book Mysteries of My Father

reviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 100 ~ September, 2005

If you have a father who walks into a dentist’s office and demands that all his teeth be pulled out at the same time, it’s a tough act to follow, much less measure up to, but that’s what historian and novelist Tom Fleming’s father did in the early years of the previous century. The reason, fierce and determined ambition, Fleming’s Irish-American father’s teeth were “a protruding, twisting mess” and he hoped a set of false teeth would transform his appearance more toward “the strong-jawed Anglo-Saxon Protestant types that dominated the stages of Broadway and the advertisements in newspapers and magazines” of that time.

In Mysteries of My Father, Fleming writes the history of his family, and specifically his father, Teddy Fleming, as the author tries to come to grips with the Irish-American experience and the no holds barred politics of Jersey City before World War Two. His father’s rise to political power from a childhood living in a tenement with no heat or running water, and a time when showing up for work at a factory, you were simply asked “Protestant or Catholic?” And the answer “Catholic” was met with a routine “No work today.”

With the style of a novelist, which he is, and in a compelling narrative voice, Fleming traces the paths of his two sets of grandparents, the eventual meeting and coming together of his parents, and then the painful years of his childhood as he watched his mother, the former Kitty Dolan, and his father travel down very different forks in the road to what was believed to be a desired destination in early 20th Century urban America.

Fleming, who has published 22 novels and almost as many history books, including Liberty! The American Revolution and Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America, during his long and distinguished career, is more than up to the task of looking back and attempting to understand the make up and complex motivations of both his mother and father.

Teddy Fleming’s rise from poverty to power is a remarkable tale of a man driven with guts and drive, but also hiding a sentimental side, a vulnerable side which proved that he couldn’t survive in isolation. Although a boxer, a veteran of World War One, and a survivor of the play for keeps power struggle within the Jersey City ward political system of patronage and loyalty or else, Teddy Fleming also had a deep need, if hard to express love of his two sons, the author and his younger brother.

Trying to understand the paradox of his father and his parents battle for his love inspired Fleming to record the history of an Irish-American immigrant family, his family, and the struggle to survive in the turn of the century slums of Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

It’s the story of a treasured ring, a gold ring which Fleming received from his father, who, in turn, had been presented the ring from the larger than life Mayor of Jersey City, Frank Hague, when the older Fleming became sheriff. According to Fleming, by giving him that ring, simply inscribed “From Mayor Frank Hague to Sheriff Teddy Fleming 1945,” his father was saying “being born Irish-American and poor, winning a commission in the U.S. Army, making good as the Sixth Ward leader, becoming chairman of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, judge of the Second Criminal Court, sheriff of Hudson County” was not bad for someone who was lucky to make it out of the eighth grade,

Fleming was in France in 1968, in the Argonne Forest, where his father had fought during the Great War, doing research for a book, when he slipped in the mud and lost the ring. Fleming was devastated. He frantically searched the area, but no luck, it was gone, lost, the ring which bonded him with his father and his father’s achievements, a priceless gift handed down from one generation to the next.

A realist, who has experienced and accepted his share of personal pain, Fleming reconciled himself to the loss of the ring. Then, unexpectedly, almost miraculously, thirty years later, in 1998, a young Frenchman, Gil Malmasson, a professional photographer who lived in a suburb of Paris, contacted Fleming via the Internet and said he’d found the long lost ring. A stunned, but overjoyed Fleming immediately flew to France, met Malmasson, whose favorite hobby was metal detecting, which was what he had been doing when he discovered the ring, and the two men returned to the Argonne Forest where Fleming had lost the ring three decades earlier. In that same spot, a spot which has witnessed history, both world history, and personal history for Fleming, Malmasson placed the ring back on Fleming’s finger.

It was at that moment, through the unexpected recovery of Teddy Fleming’s ring, that Fleming decided to write Mysteries of My Father, a memoir which inevitably deals with the interacting themes of political power and love. In the Fleming family, it wasn’t another woman who created a love triangle, but the almost all encompassing power of Mayor Hague, forcing Fleming’s mother to use her son as a pawn in the fight for her husband’s loyalty, a loyalty which Fleming’s father seemed to give to Mayor Hague above all else.

“Maybe I could finally explain to myself and others how fear of Teddy Fleming turned to forgiveness and dislike to admiration,” Fleming writes in the beginning of Mysteries of My Father. “Maybe I could face — and understand — and forgive — Katherine Dolan Fleming’s embittered attempts to make me a fellow antagonist of the man she publicly admired and privately disdained.” To many, and to most outsiders, Mayor Frank Hague was a crook and a tyrant, but to Fleming’s father, Hague was someone who had successfully fought to give his people, the poor Irish of Jersey City, a sense of pride and belonging in their new homeland, America. While Fleming is too much of a realist, and a student of history, to attempt to defend, romanticize, or idealize Hague, he does explain why Hague was so successful, how Hague was able to become chairman of the New Jersey Democratic party, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and how Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of all people, was forced to seek out Hague for support when FDR decided to run for a third term as President in 1940.

As Fleming’s father became more successful in the political world, his mother became more embittered, intensely disliking the poor and uneducated voters of the Sixth Ward, and resenting Teddy Fleming for apparently choosing them over family.

Fleming has confessed that the clash between his mother and father ultimately resulted in him becoming an historian and a novelist. Initially, he studied history to try and understand, and then he began to write novels to explore different individuals and their own encounters with history. Now, in an honest and absorbing memoir, Tom Fleming has brought his parents back to life on the page with an emotional, yet objective account of where they came from, how they met, and what it was like growing up in a household with parents who represented two such separate extremes of the Irish- American experience in the pre-World War Two United States.