The rogue gene

“I have stopped drinking and running around … ”
My dad, top right, with my mom on their wedding day.

In the summer of 2003, I was on a road trip in Mexico when my father sent a rare email to all six of his children. Andy Wolff was an admirer of Humphrey Bogart, especially his hero’s way with a few understated words. The email was short and the tone almost offhand. He was forwarding a letter – FYI – from a man named Michael Wolff of St. Louis, Missouri, his hometown. 

“I don’t mean for this letter to be an intrusion,” the letter began. “My reason for writing is that I was doing some family historical research and I believe that you and I have the same father …”

Sixty-five years earlier my grandfather walked out on his wife and three children and into family lore – a beloved and spoiled son gone bad. Known by his childhood nickname, “Boy,” Andrew S. Wolff Jr. was a dentist like his father, and a jazz musician. A relative spotted him playing saxophone in “a sleazy club” after he’d run off. A more disturbing rumor: he got a woman pregnant, the attempted abortion was botched, and her brother chased him out of town. It’s just as likely that he’d blown his inheritance and was deeply in debt. My dad, the youngest and his namesake, was not yet two when he left. 

My dad’s half brother, Mike Wolff, with my daughter at my brother’s wedding.

The few letters Boy wrote to my grandmother before he disappeared for good were evasive and maudlin. “I have stopped drinking and running around …” “… it was either leave or suicide …” “too much title to live up to – and too much to live down …” 

Dad, in accordance with his personal code, said little about growing up fatherless or his mother’s struggle to support three children. Mom answered questions with curt dead-enders – “He doesn’t want to see his father, and if he ever does, he’d punch him right in the nose.”

But Dad passed on the opportunity to do just that. He was raising his family in a farm town in southern Minnesota when a dentist mentioned that he’d met an Andrew S. Wolff in the dental field – in Rochester, just 45 miles east.

What were the odds? 

Sometime after he left his family in St. Louis, Boy enlisted in the Army. He married Michael Wolff’s mother while he was stationed in Wisconsin – without going to the trouble of securing a divorce from my grandmother. Mike Wolff was born in 1945 and grew up believing his father was a college dropout from Chicago. His parents acted in community theater and made a modest living. “No one in our family knew that my father had been a dentist,” he said.   

My dad’s mother, Marie Porges Wolff, left, with her daughter Eileen, grandchildren, and her mother, Malinda Bentz Porges, with whom they lived when my grandfather left.

Clues to Boy’s true past occasionally flickered across the screen. He bought a clarinet and a saxophone at a yard sale, played them expertly – once – and never touched them again. Still feckless with money, he filed for bankruptcy when Mike was in college. Mike’s brother, who died young from a rare neuro-developmental disorder, somewhere glimpsed a  document showing their father was born in St. Louis. 

Years later, Mike was hired to teach at the St. Louis University law school. One day in 1979, he was walking through a room of old city directories at the public library and decided to make a quick search. Sure enough: there was an Andrew S. Wolff practicing dentistry in North St. Louis in 1910. Before long he’d found the records for his grandfather’s estate, including a tuition bill for Boy. His father had earned his DDS at St. Louis U.

My dad, 45, with a statue of him as a pilot, a gift from my mom (he’d realized a lifelong dream by getting his pilot’s license). If you saw him and Mike together, you’d know they were brothers (the similarities in their voices is uncanny, too).

Boy had been ill for some time, and he died the following year, un-confronted, but Mike’s mother was still alive. She didn’t know, Mike decided, and “would have been deeply hurt to learn, even years later, that she had been deceived by the man to whom she had been married for about 37 years.” She lived until 2002. By then the internet had made it easy to track down his half-brother, who was 66 and living in North Texas. 

Across years and states, the siblings were unmistakably related: wry and prone to questioning authority, with tall foreheads and mischievous, toothy smiles. Perhaps because the parents, wrong and wronged, were gone, they quickly became friends, arranging visits, swapping photos (here’s your father as an old man; here he is young), regenerating an amputated family tree. A Democrat who’d been appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court, Mike didn’t know his great uncle was a Democratic U.S. Congressman during the Progressive era. We didn’t know how devout Presbyterians had become a family of Catholics. It was the wandering Boy – the grandson of a fiery anti-papist who married devout Catholic women. 

My dad died just three-and-a-half years later. Mike flew to Texas to say goodbye before he was gone. 

Sons of an actor at home and onstage, Mike and Andy turned out as dependable as Boy was inconstant – happily married, professionally accomplished. Through their lives and their sons they each gave their father’s name the clean slate he had craved. 

Boy’s death years earlier deprived my dad of a day of reckoning, if he even wanted one. But in their short time together my dad experienced true happiness with his brother – a rare gift even in families that share a lifetime. 

“It may be repetitive,” Andy wrote to Mike the year after they first met, “but your finding us has been a joy.” 

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