Louis Edward Sissman was born in Detroit, Michigan, on January 1, 1928, the only child of Edward James and Marie (née Anderson) Sissman, though his father apparently had children during a former marriage. Edward Sissman was in advertising, and his wife, according to “Parents in Winter,” had run away from Ontario at the age of seventeen to go on the stage, eventually playing the Palace Theater in New York, taking up the piano, and winning the Bach prize before settling down to marriage. In his introduction to Hello, Darkness, Peter Davison summarizes Sissman’s parents as “peripatetic, homiletic, and remote,” the father renting rather than buying the large dilapidated building in downtown Detroit that served as their home and his commercial art studio because of his fear of being restricted by ownership.
Money was not a problem, however, and Sissman attended the Detroit Country Day School between 1937 and 1944. He was one of the Quiz Kids on national radio and won the National Spelling Bee Prize in 1941, but he resented his parents and teachers for pushing him into such exhibitions, as an essay titled “Confessions of an Ex-Quiz Kid” makes clear. Ambivalent feelings about his father, which contained a fair degree of Oedipal resentment, lasted until his father’s death in 1974, a year after his mother had died.
In 1944, not yet seventeen, Sissman entered Harvard, but two years later he was expelled, the causes given in “Guided Missiles” as “laziness and insubordination.” He remained in the area, however, working as a stack boy at...
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