The same life can have many stories. What you hear depends on what is chosen and what is excluded. If Joanne's life is different from others, it is its malleability, how easily the selection of events could make it an American romance--- or an American tragedy.

She was born in 1920. It was the year women won the right to vote. It was also the beginning of Prohibition. Joanne was the first child born to Charlie and Rose.  Rose, a proper American, had seen Charlie, a young Irish jockey, riding at Pamlico. She fell in love with him. She followed Charlie through his riding career. She survived his alternate career as a flyweight boxer, despite his crushed nose and cauliflower ears. She even learned to live with his later work, delivering whiskey to speakeasies in Baltimore.

While most people associate Prohibition with violence, Joanne never did. She liked to tell stories about going with her father to make deliveries and we have to speculate that her father must have been very confident.

Then again, Joanne probably never saw her father as others did. One look and you knew he was a man you didn't want to cross. A horseshoe shaped scar sat symmetrically across the top of his forehead. His flattened boxer nose gave his nostrils a bullish flare. His ears were strangely mangled. And his flat knuckled fists broadened his hard skinned hands.

Charlie would rather punch than talk.  

But Rose died young, of tuberculosis. Joanne and her brother Bill, who both tested positive for tuberculosis, were raised in a sanitarium run by nuns. Or at least that is the story she told. The truth may have been tougher because Charlie drank. He also had a weakness, or need, for opiates. No one could survive the punishment his body had taken without major pain.

When Joanne graduated from high school she left the safety of the sanitarium. She went to work for a family, as many Irish girls did. Then she met Robert, a recent college graduate. The only son of a prosperous engineer, his father had helped install electric power plans across the country for American Electric Power. A beautiful and naive young woman, she married quickly, but not quite quickly enough. Conception may not have been immaculate but it was immediate. Her first son, Bobby, was born in 1940, just before her 20th birthday.

The marriage didn't last.

Like her father, Robert drank. Toward the end of World War II he joined the Merchant Marine, leaving Joanne to fend for herself and her son. When he returned, in 1947, they divorced.

Life was not easy for a single mom who never received child support. She worked as a secretary. It was difficult to make ends meet. At one time she rented attic rooms in a house that had no indoor plumbing. When things were most desperate, she and her son shared a rented room in a rooming house. They cooked their meals on a hot plate in a white-washed basement room next to a coal bin that was still being used. She knew she had reached a real low when she had to take her son's penny collection, all of $2, to get through the week.

Her brother's life wasn't any easier. Bill also joined the Merchant Marine during the war. He married when he returned and had two children. But his wife drank. She eventually left him--- and the children. Not able to care for the children and work too, he advertised in a newspaper, seeking foster parents. After a year with his children, the foster parents sued for permanent custody and to adopt the children. Bill, who scraped along in unskilled jobs, couldn't put up a fight. He lost his children.

Joanne met George around that time.

A chemical salesman who had grown up poor and Catholic in Brooklyn, he was getting a divorce in Reno. In the late 40s the Nevada city was the epi-center of American divorce. Divorce was still rare. Tall, powerfully built, and successful, George seemed to be everything her first husband had not been.

Nearly broke from the divorce settlement, alimony, and child support, they started the new marriage in a small New Jersey garden apartment. While George had no assets, he still had his ambition. It was fierce.  Over a period of years, he taught himself finance, partnered with another man to start a plastics company, and built it into one of the largest producers of vinyl plastic in the country. In the process, he took the company public and became wealthy. He added to his wealth by arranging financing deals for small chemical companies--- he was helping to float junk bonds before they were called junk bonds. He was doing mezzanine financings when Michael Milken was still in high school.

The first sign of wealth was a yacht. It was followed by a large house in Westfield New Jersey, a second home at the New Jersey shore, boats for the three new sons, full-time household help, a driver, and jewelry from Harry Winston. George hungered for the trappings of wealth. If he didn't have the actual money, he borrowed it. He believed that all debt was good debt.

Joanne, the poor Irish girl, was now regularly mistaken for an Irish girl who became a Princess, actress Grace Kelly. Visits to New York always included stays at the Pierre, the Plaza, or the St. Regis. She joked that she wanted at least one of her sons to go to Harvard because she liked the ladies room at the Harvard Club.

She got her wish.

By 1961 George had appeared on the cover of Chemical Week. By 1962 Joanne's favorite story was about taking the yacht Joanne III to Hyannis, tying up at a marina slip, and plugging in the phone. It immediately started to ring.

"Who is this?" a surprised voice asked.

"This is Joanne, abroad Joanne III. With whom am I speaking?"

"This is the White House, m'am. You are in President Kennedy's slip."

But inside that glamorous exterior, her life was getting darker and darker. Although she had had three more children, each birth was followed by a serious depression, anger, suicide attempts, and psychiatric hospitalizations.

She made light of the hospitalizations, joking that she met some of the nicest people during her long stays. In fact, she felt powerless.  Everything in her life was out of her control and unreal. She started to drink. Her doctors were generous, providing her with pills to sleep, pills to sooth her, and pills to help her wake up.

She never believed the wealth that surrounded her was real. She was certain it could disappear at any moment.

Had she lived, she would have learned she was right. The wealth did disappear.

But she didn't live. At 52 she learned she had breast cancer. Exactly five years later, ready to cross the fateful 5-year mark cancer-free, her doctors found a spot on her liver. She was dead six months later, at 57.

She left behind her husband of nearly thirty years, four healthy college-educated sons--- including a university professor---and three grandchildren. Three more grandchildren would be born years later.

It's a true American story. America is the land of opportunity. But that doesn't mean it's the land of milk and honey.

Over the years her son Bobby---the one who had the $2 penny collection--- has thought of his mother's story many times. It could, he says, be something from a John O'Hara or James Michener novel, a big story about life in America. It could also be a story noir, like a Eugene O'Neil play or a William Faulkner novel.

But most of the time he only wishes she could have been happy.

Next week: 1940--- Bobby's Story