August 23rd, 1978. The Brown family were shocked, each for their own reasons. Mrs. Brown sat silently next to her husband. The older children’s eyes spun wildly like $1,000,000 slot machines. The two younger ones weren’t quite sure of anything. Why him? Why now? What rationale?
In July 1978 the Browns were to travel to Europe, but while they made their plans, the mumps had made their plans too and had settled into the neck glands of Trevor, my charge. Mumps were a problem. While women and children survived the disease well, in adult males it could lead to sterility or death. Mr. Brown tried to keep Trevor’s hopes up but eventually the doctor ruled out travel.
His older sister, Lilith, who was in the throes of a young romance insisted on staying with Trevor. In a house with twenty-two bedrooms and twenty servants Trevor didn’t need or want Lilith to look after him. He, like the rest of the staff, could barely tolerate her. We used to call her the Anti-Christ. It may even have been me who started it. I was Trevor’s driver and bodyguard. I cared for Trevor – more than his own parents. Like Trevor, I was never fond of his siblings. The older boys had grown up during a period when Mr. Brown’s vast industrial fortune was still growing, so they were lean years for the older children. By the time Lilith and Trevor came along their lifestyle was extremely opulent. The older children despised the younger ones for the privileges that their father’s wealth provided them in their childhoods.
Mr. Brown pressed ahead with the trip for him and his wife. Childhood illness would not be permitted to interfere. Although the others were in the dark, Trevor and I were the only ones to know the real reason that Mr. Brown was so adamant they continue – it would be the couple’s last trip together. Unknown to his wife or the other children Mr. Brown had spoken to Trevor a few weeks earlier out by the larger pool. He simply sat down and announced: “Trevor, your mother and I are getting a divorce. Who do you want to live with?” Trevor was dumbfounded, but his reaction was immediate. He would stay with his father. On July 4th, 1978 Mr. and Mrs. Brown left for Europe on their Canadair private jet.
Lilith and Trevor stayed at home and, as anticipated, she was rarely seen or heard from. I was one of the few staff members who had had the mumps so I stayed with Trevor night and day as he ran a high fever and his neck glands became rock solid. Though there was little Trevor could do, he did look forward to a daily call with his father, with whom he shared a dry, sardonic sense of humor. Nobody offered an explanation for Lilith’s constant absences, but her escapades were known: Mr. Brown had eyes everywhere.
About two weeks later Mr. Brown called from Paris; it was a memorable call for two reasons. First, it was Lilith’s birthday, and despite a large party planned for her by the staff, she neither attended nor thanked them. The second reason was that the phone call triggered a domino-like reaction, which took four weeks for the final domino to fall.
Mr. Brown had not been feeling well and was diagnosed with the mumps in Paris – one side of his face had swollen and turned hard almost in an identical fashion to Trevor’s, so it seemed a logical diagnosis. Trevor meanwhile had recovered and was the only Brown on the estate. He was spending most of his time with the horses at the far end of the grounds, playing tennis with me, or swimming in one of the two pools. . And now, with that call, he was awaiting the imminent return of his parents
The next night the parents’ call came from London. The following night it came from New York. Then the house manager contacted all the children and asked them, in no uncertain terms, to be present for the Browns’ return the next day. The family was rarely together in one room. Several times I had to tell Trevor who his elder half brother was when he attended the estate. In fairness he had only seen him five or six times in his life. That is how unusual such a family gathering was. Something big was about to happen.
The next day all the children were settled in the drawing room in an unnatural manner that avoided conversation and eye contact. A lot of families are dysfunctional, but in my experience wealth amplifies dysfunction exponentially. There was no love lost between any of them. The only sound in the room was the clank of tea spoons, a sip of a drink and the crunch of the odd biscuit.
Finally the Mercedes 600 limousine pulled up out in front of the pillars of the Georgian mansion. All the staff were outside on the front steps waiting to greet the Browns. Once in the house, pleasantries were exchanged at a distance with the children: no kisses, no embraces. There was a dangerous but unspoken discord in the air – as though the smallest of sparks would have set off the largest of explosions.
Mr Brown ordered a Dubonnet on the rocks with a twist, and his wife a Crown Royal whiskey. There was silence while the house manager saw to the drinks. Mr. and Mrs. Brown left momentarily to freshen up. I was standing, as I usually did, a meter or two behind Trevor – the staff hadn’t been asked to leave. The room was writhing with melancholic energy and the strange artificiality of the situation. When returning from other trips Mr. and Mrs. Brown would be greeted and retire to their apartment in the mansion.
This was uncomfortable. Lilith rather cruelly suggested the meeting was to announce their mother’s pregnancy. The eldest, Roy, looked Lilith dead in the eye and replied that perhaps the family was broke. Sinisterly he continued that perhaps her father knew about her underage “fuckfest,” and she would be written out of the will like their other brother Jeff had been for a similar offence. Roy had managed two shots across the bows of two siblings with one attack. Trevor, no doubt, thought it was the news of the divorce.
Mr. and Mrs. Brown returned. They took their drinks from a Tiffany tray, and had a sip. The father stood, the mother sat. Mr. Brown began: “you all know we have returned because of a medical problem. When we informed the staff of this, we thought it was the mumps. Doctors in London, however, were not convinced. They sent us to New York where I underwent further testing. Unfortunately, the hard swelling in the neck had moved down to the collarbone and they biopsied it. It is cancerous. I have been told I have four weeks.”
Mr. Brown died on September 24, 1978 one of the richest and poorest men in the world. In his wake he left many questions about love and money and family. Mr. Brown had left Trevor a letter which I leave to the reader below. In a move I thought cruel and unnecessary, Mrs. Brown directed me to tell Trevor his father’s last words: “between family and money… choose money every time.” The others used this to mar the father’s memory but I wanted Trevor to see it from a different perspective: What is a 42 year old man with such a vast fortune going to say? Losing the money doesn’t hurt. Losing your family does. No family, no pain.
September 23, 1978
This weekend was the best on record. The days seem brighter with you around, but they pass too quickly.
I can see I have at least brought one good thing into this world when you came along. You are growing up so fast it is hard to believe it was ten years ago that I had to visit you between meetings while you were fighting for your life in the hospital.
I see a young man who is strong, but gentle, who loves life and seeks wisdom, who is polite and thoughtful, but forgives others their foolishness. Never lose this ability to see the world as it is. Never let people use or hurt your pride. Always be proud!
Use that intelligent mind to make you happy and wise. Your mother and I were never going to make it together but we both knew you were the one good thing we did together.
Ps. Between love and money, choose love.