To us he was Cousin Jack, my grandmother’s cousin. No one knew his official name was Harold John Neal. My obsessive genealogy efforts led to that news. It was always as if his first name was Cousin and his second, Jack. Like earlier Nineteenth Century ancestors Cousin Jack was of humble beginnings which at best could claim lower middle class status. Thus, it intrigued my grandmother and her little dynasty that in adulthood he touched for many years on lives of the extremely wealthy. Best to start at the start.
He was born in Abingdon, Berkshire, England in 1897. In 1916 during the Great War, he joined the Coldstream Guards. He was eighteen and the Guards trained him to be a footman.
Footmen were usually assigned to serve a high ranking officer. They were youngish, unmarried and tall. Their uniform stockings worn below knee breeches showed off the legs and so nicely shaped legs were another requirement. Apparently Jack fit the bill. His wavy hair, impressive aquiline nose, correct English and gentle Berkshire accent must have helped. However, he did not last with the military because he was asthmatic and within a year was permanently discharged.
Cousin Jack’s specialized training did him good, however and led to a career as a valet in homes of the wealthy. His supremely cultivated manners and whole demeanour could easily have been a template for the exaggerated portrayals of valets in early cinema.
In 1930 he left England and headed for America aboard the liner Homeric. He would settle in New York City and spend the rest of his life there.
In 1937 when Cousin Jack applied for his American Social Security number, his address was given as 740 Park Avenue. The application was signed by a Julia L. Thorne, wife of Landon K. Thorne. Thorne was one of the wealthiest men in America and 740 Park Avenue was pretty much THE apartment building in the United States at the time. Big things went on at that address. Thorne was a highly successful banker/investor who had connections with Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Bouviers and Stimsons.
Wikipedia reports that on an ominous evening near the end of World War Two the Thornes entertained Mrs. Thorne’s cousin in their apartment. That cousin was Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War. Stimson informed his hosts that the next day their country was to do something that would ‘likely change the future course of the world’. What the Americans did the next day, on Stimson’s advice to President Harry S. Truman, was drop the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Jack was probably working for the son, Landon K. Thorne Jr. who was a rich and influential adult in his own right. I wondered while reading from Wikipedia if Landon Jr. could have been at the table? Would Cousin Jack have been in attendance, present to hear that shocking news? Perhaps it was table talk during the main course. Or, did he hear it while serving after-dinner liqueurs? Jack, of course, never revealed anything at all about his employers, not what they did, not what they said. It is possible that his trustworthiness, not just his elegance, secured him long employment in the echelons of high society.
Cousin Jack sometimes called himself a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ rather than a valet. His story was that Mr. Thorne was blind and needed him to serve as his ‘eyes’. Thus the two travelled the world and we thought Cousin Jack’s work was as exciting as it could get for a servant.
Jack was not only my grandmother Gertie’s cousin but her dear friend. They grew up in the same Berkshire town. She had emigrated well ahead of him, to Canada, in 1913, with her new husband, a barber who was also known as Jack but officially named John. Husband Jack and Gertie reared eight children in Toronto and when Cousin Jack later settled in New York City, he often visited his extended family in Toronto. His main interests were my grandmother and his aunt who was my great grandmother. He was always friendly, always kind. Great-Grandma was a dear, silkily white-haired old woman full of arthritis and rheumatism who had become blind and deaf and was restricted to the upstairs of our grandparents’ home. A black and white photograph of her with tall, thin Jack shows him uncharacteristically dressed in a t-shirt and slacks and the two of them laughing heartily. Except for that happy picture, my memory is of a quintessentially noble man clad in a perfectly fitted suit complete with immaculate tie and white shirt, handkerchief in the jacket pocket. Not to forget the highly polished black shoes.
When Cousin Jack retired he moved from 740 Park Avenue. He often corresponded with a son of Gertie and Jack who was yet another John but mercifully called Johnny most of the time. Soon after the Second World War Johnny visited Cousin Jack in New York and found him to be less prosperous than everyone had assumed. As expected, his apartment was tastefully furnished but everything else about it was a surprise. Located in a seedy part of town, it was a very modest sixth-floor tenement with no elevator. In old age he revealed that over several years the apartment was robbed three times. Accommodation in his later life had to be less appealing by miles than it was while he worked at 740 Park Avenue, Apartment B. Even if the B had meant Basement.
Still, he liked the good life and it is possible that he opted for low-cost housing in order to save money for experiences like trips to England, voyages on freighters and seasons’ tickets to ballets at the Met.
In the Fifties another son of Gertie and Jack honeymooned in New York and found Cousin Jack in a more suitable neighbourhood. He bought Standing Room Only tickets for bride, groom and himself to see Giselle. Well known there, he chatted comfortably with numerous people who recognized him. In Toronto his friendliness was never a surprise. He loved to regale the family with tales of his sea adventures. Young nephews welcomed him enthusiastically because they knew he would soon be playing poker games with them.
One day when he was very elderly – he lived to be ninety – he was not at all well and tumbled over, apparently unnoticed, in the street near his building. No one helped him. Eventually, he dragged himself up onto his feet and waited for strength to scale the stairs to his apartment unaided. It was one of his last stories, perhaps his only unhappy tale for Gertie and the rest to hear.
His effeminate manner might have been cause for that ugly incident near his life’s end. One would never have said so in those days but he was very likely gay. Perhaps in moving to the anonymity of New York he had thought his family in England and Toronto would never know. Dearly loved by them but at the end perhaps not by the Big Apple, Harold John Neal died there in 1988, circumstances of his death and burial location still to be discovered.