how quickly global events can undo everything, so that the life you thought you were going to have is gone forever.

 

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