Walk into a party in Chiang Mai and the first thing one notices is either the booming baritone of Dr. Howard C. Graves Junior as he blows kisses, flutters his fan and croons “darling” at all and sundry, or the flamboyantly resplendent silk robes of all colours and hues draped over his six foot frame, as he glides around the room. “If I walk into a room and no one notices me, from my standpoint, I may as well not be there. I like to meet people, engage them and have them come up and talk to me,” said the 79 year old American.
Chiang Mai has an active, though relatively intimate, social scene and for those who enjoy the arts _ gallery openings, concerts, plays, cultural events – Dr. Howard is an institution. For the past nineteen years, he has patronised and been a great follower of Chiang Mai’s events, he counts among his friends the city’s best known artists and their patrons. But like so many expatriates one sees doing the circuit, few know of his background and the wheres and the whys of his previous life, pre Chiang Mai.
Entering his 17th floor apartment on Rim Ping condominium, Dr. Howard greeted me in a loose fitting hemp shirt and an ankle length cotton sarong. He walked me out to the wrap-around balcony and we both spent silent minutes drinking in the sweeping views of the city below, the tops of pagodas, peeping up, as though for air, amidst the growing urban clutter, and the clear ring of mountains, comfortingly surrounding the sprawling plains of Chiang Mai in the distance. I imagine he spends hours sitting here, gazing at the city; watching it grow.
As his cats, Samson and Simba, slink sinuously between our legs, and Pen, his long-term live-in housekeeper silently prepares iced tea, we sit down to start an interview I fully expected to be over in a couple of hours. Little did I know that it would be a week – and three visits later – that we would work our way from his birth in 1930 New York City, through his life’s journeys to today.
Slightly hard of hearing (“I thought I was whispering to someone at a photography exhibition opening last week, to ask the name of the gallery owner who was giving a small speech, when the entire room turned around and laughed at me.”) Dr Howard tends to speak, even in an intimate setting, as though to an audience.
Unscathed by the 1929 crash, young Howard’s father, who owned a fledgling refrigerator business, was relatively prosperous by the mid thirties, as commercial refrigeration had become de rigueur. After the birth of his sister in 1933, the family moved to East Park, New York, by the Hudson River where they lived for more than a decade in middle class comfort. Though themselves of humbler origins and means, the Graves’ neighbours included some of the great families of America at the time, among them the Vandebilts and Roosevelts. As they all belonged to the Episcopalian church, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died less than a month before VE day in 1945, young Howard received a visit from a car full of security personnel requesting his participation at the funeral as the crucifer, he led the funeral procession to Rose Garden, the president’s final resting ground. “Growing up with the backdrop of the war and with our neighbour as president, it was the greatest honour I could have received. Being very religious at the time, the funeral was a significant moment of my life,” Dr. Howard recalled.
He then went on to reminisce over his years at FDR boys’ high school where he was president of the student council and enjoyed a constant position at the top of his class, both of which helped gain him a full scholarship to Union College where he studied pre-med. Founded in 1795, Union College, known as one of the two ‘mothers of fraternities’ spawned the first Greek-letter societies in America and after young Howard pledged to one of the fraternities, he lived in the boisterous Old Gym, which had the distinction of sitting atop a bar converted from an underground cellar. It was during this time that his love of drama was ignited and he acted in his first Shakespeare play, the Merchant of Venice. Busy organising weekend parties with Vassar and Smith girls and involved in theatre, by the second year his grades had plummeted.
“My father had done very well for himself,” recalled Dr. Howard. “So, he decided to take early retirement. He was no longer earning a living, so when I lost my scholarship, I had to wake up to the realisation that I was more or less on my own financially. As a matter of fact, after my second year, and when my sister graduated from her private girls’ school, our parents upped and moved to Coronado, California.”
So, in the summer of 1950 young Howard found himself aboard his first flight, his destination Alabama, where he had decided to continue with his pre-med education. “I had never been to the south. That, and the flight, was terrifying.”
It didn’t take more than a few days for the friendly Howard to be pledged as the only Yankee in his fraternity, and there began his salad days. He started his life long love affair with interior design and architecture, by tackling the redecoration of his fraternity house. “They were wonderful days infused with Southern gentility, wisteria draped verandas, beautiful southern belles, hot summer breezes and the romantically slow pace of life,” he recollects. “Of course we were a dry state, so there were also mad dashes to Georgia for booze runs and plenty of parties with our sorority sisters.”
“That was how I met Willie,” his voice lowered to a whisper. Seeing Dr. Howard about town today flirtatiously winking at handsome young men, I was rather taken aback when he told me that Willie – Wilma Jean – was mistress of a nearby sorority.
By the time Dr. Howard graduated and left Alabama in 1952, he had offered her his pearl-studied fraternity pin, a promise. Though Willie, whose wealthy father worked as an agronomist for the government and who had grown up in Hawaii and many other states, remained in Alabama, they wrote to each other daily. While visiting his parents in California, unsure of his future, Dr. Howard decided to join the army, first in the artillery, then infantry, and finally as a 2nd lieutenant commander of an ambulance company. His booming voice stood him well even then and he became adjutant, barking orders for the battalion to pass in review at the leadership school graduation, with no need for a microphone. While in the army, he proposed to Willie, and was accepted, by mail. It was not long after that he was loading a convoy as medical support on a beach in Washington State for the regiment to join the war in Korea, but was forced to unload when the war was declared over. He and Willie were free to marry.
The young lovers moved to Rhinebeck, New York. The post war years saw a dearth of teachers, and the two immediately landed jobs at good private schools – “We lived in an apartment in the headmaster’s mansion with sweeping views of the Hudson River and had a wonderful life. I loved teaching and working in the school system and finally realised what I wanted to do in life.” Over the next few years, oscillating between teaching and study, Willie gained her masters degree in Spanish, and Dr. Howard, his masters, then doctorate, in Education from Oklahoma University, where Willie’s parents were living at the time. “We rented this darling little house
and were constantly entertaining our
friends and staff from the faculty.” Following a recommendation from the Dean of his college, Dr. Howard was invited to join the first one year post-doctorate programme at New York University on analysis of curriculum and instruction.
Upon completion, Dr. Howard heard of a prosperous district in Maryland, near Washington DC, which offered teachers the highest salaries and benefits in the state and the Graves nervously made their way by train for the interview. “Willie was elegantly dressed that day, wearing a pheasant plumage hat that I had made for her myself,” he laughed, “the interviewer couldn’t keep his eyes off her and we were both offered jobs on the spot!” So, once again, the Graves uprooted, and moved to Maryland, where they immediately fell in love with, and snapped up, a historic house – Clark House, built in 1827, in Clarksburg, Montgomery County.
“When my parents came to visit they begged us to sell the house as it was a mess _ no furniture, ramshackled, and a complete mess. But Willie just burst out crying and said that she loved the house, which was a relief because I felt the same way. We bought the house in 1962 and it was well into the seventies before it was finished!”
Room by room, Dr. Howard, with Willie’s help, renovated and decorated the house – all 13 bedrooms – and slowly brought it back to splendours of the days when congressmen and senators were entertained there. These were happy years for the Graves as Dr. Howard worked his way up the state educational system starting with the “horrible” job of being the disciplinarian deputy headmaster at a private school for 3,000 boys to setting up entire school systems and syllabi.
“I got a call from Willie one summer while I was at the office to announce that she was pregnant. ‘I thought I had a tumour,’ she laughed into the phone. ‘I just thought you were fat,’ I teased back. It was one of the happiest days of our lives. We had been married for seventeen years, she was 38, I was 39. Our son, Howard III, was born with curly black hair. He was perfect.”
At 42, Dr. Howard, finally became principal at an elementary school of 1,000 students. “At that time the government was pushing innovation nationwide, I got to experiment and soon our school was one of the most innovative in the nation. We had our own magazine in which parents had shares, we founded our own stock exchange, and had a weaving programme where we even sheared our own sheep.”
It was a great shock when Willie, in 1975, was diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed, “were the most terrible five years of my life.” After a partial mastectomy, it was discovered that she had two tumours in her brain and once they were removed – after ten operations – she suffered a myriad of side effects, from strokes, to paralysis, and had to relearn how to walk, how to read and other basic skills. The family rallied around Willie and Howard, but in 1980, after a long and painful battle, Willie passed away.
What followed were two lost years as father and son grappled with their loss. In 1982 Dr. Howard was invited to teach at the American School Singapore and, looking forward to a fresh start, the Howards left for the Orient where they spent many happy years. “The salary was astronomical, and with interest rates at 28%, I was living the high life. I once more immersed myself in drama and entertainment and fell in love with this part of the world,” he explained. When Howard III decided, after high school, to matriculate at the University of Alabama, the decision was made to return to the states and sell their beloved house. “The furniture auction and sale was remarkably bountiful,” explained Howard, who had spent decades in the sixties and seventies collecting furniture and antiques from nearby estate sales. “A clock bought for 300 dollars in 1965, for instance, sold for 4,000 dollars. With sales’ proceeds, a lifetime pension from Maryland state, Willie’s not insignificant inheritance, and my savings from Singapore, I was sitting comfortably.”
In 1987 Dr. Howard, who had visited Pattaya on a few occasions, decided to move there, but after four years, “where everything was the same every day and there was no culture,” Dr. Howard moved to Chiang Mai, and has remained here since.
Over the years, Dr. Howard moved from antique wooden houses to riverside condo apartments to penthouses (in a burst of philanthropy, he dropped a cool 1.6 million baht on a penthouse off Huay Kaew Road for one year in 2007 in hopes of hosting salon-style soirees with visiting and resident musicians, sadly there was a lack of interest and he moved on).
“I have enjoyed a very active social life here,” explained Dr. Howard. “I do things like join study tours to visit remote temples in Nan, go to see opera at Angkor, attend the Oriental Hotel’s 100th anniversary in Bangkok, or watch a high school musical recital. Every week there is a concert in Chiang Mai, and though, with my deafness I am attending fewer than I used to, I still love it.” For many years Dr. Howard supported, sponsored and promoted numerous theatre and musical groups in Chiang Mai, and though he is slowing down somewhat he is still very active in the arts and gay communities.
Howard III is a Mensa certified genius and lives with his wife and two children in Alabama, he corresponds with his father daily.
As we talk, his ex-boyfriend and companion, Tit, wanders in and out of the apartment. Dr. Howard has known Tit for seventeen years, and is grateful for his loyal assistance. “I never found another woman who I could love like Willie,” he says wistfully, as he does each time he mentions her name, “so the other side of me just started taking over. I am too old for all that now, and simply enjoy my friends and my memories. I am ensconced here, this is my home.”
Before I leave for the last time, Dr. Howard takes me around his apartment, pointing out his sewing machine, which surprised me as I didn’t know that he hand and machine sewed most of his clothes, opening up each one of his eight wardrobes, classified into sarong, jackets, sa-bai, and shirts, shows me his Jean Miroesque paintings and explains all the fixtures and carpentry he has either done himself or designed.
So there you are, the person behind the persona. I feel that after blowing air-kisses for well over a decade, I have finally gotten to know Dr. Howard, an experience in which I took great delight .