Her Infinite Variety

Her Infinite Variety

by Louis Auchincloss

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From one of America's greatest men of letters, our sublime master of manners, comes his long-awaited new novel, HER INFINITE VARIETY. Louis Auchincloss has been called "our most astute observer of moral paradox among the affluent" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), his fiction described as that which "has always examined what makes life worth living" (Washington Post Book… See more details below


From one of America's greatest men of letters, our sublime master of manners, comes his long-awaited new novel, HER INFINITE VARIETY. Louis Auchincloss has been called "our most astute observer of moral paradox among the affluent" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), his fiction described as that which "has always examined what makes life worth living" (Washington Post Book World). Now he brings us the rollicking tale of an unforgettable woman of mid-twentieth century America: the devilish, forever plotting, yet wholly beguiling Clara Hoyt.

A romantic early in life, Clara gets engaged -- much to her mother's horror -- to the lackluster Bobbie Lester. Soon after her Vassar graduation, however, Clara sees the error of her ways, spurns Bobbie, and slyly enthralls the well-bred and fabulously wealthy Trevor Hoyt, the first of her husbands. Soon she lands a job at a tony magazine, and so begins her wildly entertaining course to the inner sanctum of New York's aristocracy and into the boardrooms of the publishing world.

In a world where women still had to wield the weapons of allure and charm, above all else, to secure positions of power, Clara, one of the last of her kind, succeeds marvelously. Auchincloss gives us, in Clara, an irresistible Cleopatra, lovely, wily, and mercurial. As Shakespeare wrote of that feminine creation, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety."

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Well, I don't know about variety. Clara Hoyt seems like a pretty typical young, striving aristocratic woman earlier in this century, when the clear path to coldblooded success was to marry well. Clara's move after Vassar to her first marriage to a good society match is expected, but when World War II intervenes and her husband is posted abroad, she has an affair with (egad!) a left-leaning journalist. He dies in Europe, her marriage eventually gives way, and she moves on with a magazine career of her own. This allows her to break up the marriage of her boss and eventually inherit his fortune. Billed as a novel of manners, Auchincloss's 56th book is a two-dimensional view of New York society life that breezes quickly through a few decades but offers no real insight into the human experience. Not recommented.
The Chicago Tribune
The last, best chronicler of [a] small, but shiny, sliver of society.
The Los Angeles Time
One of the century's very best American writers.
Kirkus Reviews
One of Auchincloss's great themes—the decline of the ruling-class WASP—here expands to include the female strivers of the pre-feminist age. Think of all this century's grande dames, those smart and connected women from Pamela Harriman to Brooke Astor who refused to assume a matronly role for their well-off hubbies, and you have the real-life counterparts to Auchincloss's heroine. This is not his first book to examine the ethics of well-bred women on the make (see The Lady of Situations, 1990). What's new here is a surprising sexual frankness, conveying a familiar reminder that among the upper classes even adultery has its rules of behavior. Violet Longcope, the frustrated wife of a Yale professor, hopes for greater things for her daughter, Clara, a blond and beautiful Vassar grad. Pushed by her mother, herself deluded by visions of "the great world" beyond New Haven, Clara marries into the fabulously wealthy Hoyt family, ruled by her mother-in-law, who cautiously approves Clara's desire to have a career of her own. A success at a major style magazine, Clara pauses briefly in her ascent to bear a child. While her husband fights in WWII, she gets involved stateside with a Kennedyesque politician. After her lover dies at Normandy and her husband learns of the affair, Clara gets a divorce and devotes herself full-time to her career. She plots her editorial takeover of the magazine, eventually marries the elderly tycoon who owns it, and after his death runs his foundation with the same savvy she's displayed throughout. Auchincloss works in his familiarity with trusts and estates once again when Clara's greedy stepson challenges herinheritance.Always the smooth operator, liberal-minded Clara survives an ill-fated affair with an oily art-dealer and eventually triumphs with an ambassadorship from JFK himself. Another fine chapter in Auchincloss's ongoing fictional chronicle of the American century.

From the Publisher
"Another fine chapter in Auchincloss's ongoing fictional chronicle of the American century." Kirkus Reviews

"This is a modern book with old-fashioned virtues: a compelling plot, vivid characters, and marvelous scenery, all described in Auchincloss's rich and precise prose. He's a master!"—Susan Cheever

"One of the century's very best American writers." The Los Angeles Times

"The last, best chronicler of [a] small, but shiny, sliver of society." The Chicago Tribune

"...his unsparing portrait of an ambitious woman has vitality and credibility, and it voices truths with elegant precision."—Andrew Pope Publishers Weekly, Starred

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Chapter One

Violet longcope had, from the earliest signs of her daughter's incipient beauty, drilled into Clarabel's lovely head the warning that a single unwary submission of the heart to the wrong male charm could throw a girl perhaps irretrievably off the smooth tracks of the best laid life plan. The warning was all the more necessary for a girl raised not only in a university town but in the very heart of a university. Pierpont in 1937 was the newest of the colleges in Yale's new college plan, and Violet's husband, Irving Longcope, was its popular master. Their residence, forming a corner of the creamy square Gothic edifice, ornamented with ugly pediments and narrow mullioned windows, was a social center for the undergraduates who came freely in and out to attend her teas or her husband's famed "readings aloud" in the vast cellar rumpus room. It had not taken any of these young men long to cultivate the acquaintance of the tall lissome blond daughter of the master, with her infectiously sympathetic laugh, her large, amused yet tantalizingly detached gray-blue eyes, her high spirits and her bold graceful stride.

She had certainly not had her looks from her mother. Not that Violet lacked attractions. She was generally considered the brightest and wittiest of the college masters' wives (not that this, as she too often reminded herself, was such a compliment), but such qualities in a woman were not those that appealed most to young men. Violet had been pretty enough as a girl, but at fifty her long thin face had sharpened; her chin was more pointed, her nose more aquiline, and her pale, rather staring eyes and way oftwisting her head around to look at you while her small body remained absolutely still might suggest a bird, though a bird of sharp acuity and critical acumen. Some of the faculty wives professed to be afraid of her tongue, and she didn't mind this a bit. She would have adored to preside over a salon, and would have paid with her eyesight for Madame du Deffand's famous one. And what did she have instead? A circle of Yale students for tea and an occasional faculty supper where the men argued tediously about tenure.

And she didn't even get the right undergraduates at tea! The "prep school" crowd, the sons of her girlhood friends, the scions of old New York and New England first families - these not only shunned such sissy affairs as teas; they didn't even apply to Pierpont, but to Pierson or Davenport or Berkeley. Poor Pierpont, in the inexplicably arbitrary way of fashion, or perhaps because of one year's assignment to it of some particularly unattractive and riotous youths, had acquired the odious name of a "meatball" college. Irving was sufficiently known as an English professor to attract some of the "white shoe" crowd to his readings in the cellar - and Irving, for all his booming enthusiasm for the down-to-earth Chaucer and the yearning democracy of Walt Whitman, had a distinct preference for handsome, well-heeled men who belonged to the better fraternities and senior societies - while she had to hand out her cups and cakes to hungry bursary students, to timid rustics who regarded her teas as elegant social rituals and to epicene youths who sought a female oasis in a rather too boisterously male society.

Of her two children, only Clara had seemed moldable - at least up to the present crisis. Clara, almost from the beginning, had been the star of the little family; in Clara, and in Clara alone, had been Violet's hope of a new and brighter life. Brian, hunky and moody and truculently independent, already a junior at Yale, was absorbed in physics and had no interest in the drama of personalities that so occupied his mother. He would go his own way, God bless him, and never need her. But Clara could have the world - or could have had it - if she could only learn to want it enough! She had warmth and charm and brains and humor, and the way she wrinkled her small, upturned nose as she smiled or laughed and widened her eyes in delight was captivating to the coldest male. She was so enchanting that it sometimes seemed to Violet that she might be playing a part, like an actress in repertory who could be Imogen one night, Cleopatra the next, and, yes, even Lady Macbeth on a third.

Violet, over her husband's opposition - and she never hesitated to overrule him, sharply and effectively, in the very few matters about which she cared - had sent Clara for three years to Saint Timothy's, an exclusive girls' boarding school, to get her away from New Haven and to introduce her to the kind of women Violet thought would be helpful to her later in life, and the result had been very satisfactory. Clara had not only led the school academically; she had excelled in sports, and the leadership that she had easily established among her classmates showed that she would never be one of those foolhardy women who neglect to make firm allies in their own sex. From Saint Timothy's she had gone to Vassar, and at Vassar she had developed the unfortunate habit of coming home every weekend. Why? It was surely not for the pleasure of seeing her parents, or even her brother, of whom she was very fond. No, it could be for only one reason, and that would surely be the wrong one.

And, of course, it was Bobbie Lester. He was just the kind of young man Violet had most dreaded because he was the hardest to fault. He was Irving's principal assistant, a senior working his way through Yale as a faculty helper, not exactly one of the social crowd but "connected," as the saying is, his family being respectably impoverished, with an heroic father killed in France in 1918 and a brave little mother who gave bridge lessons to her stylish but charitable friends. Bobbie was handsome and athletic and cheerful and idealistic; his golden ambition was to return to the prep school he had so extravagantly loved, and where he had been football captain and senior prefect, and teach history and coach crew and train boys for the great adventure of life.

When a beaming Clara and Bobbie came into the garden, hand in hand, that Sunday afternoon, where Violet was sitting, with the great hulk of Irving radiating his blessings behind them, to tell her that they were now really engaged, and wanted to be married in June because Bobbie had been promised the desired job at his beloved prep school upon his graduation, Violet found that she simply could not speak. She got up, hurried into the house and locked herself in her bedroom. Nor would she open it when Clara pounded on the door and Irving thundered through the keyhole. She stayed there until she knew it was time for Clara to return to Vassar and watched her from the window as Bobbie drove her to her train. Then she emerged to face her husband.

"There's no point discussing something about which you all have made up your minds."

And she maintained her position until the following weekend when Clara returned. She arrived early on Saturday morning and went to her mother's chamber, where Violet was still in bed, drinking coffee and working on a crossword puzzle. She sat firmly down in the chair beside her.

"Mother, you must talk to me!"

Violet filled in a word before looking up. "You're at liberty to wreck your own life, my dear. But don't ask me to be your auxiliary. I'll have nothing to do with it!"

"But if I beg you to discuss it with me!"

Violet put down the paper. "In that case, of course, I will. I've been waiting for the moment when I thought you might be ready to listen. Really to listen, I mean. There's no point discussing an engagement with a person determined that nothing will convince her that her love is not the be-all and end-all of her life."

"And you think that my wanting to talk to you may mean that I'm having my doubts about that?"

"I don't really think anything, darling, except that you and I might just possibly be on the verge of a mutual communication."

Clara jumped up from her chair at this and strode to the window. How her every move was graceful! Violet knew that her daughter, no matter how keenly her emotions were aroused, never lost sight of how she appeared to observing eyes.

"It's only because your deafening silence has driven me mad!" Clara exclaimed, turning now to glare at the complacent maternal figure in the bed. "As I'm sure you meant it to!"

Violet glanced down at her discarded puzzle. "We don't have to talk at all, my dear."

"Oh, you know we do! Please, Mummie, let's get on with it. Tell me why you hate Bobbie."

"I don't hate him at all. I rather like him. As a matter of fact, if I were ten or fifteen years younger and your father not in the picture, I could fancy him as a kind of cavaliere servente. For a time, anyway."

"For a time! That's it, then. You don't think that as a lover - for that's what your flossy term means, I suppose - that he'd last?"

"Yes, dear. That is it. In the proverbial nutshell. I don't think he'd last. And I don't think he will last. For you, I mean."

"You mean you don't think he'd be faithful?"

"You know I don't mean that. He'll be faithful, all right. To the very end. To the bitter end. And it will be bitter, too, because he'll be too nice, too dear, too much of a sweet teddy bear, for you ever to shed. That's where he'll have you, my girl. And for life."

"Why should I ever want to shed him?"

"To save yourself from suffocation. Look, Clara. You've fallen in love with a pair of shining black eyes, a muscular torso with broad shoulders and sculpted thighs, an infectious enthusiasm and some highfalutin ideas - the whole glittering costume of youth - and all of it directed at you with a passionate sincerity!"

"It is sincere, then? You admit that?"

"Oh, totally. That's the trap that's set for us poor females. Not that we don't have our own, but that's not what I'm talking about now. The male animal only wants one thing, and he's off after he's got it. But the male human wants us for life. You'll find yourself snared in that school. He'll do well enough there, for the boys will like him, and the masters won't fear his competition."

"Why won't they?"

"Because they'll see he hasn't got the imagination or drive or even the backbiting ability ever to be a headmaster, unless he runs into a Mr. Chips situation, which isn't likely. And as he grows older, he will become a kind of school legend, much loved but a bit laughed at by the older and more sophisticated boys who will joke among themselves at his little clichés."

"Mother, stop! You're too awful!"

"You mean too true. Has Bobbie ever said anything that would impress you from the lips of a homely man? You know he hasn't, though you hate to face it. But face it you will when the hair begins to recede from his temples, and his fanny begins to widen, and he starts to repeat himself, or rather when you start to notice it. That's a little process called life, and there's nothing on earth you can do about it."

"But even if what you say is true or, let us say, has a molecule of truth in it, which I'm not for a minute conceding, there'd be things I could do with myself at the school. I wouldn't have to be submerged in Bobbie's teaching life!"

"Oh, yes, I suppose you could help in local charities. Or even tutor some of the backward boys. Or take up watercolors. And, of course, it would be an ideal life for a writer, if you had any gift in that line. But I don't see that as your cup of tea. And the atmosphere of a school community can be a terrible anaesthetic."

"I'd have children, I hope. And the support of a loving husband."

"The last you'd certainly have. And I'm sure Bobbie would be a vigorous lover. But you'd pay a high price for those wild nights, my girl. And at the risk of your calling me an old bawd, I'd like to point out that Bobbie is far from being the only male who could give them to you."

"Really, Mother, I wouldn't have thought it of you!"

"You think women my age don't have their fantasies about sex? Dream on, my dear!"

Violet had sown her seed; she knew when to stop. When Bobbie came to lunch that day, she was very cordial, particularly as he played into her hand with his theory of how to redirect the disciplinary emphasis of the school to which he was headed.

"I believe there has been too much of the negative in the moral code of the preparatory schools," he opined gravely. "Too many can'ts and don'ts. One headmaster is even reputed to have said that if his vocabulary were limited to a single word and that word was 'no,' he could still get by. I think boys are better than that. After all, they are young men. I think if you challenge them with something positive, put before them a 'do' or a 'let's go' instead of a bleak prohibition, you have a good chance of lighting the real fire inside them. It's the difference between offense and defense, between the guy with the puck before his stick and the goalie. Give the boys something really to go for . . ."

She didn't have to look at Clara. She knew that she was wincing.

Violet was very well aware that she was engaged in a struggle that she might lose, but that didn't matter to her. She wanted to be sure that she had done all she could to keep her daughter from making her mistake, or rather from making a much graver one. For Bobbie Lester was never going to have a career that approached the success of Irving Longcope's. Indeed, most of Violet's friends and relatives considered that she had done very well for herself. Irving was a college master and a popular teacher; he cut a sufficient figure on the Yale campus. That was all very well, and Violet was not a woman to undervalue her few blessings as she took them out, one by one, from the tight little chest of her memories and reappraisals, counted them and put them carefully back. It was all very well, truly, but Irving Longcope had not become half the man she had expected him to be.

Her family, the Edeys, had been the kind of old New Yorkers who had been somehow able to subsist, with moderate but unquestioned respectability, for generations on the fringe of Knickerbocker society, supported by the exiguous rentals of some tightly retained strips of lower Manhattan real estate. Her father had attained an obscure fame by writing a popular book of opera plots with photographs of the great divas of the golden age - Calvé, Eames, Ternina - and some moderately witty vers de société. He had been a fussy old dandy, a perennially white-tied figure seated in the back of the boxes of the parterre, in one of which he actually managed to die. His wife was the constantly ailing malade imaginaire of the era, mild, sweet and uncomplaining, who didn't mind that her spouse was so often asked to dine out en garçon. Violet had been sent to Miss Chapin's School; she had grown up with all the "right" people; in fact she had grown up with none others. But she had always known that her family lived on the edge, that the morning mail contained bills that her father would crumple with a grunt of outrage and that, as a debutante, she had come out only on the coattails, as it were, of a rich second cousin, the honor of whose ball she was allowed to share. And in the New York of the century's first decade everyone knew everything about everyone else.

Irving Longcope had seemed the perfect and hardly hoped for answer to the problem of a young woman of no fortune and no very striking looks in a milieu of rather garish prosperity. In 1911 he was a handsome, stalwart figure of a man, some dozen years older than herself, with a military stature and the reputation of a hero - he had fought in Cuba and written a best seller about the charge up San Juan Hill - and he was looking for a wife, it was rumored, because he was running for Congress and the party wanted a married man. Violet's father had for once proved useful; he had met him in an opera box and taken the delighted Rough Rider backstage to introduce him to Jean de Reszke, who had sung Siegfried that night, after which it had been in order to invite him to dinner, and Violet had done the rest.

She had seen at once that for all Irving's rather intimidating bluster he was essentially shy, particularly with women, and dreaded falling into the clutches of a bossy one. He wanted a quiet and admiring spouse, and it took her only a few weeks of what he was later to describe too often as "a whirling courtship" in which he "swept her off her feet" to convince him that she would be the Mrs. Longcope of his fondest dreams.

But it was not long after their union that Violet began to realize that she had misconceived her man. He handled his campaign for Congress with every ineptitude, disregarding the advice of the bosses and speaking out on issues as if party lines didn't exist. He lost and lost badly, and it was evident that his political career was over before it had begun, and Violet's dream of the gubernatorial mansion in Albany or a high position in Washington as the wife of an Empire State senator vanished forever. Irving had some money but not enough for a family; he studied for a master's degree in English and got a job teaching at Yale. It seemed the best he could do.

He was never a deep or even an illuminating scholar or critic - Violet saw that clearly enough - but he had an enthusiasm for the manly verse of Browning, the realistic vigor of Fielding, the adventurous sagas of Conrad, the rollicking satires of Byron, that was contagious, particularly with young men more addicted to sports and parties than to academic studies, and his reputation spread. It was Violet who kept her ear to the ground, and when the college system was established, it was she who, having quietly cultivated the friendship of President Angell and others in authority, managed to keep Irving's name in the running for a mastership.

It was not easy, for many of the faculty were against the appointment of a professor who appeared to be too lazy (Irving claimed he was busy with his real job: teaching) to publish scholarly works. And even after his appointment to Pierpont, the opposition became so acerbic that Irving's rowdier enthusiasts in the undergraduate body broke into the offices of the leading anti- Longcope professors to cover their desks with garbage. In the end Irving compromised with his critics, not very satisfactorily to either side, by publishing a handbook of Browning, largely a reworking of his master's dissertation.

There had been no further excitement. Indeed, there had been little further change. Irving through the years had seemed to dwindle into a voice, a large sonorous voice to be sure, delivering the identical lectures on Victorian poets and novelists to gradually less admiring undergraduates and in some cases to hostile ones converted to Eliot and Pound and Scott Fitzgerald. All of them knew they could cut his classes at will and read his well-known discourses in a trot. But he was still something of a Yale institution; everyone knew who he was. And Violet had given up asking herself what had gone wrong. Nothing had gone wrong. Irving was what he had been from the beginning: a golden windbag. The error had been hers and hers alone.

Clara did not come home again for three weeks. She telephoned that she was studying for exams. Bobbie protested to her parents that she wouldn't let him visit her at Vassar, and Violet, who had never shown him her hand and had let him suppose that her strange conduct at the engagement announcement was mere shock, urged him not to interfere with her studies and assured him that all was well. She was even beginning to hope that it might be.

But Clara had another arrow to her bow. She appeared suddenly one Saturday morning and sought a long, private conference with her father, presumably to enlist his aid. Violet waited for them to finish, seated rather grimly in her little garden, protected from the college quadrangle by a low brick wall, her needlepoint in hand. Was it possible, she wondered, that Clara could really expect substantial help from her father?

When they came out of the house at last, they seemed girded for battle. They sat together, rather absurdly, on a bench not quite large enough to hold two.

"Our daughter tells me that you have some objections to the young man of her choice."

"You might put it that way, yes."

"And you have not seen fit to impart them to me. May I ask why?"

"Because you are not planning to marry him."

The ponderous graying figure before her seemed to brace itself to sustain this shock. Violet, surveying him with a cruel detachment, had never felt less married.

"That seems a new slant in the married relationship!" he exclaimed.

"Or a very old one."

Irving cleared his throat as he decided he had better return to the point. "Is it your position, Violet, that this amiable and attractive young man, equipped with an honorable character, respectable antecedents and a reasonably secure future, is not a qualified candidate for our daughter's hand?"

"I don't deny any of the attributes you ascribe to him. I have considered them carefully. And I have found them inadequate."

"Because he lacks riches?"

"Not at all."

"Or isn't blue-blooded enough for you?"

"You know that's ridiculous."

"What is it, then?"

"Simply that he will never become, by the remotest stretch of the imagination, even the hollow copy of a great man."

Irving's glance at his daughter seemed to indicate that they were dealing with one at least temporarily bereft of her senses. "So! You fly high, I see. And what leads you to suppose that Clara is entitled to - or even wants - a great man?"

"Only the fact that she is capable of getting one."

"And that is all that matters to you? Worldly success?"

"I never said it had to be worldly. But yes, it would have to be success, of a sort. Even if Clara herself were the only one to recognize it."

"What about Clara's happiness? Or doesn't that matter to you?"

"Oh, I care a great deal about Clara's happiness. More perhaps than you do."

"And just what do you mean by that?"

"That I think I know her better than you do."

"You think she's more like you, that's what it is, isn't it?"

"I think she's ambitious, yes."

"As you are?"


"Oh, Mother!" There were sudden tears in Clara's eyes.

Irving looked very grave as he now stood up. "Does that mean that she can't be happy without what you call success?"


"And that you can't be, either?" In the silence that followed, Violet simply stared up at him. "Violet, are you trying to tell me that you haven't been happy?"


"Oh stop it, you two, for God's sake stop it!" Clara thrust herself between them and then turned, with a despairing look, and shook her mother by the shoulders. "Will you even wreck your marriage to prove me wrong?" She broke away from her parents with a sob. "I don't know where I am anymore. I don't know what I'll do!"

Violet always knew when to stop. She signaled to her husband to leave their daughter alone and went out for a long walk. When she returned, Clara had gone back to Vassar, and Irving at lunch had the good sense not to return to the dangerous topic of what regrets, if any, his wife harbored about her quarter of a century with himself.

There he was! Slipping into the back of the living room to sit by Clara on a sofa, not threading his way through the twenty-odd students who had assembled around the table where his hostess was pouring tea, though it was his first appearance at one of her little gatherings and he should properly have come over to greet her, even if he wasn't aware that Violet had been a classmate of his mother's. But the Hoyts were all that way - a rule to themselves, it used to be said. He would come with his swanky pals to Irving's readings in the cellar - these passed his muster - but to a silly tea at "meatball" Pierpont? Never! Only Clara could have changed that.

Violet watched him with a cautious eye - not that she need fear his noticing. He was intent in his talk with Clara. He looked as if he ought to be much handsomer than he was, which in an odd way made him so. He was tall and thin with a long narrow head and a dark complexion. His brow was high, his nose strong with a slight, quite superior hook; there was something of the red Indian about him, and indeed his mother's family, the Kanes, were supposed to have a squaw somewhere in their ancestry. Everything about Trevor Hoyt, from the easy smiling way he seemed to take over the chatter of Clara's little group, whom he probably despised, to the blackness of his well- pressed and well-fitting suit and the radiant scarlet of his wide tie proclaimed an assurance that was curiously inoffensive.

How different, Violet recalled, from his mother! Charlotte Kane, child of a Morgan partner, had been as a schoolgirl at Miss Chapin's as big and plain and bossy as Charlotte Hoyt, wife of the president of the Bank of Commerce, was at present, the only differences being that the older woman was gray and gravelly-voiced and fifty pounds heavier. But Violet did not have to read many social columns or talk to many of her old-time friends to know that Mrs. Hamilton Hoyt was a dominant voice in the New York world of the private schools, the subscription dances, the opera, the art museums, the benefit balls. When people, appalled at the rapid turnover and changing manners of the urban élite, asked if there was anything left of "old New York society," the answer was apt to be: "Well, we still have the Hamilton Hoyts."

Violet sought her daughter's eye now and, pointing to Hoyt, signaled to her to bring him over. It was the first time she had dared even to notice a beau of her daughter's since the shedding of poor Bobbie. She knew not to push her luck. Clara spoke to her friend now, and a minute later he was seated at Violet's side.

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Hoyt. I used to know your mother."


"We were at school together at Miss Chapin's."

Was there the faintest flicker of surprise in those dark eyes? Had he thought it the least bit odd that a mere spouse of academe should have been educated with the daughter of a Morgan partner? If so, his recovery was quick and natural.

"May I give her your best when I see her next?"

"Please do. The bad lady in one of Oscar Wilde's comedies says of the good one that at school she always won the good conduct prize. Well, Miss Chapin didn't hand out such a prize, but if she had, your mother would have certainly got it."

"Yes, Mother's quite something, isn't she?"

He was used to hearing his mother praised; that was not the way with him. "And she has continued to gather all the prizes, right through life, has she not? But tell me something, Mr. Hoyt. Supposing your mother had been a man . . . that is, if you can imagine such a thing."

His laugh was spontaneous. "Oh, I can easily imagine it!"

"What would she have become?"

"President, at least!"

"Like the great Theodore? I remember at school a daughter of President Roosevelt saying to your mother: 'My father calls your father a malefactor of great wealth.' And your mother snapping right back with: 'Mine calls yours an irresponsible demagogue.'"

She saw that he was delighted to have his family identified with the great. The animosity only added to the compliment. "That sounds like Mother all right. Straight to the jaw!"

"But isn't it a pity that her talents didn't have a wider scope? We poor women can only dream of the top spots in life. While you, for example - nothing stands in your way. Your only trouble will be - if you go into your father's bank - that envious people will attribute the success you owe to your own abilities to the family tie."

Oh, she had all his interest now! "That's perfectly true, Mrs. Longcope. And I've had to do some serious thinking about it. I've wondered if I shouldn't at least start somewhere else."

"And then you could shift over when you've made your mark."


"Let me see your hand." She turned over what he promptly exhibited to her and pretended to read the palm, smiling at her little joke. "You will do very well. Madame Sosostris tells you so."

"If I survive this war that Herr Hitler seems to be threatening."

"You will. You have the look of a survivor. But tell me something. Would you object to your wife's having a career?"

He became at once wary. Was she sounding him out about Clara? "Not so much if any kids we had were older and away at school. And so long as she was home in the evenings and shared vacations with me and wasn't working all the time."

"In some dreary law office or accounting firm? I can't blame you. Maybe some time in the future we women may come to that, and then we'll be as dull as you men!" Here she smiled and gave his hand a pat. "Not you, my dear Mr. Hoyt - or Trevor, if I may call you that - for I see you're not the least bit dull. And I can talk to you. But if you're a friend of Clara's, I wish you'd talk some sense into her."

"You mean Clara wants a career?"

"She talks of going into advertising. Do you find that attractive? To spend her life hoodwinking people into thinking they can do something about their bad breath and body odor?"

"Phew! I do not!"

"It's not the way I used to dream of her future."

"How did you see it?" He was distinctly interested now.

"I saw her as a partner to some big man. Sharing his career. As an ambassadress, for example, in diamonds, receiving the notables at the top of a marble staircase. That's just a silly dream, I suppose."

His obvious disappointment amused her. "You never, I suppose, saw her as the wife of anything as lowly as a banker?"

"How could the wife of a banker be any kind of a partner to her husband? Would he put her behind the counter?"

"No, no, there'd be all kinds of ways!" She had not only destroyed any idea he might have nurtured that she had designs on him; she had probed him into actively promoting his own eligibility. "Look at my mother! She's invaluable to Dad. She entertains all the big depositors, organizes the firm parties, keeps the other wives happy, travels all over the world with him -"

"Stop!" She put her hands to her ears. "I take it back. Truly. A banker would do beautifully. But if you have any influence on my daughter, do try to persuade her not to become a vet or a dentist!"

She sent him back now to Clara, who, as she had been well aware, had all the time had her eye on them. Much later that night, when Clara came home from her date with Hoyt, she paused before her mother's open bedroom door. The latter was reading in bed.

"Did you have a pleasant evening, dear?" Violet asked.

"Mother, can I talk to you?"

"Of course, dear."

Clara came in and sat at the bottom of the bed. "You have this idea about my marrying a great man. I watched you making up to Trevor at tea. Is he your idea of a great man?"

"Not exactly. They're hard to come by. But he strikes me as a candidate. I think he may be a bigger banker than his father, more like his maternal grandfather."

"Oh, you've looked him up?"

"I didn't have to. I know about the family. Look, dear. These things are never sure. But it seems to me that the woman who marries Trevor Hoyt is going to have a much more interesting life than she who marries Bobbie Lester."

"Poor Bobbie. Let's leave him out of it. He's taken the whole thing badly enough as it is."

"He'll get over it. His beloved school will distract him."

"Don't gloat, Mother, or I may run back to him. Now, as to Trevor. How much does his money count in your appraisal?"

"Only as a form of insurance. If his career shouldn't pan out, then there will be lots of things that you can do with the money."

"Does it never occur to you that I might obtain all the things you seem to want for me - and assume that I want as well - on my own?"

"Oh, I've thought it over carefully. Women are going into all sorts of things now they didn't used to go into. But it's the top I'm talking about. The top jobs, except in the arts and fashion, are all tightly held by men. Maybe in the future that will change, maybe you were born a bit too early. But in a world ruled by males, a natural female leader like yourself had better pick a natural male leader."

"And that's what you think Trevor is."

"I think it's what he may be."

"So I should marry him?"

"Or someone like him."

"Marriage is the only ticket?"

"Well, it still gets you in."

"What about love? Or don't you think it counts?"

"Of course it counts. But I shouldn't think it would be so hard to love a man like Trevor Hoyt. He's obviously stuck on you, and that's half the battle."

"Yes," Clara agreed, in a more reflective tone, "there's some truth in that. It's pleasant to be loved. Unless you actually hate the person who loves you. And I certainly don't hate Trevor."

"It must be rather fun, too, to beat out all the other girls who are chasing after him."

Clara rose from the bed at this. "Do you know something, Mother?"

"I know that means you're about to say something unpleasant."

"I sometimes think you're rotten to the core." Clara's tone was as smooth as if she were uttering a compliment. "But I'm in no position to make anything of it. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not a piece of fruit from the same tree."

"Well, as I always say, you've only one life, my girl, and the great thing is not to throw it away, as so many do. Don't ask of your nature more than it can reasonably give. That's the way the biggest mistakes are made. Will you put out the lights downstairs when you go to bed?"

"I'll put out all the lights!" Clara exclaimed with a rather nasty chuckle as she closed her mother's door behind her.

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Susan Cheever
This is a modern book with old-fashioned virtues: a compelling plot, vivid characters, and marvelous scenery, all described in Auchincloss's rich and precise prose. He is a master!
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Hortense Calisher
Auchincloss's witty detachment from the society he was born to allows him to display it a as sector that neither books nor politics should ignore. Read him for entertainment, which you'll find, and be further informed by—shh—a classicist.
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