A Father's Day story on learning the difference between fame and success

The author (left) with his dad, and his brothers Steve (center) and Dan (right). Fort Lauderdale, FL, Christmas 1970.
Courtesy Tom Maxwell

My father, Joe Maxwell, is the last surviving member of the team that designed the RCA/Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen of 1957, completed when he was barely 25. Its black-and-white promotional film doesn’t do justice to its riotous midcentury palette — coral pink, cobalt blue, lemon chiffon and electric crimson — that brightened the imposing control panels. “It’s a laboratory of kitchen ideas for the future,” says the curvy spokesmodel. 

The kitchen boasted an outsized, primitive microwave oven, motion-activated frozen-drink dispensers and two self-propelled appliances. One, an enormous dishwasher, lumbers tableside to be filled. The other is a “floor cleaner” with a crouched and threatening look. In the middle of the cold and efficient floor stands a desk called the Planning Center. On it, beside an array of impressive switches, is a cordless “personal” phone and closed-circuit television screen, allowing, as is suggested in the promotional film, remote monitoring of the front door and nursery.  

“Now, in those days when time is too short or when your bridge game has been a little bit too long,” the spokesmodel says in her calm, rounded alto, “you still can prepare a well-balanced meal in just a matter of seconds with the least amount of attention.”

Whirlpool's "Miracle Kitchen" that Joe Maxwell helped design
RCA Whirlpool

My father didn’t work on all the whizbang technological stuff, nor did he oversee the sleight-of-hand tricks that made them appear to work. Instead, he conceived another technology so innovative that, unlike cordless phones and microwave ovens, it has yet to be implemented. Toward the end of the Miracle Kitchen promotional film, almost as an afterthought, we are shown countertops that can be raised and lowered, conforming to the user’s height. “It’s possible for you to have a sink adjusted to you individually,” we are told, “whether you’re tiny, typical or tall.” That was my father’s idea, and the template for his life’s work.

The Miracle Kitchen was one of three concept kitchens that made it to the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. It was at this exhibition that then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in their impromptu “kitchen debate.” 

By the time the Miracle Kitchen was sent out into the world, Dad had met a tall, intelligent and beautiful schoolteacher named Nancy. They married in 1960 and moved to South Florida where Dad started his own industrial-design firm.

In 1962, Dad got a letter from a former boss, Whirlpool’s product manager. Part of it concerned a highly efficient refrigerator with carousel shelving that Dad had designed for the company a few years back. “If in looking back on your efforts I were to assign any weakness to them,” the manager wrote, “it would be that they were too far in front of the industry. The Carousel concept is the most flexible interior ever designed but we have concluded it is too far advanced by relation to our competitors to gain the broad acceptance we feel necessary.” 

Dad started his industrial-design career in the 1950s, a time of rock stardom for that profession, typified by personalities like Le Corbusier, Raymond Loewy, the Eames and Buckminster Fuller. Fame, however, was never my father’s goal.  

The RCA/Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen, with its kitschy flash and fakery, got a lot of press. It was as close to fame as my father ever got, but he never took the bait. He generally moved in the opposite direction, qualified as he was for recognition. Dad committed himself to doing good work and keeping a modest profile. “Since we think so much alike,” Whirlpool’s product manager wrote him, “I know that much of the satisfaction you derive from your work lies in knowing you are making worthwhile contributions.”

The author, Tom Maxwell (right), as the frontman of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, in Atlanta during one sold-out New Year's Eve concert in the mid-1990s.
Courtesy Tom Maxwell

Grateful as I am for my brief experience with it, I learned for myself that fame is not the best metric of success. In 1997, a song I wrote called "Hell" became a top-20 hit. In a matter of months, my band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, were selling 30,000 CDs a week. It didn’t make us better writers or performers. Fame is not success, but another thing altogether — a way of being perceived. It is a suit you can wear that everyone loves, but if you take it off they ask why you’re not wearing it anymore. When I was young, being famous seemed a perfectly legitimate aspiration, but once I achieved it, I realized that all I ever wanted was to make good records. I must have learned this ambition from my father.

Still, I didn’t want to lose all of the attention and ease of that life, but such is the nature of fame: it’s all or nothing at all. I made one solo record and stopped touring when my daughter, Evelyn, was born. Quitting the industry so suddenly had an emotional effect on me similar to the bends. My readjustment to normalcy consisted largely of sullen resignation.  

While he taught me about the value of good work, my father, who had not had a similar experience, did not teach me how to survive the loss of fame. I learned that from my son, Esten, who was born a few years after Evelyn.

The author and his son, Esten, in May 2008, when Esten was 5 and still undergoing treatment for leukemia. (Photo by Christopher Ciccone)
Courtesy Tom Maxwell

In 2006, when he was three, Esten was diagnosed with leukemia. His life changed suddenly. He was thrust into an entirely different world, away from his kindergarten friends. Esten adopted strategies that worked well under unusual circumstances, mostly having to do with being so terribly alone on the pediatric-oncology ward. He enjoyed the attention, not understanding that most of the adults giving it were terrified. Fat from steroids and bald from chemo, he was granted dispensation to eat what he wanted and do what he wanted. He loved the drugs they used to knock him out for spinal taps.  

A pediatric oncologist once told me about “the talk” she gives to new patients and their parents.

“In terms of mortality,” she said, “we’re all operating under the same death sentence. Most of us just don’t know the time and place. Some of these kids are not going to make it. I tell them, or their parents, that it’s not about the amount of time you’re given or identifying as victim. It’s about taking the opportunity to decide upon the person you want to be, or the person you want to raise. Simply surviving is not living. We can be as great and giving and participatory as possible, and cancer doesn’t take that away.”

On Valentine’s Day, after three and a half years, Esten stopped taking chemo. He was returned to normal life as precipitously as he was snatched out of it. Socially and academically, this meant entering a race that had already begun. He got into trouble at school and didn’t make friends easily. The adults in his life were relieved and glad to have him back, but Esten reacted with frustration, resentment and anger.   

Shortly after he concluded his treatment, I was asked to give a speech to raise money for the hospital that treated him. I spoke during a lavish luncheon for wealthy donors, in a great room filled with tables covered with white tablecloths, brightly lit by a wall of towering windows.

“We must be as relentless as cancer,” I told the attendees, “and as committed as the professionals we look to for help. We are a part of the enormous community of family, friends, caregivers and donors that surround each patient, giving hope and comfort. It is a privilege to be counted among you, initially by circumstance and now by choice. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone and wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

At the hospital where he was treated for leukemia, there is a poster of Esten. Every year his father takes a picture of Esten, who is now cancer free, in front of it.
Courtesy Tom Maxwell

Toward the end of my talk, I pointed out where Esten was sitting and he got a big standing ovation.

Afterward, he came up to me with an incredulous look. “Dad, are we famous?” he asked. The question took me aback. Suddenly his difficult readjustment made perfect sense: Esten wasn’t a rock star anymore. His frustration, anger and resentment were all a consequence of the end of his exempt status. I had reacted the same way when it happened to me.

Esten is 11 now. He has a growing understanding, not only of his illness, but of the monstrous effects of childhood cancer all around us. After shaving his head recently to raise money for childhood-cancer research, he went out on the sidewalk, stopping strangers passing by. “I’m raising money,” he told them. “I had cancer and I don’t want any other kid to have it.” He walked back into the event, more than once, with fistfuls of cash. Evelyn shaved her head too, impressing everyone with the fact that a 13-year-old girl could be that selfless and brave.

My mom, Nancy, died a year ago this month. She was Dad’s life companion, and after she passed, he went to pieces. For a while, it seemed as if he were trying to turn into a ghost. Months later I sat across from him at the kitchen table and told him, surprised by my own impudent authority, that he must make a decision to live or die. Slowly, through his grief, Dad has come to identify more than ever with his work — as a strategy for his return to life. Since Mom died, he has designed supremely efficient showers and passive solar-heating systems for the working poor. He has conceived a massive and revolutionary transportation system that has the efficiency of a train and the independence of a car.   

And he continues to work on the same ideas he developed all those years ago for Whirlpool. Following the Universal Design principles of inherent accessibility, Dad has conceived of a kitchen that adapts to the user. Most of us, if we’re lucky, will grow old and infirm. Each of us will have differing abilities to reach or stand or see. Why must our living spaces conform to an impersonal code instead of the individual needs of a person? Dad wants to change that. 

There are some extraordinary benefits to my family’s particular catastrophe. I occasionally look at my son and realize that he is alive. This wondrous recognition is probably not available to parents who were not brought to the brink of a terrible precipice and led back again. I am seeing my son grow up almost as if we belong to an alternate universe, the one in which he didn’t die.

Esten, like his father, and his father’s father, will work out the way in which he will outlive his own mortality. And even though he continues to grow into his evolving self, he too has made the choice of who he wants to be.

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