I always wished I had a sudden windfall of money. Who doesn’t? Even one percenters wish they had more. A bigger yacht rather than a car as in my case. But deep down I know that money can only go so far on the happiness scale. It can provide ease of mind on rent or mortgage, on healthcare. It gives you permission for nights out on town once in a while, nice clothes, gym membership, and ensures you can eat organic and healthy. Not to mention it gives you moments of rest if childcare is warranted in your life.
But when you’re in between, making enough but not living your dream of doing what you love for a sustainable income, it’s easy to think, “if only…” and usually the top only is “money.” Besides “could have,” “if only” is the bane of our healthy existence or progress. Write from 9pm to midnight when the kids are asleep; whatever, wherever, however. If you want it, you can do it. It’s not “The Secret” (vomit), it’s not Eastern spiritual philosophy. It’s time-tested, scientifically provable fact as many success stories prove. If you can sustain yourself and aren’t impoverished, if following dreams is even remotely possible given your life circumstance (and it isn’t always which is why I hate positive thinking “The Secret” b.s.) then discipline must kick in.
Here’s a witty essay, “My Life as an Heiress,” by the ever-witty Nora Ephron from “The New Yorker” on how not getting an inheritance made her career. Granted she has slightly different concerns — landscaping a house in the Hamptons so… But nonetheless, take it with the pinch of salt and let me use it as an example. Send your own! In six months I hope to contribute how struggling made me 😉
In case you can’t access “The New Yorker” link, here is the entire article below:
MY LIFE AS AN HEIRESS
The will that wouldn’t.
BY NORA EPHRON
I never knew why my mother wasn’t close to her brother, Hal. I can guess. It’s possible that he didn’t help out financially with their parents. It’s possible that she didn’t like his wife, Eleanor. It’s possible that she resented forever the fact that her parents had found the money to send him to Columbia but made her go to a public college. Who knows? The secret is dead and buried.
In any case, I grew up without meeting my uncle Hal. We lived in Los Angeles, and Hal lived in Washington, D.C., with the aforementioned Eleanor. They were both government economists, and then, in the fifties, they quit. There were rumors of left-wing affiliations. My parents, who were screenwriters, had never been further to the left than socialism, but these were the blacklist years. They knew a dozen people who had named names, and they also knew at least two of the Hollywood Ten, plus a few they claimed would have gone to jail, along with the Ten, had there been Eleven, or Twelve. My parents were worried that rumors of Hal and Eleanor’s left-wing affiliations would reach all the way to California and bite them, and, apparently, that was exactly what happened, although without any real damage. One day, they were called into the office of Spyros Skouras, an old Greek who was running Twentieth Century Fox. Skouras waved a piece of paper about Hal at my mother and said, “Phoebe, vy you a Communist?” My mother explained to Skouras that she was not a Communist, and that was pretty much the end of it.
By the time I was in college, my uncle Hal and Aunt Eleanor were no longer anywhere near Communism, if they’d ever been: they were in real estate, and they were very, very rich. In 1961, when I was in Washington for a political internship, they took me to Duke Zeibert’s for dinner. Hal was a sweet, lovely man, and Eleanor was a pistol. She had a long, horsy face and blondish hair, and she loved a laugh. On weekends, I would go stay at their house in Falls Church, a splendid new place they’d built as part of a large development. Eleanor and Hal had no children, but they had lots of houses—they bought them and sold them without looking back. They owned art, and Chinese antiquities, and Persian rugs, and their house was run, magnificently, by a housekeeper named Louise. I mention Louise for a reason, as you will see.
My parents were really not into family—I’d never met my father’s brothers, or my first cousins—but Hal and Eleanor were in touch with all sorts of people on my mother’s side of things, and that summer in Washington they introduced me to some of my mother’s cousins, who were my second or third cousins, depending on how you count. One was Joe Borkin, a well-known Washington lawyer, who was an expert in the family antecedents and couldn’t believe I’d grown up with no idea where my maternal grandparents were born. He told me, and, out of loyalty to my mother, who had no interest in such things, I promptly forgot. Another was Artie Lautkin, a doctor with no bedside manner whatsoever who had wisely gone into radiology. He was married to Fredda, whose name I was deeply fond of. Fredda Lautkin. You’ve got to love that name. Years later, when my mother was dying, of cirrhosis, Fredda called me up out of the blue and yelled at me, as if my mother’s drinking were all my fault. Hal and Eleanor also introduced me to Eleanor’s nephew, whom I will call Irwin because, to be perfectly honest, I can’t remember his name; Irwin eventually went into business with Eleanor and Hal. I mention him for a reason, too.
After college, I moved to New York, and every so often Hal and Eleanor would come to town and take me to lunch or dinner. When I married my first husband, they gave us a large antique gilt candelabrum that they claimed was Louis Quatorze. This cannot be true. After my divorce, Hal called to make sure that my husband hadn’t walked off with it.
That candelabrum came with me to my apartment in the East Fifties, and then to my second marriage, during which I distinctly remember it sitting, looking idiotic, in the garage in Bridgehampton. Where is it today? I wonder. I would really like to know, because it was fabulous, and I’m finally old enough to appreciate it. No doubt it was a casualty of divorce. When you get divorced, and you don’t get the house (which I never did), you leave behind all sorts of things you don’t have the sense to know you’ll someday wonder about, or feel genuinely nostalgic for.
In 1974, Eleanor died. Years passed. I would see Uncle Hal in Washington, and in New York. My father and he were both widowers; they spoke on the phone from time to time, and afterward my father would call to bring me up to date. My father by then was in the early stages of forgetting things, but one thing he never forgot was a phone number, and in his later years he made at least a hundred phone calls a day, all of them brief. He never said hello and he never said goodbye. He didn’t give anyone a chance to say, “I’m busy,” or “Lose my number,” or “I don’t have time to talk.” He came right to the point and then, as my sister Delia wrote in her book “Hanging Up,” he hung up.
“I’ve just written my memoirs,” he would say, “and I’m calling them ‘Me.’ ”
“Great,” I would say.
He would hang up.
“I just called Kate Hepburn and I told her the name of my memoirs,” he would say. “She loved it.”
“That’s great, Dad.”
He would hang up.
I always hoped that he would show some interest in my kids, Max and Jacob, but he didn’t even remember their names. One day, Jacob answered the phone and my father said, “Is this Abraham or the other one?” I consider it a testament to Jacob that, at the age of seven, he knew it was funny. Still, it made me sad. You always think that a bolt of lightning is going to strike and your parents will magically change into the people you wish they were or back into the people they used to be. But they’re never going to. And even though you know they’re never going to, you still hope they will.
My father’s bulletins about my uncle Hal were never about Hal himself but about Hal’s vast estate, which, according to my father, was being left entirely to my three sisters and me.
“I talked to Hal and you’re in the will,” he would say.
“You’re still in the will,” he would say.
“Four-way split among you four girls,” he would say.
“Big bucks,” he would say.
It never crossed my mind to think that my father was telling the truth, that I was going to be the recipient of inherited wealth. Besides, Uncle Hal was in fine health. But then, one summer day in 1987, as I sat at my desk struggling with a screenplay I was writing in order to pay the bills, the phone rang; it was an administrator at a Washington, D.C., hospital, calling to say that Hal was dying of pneumonia and I should, as his next of kin, be prepared to make an end-of-life decision. I hung up, stunned, and the phone rang again. It was Fredda Lautkin, wife of the radiologist, calling me for the second time in my life, to say that Hal’s apartment in Washington was full of extremely valuable rugs and art and I should have it padlocked immediately or else Louise the housekeeper might run off with everything in it. I told Fredda that I seriously doubted Louise would do anything of the kind, but that she’d worked for Hal and Eleanor for most of her adult life and she was welcome to run off with anything she wanted. The phone rang again. It was the hospital. Hal had died.
I called Delia. “Prepare to be an heiress,” I said.
Neither of us had the slightest idea of what Hal’s will actually consisted of. There were profits from the houses he and Eleanor had flipped, and from large developments they had built in McLean and Falls Church, block after block of upscale suburban dream homes with indoor pools and rec rooms and breakfast nooks and the like. And there was also the Famous Puerto Rican Thing. Hal and Eleanor had bought a huge plot of land somewhere in Puerto Rico and had begun a development there, in partnership with Eleanor’s nephew Irwin. Every so often, I would ask Hal about it, and Hal would reply that it was coming along great, that he’d just been to Puerto Rico, that they were meeting with the architect, that the plans were terrific, that they’d seen the models, that they were looking for more investors.
It seemed to me that he had to be worth at least three million dollars. Which was a lot of money at the time. Divided by four, it came out to seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars for each of us. I couldn’t believe it. It was a fortune. It would change everything. O.K., maybe it was only two million dollars. That would still be half a million dollars each. On the other hand, perhaps it was four. A million dollars each. A million dollars each! I kept estimating, and dividing by four, and mentally spending the money. My husband and I had recently bought a house in East Hampton, and the renovation had cost much more than we’d ever dreamed. There was nothing left for landscaping. I went outside and walked around the house. I mentally planted several trees. I ripped out the scraggly lawn and imagined the huge trucks of sod I would now be able to pay for. I considered a trip to the nursery to look at hydrangeas. My heart was racing. I pulled my husband away from his work, and we had a conversation about what kind of trees we wanted. A dogwood, definitely. A great big dogwood. It would cost a small fortune, and now we were about to have one.
I went upstairs and looked at the script I’d been writing. I would never have to work on it again. I was just doing it for the money and, face it, it was never going to get made, and, besides, it was really hard. I switched off the computer. I lay down on the bed to think about other ways to spend Uncle Hal’s money. It crossed my mind that we needed a new headboard.
Thus, in fifteen minutes, did I pass through the first two stages of inherited wealth: Glee and Sloth.
The phone rang.
It was my father. “Hal died,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“He was leaving his money to the four of you,” my father went on, “but I told him to cut you out of the will because you already have enough money.”
“What?” I said.
He hung up.
I looked outside at the lawn. So much for the sod.
I called Delia. “Wait till you hear this development,” I said, and told her what had happened.
“Well, we’ll just even it out,” Delia said. “We’ll each give you whatever percentage of what we inherit and that will make it fair.”
“One-fourth,” I said.
“You were always better at math,” she said. “I will call the others.”
She called the others, and called me back.
“Amy is willing,” she said. “Hallie is not.”
I couldn’t believe it. The four of us had always had an agreement that if any one of us was cut out of my father’s will the others would cut her back in. Surely that applied to Uncle Hal.
The day was not even over, and we had entered the third stage of inherited wealth: Dissension.
The next day, I got a phone call from Hal’s lawyer. My father had been wrong: Hal had not cut me out of his will after all. He had left half his estate to the four of us, and the other half to Louise the housekeeper.
I was happy for Louise. She deserved the money.
As for me, I was down to one-eighth. Not as good as one-fourth, but, if the estate turned out to be four million dollars, it was still a bundle of money.
“How much money is there?” I asked the lawyer.
“Not much,” he said.
“ ‘Not much’ meaning what?” I said.
“Less than half a million,” he said.
Way less than half a million, it turned out. Thanks to Eleanor’s nephew Irwin, Hal had lost almost all his money in the Puerto Rican adventure. What was left, divided by eight, would buy sod, but it was not going to rescue me from the screenplay I was writing.
“The good news,” the lawyer said, “is that if you inherit less than seventy-five thousand there’s no estate tax.”
I called Delia and Amy and told them. I didn’t call Hallie. I was never speaking to Hallie again.
I went upstairs and turned on my computer and went back to work.
The next week, my sister Amy called to say that she had heard from Hal’s lawyer that there might be a Monet. There was a painting in the closet, and they were sending it to an appraiser. By then, I had ceased hoping, but it didn’t stop Amy from entering the fourth stage of inherited wealth: the Possible Masterpiece in the Closet.
I probably don’t need to tell you that it was not a Monet.
In the end, the four of us inherited about forty thousand dollars each from Uncle Hal.
So I never did enter the fifth stage of inherited wealth: Wealth.
I finished the screenplay and it got made. I am quick to draw lessons from my own experience, and the lesson I drew from this one was that I was extremely lucky not to have ever inherited real money, because I might not have finished writing “When Harry Met Sally . . . ,” which changed my life.
We bought a dogwood. It’s really beautiful. It blooms in late June, and it reminds me of my sweet uncle Hal.