April 24th, 2015

Shut Up and Eat Your Squab, from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma, Lady Furness



Once Mamma left us in Barcelona while she went to America for a short visit. We were then eight, going on nine, and we had not yet seen our own country. We asked to be taken with her. Mamma did not approve, so we stayed home with Papa. But a week or so after Mamma left, we had a wonderful surprise. Dr. Mann, our family physician and friend, arrived at the house with four pigeons a pair for each of us. Carlos, the butler–also our friend–built us a cage for them on the terrace. The pigeons seemed happy in their new home, and we promptly named them. They were Isabella and Ferdinand, Jeanne and Carlos. One day, when we got home from school, our friend Carlos met us at the door. “I have news for you, twins,” he said, leading us to the pigeon cote. “Look, they have laid eggs and are sitting on them. Someday soon you will have baby pigeons.”

“When? How soon?” we asked.

Carlos smiled. “You will have to wait,” he said. “Nature takes its own time.”

Naturally, we were excited. We had never had any pets of our own before, much less baby pigeons. Every day after school we would sit by the hour, watching the nesting birds. We sat in silence, afraid that any sound might disturb the delicate balance of nature. Then one day as we clambered up to the terrace we heard Carlos calling to us. “Look, twins/ he said, “they are here–the little pigeons–six of them.”

We ran to the nest, and we were horrified. We had expected soft, fluffy little things-like the baby chicks you see at Easter. Instead, we saw six wet, ugly little creatures with heads bigger than their bodies. We were ready to cry. But Carlos comforted us. “Wait and see,” he said. “In a few days they will be beautiful.” And they were.

Meanwhile, we racked our brains trying to find suitable names for them. Mamma returned from America. “Come, Mamma,” I said. “Come outside and see what a beautiful sight we have to show you.”

Mamma took one look at our baby pigeons; then, to our horror, she ordered them killed. From inside the house we heard her say to Carlos, “Let the parent pigeons loose, Carlos. Then kill the baby pigeons. We will have them for dinner.”

“Oh, no, Mamma!” Gloria wailed; “please let them stay at least until they are old enough to fly away.” Now, very near hysteria, we screamed in turn: “Don t kill them! Don t kill them! Why? Why? They’re so little they don’t take up any room at all.”

All our pleading left Mamma cold. Her mind was set.

“Why are you doing this?” I screamed, as she turned to leave. “Why?”

“Why?” Mamma looked at me with ice in her eyes; I had dared to question her orders. “Because,” she said, “my dear grandmamma always told me that pigeons bring misfortune, bad luck, and poverty into a house and my dear grandmamma was always right.”

Gloria and I put our arms around each other and cried help lessly and in desperation; this was our first great grief. But whether we were brokenhearted or not, that night we were given squab for dinner. Carlos must have been crying, too, for as he served our baby pigeons we noticed that his eyes were red and swollen.

Heads down, out of the corners of our eyes we watched Mamma. “Eat your dinner,” she commanded.

“Oh, no, no, Mamma,” Gloria said pathetically. “We cannot eat our babies.”

“Stop this nonsense,” Mamma snapped. “Eat your dinner or leave the room.”

The tears again started down our cheeks. Together we got up and left the room. Through the fog of our feelings we were conscious of her brittle voice announcing, “No dessert for a week.”

We went to our room and sobbed until we were exhausted. “I don t care if we never have dessert again,” Gloria wailed. “I only want to bring our baby pigeons back to life.” And together we cursed this ogress of a grandmother, a woman we had never seen and would never see who seemed to stand for everything that didn’t matter, and who seemed to destroy everything that did.

While horrifying, this anecdote–perhaps more imagined than remembered–reminds me of one of those old “Mommy, Mommy” jokes from the 1960s:

“Mommy, Mommy, want happened to Fido?”
“Shut up and eat your meatloaf!”

from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958


April 21st, 2015

“The Hotel,” from You and I, by Harriet Monroe (1914)



The Hotel

The long resounding marble corridors, the shining parlors with shining women in them.

The French room, with its gilt and garlands under plump little tumbling painted loves.

The Turkish room, with its jumble of many carpets and its stiffly squared un-Turkish chairs.

The English room, all heavy crimson and gold, with spreading palms lifted high in round green tubs.

The electric lights in twos and threes and hundreds, made into festoons and spirals and arabesques, a maze and magic of bright persistent radiance.

The people sitting in corners by twos and threes, and cooing together under the glare.

The long rows of silent people In chairs, watching with eyes that see not while the patient band tangles the air with music.

The bell-boys marching in with cards, and shouting names over and over into ears that do not heed.

The stout and gorgeous dowagers In lacy white and lilac, bedizened with many jewels, with smart little scarlet or azure hats on their gray-streaked hair.

The business men in trim and spotless suits, who walk In and out with eager steps, or sit at the desks and tables, or watch the shining women.

The telephone girls forever listening to far voices, with the silver band over their hair and the little black caps obliterating their ears.

The telegraph tickers sounding their perpetual chit-chit-chit from the uttermost ends of the earth.

The waiters. In black swallow-tails and white aprons, passing here and there with trays of bottles and glasses.

The quiet and sumptuous bar-room, with purplish men softly drinking in little alcoves, while the bar-keeper, mixing bright liquors, is rapidly plying his bottles.

The great bedecked and gilded cafe, with its glitter of a thousand mirrors, with its little white tables bearing gluttonous dishes whereto bright forks, held by pampered hands, flicker daintily back and forth.

The white-tiled, immaculate kitchen, with many little round blue fires, where white-clad cooks are making spiced and flavored dishes.

The cool cellars filled with meats and fruits, or layered with sealed and bottled wines mellowing softly in the darkness.

The invisible stories of furnaces and machines, burrowing deep down into the earth, where grimy workmen are heavily laboring.

The many-windowed stories of little homes and shelters and sleeping-places, reaching up into the night like some miraculous, high-piled honeycomb of wax-white cells.

The clothes inside of the cells — the stuffs, the silks, the laces; the elaborate delicate disguises that wait in trunks and drawers and closets, or bedrape and conceal human flesh.

The people inside of the clothes, the bodies white and young, bodies fat and bulging, bodies wrinkled and wan, all alike veiled by fine fabrics, sheltered by walls and roofs, shut in from the sun and stars.

The souls inside of the bodies — the naked souls; souls weazened and weak, or proud and brave; all imprisoned in flesh, wrapped in woven stuffs, enclosed in thick and painted masonry, shut away with many shadows from the shining truth.

God inside of the souls, God veiled and wrapped and imprisoned and shadowed in fold on fold of flesh and fabrics and mockeries; but ever alive, struggling and rising again, seeking the light, freeing the world.

from You and I, by Harriet Monroe
New York: The Macmillian Company, 1914

This poem is Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel in miniature, with all the glittering details of a big city hotel in an era when they were the great crossroads of social and business life for those who could afford the price of entry. And I love that last line, which to me captures what is going on in most of us every day, whatever name or spirit we associate with God.

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.


April 19th, 2015

Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness (1958)


doubleexposureYou don’t read Double Exposure, the dual-narrated memoir of identical twins and society dames Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Morgan, Lady (later Viscountess) Furness as literature, but as a combination of specimen and spectacle. And as the latter, it offers more nooks and crevices than a Mandelbrot set.

For those into abnormal psychology, there is their half-Irish, half-Chilean and 100% drama-queen mother, Laura Delphine Kilpatrick Morgan. Nora Ephron once wrote that, “If you give your kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy, they’d choose suicide in the next room.” If you asked Gloria and Thelma, they’d go for the Hawaii option: anything to get away from that woman. Their daddy, on the other hand, the fine, dignified and long-suffering diplomat, Harry Hays Morgan (Senior), could do no wrong. Is it any wonder that both girls pretty much marry the first men who show any interest in them and who shared the outstanding attribute of being about the age of their father when they were born?

No matter, for each is quickly disposed with. Thelma’s first husband, Jimmy Vail Converse, grandson of AT&T co-founder Theodore Vail, turns out to be an abusive and bankrupt alcoholic. A quick trip to California produces a divorce, followed in about a year by marriage to Marmaduke Furness, British shipping magnate and member of the House of Lords … and also over twenty years her senior. His good manners and huge fortune could not hold a candle to the likes of Edward Prince of Wales, and Divorce Number Two followed within eight years of Divorce Number One. Sadly, Thelma lost out to another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and had to drown her sorrows in a quick fling with Prince Aly Khan (later husband to Rita Hayworth). She managed somehow to overlook the fact that, for once, she was the older one.

Meanwhile, Gloria fell for and married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune established by “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie got along famously (sorry), but sadly, Reggie had to go and ruin things by choking to death on his own blood due to a mysterious throat hemorrhage medical condition he had kept secret from her. A man whose chief accomplishment, according to his Wikipedia entry, was that, “He was the founder and president of many equestrian organizations,” Reggie left his widow and daughter (the Gloria Vanderbilt of fashion fame) comfortably off. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers left open a legal loophole through which his sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, those Whitneys, swooped a few years later, making off with daughter Gloria and most of (mother) Gloria’s money. Nothing for it but a few more affairs. Oh, and a few years after that, daughter Gloria and lawyers swooped again, took mother Gloria’s annual allowance, and donated it to a charity for the blind. Had the expression been invented back then, one imagines (daughter) Gloria’s lawyers shouting, “BOO-YAH!”

But wait–there’s more! There are the rare and elusive Vanderbilt siblings–three of them. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them, though: no sooner than you spot one and it’s off into the mists for another decade or two. There are more transatlantic steamship trips than there are Washington-New York shuttle flights. There are their many close, intimate acquaintances–humble folk “such as Peggy Stout, who married dashing Lawrence Copley Thaw and later divorced him; Jimmy and Dorothy Fargo, whose name is associated with Pony Express fame; the two daughters of Mrs. Richard T. Wilson, Marion and Louise; Juan Trippe, now president of Pan-American Airways; the two Jimmys, Leary and O’Gorman; and Margaret Power, who had introduced us to Margaret Hennessy. They were both from Montana; their families at one time jointly owned the Anaconda copper mines.” And you: who do you watch polo with? Thought so.

Kirkus Reviews praised the twin authors for “sparing no detail no matter how unorthodox,” but half the fun of this book are the details they left out. Like, say, a moral and ethical framework. As Thelma is falling in love with Prince Edward, she and “Duke” Furness head off to Africa for a spot of safari and shooting. Lying in her tent one night, Thelma wails, “Why did I have to be the big white hunter?” A short ellipsis later, and she totes up her toll: “I shot an elephant, a lion, a rhino, and a water buffalo.” Even in those days, scruples were so passé. If you ever needed proof positive that the very rich are different from you and I, take a stroll through Double Exposure. For us proles, it’s available for free on the Internet Archive (Link).

from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958


March 29th, 2015

Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten (1967)


Cover of first US edition of 'Mrs. Beneker'Depending on your perspective, Violet Weingarten’s debut novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) is outdated or timeless. Mr. and Mrs. Beneker could live next door to half of John Cheever’s characters or across the street from Rob and Laura Petrie. She picks up Mr. Beneker from the 6:23PM train to Westchester, takes an adult education class on comparative religions, worries about her son at Harvard and her daughter, pregnant and off to Egypt with her aid-organizer husband, and wishes she could land one of those highly-coveted volunteer jobs teaching reading to youngsters in Harlem. She did work, back in the late 1930s, when she was single, radical, and infatuated with her newspaper’s dashing red-headed star reporter, but now she is in something of a limbo, no longer in daily demand as a mother and too young to retire to Florida like her parents.

She spends much of her time watching and weighing the world around her–both refining her public persona and wondering at its ludicrousness:

She reached over and patted Mr. Beneker’s hand, perfectly aware she was doing so for the benefit of two women at an adjacent table who had been staring at them from the moment they sat down. Mrs. Beneker loathed them. Obviously they got their exercise circulating petitions against liberal school-board members. They rode in open cars in Memorial Day parades, paper poppies on their breasts and overseas caps spiked to their iron-grey heads with bobby pins.

What a devoted pair we must seem, thought Mrs. Beneker, adding a winning smile to her performance. The lobsters came, and Mr. Beneker, as usual, reached over and cracked her claws for her. And are, she concluded.

Oh so it seems under she picks up the phone one evening and hears her husband say, “Nothing. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice.”

Left on her own while he flies off to California on business, she has the chance to exercise her role as a woman scorned to the fullest. “Coals of fire, she thought. Let him writhe under them.” She imagines prying a hefty settlement from Mr. Beneker and moving into a “new, bright, ultramodern” apartment overlooking the East River. But the more she thinks of the apartment, the more it “echoes with emptiness,” and the more she thinks of Mr. Beneker, the harder she finds it to accept this new identity of his: the adulterer. In the end, reality is more muddled and less stark, and a good healthy slap goes a long way toward clearing the air.

And this is typical of the crises in Mrs. Beneker’s life over the course of the year depicting in the book. Dangers seem most fearsome when they hover in the near future, her wits sharper and character stronger in the heat of contact. And her sense of humor intact. “Eskimos have the right idea,” she often jokes at the prospect of aging. “The only thing to do with old people is to abandon them on ice floes.”

Mrs. Beneker was the first of four novels Violet Weingarten published between 1967 and 1977, when she died of cancer at the age of sixty-one–an experience she recorded in a journal later published as Intimations of Mortality (1978). All are about women of roughly her own age, economic, and social status, liberal in outlook, well-educated, mothers of grown children, living in or around New York City. All of her novels received respectful reviews and sold well enough to come out in book club and paperback editions, and here and there around the Internet, you can find readers who remember them with fondness.

Are they outdated or timeless? Mrs. Beneker is certainly a work of its particular time and place, yet I often found myself finding scenes and comments that were still relevant. I began to form a theory that these four books by Violet Weingarten were, in their way, every bit as timeless as any of the Jeeves books by P. G. Wodehouse. I will have to read on to put that theory to test.

Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1967


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