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Review: My Fathers' Houses
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2005 blog


Book Review

A reporter writes a 'prequel' about his
life before marriage to his famous wife, May 8, 2005

Reviewed by Donald H. Harrison

If you were to drop by Steve and Cokie Roberts' home for a social evening, say a backyard barbecue,  Steve—a longtime writer for the New York Times—might tell you that he considers Cokie—a well-known television reporter— to be "the best Jew in the family.".  Which is quite a compliment, given the fact that she is a practicing Catholic. 

When the two decided to marry, over strenuous objections of Steve's parents (who later came to love her), she resolved to do everything in her power to make certain that Judaism and Catholicism would peacefully coexist in the Roberts' house. 

At the time of their wedding, Cokie's parents were the House Democratic whip Hale Boggs of Louisiana and Lindy Boggs, who later would succeed her husband in Congress and later still  would become the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.  Normally such a couple would have expected that their daughter would be married in a big church ceremony, but instead they agreed with Cokie's suggestion that the wedding be held at their Washington D.C. home, where Steve's parents could be comfortable. It was quite a social event, attended by President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson.

The newlyweds decided that their children would be brought up in their mother's religion, but with knowledge and loving respect for their father's Judaism.  "Early in our marriage, we started having an annual seder...and when we eventually returned to Washington, and moved into the house where we had been married, my parents became regular and enthusiastic guests at these events," Steve writes. "I knew that any residue of resentment had completely disappeared when Dad said, Don't even bother asking us anymore, just assume we'll always be there.  As I was writing this chapter, Cokie and I attended Yom Kippur services together. And as I heard her singing the Hebrew prayers, in her strong, clear voice, I thought of Dad and wished he could have heard her too."

This material reprises some of what Cokie and Steve Roberts together told us in their book on marriages, From This Day Forward.  In the movie business, this current volume would be called a "prequel" because it tells Steve's story before he and Cokie were married.  In My Fathers' Houses, the fathers in question are Roberts' father, Will, a publisher who dreamed of being a great writer, and Roberts' domineering grandfather, Abe, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who "Americanized" the family name from Rogow.  Roberts' writes about both  men affectionately yet analytically.

The anecdotes are the kind that grown sons might exchange at social occasions about their lovable, if fallible, fathers. For example, Roberts remembers with affection but not approval, Grandpa Abe "was always playing the odds and the angles. He had stationery printed up that said Atlas Supply Company—there was no such thing—and when he needed a new tool, he'd write to the manufacturer, saying he was a wholesale distributor of wrenches or screwdrivers or whatever.  He was thinking of handling the manufacturer's line, so could they send a sample for him to try? I'm not sure he ever paid for a tool in his life."

Although he was raised in Bayonne, N.J.—the virtues of which Roberts expounds upon nostalgically and at length—his family also had a summer place in rural Long Valley, where his father played the role of gentleman farmer. One family ritual was the "Cult of the Corn," which placed the highest premium on absolute  freshness. 

Before going out to the cornfield, Will would set the water boiling. "After scrutinizing every stalk and weighing every option, he'd make his selections and then rush toward the house, shucking the ears as he went," Roberts recalls. "Our job was to open the screen door for him as he bolted through the kitchen and plunged his prizes into the steaming cauldron.  Mere seconds elapsed between picking and cooking."