The Best Times: An Informal Memoir

The Best Times: An Informal Memoir

by John Dos Passos


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A record of his childhood, young adulthood, and twenties, The Best Times is a collage of cherished memories. He reflects on the joys of an itinerant life enriched by new and diverse friendships, customs, cultures, and cuisines.

Luminary personalities and landscapes abound in the 1920s literary world Dos Passos loved. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Horsley Gantt—they are his beloved friends. Spain, the French Riviera, Paris, Persia, the Caucasus—they are his beloved footpaths.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504011464
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 07/14/2015
Pages: 234
Sales rank: 867,990
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)

About the Author

John Roderigo Dos Passos (1896–1970) was a writer, painter, and political activist. He wrote over forty books, including plays, poetry, novels, biographies, histories, and memoirs. He crafted over four hundred drawings, watercolors, and other artworks.
Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He preferred the moniker of “chronicler” because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.
Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”—and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of songs, newsreels, biographies, third-person fictional narrative, and first-person semi-autobiographical narrative snapshots to convey the frenzy of America’s industrialism and urbanism in the twentieth century. His most memorable fiction—Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the U.S.A. trilogy (1938)—possesses the authority of history and the allure of myth. Likewise, he sought to vitalize nonfiction history and reportage with the colors, sounds, and smells documented on his journeys across the globe.  

Read an Excerpt

The Best Times

An Informal Memoir

By John Dos Passos


Copyright © 1966 John Dos Passos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1143-3


The Commodore

For years a wooden box full of my father's letters has stood on my mantel at Spence's Point. It is a box I made in a manual training course when I was eleven or twelve maybe. It's not too bad a job; I'm sure I couldn't do anything of the sort now. It's made of pine with bevelled corners, neatly squared and varnished. It even has a little brass latch. I haven't the faintest idea how the box has managed to survive. Time and again I have started reading the letters, but each time it has been as if a great fist squeezed my heart. I just couldn't go on.

These are letters my father wrote me during the last seven or eight years of his life.

Now that I have reached the age he had reached when he wrote them maybe I can summon the fortitude to copy out enough from them to make his figure stand up out of the shades.

As I remember him he was a short broad shouldered man, very bald, with gray mustaches that bristled like the horns of a fighting bull. His skin was so transparent the blue veins stood out on his forehead. When he went out he carried a cherry cane and walked with a springy almost truculent step. There was a happy defiance in the way the curled points of his mustaches bristled. They responded to his mood. The few times I saw them droop I felt sick with dismay.

He got up at six or earlier and charged into each new day like a bull charging into the arena. First he did a half hour of vigorous setting-up exercises. Then he plunged into whatever cold salt water was to be had. Out on his boat on the Potomac he would go overboard. At his house in New York he would put ice cream salt in his tub.

How the smells cling in your memory! Even today his image is associated in my mind with the smell of melons. There lingers somewhere in the back of my head an infantile memory of a table with a white cloth in a sunny window—sunlight through lace curtains—and the sun flashing on his bald head as he leaned over to slice a huge yellow melon. I must have been very small, in a high chair probably, because in the picture everything is very large. The melon is enormous. He was nearsighted and had a way of taking off his pincenez to see something close to. He is leaning over the slices of melon to flick the seeds off. I can see the red places where the pincenez have cut into the skin on either side of his nose. He's laughing about something. Breakfast was a favorite meal. He loved to hold forth at breakfast. The memory is full of good humor.

My mother suffered a series of minor strokes and was a helpless invalid during the last years of her life. A year before she died John R.'s mind must have suddenly filled with thoughts of his own death because he wrote out his instructions, in his bold hand that showed both points of the steel pen in the broad strokes, to his executors as to how he wanted to be buried. The paper only came into my hands after my half brother Louis' death. The envelope was addressed to Joe Schmidt, my father's secretary, who worked for him with enthusiastic devotion for many years. There is a notation on the envelope in my cousin Cyril's hand, "not opened until after the funeral," which explains why John R. was buried in New York. As soon as I glanced at it I tucked it away in the wooden box.

"To my Executors" it reads. He does not want to be buried in New York, but wants his body to be buried where he buried my mother a year later, in the churchyard of old Yeocomico Church at Tucker Hill near our place in Virginia.

As I look upon death to be but an epoch in a perpetual journey and as I am sure to enter into a better and happier life I wish no mourning to be worn by my family. On the contrary I desire them to hail the event with joy and, instead of solemnity, to celebrate it with hilarity and mirth. Man is the meanest thing on earth, the lowest in the scale of animal or vegetable life. He who dies therefore is bound to find something better in the next life. The degree or state which he will occupy in his new existence will depend upon his intellectual and moral culture. I accordingly do not dread death but look upon Him as a fortunate and welcome visitor. If the weather permits I wish to have a funeral festival held at Sandy Point with beer, punch and the eating auxiliaries served. And let those who enjoy the festivities remember that I do not envy them. On the contrary I tender them my sympathies.

New York, June 19, 1914 John R. Dos Passos

He loved to play the lavish host. Westmoreland County, where he had bought what turned out to be the family farm, was a remote and rural area then. One of his delights was to invite all the neighbors, white and colored alike, to a Christmas barbecue at Sandy Point, or to a foxhunt on his land. Sometimes a steer was roasted whole in a pit. There was an endless supply of oysters shucked out of the barrel or roasted on an iron sheet. Kegs of beer had come down on the boat from Washington or Baltimore. There was punch for the gentry. These were the festivities he was projecting for his funeral.

I was born late in both my father's and my mother's lives. Each had a son some eighteen years older than I was. My mother's people were Marylanders who had chosen the Confederate side in the Civil War. As a little girl Mother went through the siege of Petersburg. Though there was some dispute in the Sprigg family as to which of the children it was, I firmly believed when I was small that it was my mother General Lee had taken up on his white horse, Traveller.

My father was a fervent abolitionist and ran off as a boy to serve in the northern army. I came to know him—through the turbulence of conflicting currents of love and hate that mark so many men's feeling for their fathers—at the end of his lusty climb to wealth and influence.

John R. was born in Philadelphia in 1844. His father, Manoel dos Passos, was an immigrant from the town of Punta do Sol on the island of Madeira, and his mother, Lucy Catell, came from a family of South Jersey Quakers. My father remembered her as attending the Methodist Church.

Manoel dos Passos's baptismal certificate reads 1812. He was born in Punta do Sol, a tiny town buried in a deep gash in the mountain a few miles east of Funchal, which is the capital of Madeira. Fishing boats are hauled up on the shingle beach below and on the slopes above are the vineyards and irrigated and terraced croplands that support the population. While I was growing up I thought of my father's people as tillers of the soil, but they actually seem to have been men of the counting house and the pen, notaries, minor officials. There were priests in the collateral branches. On the central square a solid-looking residence with the seven stars of the Great Bear engraved over the door is still known as the Vila Passos.

My grandfather had to leave Punta do Sol in a hurry as a very young man as a result of some incident involving a stabbing. He shipped out for America and is said to have landed in Baltimore. He worked as a cobbler and later made shoes. Eventually he moved to Philadelphia and married and raised a family. His earnings were skimpy. My grandmother had a hard time keeping the children clothed and fed. A man of exigent tastes, particularly about cookery, my grandfather had a terrible temper. My father used to tell me that if his father didn't like the way a dish was cooked he would raise the window and pitch it out into the street. The hungry children would sit in their chairs wide-eyed with horror at seeing their dinner disappear.

After an attempt to run away to sea, my father went to work as an office boy for a law firm and soon became the chief support of the family. When the Civil War broke out he enlisted as a drummer in some Pennsylvania regiment. So far as I know he never saw combat but was sent home from the reserves back of Antietam with a severe case of dysentery. Working his way according to the apprenticeship system he studied law in the office of an attorney named Price, and took courses at the University of Pennsylvania night school.

When I was a small boy I met Mr. Price. John R. asked him to lunch on his boat. Although he was well over ninety, he came up the gangway of the Gaivota, anchored off some Philadelphia yacht club, with a light step. John R., who always said he owed his start in life to Mr. Price's teaching and kindness, treated him with affectionate deference. His daughter, a nice jolly woman with flashing black eyes, came along. They both called my father Jack. That made an impression on me because up to then I'd been the only Jack in the family. I was further impressed by the fact that Mr. Price's daughter smoked small black cigars.

John R. moved to New York at the age of twenty three and hung out his shingle in an office that had once been occupied by Aaron Burr. He first made his mark in the law courts by getting the charge against a Frenchman who had shot his wife dead in a fit of jealousy reduced from murder to manslaughter. As a result he was retained by the Stokes family when young Edward S. Stokes was convicted of murder for shooting Jim Fisk.

This was the most sensational criminal trial of the seventies in New York. The Stokes family was rich and prominent in every phase of the city's life. Jim Fisk was a peddler from Vermont who had made a fortune in cotton during the Civil War. He owned a brokerage house and had won a garish sort of fame by joining with Jay Gould in the plundering of the Erie Railroad and in an attempt to corner the gold market which brought about the Black Friday panic on Wall Street in 1869. He owned a hotel and an opera house and called himself Admiral of the Fall River Line and was the flashiest of the financial buccaneers of the day. Stokes shot him before a number of witnesses in the lobby of the Grand Central Hotel on Broadway. The quarrel was over the favors of a well known actress. John R. was asked to join the counsel for the defense after Stokes was convicted of murder in his first trial and was generally credited with getting the verdict set aside.

His success in the Stokes case left him at twenty seven one of the leading attorneys at the New York bar. He married a lady of means and social standing and moved into a new office in the Mills Building across the street from the Stock Exchange. There he made himself an expert in the law as it pertained to brokerage practices. He took in his younger brother Benjamin as partner. Though other partners came and went the firm, even after my uncle Benjamin's early death, was known through the years as Dos Passos Brothers.

Since John R. had an acutely analytical mind he synthesized his practice in Treatise on the Law of Stock-Brokers and Stock-Exchanges, which soon became the principal textbook on the subject in the country's law schools.

Stock Exchange law led to corporation law. It was the heyday of mergers and trusts. John R. combined legal learning with a knack for getting along with people and for cajoling other men into getting along with each other. Soon his advice was required on every difficult problem of incorporation. He worked on the reorganization of the Erie Railroad and on the Reading and the Texas Pacific. His fee for his advice to the Havemeyer interests on forming the Sugar Trust was reputed to be the largest on record. Again, deducing theory from practice he compiled a treatise: Commercial Trusts.

From close contact with financiers came opportunities for investment. John R. never could develop the wholehearted devotion to profit necessary to build up a fortune. His speculations were picturesque but they often proved unwise or, to say the least, before their time. He was full of grandiose schemes for Mexican railroads and plunged into a real estate speculation in the region of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. He early saw the possibilities of Diesel motors. During the eighties he devoted a great deal of time and money to a project to build tubes under the Hudson River. In his autobiography William Gibbs McAdoo, who finally accomplished what New Yorkers had considered a whimsical dream, gave John R. credit for much help and advice. Like many a good lawyer John R. was more adept at building other men's fortunes than his own.

He was a lavish spender. He was known as among the gayest of gay entertainers in a period when social life in New York still had a little of the cordiality of the small town. He was an accomblished public speaker. His fine singing voice was an asset in those days when singing was an after dinner accomplishment. Larboard Watch Ahoy was his favorite, but he could remember almost any number out of Pinafore or The Mikado or Offenbach's La Belle Hélène or Les Cloches de Corneville. He was known for his ability to recite whole scenes out of Shakespeare's plays. He had a great flow of conversation and rarely lost his sense of humor.

He was a warmhearted man besides. He supported needy relatives and was always ready to bail out an unfortunate friend. Passionately fond of the sea, he liked to talk of being descended from a mythical Portuguese pirate. He was a powerful swimmer. He loved sailing. For some years he owned a fast Gloucester schooner converted into a yacht, named the Mary Wentworth. In my time it was a hundred-foot steam yacht named the Gaivota. All this cost a great deal of money. One of his partners once told me that, though Jack Dos Passos pulled in larger fees than anyone in the firm, every year's end found him in the red.

It was natural that he should be always on the edge of taking the plunge into politics. Having educated himself, he was profoundly read in English and American constitutional law. He steeped himself in the political writing of the English seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He always kept sets of Bacon and Montesquieu close at hand. An immigrant's son, he cherished the dream of the perfect republic based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual liberty with justice for rich and poor. This was the dream that had brought so many to the American shore. He was far too outspoken in his opinions to be a successful politician. He used to tell me with a laugh that, thinking as he did, he couldn't be elected dog catcher in any precinct in the land.

I believe he was originally a gold Democrat of the Grover Cleveland stripe, but in 1896 he came out for McKinley, whom he personally admired and whose position on the gold standard he approved. He was profoundly moved by the Cuban struggle for independence and helped raise loans for the Cuban republic. Although he later had some qualms about the war against Spain, he defended McKinley's action against Aguinaldo in the Philippines from attacks by the anti-imperialists. He couldn't abide T.R.

In 1904 he brought out a pamphlet denouncing the Republican party for the whole course of its history. He blamed it for the reversal of Lincoln's policy of conciliation toward the South; for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson; for unconstitutional tampering with the currency; for the packing of the Supreme Court and the skulduggeries that cheated Tilden out of the presidency; and, most recently, for the theft of Panama from the Republic of Colombia. He blamed the Republicans for over centralizing the government and for turning Congress into an oligarchy where the lawmaking power was in the hands of the eight Senators and ten members of the House of Representatives who headed the important committees. He campaigned vigorously for Judge Parker in 1904.

The Roosevelt-Parker campaign remained vivid in my mind as the occasion of my first fist fight. My father considered English education much better than American. Since his tenderly affectionate relations with my mother remained technically irregular so long as his first wife lived, it was only in Europe that they could travel openly together. As a result I was sent to school at Peterborough Lodge in Hampstead in the northern suburbs of London. For a while I was the only American there. Then, in the fall of 1904, another American appeared. We were introduced by one of the masters who expected us to fall on each other's neck. Quite the contrary. The new boy walked up to me with a suspicious look and asked me who I was for for President. I was taller than he was but he was older and stockier. When I said Judge Parker he promptly punched me in the nose. I flailed around helplessly. The scene was humiliating. It was forty years before I could properly appreciate Theodore Roosevelt.

It must have been around this time that I was taken to Madeira to recuperate from a hernia operation. We stayed at Reid's Hotel on a magnificent headland overlooking Funchal. The garden was full of lizards. I already had a passion for small animals and set about catching lizards to keep for pets. It was tantalizing how they would run off leaving their tails in your hand when you tried to catch them.

Again it is the smells of Funchal that have stayed in my head. Public transport was by sledges drawn by oxen over the cobbled roads. The barefoot driver trotted alongside occasionally greasing the runners with a long rag dipped in a curiously scented oil. The same smell, mixed a little with heliotrope and roses, pervaded the little basketwork cars we coasted on down the steep cobbled slope that wound down from the church on the mountain to the city square.


Excerpted from The Best Times by John Dos Passos. Copyright © 1966 John Dos Passos. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


By Way of Introduction ...,
CHAPTER 1 The Commodore,
CHAPTER 2 Twenty four Hours on and Twenty four Hours off,
CHAPTER 3 Sinbad,
CHAPTER 4 La Vie Littéraire,
CHAPTER 5 Commitment: Uncommitment,
CHAPTER 6 Under the Tropic,
CHAPTER 7 The Little Cockroach,

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