The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (11 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Wednesday, July 14

Ann Edwards of the
Sunday Express
took me to lunch at the Savoy and refused to believe I wasn't disappointed in London.

“When I heard you were coming,” she said, “I wanted to write you and say, ‘My dear, don't come. You're fifteen years too late.'”

For what, Westminster Abbey?

I tried to tell her that if you've dreamed of seeing the Abbey and St. Paul's and the Tower all your life, and one day you find yourself actually there, they can't disappoint you. I told her I was finally going to St. Paul's when I left her and I could guarantee her it wouldn't disappoint me. But she's lived in London all her life, she harks back wistfully to the days when her family owned an upright Rolls-Royce, “which, every time it started, coughed gently, like a discreet footman.”

The Savoy River Room is beautiful and the food marvelous. (I liked Claridge's better but I romanticize Claridge's.) Had crabmeat and lobster thermidor both, couldn't eat my way through either, the portions were enormous. I finished up with strawberries and cream all the same. English cream is addictive—and every time I eat strawberries here I think of the English clergyman who remarked:

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry than the strawberry and doubtless God never did.”

She walked down along the Embankment with me after lunch and pointed me the straightest route to St. Paul's.

It was lovely to walk along the river with John Donne's cathedral looming ahead. Thought about him as I walked, he's the only man I ever heard of who actually
was
a rake reformed by the love of a good woman. He eloped with the daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower and her outraged papa had them thrown into the Tower for it. John was in one wing, his bride was in another, and he sent her a note, which is how I know he pronounced his name Dunn, not Donn. The note read:

John Donne

Anne Donne

Undone.

He was also a little batty. When Anne died, he had a stone shroud made for himself, and he slept with that shroud in bed with him for twenty years. If you write like an angel, you're allowed to be a bit cracked.

I walked up the steps of St. Paul's—finally, finally, after how many years?—and in through the doorway, and stood there looking up at the domed ceiling and down the broad aisles to the altar, and tried to imagine how Donne felt the night King James sent for him. And for at least that moment, I wouldn't have traded the hundreds of books I've never read for the handful I know almost by heart. I haven't opened Watson's
Lives
in ten years, at least; and standing there in John Donne's cathedral the whole lovely passage was right there in my head:

When his Majesty was sat down he said after his pleasant manner, “Dr. Donne, I have invited you to
dinner and though you sit not down with me, yet will I carve to you a dish I know you love well. For knowing you love London I do hereby make you Dean of St. Pauls and when I have dined, then do you take your beloved dish home with you to your study, say grace there to yourself and much good may it do you.”

And as Eliza Dolittle would say, I bet I got it right.

There were guides with large tourist parties in tow, each guide giving the standard lecture, some in English, one in French, one in German, the monotone voices jarring against each other. I got as far from them as I could and wandered around by myself. I went down a side aisle looking at all the plaques and busts, walked around the altar and started back up the other side looking at more plaques and busts. Even so, I almost missed it. It was an odd shape, it wasn't a bust and it wasn't a full-length statue, so I stopped and read the inscription. There in front of me, hanging on the wall of St. Paul's Cathedral, was John Donnes shroud.

I touched it.

There's a small chapel just inside the door, with a sign that says: “St. Dunstan's Chapel. Reserved for Private Meditation.” I went in and gave thanks.

Fifteen years too late indeed.

Thursday, July 15

Ken Ellis of the London
Reader's Digest
came around this morning with his pretty assistant and a photographer, to take my picture. I put up the usual squawk but my heart wasn't in it (I'd be flying over the Atlantic this minute if it weren't for the
Digest
) and I trotted meekly back to 84 Charing Cross Road with them and had my picture taken sitting on the window sill of the bleak, empty upstairs room. Ken scooped up all the peeled and rusting white letters that once spelled Marks & Co. for me. I want to take them home.

(And one September day when I'm doing my fall cleaning I'll come on them and ask myself, “What do you want these for—so you can weep over them when you're an old lady?” and throw them out.)

They took me to Wheeler's for lunch (the famous seafood restaurant everybody takes you to) and Ken explained to me why everybody over here hates the new money. It has to do with the Englishman's need to be different. The decimal system is much simpler than the old ha'penny-tupenny-guinea-tenner-tanner system, but the old money was
theirs
; no other country had it and nobody else could understand it. He said they hate entering the Common Market for the same reason. They don't want to be part-of-Europe, they want to be separate, different, set apart. He illustrated this by quoting an old headline which has become a cliché joke over here. During a spell of bad weather when the whole island was enveloped in fog, one English newspaper headline read: FOG ISOLATES CONTINENT.

I'm having dinner with the Elys and Jean just called to warn me that the Connaught is very old-world and still doesn't admit women in pants to the dining room, told her with dignity I have two dresses.

11 p.m.

The Connaught is near Grosvenor Square so I went there first to see the Roosevelt Memorial. Somebody told me that after Roosevelt's death the British government decided to raise money for the Memorial by public subscription and to limit individual contributions to one shilling so that everyone could subscribe. They announced that the subscription would be kept open as long as necessary to raise all the money in one-shilling contributions.

The subscription closed in seventy-two hours.

The story moved me a lot more than the Memorial did. It's a statue of FDR standing tall, holding a cane, cape flying. The features are there; the character and personality are entirely absent. And I resent a statue of FDR standing on legs that were shriveled and useless throughout his White House life. You can't take the measure of Roosevelt if you ignore the fact that his immense achievements were those of a man paralyzed from the waist down. I'd carve him sitting, with the blanket he always spread over his knees to hide the withered legs. Anything else belittles the gallantry and humor in that indomitable face. Since the gallantry and humor are missing from the statue's face I don't suppose it matters. It's nice to know so many Englishmen loved him, anyway.

Jean and Ted Ely still astonish me. They invited me to dinner in New York after they read the book. They live in a very spacious Fifth Avenue apartment, all polished mahogany and old carpets and warm colors, and I thought they were the most beautiful couple I'd ever seen. Both of them are slim and straight, both have thick gray hair, regular features and serenely smooth faces—and when Jean told me casually they were in their mid-seventies I was stupefied. They are as improbably handsome and untouched by time as the parents of the debutante in a 1930 s movie.

We talked about PB through dinner. I sent him a note to tell him I'll be here another two weeks, Jean said maybe he'll take the three of us somewhere.

A chauffeured limousine drove me back here; I do not know how anybody expects me to adjust to life on Second Avenue when I get home.

Ena phoned, How's Sunday morning, am I free to Sit? The things I agree to with a little gin in me.

Friday, July 16

Just got back from Nora's buffet supper—where I arrived an hour and a half late and I was the guest of honor, I mean this evening got off to a horrendous start.

Nora had phoned this morning to say a car would pick me up here at seven-fifteen, so as usual I was dressed and waiting in the lobby at seven. No car came at seven-fifteen, no car came at seven-thirty, and by seven-forty-five I decided Nora's friends must have forgotten to pick me up and I called her. She said she'd ordered a cab for me “to bring you out in style.” It never came. She told me to go out in the street and hail a cab and come on out.

I went out in the street and hailed a cab and got in. But North London is apparently equivalent to the far end of Brooklyn, and London cab drivers are grimly equivalent to New York cab drivers. I gave the driver Nora's address, and he stared at me mask-like.

“I don't know where that is, Madam,” he said in a flat voice. I innocently explained it was in Highgate. He stared straight in front of him this time and repeated in the same expressionless voice:

“I don't know where that is, Madam.”

I got the message and got out of the cab and waited ten minutes for the next cab to come along and got in. I gave the driver Nora's address, and we went through the same charade. But this driver was so anxious to get rid of me that when I got out of the cab he shot off before I'd gotten both feet on the ground, and I fell and split my leg open. So there I was, blood all over my leg at eight-fifteen of a seven-thirty supper in my honor. I couldn't go back up to the room and
clean the wound and put on fresh stockings because that would have made me fifteen minutes later still.

I went back into the lobby and consulted the desk clerk and he said what I needed was a minicab, they take you anywhere. Minicabs are the London equivalent of New York's limousine services (and cost as much). The clerk phoned the minicab service for me and a cab arrived ten minutes later. The driver told me his name was Barry, he's a hospital intern, he drives a minicab nights to earn a little money. He took the hills of North London like he had a death wish for both of us, but never mind, he got us there and gave me a high old time on the way.

He told me he studied at McGill in Canada and spent summers working in Manhattan. The first day he landed in New York he found himself on the traffic island at Broadway and Forty-second Street, he didn't know where he was, he just knew he wanted to go to Times Square. There was a cop directing traffic, and Barry, wanting to ask directions, stepped up behind the cop and tapped him on the shoulder. Whereupon the cop, true to the tradition of courtesy and helpfulness of New York's Finest, turned around and stuck the muzzle of a gun in Barry's stomach.

“I only want to ask directions to Times Square, Officer,” said Barry.

“Izzat right,” said the cop.

“I'm a tourist, I don't know my way about,” Barry explained. “I'm British.”

“No kiddin',” said the cop without taking his gun out of Barry's stomach. So Barry gave up and said:

“Officer, if you're going to shoot me, please step back so you don't kill the four hundred people behind me.”

The cop let him go then, and Barry crossed the street and asked a passer-by how to get to Times Square. The passer-by studied the problem thoughtfully and then said:

“Walk one block, turn left, walk one block, turn left, walk one block, turn left and you'll be there.”

So Barry walked around the block and that's how he discovered he'd been standing on Times Square all the time. He'd been looking for an English Square—with a park in it. What the passer-by didn't know was that in London you can walk one block, turn left, walk one block, turn left, walk one block, turn left—and be nowhere near where you started from.

He sold Britannicas and fountain pens door-to-door. Most of the housewives slammed the door in his face. (“I used to have to call, ‘Madam, will you please open the door so I can get my tie back?'”) so he switched to demonstrating fountain pens at Woolworth's. He discovered the way to beat that system was to get very good at it and be promoted to teacher. “Teaching other guys how to demonstrate,” he explained, “you at least got to sit down.”

He dropped me at Nora's and said he'd pick me up at midnight for the return trip.

I could have brained Nora, she hadn't told the guests I'd been ready-and-waiting since seven-fifteen. One woman turned to me and said politely:

“Do you mind my asking what held you up?” and I was so stunned I couldn't answer her, I just fled upstairs with Sheila and hid out in her room till I got calmed down. I have no poise.

All the rare-book dealers regaled me with stories of the trade. They told me that after the war there were too many
books and not enough bookshop space, so all the dealers in London BURIED hundreds of old books in the open bomb craters of London streets. Today the buried books would be worth a fortune if they could be recovered, if the new buildings could be torn down and the rebuilt streets torn up. I had a sudden vision of an atomic war destroying everything in the world, except here and there an old book lying where it fell when it was blasted up out of the depths of London.

Everybody brought me small gifts and I think I made a faux pas with one of them. A very charming woman who deals in autographs gave me a beautifully bound pocket notebook. I needed one, since I'd converted my old one into a calendar, and when the rare-book man from Quaritch's gave me his name and the address of the shop, I wrote them down in the new notebook. From the quality of the silence that followed, I think writing in that notebook was a kind of desecration. I had a horrible feeling the notebook was one of those antique items you're not supposed to use, you're just supposed to look at it. What the hell do I want with a notebook you can't use? I get in trouble this way all the time.

Barry arrived on the dot of twelve and drove me home. He told me to visit his hospital if I get down that way, it's St. Bartholomew's, he said Go in by the Henry VIII gate and see the chapel, it's beautiful. I wrote his name—Barry Goldhill—in the desecrated notebook and asked him what he's specializing in. He said, “Gynecology.” I said, “Too late, honey, I can't do a thing for you.”

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