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Gully Wells, a longtime editor and writer at Condé Nast Traveler, has always known she was lucky. “I had an extraordinary childhood,” she says simply. Each of her parents — writer/pundit Dee Wells and Foreign Service officer/architect Al Wells — was an interesting and accomplished person who loved her and was strongly focused on her. And although their 1949 marriage lasted less than four years, within a few years of their divorce each parent acquired a charming new spouse. In 1960, her mother married the celebrated Oxford don A.J. Ayer, known as Freddie, whom many consider the most important English philosopher since Bertrand Russell, while her father later chose Melissa Foelsch, a career Foreign Service officer who later became an ambassador.
One of the enterprises Dee Wells embarked upon during her second marriage was to buy and renovate a country house in Provence, called La Migoua after the hamlet in which it was located. Every summer for decades, the family spent time there, often accompanied by friends. But after her mother died in 2003, Gully Wells couldn’t bring herself to go to La Migoua for six years because she identified it so closely with her. Then she did, and now she has written a memoir called “The House in France” (Alfred A. Knopf).
“What is it about a certain house that allows it to take on, as if by some strange process of architectural osmosis, the precise character of its owner?” she asks. “How can a complicated, intelligent human being and an inanimate structure, stuffed full of random rubbish, resemble each other so closely that they might as well be twins?”
Dee Wells was an impressive woman in many respects. Her daughter describes her as “a force of nature,” saying, “I couldn’t have written about her in her lifetime.”
“The House in France” is mostly the story of the remarkable life her mother and Ayer created for themselves, in London and in Provence. Everybody passed through their homes — Robert Kennedy, S.J. Perelman, David Bruce (who gave Dee away at her first wedding), Roy Jenkins, Isaiah Berlin, Norman Mailer, Larry Adler, Julian Bond, Anthony Lewis and Chief Spotted Eagle. E.e. cummings once wrote Ayer a birthday poem, and Ayer gave an 80th birthday party for Bertrand Russell, whom he helped to reunite with a relative, the Duke of Bedford — the two hadn’t encountered each other for many years because of a family quarrel.
Dee was born in Provincetown, R.I., in 1925 and grew up there. She enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (her mother was Canadian) and then went to work for the American Embassy in Paris, where she met Al Wells. They married, and relocated for several years to Rangoon, where Al became first secretary at the American Embassy. Both later admitted to knowing at the time that the marriage had been a mistake. After their divorce, Dee moved to London, where she borrowed the city house of their Rangoon neighbors, who were British Embassy staffers, and managed to persuade The New York Times that she was the person to write about social and fashionable goings-on in London for the paper. She went on to write for The Guardian, The Sun and The Sunday Express, and appeared on a number of television programs featuring talking heads.
Later, when she was living with Ayer, Dee and her first husband had become sufficiently friendly that she asked Al to write to Ayer saying he wasn’t comfortable having his daughter Gully stay with the two of them if they continued to live in sin. Al, who actually couldn’t have cared less, was happy to write the letter — and Ayer, who had been reluctant to marry Dee, was thus hornswoggled into doing so.
Once Ayer pulled a prank on their dachshund, Monster. The philosopher was appearing on the TV program “The Brains Trust,” and he contrived to pronounce Monster’s name loudly during the broadcast while the dog was in the room, to see what would happen. Freddie Ayer, famously an atheist, said, “I see no empirical reason to believe in the existence of God, any more than I do in the Loch Ness MONSTER.” At that point, his dog began barking like mad and lunged at the TV set, amusing the audience at home to no end.