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Authors: Amanda Vaill

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Gerald soon came to find such mindless, Dink Stoverish high jinks both thuggish and jejune. In later life he complained that Yale celebrated “a general tacit Philistinism. One’s studies were seldom discussed. An interest in the arts was suspect. The men in your class with the most interesting minds were submerged and you never got to know them.” Although riding, golf, and swimming were particular passions of his, he wasn’t a jock in the usual sense. One day, crossing the campus in riding clothes, he was stung to find himself the object of sneering comments from classmates who found his getup more effete than athletic. It was also increasingly obvious that Gerald wasn’t an academic star, either. He finished up his freshman year with the equivalent of gentleman’s C’s in all his subjects except for history, in which his marks hovered near failure. Although Anna offered him a rare pat on the back for being able to “go free of care into your sophomore year,” the Murphys didn’t feel his performance merited including him in the European trip upon which they and Esther embarked that summer. Gerald stayed on in New York at the Osborne, a residential hotel at 205 West 57th Street, and in a peculiar turnabout was charged with “mak[ing] Fred look after his health.”

Gerald and Fred had a formal rather than fraternal relationship. According to the actor Monty Woolley, who was a class ahead of Gerald at Yale, “They always appeared to act as members of a royal family. Their politeness to one another was formidable. They never relaxed in one another’s presence.” But by this time Fred had already started to suffer from the recurrent infections and stomach problems that would plague his later life; and Gerald, who was trying hard to live up to everyone’s expectations, took Anna’s exhortation seriously.

So Gerald sweltered in hot, empty New York City, while Patrick and Anna took Esther to Paris, Switzerland, and England, and wrote him about the fine time they were having, and what a sensation little Esther—or Tess, as they called her—was making. Esther was by then eleven, a prodigious and precocious reader with a conversational sangfroid that disarmed (and sometimes demolished) adults. She also had a noticeable case of strabismus, or a “lazy eye,” which Anna hoped could be helped by a visit to a European specialist. But despite her odd appearance and scholarly demeanor, Esther was “the belle of the ship” on the Murphys’ transatlantic crossing, and “the pet of the prominent men on board.” The Amerika’s captain had opened the ship’s ball with her, reported Anna. But Esther’s real triumph was the mock trial she got up to decide a “case” brought by one of the passengers, a man named McDonald, who complained that his wife smoked in bed. Appointing herself counsel for the defense, Esther won her case by, among other things, calling the prosecutor “a persecutor.”

“Tess is a wonder,” wrote Patrick, in a letter in which he also congratulated Gerald perfunctorily for working hard during his first year at Yale. “Never have I seen such a mind; everybody who meets her stamps her as a ‘genius.’” The contrast between Patrick’s effusions about Esther and his lukewarm praise of Gerald must have hurt. Gerald knew he would never be a scholar, nor a star athlete. And he was still nagged by the feelings of difference that had surfaced for him at Hotchkiss. When he’d complained about the college atmosphere to his father the previous spring, Patrick had adjured him that “your environment is inevitable; you can’t change that—so it is philosophy to accept it.” But acceptance wasn’t Gerald’s style; transformation was. And when he returned to Yale in the fall he proceeded to make himself into a big man on campus by transforming his environment, devoting himself to what his class historian referred to as “the aesthetic side” of undergraduate life. He was one of the five members of the Sophomore German Committee, the organizers of the sophomore prom; he was chosen as manager of the Apollo Glee Club, an underclassmen’s chorus; he was elected to
DKE
(or Deke), the most exclusive junior fraternity on campus; and in the spring he became assistant manager of the Musical Club.

He was becoming known as someone with a talent for arranging things—people, events, objects. He was far from the wealthiest, or most patrician, of his contemporaries. His college mates included members of the horse-racing and polo-playing Tower and Clark families, and Leonard Hanna, nephew of the Midwest millionaire and presidential kingmaker Mark Hanna, who was one of the richest men in the United States. But he was tall, well groomed, and well dressed—as a scion of the house of Mark Cross he could hardly be anything else—and he had a reputation for wit and the kind of social gallantry that made any occasion, from a dance to a picnic, go more smoothly. And so he was popular as well as successful. Robert Gardner, who chaired the Junior Prom Committee, deferred to Gerald on all questions of protocol—“my social secretary,” he called him—and claimed that the New Yorker was “so metropolitan I naturally am rather afraid of him.” He was such a stickler for good manners and proper form that when a group of undergraduates summoned up the nerve to invite the alluring actress Elsie Janis to tea at the college, Gerald made Gardner rewrite the invitation to make it correct.

Inevitably, however, Gerald’s expanding social life took a toll on his studies: in late November the dean sent a form report to Patrick Murphy saying that Gerald’s work was unsatisfactory in philosophy, economics, geology, English, and rhetoric. (In fact, he was failing three courses and barely passing the other two.) At the bottom of the form, the dean had typed a personal note: “Please urge him to devote more time and greater effort to his studies.”

Patrick did so. “Come, brace up,” he wrote Gerald. “You can’t afford to let this thing go now. It means failure.” He signed his letter “Affectionately, Papa.” Gerald did manage to pull his marks up to passing that year, and he never received another probation notice, but it was clear that his real attention was elsewhere, with the “aesthetic side” of his campus existence. He left the envelope containing Patrick’s exhortation lying on his desk, where a friend used it as a message pad. “Dear Gerald,” ran the penciled note, “I very much want to see ‘Herod.’ Will you leave a ticket for a seat at the [box] office for me?”

Gerald’s circle of acquaintance at Yale was wide—his roommates Harold Carhart and Esmond O’Brien were varsity stars in hockey and (in Carhart’s case) in baseball—but two of his closest Yale friends were cut from somewhat different cloth than most boola-boola Old Blues: Edwin Montillion Woolley, called Monty, a stoutish homosexual actor and director of the Yale Dramatic Association who later earned fame portraying Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner; and a young man from Indiana named Cole Porter. Gerald met Porter in the fall of 1910 while vetting sophomore candidates for
DKE
. “I can still see [Porter’s] room,” Gerald recalled later: “there was a single electric light bulb in the ceiling, and a piano with a box of caramels on it, and wicker furniture, which was considered a bad sign at Yale. . . . And sitting at the piano was a little boy from Peru, Indiana, in a checked suit and a salmon tie, with his hair parted in the middle and slicked down, looking just like a Westerner all dressed up for the East.”

Gerald, who was already something of a dandy—a photograph taken at the time shows him in a batik jacket, ascot, silk sash, and solar topee, the very image of the pukka sahib—decided to overlook the checked suit and loud tie. He discovered that Porter shared his passion for Gilbert and Sullivan, and they had a long chat about music that somehow segued into a recitation of Porter’s life story. By the time Gerald had heard all the details of Porter’s childhood on an apple farm, not to mention the lyrics of “Bulldog,” the ditty Porter had just submitted for the football song competition, this rather unlikely pair had cemented a lifetime friendship. Perhaps each saw in the other what he kept so carefully hidden from others: the soul of an outsider concealed behind a facade of urbanity.

Gerald got Porter elected to
DKE
, and to the Apollo Glee Club (in which both boys sang second tenor). That winter he also managed to persuade the officers of the combined Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin clubs to allow Porter, a lowly sophomore, a solo spot in their winter tour so he could sing a song he’d written in praise of motorcars: the sight of the diminutive Porter backed by the rest of the glee club humming “Zoom, zoom, zoom,” brought down the house.

Although the Glee Club appeared at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York during its tour, the Wiborg girls didn’t come to the concert; they were preparing to leave for an extended European trip that would keep them abroad for nearly six months. But Gerald hadn’t lost touch with them. On the contrary, he had become an even closer family initiate, although his friendship with Hoytie had cooled somewhat. It was with Sara that he had developed a new closeness: during the summer, he had spent days at a time at the Dunes, and the two of them had gardened and done chores (Gerald painted and varnished the porch chairs), or gone walking or driving together, or read Emerson aloud to each other in the evenings. And when it came time for the Yale junior prom (for which Gerald was one of the eight organizers), Sara was the girl he asked to accompany him.

At twenty-seven, Sara Wiborg was emphatically not one of the dewy debutantes his classmates swooned over. In a way that was the point. She was an unconventional choice: not a beautiful girl, but a beautiful woman. Up to now, with the exception of Hoytie, Gerald had had no real flirtations. With girls he was charming but not threatening—his friend Gardner called him “Galahad the Pure”—the boy all the mothers loved because he was at ease with them while he was impartially, and politely, attentive to their daughters. Whether this impartiality meant he was indifferent to them is debatable. Whatever the nature of the “defect” he had discerned in himself at Hotchkiss—and despite the fact that many of his Yale friends, such as Woolley, Hanna, and Porter, were homosexual—Gerald’s sexual preferences were far from clear, even to himself. What was clear was that he had spent twenty-two years in a cold, withholding family, trying, not always successfully, to live up to someone else’s expectations. By taking twenty-seven-year-old Sara Wiborg—who had been presented at court, who was a society sensation on two continents—to the Yale junior prom, he not only trumped everyone else’s aces, he changed the game entirely.

But there was something else going on. With Sara, increasingly, Gerald felt he could let down his guard. Well traveled, well read, she was someone with whom he could discuss Emerson or music. She shared his sense of the absurd, collecting peculiar or pompous phrases she had overheard and sending them to him for his amusement. Most interesting to someone as wary and contained as Gerald had become, and most unsettling, was that edge about her, that repressed wildness, that sense that (as he later described it), “I have no idea what she will do, or say, or propose.”

What Sara saw in him—whether she saw anything—he still didn’t know.

4

“Thinking how nice you are”


THE
SADDEST
PEOPLE
,” Sara said years later, “are the ones with no love in their life—I realized that,—& feared it—for a long time.” It was that fear, a cold, clammy fog of doubt, that sent her into a neurasthenic gloom one August morning in 1911. Her cousin, Hoyt Sherman, and Gerald and Esther Murphy had all been staying at the Dunes for some days, but today they had left, and Sara was despondent. “Spent day in bed,” Sara wrote in her diary, rather forlornly. “Got up for dinner—Horribly depressed.”

Depression was a recurring theme in her journal. She was by now twenty-seven years old, an age when most of her contemporaries were married and starting up their own households. In fact, her two closest friends in New York were married—one, Rue Carpenter, to the composer John Alden Carpenter, and the other, Rachel (nicknamed Ray) Lambert, to the pharmaceutical heir Gerard Lambert. But she herself was still one of the three beautiful Wiborg girls, supporting, like a caryatid, the familial facade. She longed desperately for something more.

Since her schooldays she had had an interest in art and now she began to pursue it seriously, taking classes and drawing from the model every morning, and doing charcoal or oil studies of friends like Ray Lambert in the afternoons and evenings. Like other fashionably au courant New Yorkers, she also visited various artists’ ateliers on “open days” in order to see their work in progress. “Went to H. Mann’s studio,” she wrote in February 1910, “wonderful portraits.” Another such visit was less pleasant. She and Rue Carpenter went to look at pictures in the studio of Ben Ali Haggin, a socially prominent New York painter, but all that Sara recorded about the afternoon was a description of as “a dreadful thing,” her frequent code for someone who made unwelcome advances or behaved in a louche manner.

Possibly Haggin misread her signals. She was, after all, a very pretty young woman, and a single one, whose tentative forays into the artist’s vie de bohéme might be open to misinterpretation. But Sara was no free love advocate. She was a well-brought-up millionaire’s daughter who had been carefully taught, as Ray Lambert’s daughter recalled, “never even to glance into the windows of a men’s club.” She had a rigorous sense of personal correctness—she was aghast to discover, for example, that little Esther Murphy, a schoolgirl in her teens, not only read but talked about racy French novels at the luncheon table. Whether by her own choice or her mother’s, Sara led a somewhat cloistered existence; and her social life, in New York at least, had lost the giddy frenzy of her debutante days. She went to the de rigueur events, of course, like Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s, wedding in June, and she kept up her volunteer commitments with the Junior League, of which she was a member. But more and more it was Olga and Hoytie who went to dances at the Whitneys’ or tableaux at the Clarence Mackays’—where Olga dressed as a Greek libation bearer in a Fortuny-inspired chiton—and it was Sara who stayed at home drawing, or accompanied Frank on his icy dips in the autumn Atlantic, or went to the opera or ballet with the Lamberts or the Murphys or other married friends of the family. (Her taste in music was more adventurous than that of many of her peers—she found Strauss’s Elektra “stirring” and when she felt bemused by Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande she went to a repeat performance and “liked it much better” the second time.)

BOOK: Everybody Was So Young
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