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What's in a name?


My unJewish Jewish family
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I say writers because certainly for the purposes of this... number, I'm more interested in talking about being a writer than about being Frederic Raphael in any kind of other context. On the other hand, I have to give some account of myself otherwise it won't make any sense that I should have chosen this curious, not entirely amiable, profession.

A lot of people talk about their parents and their grandparents when they first start talking about themselves. Whether that's polite or whether it's merely a convention, I don't know. I have to confess that in an age where people seem to be very interested in their ancestors, I'm not extremely interested in mine, partly, I think, because of the split in my personality, a very obvious split between America and England, the reason being that my father was British. His family, I discovered some time ago, had been in England since the... certainly the end of the 18th century where one of my paternal ancestors was a member of the synagogue which had a list of members which they have kept. My mother was American. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, from which you cannot be more middle-westerly American. She went to Chicago when she was about 18 to become a secretary and because her father had gone bankrupt and she couldn't go to college even though she was a bright girl and she was very marked by that. She was a bright and very good-looking girl. My father, meanwhile, had been to St Paul's and to Oxford. And he was, while at Oxford and afterwards, a very keen ballroom dancer. In fact, he was not only keen, he was the amateur champion in the world, particularly in the tango. And a very old friend of his and later of mine called Guy Ramsey, a journalist, once said to me, the thing about your father was that when he danced the tango he was a dago, and when he danced the waltz he was a Viennese gentleman. My father, when I knew him, had already become... somewhat staid. He did dance, but not a lot with my mother because in his rather clear and understated way he had observed that she was not a very good dancer. I never heard my father raise his voice. He was not in any sense the sort of Jew that other people might think was a Jew. He spoke correctly and calmly. I never heard him raise his voice, I never heard him say 'fuck', I never heard him say anything worse than 'bugger', which was said in a very English kind of way when something got broken or whatever. He was very restrained. But he had not always been like that I suspect, and in particular he had not always been like that as a young man when he danced and when he danced with many women, and when he slept, I suspect, with not a few. One of them was a person called Molly who was a member of the Baltic Exchange. This is in the middle to late 1920s so she must have been quite an extraordinary woman since I don't know how you qualify for the Baltic Exchange, but I can't believe many women did. She did what many women have done before and since which was to tell him that there was no risk of her becoming pregnant upon which she became pregnant. She was not Jewish. My father's father went to synagogue and was in many ways a proper Jew. My father's mother, Amy, was one of several sisters, also of Jewish provenance, but she wasn't very keen, to put it mildly, on being Jewish. She did not, of course, keep a kosher house and she... conducted herself like an English lady. In fact, she and her sisters used to sit in the foyer of the Grand Hotel Eastbourne, which was one of their favorite summer haunts, and when a Jew came in through the rotating doors, my Aunt Minnie, who had a great voice and she had sung, she told me, in front of the Prince of Wales, used to intone, 'Fish', which was their code, not very subtle rhyming code, for Jewish. They were beautiful enough not to be taken for Jews. They did have a number of Jewish characteristics, however, and originally, although their name was Benson by the time that my grandmother married my grandfather, their original name had been Bebro and they came, I think, from Manchester. I said I wasn't going to talk about my family; here I am talking about them, but they are quite fun.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: writers, ancestors, grandparents, mother, father, ballroom dancing, Jews

Duration: 5 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 13 August 2014