Read The Late John Marquand Online

Authors: Stephen; Birmingham

The Late John Marquand (30 page)

BOOK: The Late John Marquand

John was furious, and so were his friends, including Charles Morton of the
Atlantic Monthly
who wrote to John's publisher about the review, labeling it “patronizing comment by a Deep Thinker—and a nonentity to boot” and adding:

Here we have Marquand writing about the direction or misdirection of a man's life, his marriage, his work and his place in the world, and I have a great itch to learn what are the “larger questions” which the reviewer thinks Marquand has avoided. What is the objection to “an oblique attack”? Are the bludgeonings by Thomas Mann necessarily better than a more civilized technique? It seems to me that Geismar is an innocent pedant who believes in black and white: to satisfy him, one supposes a main character would have to wind up hanging himself or else by “living happily ever after.”

Indeed, it had been John's whole point, in the novel, that acceptance was enforced upon Americans and that, within the
strictures of the American “game,” there was no real way to “make the break.” The novel ends with Charles Gray, having taken the job, reflecting, “Nancy would understand. Nancy had more ambition for him than he had for himself. Nancy would be very proud. They would sell the house at Sycamore Park and get a larger place. They would resign from the Oak Knoll Club [in favor of a “better” club, more befitting bank vice-presidents]. And then there was the sailboat. It had its compensations but it was not what he had dreamed.” John considered this a realistic, almost grim, ending, the opposite of “sentimental and romantic.” Paul Osborn, meanwhile, given the job of adapting
Point of No Return
for Broadway, felt that theater audiences would simply not accept such a downbeat ending and gave the hero a redeeming bit of spunk by having him refuse to join the better club—Hawthorn Hill—that his boss suggests. At the time, John commented to an interviewer, “Charles Gray sees he has passed the point of no return and might as well accept it, and that ‘The game in many ways is not worth the candle.' But evidently the producers found the audiences wouldn't take to such a pessimistic result. This makes the play seem to mean, ‘The game may be worth the candle if you learn to walk erect.'” Marquand disapproved of Osborn's ending, which he felt did not ring true, but agreed to it on the grounds that a play was not a novel and that the ending of a play often had to be “souped up.” Osborn was apparently right, for
Point of No Return
became an immediate Broadway hit, starring Henry Fonda.

Point of No Return
, Marquand managed to skirt sentimentality with remarkable success. Consider this passage, in which Charles Gray muses about the past:

If there were anything in the theory that the past remained intact, he and Jessica Lovell must still have been somewhere, with the other ghosts of Clyde. Perhaps all of that summer might have returned to him again if he had stayed in Clyde. If he had never seen Jessica Lovell again except in the distance, he would have seen the shadows of Jessica and himself around every corner and on every country road. If he walked down Dock Street, he and Jessica might still have been standing in front of the window of Stowell's furniture store, talking of living room curtains. She had wanted green monk's cloth curtains.

As Marquand goes from the soft and whispery “other ghosts of Clyde” in the course of one short paragraph to a furniture store and
monk's cloth curtains, it is possible to see the author almost physically reining himself in, resisting an impulse to wax poetic, and pulling himself back to hard and plain reality of living room curtains—real things, tangible things. And so the Geismar charge of romance and sentiment does seem, in the context of this book, oddly misplaced. Suppose, John used to ask his friends, Charles Gray
had the “real courage to make the break,” and instead of taking the proffered job had been last seen sailing off into the sunset to make a new life for himself in Tahiti. Would not
have made it a sentimental and romantic novel?

The theme of going home again, of trying to find one's youth again, is a familiar one in American fiction. One thinks immediately of Willa Cather's lost lady and Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant. But John Marquand, by marrying this theme with the theme of the search for meaning in love and marriage, and placing these against the background of American success and money competition, opened up a whole new territory and tradition. The novel set a definite precedent, and in the years that followed a number of
Point of No Return-
type books appeared, among them John C. Keats's
The Crack in the Picture Window
, William H. Whyte's
The Organization Man
, David Riesman's
The Lonely Crowd
, Sloan Wilson's
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
, Cameron Hawley's
Executive Suite
, and Hamilton Basso's
The View from Pompey's Head
. After reading the last novel, in fact, John muttered that it seemed more than a case of Basso's having been influenced by
Point of No Return
. It was more like stealing.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The success of
Point of No Return
gave John Marquand what is often regarded as the highest accolade America can give to a man: his face on the cover of
. It also gave him new confidence in himself and in his craft, and for the first time in his life he began to relax the frantic pace of his living and his production. He had, after all, produced seven of his “serious” novels in a little more than ten years, and between these had turned out four full-length Mr. Moto books plus numberless other serials, short stories, articles, and reviews for the Book-of-the-Month Club
. He had become not only one of the most successful American writers, with an income of $100,000 a year from his writing alone, but also one of the most prolific.

John had been given an even more unusual accolade. His friend and fellow Boston clubman, Bayard Tuckerman (Harvard, 1911), had named one of his racehorses “J. P. Marquand.” The horse, as John had predicted, had had an undistinguished career marked primarily by an ability to lose races, but the idea of having a horse
named after him amused him. One evening, when he and the Fiskes were dining together at the Somerset Club, they found themselves confronted with three exceptionally tough sirloin steaks. John summoned Joseph, the head waiter, and ruefully inquired, “Would this by any chance be J. P. Marquand?”

At about this time, he had begun to worry about his health. Though Marquands had generally been a healthy and long-lived lot—John's father would live to be nearly ninety—John had always been something of a hypochondriac, and now he had become convinced he had an ulcer, even though none of the doctors he consulted could detect anything. All the doctors could suggest was rest, a holiday. And so, the winter after the publication of
Point of No Return
, John and Adelaide Marquand rented Treasure Island in the Bahamas, a narrow strip of land just four miles long, an hour's sail from Nassau. Here, away from it all, there would be peace. And there was, of a sort.

Treasure Island had no electricity, no telephone, and no water other than some very dubious-looking rainwater gathered in mossy cisterns. Bottled water for drinking and cooking had to be imported from Nassau. Treasure Island was ringed by tall coral cliffs, with white sand beaches on all sides, and toward the west a watch tower known as the Custom House faced Nassau. It was said that beacon fires could be lighted at the top of the tower in case of disaster. A steep flight of white stone steps led up to the tower from the water, and to a primitive drawbridge that could be lowered for landing parties who arrived from tenders anchored off the shore. A huge black sting ray habitually floated nearby, just below the surface of the turquoise water, and the natives claimed that he was the island's guardian. All these details John relished, and he approached his proprietorship of Treasure Island as though he were another Robinson Crusoe.

The “Great House” at Treasure Island stood at the end of a palm-shaded walk about a quarter of a mile away from the Custom House Tower. It was low, sprawling, shuttered, and cool, with one high terrace overlooking the sea and, on the inland side, a vine-covered, sheltered terrace with swinging ships' lanterns overhead and a long refectory table where meals were served. There was a living room which John quickly established as his winter study, and the round
mahogany table at the center of the room was soon covered with books, magazines, and undulating mounds of Book-of-the-Month Club galleys, along with a sturdy liquor supply (the Scotch, John used to point out, had been an admirable bargain due to the recent devaluation of the pound). The living room walls were decorated with shells, bits of coral, dried starfish, and sea fans. Beyond stretched dark bedrooms, an ancient bath and water closet, storage rooms, and a kitchen with a gas-run refrigerator, the most important appliance on the island since it was the only source of ice cubes.

Treasure Island required a good-sized staff. There were Captain Sweeting of the boat
and two sailors; there were Josephas, the caretaker, and his wife Lineth; also Josephas's brother-in-law, Richard; Corinne, a waitress, her husband Eric, and Myrtis, a cook. There were also his own secretary, an ex-WAC named Marjorie Davis, who was placed in a tent called “the collapsible house” nearby, and the shy English lady schoolmistress who appeared on week ends to tutor the three children. Still another member of the Marquand household was Myrtis's baby, who required its own ragged nine-year-old baby sitter. All these people immediately began referring to John Marquand as “the Boss,” which delighted him. Never in his life, he claimed, had he attained such an exalted position.

As he did with most things, John romanticized and exoticized Treasure Island, turning it into something it never was and never could be, a kind of Eden. There were always guests, some of them famous, like the Lindberghs. Others just old friends, like the Fiskes, who arrived by boat from Nassau, entering the pretty lagoon that was the island's only harbor through a narrow, wind-swept cut in the coral rock that was passable only at high tide, making their way across the unsteady drawbridge, then up the cliff and down the path to the Great House. There were luncheon parties and dinner parties and fishing parties and cocktail parties. John would dictate for several hours each morning to Marjorie Davis, then join the party, and the rest of the day would be devoted to pleasure. There was swimming at one or the other of the two beaches, one for morning and one for afternoon—though John enjoyed reversing things by going to the morning beach in the afternoon, and vice versa. There were long walks to the far tip of the island, and fishing expeditions,
and trips to nearby Rose Island where English friends had a luxurious beach house with fresh-water showers. But overnight stops in such comfortable oases were prohibited, since John felt that this would be disloyal to the spirit of Treasure Island.

John invented elaborate games and contests to amuse his guests that were devised exclusively for Treasure Island. He would paint numbers on the backs of land crabs and, with each guest assigned a number and a beast, there would be crab races. There were shelling contests for which John and Henry Seidel Canby, another frequent guest, drew up complicated rules with prizes for such categories as the “Most Worthy Sea Fan,” the “Best All-Round Coral,” the “Most Unusual and Desirable Shell,” and the “Shell Most Likely to Succeed.” The most ironclad rule of all was that no shell was to have been purchased in one of the shell shops in Nassau. The servants, perhaps because they could not read or write, tended to overlook some of the strictures of the contests and, since they made the daily shopping trips to Nassau, won most of the prizes, to the disappointment of the children, who had spent hours walking the beaches with bowed heads looking for rarities.

Toward evening, the cocktail hour became a ritual with strong drinks John had concocted out of rum and Falernian, and a mysterious and particularly potent secret recipe he christened “Island Magic.” It cast its spell efficiently, and, on the lamplit, sheltered terrace, with just the trace of a soft tropic breeze, John would tell his famous stories seated in a chair beneath an ancient wooden sign which proclaimed, “I am Monarch of All I Survey.” Some of John's favorite stories were about his friend Gene Tunney who, for all the roughness of his trade as a prize fighter, had an elegant, almost mincing speaking style of which John was an excellent mimic. “Charming” was a word Tunney used frequently, and John loved to tell of Tunney's account of lunching in Havana one day with Ernest Hemingway, whom Tunney pronounced as “perfectly charming.” Hemingway had served, according to Tunney, some “charming martinis,” and then, after a “charming” lunch, a great many more “charming martinis” which, as Hemingway downed them, had the effect of making the author somewhat less charming. He became, in fact, quite belligerent. John's version of what happened then went like this:

“Gene told me that Hemingway had these Siamese cats, and that even the cats were drinking martinis. Hemingway would kick off his slippers and scratch the cats' backs, and then he began talking about foul blows in boxing and began to demonstrate them on Gene. Gene said, ‘Ernest knows a lot about boxing, but perhaps I know a bit more about it than Ernest. Ed Fink, who was Al Capone's bodyguard, was my teacher. And all of a sudden Ernest came at me and started swinging. He came up and cut me across the lips, and there was blood, and then he jabbed me in the left elbow. I said to Ernest, “Do stop it, please, Ernest,” but he kept right on punching. I didn't want to get on the outside—I really pride myself on my in-fighting—and I thought to myself: what Ernest needs is a good little liver punch. There's a little liver punch, and it has to be timed exactly, and when I saw the moment I let him have it. I was a little alarmed, if I do say so! His knees buckled, his face went gray, and I thought he was going to go down. But he didn't, and for the next few hours Ernest was perfectly charming.'”

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Carnations in January by Clare Revell
Bachelors Anonymous by P.G. Wodehouse
Thief of Light by Rossetti, Denise
Rough Ride by Keri Ford
Staverton by Caidan Trubel
Damian's Oracle by Lizzy Ford
Deception at Sable Hill by Shelley Gray