Thursday, December 15, 2022

Do Levis Show Bulges Better than Armani Wool Slacks?

Wolcottville, Indiana, July 1983

When I was a kid, my family was distinctly working class.  Dad worked in the factory, and Mom worked at the mall.

Our house was about the size of small apartment.

90% of dinners consisted of spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, fried eggs, or -- shudder -- chipped beef on toast.

My parents' relatives were distinctly working class, too.  Not a college graduate among them.  A lot of pick up trucks, country-western music, and Goodwill t-shirts and jeans.


Country western music!

So it came as a shock to discover that I am related to one of the wealthiest families in the world.

In 1982, when I was in grad school in Bloomington, I found out that Dad was adopted.  His biological father was the "black sheep" son of a wealthy northern Indiana businessman.

More research revealed a connection with the McCormicks of Chicago.

You know, Interntional Harvester, the Chicago Tribune, McCormick Place, McCormick School of Engineering, McCormick Theological Seminary, the Art Institute of Chicago, Villa Turicum, the House-in-the-Woods?

A vast dynasty of industrialists, publishers, politicians, and philanthropists descended from the eight children of Virginia inventor Robert McCormick (1780-1846)?

It's a complicated genealogy: I can give you the details if you're interested.  But it turns out that I had a 3rd cousin named Justine McCormick Grossman, 73 years old, daughter of a senator, granddaughter of the U.S. ambassador to Russia and France, living on a farm near Wolcottville, Indiana.

It was only a few miles from Rome City, but Aunt Nora, Dad's older sister, didn't know her.  I guess when you're adopted, you have enough trouble keeping up with your biological father, no time to worry about second cousins.

A relative who was wealthy, sophisticated, a world traveler, who listened to Mozart instead of Willie Nelson, who went to the opera instead of Nazarene revival meetings, who served beef bourguignon instead of chipped beef on toast!  And who, I assumed, was gay-friendly.  After all, weren't rich people tolerant of eccentricities?

So I called.  It took a few minutes to impress upon her who I was, but then she began to reminisce about life in the 1930s:

"My cousin Frank, your grandfather was quite a scandal in our family!" she told me in a scratchy voice.  "He ran off to become a singer in a music hall, of all things!  And then he married his...his housekeeper, who was young enough to be his daughter!  My, how tongues wagged!"

"So -- when his wife died, and he wasn't able to take care of his kids by himself, the Davis family adopted them.  Why didn't... um...a McCormick adopt them?"

That is, Grandma Davis is great and all, but why didn't you become my grandma, and raise my Dad and his sisters in luxury, and give me a car for my high school graduation, and send me to Harvard?

"Oh, your grandpa wanted nothing to do with the McCormicks.  He preferred to spend his time with riff-raff, actors and artists and music-hall singers.  Like that Lloyd Davis."

My Grandpa Davis?  Hey, I thought rich people were accepting of eccentricities and foibles!

I was starting to rile up a bit, but I calmed down when Justine began describing her two children and four grandchildren.  Her grandson Cyrus, named after the original Cyrus, was a theater arts major at Indiana University.  He went by his middle name, Michael.

My cousin, the scion of the ultra-wealthy McCormick family, was walking on the same campus as me?

He was probably more liberal.

Maybe we would become friends.  We would hang out in House-in-the-Woods or Cavigny, sail on his yacht, fly over to London and Paris, chat about caviar...

Or we would become lovers.  He no doubt had a handsome, aristocratic face, dark hair, a gym-toned physique, and an enormous Mortadella beneath the belt.  I knew from my doomed pursuit of Richie Rich that virgin wool slacks show baskets a lot more effectively than our working-class Levis.

I fantasized about going down on him as we lay on the silk sheets in the gild-and-wood bedroom where he once prepared for polo matches and studied his Latin lessons.

Cousin Justine was mistaken -- there was no one named Cyrus Michael McCormick Grossman Hawthorne on campus.

"Oh, maybe he graduated already," she said.  "You know how time flies when you get older.  I think he's in Philadelphia now.  Let me look up the address for you."

The address was around the corner from a Philadelphia gay bar listed in my Gayellow Pages.  Michael was obviously gay!

Still, too far to go for a rich relative, gay or not, so I forgot about it until the summer of 1983, when Cousin Justine died.  Her daughter found my name in her address book, and had her assistant invite me to the funeral.

It was an odd prospect, going to the funeral of someone I'd never met and only spoke to twice. But, I figured, it would be a chance to meet other McCormicks, including my fifth cousin, the gay Philadelphia theater arts major named Cyrus Michael.

In July 1983, I drove from Bloomington up to an Episcopal Church in Elkhart, Indiana for the funeral.  The reception was held at the home of Justine's daughter and son-in-law: an English Tudor with sculpted grounds.

As I mingled among the McCormcks, Grossmans, Hawthornes, Dressers, Jacksons, and Bialis, I heard the same right-wing politics as among my working-class relatives.  Maybe worse.

Cousin Michael was tall, lithe, rather feminine, with glasses and a short beard. In 1983 you didn't come out to strangers (or anyone else, for that matter),  But how could he not be gay?

"I grew up on stories of your grandpa's dirty tricks," he told me.  "I always thought it was so cool to be able to do your own thing, without all the obligations that come with being a McCormick.  In fact, I think that's what gave me the motivation to become an actor."

The grass is always greener....

See also: Was My Grandfather Gay?


  1. I adapted the title from a novel called "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up," that was popular when I was in high school. It was a humorous coming-of-age story. I was enjoying reading it, until I found out what the title referred to.

    1. LOL but seriously, can I introduce your past self to Orange County some time? End all pretense that the aristos are better about, well, anything?

  2. Hey, don't knock country music. My favorite subgenre is the feminist murder ballad, such as Martina McBride's "Independence Day".

  3. By the way, I find it interesting that you conflate "working class" with "right-wing politics" and I'm thinking, dude, Gary Hart was a moron and his fanbois stabbed Clinton in the back just so Democrats would seemingly lose labor. Don't be Gary Hart.



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