In The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, Geoffrey Wolff has taken on the task of justifying in his own mind the life of his father. His investigation cracks the lies and con games that created a barrier between family, friends, and the general public, and he feels better because he realizes that there was love and concern through all the hard times. The memories are disturbing, breathtaking, bitter, twisted, and tangled with guilt, but are always measured against the love between father and son. This memoir opens with the author learning of his father’s death in 1970 in a seedy California apartment. With this knowledge, Wolff unravels for himself and the reader the enigma that was his father. The book is part memoir, part autobiography, and part biography of Arthur Samuels Wolff—the father—and the heritage which molded him.
With a stammer, Arthur “Duke” Wolff spoke to his son Geoffrey and admonished him for shortcomings, directed him in how to be a gentleman. Duke Wolff expected his son to be a gentleman and nothing less. It was necessary on all occasions to put on airs, and to make a good impression. Duke’s opinions were rigid, although he was patient in training his son to his code. He taught Geoffrey how to shoot, box, handle a boat, and appreciate jazz, among other gentlemanly arts. Besides the tips on the proper way a gentleman should handle himself, there were Duke’s stories, stories that had been concocted as a self-defense mechanism. These tales were about being schooled at Groton, going on to Yale, then being a fighter pilot in the Eagle Squadron (American volunteers who served in the Royal Air Force), and being involved in gripping World War II adventures. These stories were of a type to make a son proud of his father, but they were all lies, or, at best, half-truths. Duke was a man frustrated by the reality of being a Jew, which he blocked out of his history because he saw no advantage to this reality.
No matter how interesting, harrowing, or intriguing his real history was, it was not good enough for Duke Wolff. It had to be molded to suit his criteria for being “successful.” It had to sustain him, to furnish him with the nourishment necessary to survive in a world which he perceived as a threat. This led him to become a confidence man. The result of this choice wreaked havoc on himself, his family, and anyone who came in contact with him. This bluff only lasted for awhile; then it was time to move on to new territory and create new excuses for his lot in life.
The early sections of The Duke of Deception are gripping in their descriptions of the actual heritage Arthur Wolff was born into but refused to acknowledge. His father was a noted doctor, the chief of the medical board of Mt. Sinai Hospital when it opened in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1923. His range of expertise was wide, and he held posts as chief of the surgical staff, gynecology, and the laboratory. Yet he was a fierce man, not to be crossed, who had little time for his son. He expressed his affection through material gifts instead of time, thus early instilling in Duke the notion that objects are supposed to make up for the time not spent with an offspring. As the author explains, “My father spent time, the truly precious gift, on me; but even so he thought of possessions as the fundamental, material manifestations of love.” Although Geoffrey could feel the love his father felt for him in a gift, such was not the case with Arthur and his father. Arthur was filled with insecurity and fear, which led him to suck his thumb long past the age when he should have outgrown the habit and to stammer when talking. Whatever charm he possessed did not impress his father in the least, so he began to skirt the truth and to create an imaginative world which covered up the fact that his father had for the most part given up on his son. Boarding schools, with all their ironfisted rules, attempted to shape Arthur into what would be considered respectable, but their authority was not tempered with concern. Performance seemed to be the only thing that counted. Arthur became the “Duke,” he was...
(The entire section is 1687 words.)