Economic Inequality in ‘The Undoing’ and the work of Pietro Di Donato
What the HBO Show and an obscure 1963 essay in an adult men’s magazine have to do with each other.
SPOILER ALERT: While I don’t think this piece contains any spoilers for the show, I would recommend not reading it if you have not seen the show or plan to in the future.
On its surface, the HBO limited series “The Undoing” is a classic psychological thriller and whodunit. But as we’re strung along from episode to episode, thinking we know who killed the young Elena Alvez one minute and changing our minds the next, we’re also confronted by the inequalities and privilege that become clear when economic status and ethnicity converge. The injustice this breeds is most apparent when the drama moves into the courtroom. Why would a wealthy and successful Upper East Side doctor named Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant), married to an equally wealthy and successful doctor named Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), have an affair with a young, economically disadvantaged Latina (Matilda De Angelis as Alvez) from Harlem? Once it’s revealed he did – which comes early and is not necessarily a spoiler – we’re led to believe that clearly it couldn’t have been him stringing her along. She, perhaps less emotionally adjusted than these well-adjusted Upper East Siders, must have been obsessed with him. Maybe Alvez’s hot-headed and jealous Latino husband (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is the murderer? Or maybe Grace, jealous of Alvez’s youthful voluptuousness, did it? There’s also the question of Alvez’s baby. Who’s the father? This is how the drama of “The Undoing” builds.
Whodunit aside, the show reminds me of an obscure mid-century essay by the renowned Italian American author, Pietro Di Donato, a writer whose work I’ve been exploring for several years in preparation for a biography. And while it was his documentation (and dramatization) of Italian American culture that originally drew me to his writing, I consistently find contemporary relevance in his novels, short stories and essays. Considering the times we live in, that’s no surprise. In her 1990 New York Times profile of the author, conducted less than two years before his death at age 80 in 1992, Carol Strickland wrote that the author of the 1939 classic, Christ in Concrete, differed from other “proletarian’’ novelists like John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos in his consistent concern for the poor.
“Whereas the youthful idealism of those two writers gave way to conservatism,” Strickland adds, “Mr. Di Donato retained his sense of outrage at economic inequality.”
Take the essay, “When Willy K. Vanderbilt Frolicked and I Shoveled His Snow,” which first appeared in the November 1963 issue of the adult men’s magazine, Nugget, and was later anthologized in the 1970 collection, Naked Author (Phaedra). While Di Donato’s classic and well-known stories “Job” and “Geremio” – excerpted from Christ in Concrete – and “La Smorfia,” which first appeared in Esquire in 1957, hold a prestigious place at the beginning of the collection, “When Willy K. Vanderbilt Frolicked and I Shoveled His Snow” is dead last. Its placement, however, belies its power.
The essay incorporates the real-life tale of Dora Blowers, an elderly Jewish woman and former secretary at the Department of Justice, who came forward a few years after baron William K. Vanderbilt’s death in 1948 to claim that she and Vanderbilt were secretly married and had three children together. She also claimed that Vanderbilt’s marriage to Rosamund Lancaster Warburton, after his divorce from Virginia Graham Vanderbilt, was only for show; and that she and her children were rightful heirs to Vanderbilt’s estate. The Guarantee Trust Company of New York, executor of the estate, disagreed, and so did, after testimony, the Surrogate Court.
Di Donato starts off with a nod to The Great Gatsby. The author lives on a hillside in Long Island that overlooks the Northport Harbor and Vanderbilt’s palatial estate, Eagle’s Nest. It’s the 1930s; the country is in the throes of the Great Depression and the narrator is on Home Relief. When a great snow storm arrives, he welcomes the opportunity to earn 50 cents an hour to shovel out the Vanderbilt estate. It leads to other odd jobs, including gardening and masonry, the latter appropriate for the master bricklayer that Di Donato is. The wealth on display at the estate is staggering, even grotesque. He writes:
I’ll never forget the head chef sending one of the chauffeurs and the Rolls Royce all the way into Willy’s Park Avenue home for a box of iodized salt, nor peering into the window of the music room and seeing a drunken nude woman at the piano playing and singing the Ave Maria.
One wonders what Di Donato might have made of the opulent townhouse where the Frasers live in “The Undoing,” or the lavish fundraisers thrown for the $50,000-a-year middle school where they send their son.
Trying to make some sense of it, the writer posits that “money has a chemical effect upon the human system. A tremendous bank account can create a physiological metamorphosis. The Aladdin’s lamp of immense wealth makes for … gem clear eyes that do not mirror immorality, and a stance that needs not soul.”
Di Donato is setting the stage for what’s to come. But while Nick Carraway in Gatsby becomes a keen observer of the self-destructive lives of the rich & famous, Di Donato is more concerned with the damage they do to the lives of the poor and working class. He gives us Blowers’s testimony, which is convincing enough for this reader to believe she might be telling the truth. But as Di Donato points out, it’s her, “a penniless, sweet, little old government employee,” and her testimony against The Guarantee Trust Company – “a $40 million dollar protagonist.” She has no chance.
“Poor people try to ape the rich; why should the rich be denied the privilege of aping the poor?” asks Di Donato. “Why shouldn’t Willy K. have been allowed to taste the peculiar glory of coarse bread and bed with Dora Blowers? The rich are waking up and fighting for their democratic rights; multi-millionaires want to be reclassified as human beings and savor all the kicks of our pluralistic society; now they beg to be boot-lickers of the common man, striving to be servants of The People, battling each other to work as mayors, governors, and President.”
Earlier in the essay, the narrator recalls swimming up on Vanderbilt’s yacht (somewhat uncannily, for this essay) named ALVA, to find the baron in an “enviable but unmentionable position” with an attractive young woman. With the estate settled and Eagle’s Nest now a museum, Di Donato ends his story by returning to that moment.
I … still vividly saw old Willy in his birthday suit on the sun-sparkling deck of the gleaming white ALVA entwined like a centaur with the nude exotic brown girl.
“To do justice to the past romantic age,” he adds, “that pose should be immortalized in marble alongside the stern bronze statue of Commodore Vanderbilt in front of great Grand Central.”
If Di Donato’s candor in the earlier description seems coy for an adult men’s magazine like Nugget, there’s no doubt what he’s saying at the end.
And there’s no doubt he would have figured out “The Undoing” right from the beginning.
Joe Pagetta is a museum professional, arts writer and personal essayist in Nashville, Tennessee. He previously wrote about Pietro Di Donato for the Fall 2019 Literary Issue of America Magazine and the Fall 2020 issue of Ambassador Magazine, the official magazine of the National Italian American Foundation. He is currently working on a biography of the author. More at JoePagetta.com.