Several years ago we were having dinner at Hamilton’s Grill in Lambertville. In conversation we learned that Jeff Hamilton, the owner’s son, had committed suicide. In the 1970s, we rented a house with John and Barbara Paglione on Old York Road, outside of downtown New Hope. Around the corner on Sugan Road was the “ruins” or “the old mill.” Built in 1813 by William Maris, the cotton and weaving mill was/is a local landmark. Hamiltons lived in the mill.
We knew that Jim Hamilton, a NYC set designer, his French wife and children lived in the mill. There were annual gala parties at the mill but we were not quite part of that New Hope social scene. I think some of our friends/acquaintances were invited. We were aware that there were Hamilton kids, a bit younger than us. And we were interested when Jim opened Hamilton’s Grill in Lambertville.
The Grill has become one of our favorite restaurants. We go there for anniversaries, special ocassions, and when the spirit strikes. For several years we have enjoyed their Jersey dinners and Oyster nights. Several times we’ve gone to Jim’s “cooking classes” — usually demonstration dinners in an apartment studio near the restaurant.
We’ve bought several of Melissa Hamilton’s “Canal House” cookbooks — small and seasonal. We’ve also followed the career of Gabrielle, In the late 1990s, with no experience in the restaurant business, she opened “Prune” in the East Village. In 2012 she published, “Blood, Bones, & Butter the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef.”
There were some surprising admissions of drugs and thefts — but also the amazing rise of her career. She is one of the most well know female chefs in the country. Two years ago with Paglions, we ate at Prune. Not disappointed. Jen and Rob followed us, several months later and Jen got to meet Gabrielle. In another small town event, our former Tinicum friends, David and Judy hosted Melissa and her partner, Christopher Hirscheimer for dinner.
But back to Jeff Hamilton. When he was nineteen, Jeff went to Zaire to live with the Mbuti pygmies. He had become interested in anthropology finding arrowheads on the Banks of the Delaware river. In the prologue of “Going Native” his account of his adventures in Africa he wrote, “I began to wonder so intensely about what the life of the people who’d chipped these beautiful stone objects had been like, that I fell happy and melancholic at the same time. . . I dreamt then of the day I would live with people who are still living in remote areas of the world by hunting and gathering.”
While taking courses at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1975, Jeff met Colin Turnbull, a British anthropologist, known for his books “The Forest People” and “The Mountain People.” Turnbull had lived with pygmies in the Ituri forest then in the Belgium Congo, later Zaire. Jeff would follow in his footsteps.
Like Jeff I found arrowheads along the Banks of the Delaware. We both lived in river side small towns — New Hope and Bristol. We both attended prep schools — Solebury for Jeff; Holy Ghost Prep for me. I may have even read “The Forest People” (1961) in college. I dreamed of traveling in Africa. When Diane and I signed up in the Peace Corps in 1969 we were interested in sub-Saharan Africa. We were offered Arab Libya in North Africa instead. Seven years later Jeff was living with the forest people; I was teaching, driven partially by the draft exemption. I’m intrigued. Jeff had the independence, risk taking, sense of adventure spirit, to go to Africa alone. That was not me. I suspect family backgrounds had an influence. The sub title for “Going Native” is “A young man’s quest for his identity leads him to an African forest and it’s people.” It was published in 1989, ten year after the experience under the name J.J. Bones.
“Going Native” was particularly interesting because of the Hamilton connection. It’s not particularly well written, and often repetitive. Jeff lives in a village much of the time but eventually gets permission to live in the forest with the pygmies. No photographs were allowed; although someone eventually takes a few. He is presumably doing research for college but is usually consumed with daily life, little time is spent writing research notes.
In both village and forest, he feels the people are always taking advantage of him. Hands always looking for a gift; sometimes stealing. Jeff is constantly plagued with medical issues, malaria, awful skin diseases, parasites. Not pleasant. Life is slow; he writes a lot about boredom. Local men spending much time sitting around, smoking, sometimes marijuana, drinking palm wine from the raffia tree. And there are other forms of local alcohol. Jeff seems to adapt to a lot of strange foods — from termites and grubs to antelope and elephant. At times his diet is very vegetarian; other times there is a fair amount of game available.
There are missionaries in the village but Jeff wants limited contact with them. He also becomes annoyed with a few white tourists who passing through, stop and stay with him. He develops a few relationships, at times has a woman cook and clean, but frequently seems lonely. His doubts about his produtivity and the value of his research are constant. He thinks about leaving several times but sticks it out for about 2 years.
In a strange way I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau spending two years, basically alone, in solitude, finding himself on Walden Pond. So different but maybe not.
Jeff returned to New Hope become another town character. After his death a friend wrote of him as the Marquis of Debris. He cleaned out houses, saving treasures in an old barn until his annual auction. Jim Hamilton, said, “I spent $80,000 on his education. What does he do? Collects junk.”
Jeff’s story intrigues me. How we become who we are. The influences on our lives. Where we live. Our family. Our education. Travel and othe special experiences. People we meet. Why some of us become home bodies; others world adventurers and risk takers.
Our youth; our old age; our continual search for identity.