Ted Williams, My Father: A Memoir
A caveat: I have always taken books about celebrities written by family members or friends under the heading “memoir” with a certain degree of suspicion. What is the author’s motivation? Invariably it’s to “set the record straight,” either by informing readers that the subject was a much better person than previously portrayed…or much worse. (Cynics might say it’s to hop on the fame-by-association train.)
Ted Williams was a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and war hero, serving in both World War II and Korea. That part of his life had passed by the time he married model Dolores Wettach, who gave birth first to John-Henry and, later, to Claudia.
"Ironically, the book closes with the line, 'It is sad what people will say to boost their importance and pad their ego.' Some readers might think the same about Claudia Williams."
In many ways, Claudia Williams’s story is common for any child wanting the love and approval of a parent. Williams divorced Wettach when Claudia was three. She portrays her mother --- who never remarried --- in almost saintly terms: self-reliant, brave, smart, and still harboring feelings for her ex. Time spent with her father was difficult, as it might be for anyone who has to split time between households, especially when the breakup happens when one is as young as she was. But throughout the book, she writes about wishing to impress her famous pop. She felt at a disadvantage because of her sex; men’s men like Ted Williams want sons to whom they can hand down their legacy. No matter what she did --- including efforts to become a champion runner and, later, triathlete --- she sensed her father’s interest was only half-hearted.
There is also the “competition” with half-siblings, in this case, Bobby-Jo, Williams’s daughter from his marriage to Doris Soule, described mostly in uncomplimentary terms as an alcoholic and drug user who was constantly trying to wheedle money. Claudia claims Bobby-Jo always saw the relationship she had with Ted to be a threat as a reason they did not get along.
Most memoirs like this have a “shoe-dropper,” an event or a reaction to rumors of tawdry behavior designed to stop readers in their tracks. In the case of TED WILLIAMS, MY FATHER, it’s a response to suggestions of incest, which I had never encountered in the scores of books and articles I’ve read about the ballplayer. Claudia denies any impropriety, but if no one had ever asked the question, what is the point of introducing it into the conversation?
Williams suffered an ignominious end. Illness made this once larger-than-life figure dependent on others for his daily care. Depending on the source, he was under the thumb of a manipulative John-Henry, who pushed his ailing father to sign items of memorabilia for sale. Claudia compares her brother favorably to Morris Engleberg, the attorney/companion for Joe DiMaggio in the later stages of the Yankee Clipper’s life. Does she forget that Engleberg was also accused of nudging DiMaggio’s memorabilia activities?
And, of course, there’s the whole ghoulish Alcor debacle, by which Williams --- perhaps against his wishes (again, depending on the source) --- underwent a cryonic procedure in which his head was cut off and stored, ostensibly for future reanimation. Claudia seeks to rationalize and/or justify the decision. John-Henry died of leukemia in 2004; Bobby-Jo passed away of liver disease in 2010. So there’s no one left to counter any of her assertions; we have only her word for the communications between the parties involved.
The author winds up her memoir writing about becoming “passionate about…protecting a family’s right to privacy.” Protecting, or controlling? She seems to leave out some things she might find embarrassing. By almost every account, Ted Williams was at least a little chagrined by his maternal Hispanic heritage; Ben Bradlee Jr. devotes major space to this in his 2013 biography, THE KID: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. Yet Claudia omits that particular detail when discussing her grandmother, noting only that she was of French descent.
Ironically, the book closes with the line, “It is sad what people will say to boost their importance and pad their ego.” Some readers might think the same about Claudia Williams.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on June 13, 2014