A grown daughter remembers her troubled, genius father’s endearing friendship with their charismatic maid.
James Newman was a mathematical genius with an almost incomprehensible mind. He entered college at age 14, finished law school before 21, coined the term “googol” and authored the seminal text, The World of Mathematics (1956). Personally, though, he was troubled, emotionally distant and addicted to infidelity—he married three times before he turned 24, each relationship ending because of his affairs. In this quiet memoir, his daughter, Brooke Newman (The Little Tern, 2002), remembers an endearing side to her father—his odd, lovely friendship with their maid. Jenniemae was black, illiterate, immensely overweight, fervently religious and desperately poor. Given the circumstances, it was particularly unusual in the 1940s and ’50s for her to strike up a friendship with her white male employer. They bonded initially over numbers, though their experiences with them were quite different. Jenniemae gambled her hard-earned money every morning on numbers that came to her in religious dreams and was popular in her community for having good luck. Logical James was fascinated with her system, but Jenniemae would never share her secrets with him. Soon James was doing things for her that made the rest of the family skeptical, such as installing a separate phone line for Jenniemae in the maid’s quarters for her private use. Jenniemae was the one constant in the Newman family, running an incredibly efficient household and essentially raising the author and her brother in the face of feuding, often absent parents. As James descended further into the world of abstract mathematics, Jenniemae strangely became a constant to him as well, and it is their relationship that comprises Newman’s fondest memories of her father.
A low-key, sweet portrait of an unusual friendship. Jenniemae is a scene-stealer, though, and the strongest parts of the memoir focus on her and her community.