One strange thing about all the years I was in various boarding schools and summer camps, is the fact that I always thought we were rich. My sister, brothers and I all attended expensive private schools where we grew up amongst our peers who were from wealthy families. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out how this even came about. My father’s boss, Lew Shalett and his wife Wanda, ran a very successful business based in Chicago (they were rich). My father was one of the many salesmen employed by them. He worked strictly on commission and had no other income. What he did for a living was always very difficult to describe.
The “product” that they produced was a program sold to large Corporations and Businesses. The purpose of the product was to increase individual productiveness from the employees. This was done with mailings to each employee, speeches, incentive seminars and large posters that were put on the walls throughout every building on every floor and in just about every office including restrooms. I guess you could call it an “Incentive Inspiring Program”. I also heard it referred to as an “Efficiency Program” and “How to Get More Work Out of Each Employee”. Each sale earned my father a very large commission and he would also do the follow up speeches and seminars etc. There were contests amongst the salesmen where they could earn extra bonuses.
Lew and Wanda had a very soft spot in their hearts for all four of us children. They were aware of everything that had happened in our family and had great compassion for the situation that was thrust on us through no fault of our own. They recognized many years before I was even born that my father did not manage his money wisely and would squander it quickly if they paid him an entire commission all at once. They took control of his money and doled it out to him as they felt necessary, wise and frugal. They paid his expenses on the road rather than give him the money to pay them. My father constantly was angry, resentful and upset with them as far back as I can remember.
It was the two of them that made sure that we were well provided for and sent to nice schools. They had no children of their own. I’m certain that much of the money spent on our tuition and uniforms came out of their own pockets, not my father’s.
Because my father was extremely flamboyant, ostentatious and boisterous, he always gave everyone the impression that we were wealthy. The Shaletts always made sure he wore expensive clothes and shoes and drove a new car every year. We always stayed in expensive hotels on our vacations from school. Therefore, all of us were convinced, with no doubts, that we were rich like our classmates, when in fact it was the Shaletts who were actually our benefactors.
One memory we always loved to talk about was something that happened on one Christmas. We were always excited and anxious to find out what we received from the Shaletts for Christmas. They were very generous. Wanda loved to go shopping, so our best presents were always from them.
My father in great anticipation carefully opened the envelope they sent him. Of course he was counting on a huge bonus check as his gift, which he often got. When he opened it, they had sent him a year of the “Fruit of the Month Club”. He would get a box of fresh fruit each month for a year! He was so furious, that it was absolutely hysterically funny. He turned red and spouted off a list of at least twenty nasty names and cuss words that he called them. We were all in tears laughing and told the story over and over for years.
At least twenty-five or thirty years later, there was a scene in the movie “Christmas Vacation” with Chevy Chase where almost the same exact thing happened! The only difference was that their gift was a year of the “Jelly of the Month Club”! I have always wondered if the person that wrote that scene had somehow heard the story about my father. The similarity was so close it was just uncanny!
I didn’t start figuring things out until my Senior year in high school. My father’s sales dropped far below what they had been in the past. The Shaletts began to fill me in on things I had never known. At that point he was already deeply in debt and owed the Shaletts lots of money. I also found out that my sister and her new husband had been stuck with the bill for their wedding. My father had spared no expense when ordering the banquet room, flowers, food, drinks and musicians. Many guests were invited and attended. I know he ordered several cases of expensive Champagne and other kinds of liquor.
My sister didn’t tell me until I was older that it took them years to pay off their wedding. I must admit that I was in shock for quite some time after learning that everything I had believed my entire life was all a facade. I had known we were poor when I lived with my mother, but since my father gained custody I truly believed for the next twelve years that
we were well off.
Another of my father’s great fabrications was his telling everyone that we were related to Will Rogers. He claimed that his father and Will’s father were brothers, so they were cousins. Added to that was a photo of my father and Will together which he claimed was taken at the airport as he saw Will off on his doomed flight to Alaska where his plane crashed and both Will and his pilot, Wiley Post were killed. The picture was taken by a car outside. He always said it was the “last” picture ever taken of Will Rogers. Our whole family believed this our entire lives. After my father passed away in 1987, our aunt who lived in New Jersey took it upon herself to write a family tree. She spent a couple of years researching our family history. When she finished, she told us that she could not find anywhere that we were in any way related to Will Rogers. Knowing what a “BS-er” our father was, we believed it and accepted it. However, we all believed the picture was real. We had seen our father push his way through a crowd at a golf course so we could all have our pictures taken with Bing Crosby. So, we never doubted that somehow he finagled a way to have his picture taken with Will Rogers.
In September of 2012 (while I was writing this book), I found out that even the picture is a fake! David Gray, who is a Historian for a University in Oklahoma, was writing a book about Salesmen back in the 1930’s to the 1970’s. He had interviewed me over a year before for his book (as the daughter of one of those salesmen). I proudly told him about being related to Will and even emailed him the picture. He let me know that while doing his research for the book, he discovered that my father had had the picture made by having a photo of him and a photo of Will Rogers spliced together! After learning this, I took a closer look at the picture….and it was actually an obvious fake. He even told me that all of the salesmen that my father worked with all knew about the fake picture and laughed about it. He used it to get his foot in the door to sell his product to the CEO’s of large Companies. So, my father went to his grave having his family believe that huge lie. In my Playboy centerfold layout, it even says I am related to Will Rogers and I even made it into Walter Winchell’s newspaper column because of it.