My parents had a few oddball friends from the old country who became regulars in our lives. It’s only now, more than half a century later, that I’ve started to wonder who they really were, and what happened to them. They were around in the days before I had continuous memory. My mother was my entire world then. Though I knew little else, I knew she was beautiful and exotic, that no one else could provide the same comfort, and that I felt best when I was near her, riding in her arms or hiding in her skirts. This was six years or so after the war had ended. We lived in Great Neck, in a small house with a beautiful garden, rhododendrons where you could get stung if you weren’t careful, a fish pond, and a dank dark tool shed. I remember being put out in a playpen on sunny days for what seemed like hours. And I remember certain voices – the regulars who must have come by train to visit on weekends. They would be there when I woke from a nap and started screaming for my mother to pull me from my crib. Among them was a man named Francis Von Kahler who had a stronger German accent than my parents had, and who always wore bow ties.
He was referred to as Von Kahler, never as Francis. He was funny: everyone laughed when he spoke, including me, so it must’ve been his manner and the faces he made that were so amusing. The fact that he would get down on the floor and cavort with me, Vivi and the dogs, didn’t hurt either. From overheard snatches of conversation, I know my parents secretly ridiculed him for referring to himself as “Von” as if he were a baron. And he was ubiquitous, seemed to show up wherever we were, even in Paris, when I was eight or nine, walking down one of the boulevards with my governess. Someone stepped on the back of my shoes and said, “Et bien, une des demoiselles Schindler!” I cannot be sure when he disappeared from our lives, so I did a little research, and here’s what popped up: According to the 1940 census bureau, Francis was born in Germany in 1896 (Germany meaning somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian empire, probably Prague). He practiced law in Berlin before Hitler times, emigrating to New York in the mid ’30s where he opened an insurance agency. Despite my parents’ scorn, Francis had come by the “Von” honestly: His grandfather, a wealthy Austrian named Cohen, was the first Austrian Jew to be given the title of Baron. He had a well-known brother, Erich Von Kahler, a writer and philosopher who lived in Princeton and was close associates with Einstein and Thomas Mann. And he was a lifelong friend and mentor to the actress, Ellen Burstyn, who wrote of him in her book, Lessons in Becoming Myself, that “Francis was a clown at heart and always made us laugh.”
As far as I knew he never married – in fact, there were rumors that he was gay – but the census bureau lists him as “divorced.” Ellen Burstyn wrote: “Francis enjoyed the presence of attractive women and never asked for anything in return but our company and conversation. He was a great friend.”
Well… all I knew of him growing up was that he was a sort-of uncle who enjoyed practical jokes and had a certain look. But there was something else I remembered as I googled him. He belonged to Subud, a spiritual group that he spoke of frequently, bunching his lips into a kiss shape when he said the word: Subud. He wanted my parents to join it. And indeed, when I typed in his name, what popped up but some Youtube videos of a bald and aging Francis at a Subud conference in Holland. This was in 1964. Ellen Burstyn’s book came out much later, but the videos are the last hard evidence of Francis. I couldn’t find an obituary for him. He definitely belonged in style and energy to the time of film noir, intrigue, Dial M for Murder. But my parents had several friends like that. Which brings to mind a certain grim suspicion.
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