John Vietor is wary. Is this another “social interview”?
Tuesday, October 31, 1978
In speaking to people who have known John Vietor for at least two decades, I am told that he is “the Jello heir,” ‘"the founder of San Diego Magazine,” “a world traveler who dines with royalty,” “a Yale man who knows everyone,” “a raconteur,” “a wine expert,” “a registered Democrat when La Jolla was solidly Republican.”
Thus prepared, I arrive at the La Jolla home of John Vietor, known to everyone as Jack. Though he has owned his La Jolla residence since at least 1948 (while in London in 1947, he bought the home sight unseen), he maintains two houses, the other located in San Francisco, where he lives at least six months of the year.
Although our appointment is set for two p.m., he is not there when I arrive, and the house man, Ruben, lets me in and invites me to browse in the living room. The house consists of three levels and lies directly on the ocean; the bedrooms are upstairs, the living room, dining room kitchen, and assorted patios are at street level, and below are game rooms, a study, a wine cellar that was once an air raid shelter, more outdoor patios, and a vast, blue swimming pool that must compete with the intrepid sea.
In the living room it’s impossible to avoid the wall covered with leather-bound books: collected works of Conrad, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Shaw, Byron, Browning, Mann, and George Santyana, to name a few. There’s an original Dufy done in pink and lavender of a woman being driven in a coach around a park, and over the fireplace hangs a Maurice Utrillo painting of a view of Montmartre. Because of the large size of the room, the furniture has been arranged in clusters here and there. The fabrics are off-white or ivory, with tracings of watery green; a hand woven rug of ivory color dominates the center of the room, and sturdy plants in large tubs provide the Southern California touch to this pleasant but formal room. Waiting for John Vietor, I step outside to one of the innumerable patios and am almost blinded by the brilliance of the sun and sea.
Forty minutes late, Jack Vietor enters. “Sorry I'm late. I was detained at Fed-Mart.” He possesses what one can handily describe as Nordic good looks: still blond at sixty-four, he has pale blue eyes, skin overly exposed to the sun, and a paunch that testifies to good food and fine wines.
His manner is polite and friendly — he emanates the grace arrived at by years of home breeding, attending private schools, and a stint in the foreign service. At the same time he is wary. Is this another “social interview”? He wears a blue knit shirt, blue trousers, and white buck shoes. When he offers me a drink and I ask for ginger ale, he replies, “I think we have Vichy. Do you know what Vichy is?” He brings me the carbonated water in a plastic disposable glass sometimes used at cocktail parties.
Because the seventeenth annual John Vietor Backgammon Tournament is to start the next day, the house is full of repairmen fixing tables, adjusting lights. We are constantly interrupted by their comings and goings. Jack remains distracted, concerned about the tournament. He has prominent teeth, and he licks them and then stretches his mouth wide for emphasis.
He tells me when and under what circumstances he bought the house, that he bought Point Magazine for $500 to $800 in 1953, that the $7500 Utrillo is worth ten times the amount today, that he had seven children, including a stepson from his second wife, and that once James Copley, the publisher of the Union-Tribune, came to look at the house as a possible rental. When Jack told him he was a registered Democrat, Copley turned on his heels and left.
“Does that do it for you?” he asks.
I explain that I would like to visit while the backgammon tournament is in session and that I wish to borrow his book, Time Out, about his prisoner-of-war experience, published in 1951. He appears reluctant on both scores: his book is out of print and he has precious few copies; as for the tournament, he prefers that I not disturb his guests. When I assure him that I will return his book within forty-eight hours, we descend below to his study where he keeps bound copies of Point Magazine, San Diego Magazine, and San Francisco Magazine, all of which he once either published or edited (at present he maintains some nominal relationship with the latter two as “consultant”).
On the library table he has volumes of photo albums containing snapshots of himself and celebrities the world over. He flips open a page of one of the volumes at random and points to a glossy photograph inscribed to him—a vivacious brunette with a toothsome smile.
“Know who that is?”
“You knew it?”
"She was a famous model or starlet of the Fifties.”
Silently, he hands over his book.
Wednesday, November 1, 1978
In reading Time Out, an account of John A. Vietor’s experience as a prisoner of war, I learn that he was a captain in the Air Force when his plane was shot down over Regensburg. Incarcerated at Stalag Luft I, a camp for officers at Barth, Germany, he spent a year and a half there before the camp was liberated by the Russians. The son of Dr. John Adolf Vietor of New York, he affixed the “Jr. ” after his name as late as 1951.
Of an attempted escape of one of the prisoners he wrote:
“Although he was helpless, imprisoned under the wire, the guard calmly pumped the shot in his back. He was taken to the hospital and by a miracle he survived, although the bullet had punched seventeen holes in his intestines. By German logic, it was perfectly right to shoot a helpless man in the back and, at the same time, after having done so, give him adequate medical attention so he could survive. This inconsistency on the part of the goons, shuttling between consideration and brutality, gave us the jitters.”
And of his father he said:
“I opened the two (letters) from my father filled with news and, after reading them, opened the third one. It was from a friend offering me condolences for the death of my father. It was a stunning shock, and with his letters lying in front of me, even though they were dated in October (1944), it was unbelievable news. I had made so many plans of what we might do together when I returned .... At the end of February (1945) I received a telegram from the Red Cross in Switzerland, which had been sent the day he died, giving the official confirmation. The letters of sympathy had taken three weeks and the telegram three months.”
Thursday, November 2, 1978
In the late afternoon I arrive at the Vietor residence and let myself in by the kitchen door. Ruben, who calls me by my first name, tells me to go downstairs where the backgammon tournament is in session. The contestants, from all over the country, are there by invitation only, and for the week of the contest are houseguests. Jack’s wife remains in San Francisco and his children are dispersed at schools, but it’s obvious from the tone of hushed reverence how much this tournament means to Jack.
The house is of equal importance because his identification of himself as a liberal is intimately tied to it. He “opens his house’’ for Democratic fund-raisers, and once, because he is honorary consul of Nepal, the religious leader, or Carmopa, of that country and his entourage stayed at Vietor’s. The Carmopa and his dozen followers occupied one room, meditated and chanted. But they had two religious services that guests were permitted to attend.
Vietor does not give huge dinner parties, nor does he particularly seek out worthy causes. It’s a case of noblesse oblige — if asked to provide his house he rarely says no. On the other hand, his existence in La Jolla remains staid—he plays golf with the pediatrician John Welsh, he lunches at homes of friends, he has a drink with Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and on occasion he sees Roger Revelle or Jonas Salk. But he does not mingle with UCSD professors (a party once given for Jack to enable him to meet people from academia “just didn’t work out’’).
Jack has always decried the social separation of La Jolla from the rest of San Diego, but he has been unable to effect an integration. Indeed, his social life revolves around San Francisco and when he comes here he stays close to home, drops in at La Valencia hotel, where he is known and recognized, and concentrates on assembling his writing and editing of the past. He has been working on his autobiography. Instant Dessert, for several years, but it’s not as if he writes every day or bums with the passion to produce some magnum opus that is outside of his realm or social orbit.
Thus the Vietor Backgammon Tournament is one of the highlights of his yearly La Jolla stay. In the salon, at pool level, tables have been set up at which players concentrate in silence. Though the bar is laden with slices of fresh fruit no longer in season, and beautiful wheels of cheese purchased at Jurgensen’s, no one is eating, and the wives, some in very narrow-legged blue jeans worn over slithery spike-heeled sandals whisper discreetly. I feel almost obscene for crunching a cracker with brie, sure that every bite will reverberate like a sonic boom. After a half hour of tiptoeing about, I place Jack’s book, Time Out, at his elbow, call for a taxi, and wait on the sidewalk in the blue November dusk.
Monday, November 13, 1978
Our appointment is for two o’clock, and I am told to be prompt because at three, Jack is having a massage. Nevertheless, I wait ten minutes in the living room before Jack ambles in draped in a yellow terry-cloth robe. “Let’s sit in the patio,” he suggests, “I want to get some sun.’’
I acquiesce, though I am wearing a wool turtleneck sweater that I donned earlier in the morning when the weather was nippy. Although I keep my back to the sun, I am uncomfortably hot. Jack Vietor discards his robe, and with his swimming shorts tucked beneath his paunch, he suns his mellow belly. Licking his teeth and making a grimace that is half smile, half protest, he tells me that his autobiography. Instant Dessert, is in the process of revision, and hence he is reluctant to duplicate anything which may appear in his book. But when I press him for details of his early life, he at last replies, “I’ll put it in an involuted answer.’’ Involuted or not, he finally admits that his father, who also went to Yale, was “Teutonic and stern.’’ Himself a surgeon, he remarked that young Jack could never follow in his footsteps because he had large hands, and he did nothing to encourage his son in medicine or in any other discipline.
“My maternal grandfather bought the patent to Jello and sold it to Postum, which later became General Foods. My mother didn’t inherit the Jello money until I was about thirteen, and until then she just went along with whatever my father said. They sent me to Saint Mark’s Prep School (in Massachusetts) because that’s what everyone did. No parents came to school to visit in my time, and I didn’t think much about it because all of my contemporaries were treated this way. No one asked a child’s opinion. I wanted to be a doctor because my father was a doctor, but my father just told me I wouldn't make a good one.
“My father was always ‘trying to make a man out of me. ’ With my sister, he was very lenient, but he was the opposite with me. Once he whacked me with a billiard cue because he told me not to play in the attic.
“When I was eighteen, I brought a girl home to Locust, Long Island. She was twenty. He hadn’t given me permission to bring a girl into the house, so he belted me with a belt, right in front of the girl. I just took it. There was no complaining in my house.”
Jack's mother received the Jello money in form of stock about 1926. Postum paid off $66 million when the company was absorbed by General Foods, and his mother came into $11 million (its value today would be triple).
With this wealth they maintained an estate on Long Island consisting of a twenty-room house and an oval swimming pool eighty feet long. His mother also had an indoor swimming pool built, and they had an eight-car garage which held a Rolls Royce, a Lincoln convertible, a Buick station wagon, a Packard, a Brewster Phaeton, and a La Salle. The stable contained jumpers, and the guest cottage would be a mansion today.
“But I was a prisoner at prep school. I never went home for Thanksgiving and my life was very monastic. We had a private car on the railroad and an eighty-foot yacht, Vitesse, but we were kept out of the way most of the time.”
The more strict his father became, the more his mother grew permissive with Jack, particularly after she had inherited her money.
Jack went to Yale because “all the Vietors talk about Yale,” but he was “kicked out” in his freshman year when he fell back in his studies due to an automobile accident. His mother suggested that his father “go up and do something,” so his father went to Yale in his son’s behalf. “They promised to give me a car if I did well at school. I was doing badly, but they were so afraid I would flunk out that they gave it to me anyway. As a reward for doing badly, I got a Buick convertible with a rumble seat in the back.”
At the age of twenty-one, his mother gave him a million dollars in the form of a trust, but it shrank to about six hundred thousand after the crash. “None of my contemporaries got money until after their parents died. This made me socially rather uncomfortable, because in 1935 I'd have to go alone or pay for them. This created some social dilemmas. The money is passed intact to my children, but I had more of it [interest from trust] than my friends.”
Having graduated from Yale with majors in economics and American history, his mother suggested that he attend diplomatic school because he had a facility with languages. Thus, Jack attended foreign service school at Georgetown (1937-8) and later did service in Brussels, Antwerp, and Vienna. What he really wanted was a post to Russia and when that fell through, he left the foreign service.
“In 1940, I wrote a column for the Washington Times-Herald. It was terrible social drivel about hunt country. I thought I was an okay writer, but I didn't think I had the creative imagination to be a novelist. But I knew I was a good editor.
The death of his mother, in 1938, coincided with his disenchantment with the foreign service, and he joined the Air Force in 1940. But he did not settle permanently in this country and in La Jolla particularly until 1949. By that time he had married an English woman, Mia Macklin, and had two children with her. His daughter, Mielle, now lives in Mill Valley, and has three children; and his son Noel (named for his maternal grandfather. Sir Noel) is a sculptor who lives in Soho in Greenwich Village, New York.
Asked what he is most proud of in his life, he answers without hesitation, “My relationship with my children. I always wanted to be a good father, to be different from my father, to be close to my children.”
He has four children with his current wife, Lita diGrazia Hill, to whom he has been married since 1958, and their youngest children, born in 1964, are fraternal twins. He visits all of his children as often as possible and sees them at their various schools — the twins, at fourteen, are already at separate prep schools. “I try to be as close to my children as possible. I remember my parents came to see me once and didn’t come to my graduation.” He visits his stepson, David Hill, who has a ranch in Idaho, but he does not mention the mental retardation of his son Jonathan, who is in a special work-study program at Santa Barbara.
Nor does he talk especially of San Diego Magazine, of which he was publisher and editor from 1955-70. What he does mention is the literary round table which meets once a month for lunch in San Francisco and which includes such writers as Herb Caen, Niven Busch, Herb Gold. They have been meeting for sixteen years at Trader Vic’s, and they had Alex Haley for lunch even before he knew the title for the book he was then writing (Roots).
In reply to what he wants to do during the next decade, he answers, “play golf, exercise, enjoy my leisure, maybe write a little, and consult on city magazines such as San Diego Magazine and San Francisco Magazine.”
While we have been talking, the sun has been relentless, but Jack remains impervious to my discomfort in my heavy clothing. At one point, I ask whether I can remove my sweater, and then return from his bathroom with my upper torso draped in a heavy bath towel. Jack blinks into the sun and goes right on talking, telling me about his blind date with Joan Crawford in La Jolla in 1955. Insisting on hundred-proof vodka, she summarily got drunk and said of Ginger Rogers, “Ginger doesn't smoke, doesn’t drink, but she fucks all the time.” Then Crawford “flounced out and danced on the beach in her bra and panties.”
It’s three o’clock and time for Jack’s massage. Slowly he walks out of the patio, into the braceful shade of his house and leaves me. I unwind the towel, replace it with my sweater, send for a taxi.
November 24, 1978
Ed Self, present publisher of San Diego Magazine, comes to my house to speak of his relationship with John Vietor. He tells me that Jack is a wonderful father, a wonderful friend, a very good writer and editor. He informs me that Jack has just had surgery in San Francisco for a detached retina. “If you want to hear anything except what I’ve told you, you'll have to ask his wife,” laughs Ed.
December 1, 1978
I receive a copy of a letter sent to Ed Self and various contributors to San Diego Magazine's thirtieth anniversary issue.
“It has been brought to my attention by numerous friends that in the November issue there was scant mention of my contribution to San Diego Magazine. In the many panegyrics, only Lionel Van Deerlin thought to mention briefly our relationship.
“I felt this way about the 25th Anniversary issue, in which my contribution was glossed over as a casual financial one with no mention of the time and effort on my part. . . .
“However, the November, 1978 issue left in the minds of the readers the impression that San Diego Magazine was solely the effort of Ed and Gloria Self. This was misleading and unfair to me.
“For example, I was responsible for a great many of the advertising contracts, viz., the back cover, which we still have. I wrote numerous articles and editorials and was responsible jointly with you for all policy decisions. I paid close enough attention to the publication that I proofread every single issue during the 15 years in which I was actively involved.
“Since I sold 75 percent of my interest to you, I admire your tremendous progress. However, I would like to make it clear that my participation was not solely a quixotic financial one, but a continuing working and financial relationship, and I think I may safely say that without such extensive effort on my part, San Diego Magazine might not have been the success it is today.
John A. Vietor
Friday, January 26, 1979
Having recovered from his eye surgery. Jack is nattily attired in a blue blazer, a white turtleneck, light blue pants, and his white buck shoes. He tells me that he and Ed Self have patched things up and that he is on his way to lunch. One of the tables is stacked high with Xeroxed copies of his articles and he says that he is thinking of putting together a volume of the travel articles he wrote throughout the years. While he searches for one to give me, he flips open one of his photo albums and asks, “Do you know who they are?”
“Ida Lupino and Howard Duff.”
“Here’s one that will interest you.”
It’s a group picture of some very attractive and healthy-looking late adolescents. “Do you know who this is?”
This time, I shake my head negatively. “It’s Jack Kennedy, taken at our house in Palm Beach, Florida. He was about seventeen at the time.”
On the wall are more pictures of John Kennedy, one with Jack Vietor at his side.
It’s the hour for lunch and since he is going out. Jack Vietor drives me home. “I’m having a check-up at Scripps, but I’ll be here another week, then back to San Francisco. ”
The son of Dr. John A. Vietor and the heiress to the Jello fortune, the registered Democrat amongst his once Republican friends, the man who once housed the Carmopa of Nepal and had a date with Princess Grace when she was Grace Kelly of the movies, pulls back his lips in his characteristic grin and drives off.