When a story based in St. Helena appears in the national press, it’s most often about wine. Tragically, it’s sometimes about disasters: last fall’s wildfires or Napa’s earthquake of a couple of years ago. But a couple of months ago, the Sunday New York Times burdened us with something completely different.
The top of the business section – “above the fold” — had the beginning of a lengthy article, complete with a couple of lovely mustard season landscape portraits, about the tribulations of a St. Helena family. This story had all the elements of a prime-time TV soap opera: physical disease and mental decline, divorce and remarriage, two sets of children. And, of course, money.
The article was mostly she said/they said. In a word, gossip. All the family’s dirty laundry, with its ugly stains and rips, was being exposed to a national audience in a serious newspaper. I, and most of the readers who commented online, asked the basic question – why? What contribution was this article making to any national issue? None.
The article was clearly orchestrated by its central character: a wife, mother, and stepmother. The husband had died a couple of months earlier, after a long, lingering illness. The focus of the story was the unraveling of the family in the months before he died. This St. Helenan wanted her side of the story blasted nationwide.
The names of the characters in this drama won’t appear in this column; I won’t be giving them any more publicity. Readers can promptly find the Times’ piece online.
The hook in the story is that over three decades ago, this St. Helena couple “played the central roles in what was arguably the first sex scandal in corporate America,” as the Times succinctly states. But that was then. The couple retired eventually and quietly to St. Helena, kept out of the news, and raised a family.
Shortly after I moved to St. Helena, I was at a social event which they also attended. I immediately recognized them from decades-old news stories, but I mentioned that to no one. I figured that for many of us, moving to St. Helena represented a new beginning and they were entitled to their privacy.
But that privacy has now been purposely exploded by the wife; she has brought out the big guns in a battle with her stepchildren over her husband’s legacy. Both sides in this squabble say it’s not about the money. Which means that it’s all about the money.
If you read the Sunday Times, it would have been impossible to ignore the article. Sure, there was the sugar-rush of gossip we had while reading it. But as intellectual empty calories, there was no substance there.
In a small town, gossip is a plague that never goes away. I’ve met a few folks here – but fortunately just a few – whose social lives consist mainly of gossiping about other St. Helenans. Whether they know these people is irrelevant. Why do they do this?
Most likely it’s a reflection of their own felt inadequacy and insecurity. Through gossiping, they show they may have special knowledge that makes them feel more important. This is high school, revisited.
The opposite of gossip is fact-based evidence tied to an event of substance. At lunch recently, I was reminded of the billion dollar cash sale of Mondavi to Constellation Brands more than a dozen years ago. At that time conversations in St. Helena were dominated by the various roles, behaviors and riches of numerous Mondavi family members.
But these discussions were about the future of a public corporation that many of us held shares in; the Mondavis were officers and directors of a company that had gone public more than a decade earlier. They had, in exchange for great wealth, surrendered their privacy. The shareholders had a right to know their stories.
Unless we ourselves are in some way involved in a family’s sagas, we should respectfully step aside and keep our mouths shut. That’s called discretion.
It’s good that we live in a town where people do keep their private lives private. Most folks I’ve known here who have suffered domestic distress and disputes have kept their dignity intact by separating their public behavior from their private battles. That’s called being a grownup.
Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business.