Action Jackson by
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(I keep updating this story as I learn new information about my long-lost, but still fascinating cousin.)

The last time I saw him was in October of 1980. He’d called my office a day earlier. “You’ve got to come up over the weekend. It’s fantastic here.” Trying to get a room in Woodstock, VT over Columbus Day weekend on one day’s notice was no small feat, but seeing my cousin Alan was an opportunity not to be missed. He was pure magic, vibrant, tall, lithe, full of energy and enthusiasm and I thrilled to the sound of his voice.

I am the youngest in a large gaggle of cousins. My dad, Alan’s uncle, was the youngest of eight children, the “runt of the litter”, he described himself and I am the baby’s baby. A sunny man with a sweet disposition, Dad LOVED his family and passed that along to me. He played “bachelor uncle” until the age of 32 and lived with his oldest sister Pauline when he came home from the war.

Alan was Pauline’s boy, her second born. He was a whole generation older than me. He had already left postage stamp-sized Huntington Woods, Michigan for Dartmouth College, done a stint working on a ship on Lake Superior and who knows what other adventures before I was even born. He settled in Geneva, Switzerland and had many professions; photographer, international businessman, jet-setter, European distributor for Roots shoes. Legend goes that he’d danced with Brigitte Bardot. He was exotic, restless. He was called Action Jackson – long before the movie.

He would blow into Detroit and Pauline would host a gathering of the tribe. Yet somehow, Alan was one of those people who made each person feel special. He took an interest in me, his baby cousin. When I was very young, he developed Bell’s palsy, caused by a luge accident. Evidently luging was big with the jet-set in the 1950s. I remember sitting across a restaurant table from him, one side of his handsome face drooped. He spoke of it without self-pity and moved on. It completely cleared up. When I started to study French, he spoke French to me. He came to my house and took the time to photograph me, even though everyone wanted a piece of him when he was in town and he knew EVERYONE. He gave me a sense of worth at a critical point in my life.

1972, photo by Alan Jackson


He dated debutantes and celebrities. He was friendly with Nina Simone. The “high priestess of jazz” held my baby cousin Gregory like the Madonna while in Geneva…but I get ahead of myself. He wouldn’t find Miss Right until 1973. He finally brought THE girl home to meet us all. The beauty’s name was Elisabeth Harmer – dark hair, vivid blue eyes, fair skin, Austrian. Like the famously beautiful Hapsburg empress, she too, calls herself Sissy. She is regal, savvy, just five years my elder, and she adored him. They were the most glamorous couple I’d ever seen.

They had New England connections. She had been an exchange student at Milton Academy. He bought land near Dartmouth and had a business lawyer on Beacon Street, a few blocks from our condominium. So when he called that October morning, I answered.

Through a friend, we found the last room in Woodstock, and Alan and Sissy squeezed us into their busy schedule for lunch on Saturday. It rained over night, our ignition wires had problems when wet, so Alan had to fix that too. He drove us to their rented condo.

Sissy introduced us to their au pair. I didn’t know what an “au pair” was, but figured if Sissy had one, it must be important. And I met Gregory, their adorable two year old. It would be the only time I’d see the dear boy until he turned up in Boston at a cousin’s bar mitzvah in 1999. We are now so close that he came in from London for my son’s bar mitzvah in 2002. I was honored to do a reading at his wedding in England, Labor Day weekend, 2016. And in March, 2018, I cradled his 11 week old daughter during dinner so he and his beautiful wife Laura could enjoy a bit of food and I could cuddle my newest cousin, moved beyond words that this was Alan’s granddaughter.

11 week old Sophia


But that long-ago October day I had my first 35 mm camera and Alan took me out into the breath-taking foliage to give me pointers. and again photograph me. I took a shot of them too. Sissy fed us a hearty soup and good bread and then we were gone.unnamed-1

Three months later, I sat on the arm of my blue couch in my Beacon St. condo, listening to my father’s words, but not comprehending. “Alan is dead,” “How?” “They think he had the flu. He was sick for a few days and in the hospital, but they couldn’t save him.”

He died the day before Sissi’s birthday. He was 50 years old. And he died of mesothelioma, long festering, but with no symptoms. His ashes were flown home. He’s buried with his parents, and mine and so many of my other relatives, all of whom out-lived him.

As I looked to the back of the chapel that December morning in 1999, my tears welled up. It was as though Alan had come back to me. Gregory has finer features than his father, and is even more handsome. Yet he has his father’s bearing; he is tall and lithe like his father, and when he smiles, his eyes crinkle like his father. He has a great desire to know his father’s family and I am more than happy to oblige. And through Gregory, I’ve regained Sissi, whom I had tried to stay in touch with, until she remarried and moved to Venezuela. Now she is rose fragrance and cappuccino wrapped around a spine of steel. She lives in London and that hearty soup she served has grown to a fabulously successful catering business. She and her family visited us on Martha’s Vineyard several times throughout the years. And on June 30, 2004, I was in London, helping her serve a luncheon for the Prince of Wales.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: photograph, Woodstock, VT, catering, London
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    What a vivid, luscious portrait of a fine man who meant so much to you. Clearly he lives on in his family and your memory.

  2. John Zussman says:

    Forgot to mention—great photos, too. He really did have the touch.

  3. I venture to say that, although you paint a warm, intriguing portrait of your adventurous cousin Alan, I found the references to your own interactions just as fascinating. Serving London lunch to the Prince of Wales, indeed!

    As always, your prodigious collection of family photos greatly enhances your fine writing. Write on, BP!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Sissi was catering a luncheon for the Trustees of the Duchy of Cornwall, “Charley-boy’s” business, from which he derives a huge annual income. He didn’t stay long; had to go to the memorial service for the Duke of Westminster

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    I am just back from Gregory’s wedding where of course, I saw Sissi and many other relatives. I gleaned a few new interesting tid-bits from long ago and have added them to the story. One is a small comment, the other, quite an interesting brush with celebrity.

  5. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Betsy. I’m surprised to see I didn’t comment on it two years ago. Of course I know you much better now. Sounds like Alan was an amazing cousin, and his death must have been a shock! Nice that you remain in touch with Gregory, and that he reminds you of Alan. And I have to agree with Charlie, your own adventure serving lunch for the Prince of Wales was quite an ending for the story!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Suzy. Alan was very special and his loss tugged at all who knew him. I cherish Gregory for many reasons, not just because he is a part of Alan. He grew into a wonderful person, even without his father’s guidance. When I awoke this morning, I had a message from him with lots of photos and videos of his adorable baby. He and his mother remain very dear to me.

  6. Thank you, Betsy. It is so true that he could make everyone feel special.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    What an amazing guy Alan must have been, Betsy. Clearly, he was someone who lived life to the fullest and how tragic that his life was cut so short.

    You describe Alan vividly –and, as usual for you, the pictures are also great. I also love how his legacy, and your connection with “Action Jackson” have been so nicely carried forward with Gregory — also wonderfully described — and his own life. And I love that you have kept adding to this story; that’s really how all stories should be. Bravo!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Through the years, I have shared this story with Alan’s widow, his son, his nieces and nephews and all feel as I do. He made each of us feel special. That was a great gift. I had a long talk with Sissi in London just two weeks ago (WhatsApp makes it all possible) and try to see Gregory, his wife and daughter whenever I am in London (which is fairly often these days, since my son lives there). He did have a knack for living, so it was a cruel irony that his life was cut short

  8. What a great guy and what a great story, Betsy. Have to admit to a jealous impulse or two; I love stories of the relationships within extended families, particularly cousins. My partner Barbara hosted a “cousins reunion” here in June: eleven of the twelve attended and spouses and partners were permitted to join the group for dinner. Great fun. I had only two cousins growing up and due to an estrangement I did not meet either until my dad’s memorial service. Treasure the memories.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Tom. Family has always been extremely important to me. I only have one brother, but as I said, my dad was the youngest of 8 children, and though very different, they really stuck together. That made a huge impression on me. I am the youngest in my generation, but I was always included in everything. It took a while for many of my older cousins to take me seriously, but not Alan, which is part of why I loved him so much. I wrote a cousins newsletter for a while (before the internet; I took it to a typing service, had it copied and sent it out through the mail). After a time, there wasn’t much to say and I did family history. This was 30 years ago in the aftermath of my father’s sudden death. I finally realized that it was a way to eulogize my father. But learning about his extended family and keeping in touch with everyone was, and remains, important to me.

      I missed a maternal cousins reunion last year, which made me very sad, but getting off Martha’s Vineyard in the summer is very difficult and I didn’t have enough time to plan it. I was the only first cousin to miss that one (but was also the only first cousin not to be in the MidWest already). One can only do so much, I guess.

  9. Laurie Levy says:

    What a magnificent story, Betsy. So full of rich details and the photographs are beautiful. Your late cousin sounds like a remarkable man. I love how family connections are so strong. What a joy it must have been to be at Gregory’s wedding.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. It really was a joy to be at Gregory’s wedding at a beautiful country church in Sussex. I came to realize that he chose me to represent his side of the family when he asked me to do the reading, a poem about love. Truly an honor.

  10. When a person like your cousin Alan dies so young I get small, but measurable comfort out of understanding that he lived life to the fullest while he was on the planet. A lovely portrait, enhanced by your interactions with your cousin and the photographic trail you left together.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks for taking a second, or even third read of my story, Chas. Alan really did pack a lot into his short life. Sissi says he didn’t have his usual energy at the end, which is how she knew he was seriously ill. And yes, at least I have a photographic trail of remembrance. Wish I had more photos of him. Now I have wonderful shots of those who loved him.

  11. shelah2 says:

    I probably already told you- I know I’ve mentioned it to Gregory. I met him when he was 2 as well. They came to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Of course, Alan showed him off holding him up standing on his palm.
    Sissy invited me to come be Gregory’s au pair for a year. I was so excited, and then being my usual shy and worried self- decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. Kinda wish my dad had just said- GO, BE GONE! and have fun.
    Thank you for sharing your memories and for connecting me to so many of my generation of cousins too.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, you have told me about Sissi’s au pair offer. Hindsight can be daunting, Shelah. Can’t let it get you down. I’m glad you share my love of family (even in-laws!) and that you’ve been able to connect with many, at least through social media. I love that John Gilbert calls you “his awesome cousin who he’s never met”. You are second cousins. (His mother Jean, and your father were first cousins, I know you love that stuff as much as I do.)

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