FOLLOWING THE SUN
Byline: Julie L. Belcove
NEW YORK — The trouble with writing a memoir about your family, Gini Alhadeff quickly discovered, is that your parents, siblings and other relations proclaim themselves critics. Or, even worse, editors.
“My mother put Post-its all over the text with question marks,” Alhadeff says with a laugh. “One said, ‘Makes me look like an idiot.’ I said, ‘You hated it.’ She said, ‘Well, I didn’t put anything where I liked it.’ “
Her new memoir, “The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family,” traces the clan of entrepreneurs and eccentrics from the island of Rhodes to Egypt, Sudan, Italy and Japan. In some of the most evocative sections, Alhadeff describes the hodgepodge of Mediterranean cultures that defined colonial Alexandria, where she was born.
“They either pretended to be very English or very French,” she says of the wealthy Italians, Greeks and Turks in the time of King Farouk. “Of course, they were neither.”
But they had their sporting club, their yacht club, their card games with the King and their affairs.
The author, a striking woman in her 40s with an aristocratic carriage and black hair well down her back, details the acquisition of the family fortune — from cotton, merchant banking and real estate — and the loss of it — to fascism, nationalization and just plain squandering.
In a story that parallels recent revelations of Madeleine Albright’s Jewish background, Alhadeff tells of discovering her roots as a Sephardic Jew. Although her parents had converted to Catholicism in reaction to anti-Semitism and her uncle’s concentration camp imprisonment, Alhadeff did not learn of her Jewish heritage until she was an adult.
Religion, she explains, was not a topic of discussion in the Alhadeff household.
“I knew they were not Catholic,” she says of her grandparents, “but I didn’t know what they were.”
Besides, she says, she was schooled primarily in Italy, and “to be Italian is to be a little Catholic.
“I’m really a Catholic, if it has to do with experience,” she adds. “If it has to do with race, then I’m Jewish.”
Whatever religion, the family felt like outsiders wherever they went. They most identified with Italy, where many of them now live, but even there their accents and surname cast them as aliens. (The difficult-to-classify “Alhadeff” came in handy for her uncle, who used it to pass himself off as a Frenchman of Russian descent and avoid extermination at Buchenwald.)
Writing the book gave Alhadeff “a clearer sense of what I’m composed of, but also a clearer sense of how little that matters.”
“To know where you come from is important,” she adds. “Where it gets dangerous is to make it a point of pride.”
Extended family members are now far-flung, from South America to Europe, but Alhadeff has settled in New York, where she lives in a book-filled apartment on the Upper East Side.
“It’s such a provincial city,” she says. “There is a big city — that’s what tourists see. I never go there myself. This is a village. You can just go to the corner and find everything you need. I usually don’t go anywhere I can’t walk to. If you’re in Paris, you have to navigate the entire city. “
“The Sun at Midday” describes such characters as her philandering grandfather; her uncle Aldo Pinto, chairman of Krizia, and her cousin Pierre, another convert who went so far as to become a priest. The family refers to the name-dropping monsignor as “Pastor to the Rich and Famous.”
When she began the project, Alhadeff says, she was concerned about hurting her relatives’ feelings, but, she admits, “Past a certain point, the book takes on its own life. You’re not deciding; it’s the text itself.”
And she is equally revealing of details from her own life, including a long-term affair with a married man (unnamed) and an ill-fated pregnancy.
“It’s only fair,” she says. “It’s the only exotic place from which a writer can write — inside yourself — because it’s unknown.”
Alhadeff, a freelance magazine journalist who also founded two literary magazines, took five years to write “The Sun at Midday,” her first book. Other than working at her computer pushed up close to the warm glow from the fireplace, she insists she has no writing habits. Some days she doesn’t write at all.
“I consider those very good writing days,” she says. “You must be advancing somewhere else — you must be thinking.
“I think some people call it a block,” she adds, “which I think is stupid.”