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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008 | One problem for writers of memoirs can be a lack of interesting characters, especially rich and famous ones. James Oliver Goldsborough has had no such problem.

Oliver, his middle name, pays homage to Henry Oliver, a revered ancestor, and perhaps to an Oliver trust fund. Other forebears include Civil War generals, coal and steel barons, a U.S. senator and a governor. One even put the ‘H’ in Pittsburgh.

Goldsborough was born on the East Coast but grew up in California. When his parents came west they did not pick up their roots, but “kept one leg on each side of the continent.” Living in Playa Del Ray, Calif. is far different from life in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

A distinguished journalist (and columnist for voiceofsandiego.org), Goldsborough developed a lively curiosity in childhood. He has used it well to mine family archives and historical records in unraveling the mysteries and secrets of his family, especially on his mother’s side, the Olivers. The result is “Misfortunes of Wealth,” a remarkable memoir which differs from most current-day memoirs in that it is not principally about the author or his accomplishments.

Goldsborough combines great storytelling with bolts of fascinating history and human drama, creating dialogue from letters and conversations, real and remembered. And a few imagined. His elegant writing and vivid characters make the book a compelling read.

Most prominent of his ancestors was Oliver, a Pittsburgh coal and steel baron. In 1901, he sold his Oliver Coal Mining Co. to J.P. Morgan; it later became part of the U.S. Steel Co. He was paid $182 million, the precursor to much of the family wealth passed on to Goldsborough’s mother and grandparents.

Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 20th century was home to some of the richest men in America: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, H.J. Heinz and Richard Mellon Scaife. Their wealth, claims Goldsborough, exceeded that of the pharaohs.

But the forges, mills and smelters created a “black fog” over Pittsburgh, driving the Olivers and other wealthy families away from the city. Many built their mansions in Sewickley Valley, a lush utopia of blue skies and pure air beside the Ohio River. His grandparents called their home “Sucasa,” a name borrowed from a dream never realized.

The author’s happiest boyhood memories were of summers spent here, often without his parents. With its 35 rooms, separate maid’s floor and a ballroom in the basement, Sucasa easily kept an adventurous young boy occupied all summer long.

His grandparents became the most influential people in his life. His grandmother, Amelia Oliver, was 23 and without prospects when she began a 10-year correspondence with William Crittenden, a U.S. consular officer in Mexico City. They eventually wed, despite her concerns over dumping her family responsibilities on her younger brother, a student at Yale. At the time of the wedding in Sewickley, they had seen each other only twice. En route to a new life in Mexico they received a telegram saying her brother had been killed in an auto accident. They returned to Sewickley and never left, an incident Goldsborough marks as changing the family forever.

Of life in Sewickley, we learn of a relative refused burial in the family mausoleum because he spoiled the valley by selling land to a railroad; of another, who was hired to survey land for the government and siphoned off 1,500 choice acres for himself; of elaborate weddings and even more elaborate wedding gifts, a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and 18,000 acres of prime real estate; of a family humiliated, months after a lavish wedding when the bridegroom is arrested in a public restroom, by the news-making headlines all the way to Pittsburgh.

Relationships in Goldsborough’s immediate family, would fascinate a room of psychiatrists. Like many adults, he looks back on a complicated relationship with his parents and seeks to understand them. His final judgment is in his memoir’s title: their inherited wealth was a misfortune for both of them. Because of his mother’s trust funds, his father was not compelled to get a job, and usually didn’t.

His father was not short on ideas but lacked the money to carry out his schemes, which included a rail line connecting the United States with the Mexican interior, and a short-lived airline that was the first to fly between the U.S. and Mexico. After getting divorced, he ended up penniless and alone. “Sewickley,” his mother said when he died, “it ruined him.”

Goldsborough had been a “cold baby,” as his mother told him more than once — a declaration that puzzles him still. He was also “stuffy,” His mother comes off as colder than her baby, but far from stuffy. She spent lavishly and at whim, on extravagances such as $60,000-a-year dance lessons at Arthur Murray’s. Goldsborough was 30 before he learned his mother had once had eloped with a cowboy, a marriage the family had annulled.

The only time the family functioned as a normal family, Goldsborough says, was the two years they spent in Wichita, Kan., when his father had a job at Beech Aircraft, just before they moved to Los Angeles.

Goldsborough takes the reader with him as he travels back to Sewickley, walking the same paths he had taken with his grandfather “picking our way through the cow pies.” He is “astonished” by the “immutability” of the landscape. Little has changed. Yet he found his own beloved Sucasa, “guillotined,” robbed of its second floor, its porticos, pillars and pedestals, and the homestead of another relative replaced by a giant monstrosity. “I had to turn away.”

James O. Goldsborough will discuss his new book, “Misfortunes of Wealth” ($27.95, The Local History Company, Pittsburgh, Pa.) on Nov. 18 at 11:30 a.m. at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse, 2150 Harbor Island Drive.

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