Polly Samson, author, on a necklace.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
PS I chose this because of the person who gave it to me, and the circumstances of them giving it to me, more than the object itself. Of course, I love it anyway. I’d love it wherever it came from, but the bizarre way it came to me has made it my favourite thing. It’s a necklace but I don’t actually wear it. I hang it from the window at the end of my bed so I wake up and see it first thing in the morning, which always gives me a little thrill. It’s made from glass but there are so many facets, the crystals are cut like diamonds and the light that comes through it gets the full spectrum and shines around the room.
GB So tell me how you came to own it.
PS It’s quite a long story. My novel, The Kindness, came from a story connected to my family. My father is from a Jewish family from Hamburg. Most of them got out in the 1930s, some got out through suicide which is bizarrely called ‘rational suicide’ and my family would say that “it was only a couple of aunts who ended up in concentration camps.” But once you start thinking about those women, it really haunts you. My father was very close to his uncle, a man named Heino.
Heino was very happily married to a woman called Olly but unfortunately, they found out that Heino couldn’t have children. Heino’s best friend was a musician who was about to emigrate to America and his last act before he left was to offer his great friend Heino and Olly his sperm. It seemed like a good idea as they were unlikely to see him again so they accepted and Olly became pregnant and their daughter, Lotte was born. In 1936 they knew they had to get out of Germany so they moved to Paris. Within a couple of years of being in Paris, Heino knew they were in danger, so got back in touch with his friend in America, who had become a well-known conductor. He asked for help and Kurt agreed, so Olly and Lotte went ahead to New York while Heino stayed behind to sort out their affairs. He was then arrested and interned. He escaped from the internment camp, was rearrested, re-interned and then escaped again. This time he managed to get to Morocco where he joined the French foreign legion. He was the most unlikely soldier, being something of an aesthete.
He served in Africa for a couple of years, but eventually he made it to America only to find that unfortunately his wife and child had fallen in love with the biological father. Olly only wanted Lotte to have one father and thought she’d be traumatised if Heino reappeared. He never recovered. He actually became a rather successful photographer, who took the only portraits that his friend, Mark Rothko, sat for. He called himself Henry Elkan. But he was unhappy living in America while his wife and daughter were there without him, so he went back to Paris. He worked as a photographer there and when I knew him, he’d come to stay with us about once a year and brought this wonderful glamorous French woman called Anne Frère with him. She had been an actress and had been the first woman to play Anne Frank in a play in Germany, in 1948 or 49. As a small child I hero-worshipped this glamorous woman with these long legs and burningly intelligent eyes. Once when they went back to Paris she made me a doll. I grew up with communist parents and didn’t really have dolls but she knitted me this doll that had the most incredible trousseau; hundreds of outfits, handbags that she’d stitched, ball dresses with little pearls around the hem. I never forgot her.
When I was eleven I was told that Heino had died and that it was from a problem with his heart. I just knew that there was more to it than that so I asked around and went through things in my parents’ room. I couldn’t find out what had happened so years later I brought it up again and my dad said that it was suicide and told me the story of Heino’s daughter and how he had no hope of having another child. Gradually he’d become more depressed over the years and killed himself. That story became The Kindness.
When I’d finished writing the book, I hadn’t really researched Heino. I just knew that he was a nice man who came with his beautiful companion. I discovered that he’d become quite a famous photographer and managed to track down one of his pictures of Mark Rothko and buy it, but I was still frustrated that I didn’t know enough about him. The few living relatives had very scant memories. Heino was born in 1904. My grandmother had become quite blind in her final years so I’d written her address book out in huge letters for her. It came back to me when she died and one day I looked in a box of old things and the address book fell open at the name Anne Frère. As a child you don’t really notice the age of adults so I assumed she’d have been 120 years old by now. But I dialled the number anyway and she answered. I hadn’t realised that she was forty years younger than Heino. It was rather astonishing. I said I wanted to go to Paris to talk to her.
Last year, I went to her flat in Paris. She’s now 82 and standing at the top of her staircase, she still had this incredible elegance and I felt the exact same way I had as a child. We had this connection and hugged as though she was my long-lost mother. I spent the weekend with her and during the course of this weekend we talked a lot about Heino and went back to where he’d lived just outside Paris. It was the first time she’d been back there since she’d discovered his suicide and it brought back all these memories. She talked a lot about how unhappy she’d made him because she was so much younger and wouldn’t commit to him. She told me about his suicide note where he felt that all love had gone and he just felt tired, tired, tired. As we left we looked back and there was this amazing rainbow. We went back to her flat and she said she wanted to give me the necklace that Heino had given her. I asked her to tell me the circumstance of him giving it to her and she said. “Actually it doesn’t put me in a very good light. I surprised him one day when he was wrapping a present. I asked him what it was and he opened the box and showed me this necklace. He said it was for his friend Julia, in Germany. I told him, Julia will not have it! It’s for me!”
GB Now that’s an incredible story. Do you always find beauty in objects that have a story attached to them?
PS Always. I think that must be why I became a writer.
GB So you think that something quite mundane can have a universal beauty once its story has been shared?
PS That’s exactly right. When my children come to clearing out my stuff they’ll want to throw all these things away. I think I’ll have to attach little stories to everything.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PS It’s the narrative. It’s never just looking at things. It’s the feelings that it evokes.
GB So you think that can supersede even the beauty of nature?
PS Yes, I do.