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Authors: Amanda Vaill

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Instead, she had to go to East Hampton, where yet another family crisis was brewing: after well-publicized (but effectively quashed) flirtations with Jay Gould, grandson of the robber baron, and an English aristocrat, Lord Camoys, Olga had fallen in love with Sidney Fish, scion of an impeccably aristocratic, moneyed, and politically powerful New York family, and he had arrived at the Dunes to ask permission to marry her. Sara, of course, knew what game her favorite sister had afoot; so did Elizabeth Hoyt, who had also come for the weekend; but both were sworn to silence. Adeline had taken to her bed with a recurrence of her seemingly chronic digestive trouble, and Sidney broke the news to Frank Wiborg while they were both (in Sara’s words) “stalking up and down the terrace.” Hoytie, who had not been in on the secret, confessed to feeling “sort of left” when she heard of her second sister’s engagement. And when Adeline was told the next morning, she broke down, wailing, “What do I know of this boy?” (“She didn’t say that of you,” wrote Sara to Gerald.) When Olga said she hoped her mother was pleased, Adeline moaned, “Nobody could expect me to be pleased with these changes” (one imagines the accusing glance at Sara). When her daughters tried to soothe her with thoughts of how long they’d all been together, “much longer than most families,” she could only sniff, “It hasn’t seemed long to me.” Sidney and Olga, however, were allowed to announce their engagement publicly, and the attention paid to them (while Gerald and Sara were forced to maintain silence) brought on another of Gerald’s dark moods. “What an agonizing weekend!” exclaimed Sara. “You are such a pathetic figure to me—when in the grip of the Black Service—that it breaks me up. . . . I don’t enjoy people not paying the slightest attention to us any more than you do, you know. And unreasonably—the fact that . . . they don’t know anything—doesn’t mitigate the resentment . . . in the least.”

The only outsiders let in on Gerald’s and Sara’s secret were a dozen of Gerald’s Skull and Bones mates, with whom he spent a bracing few days at the end of June on an island in the St. Lawrence where the society maintained a rustic, half-Gothic, half-Viking compound. Gerald went there with some feelings of trepidation. “I wonder if I shall ever recover from the feeling of being ‘inspected’ when with a group of men?” he confided to Sara. “I suppose the fact that I’m not the most comprehensible type to the average male mind accounts for a lot.” But once among them again he was caught up in the rituals of friendship, diving from his tower balcony into the icy, seventy-five-foot-deep St. Lawrence and swapping secrets with the other Bonesmen in the campfire circle at “Stone Henge.” And sharing with “the men I admire most” his feelings about “the woman . . . of my life” gave him more than a trophy pride. “You have kept alive the man in me,” he wrote her. “Frankly, the game in N.Y. . . . has been played at too great a cost, I see it all now. At least I have learned it is not for me,—is not real. You’ve always known that . . . Anything that’s easy for me,—such as this ‘social game’—demoralizes me . . . I haven’t played the game hard,—but somehow it’s scattered my force,—and that’s bad.” With no clear compass point, he felt, he had drifted off course; but envisioning a future with Sara had given him a purpose and a direction. He returned to New York determined to “erase these smudged years of mine” and build, with her, a new life.

By July, Adeline Wiborg had thawed enough to allow the couple to set a wedding date for late in September and announce their plans, and Frank agreed to settle $15,000 a year on Sara. Patrick Murphy, who seems to have been dabbling in the New York real estate market, offered them a lease on a small house at 50 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood much admired by the sprightly, artistic younger set that Gerald and Sara moved in, and one where they felt they could live “in a different place and manner from our respective and respectable families.” Imagine their surprise when Adeline and Frank Wiborg, who were also in the market for a new winter residence in the city, found a mansion right around the corner at 40 Fifth Avenue!

Gerald and Sara simply ignored this development, and instead set about quite literally playing house: imagining the life they would lead together, and then trying to make it real by purchasing the objects that would exemplify it. Venetian glass, antique hatboxes, old pictures, painted Sheraton chairs and American country furniture (not the dark mahogany that filled the rooms they had grown up in), pink lusterware. “Such wantable things,” said Sara, who loved prowling antique shops and “finding good things among trash.”

Gerald tried to apply himself with renewed energy to his work at Mark Cross. As he’d said to Sara, “Better men than I am have made humbler beginnings. It’s all very well for me to see beyond it;—but I should have done my work well in the meantime.” But somehow Patrick managed to frustrate his attempts to show initiative. “I hope your father will realize . . . that once given responsibility, (not just given a vague chance to ‘find something’ but real responsibility) . . . there is no one more worthy of filling and distinguishing a position of trust—than you,” wrote Sara, when it appeared that just such a possibility would be extended—but the position was given to someone else, and Patrick instead returned to all his old criticisms of his son’s fecklessness and impracticality.

This “court martial” (as Gerald referred to it) may have been merely “one of those ‘tests of equilibrium’ . . . parents seem to find necessary to put their children . . . to, just to see if they can confuse them.” But that, and Adeline’s inability to cope with her daughter’s marriage, forced a postponement of the wedding date. “I think I am right about putting things off,” wrote Sara regretfully. “I am not considering your father,—or my own family—in this. . . . It is because I honestly think it is best for you. I want you to feel at peace (for lack of a better phrase) with your work.”

Patrick’s “court martial” must have seemed particularly unjust to Gerald coming at this time, for he had just acquitted himself nobly in handling a family emergency for which his father, as so frequently happened, was unavailable. In late July, Fred suddenly developed a bleeding ulcer and had to be hospitalized for tests and possible surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; Patrick was in Europe, so it fell to Gerald to play paterfamilias and accompany his mother and brother to Minnesota to arrange the details of Fred’s treatment. Fred was in great pain and considerable danger, and Anna suffered nearly as much: “Her tenderness and devotion to him . . . is touching to see,” reported Gerald to Sara. “The mother cherishing her weaker offspring. At times as I watch I wonder that women are made to bring children into the world to see them suffer.”

The whole atmosphere in Rochester was one of suffering, however. Gerald’s description is practically Dantesque:

A half-grown Western city, with cheap but pretentious civic buildings,—and the entire interest revolving about the clinical buildings and hospital. The place is crawling with cripples and sick. I waited to-day with 200 people in the rotunda of the examination hall while farmers and their flat-chested, scrawny wives in hats and dressing-gowns came in awed silence, broken senators, the Prince Troubetskoy,—young husbands with pale brides, then whole families surrounding their cherished invalid member. The tenderness in public is heart-rending, weak women helping and wheedling strong but maimed men thro’ the streets—all humanity seems afflicted! . . .. The very air is disinfected,—a sign outside the hotel dining-room reads, “Guests are requested not to discuss operations during meals”—a crude assault upon the feelings?! Illness and death and their avoidance—!!

Ultimately the Mayo doctors concluded that Fred did not require surgery, and he gradually recovered. And as the days went on, Gerald found some amusement in the peculiarities of Rochester—the “mange-cures for ‘dandruff’” advertised in barbershops, the toothpicks used by all and sundry unconcealed, and the townsfolk who presented themselves for restaurant dinners at 2 P.M., rigged out in full evening dress. But the visions of suffering he saw at the clinic haunted him, and were to be horrifyingly revisited in his later life.

Only Sara seemed to know what effect this trip had on Gerald: when he set out she wrote him of how much she pitied him his “long, hard journey . . . with hospital atmosphere & doctors again—at the end of it.” She saw something else, too: “You don’t know what it does to me—though—the unhesitating way in which you set out to do things. It really is times like these that show me your character—a situation arises and though there may be 1000s of other people in it with you—it is always you who takes charge of it—you step into command & everyone does as you say—I’ve never seen it fail.”

If only Patrick Murphy had shared his prospective daughter-in-law’s opinion of his son! Instead, however, he seemed intent on infantilizing him. Possibly trying to give Gerald a good scare, he now reneged on his promise of 50 West 11th Street to the engaged couple, and put the property on the market in early October at a price of $25,000. As it turned out, either Messrs. Pease and Elliman (the brokers) found no takers, or Patrick changed his mind yet again. In the end, Gerald and Sara got the house and were able to paper the front hall gray, paint the exterior white, and order all the majolica and Sheraton chairs they could afford. Still, this latest paternal blow must have hurt.

It was only partially offset by the fact that a new date, December 30, had been set for the wedding, and that the engagement could now be publicly and officially announced, with Sara’s dreamy profile emblazoned on the cover of Town and Country magazine. This exposure, of a kind to which Adeline Wiborg’s daughters had been accustomed almost from childhood, mortified Sara horribly, as she explained to Gerald in a note scribbled on the East Hampton train: “The youngest newsboy (with the bad complexion) has just come to a full—& rather dramatic—stop in the aisle—and held open the ‘Town and Country’ that has my fat photo—for frontispiece—before my shocked eyes for inspection—you will never ask me to do a thing like that again—will you? It reminds me of Tecla pearls [cheap imitation jewelry], I know you won’t—it isn’t the least like us—in any way.”

Although Gerald longed to travel to Europe with Sara, the war made a transatlantic honeymoon out of the question. In the spirit of adventure which they hoped characterized their relationship, they made plans instead for a wedding trip to Panama, with stopovers in Havana, Jamaica, and Costa Rica. A friend living in Panama, Gladys Rousseau, offered to organize a trip into the rain forest for them, and they started buying khakis and puttees for the jungle, as well as (for Sara) a new bathing suit and umbrella silk for new parasols. “Won’t it seem funny—our starting forth to strange lands, together—we who have always had the heavy hand of chaperonage weighing us down?!” wrote Sara with palpable anticipation. (She was dating all her letters with notations like “Eight weeks until we sail!”) “I looked up the moon—It will be, I am afraid, just over when we are starting out—but we should have one—on the way home—Home to 11th Street!”

They went to have their passport photos taken—Gerald sober in a homburg and starched collar, Sara rather drawn and anxious in a smart veiled hat topped by what looks like velvet confetti—and made final arrangements for the wedding ceremony itself. It was to be a very small gathering, in the drawing room at 40 Fifth Avenue, with only family and intimate friends. Adeline had already expended her energies on Olga’s wedding to Sidney Fish, and Gerald and Sara were so eager to tie the knot at last that they hardly cared. They did manage a few festive touches: “I am delighted that we can have the 3 little boys with candles,” wrote Sara to Gerald. “We’ll pulverize them yet!”

On Wednesday morning, December 30, a florist delivered Sara’s bouquet of orange blossoms to Number 40. With them was a note in Gerald’s exquisite draftsman’s hand: “Here are some blossoms for you, my own Sal,—no amount of pen, ink and paper could do as well toward this morning’s message.”

That afternoon, preceded by Hoytie and Olga, each in blue-green brocade with coronets of silver leaves, Sara stepped into her parents’ drawing room wearing a white satin gown trimmed with lace and embroidered with pearls. Her only ornament was a simple strand of pearls at her throat. Her white tulle veil trailed behind her as she walked between the rows of guests to the music of Wagner’s Lohengrin wedding march, played by a trio of organ, cello, and harp. Gerald, with Fred at his side, was waiting for her in the bay window at the room’s east end, where an altar and prie-dieu had been placed in front of blue and gold ecclesiastical tapestries. And there, eleven years after they had first met, Father William Martin of St. Patrick’s Cathedral made them man and wife.

“Think of a relationship that not only does not bind, but actually so lets loose the imagination!” Gerald had written her at their engagement. “Think of it, Sal,—and thank heaven!” Now, finally, they would give each other that freedom.

7

“Don’t let’s ever separate again”

AT
MIDNIGHT
ON
NEW
YEAR’S
EVE
, 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Gerald C. Murphy, liberated at last from the heavy hand of chaperonage, stood on the deck of the United Fruit Company’s ship Pastores as she sailed down the Hudson. To all intents and purposes they were bound for Havana and Panama, but they were traveling as well into a new world of sexual experience for which neither was very well prepared.

Although Sara was thirty-two, she had been raised in the strictest propriety, and the word sex was not in her vocabulary (nor would it ever be). Yet she had a passionate, sensual nature—thirty years later Gerald could still marvel at her need for “communicated affection”—that was long overdue for fulfillment, and a candor and directness that was the polar opposite of Gerald’s extreme diffidence. Such a disparity in natures between two partners might be considered fatal to a marriage, but in this case Sara’s eagerness and honesty seem to have thrilled Gerald; whatever his doubts and fears about himself, she erased them, or overrode them. And, at least at first, his reserve gave her the opportunity to bloom. They were making things up rather as they went along, but the improvisation seemed to work.

BOOK: Everybody Was So Young
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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