Young Fife: The Lost First Decade
"I used to look at him and say to myself, 'Now, that's what I call a white boy!'" wheezes Marcus Hesby, dissolving into a laugh that starts with sheee and ends about 30 seconds later and an octave lower with it. Hesby is an old man now, a retired hod carrier who pretty much keeps to himself these days, sitting in the same small, faded green house in South Phoenix he's lived in for most of his life.
When the laugh is finished, he squints around the room, which is a little too warm and smells like TV dinners, taking his time with this story. Hesby looks at the dead television set, over at the weathered Harmony guitar propped against the wall, and finally beyond everything in this room, back to something that happened some 50 years ago.
"Some folks may say I'm mistaken 'bout this, maybe I'm makin' the whole thing up or somethin', but I know what I know. That boy used to come scufflin' 'round here in his raggedy clothes with things on his mind, askin' questions about life and money and whatnot ... cooking, too, he always wanted to know about cookin', for some reason.
"I'd play him a tune on the guitar, he'd do a little dance out in the yard among them chickens. Anyway, that was Little Eddie." Hesby leans forward, elbows resting on his knees, his whisper husky with irony. "Course, they call him something else now," he says, slowly shaking his head.
And that would be?
It's fantastic, surreal, hard to believe, what this man Hesby is saying. J. Fife Symington III--Harvard graduate, distinguished U.S. Air Force captain, 19th governor of the state of Arizona--spent the first decade of his life not as a privileged son from a long line of wealthy, patrician, East Coast power mongers, but as a humble, towheaded kid from the poor side of Phoenix. A kid who liked to do little dances with the chickens in a dirt yard while a black man picked out the blues. Who liked to ask questions about cooking.
Who answered to the name of Little Eddie.
"I'm here to tell you it's true," rasps Hesby, slapping the armrest of his Barcalounger for emphasis. "That boy was raised up by Ella Sleeth down the road, right along with her own kids. She found this baby one day curled up next to their old hound, Moxie, out back of the incinerator. He was all wrapped up in a army blanket, a sleepy little droolin' thing. They never did find out how he got there.
"She was a good woman, Mrs. Sleeth. Took that boy in and ended upcalling him Eddie, after her husband who had been killed on the 12th of August, 1940--five years to the day before she found this baby. Ol' Eddie'd been trying to cook a truckload of meat with half a stick of dynamite. All that meat went flyin' straight up and came right back on top of him." Hesby's face darkens. "He was always lookin' to make advances in ways to cook things, coming up with new recipes, you know. 'Til all that meat got him."
A shudder, a pause. He continues.
"I think it was in the memory of Eddie and his kitchen dreams and such that Ella tried to pass on those cookin' ways to Little Eddie," he says. "And he seemed to take to it, coming over when I'd get home from work, askin' can he borrow some dry white vermouth for a fondue de poulet a la creme he was working on, or how long to simmer the onions with haricots verts a la Proveneale--that's green beans in a French way; he always sided with those French dishes.
"Course, I'd been overseas during the war, and I'd picked up a thing or two over there. So I was able to teach the boy somethin'."
Hesby reaches for his guitar and strums softly. The strings sound smoky and thick and slightly out of tune. "Little Eddie lived with the Sleeths for ten years," declares Hesby, "then the agency found out he wasn't their actual kin, and they adopted him out of here. I figured a boy as young as that, with talents in the kitchen such as he had, he could go on to make something fine of hisself."
Hesby stops strumming, slowly shakes his head again.
"All those years passed, and then I'm watching this face on the TV, and they're saying it's the new governor. I can tell you I knew that face--still white as anything--and they're saying this is someone called J. Fife Symington. Now, what kind of man would call hisself Fife?
The Cardiff giant, Hitler's diaries, the Roswell incident, Bigfoot, Princess Anastasia, the Loch Ness monster, Paul is dead. And now this. History is full of fantastic tales that may or may not be true, and to think that our governor--our Fife--could be part of this bizarre lineage is almost asking too much.
Many have less-than-soaring opinions of Symington at the moment. His career is teetering on the brink of scandal; he's another rich politico who allegedly cheated his public--the common man, for God's sake--out of millions. Sad, dastardly stuff.
But think about it: What if Hesby's story is more than the insane, fanciful notions of an old, lonely man? What if Symington was, is, Little Eddie of South Phoenix? Though it would not erase the wicked allegations against the governor, it might help to explain what went wrong. How did a sweet little boy with a penchant forwhipping up carbonnades a la flamande turn into a big-time real estate tycoon, a slick government cog, a heavy hitter who played for keeps with the big dogs and now may be paying, but good?
Symington, if his official bio is to be believed (curiously, it does list his date of birth as August 12, 1945), grew up a rich kid on a palatial estate just outside Baltimore. His "great-great-grandfather," Henry Clay Frick, started what was to become U.S. Steel (and now is simply USX) with Andrew Carnegie. That spells money. His "grandfather" invented the device that allows a machine gun to shoot through a fighter plane's propeller without shearing it to bits. More money. A "great-uncle" was a founder of Pan Am. Yes, even more.
And his "father" was an executive with Pan Am who made several near-successful bids for a seat in the United States Congress, and the walls of his home sported personally inscribed photos from Nixon and Agnew.
In 1969, Symington's (Little Eddie's?) "dad" was appointed ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, giving up the easy, fox-hunting life of a gentleman farmer for sweltering tropical climes. But the ripe land of the calypso became too much for the easterner, and, complaining of sinus troubles, he returned to Maryland after two years. Seems "Pops" wanted a little classier locale--maybe an ambassadorship to Spain or Portugal--and that's where the money comes in. The elder Symington "secretly" contributed $100,000 to the Nixon political coffers, allegedly in exchange for just such a cushy post. When this came to light, well, it was back to fox hunting on the estate.
And even though Fife III had, by this time, a degree from Harvard, a Bronze Star and an honorable discharge, and was a partner at Lincoln Property Company, he wanted more. And, as time has shown, the man is prepared to sacrifice everything to end up with nothing.
But maybe it's not really his fault; perhaps he's like a great, big lab rat, dropped into a maze of old money and "good breeding," who made the wrong choice and wound up with a jolt of electricity instead of the yummy cheese. If Hesby's fevered declarations are right, then, once upon a time in the West, there was a young boy who was pure and honest, who knew the value of the simple things in life: Little Eddie Sleeth.
After all, as J. Fife Symington III told Phoenix Magazine in 1984, "It's very important to be able to give attention to your family. Getting into political life in a big way can be detrimental in a big way."
One of Father Felix Phillipe de los Feliz's eyes is as dark as an eight ball at midnight, yet, somehow, it also glows with the strength and conviction borne of seven decades of raw faith; it glows with the spirit of the Lord. His other eye was last seen on the receiving end of a speeding champagne cork, carelessly popped by some drunken "fallen woman" during a "confession" with the priest in a bar outside Nogales in 1958.
It hurt like a bitch, but Father Felix forgave her.
Still, he has 20/20 recollection of a certain young boy in the Phoenix of 40-odd years ago. "Ah, yes," the aged holy man recalls, "El Blanco, we used to call him; The White One, for his skin was the color of a page from the Bible--of the most pristine white. He was a good boy," the padre continues, warming to the memory. "I remember him as a natural leader, an honest child. Even boys much older would ask him to hold the bets at cockfights; they had that much respect for him.
"Mrs. Sleeth worked hard with all her children after the big meat explosion took her husband; she always treated Little Eddie as one of her own. He was loved, cared for, and he had--how do you say it?--a real flair at picking just the proper vintage of Mersault to accompany a good, authoritative cheese--Roquefort, for example. How he acquired this skill at such an early age, well, por la gracia de Dios," says Father Felix, eye rolling heavenward. "It was a gift."
In the days when Little Eddie was playing Kick the Can in the alleys of Phoenix, Father Felix was a common sight. He made himself available as counselor to those boys who came from broken homes, tried to steer troubled kids in the right direction. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but he never found out what became of Little Eddie Sleeth, the one who seemed to have so much promise.
When the father is shown a current picture of Fife Symington, there is no hesitation in his opinion. The eye opens wide; he stabs the photo with a wrinkled, bony, brown index finger.
"It is him! It is El Blanco! For years I have felt a strangeness to this man Symington, a certain familiarity," he says excitedly. Then he sighs with the resignation of one who knows the pain of watching good work go for naught.
"I am saddened by the paths some of the boys--my children of the streets--have taken. Some are in jail, some living lives of sin, some, even, are dead. And now I learn the fate of El Blanco. It is almost too much for an old man to bear."
She doesn't want to talk about it. She hasn't in years, hasn't allowed herself to utter his name anywhere or to anyone but herself, alone, in her room at night, when the lights are off. That's when the memories come back, the truth, the questions, the hurt.
Of course, no one ever asks her what happened to her kid stepbrother, Eddie, who got taken away so long ago, and Esther Sleeth volunteers nothing. But, deep inside, she knows. Esther has seen the pictures of the governor, she's heard him speak, felt the inexplainable emotional pull when she reads of Fife Symington's--Little Eddie's--accomplishments. And failures.
"What they're saying about him, the things he's done and all, maybe those things are true. But we did our best with him, Mama tried so hard, and when they took him away and he ended up with those folks back East, well ... let's just say they changed him. And I do not mean for the better."
The Sleeths lived in a simple, wooden house in South Phoenix; it's still there, empty, unattended, its place in Arizona history unacknowledged. The paint is peeling; ripped screens hang off the windows like rusted flaps of skin; where there should be grass, there is dirt; and where there should be dirt, there are weeds.
Esther has agreed to come out to the old place. She is the last of the family to remain in theValley. She walks around the house as the sun sets and softens edges, but this is no romantic log cabin. Itis, as she puts it, "pretty much a dump. Like it was then."
She stops next to a gnarled tree. "The oranges off this tree are ornamental," Esther says. "You're not supposed to eat them. The way I found this out was once Eddie talked my brother Vince into eating one; he bit into it, and the juice made his lips numb right up. Eddie could talk people into doing the damnedest things! Vince beat him for three hours or so. God, that was funny."
Esther says that, of the six Sleeth children, she was closest to Little Eddie. "We spent hours just playing together, playing make-believe restaurant. Little Eddie--Iused to call him "Little D."--always had to be the chef," she says, the hard lines lifehas left in her face warming into a smile.
"Early on, he'd make mud pies," she continues, "and when he learned to read, he'd take recipes out of the newspaper and pretend he had the real ingredients, though it was mostly stuff we found in the trash or just lying around. Olive oil would be Valvoline, scallions would be dandelion stalks, for dried currants he'd use little rocks. You get the idea. D. would talk his friend Billy, Billy Hudge, into being the waiter. He'd serve it all up to me, and sometimes I'd take little bites. You should have seen Little Eddie's face light up!"
And, briefly, her face lights up, too. Then it goes out.
"That's really about all I care to say about Eddie; no one's gonna believe it, anyway," says Esther. Then she gets into her Pinto and drives away.
"Oh, hell, yes! Eddie? Little Eddie? He was a son of a gun! And I loved the little guy!" The voice is booming out into the desert, and it belongs to Mr. Billy Hudge, ex-Marine, excop, ex-husband. Hudge is a hard man to track down. He calls a blue-and-white trailer home; it sits in a remote, arid trailer park south of Buckeye with the unlikely name of Desert Shores. It seems like a lonely place, but Billy Hudge could not care less.
"What the hell," he bellows. "I need neighbors like I need a boil on the ass! I been around people all my life. Besides, I've got Pucker here to keep me company." Pucker is Billy's dog. When Billy says, "Pucker up!" the dog jumps into his arms. Billy gets quite a kick out of this, and, apparently, so does Pucker, who slobbers all over his master's bristly chin at each command.
When it comes to the Sleeth/Symington equation, Hudge is incredulous. "You're trying to tell me that Little Eddie was adopted by some millionaire, then he moved back here and became governor? Well, that sounds like a hell of a yarn, my friend. Listen--Eddie was a good, honest, sweet little tunk. Not the type that could ever grow up and be a politician, fer Chrissake!"
Hudge is a few years older than Sleeth/Symington, and explains that he always feltkind of like a protector, an older brother to his pale, frail childhood buddy.
"Yeah, Little Eddie was quite a character--he'd get me to do the damnedest things," says Hudge, beaming with pride as Pucker goes number one next to a plastic lawn chair. "I remember he used to have me act like a waiter when he was playin' chef. When we got older, I'd steal food for him so he could make these recipes from the paper. I always thought he'd go into the cooking business. In fact, the last time I saw him was on his tenth birthday back in '55. He was dead set on making this recipe--this tasty fish mousse, I think it was called--that the Republic had run that day. I didn't see him for a few days after that, and when I asked Mrs. Sleeth, well, she told me the state had forced her to give him up. That was the last I heard of Little Eddie.
"And now you're saying that he's Symington? That's a hell of an idea!"
And that's where the story ends. The Governor's Office is silent on the matter. There is no one else to talk to, no more memories to pick, no one whocan provide proof enough to make this account anything other than a monumental prank. As Esther Sleeth said, who's going to believe it, anyway? Could a right-thinking young boy from the wrong side of the tracks be corrupted by almost obscene amounts of wealth and power? You'd have to buy into the idea that our governor is not greedy or dishonest by nature, that he acquired these traits along the way.
Little Eddie, of course, had certain qualities: He could be trusted to hold the money at cockfights, he could coerce a loved one into eating a lip-numbing fruit, he had his best friend steal for him. Surely, these are just childhood quirks, and cannot in any way be viewed as precursors to a life of high-level corporate sleaze.
But there is one person who knows the truth--somebody who, just maybe, knew some people a few decades ago named Esther and Marcus and Father Felix. And his name is J. Fife Symington III. A man who has never publicly revealed that he has any culinary skills whatsoever.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.