Longform

Young Fife: The Lost First Decade

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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."

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap