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The Friend of Women and Other Stories

The Friend of Women and Other Stories

by Louis Auchincloss

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The Los Angeles Times has lauded Louis Auchincloss as "a novelist committed to examining the complicated layers of character, psychology, and society." In The Friend of Women, that dedication shines on every page in the singular, epigrammatic style of an American master.

The mysteries of character are at the heart of these six previously unpublished


The Los Angeles Times has lauded Louis Auchincloss as "a novelist committed to examining the complicated layers of character, psychology, and society." In The Friend of Women, that dedication shines on every page in the singular, epigrammatic style of an American master.

The mysteries of character are at the heart of these six previously unpublished pieces. In the title story, a teacher at a private girls' school ruminates on a long career, wondering if he was right to encourage his students to find a life less constrained than the conventional one prescribed to them or if he cruelly raised unrealistic expectations. In "The Country Cousin"—a delightful one-act play—a wealthy woman's dependent niece unwittingly serves as the vehicle that reveals her rich relatives' self-involvement. Ranging from a boyhood friendship tested by the fabrications of the McCarthy era to an Episcopal priest tormented by an autocratic headmaster, Auchincloss's fiction illuminates the complications that ensue when our perceptions of other people's character—as well as our own—are upended.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

It's easy to understand why the prolific Auchincloss (East Side Story) has been hailed as a "Living Landmark," writing as he does about a mannered New York of bygone days. His latest book, a collection of six stories, doesn't stray from this familiar, still fertile ground, with mixed results. The title story's narrator, a retired English teacher from a tony Manhattan school for "young ladies," recalls his three favorite pupils (class of 1937); in detailing his involvement in their lives as they grow into adulthood, marriage and motherhood, he reveals just how far he will go to remain a confidant and friend. A New England prep school provides the setting for a contest of wills between a young priest and a tyrannical headmaster in "The Devil and Rufus Lockwood," and a different clash of personalities is on display in "The Country Cousin," a light, predictable drawing room comedy of manners fashioned as a one-act play. Class conflicts, anti-Semitism and McCarthyism needle the WASPy characters, and personal transformations take place against the changing meanings of marriage and shifting social mores. Though there are few surprises and the waters aren't deep, Auchincloss turns over his own turf with consistent charm. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Five new stories, set in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and a one-act play, from National Medal of Arts recipient Auchincloss (The Young Apollo and Other Stories, April 2006, etc.). Auchincloss remains the consummate observer of extremely wealthy Americans in the 20th century. The title story features Hubert Hazelton, an English teacher at an exclusive Manhattan girls' school. A confirmed bachelor, Hubert takes special interest in the privileged lives of his three best students and advises them over the years on their choice of spouse. Although the women wind up disregarding his advice, eventually one of the husbands takes heed. In "The Devil and Rufus Lockwood," an earnest Episcopalian minister who believes he is acting piously is shocked to discover otherwise. "The Call of the Wild" pits Harry Phelps, an unassuming man who has always followed the rules and mores of his class, against the late-in-life discovery of his own passion. "The Conversion of Fred Coates" showcases the ascent of a shrewd scholarship student to the pinnacle of wealth and power . . . and his Icarus-like fall when he decides to defend an old college friend against charges of spying for Russia in McCarthy-era Washington. And in "The Omelette and the Egg," a wife whose mother and mother-in-law try to dissuade her in the strongest possible terms from becoming a writer gets her revenge. The one-act play "The Country Cousin" stars a poor relation who demonstrates the value of reason to her more-money-than-sense benefactors. Each of these delightful stories is laced with a comic surprise, demonstrating that money and problems are not mutually exclusive. Another impressive addition to an extensive oeuvre.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

3 The Call of the Wild

I have never had a friend quite like Harry Phelps. Everyone has always liked Harry, well enough, that is, but there was a general feeling that he was something of a bore, however harmless and amiable a one. He had an even temper—remarkably so, you never saw him either depressed or elated—and a bland, round countenance, a strong stocky figure, a thick head of black hair, and large, rather expressionless blue-gray eyes. Some women credited him with a subdued sex appeal, but his nature was certainly not a passionate one. Nor did he ever say anything particularly witty or even very interesting. Yet you could count on him. He was there, so to speak, always reassuringly sympathetic. He was like a glass of milk, and you couldn’t be drinking Scotch forever, could you? He was certainly a loyal friend.
Nor could he be pushed around too much. He could be directed, yes, he could even be bossed, as we have seen him be, shrilly, by Lola, his first wife, but there were still things about which he could be immovable: his Saturday game of golf, his summer fishing trip with old college pals, his pipe and favorite radio program, his early morning calisthenics. Lola would break her fingernails in any effort to interrupt these. He was like a domestic animal that would submit meekly to be trained in certain routines but could be adamant in rejecting others.
And the animal is not a bad analogy, either, as Harry, like one of them, saw no difference between himself and other members of his species. Animals are not snobs, and Harry appeared to make no distinction, say, between the fashionable society of his parents’ world and the sundry employees of his brokerage firm on Wall Street. He treated everyone in his same mild and modest way. People who met him had no notion of a social register background or an elite private schooling; these things had washed off him without leaving a trace.
I remember at the New England boarding school in which we were classmates, at age fourteen, before our voices had changed, that we were both cast as sopranos in the chorus of young maidens in a performance of The Pirates of Penzance. While delivering one of our songs, Harry noticed that his shoe had become untied. Calmly, stolidly, he leaned down slowly and carefully to retie the laces, utterly indifferent to or at least unconscious of the fact that he was breaking the orderly line of the singers. After the performance the outraged director was heard to exclaim, “Harry Phelps has no idea there’s anyone in the world but himself, and he never will!” Life, however, doesn’t depend on one’s performance in amateur theatricals, and Harry passed easily enough through school and college and took his place ultimately in his father’s small brokerage house. He was the only child of very stylish parents who had just enough money to maintain their constant round of visits to the homes of their very much richer friends. The Gerald Phelpses were a handsome, beautifully attired, highly ordered, and disciplined couple of exquisite manners who played excellent bridge and golf. They were utterly baffled by Harry, but saw that he did well enough on his own and left him, after a few vain efforts to make him more socially presentable, pretty much to himself. This was fine by him. The only unfortunate part of their detachment was in their failure to prevent his picking Lola as his bride, or rather his being picked by Lola as her husband. Not that Mr. and Mrs. Phelps approved of Lola; they simply threw up their hands when confronted with her aggressive personality, her olive complexion, and sharp black eyes. She came from a dull, respectable family on the edge of the Phelpses’ fashionable world, close enough to be recognized and snubbed by it. But Lola knew enough to bypass them and go directly after Harry. He might not have been much, but she was shrewd enough to see that he was the best she could get.
In my observance there are two kinds of nasty women: those who can be agreeable when they get what they want, and those who remain disagreeable even afterward. Lola was of the latter sort. She was one of those tormented souls who is always unhappy and wants everyone around her to be as unhappy as she is. Harry bowed meekly to all her demands: how the children should be educated, where the family should spend their vacations, what friends they should see, on what objects their money should be spent, even what church they should attend, everything, in short, except in the few areas of his pleasure specified earlier. Of course, these were just the ones she had to go after. Her possessiveness was satisfied only by totality; any reservation outraged her. But Harry was a rock when it came to thesse few retentions, and their domestic life was rent with turmoil. The two children, a docile son and a daughter who was her mother’’’’’s clone, had been drafted into the maternal alliance.
I can see now that there may have been a latent cruelty in Harry’s submission to Lola in so many aspects of their existence. Her tantrums brought her no relief; she would have been happier without them. Had Harry only once said to her quietly, “Lola, I am moving out of the house. When you have calmed down and decided to be reasonable, I shall consider returning,” and acted on it, I have little doubt that she would have collapsed. And been the better for it. She needed a firm hand to steady her in her near fits. But it was never stretched out to her.
I did not find Harry and Lola’s home a pleasant place to visit, and through the years I saw him mostly at bimonthly lunches at our downtown club. My law firm represented his brokerage house, and we occasionally had some business to discuss, but for the most part we simply exchanged items about old school and college mates. And so passed a decade and a half.
The abrupt change in our talks came about one day when he brought me a startling piece of business. He announced it, however, in his customary dry tone, and for a moment I was too stunned to reply. He wanted me to represent him in a suit for divorce that Lola was bringing against him.
When I spoke I was still too amazed to be tactful. “What did you do that finally broke the camel’s back?” “I rejected her plea for a reconciliation.” “Then you aren’t going to oppose her?” “Not in the divorce, no. But her terms are confiscatory.” “I suppose she wants the kids. That’s natural. You can always get visitation on holidays and summer.” “It’s not that. She can have the children. It’s my money I have to look out for.” “Well, of course you’ll have to give her a chunk of that. A big chunk, too. That’s inevitable.” “You don’t get it, Peter. She wants everything I’ve got. Right down to my last cuff link. I’m perfectly willing to be reasonable, even generous. But she wants to see me begging on the street corner with a steel cup in my hand.” I stared. “Harry, what have you done to her?” “It’s not so much what I’ve done. Though that’s certainly in it. It’s what I plan to do. I plan to wed Marianne Sykes. Do you know who she is?” Well, I did know. My firm represented Athena, a well-known liberal literary quarterly, with a reputation for controversy, that was backed by a wealthy woman client of ours. Marianne Sykes was one of its principal editors, and I had used her as a witness in defending the magazine against a libel case. And a very competent witness she had proved. She was a handsome, self-assured woman, with a reputation for being hard-boiled and famed for her biting wit. She was somewhere in her thirties, considerably Harry’s junior, and I knew she had been divorced at least twice. What in God’s name was a woman like that doing with Harry?
“And she wants to marry you?” I couldn’t help it. My tact was gone.
“I know it’s odd. She thinks so herself. But she fancies me. She likes me in bed.” “Harry! Is this really you talking?” Instead of returning to our offices after lunch, I took him down to the club bar where we drank an unprecedented postprandial liqueur, and I got the whole story out of him. This is what he told me.
“You know that as counsel to Athena, Peter, you were kind enough to recommend my services to any of their editors who needed investment counsel. That is how Marianne Sykes came to me. She had a modest sum to place in the market, and I had the luck to make a good little profit for her. She was pleased and invited me to one of her magazine’s cocktail parties. It was July, and Lola and the children were in Maine, so I went alone. Of course, I didn’t know any of the literary celebrities who were there, but I enjoyed watching them. And then, to my surprise, when I was leaving, she hooked her arm under mine and said, ‘How about buying me dinner? Didn’t you say you were a summer bachelor?’ Well, of course I was delighted to take such a brilliant woman out, and we went to a neighboring restaurant and drank a good deal of wine while she told me some awful stories about the people we’d just left. She can be wickedly funny, you know. After dinner I walked her home to her apartment, and she asked me up for a nightcap. And do you know what, Peter? I didn’t even hesitate. I went right up!” “And then it happened?” He nodded several times. “Then it happened, indeed. After our first drink, she suddenly stood up before me and started to unhook her blouse. She simply asked, ‘Well, are we going to fuck or aren’t we?’ “Peter, I was stunned. As you know, I never use four-letter words. My time in the navy sickened me of them. It seems to me that they turn the world into a brown stink. But I have to admit that the word she used was just the right one for what we did that night. She stripped off all her clothes, as easily as if we’d been a married couple, and told me she had no use for foreplay. And her body, Peter! Her flesh was firm, her skin like ivory. I guess I went kind of crazy. It wasn’t simply the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. It was the only thing that has ever happened to me!” “And for her?” “Oh, for her, naturally, it was something much less.” Here he actually shrugged. “I’m not a total fool, Peter. I know she has what the auto dealers call mileage. It’s not only that she has had two husbands. There have been plenty of other men, too. She makes no bones about that. But she liked what she did with me. Oh, yes, I could tell that. And she’s willing to repeat it.” “How did Lola find out?” “I told her. I had to tell her when I said I wanted a divorce.” “My god, Harry, was that necessary? A one-night stand when your wife’s away and you’ve reached a dangerous age is no reason to wreck a marriage. Even Lola might overlook it.” “Indeed, Lola offered not to overlook it, but not to let it break up our marriage. After her first terrible fit, she was ready to keep me if I promised never to see Marianne again.
But I have every intention of seeing Marianne again. I have every intention of marrying her.” “Does she insist on that?” I could hardly believe that she did.
“Not insist, no. But she’s willing to give it a whirl if I obtain my freedom.” “Harry, can’t you see that marriage means nothing to a woman like that? Sure, she fancies you now, as she says. You’ve given her some kind of a new jag, despoiling the innocent, perhaps—I’m sorry, but I must be frank with you—and when she’s through with you, she’ll toss you away like a bit of used Kleenex. And what will you be? A plucked chicken!” “I know the risks, Peter. And I’m willing to take them. Certainly, there’s something in what you say. But look at the other side. She’s younger than me by six or seven years, yes, but she’s still on the wrong side of thirty. Probably closer to the fatal forty than she admits. Brilliant and attractive as she is, husbands don’t exactly grow on trees at her age, and she’s too smart not to know it. I may not be such a bad investment, after all. The magazine world is notoriously fickle, and she has small means. And at the worst, marriage will give me more time with her. I’ll be harder to shed.” “Not much harder.” “But some.” “Harry, you’re a damn fool!” “Do you think I don’t know that?” Of course I agreed to take the poor guy’s case. But there was little I could do to reduce Lola’s voracious demands. When she had at last recognized that there was no chance of preserving her marriage, she had turned on Harry with an appalling hate, backed by a bloodhound of a lawyer. I could barely wrench a pittance of visitation of the children out of her claim for total custody, and my efforts to see that Harry retained enough of his property to live decently were constantly undermined by his anxiety to get the wrangling over with and wed his inamorata. In the end he yielded Lola full title to their house with all its furnishings, sixty percent of his income, and a goodly slice of his capital. What can you do when a client collapses on you?
I was also dismayed by the fierce unanimity with which his old world turned against him. His parents, his family, his friends, even his business partners swelled the chorus of popular outrage at his conduct. I could hardly believe that I was living in an age where divorce had become almost as accepted as marriage. What had aroused these hot denunciations of adultery and home-wrecking? What had Harry done to bring back the ghosts of Queen Victoria and John Calvin? The only way I could make any sense out of it was in the theory that what people find hardest to forgive is any fundamental change that a man makes in what they have deemed the final classification of his character. Is it not a hint that their critical faculty may not have been as true as they have believed? That a libertine continues to be a libertine is acceptable; what is troublesome is when he turns into a saint. Likewise, a dull, disciplined husband who has been certified as utterly harmless and dependable must not evolve into a rake. Harry was unforgivable and unforgiven.
I did my best for him, but my case was undermined by his eagerness to obtain a rapid release from his matrimonial bond. And when he married Marianne—for she did agree in the end to have him—he rejected my urging him to tie her down with a premarital agreement and executed a new will leaving her everything that Lola had not grabbed.
I will admit that Marianne was not mercenary. She had total confidence as a provider for herself and never gave a thought to any future financial emergency. Money was of little importance to her, and she spent freely and carelessly any that came into her hands. Harry bought her many things that she not only didn’t need, but didn’t even much want. What was worse for him, however, was the considerable sums that she took from him to loan to talented but deadbeat literary friends. And when she accepted an offer to teach English for a year at a famed western university without even consulting Harry, he took a year off from his work to accompany her. Coming back he found his percentage of the firm’s profits drastically cut, and he resigned in a huff. He was reduced now to living on the remnant of his capital, facing actual poverty when that should be exhausted.
Of course, Marianne left him. That had always been in the cards. But she left him not because of his decreased means, but because she had met her fourth husband at the western university, and she shed poor Harry just as she would have shed the piece of used Kleenex that I had once likened him to. She never even raised her voice. Harry was simply as if he had never been. She didn’t ask for a penny of alimony and paid her own lawyer in the speedy divorce proceeding.
When we lunched, he and I, after the decree came down, at what was now my but no longer his club, to discuss what the future might have in store for one so stripped of everything, he still insisted that what he had done had been worth it. The one thing he still seemed to care about was making me see this.
“Marianne gave me the only life I’ve ever had,” he kept saying.
“Oh, Harry!” I cried at last in an exasperation I could no longer suppress. “Do you really call that life? And all of life, too?” “I can try.” I refused to discuss it further. I simply couldn’t. He had shocked me to the core of my being, and I didn’t really much care what happened to him now.

Copyright © 2007 by Louis Auchincloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

Louis Auchincloss was honored in the year 2000 as a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. During his long career he wrote more than sixty books, including the story collection Manhattan Monologues and the novel The Rector of Justin . The former president of the Academy of Arts and Letters, he resided in New York City until his death in January 2010.

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