Mesmerized, I read the letter again and again. Dubious but excited at the prospect of having a brother, I felt compelled to underline certain words, circle others, and scribble notes and questions in the margins. To avoid damaging the original, I made a photocopy that I could mark up copiously.
Any analysis of the letter seemed impossible. I had too many unanswered questions – the ultimate question being whether Derek was a fraud, a pretermitted heir, or my half brother seeking his roots.
My initial questions were: How did Derek locate me? Why did he write Louis instead of writing or phoning me, especially when my telephone number is listed in the directory? Did Irving really meet Ethyl at a Goldwater fund-raiser? If so, where and when? Why would Irving conduct an affair in public, traveling with the Taylor family to Europe on the S.S. United States? Was he that confident he could avoid wagging tongues? Just when did this group go to Europe, where did they live, and how long did they stay? Did Ethyl ever tell Irving that Derek was his child? If so, what did Irving do about it? Why did Ethyl’s relationship with Irving end? Why did she divorce long-suffering Harry and marry another? Did Derek ever contact Irving, and if so, what occurred? Why did Derek wait so long to make contact with me?
Intense curiosity dominates my thoughts. For this reason, I didn’t doubt that I would call Derek and arrange to meet him. But first, I had to get organized.
I decided to formulate a list of questions. As it turned out, I developed two lists. The first would be sent to Derek prior to our meeting. The second, far more comprehensive and nosy, would be answered solely by me – based on any facts I uncovered plus any information Derek gave me when we spoke. At this point, my only goal was to determine whether Derek was telling the truth. And my earliest hurdle was determining which facts I should check first. There was so much to investigate in so little time. Derek would arrive in less than two weeks.
I began by calling Alice, my father’s former secretary and bookkeeper. Alice was hired in 1958, and, since his death in 1979, has worked part-time for me, Louis and my mother, Cecile. Alice’s base of operations is the ranch, or Rancho Lilac, my home from age five until my marriage.
When I reached Alice, I asked her to look up Ethyl’s names – both Mortensen and Taylor – in Irving’s address books. I wanted to know how long Irving had known Ethyl and when, if ever, Irving had decided to enter her name among his friends.
In the 1958 address book, Alice found the listing:
Mrs. Ethel M. Taylor (1st Manager of Renette Terrace Apartments), 330 No. Ardmore – Apt. A, Villa Pk. Ill.
However, Alice could find no similar listings in Irving's later address books.
When Alice commented that the words “1st Manager of Renette Terrace Apartments” appeared to be in her handwriting, I asked how this might have happened. Alice said that when she began working for Irving, one of her first tasks was to clean up his quasi-alphabetized 1958 address book so he could send out Christmas cards. In the process of doing this, Alice remembers that she made additions to it, culled from Irving’s collection of loose addresses, so that she could prepare a new and comprehensive address book for 1959.
The peculiar thing is this. The 1959 address book contained no listing for Ethel M. Taylor. Sometime in December of 1958, Irving must have purged Ethel’s name from the draft Alice had prepared.
Why? Was including Ethel’s name too risky? Could it be that Ethel was living in the Chicago area in 1958 and that her affair with Irving preceded that date? If so, that would mean that Derek was not his child, or it could mean that Irving and Ethel continued to see each other during my father’s frequent trips to Chicago.
This was more than a possibility, as the atlas indicated that Villa Park is a suburb of Chicago. It was also possible that the Renette Terrace Apartments are or were located in or near Chicago. I remember my father often mentioned he had business to attend to at the Renette. The question is did Irving mention this in conjunction with trips to Chicago or trips elsewhere? And when?
Alice knew nothing about the Renette, although she’d handled all my father’s correspondence and accounting. Perhaps, she suggested, Irving had traded the Renette for another complex prior to 1958. Or perhaps he had delegated the Renette bookkeeping to its resident manager.
Determine to find the location of the Renette and Ethel’s account ledgers and tenant rosters, I called Alice’s predecessor, who said she’d left my father’s employ when she married in 1958. She had then worked for him sporadically until Alice came aboard. “No,” she said, “I’ve never heard of Ethel Mortensen Taylor or the Renette.”
I called both Chicago and Los Angeles to see if the Renette were located in either place, but neither city had a listing for it. Then I called my cousin Renee in North Carolina. It was possible that the Renette was located in Los Angeles, since Renee’s mother, Mae, and Irving had co-owned several apartment buildings there. Renee could list every Los Angeles apartment that Mae and Irving had owned from 1951 to 1964, but she could not recall one named the Renette. Then Dan, Renee’s husband seized the phone. He was eager to remind me of how significant education was to Irving. Irving had served on the board of numerous universities, and he was always there to provide tuition funds for his family, his employee’s children, and even deserving strangers.
Once Dan reminded me of this, I was positive that if Derek was Irving’s son, Irving would have set aside funds for his education. Did Derek ever receive a trust? If so, it would be excellent evidence of Irving’s paternity. I couldn’t wait to find out. That evening, I conducted a wary phone conversation with Derek. I didn’t know if I could trust him, although I usually trust everyone until they prove untrustworthy.
Read Part 2 of The Derek, Frieda, and Abbe Chronicles