Babette Hughes wonders how she’s managed to live to age 99. Genetics? Healthy living? Realizing she could live despite a broken heart? Certainly, her childhood didn’t contribute to her resilient life force.
Or did it?
Babette, an Austin-based author of four novels, two memoirs, and a compilation of blogs, has certainly lived an unusual life. She draws on her experiences and writes vivid stories about “gangsters and guns, women and wine, and sin and society,” to quote her website. Another novel, The Biographer, is in the works.
I’d heard about Babette for years. Her stepson, Peter—the youngest child of Babette’s true love, James Hughes, whom she married in 1981—was a former boss at NASA. He’d often talk about his stepmother’s writing career, her youthful spirit.
“She’s my trusted advisor. So wise,” he tells me. “And what a life she’s lived. Everyone can learn from Babette.”
Babette’s remarkable story—or at least the portions inspiring her novels and memoirs—begins when she was just two years old. On that November evening in 1924, her father, Lou Rosen, and Uncle Addie were stabbed and shot to death in the driveway of the family’s Cleveland, Ohio, home, leaving the sisters sudden widows.
Lou, a bootlegger, had gotten sideways with a Mafia boss who put a contract on his 29-year-old head. The uncle? Wrong place, wrong time. He had no connection to his brother-in-law’s business and had come to Cleveland with Babette’s maternal aunt only to celebrate their young niece’s second birthday.
Babette’s father knew of the contract and stayed at home for weeks. Cabin fever drove him out the night he died. He figured his enemies wouldn’t carry out an execution if he had a companion. Lou couldn’t have been more wrong.
“He was a bad boy,” Babette says of her father, whom she knows only from old newspaper clippings and family lore. Not content to work in his family’s bakery, he chose a life of crime and deceit. As a teenager, he stole money from his parents’ business and as an adult, gambled and cheated on his wife.
When Prohibition became law in 1920, he found the perfect career, and within two years established a thriving business running hooch from Canada to Cleveland, and parts beyond.
Babette didn’t learn the truth about her father until she was 12, sitting alone in a Cleveland library reading newspaper accounts about the carnage. Her mother told her he died from pneumonia and wouldn’t divulge more. Imagine coming face-to-face with the truth and realizing your mother had lied. Her childish fantasies shattered.
Babette’s memoir, 97 Speaks: Lessons from the Decades, describes her confusion better than anything I could write:
“I had to reread those paragraphs again and again, trying to find a way out of my confusion….My father took an innocent man to his death? Destroying the man’s family?….People in families don’t go around getting each other killed. Or do they?”
Florence, The Flapper
Babette’s flamboyant mother, Florence, a 20s-era flapper when she could still afford the glittering dresses and satin shoes, had her own problems.
When a neighbor saw three-year-old Florence and two of her three sisters running wild, dirty, and hungry in the Cleveland streets, the woman reported the neglect. The girls went to live in the Jewish Orphan Asylum. In the 12 years they lived there, her mother, Babette’s grandmother, never visited—not once.
Given her bleak existence at an orphanage where kids went hungry, it shouldn’t be surprising Florence would marry a flashy, good-looking man named Lou who drove a shiny Winton and had money in his pocket. Her lack of parenting skills shouldn’t shock, either. Where were her role models? Or was something else amiss?
She shuttled Babette and her older brother, Kenny, separately to relatives, collected them, and then moved again. During her childhood, Babette lived in 14 different apartments and attended six different schools. While her children ran the streets themselves, Florence worked, dated, and flirted with men, including boys Babette’s age.
“I had to beg her to sign my report cards,” Babette tells me. “I used to skip school, go to the movies. She never cared.”
It’s difficult believing her mother once thought Babette capable only of being a model. Being smart didn’t get you ahead, her mother said when she pulled Babette from high school. Capitalizing on your looks did.
Decades would pass before Babette discovered otherwise.
“My mother was nutty, unable to be a parent or a friend,” Babette explains. “She’d get furiously angry with the few friends she had. She was a damaged person, born with some type of mental illness, a terrible mother. I’m lucky I didn’t get destroyed.”
By age 19, Babette had had enough.
Crazy to Crazier
“I went from a crazy mother to a crazy husband,” Babette says of her first husband, Nate. Spoiled and rich, Nate fathered her three children and gave her a country club membership, large home, hired help, designer clothes, and a 55-foot yacht, named “Babette.”
He also mentally abused her, so much so, in fact, she sought therapy to uncover the reasons for her soul-draining unhappiness.
“In the 50s, only crazy people went to psychiatrists,” she says. The years-long therapy did expose the unresolved anger, the reasons why she wedded a masochistic man who told her what to wear and what to say, controlling every aspect of her existence.
She divorced Nate—another social taboo during the conforming 1950s—went to college and discovered her brain and writing voice.
“I couldn’t believe how happy I could be.”
Sons’ Deaths, Living with a Broken Heart
“I’m not unique in having tragedies in my life,” she says toward the end of our conversation, telling me about the deaths of her two adult sons within a few years of each other. I could relate having lost my own son more than three years ago.
In 97 Speaks, she describes her pain after one son’s passing. It spoke to me.
“My grief was outside of language. I had no words. Well-meaning friends and family found me mute. Dazed and confused at this loss, too intolerable to be real, cannot be real, I was living a continuous tormented dream.”
“We learn more from tragedy,” she advises as we wrap up our time together. “Easy doesn’t teach us anything. Those who never experience pain and loss don’t have the tools to deal with it when it does happen. You can live with a broken heart. That’s what I learned to do.”
What else, Babette? What else can we draw from your nearly 100 years of life?
“Do what you love. For me, it’s writing. It may be something you always wanted to do but didn’t. Keep searching until you find it.”
Wise words from a wise lady. Check out her work at https://www.babettehughesbooks.com