Coming to Terms with a Family Secret

Bliss Broyard's father took some secrets to his grave. But that didn’t keep her from digging them up. The result was a revelation about him—and herself 

by Bliss Broyard
father and baby daughter image
Photograph: Courtesy of Bliss Broyard

I pored over his writings—his stories, essays and hundreds of book reviews—and sought out his family members, his friends, even his various psychologists over the years, but there were frustratingly few clues about the racial terms in which he had seen himself and whether he thought he was pretending to be something he was not. Instead, I learned more about my father’s romantic life than a daughter would ever want to know.

I heard about the Midwestern girl back in the 1950s who hated New York City and the Greenwich Village world of my dad and his pals, but her pride kept her there because Anatole Broyard hadn’t yet tried to sleep with her. There was my dad’s friend Charlie, who gleefully told me of the time he witnessed my father pick up a woman sharing the elevator car in the seconds it took to reach the ninth floor. Then there was Vincent, who lent his apartment to my father one night so he could take a girl there. Afterward, Vincent noticed that the toilet base was shaky, and he asked my father what the hell had gone on. Vincent and I stood in the doorway of his tiny bathroom as he laughingly recalled my dad’s story: that he and the girl were just taking in the view. He invited me to peer through the narrow window—I’d barely be able to make out the Empire State Building peeking above the skyline, he assured me—but I was reluctant to picture my father having sex on a toilet.

That particular episode occurred before my parents were married, but I gathered from my dad’s friends and correspondence that his shenanigans never stopped completely. I’m sure his behavior hurt and angered my mother, but she was reluctant to discuss it with me beyond saying that my father loved women and he never pretended otherwise. For my part, his Don Juan tendencies further turned him into someone I didn’t recognize as my dad.

He never shied away from discussing his popularity with women. But I’d thought of his days as a ladies’ man as belonging mostly to his two decades of bachelorhood before marrying my mom. I’d been under the impression that once my brother and I came along, we had become his true calling. After all, his friends had told us what he’d said to them: You think you’ve been in love in your life, and then you have children and you realize that all those other relationships were dalliances. He spent hours tossing us, torpedo-like, onto a bed piled high with pillows, listening to us recount the long (and doubtless boring) plots of movies and rehearsing the lines of school plays or dance-recital moves.

He lost his temper sometimes, he yelled and acted selfish, but he always seemed interested in us, in our opinions on things and what we were doing. Now I wondered if this role of consummate dad was genuine or if everyone who encountered him was made to feel like the center of his universe; whether his need to be seen in a heroic or attractive light stemmed from a fear of being exposed as a fraud. No matter the motives for his seductive behavior—the more I recognized it as fundamental to his being, the more I saw its impact on me.

Among his correspondence, I found an envelope containing two dozen photos of young women, wearing bathing suits or short shorts to better show off their legs (at my dad’s request?), and a sheet of paper covered with female names and mysterious notations: G, B or SS. I spent months wondering whether the letters represented pregnancies: “girl,” “boy” and “stopped short”? Then one day I showed the page to a male friend, who pronounced: “good,” “bad,” “so-so.”

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