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Authors: Amanda Vaill

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Fred’s star turn gave him an opportunity to shine for the Misses Wiborg—and, in particular, for Sara, whom he was seen to squire about with some frequency that summer. Fred lunched at the Dunes, and he danced with Sara at the well-chaperoned parties they both attended. Sara told him how much she had enjoyed the Yale Glee Club’s concert in Cincinnati over the Christmas holidays, and he told her how much he and his mother hoped that Gerald would pass his Yale entrance exams in the fall. But nothing more happened between them because Adeline Wiborg was determined that it should not. If Fred Murphy, with his red hair and his height and his tenor voice, wanted to pay attention to her daughter, she would just ignore it. In her mind, and therefore in indisputable fact, Fred was not a suitor; he was a friend, just like his younger brother, the one who tagged along whenever his tutor let him off the hook.

What Adeline didn’t notice was that Gerald—who was now eighteen years old, though still a schoolboy—had fallen under the Wiborgs’ collective spell. How could he not? Outgoing, physically demonstrative, fun-loving, carelessly wealthy, they were everything his own family wasn’t. No one nagged Hoytie and Olga and Sara to apply themselves to their studies; no one exiled their puppies to the yard.

September came all too quickly. Gerald had to travel to New Haven to take the Yale entrance examinations again—and again, despite his summer’s tutoring, he failed. He went back to Hotchkiss for his final year, although even his acceptance there was in doubt until the last minute. But in the months that followed he stayed in touch with the Wiborgs. February found them traveling to London, to the girls’ dismay (they wanted to stay in East Hampton); but Gerald telegraphed them a comic farewell that “helped a lot,” as Olga wrote in a postcard that bore messages from all three Wiborg daughters. “Wish you were here to cheer us up,” said “Sara W.” in pencil; and, in ink, “Hello Jerry! Sara W.” Hoytie corrected her: “That should be spelled with a ‘G,’ oughtn’t it?” and added, in ink: “Here I am!!!—H.”

Despite such distractions Gerald managed to complete his course work and graduate. In a conscious effort to compensate for the doubts he felt about who and what he was, he created for himself what he later called “the likeness of popularity and success”—his classmates remembered him as the wittiest boy in his class, and its leading “social light.” According to the class yearbook, he somehow planned to enter Yale in the fall of 1907, but that spring, so far as his classmates knew, his thoughts weren’t of New Haven. Under his solemn yearbook photograph appears the information that “Murph’s” favorite song—his signature tune, in fact—was something called “In Cincinnati.”


“New clothes, new friends, and lots of parties”

of Cincinnati, but Sara Wiborg wasn’t dreaming of him. She had other things on her mind. She was, by now, officially “out”—“what a job!” she commented later. “New clothes, new friends, and lots of parties.” On December 30, 1905, she was presented to society at a “bal masqué” at the Cincinnati Country Club, a spectacular event that had taken every kilowatt of Adeline Wiborg’s party-giving energy. The club had been swagged in smilax and forested with Christmas trees adorned with comedy masks in different colors (“my mother was so good at that,” said Sara), and there were daisies—Sara’s favorite flower—everywhere. The masked guests, who included the congressman and future presidential son-in-law Nicholas Longworth, were decked out as samurai, hussars, wizards, shepherdesses, and other exotic figures. Sara’s friend Mary Groesbeck “personated crème de menthe or absinthe or something else green and very intoxicating” in a short green dress accessorized with a little tray and a glass of some green liquid.

Sara herself was, as she put it, “dressed to the teeth” in silver shoes, an eighteenth-century court dress of white brocade whose train could be kilted into panniers for dancing, and a powdered wig crowned with a wreath of daisies. After a ritual unmasking at the midnight supper interval, the lights were lowered and two lackeys in red, white, and gold livery bore a closed sedan chair into the ballroom. Then the lights came up, and Sara stepped out of the sedan chair to wild applause and distributed “lavish and handsome” favors—feather boas, royal insignia, tinsel flowers, cupid’s quivers and bows and arrows, and dog collars and leashes—to her guests.

A few weeks after this triumphant fantasia, reality blundered in: Sara experienced what she called “the 1st real grief and shock of my life.” She was out with a party of friends in a horse-drawn sleigh, all of them singing and laughing, and her little bulldog puppy was running behind them when a car (“so rare in those parts then”) struck him at an intersection. Sara sprang from the sleigh to cradle the dying dog in her arms; after her companions got them both home to Clifton Avenue she “stayed in [my mother’s] bed weeping for 2 days.”

That Adeline Wiborg saw nothing odd in taking twenty-two-year-old Sara into her own bed for comfort shows how strong the bond was between mother and daughters. It was a strength as confining as it was comforting. After Sara’s debut it would have been natural for Adeline to relax her hold a little, to encourage this young man or discourage that one, to probe her daughter’s preferences gently in order to gauge the depth of her interest. But Adeline seems to have been blind to the possibility that her daughter could arouse sexual interest in a man, or feel it herself.

Yet in the two years since she had graduated from Miss Spence’s, Sara had blossomed into a beauty. Her delicate features had lost the blur of late adolescence and acquired a pixieish quality, and her heavy dark gold hair, creamy skin, and mischievous, slanting eyes gave her an air of volupte accentuated by a deliciously ripe figure. Her friend Ellen Barry described her as “very feminine, with a big bust. And she had very pretty legs. She was rather vain about them.”

She also had a daredevil streak that, according to family legend, compelled her to accompany one of the Wright brothers on a brief exhibition flight (“they told her not to wear a long scarf because it would get tangled in the propellers,” recalled her daughter, Honoria). She loved sailing, and while at East Hampton often went out in Gardiners Bay in the roughest weather. A remarkable photograph of her at this age shows her at the helm of a boat, steering her own course, her eyes narrowed, her lips parted in exhilaration, and her long hair unbound and wild, like a Lorelei.

She kept her wild side hidden, however, when Adeline swept her off to London in the spring of 1907. “Palatial domicile on opp side is where we expect to be for 2 months,” wrote Sara to Gerald on May 18, in a postcard showing the Hyde Park Hotel. “Hoytie is in her element. . . . Greetings from Little H. & Sara W.” The Wiborgs’ extended stay in this palatial domicile had a specific purpose: Adeline had achieved the considerable coup of arranging to have her two elder girls presented to King Edward
and Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace. For an American girl, being presented at court, a rite of passage for the cream of English society, ranked just short of marriage to a peer as a measure of transatlantic social success. In American society columns it became a sort of Homeric epithet, always mentioned after the subject’s name (“Miss So-and-so, who was presented at court. . . .”).

So it was a momentous occasion when, on June 6, Sara and Hoytie put on their specially ordered elaborate white evening dresses, fastened the requisite three white ostrich plumes in their swept-up hair, took up their ornate bouquets, and maneuvered their long court trains into the carriage that bore them to Buckingham Palace. There—once the prince and princess of Wales had arrived with their mounted escort of Life Guards from Marlborough House—they made their deep court curtsies, one by one, to the royal couple, and then mingled with the decidedly imperial throng crowding the reception rooms, which included the Princess Victoria; the maharajahs of Bikaner, Alwar, and Pudukota; the duke and duchess of Connaught (brother and sister-in-law of the king); and Lord Grey, the foreign secretary. It was a long way from the Cincinnati Country Club, where the only maharajahs were likely to be in costume; and it signaled the beginning of a new phase in the Wiborgs’ life.

For Frank Wiborg—having made a fortune in the neighborhood of $2,000,000, with considerable investments in real estate and commerce which would continue to throw off substantial income—was moving toward retirement as an active partner of the Ault and Wiborg Company. The year after Sara and Hoytie made their curtsies to the king and queen, President Taft appointed Frank to a dollar-a-year post as an assistant secretary of commerce and labor, and the family moved temporarily to Washington, where they rented a house at 1626 Rhode Island Avenue. Frank even thought of running for Congress from his Ohio district if Nicholas Longworth declined to renew his bid for reelection in 1910. As it turned out, he got only lukewarm support from the Ohio Republican organization, and his candidacy came to nothing; but he was now a figure of national, even international, standing, and his wife, and particularly his daughters, had become stars whose comings and goings made copy for gossip columnists and their readers.

In New York or in London, where Olga in her turn was presented at court in 1909, Adeline marched onward as inexorably as her uncle the general, trailing her glorious daughters behind her from ball to tea party to charity benefit. Lovely in strikingly individual ways—from “Miss Sara’s chic” to “Miss Hoytie’s dark beauty” to “Miss Olga’s delicate fairness,” as one commentator put it—they were even more striking as a trio. All three girls had had years of music lessons; now they were expected to perform at society soirees, as every accomplished young lady did, at the drop of an ivory fan. Sara sang contralto, Hoytie tenor, and Olga soprano, and they would do everything from American folk songs to Wagner in three-part harmony, often accompanying themselves on the guitar or the piano. A favorite show stopper was their rendition of the Rhine Maidens’ theme from Das Rheingold, which the girls sang bare-shouldered behind a semitransparent curtain, waving their arms about suggestively. Their act was so polished that one perplexed London hostess, thinking them to be professional performers, mistakenly offered them money to play at one of her parties, a gaffe which merited a story in the New York Tribune.

What Frank Wiborg made of all this is puzzling. He was proud, certainly, of the figure cut by his womenfolk: he retained a clipping service to keep track of their appearances in newspapers and fashionable magazines, and he kept the cuttings stuffed into the pockets of his diaries. But he seems to have felt that their celebrity—for it was that—was the purely natural consequence of their position as his wife and his daughters. And he complained to his diary frequently about their everyday behavior, of what he saw as their lassitude and fecklessness. “Our girls are so thoughtless and lack foresight utterly,” went one entry.

If he had paid closer attention, he would have seen that Sara’s behavior, at least, was a rebuke to his criticism. She put in long hours in the garden at East Hampton, trimming and weeding and spraying under the hot sun; she made curtains for the house and tended to ill or injured animals and ran errands for her mother—for between parties and shopping excursions Adeline was increasingly subject to sick headaches and digestive upsets.

Sara herself wasn’t immune to feelings of frustration and depression, a word that began to creep into her own journal at about this time. But she hid them, as she hid her daredevilry and her disconcerting perceptiveness, beneath a veneer of serenity and compliance. As the eldest Wiborg daughter she was, in a sense, the captain of a team; she had a role to play, and a responsibility to see that the other team members did their part. And although it wasn’t always easy for her to do so, she tried to measure up.

“This is a word of exhortation from a kind old aunt,” Sara wrote from East Hampton in September 1908 to Gerald, then briefly incarcerated at a cram school called Hargrove in Fairfield, Connecticut, to prepare again for the Yale entrance exams. Her tone was jocular as well as avuncular (“We miss you greatly here, Fat Face”), and why not, as twenty-year-old Gerald was her younger sister’s beau, if he was anyone’s. “Your mother and Fred have absolute faith that you will pass your exams, and if by chance you didn’t, the disappointment would be too cruel. . . . So work all night and every Sunday, for heaven’s sake, rather than miss out again.”

The Murphys had by now purchased a house called the Orchard in Southampton, East Hampton’s stuffier, grander neighbor, where Patrick could be closer to the Shinnecock National golf links. Fred had graduated from Yale and gone to work with his father at Mark Cross, and the family lunched or dined or played golf with the Wiborgs frequently enough that Sara was well informed about her young friend’s vicissitudes. After graduating from Hotchkiss in June 1907 Gerald still hadn’t been able to meet Yale’s entrance requirements, and had had to take another year of prep school, this time at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In later life he claimed that the year at Andover was a notion of his father’s by which Patrick hoped to persuade his son to enter Harvard instead of Yale; but it was really an academic necessity. And even this didn’t quite bring him up to Yale’s standard—which is why he had gone to Hargrove for a last-minute grooming.

When he finally did manage to scrape through, just weeks before the beginning of the fall term, he arrived at a Yale that wasn’t vastly different from the world he already knew. The 407 members of the class of 1912 were predominantly easterners, the bulk of them from New York or Connecticut. Many of them were familiar faces; most of the others would seem that way. Even New Haven’s Romanesque vaults, Gothic towers, and white clapboard houses would have had a certain academic familiarity; and the campus rituals into which he was soon initiated differed only in degree from those at Hotchkiss and Andover.

On his first evening in New Haven he unpacked his trunk at 266 York Street and went out into a city that had seemingly been taken over by their contemporaries: the restaurants were filled with undergraduates, the streets were crowded with students and hung with banners celebrating the class of 1912. At eight o’clock a parade of Yale men, kept in line by marshals wearing white letter sweaters, marched from Chapel Street to the campus as the band played “March on Down the Field” and the townspeople gawked (and occasionally jeered); when the parade reached its destination, the seniors formed a ring of torches for wrestling matches between the sophomores and the freshmen. Afterward the freshman class gathered shoulder to shoulder on Elm Street and charged toward the sophomores, who were similarly massed at the library, in something like a medieval joust. The city trolleys had been pulled off their wires to prevent any traffic interfering with this curious rite, and if any bystanders were caught between the hurtling mobs, noblesse oblige yielded to sauve qui peut.

BOOK: Everybody Was So Young
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