Above: A beautiful view of Cuidad Juárez from El Paso earlier this week.  Photo by DLynne Morin.

By mid-1982, Dad’s marriage with Gloria had devolved into crass posturing for litigation in a divorce action.  After all, he had plenty of experience as he had been through this experience three times already.

The first had been 32 years earlier, in 1950.  His newly wed wife, Pat, returned home one evening to their Beekman Place neighborhood apartment.  As soon as she walked in, Bern hung up the phone.  “Who are you on the phone with, Dear?” she asked.  Oddly, Dad declined to say.  It took her a while to find out and it turned out to be her former best friend Connie Richards.   Pat had the marriage annulled within a few weeks via an expedited petition direct to the Vatican.

Dad never told me anything about his marriage with Pat.  Or Beekman Place, for that matter.  I had to find her 60 years later to ask her personally.  Remember, she was wife number one and my Mom was only the second.  Does that make Pat a stepmother?  The English language does not have a term to describe our relationship.

In any event, Pat was very annoyed with Bern (and went on to marry four more times herself).

The second divorce was a real legal action.  When my Mom presented him with incontrovertible evidence that the marriage was over (by demonstrating that she had a new man in her life), Dad did what he always did best – he found a cost-effective way to broker a divorce (amiable, in this case).  So he traveled down to Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and walked the hot dusty streets looking for storefronts advertising Abogados and Divorcios.

Finding a friendly lawyer in a storefront off the main streets, he bought and paid for (at a good price!) a divorce decree, presumably in full compliance with the laws of the State of Chihuahua.  This was brought back to New York where he and my Mom signed a Separation Agreement covering, among other things, support for the minor child, James, who had dropped in during the course of the marriage.  Ain’t that something?!

Dad would occasionally wonder about that underlying Mexican divorce decree.  “Were there irregularities in the proceedings under Chihuahua State or Mexican Federal Law?” he would ask out loud from time to time.  “If so, I might still be married to your mother!” he would add gleefully.

So far so good.  The archaic divorce laws in the Empire State of New York did not present much of an imposition as long as both parties agreed jointly to dissolve their marriage.  In the event of a contested action, where one party wanted to stay married or just inflict pain on the other, the laws created insane court-room spectacles far exceeding those of the popular Perry Mason TV show of the era.  In order to win a divorce, the plaintiff in a divorce action had to prove either abuse, abandonment, or no sex for six months.  If you didn’t wear a cast, and your beloved still lived with you, the only thing left was to claim that there was the latter.

Think about it.

The defendant would invariably bellow in court, “I blew you last month, you bee-yastard!!!”  The judge would cover his face, the courtyard would gasp and titter, and lawyers would become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.  It was a kind of a mess (and has recently been revised to reduce this idiocy).

Perry Mason

I’m not sure Perry would have been able to win a divorce case in New York, even against the hapless Hamilton Burger.

Dad’s third divorce however was of the easier variety – Graciela had flown back home to Ecuador to visit her convalescing Uncle who managed somehow to break his leg.  She never came back.  The marriage, which never seemed to be on stable legs to begin with, had fallen apart rather quickly.  How a hot blooded South American Latin woman found solace with a lower temperature workaholic New Yorker of East European stock, I’ll never know.

One whose NYPD father ridiculed her and her fellow Hispanics in general as “monkey-faces?”

So the divorce qualified as being under the abandonment variety (to the relief of the presiding judge).  Easy.  Especially as Dad was a resident of Pennsylvania at the time (which benefitted from less ridiculous divorce laws).

Lincoln Arms

Me in 1966 during Dad’s 3rd divorce.  At the Lincoln Arms Apartments in Morrisville, PA.  Photo by Bernard Olcott.

Now in Gloria’s case during the year of our Lord 1982, they were both living in the same house (and fighting over it, natch).  Dad did not have a cast on his arm.  The “no sex” argument was underwhelming for a number of reasons; anyway, they were both residents of The Garden State of New Jersey, which had its own set of peculiar laws.

I had started work at Olcott International that summer – strictly as a summer job since, well, I still had some lingering doubts about my employer.  As I sat at my desk on the bottom level, I do distinctly remember some strange telexes coming through for Dad.  From Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.  Mexico.

You see, Dad was Gloria’s second husband.  She had been previously married to a man named Bruce.  When that marriage was loaded into a casket and lowered 6 feet into the fertile Earth, Gloria and Bruce did what many others before them had done.  They got themselves a Mexican divorce in, of all places, Ciudad Juárez!  Estados Unidos Mexicanos!

Finally,  Dad had a chance to test his theory that Mexican divorces often suffered from various defects such as dates or, failure to use the precise prescribed language or forms, or translation errors.  If it could be demonstrated that the decree did not follow the minimum requirements under local (Chihuahuan or Mexican) laws, the decree could be dismissed.

If dismissed, this would mean that the litigants were still married, ie., Gloria was still married to Bruce!

Dad then engaged his original Abogado from 1962 in Juárez to examine Gloria’s divorce decree with an extremely high level of diligence.  As expected, the decree was discovered to be replete with defects. Dad delivered an ultimatum to Gloria:  “Either agree to the divorce on my terms, or I will have your divorce decree invalidated.  You will still be married to Bruce and will never have been lawfully married to me.”

I was all of 24 years old, working at Olcott International in my fourth job experience.  I didn’t have much life experience to judge the merits of his action.  Nevertheless, I could discern the following:

• This was Dad’s fourth divorce.
• Dad liked to get divorced more often than other people.
• There was something inherently unstable in his personal life.
• Dad’s action in this case was brilliant and represented “out of the box” thinking.
• If Gloria had never been lawfully married, what exactly was my sister Blair’s status?

If the first three points above increased my anxiety about hitching my professional wagon to Dad — and his compelling business Olcott International — the last one caused me to mentally shudder in revulsion.

Like any Horatio Alger hero, Dad could be completely ruthless.  As long as he remained in my tent pissing out, fine.  But what would it be like for him to be outside pissing in?

PICT0002

Bernard Olcott in Pennsylvania, 1966.  Photo by the Author.

Gloria capitulated rather than go through a potentially humiliating experience.  She did not get the house, but she did get a small settlement and adequate child support.  She promptly cast new lures and got herself remarried shortly thereafter and moved on.

As for myself, I decided that Olcott International was too compelling to pass up.  So I held my nose and threw myself into a fantastic business located in a figurative Love Canal.

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9 comments

  1. Many people are ruthless and consider that bold. Great people tend to be ruthless at times but always fair. Your father was one of the latter. He fought hard to preserve his estate but was generous toward your sister.

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      1. Your father was ruthless, and almost certainly unfair, toward your step-mother when he played for keeps with his property. Yet he honoured his paternal obligations rightly by providing generously for your sister after your step-mother agreed to the admittedly difficult terms. There are many stories where that has not occurred and children suffer as a result. It is this holding of two very different attitudes in mind at once that makes your father a fascinating character study for the real Horatio Alger story. That said, I did feel badly for your step-mother. She seemed to take a sincere and affectionate interest in you as her step-son. That is probably one reason why you display such solicitude toward your (half) sister.

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