Manhattan Monologues, page 1
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Old New York
All That May Become a Man
Entre Deux Guerres
The Marriage Broker
The Justice Clerk
He Knew He Was Right
The Treacherous Age
The Scarlet Letters
Houghton Mifflin Company
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Copyright © 2002 by Louis Auchincloss
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Manhattan monologues / Louis Auchincloss.
1. New York (N.Y.)—Social life and customs—Fiction.
2. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3501.U25 M36 2002
Book design by Anne Chalmers
Typefaces: Janson Text, Agfa Sackers Antique, Type Embellishments
Printed in the United States of America
QUM 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Andrew and Tracy
Old New York
ALL THAT MAY BECOME A MAN • [>]
THE HEIRESS • [>]
HARRY’S BROTHER • [>]
Entre Deux Guerres
THE MARRIAGE BROKER • [>]
COLLABORATION • [>]
THE JUSTICE CLERK • [>]
HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT • [>]
THE TREACHEROUS AGE • [>]
THE MERGER • [>]
THE SCARLET LETTERS • [>]
Old New York
All That May Become a Man
I HAVE NEVER dropped the junior from my name, Ambrose Vollard, even after my father’s death, because I always felt that the important thing about me was that I was his son. It was not that he was a distinguished historical figure—he wasn’t. He lived the life, as my mother once put it, of a “charming idler,” the adequately endowed New York gentleman of Knickerbocker forebears who had dedicated his existence to sport and adventure. But he was also a hero—that was the real point—to his non-heroic only son. As a Rough Rider he had charged up San Juan Hill after his beloved leader, the future President; he had slaughtered dozens of the most dangerous beasts of the globe; and he had attended expeditions to freezing and tropical uncharted lands for museums and zoos.
As a child I was obsessed with the notion that youth was only a preparation for the rigors of manhood. I was fourteen when the battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, and I could never forget the noisy reaction of Father and his two brothers at the family board in Washington Square or their enthusiastic welcome of the prospect of war. They actually hoped to see New York under fire from the Spanish fleet, and America awakened from its slothful torpor and materialism by the clarion call to arms! The Vollard brothers were all tall bony men, with fine knobbly aristocratic features, who spoke in decibels higher than anyone else’s, dominating every conversation with their loud mocking laughs, never guilty of any “business” but zestfully using the remnants of an old real estate fortune in pursuit of the fox, the grizzly bear or the lion, while not neglecting—for no Philistines they!—the reading of great books or the viewing of great pictures or even, if they could be silent long enough, the hearing of great music. I used to think of Father as a kind of amiable Cesare Borgia. I looked at him with an awe sandwiched between two dreads: the dread of never being able to emulate him and the dread of his finding this out.
Colonel Roosevelt, as he was always referred to in the family, even after he had received higher titles, was Father’s god as well as friend. This great man, for all his multiple interests, had time in his life for men like the Vollards, whose zeal and courage and love of violent action made up, to his mind anyway, for their social inutility. I was introduced early, not only to the Colonel but to his books, and was indoctrinated in the creed that bravery was the sovereign virtue in a man, that a “splendid little war” like the Spanish one had been a blessing in disguise to preserve our national virility and that a coward was not a man at all.
And women? What of them? Well, their role was simpler: to inspire men and to bear children. Why, I sometimes agonized, in the deep, dark, deluding safety of the night, had I not been born a woman? And I knew, I always knew, that the mere presence of this evil wish, even in the innermost recesses of my mind, damned me forever. At least with men. Was there any hope of redemption in the eyes of women? Did Mother suspect what I was going through? I sometimes wondered.
Leonie Vollard was as small and white and quiet as her husband was big and brown and noisy, but she was in no way subservient. Despite their obvious deep devotion to each other, they nonetheless preserved inviolate their respective and distinctly separate “spheres of interest.” She never protested against his long absences on hunting and exploratory expeditions, nor did he ever interfere with her exquisite housekeeping in the lovely red-brick early Federal house in Washington Square. She sat silently through the spirited, even raucous arguments of the Vollard clan at her dinner table, and he was a subdued guest at the readings of her poetry club. In his den he was allowed any number of animal trophies, but no claw, hoof, horn or antler was permitted in her chaste blue-and-yellow parlor. Similarly, the children were divided; my two younger sisters were left largely to their mother’s care and supervision, while my guidance and training were Father’s primary responsibilities. Yet Mother never conveyed any impression that she was unconcerned with my welfare. Quiet and reserved as she was, she managed to radiate the feeling that every unit of her family was equally important to her.
Certainly the thing that confused me most in my relationship with Father was that he was the most amiable, the most enchanting parent one could imagine. Of course, that had to be because he had no conception of what was going on inside me. His patient joviality in teaching me to ride, to jump, to shoot and to hunt, first the pheasant and then the fox, on our Long Island estate was never marred by reprehension of my ineptitudes, but loudly expressed by applause at my every successful effort. And in due time I learned to conduct myself with some competence in riding and shooting, aided by my earnest desire to accomplish the seemingly hopeless task of becoming the youth Father cheerfully insisted on believing I was. To follow his graceful figure across the fields after the hounds was indeed a pleasure, but I never lost sight of what to me were the inevitable future tests of manhood that I believed awaited me as the real justification for my training: that war where I would have to fight an enemy, perhaps hand to hand, in mud and horror, or the African safari where I would be obliged to stand rigid before a charging rhino.
At Saint Jude’s, the boys’ boarding school in Massachusetts to which I was sent, I was slightly more relaxed, relieved as I was, except on parents’ weekends, of Father’s pushing-me-on presence, although the academy heartily endorsed his athletic enthusiasms, including football, a game I particularly detested. Father went so far as to say that he would be ashamed of any son or nephew who didn’t go in fo
Oh, yes, he made allowances; he always did for me. He was determined to squeeze me somehow into his male heaven. But in the fall of my next-to-last year at the school I came close, for the first time in my life, to something faintly resembling an outer protest against Saint Jude’s echo of Father’s principles. This new little spurt of defiance was no doubt fostered by Father’s absence, not only from the school but the country on an extended expedition to the Antarctic.
I began, at first surreptitiously, to skip the near compulsory attendance at the Saturday afternoon football matches between Saint Jude’s and visiting teams. This was considered a serious breach of the required “school spirit,” and when it became known that I had been caught in the library during our match with Chelton, the supreme athletic contest of the school year, I was shocked to find myself condemned to the humiliation of being “pumped.”
This grave punishment of a graver offense consisted of being ordered to stand up before the whole school at roll call to be berated by the senior monitor (no faculty being present, as if to emphasize the hors la loi aspect of the proceeding) and then to be hustled by six sturdy members of the senior class down to the cellar to be half-drowned in the laundry wash basin.
The actual experience was soon over, but the shame was supposed to be deep and lasting. Yet I was oddly unmindful of the social ostracism that followed the event. It was something of a relief to be known at last for the poor thing I was. My only real concern was what Father would think. Would he even hear of it? I madly hoped not.
Of course he did, and from the headmaster himself in a special report to my parents. Home from the South Pole, he came right up to the school and took me for a Sunday afternoon walk through the woods to the river. It was a gloomy day, cold and cloudy, and I felt as bare as the stripped November trees. But the pain and concern on poor Father’s face and the gentleness of his tone took me at last out of myself, and my mind turned over feverishly, seeking a way to spare his feelings.
“But what was your point, dear boy, in absenting yourself from the games? Was it to have more time to study?”
“Was it possibly to be alone to do something that was prohibited? Like smoking or drinking? You needn’t be afraid that your old father will give you away. I’m just trying to understand; that’s all.”
And then I had it! It was a desperate try, but it was all I had. “I wanted to test my courage! I wanted to see if I could stand up to the worst thing that could happen to me in school! I wanted to be pumped!”
Of course, this was a bare-faced lie. I had had no notion that I would be caught or, if caught, that I would be so severely punished. But Father’s face, though bewildered, was clearing, and I hurried on. “Boys my age haven’t had the chance to prove themselves the way you did in the Spanish war! I wanted to see how I would stand up in a crisis. And I did! I did!”
Father had tears in his eyes as he turned to hug me. “Oh, my dear fellow, you went much too far! I’m afraid I’ve done too much bragging about my own tiny feats. What have I ever done but kill a few animals?”
“And men,” I added stoutly.
“Well, we have to do that in war, regrettably. But, dear son, you must learn to moderate yourself. You have to live in this world, and that involves a certain amount of compromise. Not of your honor, of course, but in small social matters such as attending popular events, even if they bore you. One mustn’t let oneself get too prickly. And as for courage, dear boy, you have as much of it as any proud father could wish!”
My next real nervous crisis was delayed by four years. After my sophomore year at Harvard, Father took me along on what I had always regarded as the inevitable test—a hunting safari in Kenya. Mother and my sisters, of course, were left behind in the enviable security of New York; it was only I who had to be exposed to what Father gleefully assured me would be the thrill of my lifetime.
We set forth into the veldt with one of my uncles and a couple of enthusiastic young male cousins, a white hunter and some thirty bearers (the Vollard men always did things poshly). I had, reluctantly, to admit that I liked the countryside. It rolled away romantically and awesomely to the horizon on all sides, and had it been stripped of animal and insect life, I could have imagined enjoying myself. But of course it fairly teemed with both, and my relatives were intent on seeking the largest and most dangerous of the fauna. They soon found them.
The days were bad enough, with a charging elephant or Cape buffalo or lion brought down by Vollard fire two or three times a week, but the nights were worse. Our white hunter assured me that the great beasts that wandered through our camp at night would never break into a tent, but how could I be sure of that? Why would the mate of an elephant slaughtered in daylight not take revenge on its helpless murderers in the dark? I would toss on my cot for hours until sheer exhaustion robbed me of consciousness. And the huge bugs! Ugh!
Father noticed that I was tired, and sometimes he mercifully left me in camp to rest while the others were out shooting. But even then I would be nervous, left alone with a few unarmed bearers while animals prowled around and the guns were away. When I went out with them, Father usually kept me at his side, and he was noisily congratulatory when I shot and killed an oryx and then an eland. Neither of the poor beasts had tried to do anything but get away from us. And we were blessedly approaching the end of our terrible safari when the moment that I had dreaded burst upon me. Our hunter had spotted a huge old tuskless—and hence dangerously malevolent—bull elephant, exiled from the herd and surly, and Father suggested that he and I should, without the others, have the glory of bringing it down.
As we cautiously approached the monster, it picked up our scent and turned to us, raising its trunk formidably and flapping its great ears. Even Father seemed to have a second thought.
“Ambrose, quick! Run back to the others; I can handle this.”
And I would have done so! I would! But I was literally paralyzed with panic. My legs were two stone pillars; I couldn’t even raise my rifle. The bull was charging now, a thundering black cloud of terror, and I knew my end had come.
I heard the crack of Father’s gun, and the huge beast went down, a rolling mass of agony, then suddenly still.
“By God, you’re a cool one!” Father cried. “You stood there without blinking. And you were a gentleman, too. You let me have the first go at him when there mightn’t have been a second!”
“Oh, I knew you’d bring him down,” I heard myself say.
That night I was struck with a fever, which nobody attributed to my trauma, and I was sent back to the base camp. By the time I had recuperated, the safari was over.
The next decade brought great changes and something like peace to my life. In the first place, Father lost the greater part of his by then diminished fortune when the Knickerbocker Trust Company closed its doors in the panic of 1907. There was no longer the possibility of my leading the economically carefree life that he and his brothers had enjoyed; it was now incumbent upon me to earn my own living, which fortunately I was not only happy but relieved to do. After Harvard College, I attended Harvard Law and then secured a good position as a clerk in a leading Wall Street firm.
Father was constantly apologetic that his poor mana
Ellen, the child of Long Island neighbors whom I had known and liked since childhood, had always been a quiet little girl, sober and serious, who from her earliest days had known exactly what she wanted from life: a faithful loving husband with a steady job and a nursery full of children. Both of us tended to look at passion and excitement as picturesque storms to be viewed from behind securely closed windows. Ellen got on well with my parents, though I suspect she regarded Father as a little cracked. However, she never said so, and he became very fond of her and doted on the three little children who were born to us in the first five years of our marriage.
The opening of the Great War in 1914 sounded as the knell to bring me back from a decade of illusion to the grim standards of virility. Of course, in the three years of our national neutrality, I was always aware of the chorus of voices in favor of our nonparticipation in the conflict and prayed that they would prevail, but I never doubted that we would ultimately be drawn in. I knew again what I had earlier known: that it was part of my doom.
Needless to say, Father, like his god the Colonel, was howling for war, and he took for granted that I was on his side, nor did I seek for a moment to disillusion him. I accepted my fate with the passivity of despair and could only shrug when Ellen pointed out that if we did go to war, I would surely be exempted as a married man with a family to support.
“Father has received an inheritance from Uncle Tom,” I reminded her. “He has already undertaken to support you and the children if I should sign up.”
“And leave me with three infants and one of them an asthmatic! If you do that, my love, you’ll find the Germans easier to face than the spouse you return to!”
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