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Authors: Amanda Vaill

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Once Fred was on the mend, Gerald went back to work at Mark Cross; almost no one he knew was in the city, so he amused himself with reading, golf, and a new role as impresario. Esther, who was now an academically precocious schoolgirl, had written a poem, and Gerald sent it out to several magazines “for criticism only.” The editors (he informed Sara with pride) had “pronounced it ‘mature genius,”’ and he himself felt “surer each day that she will do something with her mind.” He had also been working on Sara’s behalf. He had shown some of her illustrations to the editor of Munsey’s Magazine, who “considers it all as indicative of a ‘highly developed imagination,’ . . . as good as anything he’s ever seen.” So, Gerald exhorted her, “I do hope you are going to work hard with your sketching when you return.”

And when would that be? he asked with mock plaintiveness. In the meantime, he and Frank Wiborg had developed a rather formal friendship in the absence of Frank’s womenfolk. They had had dinner together and had even gone several times to sample that curious new entertainment, the moving picture show. Gerald had spent several weekends at the Dunes, but, he confessed, he had been constantly unsettled by Sara’s ghostly traces. “It was too uncanny to go through the house . . . Every now and then I would be startled by hearing you call the dogs . . . I’d wonder if you were really on the same planet with me—it made you seem much more remote.”

He missed her, although he seemed afraid to tell her so. “Pretty Sal,” he wrote, in the orotund style with which he often camouflaged his feelings, “I have much that I would talk to you of. Do you know I find myself wondering exactly what your opinion of certain things might be? This has made me believe that I must ask you endless questions when we are together, is it so?” It was.

Sara, Hoytie, Olga, and Adeline arrived in New York on the Mauritania on Friday morning, September 5, and were met by Frank and a welcoming party consisting of Gerald, his father, Chesley Richardson, and the Lamberts. Frank was in a foul temper. He had arisen at 6:30 to be at the dock by 10:00, and now here were his women surrounded by twenty trunks and innumerable valises. “Too much baggage and . . . no end of bustle,” he grumbled to his diary that evening. To make matters worse, Adeline hadn’t filled out her customs documents properly: she seemed to feel it was the customs inspectors’ job to go through her baggage and establish what she owed in duty. When it was suggested to her that she simply put a value of $4,000 on what she had bought abroad and have done with the matter, she was mortally offended. On the contrary, she said, $500 was more like it. She wouldn’t pay duty on a penny more.

After much huffing and puffing Frank got everyone waved through (although the trunks had to be taken to the general inspection area and would be sent on later), and they made the 3:30 train to East Hampton with minutes to spare. But on Monday disaster struck. In going through the Wiborgs’ twenty trunks, the customs inspectors had found $5,000 worth of furs and dresses and jewelry bought on the journey, and they were determined to indict Adeline for smuggling.

Curiously, in this crisis Frank didn’t turn to one of his racquet club cronies, or one of his Taft administration cohorts. It was Patrick Murphy who put the Wiborgs together with a lawyer named John B. Stanchfield, and on September 27 Stanchfield, Adeline, and Frank went to federal court, where Adeline pled not guilty to a crime that could subject her to a fine of $5,000, up to two years in prison, or both.

The newspapers had a field day: “
. F.
,” screamed the tabloids; “MILLIONAIRE’S
.” Adeline must have cringed; but worse must have been her very real fear of imprisonment, and of Frank’s wrath if the maximum fine were imposed. The strain took its toll on her family, and tempers were frayed. “Most horrible day,” wrote Sara in her diary on September 29. “S[ara] S[herman] and I dined [with] Lamberts[;] family disagreement between G[erard] and us.” Whether Adeline’s lapse had caused the quarrel, or whether Sara had flown off the handle on another account, is not clear; what is clear is that the authorities were determined to throw the book at the millionaire’s wife, and Adeline was finally persuaded to change her plea.

On October 23 she went to court accompanied by Sara and John Stanchfield. Frank seems not to have been present. Like French aristocrats on their way to the guillotine, both women wore heavy veils, but the judge made Adeline remove hers while Stanchfield read character references from supporters like Henry Taft (brother of the ex-president), and argued that a prison sentence for what was really a case of ignorance or carelessness would endanger his client’s life.

The judge relented, fining her $1,750 and letting her go. But the experience had left the whole family shaken. And in some subtle way the balance of power between Gerald and Sara had been altered, too.

With Adeline’s court case settled, the Wiborgs fled the country. This time, after a Christmas holiday in England, they planned an extended trip to India and Ceylon. It was proposed that Gerald take a furlough from Mark Cross and accompany them; but he was not permitted to, even though Sara argued eloquently that he “would learn more than in years of business.” He gave Sara a rather significant going-away gift, a leather case for her drawing materials, and, she reported to him, it never left her side. “I sleep in trains with my head on it.”

It was a relief to get “home” to London. Adeline was still prostrated from her ordeal and pretty much kept to her bed at the Hyde Park Hotel, but the girls went to spend Christmas at Belvoir Castle, where, Sara wrote to Gerald with characteristic irony, they had “burning plum-pudding for every meal except breakfast,” and Hoytie and Olga rode to hounds, “exactly like an old English print.” Other guests went shooting, pausing from the slaughter for lunch, which consisted of “a big table on the grass, many courses & heaps of port & mulled claret—all the men rather cold & cross. Everything as it should be & rows of dead birds going by on wagons.” Concluded Sara, her tongue firmly in her cheek: “Is anything [underlined four times] so satisfying as to be picturesque? I am nearly dead with it.”

The voyage to India was more than picturesque. It was her first encounter with a world totally outside her ken, and it awakened all her senses. “Arriving at Port Said was queer,” she said of the squalid little town at the entrance to the Suez Canal which marked the beginning of Asia for P. & O. passengers. “We saw a row of lights in the distance . . . it might have been Coney Island or anything,—then, as we got closer—a queer smell mixed with the sea air—like something unfamiliar burning,—and then we were in the East—without warning—everything different.” Port Said was “an evil little town,” but it was full of “such [underlined three times] extraordinary people—great dignity & straight backs—& such color!! Not only lurid, but very subtle mixed in.”

The Wiborg party landed in Bombay on March 18 and went on to Delhi, where they arrived just in time for Indian Cavalry Polo Week. This display of pukka-sahib festivity included a ball at the Viceregal Lodge, from which Sara retired early—possibly fatigued by the prospect of so many waltzes to Der Rosenkavalier, or two-steps to “How Do You Do, Miss Ragtime?”—and, the following evening, a presentation at the Gymkhana Club of J. M. Barrie’s play, The Twelve-Pound Look. The program also included a “variety entertainment” in which Sara, Hoytie, and Olga stopped the show with a medley of ragtime and cakewalk tunes that the local newspaper called “coon song snatches.” Although their father proudly noted that “they looked beautifully and sang well,” and acknowledged that “they got much applause,” he complained that the songs were a “poor selection.”

He had been grumbling ever since they entered the Red Sea, calling Port Said “hot unkempt and tawdry, [full of] cheap things and cheap [music?] and not attractive.” Even the Taj Mahal and the mountains of the Hindu Kush were unlikely to awaken in him the kind of sensual appreciation they did in his eldest daughter. But Gerald, who had taken Sara to an exhibition of Bakst prints and drawings in New York that autumn, could be counted on to understand her feeling that Asia was “the most marvelous place! Kipling and all of Bakst and Dulac come true.” Her accounts of her journey, he wrote to her, ‘“transported me beyond delight,’—like pages torn at random from the Cripsy Dream Book.”

Those letters, and his response to them, had transformed their relationship from an easy brother-and-sister camaraderie to something else. “Lately I have been made to realize,” he wrote to her in April,

how few men there are with whom I am able to carry on more than a five minute conversation,—without effort. . . . [N]ight after night,—these diners out, during coffee,—get so far with the Panama situation, or Wilson,—or the 1914 Cadillac vs. the 1914 Ford,—and then sit back. Why is it? Any mention of some important exhibition, concert, book,—editorial,—philosophy,—is at once allied with effeminacy . . . and discounted. . . . I long for someone with whom, as I walk the links, I can discuss, without conscious effort,—and with unembarrassed security,—the things that do not smack of the pavement.

He couldn’t quite say it to her yet, but it was clearer and clearer that he had found that someone in Sara. With men—certain kinds of men—he couldn’t be himself; with her he could. But in the nearly ten years that they had known each other they had never had the opportunity for the kind of extended and intimate conversation their correspondence now provided. Suddenly, separated by thousands of miles of ocean and a world of experience, they were alone together. And Gerald found his voice at last.

Frank Wiborg preceded his family to America, arriving in New York on March 27, somewhat exasperated to find Gerald waiting for him at the dock. “Gerald Murphy showed up,” his diary notes, rather testily. But Gerald, instead of feeling cowed by Frank’s bluster, found it amusing because he could joke about it with Sara. “[H]e was playing a part, you see,” he confided to her (she was still in Rome): “he unearthed from inner pockets quartos of signed papers with which he fairly rustled. Assuming an air of high-bred preoccupation, he stood defiantly before his strangely-shaped 16 pieces [of luggage] with a ‘bring on your U.S. Customs Officials!’ air.” Alas, poor Frank! As Gerald rather gleefully reported it to Sara, “No one noticed him,—no one at all.”

Frank soon mellowed sufficiently to invite Gerald for a weekend at the Dunes, and the two of them went on an all-day horseback expedition to Montauk Light, some twenty-three miles away, which took them “over rolling downs, thro’ pigmy forests,—with the sea sixty feet below booming and growling on an infinity of beach!” Perhaps afraid that he had portrayed himself as too much of an aesthete in previous letters, Gerald was eager to show off this active side of himself to Sara: “I felt emancipated, and wondered if I’d ever been in stuffy theatres and ball-rooms,” he told her. It was all “such fun,” he said. “[S]urely I am meant for that instead of padded chairs.”

There was only one thing missing: ‘Tour absence,” he told her, “has embittered me.” Abruptly the letter changed from gossipy recitation to breathless prose poem, in which he tried to tell her what was on his mind:

In the garden the pansies come first to surely greet her,—but faded one by one whimpering: “she will not come.” . . . Thro’out the house the clocks await in idle silence the better hour of her arrival;—on the hearth her dog sleeps and dreams of her return,—awakes, and hears no sound,—sighs: “she will not come.” . . . The waves of the sea rush gleaming up the beach at her imagined approach,—but return hourly to their waters, hissing: “she will not come.” The balcony stands lonely . . . with boards upon whose dust the fitful wind has traced the words: “she will not come.”

He signed it, simply, “G.”


“A relationship that so lets loose the imagination!”

in her leather traveling ease, Sara was on her way back to America on the SS Lusitania when war was declared between Britain, France, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The diplomatic atmosphere had been tense for days before her departure, and many on board the ship were anxious for their safety on a British vessel if hostilities should begin. “Damp day—many rumors,” wrote Sara in her diary. “No lights on decks, masts or bridge, and ports blanketed. About 11—flashlight of cruiser guns. Changed course, went like the wind—30 knots through fog . . . about 1 [o’clock] fired on—2 shots. Essex convoyed us to Halifax.”

In this state of heightened excitement and expectation she was reunited with Gerald for the first time in nine months. When she had left the previous December he was barely out of college. Now, although he claimed to disdain the part, he was the very model of a polished young man about town, in demand as a companion of other young dandies at the theater or for dinner at Delmonico’s or Rector’s, on every society matron’s guest list for tableaux and balls and soirees. And he had changed in other ways. During their separation her letters to him had maintained the bantering tone that had always marked their friendship, but there can have been no mistaking the deepening seriousness of his to her. Face to face with him at last, she felt as she might have done if he had awakened to find her staring at him on that long-ago morning at the beach. She discovered, almost to her surprise, that she was deeply in love.

For his part, Gerald proceeded cautiously, spiriting her off to the garden or the beach at East Hampton or to plays and exhibitions in New York, and talking over everything—from books and pictures to food and decor and behavior—as if to work out the cosmology for a little world of two. They discussed their shared tastes in things material and spiritual, from “cold-cuts and mustard” and “creamy Italian pottery” to the music of Wagner or the sonnets of Keats. “How differently I feel about things seen and done, with you,” Sara exclaimed to Gerald after they had been to see Euripides’ Trojan Women. “Without you only one half of me enjoys them.” They decided to shun all things effete and bourgeois, like chicken salads and “mid-summer club-porch chatter,” in favor of the honest, the hand-hewn, and the candid. “Don’t you love plank floors worn so that the knot holes stick up?” asked Gerald, in all seriousness. And on a reservation card he sent Sara to a “New Year’s Eve Souper Dansant” at Delmonico’s, New York’s most fashionable restaurant, he scribbled the words: “Aristocrats!! bah!!”

BOOK: Everybody Was So Young
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