When I was growing up, we had stuffed lions from Harris Bank. We had enough Hubert Harris lions to make a whole zoo. The lions made sense to me, because I thought of the bank as a warm and fuzzy place.
Really, to understand what I’m talking about, I need to tell you about money in my family. And what I learned about money from living the life of a rich kid
1. Big money comes from areas of big chaos.
The money started coming to my family when my great-grandpa got a law degree in the 1920s in Chicago. He didn’t have any clients, so he hung out at the jail, looking for people who needed a lawyer. It turned out that the only people who landed in jail who could reliably pay for a lawyer’s help were prostitutes.
My great-grandpa did a good job representing them, and consequently, he met Al Capone, who was the money behind the prostitutes. Soon my great-grandpa became Al Capone’s lawyer.
2. You can buy luxury but not family.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of money to be made. My great-grandparents did what rich people did in Chicago at the time: They bought a big house in Evanston, IL and they hired black people to serve them.
If you think story in The Help was a only southern thing, I can assure you that the same stuff was going on in the Chicago area.
Sula was five when she became a servant to my grandma, who was also five. It was a fine line between servant and playmate, but Sula was black and her mom was hired help. Sula worked for my grandma for her whole life. My grandma, who slept on ironed sheets her whole life, always said that Sula was like family.
I always believed her, until I went to college and realized that other kids did not have a black laundress who only came into the house via the back door. I also realized that you cannot pay someone to be family.
3. It’s difficult to have both high moral ground and high income.
My grandma married a guy who was soft-spoken and smart enough to get into University of Chicago even when there were quotas at universities to keep the Jewish population low.
It makes sense that if your dad is a lawyer for the mob, you’d react by marrying someone who is a stickler for morality. But of course, my grandpa was no match for my great-grandpa, so he called the shots.
4. The people with money control the shots. For people who want the money.
This became very important when my dad went to graduate school. He wanted to get a PhD in history. My great-grandfather wanted him to become a lawyer. “Just apply!” he told my dad. So, reluctantly, my dad applied to law school and got into Harvard.
“No one turns down Harvard law!” my great-grandfather told my dad. Everyone in the family repeated that. And my dad went to law school.
5. Lots of money means lots of false relationships.
The biggest — and maybe only — client my dad landed was my mom. She was in college with him. On scholarship. Her parents were both invalids and she knew it was a matter of survival to marry someone rich. She would tell you that she loved my dad.
Unfortunately they saved all their love letters in a box, to give to one of their kids one day. The love letters are a documentary of what it looks like to marry for money. My mom is the hot, popular girl who is too much for my dad to keep up with. My dad is the annoying social outcast she can’t stand. He grovels, she pushes him away.
There is nothing in the love letter box about what makes them ever decide to get married. So it is an easy leap to think my mom had a financial issue at stake and my dad had no social IQ to know the difference.
6. Rich people are never happy just being rich. They want to look smart.
Harvard was really important to my great-grandpa because the history of my family is, perhaps, the struggle to look classy when all your money comes from the mob. To this end, my great-grandfather subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month club. If you could buy learning, my great-grandpa would have done that. The library in the Evanston house was huge and well-stocked.
The book collection became mythic in the family. Who would inherit it? That was the prize. Forget the museum-quality, yellow-glazed porcelain imported on ocean liners between the wars. People wanted the books.
My dad got the books. After all, he got the law degree. The books were stored with the dust jackets in a separate box. The books were all first editions—first edition Hemingway, Steinbeck, Wharton. The books were in pristine condition, of course, since no one had ever read them.
The day my dad went to go collect his reward for doing what my great-grandpa told him, we realized that no one knew where the dust jackets were. The value of the books was gone: it’s all in the dust jacket.
7. The money never lasts as long as you think it will.
So my dad gave the books to me, since I’m the only person in the family who reads fiction. I shipped the boxes to my apartment in LA. I found, underneath Finnegan’s Wake and Tender is the Night, a collection of pornography.
Not smutty, cheap porn, but famous, specially-bound books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover illustrated by Rockwell Kent.
I sold the books to a used book dealer. People always ask me how I supported myself while I was trying to get on the professional beach volleyball tour. Now you know how.
8. Stability and sanity make better memories than luxurious excess.
The whole time my brother and I were growing up, we heard about The Trust Fund. It was where all the money came from. It was what all the family meetings were about. It was why my parents could buy overpriced 70s art and a BMW E21—they didn’t have to save for our college. “The trust fund is paying for it.”
My brother got a PhD in economics. Surely my great-grandfather would have favored law school again. But he was dead. When I told my brother that Harris Bank was sponsoring a post on my blog, he wrote to me, “I love thinking about life as a rich kid back in the days of interest rate regulation and no interstate banking. You know, I really thought that every kid walked into a bank and was greeted by a private banker holding a stuffed lion.”
We had a lot of lions. We had a lot of mayhem. The family seemed to be in constant turmoil over money, and who was getting it and who had it, and how to get more. But everything was calm at Harris. The bankers were sane. There was never screaming about money at Harris. It was safe there.
For a while I thought my memories of Harris were so nice because it was the only place my parents couldn’t bite each other’s heads off. After all, who wants to be removed from the trust?
But as I get older, I realize that our Harris bankers (believe me when I tell you that my family had a bunch) were a calming, dependable force for our family. My family needed outside help to think through money issues in a rational way. Harris Trust provided that.
And those lions. Which, I noticed are selling for $100 each on eBay. I could have never predicted that the only money from the trust that would trickle down to me as an adult would be in the form of a stuffed Harris lion.