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Masculine Facsimile: On Absent Fathers, Lies, Theft, and Ornithology.

 Tell me the name of the world
           --Robert Penn Warren, Audubon: A Vision 
I.  


In my thinking life only a few things have stayed constant: a curiosity for great improbabilities, those coincidences that approach the sublime; a belief in the necessity of lies and half-truths and fictions in the uncovering of the greater truth; and a surveyor's calm approach to material both new and familiar. In this way I have made a useful habit of avoiding intellectual confrontation; I see myself as a side-stepper, carefully (and not without grace) attending to arguments as one approaches fresh wreckage--alert yet unimpeded. I am sensing now that this methodology, this habit, is what allows me to write the following after a fresh discovery of the facts:

In the summer and early fall of 1980, Sotheby's put up for auction 345 illustration plates from John James Audubon's iconic work of art and ornithology, The Birds of America. The plates, which belonged to The New York Society Library in Manhattan, came from the so-called Havell Edition of 1827-1838; they were the large-sized, hand-colored engravings that make up the first edition of the work, also called the Double Elephant Folio. These same plates, these turkeys, kingfishers, grackles, and owls, these raptors and songbirds, had been stolen from the Library a few years prior to the auction, sometime between 1971 and March 1973, when they were discovered missing. In 1974, in West Palm Beach, Florida, my father confessed to this theft.

I do not know much about my father. My memory of him is so scant, in fact, it would probably be more accurate to say that it is mostly if not entirely constructed, stitched together from small details gathered by gossip or nostalgia from others who knew him better. For example, I "know" that he loved spending time in the Adirondack Mountains, that he tried and failed to become a Hollywood screenwriter, that he collected and restored old cars and motorcycles. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, which he is said to have hated, and from which he was expelled in his last year. He did not go to college, or he did, but did not earn a degree. He met my mother in Lake Placid, New York, and afterward he spent time with her traveling around the country, including Utah, where my mother and her mother and hers--and I--were born. My mother and father never married, nor did they stay together long. Rather than settle in Utah with her, my father decided he better enjoyed living in California (Venice Beach) or Florida (Palm Beach) because of the decadent freedom he associated with a life near water and their proximity to the places where he could make a career as a writer. Or so I assume. He was an aesthete with impeccable taste but little means of creating the life he thought he deserved. He and his two brothers were adopted by their mother's second husband into a very wealthy family when they were young, and he lived off a monthly allowance. I do not know of any job he ever held.

The first time I remember meeting him was in 1997, when I was nine years old and he came without warning to Salt Lake City. We--he, my mother, and I--spent the summer together in upstate New York and Maine, where I met his family. I remember him as outrageously tall, six-foot-six, with perfectly parted slick blond hair. He was clean-shaven and often seen in turtlenecks. Disarmingly charming, his was a presence I remember more vividly than I remember his face. He could perform card tricks, was a capable sailor in any manner of watercraft (sailboat, motorboat, canoe), and was married to another woman before he met my mother. Although he tried to visit me a second time in Utah in 1998, also without warning, I didn't see my father again for another eight years. Instead we wrote to one another a few times. Then he died, in 2005, from a brain tumor.

My father carried a circumference in which I had, and have, no part. The shock of learning about his theft, after his lifelong absence and years after his death, was large and heavy and immediate; learning that, when he was in his early twenties, he stole a small fortune in the form of a complete first edition of John fames Audubon's Birds of America. Of all things. This fact, weird and undeniable, came at me like a meteor from the void of fictions and misinformation and vague memory into which my father had passed.

Part of Audubon's impetus for Birds was not just to survey and document, but also to name. These were new species in a new world, his catalogue a triumph of taxonomy as much as it is one of ornithology, of art. For example, from Audubon's Ornithological Biography, a literary companion to Birds of America that braids descriptions and taxonomies of the birds with episodes from Audubon's life:

"The Wild Turkey: Meleagris gallapavo"
When a Turkey cock and hen have thus come together, I believe
    the connexion continues for that season, although the former by no
   means confines his attentions to one female, as I have seen a cock
   caress several hens ... then they separate themselves, in order to
   save their eggs from the male, who would break them all, for the
   purpose of protracting his sexual enjoyments. The females then
   carefully avoid him, excepting during a short period each day. 


For example, Father: Vanishing Visitor, he who is both here and not.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The name of my father is Philipp Virgil Stillman. Two p's, one 1. This unique spelling led me blindly to the discovery of his theft. No one in my family or his had told me about the incident. In fact, the Stillmans, as I would later learn, did their considerable best to bury the story. Yet one day, turning to Google, as one does, I searched for "Philipp Stillman," excluding "Philip" or "Phillip." I had often done this, out of bored curiosity and with no interesting results. This time, however, I found among the dreck of people-finder click-bait a tiny digitized newspaper clipping from the June 11, 1974, issue of The Lakeland Ledger, a regional daily in Polk County, Florida. The headline: "Man Pleads Guilty In Art Theft."
    NEW YORK (AP)--A 24-year-old West Palm Beach, Fla., man pleaded
guilty in
   U.S. District Court Monday to transporting $240,000 worth of Audubon
bird
   prints stolen from a library here. "I took them for
re-sale--some I
   intended to sell, some I intended to keep," said Philipp
Stillman, who
   was released without bail to await sentencing. The classic prints, a
   four-volume set of Audubon's "The Birds of America"
were reported missing
   from the New York Society Library on Manhattan's East Side in
March 1973. 


What I hadn't known I had been looking for: a trace, a clue, a blurb shy of one hundred words that made up one of the only surviving public impressions of my father's life. A byte of information impossibly small yet permanently rescued. For me to find, like a visitation.

My tendency to avoid confrontation, which I have described, had made details of Philipp's life easy to acknowledge yet not to be followed further, few tiny tiles in an always-incomplete mosaic. This particular detail, however, was too extraordinary to dismiss. It was a door flung open.
II.  


It is well known that John James Audubon, F.R.S., whom Lewis Mumford called "the nearest thing American art has to a founding father," overcame the low station of his birth and earned honors unknowable to even light-skinned Caribbean bastards. But through this forest of accolades, how to see the beating heart behind the myth, the lie beyond the lie.

The first edition of Birds, which my father stole, was printed in England between 1827 and 1838 by Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr., father and son team. The Havells made black-and-white prints from Audubon's original watercolors using a painstaking process called copperplate intaglio. The prints were then hand-colored and bound together in four volumes containing 435 illustrated plates in total. The term "double elephant folio," the common nickname for the first edition, refers to the size of paper used, the largest available, which Audubon had demanded so his birds would remain in one-to-one scale in the final collection. During the eleven years of printing, an estimated 200 copies of the four-volume ornithology were created, and 119 are known to exist today. The locations and provenances of these sets are carefully watched. The same year my father's theft was discovered, 1973, saw the publication of Waldemar H. Fries's The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon's "Birds of America," the first effort of such watchers. It is an excruciatingly detailed census of all extant Double Elephant Folios at the time. Here I discovered two brief notations, small glimmers of corroboration of my father's theft. The first: "In March 1973 the author was advised by letter that [the New York Society Library's] folio had been stolen." The second: "Reported stolen in 1973; exact date unknown. Some prints recovered."

In December 2010, in London, a complete Double Elephant Folio sold for $11.5 million.

"I took them for re-sale," my father said, "some I intended to sell, some I intended to keep."

John James Audubon was born by the name of Jean Rabin in 1785 on a French colonial plantation on the island of Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti. Jean Rabin was one of many illegitimate children of Jean Audubon, a French naval captain. In 1794, in France, after father and son fled the Haitian Rebellion, leaving other illegitimate children behind, Jean Rabin was adopted by the Audubons, legitimized. Thus Jean Rabin became Jean Audubon Jr.

In 1803, in the United States, the name John James Audubon came into existence when the son was sent from France to his father's estate outside Philadelphia at the age of eighteen to dodge Napoleon's conscription. Jean Audubon Jr. became John James Audubon by denying two things: his illegitimacy and his place of birth. John James Audubon was born in Louisiana.

"A tenuous balance between fact and fiction runs through Audubon's life and work," writes the biographer Ella Foshay. As a young man in America, Audubon frequently exaggerated the details of his background, falsely claiming that his father was an admiral and that his family had been imprisoned in the Bastille. His Ornithological Biography is full of fictitious accounts presented under the guise of memoir and personal essay, capturing the spirit of an untamed early America if not the fact.

Before his ambition to create Birds of America solidified, while he was trying to make his way as a shopkeeper in Louisiana, Audubon was frequently away from his wife and two young sons. He spent a great amount of time wandering, hunting birds, painting them. (Audubon's method of painting is perhaps infamous--he would hunt and kill dozens of the same species to find an "ideal" specimen, then he would use wire to pose the dead or skinned bird in the attitudes in which he wanted to depict it.) In 1826 he left his family for nearly a decade to go to England in search of printers and subscribers for his life's "Great Work." "Any one unacquainted with the extraordinary desire which I then felt," Audubon wrote in his Biography, "would doubtless have pronounced me callus to every duty, and regardless of every interest.... Reader, will you believe it, I had no other object in view, than simply to enjoy the sight of nature."

Despite his many absences, Audubon thought of both of his sons as kinds of proteges. "I have examined Nos 32 and 33. and must say that I look on these 10 plates as the best I ever saw of birds and that they do Havell and YOURSELF my beloved Son great credit," Audubon wrote to his eldest son, Victor, in September 1833, regarding some small-scale reproductions the son had completed. "Every thing is better--the birds are fac Simile of my Drawings--Soft and beautiful the Colouring is Clear transparent and true to Nature--the plants are Seriously better--I am delighted ..."

The son, "fac Simile" of the father. Son, pulled and printed from the copper plate onto which the father has been etched and scoured.

"A Tough Walk For A Youth"
Again we trudged along the beach, but after a while betook
ourselves
    to the woods. My son became faint. Dear boy! Never can I forget how
he
   lay exhausted on a log, large tears rolling down his cheeks. I bathed
his
   temples, spoke Soothingly to him ... The pleasure which I felt gazing
on
   the scene was damped by the fatigue of my son, who now limped like a
   lamed turkey, although, as the
   rest of the party were not much better off, he smiled, straightened
   himself, and strove to keep up with us. 


The great mutual expectation of masculine facsimile--to suffer and smile and straighten oneself; to look one's father in the eye and say I am all right; I can continue; You just lead the way, and I will follow.

Periodically I conjure the hypothetical, the parallel universe, in which my father never became sick. In this universe, he is still a struggling writer working on various projects in West Palm Beach, and he is still terrible at keeping in contact with me. In this universe, I write to my father by mail around Christmas 2005, wishing him a happy holidays and letting him know I was accepted into a university north of Chicago where I will study journalism on scholarship. I ask him to call when he can. He does call, promptly, and we discuss writing and literature and my last year of high school in Utah. I cannot imagine the particulars of our conversation, but it is enough to reestablish a connection that long lay dormant. We attempt to arrange a visit; months pass. I graduate, I move to the Midwest. Arranged through intermittent email contact, my father meets me in Chicago, a place he deems worthy of visiting.

But here the hypothetical is shadow, all deep variegated acid-shaded scratches on an inked engraving. A ghost print. Perhaps we get along. Perhaps we don't. I can't read what is written in this universe. Whatever relationship we might have had is forever foreclosed. Yet. In the temple of my dreams my father frequently appears. It is not a visual apparition, but I do feel his presence, a constant ache or melancholic drum deep in the pit and along the seams of the dream. He is closer to me now in his real absence, death, than he was when living, when the circumference of his abandonment was not as infinite.
III. 


It is hard to say with certainty the extent of my father's pathology. It is hard to say with certainty just what he left in me. And while it is fair to say I have had no father actively, I wonder what passive traces of him spin and bob and ghost in me, unchecked. Or whether I should rage against them, or with them.

I began to entertain wild visions of how my father managed to steal the New York Society Library's Double Elephant Folio. All four volumes together weigh about 175 pounds, and each plate measures about forty by twenty-four inches. It is not easily handled. My father wanted Birds of America in particular, more than all the other rare books the Library, a private institution founded in 1754, must house. Or so I assume. This troubles me.
    "The American Crow: Corvus americanus" I think I see him
perched on the highest branch of a tree, watching
   every object around. He observes a man on horseback travelling
towards
   him; he marks his movements in silence. 


But I am getting ahead of myself.

The head librarian of the New York Society Library from 1954 to 1978 was a woman named Sylvia Hilton. In a journal she kept both, she writes, "for The New York Society Library archives" and "for my own satisfaction," Hilton describes my father's account of how he stole Birds of America in addition to all the events that led to the recovery of a majority of the prints, which were returned to the Library in January 1975 after the installation of a burglar alarm. I was able to find a complete facsimile of Hilton's twenty-three-page account, titled "The Stillman Theft," written on a typewriter with primly handwritten corrections and omissions, among the Waldemar H. Fries (author of the landmark census The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon's Birds of America previously mentioned) research papers. Leave it to the record-keepers of history's lesser events, those people with the heroic temperament for minutiae, to answer our questions.

According to "The Stillman Theft," my father told the FBI the following: One day in November 1972 he walked into the New York Society Library on 79th Street in Manhattan and went to the ninth stack level, from which he could see down into the alcove where the rare books were kept. Unscrewing a protective grille, he climbed down from a balcony into this alcove. In the rare book stacks, the door to which was typically locked at all times, he found the four volumes of the Double Elephant Folio lying on a table wrapped in cloth. He hid in the stacks until three A.M. Assured he was alone in the library, he then replaced the Audubons under the cloth with other large folios, hauled the Audubons downstairs, walked out the front door that required no key to exit, loaded them into his car, and drove to Florida. There may or may not have been accomplices. ("This story was vague, inaccurate, and omitted much detail that we never did learn," Hilton writes. "For instance, what did he do about the metal grille? Did he wait in the rare book stack or where?")

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In April 1973--about a month after the theft was discovered, after the Library enlisted the help of the police, the FBI, the Library's insurance carriers, and the rare-booksellers' community in finding their stolen goods--some errant Audubon prints were located at the Bartfield Galleries on West 57th Street, where my father had sold them using his real name. Hilton and Jean Burnham, head cataloguer and rare book librarian, were able to identify their prints at once, with complete certainty, using a book of descriptions Burnham had made several years before, inspired by W. H. Fries and his first inquiries into the Library's Folio. This book contained faithfully detailed entries on the unique characteristics of each of the Library's plates, down to the smallest tear or crease. "It had been a long and difficult task," Hilton writes of this description process, "because there were 435 engravings to be examined for watermark and date, title, damage if any, and other idiosyncrasies. It is doubtful that any other owner would have made such a list, but we thought it a valuable project. In the event it was crucial."

Using their book of descriptions over the course of two years, the Library was able to recover 35r of 435 Audubon prints in the many other various places where my father had sold them or where, in turn, they had been sold: galleries and rare book shops in New York City, Louisiana, and Texas; auction houses in London, including Christie's and Francis Edwards Antiquarian Bookseller; and private collections in Italy and the Netherlands. Philipp had also stashed sixty-four plates in a barn at the Stillman family estate in upstate New York, those that he "intended to keep." In London Hilton discovered, with the help of the FBI and Scotland Yard, that he had also stolen and sold other rare works from the Library: post-Audubonian ornithological studies by Daniel Giraud Elliot (The New and Heretofore Unfigured Species of the Birds of North America and A Monograph of the Paradisadae or Birds of Paradise), four volumes of eighteenth-century architectural engravings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and an atlas of eighteenth-century maps. My father took these volumes in March and July of 1972,, months before he came back for Birds--"which led to his downfall," as Sylvia Hilton puts it. She also remembers my father saying that the Elliot books "were the best things you had. I liked them better than the Audubons." The Library never carefully documented these secondary volumes, as they did with Birds, so many of their plates were never recovered.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Late in 1974, after my father was apprehended and charged and he pled guilty, his mother and stepfather met with Sylvia Hilton and the Library's lawyers. They requested two things: leniency in Philipp's sentencing--"a prison term would 'ruin the boy'"--and "no publicity." As these requests were coming from a well-connected, wealthy New York family, I am sure the Library had no choice but to comply. My father was sentenced on December 16, 1974, to just four months in federal prison and two years' probation. My grandparents' request for "no publicity" explains why no one in my family had mentioned the incident before, and why public information about it is so scarce. The obscurity of my father's theft was designed and managed, attended to carefully by a family that could not abide such a scandal from a troubled stepson. Sylvia Hilton writes that "only once did a newsman get wind of this story," a Mr. Gent of The New York Times, who contacted her in September 1973. She followed FBI advice not to discuss the case as it was still under investigation, but she told Mr. Gent she would get in touch with him when information could be released. Mr. Gent, however, died before the case was closed. As the Library's lawyer was agreeing to my grandparents' requests, he told them that it was possible that the story might eventually leak. It never did.

My father made about $90,000 selling the prints he stole from the New York Society Library. He used this money to open a garage in West Palm Beach, a business where he restored old classic cars for resale, a business, Sylvia Hilton tells me, he had aspired to ever since dropping out of college. I have rarely known the right questions to ask.

Before my father confessed, the Library searched their membership records for any evidence they could use against him. Although they didn't find any memberships under his legal adopted name, they did find one under the name Jackson, his biological father's surname, which listed as reference a Mrs. Jackson who lived at the Stillman Park Avenue address. "That was pretty sneaky, wasn't it?" my father said during his final interview with the Library. As Jean Rabin can tell you, there is danger in the taxonomy of truth.

I want to tell myself, to believe, that my father was not at his core a criminal. After all, he turned himself in. Perhaps he did this out of guilt; perhaps for him looking at his newly acquired hand-painted copperplate etchings, of Boat-Tailed Grackles or Downy Woodpeckers or Great Blue Herons, became a tainted aesthetic experience. One way to ruin art.

What I want to tell myself is not necessarily the truth. He stole much more than just a few Birds engravings; he only turned himself in after the FBI questioned him in Florida; he had no idea that the Library had such detailed descriptions of their Double Elephant Folio for the tracking of their prints.

There is also the question of the eighty-four Birds plates that went unrecovered. During his final official questioning before sentencing--with a whole slew of representatives from both sides present, including Sylvia Hilton and Jack Hoffinger, my father's lawyer--Philipp refused to definitively state what happened to the rest of the Folio. Hilton describes my father's memory as "unbelievably foggy." She catalogs some of his excuses, none of which with any faith: some were in transit to Christie's in London, some were with friends, more were hidden at his parents' house, some he destroyed. Lies, obfuscations, artful misdirections. Six years later and no longer in possession of a complete Birds set, the Library decided to put 345 of the recovered 351 plates up for auction at Sotheby's, as I've said. They sold for a total of $1,189,700. The remaining six plates were placed on display in the Library, where they remain.

In all likelihood, my father panicked after his first questioning by the FBI and destroyed all the remaining eighty-four prints that were in his possession at the time, those he either "intended to keep" or had not yet sold. He burned them. Sheets curling in flame. Purification, the ash of guilt.
    "American Avoset: Recurvirostra Americana" I have seen
this, and I am content. Now she observes me, poor thing,
   and off she scrambles,--running, tumbling, and at last rising on
wing,
   emitting her clicking notes of grief and anxiety, which none but an
   inconsiderate or callous-hearted person could hear without
sympathizing
   with her.... Alas, poor bird! 


As one witness, a neighbor, told the FBI: "It was a very big bonfire."

Sylvia Hilton describes my father once, during the scene of his final interview: "He was a very tall young man with bleached blond, straggly, curly hair to the shoulders. Pink tinted glasses, faded blue jeans, and sneakers completed the modish hippie outfit. He had a handsome, strong profile and a perfectly composed manner. Since it is hard to resist a hand held out, I touched his fingers."
IV.  


There are precedents for everything. The word bastard had its first recorded use in English in 1297. Its etymological origin word, the Old French bast, refers to a pack-saddle, a bed common to inns. The child of the pack-saddle, a bed of absence and itinerancy, as opposed to the child of the sanctified marriage-bed.

Bastards are ambitious; bastards have something to prove. They live knowing their very legitimacy as a person can come into question, their presence on this planet, their birth. The bastard is a deviant who, having been born into an immediate taboo, can nevertheless fight and misdirect his or her way out of it, into at least the appearance of the marriage-bed. Bastards are experts of sleight-of-tongue, the carefully omitted detail, the obfuscating word choice. Their little lies are often legion, made to remedy the actions of their parents or, more often, their fathers. I remember in college, where I could construct my personal history anew, I told people that my mother and father "separated" before I was born, trusting that for them the words "divorced" and "separated" were synonymous. Little things, preserving the estimation of strangers.

Ambition is a type of lie. Those whose ambitions are not realized see just how much of a lie they were. For some, perhaps, this revelation is too much to bear. Art is also a type of lie, although not dishonest, and we prefer other words for it. Despite their appearances, Audubon's Birds were not painted from life but from death, their skins contorted and controlled by the artist to mimic that essential quality of liveliness that collectors and appraisers find so valuable. Artists act as constructors, world-builders, makers of what does not in truth exist. Even those who deal in the medium of "facts."

John James Audubon died in January 1851, his Great Work completed, but his ambition for fame and wealth more or less unrealized. His wife and two sons were at his bedside at his death, and although he could not speak, he gave them, his biographers attest, a "wistful" look.

My father found death in a hospice in West Palm Beach. He had been living in that city for a number of years, in an in-law apartment above an elderly woman's garage, refusing to make contact with his family to tell them of his brain cancer. When his mother and brother finally found him, my mother and I were the first people they contacted. I was sixteen. By the time I was able to fly to Florida alone one year later, meeting with my uncle Mark, my father's younger brother, who was also something of a stranger, Philipp was already in hospice. His state I can only describe as vegetative. His morphine drip ran constantly. His hair and beard were wild, overgrown as if his face were an empty lot. This man bore little physical relation to the tall, angular, admittedly dapper and well-groomed wearer of turtlenecks I had met eight years earlier. This man could not speak, nor could he move much of his body. His eyes, however, were open. They were a complete and pure blue, bright but serious. Very open, and I recognized them as my own.

When my uncle and I weren't in the hospice with my father, what was left of him, we spent time visiting his old haunts, including his apartment. Derelict in a way that frightened me, wood-paneled and in my memory striking all the many shades of compost, verdant browns, his small hovel was full with artifacts of an unknowable life: books that reflected both his taste for literature and his denied ambitions of writerly success (Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales), pictures of women with no hope of being recognized or identified, insignificant other totems (an empty sunglasses case, an empty cigar box) collected and held on to for what seemed to be decades. I don't remember any artwork in the apartment, nor do I remember anything that would betray an interest in, among many other things, John James Audubon and his birds.

I was only in Florida for a few days, three or four at the most. My uncle and I were at the hospice when my father died. His death rattle had begun, and my uncle spoke to one of the orderlies about what we could do to "ease his passing," or whatever tremendous euphemism we read in the hospice's pamphlets on how to cope and help with a loved-one's death; I forget their titles, perhaps When Death Is Near or Journey's End or The Dying Process. "Loved-one," too, is a strange phrase to use, for my father and I were little more than acquaintances. I cannot say I loved him, if by love we mean the curious layering-on of emotion and comprehension made, over years and years of relationship, into the unfathomable formation that we call by that name. I did feel connected to him somehow, to this man lying mute and disfigured in his small sterile bed, but I was not sure if this connection came from some sense of obligation or from some other subconscious tie of kinship.

The orderly told my uncle and me that people who are dying, even those like my father who are barely or non-responsive, sometimes need to be given from the people they care about permission to die. The dying will often "hang on" until they are sure that the ends of the life they are leaving behind are not loose, that there is nothing left misunderstood or undone.

Then my uncle turned to me. "He needs you to forgive him."

I didn't argue with this directive. While my uncle waited with the orderly outside the room, I went to my father's deathbed and I forgave him. I said it--I forgive you. That's all. I did not expect anything, not an acknowledgement from the man in the bed nor a sudden parting of clouds nor a pouring in of light. And yet. Not five minutes later, while I was still alone at his side--yet not alone, for I believe I was on the phone with my mother in Salt Lake at the same time, I had used my cellphone to call her because I was weary and a teenager and needed to hear her voice--my father stopped breathing.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"The Passenger Pigeon: Columba migratoria"

The birds poured in in countless multitudes ... The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.... I can not describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions.

What I said to my father was a lie. Perhaps I knew it as I was saying it. I did--I do--not forgive him. Nor am I completely clear on what I could forgive him for. He simply was not there. Not there. This is how life played out. Many lies, his and mine, led to one. And I can also be a good liar.
V.  


"You can assume he took them to make money," Jack Hoffinger, my father's lawyer against the theft, told me over the phone. "People steal. Money means more than money. It means power it means sex it means who you are. I never ask my clients why. Because that would be accusatory and a waste of time. I don't sit around and moralize. That's between them and their conscience and their god. People do bad things. But, look. Your father wasn't a murderer. He didn't do terrible things.

"Your father who you hardly ever saw, who died from a brain tumor, who wasn't much of a father to you, you learned he was a criminal. If you want you can feel sorry for him, but you should also feel glad that you escaped him. I know a lot more than I'm telling you, so listen. Your father wouldn't have been much of a father, based on what I know. Your father was a troubled person. The sentencing judge could have given him a lot more than four months, but he understood he was a troubled person. Anyway, go with what you have. Don't mourn what you don't have."

You escaped him; wouldn't have been much of a father; troubled. I have heard all of this before.

"That summer of 1974 I was still in college, and I had managed to get a summer job working for a newspaper in New Mexico," Mark told me over the phone. "I was going to drive out there and get an apartment and start my job, but my mother insisted on driving out with me so she could tell me all about this Audubon incident with Phil. I didn't know a thing about it. It was upsetting, I couldn't understand how my brother could have gotten into this mess. Phil talked to me after he was sentenced; he wrote to me from prison, I remember the letters well; he described to me what happened.

"When he saw The Birds of America, he said, he knew the Library obviously had no idea how important, how valuable, the work was. He said these people were really foolish. They didn't treat it carefully. He had a girlfriend at the time, a blonde woman named Diana or something, and she had a brother, and he enlisted them both to help him. Phil hid himself in the library after it closed and Diana and her brother helped him get the volumes out. He didn't squeal on them after he was caught, and he was caught very quickly. They said after the fact it was as if he wanted to be caught; he made very little effort to conceal the crime.

"I think the Audubon prints had a lot of meaning for Phil, because he and our eldest brother really were precocious naturalists at a very young age. They knew all about birds and all about animals and plants; they led bird walks at a young age for children and adults. There's also the art aspect of the Audubons--he appreciated their artistry. Of course I don't know whether he thought that this connection gave him license to take it, but that's the psychology of it to me. Your father knew what Birds was really worth, and he had contempt for these people who didn't see it. It was one artist looking at another. That's what I think of Phil. One artist appreciating another. He loved birds. Did he ever send you a postcard with a bird on it from the Adirondacks, a loon or something? I've got one with a pelican on it.

"He didn't want you to know any of this stuff. And he certainly didn't want you to follow in his footsteps in this regard. He was a complicated person. He has, or had, many wonderful, remarkable qualities. He also made many mistakes he admitted to in the end, when we were out there in Florida. One of them was getting kicked out of prep school for stealing stuff from houses in the town. He also took stuff from the family, stuff that my mother had. She would never press charges; she was upset, but she wouldn't do that against her own son. He always had an interest in, well, frankly, theft. One of the screenplays he wrote was about some theft thing. He found it exciting. Even as a young kid, ten or eleven, he would want to do dangerous things like that.

"So I think you may wonder why Phil wasn't around in your life very much, and I think one reason is that he did not want you following his dumb choices. He wanted you to think well of him. Just as my father, Phil's father, was not a very good father, Phil didn't think he would be either. You know that our father left us when we were young too, left our mother. That's been a problem for me because I don't want to think that I'm like him, our father, but, you know what, I'm not a father so I guess I'm not."

"Introductory Address"
When I had hardly yet learned to walk ... my father generally
    accompanied my steps, procured birds and flowers for me with great
   eagerness,--pointed out the elegant movements of the former, the
beauty
   and softness of their plumage, the manifestations of their pleasure
or
   sense of danger ... My father, my valued preceptor. 


My father, the precocious naturalist. My father, the artist and liar. My father, the art thief.

Which Audubon prints were his favorites? Was he fond of those depicting clusters of birds from the same species, the great groups and their clamoring over each other, some in flight, some pensive and collected, others in mid-attack or scraping for food? Perhaps he preferred those of mates, male and female partners composed together, certainly meant to be seen as in love through a romantic, anthropomorphic lens. Perhaps he liked the parent-and-child duos better, the full-grown and resplendent adults shown astride, in protective or guiding stances, their rough-hewn and dull young. Or perhaps he was, like most auction-house bidders, drawn most to the singular males, the large icons of Audubonian ornithology that fill almost the entirety of their compositions, commanding the double elephant folio paper with their dominant grace, their power, their simple-minded majesty: the Wild Turkey, the Common American Swan, the Great White Heron devouring a fish.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

My uncle does not believe that Philipp destroyed the missing eighty-four Audubon prints he stole,-he believes that my father's connection with them would be too strong, his will unshakable. My opinion is that here my uncle's clear sight is clouded by affection. How could guilt not compel my father to fire? His lifelong attraction to and compulsion for theft, his contempt for authority, demanded some sacrifices in his life. Some of these were the Audubon prints he felt, what, entitled to. Another was his relationship with me.

I have said that a desire for masculine facsimile is what drives fathers' instincts toward their children, but maybe an inverse of this desire is also at work. In my case, certainly. My father did not want to etch and burn his own habits and compulsions into me, so he stayed away. What had his father done, or not done, to him? What had that absence wrought?

This attempt to reconstruct what my uncle called the "worst" of "Phil's many mistakes" is a strange and forceful imitation of the imprinting process, a rendering of my father's lineaments onto the page so that I may read them, reconciling my own imperfections to his. Another inversion. I will admit only a few similarities between us. I am also tall, six-foot-five, blond, a writer, a naturalist in my own sporadic, amateurish way. I am sometimes a liar, but I am not a thief. Unless of course you count this, this Audubon caper stolen from the void of lost history and memory, stolen from the narrative of my father's life and grafted onto my own. My father's theft--the process in which I discovered and recreated it, my own hobbling retelling--has a life here. It is now mine, to keep or to resell. My father, my art thief.
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Author:Adamson, Christopher J.
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2016
Words:7520
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