Walking the humid streets of St. Petersburg, Florida this past August, I discovered that my Proustian madeleine is not a fragrant tea-soaked morsel, but the acrid smell of weeds pushing through cracked cement, the porches of 1920's rooming houses clogged with pots of gangly geraniums, and snails gliding across rain-moistened tiles, with all the time in the world to make it to their next destination... I am remembering visits to my father in Pasadena in the summers of the late 1950's, after he had given up on life in Manhattan and moved to a place where he could live in a modest stucco apartment-complex with a pool right outside his front door.
I was furious that he had abandoned Greenwich Village for such a provincial backwater and I hated that bland, cookie-cutter apartment. Like any normal 15-year-old, I rebelled and stayed inside in the semi-darkness, hair uncombed, reading my W. Somerset Maugham stories and inhaling ginger ale and potato chips. Every once in a while my dad would tap on the screen door & timidly invite me out for a swim, and almost always I refused. How much more exciting to read about Sadie Thompson on her South Pacific island! I had progressed from On Human Bondage (still a formative influence on me) and was riveted by Maugham's tales of decadent post-colonial life.
You are what you read, and I was sure I was becoming more worldly by the hour.
Fast-forward to the present, as I discover the faded 1920's architecture and the restored grand hotels of this gracious old resort town in Florida that I have recently made my second home. It gradually occurs to me that I am connecting with something my father treasured before I did: the ocean, open skies, the feel of clean cotton on skin baptized in chlorine. There is also a vivid sense of unknown possibilities, of civilized danger, lurking somehow. It feels like life has once again become open-ended & infinite, the way it seems in childhood.
(If you are very lucky, and if good books are among your treasured companions.)
How all this can be embodied in an overgrown hibiscus bush and a proudly unshaven senior citizen holding up his beer can to salute me in the evenings as I walk past the weatherworn communal porch of his "residential hotel'- I don't know, but I am filled with emotion and I feel like I understand my father as I never did before.
Another bonus: there's a funky cafe on the St. Petersburg harbor called "Moon Under Water," that features British beers, Anglo-Indian cuisine and a wall of photographs of Singapore in the 1920's....I wouldn't be at all surprised to see W. Somerset himself walk in and sit at his favorite outside table on the little terrace looking towards the yachts bobbing up and down in the marina. Oh, wait- that's MY favorite table.
If you go, be sure to bring a copy of The Razor's Edge as a conversation-starter.
And here's to you, dad.
For fascinating details of Maugham's views on sexually transgressive women, his own bisexuality and a stunning list of the films based on his work, go to