PUBLIC SERVICE AND PRIVATE PAIN
By Susan Jacoby; Susan Jacoby is completing a book about the historical relationship between revenge and justice.
Published: October 10, 1982
PRIVILEGE: The Enigma of Sasha Bruce. By Joan Mellen. Illustrated. 306 pp. New York: The Dial Press. $17.95.
ALEXANDRA (SASHA) BRUCE was the troubled child of an old, wealthy and distinguished family. Her father was the late David K.E.Bruce, the millionaire diplomat who served as American Ambassador to Britain, France, Germany and China. Her mother, Evangeline, was one of the world's most admired diplomatic hostesses for nearly three decades. On Nov. 7, 1975, Sasha, bleeding from a gunshot wound, was found under a cedar tree on the Bruce family estate in Virginia. She died two days later, at the age of 29.
Sasha's near-lifeless body was discovered by her husband of three months, Marios Michaelides, a Greek citizen who readily admitted that he had hit and bruised his wife in the course of their stormy relationship. At the urging of Mr. Bruce, whose distaste for personal publicity was legendary, Sasha's death was ruled a suicide without an autopsy. In Southside Virginia, the police didn't pursue a criminal investigation opposed by a prominent local family.
The investigation was eventually reopened with the family's assent – largely, it seems, at the instigation of Mrs. Bruce and Sasha's brother David. In 1978, indictments were brought in Virginia against Mr. Michaelides for murder, bigamy (there was considerable question about the legality of his divorce from his first wife) and grand larceny (he allegedly had walked off with some of the Bruce heirlooms), but the defendant had prudently departed for his native Greece, where he lives today.
It is a tawdry, ineffably depressing story, even in a society hardened – from the cases of Patricia Hearst through John W. Hinckley Jr. – to tales of privileged children gone wrong. But in "Privilege," by Joan Mellen, there are actually three stories. The first, and in many respects least interesting, is the mystery surrounding the death itself. The second is the tormented life of Sasha, who, according to Miss Mellen, squandered her gifts of wealth and intellect by trafficking in art forgeries, being heavily involved in drugs and repeatedly choosing men who brutalized her.
The third story – one that obviously holds the key to the other two – is the emotional configuration of a family that appears to have been as privately miserable as it was publicly successful. The elder Bruces seem to have conducted their own lives – and those of Sasha and her two brothers – along near-Victorian lines unusual even in the formal world of moneyed diplomats. (David Bruce, born before the turn of the century, was in fact a product of the Victorian era. Evangeline, more than 20 years his junior, was his second wife. His first wife was Ailsa Mellon, the daughter of Andrew Mellon.) David and Evangeline Bruce had separate bedrooms; they sent their children to boarding schools; their tightly scheduled diplomatic life allowed little time for children visiting during school vacations.
There is, however, something more to the Bruce family history than the cliche of parents too involved with work, wealth and society to pay attention to their children. The elder Bruces believed in and lived by a tradition of public service that, in spite of the obvious constraints it places on private life, has an ethical and social value. Yet, at the time of Sasha's death, it seems that they had failed to transmit the admirable aspect of that tradition to their children. (The book does not tell us whether Sasha's brothers may have altered the course of their lives after their sister's death.)
There could scarcely be a more difficult story to crack than one involving the intersecting worlds of Southern aristocracy, diplomacy and enormous wealth. It requires doggedness as well as investigative and narrative skills. Miss Mellen, a professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia whose previous books have consisted mainly of film criticism, has the doggedness but neither the investigative nor the narrative ability.
From a purely journalistic standpoint, the main difficulty is her failure to explain exactly how and why she came to be so interested in this case. Her point of view – and how, or if, it differs from the viewpoints of others in the book – is never quite clear. Miss Mellen traveled to Athens at Mr. Michaelides's request to testify before a Greek court, which ultimately decided there was insufficient evidence to extradite him to the United States for trial. She explains that it seemed reasonable "for a private citizen to satisfy either side's request for information at this unlikely trial outside the jurisdiction in which the crime was allegedly committed." Reasonable for private citizens, yes. But writers who voluntarily entangle themselves with the characters of a criminal case that they are investigating run the risk of blurring their objectivity or their reputation for objectivity – which amounts to the same thing in journalism. GIVEN Miss Mellen's undeniably exhaustive research, the absence of a clear point of view is most regrettable in her discussion of the general family history. She observes that "it is almost a commonplace that children of esteemed parents themselves lack selfesteem." It is indeed a commonplace, but is it true? For every child who cracks under the burden of a famous name, there is a Winston Churchill, a Jay Rockefeller, a Jane Fonda.
Were the Bruces bad parents, or was there a fatal conjunction between their emotional reserve and heavy public commitments and their daughter's character? And is there not some point at which a grown child, whatever her upbringing, should hold herself accountable for the direction of her own life?
Still, for people who were so conscious of their public responsibilities, the Bruces seem to have been remarkably obtuse about their responsibility to their dead daughter. Miss Mellen reports that Mr. Bruce later told an investigator that he had opposed an autopsy because his schedule would not allow him to remain in Virginia for the three or four days the process would take. She also reports that the police didn't get to interview him because he had an appointment with President Ford in Washington the day after Sasha's funeral.
The book ends with an account of a pathetic telephone conversation between the author and Evangeline Bruce, in which Mrs. Bruce recalled her daughter's "moral courage" and attributed her difficulties to the choice of wrong men. She described the lives of both Sasha and her father as "triumphant." David Bruce, a distinguished public servant, was also a father who, by Miss Mellen's account, could not wait for an autopsy on his daughter's body. And also according to Miss Mellen, Sasha, whatever gifts she possessed, was a woman who blurred her mind with drugs, sold art forgeries and dissipated a fortune under the influence of brutal lovers. Those facts are clear – regardless of who pulled the trigger and ended her life.