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Authors: Amanda Vaill

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BOOK: Everybody Was So Young
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Their talks went deeper than the surface, though. To Sara, and only to her, Gerald confided the feelings of emptiness and imposture that had haunted him ever since leaving Yale. He told her how little he enjoyed his work, and how little pleasure he derived from the superficial social contacts that charm and position afforded him. And he gave her an audience. He encouraged her artistic aspirations: “My heart is full of pride at your etching!” he told her, in a note urging her to continue her work at the Art Students’ League. “You bless for me everything you think of and do with your hands . . . I know how gifted you are and how you have always longed to express the beauty you feel.” He understood her ambivalence about her loving but restrictive family—“we’ve both lived too padded and policed an existence,” he agreed—and he allowed her free rein to indulge in her wickedly accurate perceptiveness about her peers. “What a gloomy thing a funeral is,” she could comment to him: “All those Jet Hats on the train—in silence—with faces lugubriously pulled—on the way up—(not quite too sad to stare awfully though—& peer to see who was there)—& On the way back—with lunch—they let themselves go quite a little—however—They were even quite merry—dozens of voices raised—sounded so like an afternoon tea. There is very little real feeling, don’t you think?”

There was real feeling between the two of them, however; and, although it was some time before they could speak of it, a very real physical attraction as well. “You asked the other day if I thought you feminine!” wrote Gerald to Sara later that winter. “My own dear girl, if you knew how I thought of you!” Somehow Frank and Adeline never noticed what was happening to their daughter beneath their very noses. The easy friendship that had always existed between Gerald and the Wiborgs provided camouflage and, terrified of what her possessive family would say, Sara kept her feelings secret. She couldn’t hide the bloom in her face, however. As Gerald wrote her in one of the nearly daily letters that began to pass between them, “It is generally remarked this year that you are looking your best.”

By the new year he was asking her, “Can you see me anywhere, everywhere and with everyone you’d ever care to see again? This is important.” He had never felt this way before; he had been afraid, as she had, that he never would. “Who is there, after all, with whom you would throw in your lot in life?” he wrote her. “Am I clear?” His mind was reeling with questions: “Are we peculiar;—are we alike; do we want the same thing; will we get it together or alone?”

At last he felt sure of the answer. On February 4 he slipped away from a tea dance at the Vanderbilt Hotel and, sitting at a desk in the hotel lobby, wrote the following.

Sal mine . . . in the past I must have pretended to much affection for people . . . In my heart I have cared for but few people. My regard for you is so different, it is so much more real than anything I’ve known. . . . I only know that I am willing for the first time to give it all to one person.

Not so hysterically as you’d think,


Her response, when next they met, filled his cup to overflowing:

My Sal: [he wrote her afterward]

Those four words are ringing in my head. Could you have known what it would mean to me to say them? Take my heart in thanks.

You are everything to me,—I cannot imagine life without you—and every bit of me is yours—I am yours.

Sara, for her part, must have felt like Sleeping Beauty, imprisoned for years behind the brambles of her well-ordered, well-protected existence, and only now awakened to a realization of what life could hold for her. “I never dreamed I’d find someone whom the same things and words delight,” she told Gerald, wonderingly. “You are in my inmost heart & mind & soul,—where I never thought I’d let anyone go. You don’t quite know it yet, but you are. And to say I love you seems a small, ridiculously faint idea to give of the truth. We are each other.”

On February 8, sitting in front of the fire at her parents’ residential club in New York, they were formally, but secretly, engaged—and almost immediately had to part. Sara was traveling to Montreal with her mother and sisters and would be unreachable for several days, but before she left for the station (Gerald could not bear to come and see her off) they were able to steal two hours alone together. Sara gave him a parting present of an amethyst and gold seal embossed with the figure of a turtle—a comment on the pace with which their courtship had proceeded?—accompanied by a heartbreakingly modest little note. “I am beginning to believe you love me, too,” it said. Gerald’s response must have seemed satisfyingly ardent: “I put [the seal] to my lips, as I would have put my lips to yours,” he wrote, and placed it on a chain around his neck, where “your hands alone shall remove it.”

Bereft without her, and afraid to submit himself to the scrutiny of his family, he went to stay for several days at St. Andrew’s, his golf club in rural Westchester County. In a welter of emotion he wrote nearly hourly letters to Sara, bundling them up for later delivery as a proof of how desperately he had longed for her. And beside a stone wall where he and Sara had recently picnicked, he buried a little silver-stoppered glass bottle in which he had placed a Byronic cri de coeur, rolled and tied with green grosgrain ribbon, to “commemorate the pain and tears of this night.” This wasn’t hysteria, or romantic posturing: it was the release of two decades of loneliness and selfdoubt. And he was both comforted and tormented by the fact that during these few days she wrote him nearly as often as he did her. One note asked if he missed her “½ as much” as she did him, and Gerald responded, “Were you here this minute I should take you in my arms in a way that would show you what you mean to me and how I need you.” And, later that day, a postscript: “These meager words!”

Almost as soon as they were betrothed Gerald and Sara began to make plans for the new life they would live together, a life “‘loaded and fragrant’ with everything that is beautiful.” Touchingly, despite (or because of) the coldness of his own childhood, Gerald persistently peopled that future with children. “Can’t you see them?” he wrote Sara: “Eager-minded, imaginative, humorous, lithe and clean—you finish it.” Before they could do so, however, they had to confront their own respective families. At first they were prevented by absences from town—hers in Canada; his in the Adirondacks, where he spent a few days as the guest of J. P. Morgan’s daughter Anne at the Morgans’ magnificent Camp Uncas; and Frank Wiborg’s in the west, where he had gone on business. Gerald was anxious to make the engagement public. “I am disappointed that it is not known today,” he wrote on February 24. “What difference is it going to make—after all—when we tell them, as long as we don’t take advantage of our knowledge and their ignorance?” But Sara was apprehensive, and made him put off speaking to her father at least once.

Finally the pressure of their feelings for each other became too much: on March 1 there was an encounter that seems to have moved their relationship to a different plane. Wrote Gerald:

last night left me impressed, uplifted, awed (no word!) as I have never been. It may be strange for a man to admit of this:—but I could never take what occurred to us last night casually. I feel as if some supernatural power had whispered to me the secret of life,—as I held you last night it seemed as if somewhere within me a spirit were weeping for joy. There is so much that is pristine and virginal in our relation,—which makes everything so different,—we who have never been given to either man or woman are now given to each other. . . . I have been under the spell of it all day.

Whatever happened between them was clearly physical as well as emotional; and the force of it had brought Gerald to the end of his resources. “I tell you frankly that it must be told them all soon,” he continued. “I cannot live alone with this feeling much longer.”

Three days later Gerald presented himself to “‘ply my suit with your respected male parent’ (isn’t it put thus in Jane Austen?)” He was apprehensive about the opposition he would face, and about his own response to it (“I have always lost my temper when anything is at stake,” he confessed). Sara herself was so afraid of what her mother would say that she waited to tell her the news until Adeline was in the bathtub; then, positioning herself outside the bathroom door, she blurted out, “I’m marrying Gerald”—and fled.

Both families reacted in predictable ways. Adeline wept as if she had suffered an inestimable loss. Anna, who always took “life and the living of it so tragically,” was convinced that Gerald was involving Sara in the equivalent of a suicide pact, and at first refused to receive her prospective daughter-in-law. And both fathers, who lunched together to discuss how best to deal with this crisis, conducted “an autopsy, post-mortem, coroner’s inquest in one” on the folly of their children’s presumption.

At the heart of the paternal objections was the disparity between the style in which Sara had been raised and Gerald’s ability to support her in it. He was making $3,000 a year (roughly $50,000 in 1990s terms) and had no source of income beyond the Mark Cross Company. Sara could easily go through half that amount on clothes alone. Of course Frank Wiborg was a millionaire and could easily have settled a handsome dowry on his eldest daughter; but he seemed to regard her as an improvident and indolent child, unfit for an independent existence. “Sara Wiborg,” he had grumbled in a November diary entry, “lie[s] about until 10–11 o’clock and has breakfast in bed and no attention whatever about the household management . . . I don’t like it.” If he was at all reluctant to subsidize Sara’s marriage, Patrick Murphy was even more adamant that he should not.

Although he claimed to be “very fond of . . . both” Gerald and Sara, Patrick viewed their attachment with pessimism, and his ultimate response was to express what a “great disappointment” Gerald had been to him, “in a worldly way.” His son’s “vision of life [was] unsound and warped”; as Gerald reported to Sara: “I have failed to grasp the fundamental duty in life, i.e.: self-support,—and financial independence. He fears for my future and for that of anyone I’m responsible for,—because he feels that were I sent out to-morrow to earn my own living I could do little. He blames himself somewhat for having supplied me with ‘the crutches on which I walk’—namely money which I do not earn. . . . He said I did not deserve to be married.”

It’s hard to guess how Patrick expected his son to respond to such a thorough denunciation of his character and prospects. Perhaps he felt defensive: despite his connections, despite the golf games and after-dinner speeches for which he was so sought after, Patrick Murphy was still a successful tradesman, not a millionaire industrialist, and Gerald’s pursuit of F. B. Wiborg’s daughter underscored the fact. But there is a coldness and a vindictiveness in his response to Gerald’s declaration which seems of a piece with the banished dog, the frozen walk in wet clothes, the whole sad litany of Gerald’s childhood.

Gerald refused to be deterred; he and Sara insisted that they could and would manage. Other concerns than money did occur to them, but they were reassured by a breathless note from Sara Sherman Mitchell, to whom Sara had immediately confided her news:

I can’t see that age makes any difference at all and Sara the Catholic part is hard at first terribly hard but one’s point of view changes a lot after you are married and it all seems to smooth out.

I could tell you a lot of things that I can’t write and I hope I’ll see you some time soon.

Worlds of love Sara and it is so wonderful



Despite her niece’s enthusiasm, Adeline Wiborg hoped the whole thing would blow over, and refused to allow Sara and Gerald to announce their engagement officially. They told Fred, of course. He was vacationing in California for his health, and heroically wrote Sara to reassure her of his delight in their happiness: “You have no adequate idea of how overjoyed I am. My dear Sara: in all my vagaries and difficulties you have been a constant friend. I cannot express my admiration for you . . . read between the lines and understand that I am genuine and sincere in my affirmation that nothing ever made me happier.”

Other friends of the couple suspected something was up: Gerald’s Yale contemporary Arthur Gammell buttonholed him at the theater one evening, and said, “I’ve never seen you like this, you act as if you’d been refused in love!” When Gerald retorted, “Well, I haven’t!” Gammell raised his eyebrows and said, “Oh! That’s what’s the matter!” causing Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., another member of the party, to quiz Gerald mercilessly. Another friend commented meaningfully to Gerald that “Everyone is agog about how well Sara looks,—why, she’s lost all that anxiety of expression,—and now she gets herself up so well. I shall never forget the force in her handshake the other night. I’ve never seen such a changed person, it’s wonderful!” But however much Gerald and Sara might have wanted to shout the explanation, they still had to keep it secret.

Limiting themselves to private lunches at a favorite restaurant and stolen kisses in “nooks in the library, stairway seats in the rear galleries of the Museum,” or, on at least one occasion, “on public fire-escapes, etc.” began to take a toll. “I think the tension of late may have made me a bit nutty,” Gerald confessed. He began to be prey to depressions he referred to as the Black Service, in the grip of which (he told Sara), “I get quite petulant and pouty . . . which is worse [than anything] because it’s small and I hate the small. I should so like to be bigger than anything that happens to me.” The experience left him, he said, “a little frightened,—frightened at the way you conducted yourself in the face of my ravings. Sometimes you set me such a good example that I wonder what I can be doing for you in return.” Nonsense, replied Sara: “I come wailing to you—like a child with a bruised finger—far [underlined three times] oftener than you do to me.” Fortunately Gerald often managed to preserve a sense of self-mockery about these tempests, sending Sara a photograph of himself, scowling darkly, which he had captioned, “The Stormy Petrel in its native haunt.”

By the beginning of June, although Gerald had been permitted to give her a little diamond solitaire to wear on her ring finger (she blushed uncontrollably when the clerk at Black Starr and Frost asked her which finger he should measure), the familial atmosphere was still frigid. Gerald was able to get a few private moments with her at the house of her cousin Elizabeth Hoyt (“Thank Eliz. for last night,” he wrote, and for “leaving the room, too!”) before he departed on a visit to Boston and New Haven, where Cole Porter was in the throes of preparing his first musical comedy and needed cheering up. But Sara was disconsolate: he was taking the Fall River Night Boat (notorious for romantic rendezvous) to Boston, and she wrote to tell him, “I miss you so—(I wish I were going on the F.R. Boat with you—).”

BOOK: Everybody Was So Young
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