A New Yorker Best Book of 2021
A “touching, heartbreaking, and exceptional” (Town & Country) coming-of-age memoir by the daughter of artistic, bohemian parents—set against a backdrop of 1950s New York, Cape Cod, and Mexico.
Hayden Herrera’s parents each married five times; following their desires was more important to them than looking after their children. When Herrera was only three years old, her parents separated, and she and her sister moved from Cape Cod to New York City to live with their mother and their new hard-drinking stepfather. They saw their father only during the summers on the Cape, when they and the other neighborhood children would be left to their own devices by parents who were busy painting, writing, or composing music. These adults inhabited a world that Herrera’s mother called “upper bohemia,” a milieu of people born to privilege who chose to focus on the life of the mind. Her parents’ friends included such literary and artistic heavyweights as artist Max Ernst, writers Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, architect Marcel Breuer, and collector Peggy Guggenheim.
On the surface, Herrera’s childhood was idyllic and surreal. But underneath, the pain of being a parent’s afterthought was acute. Upper Bohemia captures the tension between a child’s excitement at every new thing and her sadness at losing the comfort of a reliable family. For her parents, both painters, the thing that mattered most was beauty—and so her childhood was expanded by art and by a reverence for nature. But her early years were also marred by abuse and by absent, irresponsible adults. As a result, Herrera would move from place to place, parent to parent, relative to family friend, and school to school—eventually following her mother to Mexico. The stepparents and stepsiblings kept changing too.
Intimate and honest, Upper Bohemia “captures an enchanted but erratic childhood in a rarefied milieu with the critical but appreciative eye of a seasoned art historian” (The Wall Street Journal). It is a celebration of a wild and pleasure-filled way of living—and a poignant reminder of the toll such narcissism takes on the children raised in its grip.
In this intimate memoir, art historian Herrera (Isamu Noguchi) writes of being the daughter of "upper bohemian" artist parents who believed in "the importance of pleasure and living life to the hilt." Herrera vividly brings to life her childhood summers in the 1940s and '50s spent with her sister swimming at the family property, Horseleech Pond, in Cape Cod and of her chaotic and often magical experiences living in Manhattan and on the outskirts of Mexico City. Herrera's father had inherited land on Cape Cod, and on it built houses that would eventually host their bohemian friends, including British architect Serge Chermayeff, Hungarian Futurist designer Marcel Breuer, artists Gy rgy and Juliet Kepes, structural engineer Paul Weidlinger, novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, writer Edmund Wilson, and Peggy Guggenheim. Herrera notes that her often itinerant childhood was confusing, but her mother remains at the center: Herrera tells of the end of her parents' marriage when her mother began an affair with scientist George Senseney; and of being driven to Mexico at age 10 in the "Coche de Mama" (her mother's Chrysler station wagon, with real wood paneling) to live with her mother's new boyfriend, Edmundo Lasalle. Her mother died in 1995, and Herrera writes that she felt "something enormous, like sunshine, like the pull of gravity, went out of my life." This is a sparkling portrait of a rarified and complex upbringing.