Authors: 1908-1999 Richard Powell
BACK FLAP (Continued from front)
and all, there are easier ways of winning a pretty blonde than by battling strong-arm guys, gunmen and a murderer, and I think my hero would have preferred them. I know I would.
This story took a lot of research. I read stacks of art books, and talked to artists and dealers. I prowled through museums peering at famous paintings through a magnifying glass. My new knowledge even impresses my artist friends, and it's mighty hard for a writer to impress an artist. To most artists, a writer is a vandal who takes white space that could be used for pictures and clutters it up with words.
I've tried to get some of the flavor of Philadelphia into the book. That's an elusive thing to pin down in words, but here's an example of what Philadelphia is like. In most cities, if you owned a valuable old Chippendale chair, you would call everybody's attention to \ our prize. In Philadelphia, you would sit in it.
I hope you like the book. Don't try to please me by saying you stayed up after midnight finishing it, though. It never seems fair to me that people can read in just a few hours something that took me a vear to write.
— Richard Powell
Jacket design by Paul Bacon
Most of my friends in Philadelphia lead breathless lives. They go through each day like a man running up steps two at a time. This leaves me rather far behind, because while other people are taking steps two at a time I am hunting for an escalator. In the great race of life, I am just along for the walk.
Perhaps, in view of these facts, it was a mistake to let myself get interested in a breathtaking girl named Nancy Vernon. Like a lot of other men, the moment I met her I began thinking in terms of birds singing and flowers blooming and a walk hand-in-hand down the lane. I didn't realize that whenever Nancy heads down a lane, there is likely to be trouble at the far end. And if there is, Nancy will find it. Trouble is a challenge to her, like Mach 1 to a jet pilot.
Speaking of Mach 1, which of course is the speed of sound at any given altitude and temperature, I learned a few facts about it while trying to keep up with Nancy. It seems that a number of unpleasant things travel at that speed. I refer to screams in the night and the noise of a man running for his life. I was sorry to hear the running feet because they were my own, and at the time I heard them I was trying to break through the sound barrier.
I met Nancy on one of those lovely May afternoons when even Philadelphians from the Main Line get slightly irresponsible, and start nodding to strangers, taking off their coats in public, and wondering if the Phillies could win the pennant. I left the Philadelphia Art Alliance, after lunch, in just that sort of mood. I didn't want to go back to my shop on Walnut Street and be Peter Meadows, art dealer, the rest of the day. For one thing, it was too pleasant outside. For another, I didn't want to face the disapproval of my assistant, Miss Krim. I hadn't pleased her that morning. First she had caught me handing out fifty bucks' worth of canvases and oils on credit to a nice kid from the Museum School of Art. Then she had caught me promising to give a one-man show the next month for a guy who does pretty fair water colors but never sells any.
Miss Krim is middle aged and has no interest in life except the shop. She looks on its bank balance as her baby, and she gets upset when I drop it on its head.
A little up the street from the Art Alliance, sunlight slanted onto Rittenhouse Square and broke into splashes of color like a painting by Monet. As a matter of fact there were a lot of paintings over there, although none was quite in the Monet class. They were holding the annual Clothesline Art Exhibit in the square. It is one of those things anybody can enter. For a small entrance fee you can get a reserved space and put your paintings on display and watch the public fail to appreciate them. The exhibitors are usually art students, with a sprinkling of ladies who didn't go to art school but picked up their technique sort of by chance, the way you might pick up measles.
There was no real hope of making a find at the exhibit, but it gave me an excuse to put off going back to work. I crossed the street and began wandering along the paths of Rittenhouse Square. As I walked I became interested in counting lighthouses. All art students paint lighthouses. They paint them in water color, gouache, oils, casein, and anything else that will stick on canvas or paper. It made me feel slightly shipwrecked.
I had counted fifteen lighthouses when somebody tapped my shoulder and said, "Hello, Pete. Is this where you find that junk you peddle?"
I looked up and saw Sheldon Thorp III. He was smiling to show that his remark was all in fun. Sheldon has always tried not to hurt my feelings. Back in prep school, whenever he ran through me for a touchdown he would come back and help pick me up and say, "Nice try, Pete. I had too many blockers." When he took my girl away from me in college, he said, "It's not that she likes me better, Pete. It's just that I'm so lousy with money." Once overseas during the war he gave me a lift in his staff car, and said, "I ought to be slogging along with you guys, Pete. It was just influence that got the general to make me his aide."
Sheldon was born with a collecting urge. He can't get interested in any subject without trying to make the world's biggest and finest collection of things relating to the subject. Back in school, he collected sports trophies and girls. During the war he collected medals. After the war he went hunting in Africa and collected animal trophies. In the last few years he had been collecting art.
All the right people around Philadelphia think Sheldon is wonderful. That makes me one of the wrong people.
"Look," I said irritably, "I don't handle junk. Not even famous junk. When I peddle a painting, it's because I think it has a future, not a puffed-up present."
"Sure, sure. Just kidding, Pete. What you say is absolutely right. In fact, I've been wondering if I shouldn't do some of my buying through you."
That startled me. Sheldon had been collecting art without any help from me. Not that he needed my help. From all reports, he had the three things you need to be a successful collector of art: good judgment, luck, and several million bucks. Once or twice in the past I had suggested buys to him, but he turned them down. He seemed to feel that I wasn't even qualified to deal in finger paintings from a nursery school.
"What's the matter?" I asked suspiciously. "Have other dealers been stinging you?"
"Oh no. I don't let people sting me. It was just that I thought you might help me this afternoon. In return I might ask you to buy a few things for me. Like a Picasso I'm after and a couple of Miros."
"That sounds as if I might have to be pretty helpful."
"It's quite easy, Pete. To start with, I'm here on a sort of collecting expedition."
"Here? At the Clothesline Art Exhibit? Don't tell me you've found anything worth your trouble here."
"Pete," he said softly, 'look over there and you'll see a real masterpiece."
I looked where he was pointing, but the canvases he was talking about were a hundred feet away and of course I couldn't tell anything about them. A girl was stooping in front of one of the pictures. The lines of her body struck cleanly through a light print dress. Her head was bent and her face was hidden by shoulder-length hair that looked as if it ought to be carted away to Fort Knox.
I said, "From this distance even a Renoir would look like a postage stamp."
"This masterpiece isn't wearing canvas. She's wearing a print dress."
"Oh. The girl. You're still collecting dames?"
"Xot dames, plural. I gave that up. It was too easy. The only real fun in collecting is in going after something that's very hard to get. The girl over there is Nancy Vernon."
Of course I knew the name. Nancy Vernon, of the Van Rensselaer Vernons. She was one of those golden creatures whose life you can follow in the papers. Nancy Vernon taking the blue ribbon on her hunter at the Devon Horse Show. Nancy Vernon winning the Middle Atlantic States Girls Tennis Championship. Nancy Vernon at her debut. Nancy Vernon returning from the Coronation.
"AD right," I said. "What's the deal 0 "
"You can help me make time with her."
"Now I've heard everything."
"I'm serious, Pete. I've been chasing her for a couple of months. A girl like Nancy doesn't fall for the usual stuff. She has money and looks and social position. Nearly every man she meets makes a play for her. It takes a different approach to get to her."
"Have you tried showing her your war medals?"
"If you want to clown, let's forget the whole thing."
"Go ahead. I'm curious."
"She took up art about a year ago. Her friends have kidded her about it. Its made her self-conscious. I never had a chance to
see her stuff until today. Of course I told her she showed real promise, but she won't take that from me. But if you come along and back up my opinion, it will mean something. You're a dealer. Then I'll be the guy who gave her honest encouragement when no one else would take her painting seriously. That might do the trick."
"What's her stuff like?"
"Forget her stuff, Pete. Just look at her face and the adjectives will come easily. And if that isn't enough, forget her face and think of that Picasso and the Miros you can buy for me."
"I'll at least take a look at her stuff. But how far do we carry this?"
"Let me decide as we go along. I don't want to build her up any more than necessary. But between us we could take her pretty far if we had to, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I suppose," I muttered. A dealer and a well-heeled collector might even be able to take your maiden aunt, who colors Christmas cards, and put her across as a real genuine Primitive. "But I'm not promising anything."
Sheldon gave me a wise look. "If you have principles," he said, "you're not an art dealer. Give me five minutes and then come over." He walked away toward the girl.
I didn't like his crack about principles, but so what? This looked like my first chance to get into the big time as a dealer. Anybody who worked for Sheldon was going to handle big stuff and big money, and that kind of a reputation draws other collectors. Besides, what did it involve? Just kidding along a spoiled society girl until she decided to change her hobby from art to husbands.
After a few minutes I went over to them. They made quite a picture: Sheldon tall, slender, fair-haired, with one of those long aristocratic faces that Gainsborough loved to paint; the girl slim, tilting her head to look up at him, bright hair spilling onto her shoulders. Her back was to me and I still hadn't seen her face.
Sheldon waved to me. "Hello, Pete," he called. "Come on over."
The girl swung around. It was like watching a ballet dancer by Degas come alive. She had deep blue eyes and golden brown skin. The newspaper photos in black and white hadn't prepared me for this. And of course they hadn't even hinted at the way the girl seemed to glow and tingle with life. I told myself not to get so impressed; she was just a healthy kid who had been fed all the right vitamins.
Sheldon introduced us, and said, "By the way, Pete is an art dealer."
"Oh?" the girl said, a bit suspiciously.
"I wouldn't kid you," Sheldon said. "He was on some Allied Art Commission for a couple of years after the war, tracking down stuff the Nazis had grabbed when they were running Europe. And he has a shop and gallery not far away on Walnut Street."
"Oh, of course," she said. "I've even bought material there."
"Starting tomorrow," I said, "I'm going to pay more attention to business."
"I will be in the first thing," she said gravely, "to see why those brushes I bought haven't been painting masterpieces."
"Speaking of masterpieces," Sheldon said, "I'd like you to—"
"Please stop it, Sheldon," the girl said. "Mr. Meadows is an expert. Don't embarrass him."
Sheldon said, "I'm serious about this. Look here, Pete. Nancy has been painting for a year. Nobody thinks she has any talent. But I do. Her work shows a lot of promise. Give me your honest opinion. Take a look at what she's done."
I peered down the row of canvases lined up along the walk, and had to cover a smile. In one sense this wasn't painting at all. The girl had merely been having fun filling dull empty spaces with a lot of color. You could picture a couple of college girls slapping paint on the walls of their room in just the same happy spirit. Of course I couldn't say anything like that. My job was to make some profound remarks about budding genius. I ran a few phrases through my mind to try them out: "intuitive feel for color ... a sense of the inner form of things
. . . striking handling of masses of light and shadow . . ." That ought to do the trick.
I turned back to the girl and saw her eager face turned up to me and caught a glimpse of Sheldon smiling wisely in the background. That smile irritated me. He liked collecting things that were hard to get, did he? Well, let's tell the truth about the girl's stuff, and make things a little harder for him.
"You know what?" I said. "I've never seen paintings that looked like more fun to do."
"Why, how wonderful!" she said. "That's just why I do them."
Sheldon said, "I asked you for art criticism, Pete, not for a silly remark like that."
"Show me some art," I said, "and I'll give you some criticism."
He frowned and said, "Frankly, Pete, I'm disappointed in you. People turned away from the early work of Picasso and Miro, too. Why don't you take another look?"
That was a reminder of the deal he had offered. It was about as subtle as clubbing me over the head, and it had about the same winning effect. "She's having fun with paints," I said. "Why be serious about it?"
The girl said, almost gleefully, "And you don't see even the teensiest bit of promise in what I've done?"
"Sure I see promise. The way you slap on pigment, you promise to be a good customer of somebody's art store."
"I think it will be yours," she said. "I like honesty."
Sheldon said, "Let's see how honest he'll be about this. How much of a national reputation do you have as an art expert, Pete?"
The club was hitting a little below the belt now. "I don't suppose I have any."
"And how successful an art dealer are you?"
I set my jaw and said, "I think I have eight hundred and sixty bucks in the bank. Does that answer you?"
Sheldon said quietly, "I have one of the finest private collections of modern art in the country. And I say that Nancy's work shows great promise. Shall we argue some more, Pete?"
with three or four million. Well, I'd better run along. Nice to have met you, Miss Vernon. Keep on having fun."
"Don't you dare run away," she said. "You know a lot about art, and you tell the truth. I've got some things I want to ask you. Besides, I want company and Sheldon has to leave."
I peeked at Sheldon and saw that was a new idea to him. He took it gracefully, though. "I do have to buzz off," he said. "And I'll see you tonight, Nancy. Oh, Pete, a word with you first." He drew me aside and said, "You certainly kicked away a nice commission."
"It didn't seem so nice, after I saw what an unspoiled kid she
"I suppose you've started falling for her. Most guys do. But you won't get anywhere."