Longform

Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

Page 3 of 8

"He was so intent on making the world a better place," says Annette as afternoon sunlight filters through the parlor, casting lazy amber rays upon the photo on the windowsill of Charity performing a duet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, over the grand piano where the family spends evenings engaged in sing-alongs. Would you like a chocolate? she offers distractedly. Timber loved chocolate, by the way. But where was she? Oh, yes, Timber's childhood. Sure, he was a little different, but so was she. "He was a great match for me. We were both a bit unconventional."

That match seemed far from certain when this spirited blonde met the lanky sophomore at a Yale function in 1976. She was in the divinity school, pursuing her second master's degree. He'd already flunked out of New College of Florida and was only at Yale because of an academic turnaround and a convincingly plaintive seven-page application letter. She was reading the Bible; he was a bit tipsy. When he introduced himself as "Timber Dick," she felt like responding, "And my name's Cinderella." (Though she swears she didn't grasp his moniker's giggle-worthy connotations.)

None of their differences stopped Timber from falling hard. He'd always been intrigued by dynamic forces, about fashioning order from chaos, and in Annette he found a force of nature demanding all of his orderliness and rationality.

He pursued her until she felt the same about him — but that still left her father. Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew, hadn't escaped a Nazi labor camp in 1944 and scraped together a new life in San Francisco just to see his princess with some shiftless punk, which Lantos made clear with all the formidable passion that would later mark his nearly thirty-year career in Congress. While their relationship survived his wrath, there was another complication. Annette, following in the footsteps of her mother, converted to Mormonism after experiencing an overwhelming feeling one night that the religion had the power of truth, and she would only marry someone who shared her faith.

Timber had always been a spiritual person, one who believed in divine order, but he'd never had a formal religion. Furthermore, to his friends and family, the rigid belief structures and conservative nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed at odds with his and Annette's open-minded attitudes and political liberalism.

"I don't know whether he would have become a Mormon if he had not fallen so deeply for Annette," says his mother. "Though he gave it a tremendous amount of thought. It was not a quick decision."

The Mormon church at first didn't seem like a great fit for him, adds his brother Justin. "I think it fit his needs. But I think in some ways, he was conflicted in his needs. Being such a rational person, it was difficult for him to make that change. He had one urge to find a spiritual practice in his life. He had another innate predilection for rationality."

Despite other people's questions, Timber forswore his few vices and delved headlong into Mormonism. That led the way to the wedding chapel — or, more precisely, the Washington, D.C., Mormon temple, the nearest to Yale — where, in March 1978, the two were sealed together for time and all eternity. Annette took Timber's last name as well as that of her maternal grandfather, Sebastian Tillemann, who was killed in the Holocaust.

In fact, says Annette as the parlor's soft afternoon hues begin to fade, they marked their thirtieth anniversary this past March with a breakfast concocted by the kids and a special visit to their Denver temple. For her, it was a much-needed distraction from the death of her father a few weeks earlier; little did she know that tragedy would strike again so soon. "I remember saying to Timber, 'This is such a wonderful moment in our lives. We have had thirty amazing years. I believe the next thirty will be even more amazing.' I'm baffled, because I really had this sense that we had this future ahead of us."

Tears well up, but only for a moment. Annette won't let herself go there — for her kids' sake, for her own sake, and for Timber. As her husband once told her, "You've just got to hold on to the things you believe. The minute you let go, you'll slide down into an abyss, and you may not be able to climb back out."

So it's best to compartmentalize, to focus on the happy memories, like the birth of Tomicah, their first son, the winter before Timber graduated from Yale with a bachelor's and a master's in business administration. Sure, Timber ended up delivering the baby himself in their back seat on the wintry Connecticut roads on way to the hospital while their two dogs clambered all over them — but other than that, it was perfect.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner