My three Wheeler-Nicholson aunts were all attractive women with intelligence and good taste and a manner of living each in their own unique way that our grandmother, Elsa referred to as panache. The second sibling of the five, Aunt Marianne, who died in 1986, was an elegant and gracious woman, an interior designer who had a great sense of style. Being with her was like being with your best friend’s mother—all the same great qualities as your best friend but even better—she was a mother. Auntie Diane who died in 2006, the youngest of the siblings, was an older version of Holly Go Lightly tossed with a dollop or two of Her Royal Highness. Uncle Douglas claimed that she was indeed the basis for Miss Go Lightly as her life in the 50’s in New York had a similar madcap quality. She worked in publishing and supposedly Truman Capote knew her well. Auntie Diane was our beloved co-conspirator in various adventures and a courageous disciplined woman who battled cancer successfully for 18 years with more stamina and backbone than most.
Antoinette Carolyn Wheeler-Nicholson Harley, the oldest child of The Major and his wife Elsa and my only surviving aunt passed away May 24th at the age of 89. She was born February 18, 1921 in Stockholm, Sweden and as she said to me, “I’ve been a heat seeking missile ever since!” I cannot speak about her as intimately as her children and grandchildren, Uncle Douglas and others close to her because I only knew her at the end of her life. So this is not a biography of Aunt Toni but simply my own experience and my appreciation for her contribution to the effort to tell her father, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s story.
Aunt Toni, who preferred to be called Toni because “Aunt” made her feel old, had already begun to do her own research after reading Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Although it was a fictionalized version of the life of Siegel and Shuster, the artists who created Superman, it started a train of thought about her father and what she felt was a conventionally held myth about Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson that needed correcting as well as wanting to address the injustice that occurred with the takeover of DC Comics by Donenfeld and Liebowitz. She was in her teens when her father began his comics publishing efforts and it was always a help to check family myth with her.
Aunt Toni was thrilled to find out how far I had gotten with my own research not only with the assistance of family members but also from an academic pursuit of the story. She had much to add. Before Aunt Toni became so frail in the last year or so of her life we would often talk for hours on the phone about any recent discoveries I had turned up in research and her reactions to it as well as her thoughts about the family. It meant a lot to me to have that kind of support. As the oldest of the five children and a close confidant to her father, the Major, her memories were very important.
One of the ways I have learned about my grandfather’s character is from seeing all the aspects of it revealed through his five children. From Aunt Toni, I saw again the tremendous sense of discipline MWN had which each of the five has embodied in their own way. I also saw his courageousness through her fearlessness in stating her point of view and backing it up with action. She could be challenging but she was not above making fun of herself as when she introduced herself to me as the Wicked Witch of the West. At the same time she was generous to all of us. Just as one small example, when Uncle Douglas’s son married several years ago on the west coast she gave a fabulously elegant party that enabled a great many of our large and far-flung family to gather with one another at her home in celebration of this wonderful event.
It was clear how much Nick or the old Beezer as she called him, thought of her as well from the letters he wrote to her and Aunt Marianne. She loved her father very much but neither was she blind to his faults. There is a type of wit in our family that is akin to gallows humor but is much sharper, more ironic, like guillotine wit and Aunt Toni employed it well as she was a marvelous raconteur in her own right. One of the funniest stories she ever told was about Nick and Elsa deciding to start a “modern” farm just outside Boston in 1923 shortly after MWN lost his fight with the army. Her description of the two of them farming was priceless especially considering that my grandmother hadn’t a clue how to boil an egg much less find one from underneath a chicken! Good friend and pulp historian, John Locke recently sent me a heretofore, unknown newspaper photo from that period of MWN, Elsa, and the two babies, Aunt Toni and Aunt Marianne. John sent it to me right around the time Aunt Toni passed away so I never had the chance to show it to her. She would have loved the caption, which read in part—“…has retired to a little farm in Hopkinton where he is eking out an existence for his wife and children by the sale of milk, eggs and dairy…”
The moves from Sweden to Massachusetts to New York and then to France with nannies, butlers and secretaries gave way in 1930 to a return to New York and the poverty of the depression and the fallout that ensued when the Major’s hard work and dream of comics was lost. Much of the burden of caring for the younger children fell on her shoulders and she did her best. My father, Malcolm, Jr. constantly expressed his appreciation for her care during that time and they were very close until his death in 2003. Like so many of her peers who experienced the depression at a vulnerable age, it left her with a deeply felt determination never to experience that kind of disappointment and poverty ever again. She expressed this to me many times through the various stories she told me of her life and it is obvious she succeeded in that quest.
Upon graduation from high school she worked in the fashion industry in New York and then married a young lieutenant in the Navy, Forrest Moran. They moved to San Francisco and had two children, Mark and Kim. The marriage did not last and in 1951 she married Jack Harley and two subsequent children followed, Christopher and Diane and from all the stories it seems to have been a really good life. There are 9 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild whom she adored and who adored her in return and from my visits the house always appeared to be full of dogs and kids and lots of activity. As far as I can tell practically everybody in her family–my cousins, her children and their children–are all a wonderful reflection upon Toni and Jack Harley who was a great complement to her in his own strength of character and personality. That’s a legacy in itself.
However, in addition to her family life she had a career working for Joseph Magnin’s in San Francisco. Aunt Toni was a stylish and handsome woman with exquisite taste (I loved opening a drawer in the kitchen once that was filled with lipsticks as well as the inevitable pens, paper, string, tape, etc.) and she eventually became Director of Advertising for Joseph Magnin’s—a highly successful position for a woman during the 1950’s. Cyril Magnin speaks of her tremendous influence on the store in his book, Call me Cyril. Under her guidance Magnin’s won many industry awards for its sophisticated print advertising during that time.
I am grateful to have known her and happy that she lived to see a beginning acknowledgment of her father’s many contributions in his own life and work. Being the oldest child in a family is a specific path and perhaps that is why I was interested in what Aunt Toni experienced as a young girl and maybe that is why she felt comfortable in revealing her stories to me.
In family cultures there is a moment of recognition that goes beyond the spoken words. Sharing those moments with the older generation in a family provides us with a greater understanding of who we are and from where we have come. Because I am so fortunate in the love of my maternal grandparents, James and Azolene Pickens it made me appreciate being with older people and enjoy listening to their stories. I was fortunate to have time with each of my aunts and I miss them all very much. Native elders refer to the sharing of the stories from one generation to the next as the weaving of the rope. Each generation weaves its stories to one another and that is how the culture survives.
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