In Gatsby's Shadow: The Story of Charles Macomb Flandrau

In Gatsby's Shadow: The Story of Charles Macomb Flandrau

by Larry Haeg
     
 

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In the closing decades of the nineteenth century Minnesota produced three young men of great talent who each went east to become writers. Two of them became famous: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. This is the story of the third man: Charles Macomb Flandrau.

Flandrau, a model of style and worldly sophistication and destined, almost everyone agreed,

Overview

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century Minnesota produced three young men of great talent who each went east to become writers. Two of them became famous: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. This is the story of the third man: Charles Macomb Flandrau.

Flandrau, a model of style and worldly sophistication and destined, almost everyone agreed, for greatness, was among the most talented young writers of his generation. His short stories about Harvard in the 1890s were called “the first realistic description of undergraduate life in American colleges” and sold out of the first printing in a few weeks. From 1899 to 1902 Flandrau was among the most popular contributors to the Saturday Evening Post. Alexander Woollcott rated him the best essayist in America. And Viva Mexico!, Flandrau’s account of life on a Mexican coffee plantation, is a classic, perhaps the best travel book ever written by an American. Yet Flandrau turned his back on it all. Financially independent, he chose a solitary, epicurean life in St. Paul, Mexico, Majorca, Paris, and Normandy. In later years, he confined his writing to local newspaper pieces and letters to his small circle of family and friends.

Using excerpts from these newspaper columns and unpublished letters, Larry Haeg has painstakingly recreated the story of this urbane, talented, witty, lazy, enigmatic, supremely private man who never reached the peak of literary success to which his talent might have taken him.

This very readable biography provides a detailed and honest portrayal of Flandrau and his times. It will fascinate readers interested in writers’ life stories and scholars of American literature as well as general readers interested in midwestern literary history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An excellent and thoroughly readable biography of Charles Macomb Flandrau, a St. Paul writer from whom Scott Fitzgerald learned a good deal—and might well have learned more.”—James L. W. West III, General Editor, Cambridge Fitzgerald Edition

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781587295157
Publisher:
University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
10/01/2004
Series:
NONE Series
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
294
File size:
1 MB

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IN GATSBY'S SHADOW The Story of Charles Macomb Flandrau
By LARRY HAEG
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-919-4



Chapter One DUBLIN, NORMANDY, AND ST. PAUL

The Flandrau lineage that ends with this story is an exuberant parade of scholars, classicists, poets, soldiers, and lawyers from Ireland and France. Charlie learned noblesse oblige from exceptional parents. His mother, Rebecca - the love of his life - was slim, fragile, strikingly feminine, beguiling, a glass figurine of five feet four inches. She saw the world keenly, sensitively, with sky blue eyes. Her lithe body had a "delicate prettiness" that made her eternally girlish, even when she approached seventy and her curly hair, parted in the middle and pinned low at the back of her neck, had turned gray. "Her manner," wrote Grace, "was of that total and exquisite naturalness and simplicity which a young and ignorant person might easily fail to recognize as part of a very complete sophistication. For all her intellectuality, she was above all a feeling person, intensely loyal, intensely biased where her affections lay."

Rebecca Blair McClure was born in 1839 in Butler, Pennsylvania, youngest of three sisters. Her father, William, was a distinguished lawyer and judge from Carlisle. When the demands of the bench became too much for him, he escaped with his pen to compose whimsical stories about trout fishing. Rebecca's mother, Lydia Spenser Collins, was one of four daughters of a prominent Pennsylvania lawyer who came to the colonies from Ireland as a boy in the late eighteenth century. The Collins of Dublin were staunch Protestants; cultivated in the fine arts; readers of Addison, Locke, and Richardson; versed in the harpsichord, stage, and opera. It was Lydia Collins's grandfather, one in a long line of virulent anti-Catholics, who, a few months after losing a son in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, sailed with his wife, Susanna, Rebecca's great-grandmother, for the British West Indies. What lured him to the outpost of Dominica was political patronage. He ruled, in all probability, over the windswept volcanic outcropping as governor. Susanna Collins died there in his arms in 1800 and was buried on the island. One hundred thirty-five years later her great-great-grandson Charles Macomb Flandrau, months before his own death, was drawn to Dominica on an ill-fated pilgrimage to find her grave.

In 1805 Susanna's son Thomas, a successful Pennsylvania attorney, married the charming, refined Sarah Lowrey. She was the daughter of a Revolutionary War commissary, Colonel Stephen Lowrey, an Irish immigrant and one of the largest landowners in western Pennsylvania's Butler County. Thomas and Sarah Lowrey Collins built a country mansion on twenty acres along the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh. They had four daughters, including Rebecca's mother, Lydia. Sarah was a grand dame of Pittsburgh society, entertaining Daniel Webster at a ball in Lafayette's honor, summoning friends each Fourth of July to her estate for wine toasting.

Rebecca Blair McClure was raised an independent thinker. She was educated in Pittsburgh's private schools; read the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Addison, Steele, Fielding, and Sterne; and remembered "crying my eyes out" over Dickens's David Copperfield. She spent hours wandering alone through oak, elm, and chestnut trees along Connoquenessing Creek near Butler, picking forget-me-not, dogwood, and wild plum blossoms from the hillside. She was atheist to the core. "There is but one hopeless word to my mind," she wrote Charlie at Harvard in 1896, "and that is 'eternity.'" Her first marriage, to John Wallace Riddle of Pittsburgh, ended with his death, leaving her with a young son, John.

She returned to her mother in Butler in the heart of western Pennsylvania's nineteenth-century oil boom country. In 1870, at age thirty-one, she went west with six-year-old John to Minnesota, believing its winters could relieve her painful throat ailment. It was there she met one of the young state's famous men, State Supreme Court Judge Charles Eugene Flandrau. He was a man of intelligence, wit, courage, dignified bearing, and, like Rebecca, a widower. In 1859 he had married his first cousin, Isabella Ramsey Dinsmore, at her family's seven hundred-acre plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, and brought her proudly to Minnesota. She bore him two daughters - vivacious Martha (nicknamed "Patty" by the family, who became Charlie's confidant, supporter, and correspondent) and Sally - and then died in 1867. That Isabella should succumb to Minnesota winters must have been a double blow to her husband, who always felt its bracing climate a tonic. He liked the old settlers' joke: "There is no excuse for dying in Minnesota ... only two men ever died there, one of whom was hanged for killing the other."

The Flandraus were French Huguenots, natives of Rochelle, victims of religious persecution at the hands of Catholics loyal to Louis XIV. When the king abolished the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Flandraus lost their freedom of worship with a stroke of the pen. Generations of Flandraus for more than two hundred years, down to Charles Macomb, equated 1685 with anti-Catholicism. His great-grandfather Jacques fled Normandy to England, then to the British colonies of North America, where he and others founded New Rochelle, New York.

Jacques's son, Thomas Hunt Flandrau, born in 1801, attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, distinguishing himself as a scholar and orator. Like his future grandson, he was a nocturnal eccentric, often reading the classics through the night. He was a consummate lawyer, a precise, stylish writer. "Whatever falls from his pen," wrote one admirer, "was classical and finished. He was rarely under the necessity of correcting an expression; his ideas fell unconsciously, as it were, into line, and when committed to paper were ready for the press." In the courtroom, his sentences were "compact, volleyed." His sarcasm could sting, said someone, "like the fasces of a Roman lictor."

In New York City in the early 1820s, Thomas Flandrau caught the eye of the elderly Aaron Burr, who brought him into his law practice for two years. Burr, so the story goes, promised to give him his private papers on one condition. He had to place Burr in the best possible light. Flandrau not only refused, he did the opposite. An ardent temperance advocate, he spoke passionately at public rallies, using Burr as an example of a life ruined by drink. To a women's temperance group in Utica, New York, in the early 1840s Flandrau thundered: "He was an honest man, and a capable and experienced if not profound statesman. He enjoyed the abundant degree of public confidence.... But the destroyer had been long and insidiously undermining the fabric of his fame."

At age twenty-two Thomas Flandrau married Elizabeth Maria Macomb of New York City. Their son, Charles Eugene, was born there in 1828, attended public schools in Georgetown and Washington, D.C., then, discontented, restless, and precocious, left home at thirteen. Like a young Richard Dana, he sat on the East River wharves and watched ships sail for the California gold rush with an "insatiable boyish longing to join the procession." He received a midshipman's warrant without his parents' knowledge, spent three years at sea, returned home to his father's wrath, and was sent to work as an apprentice in a mahogany veneer factory in New York City.

After two years' restitution, he came home to study law with his father in Utica. In November 1853 he headed west with companion Horace Bigelow. They got as far as St. Paul. Coming upriver by steamboat they would have rounded the bend to see the terraced town open up before them - checkered with new frame buildings, little orange and yellow squares catching the morning sun. They could not bear to leave. Instead of returning east at the agreed time, they deliberately missed the last boat of the season down the Mississippi before the river froze. The Minnesota Territory was still four years from statehood. "I have never been more convinced than I am today that we are on the eve of great things," says a protagonist in one of Grace Flandrau's twentieth-century novels. "St. Paul ... smiles at the future and the future smiles back at her out of the West." Charles Eugene Flandrau doubtless felt the same.

Months after his arrival he started a law practice and was named one of the first agents of the fledgling St. Paul Mutual Insurance Company. After surveying the Minnesota River Valley and its tributaries for town sites, he spent eleven years, the happiest of his life by his account, at Traverse des Sioux as an Indian agent in southern Minnesota. He had remarkable physical endurance, a lean, wiry body, "legs like an antelope." He could walk 150 miles from St. Paul to Winona in three days and was capable of 12-mile walks well into his seventies. He killed wolves, sold pelts, and accumulated $1,700 in gold stored in an oyster can under a shanty. Dakota Indian leader Little Crow became his "principal adviser and ambassador." He called the Dakota Indians "magnificent horsemen, born hunters and warriors" but like most of his contemporaries urged assimilation into "our grand and comprehensive civilization." In 1862 he led a ragtag group of white volunteers to defend the town of New Ulm against Dakota Indians, who had murdered hundreds of white settlers after being denied food to the point of starvation and deprived of annuity payments from land treaties. As Grace put it, Flandrau, "extemporaneously in command, turned the Indians back." To seek revenge for the murders, he left behind a barrel of whiskey laced with strychnine on New Ulm's main street. Then he changed his mind and spilled the contents not out of mercy for the Indians but concern that white soldiers would drink it by mistake. He often found it necessary to kill, he once said, but never thought it elegant to hate. Except where American Indians were concerned. His deep regret was the "loss of so much good whiskey."

Thomas Hunt Flandrau's temperance lectures had little effect. His son, Charles Eugene, liked his liquor. Years later his wife, Rebecca, suspected that early signs of alcoholism in their son Blair seemed inherited from "Papee," as the family called him. Grace heard stories of the senior Flandrau's dining-room table stretched full length with a cluster of wine glasses of every shape at each setting. Even bad news was cause for a drink. After the collapse in the panic of 1893 of a St. Paul bank of which he was a stockholder, he arrived home late for dinner with two magnums of champagne which he "thumped" on the table and, so the story goes, proclaimed to Rebecca, "Well, baby, we're busted." In one celebrated court case, he represented a temperance group that had demolished a St. Paul tavern because it sold liquor to Indians. The owner sued, Flandrau won, and the report of the decision was carried in newspapers in the East. "That Flandrau is one of the most singular men I ever knew," said a friend. "He invariably makes a temperance speech over whiskey."

He could also play the rogue. In 1857 he was a bodyguard for Joe Rolette, a flamboyant legislator and fur trader who hid the bill that would have moved Minnesota's capital from St. Paul to St. Peter, fifty miles south on the Minnesota River. A zealous Democrat, Flandrau once tricked a Republican friend into staying away from the polls on election day, long enough to allow an entire garrison of soldiers to vote Democrat. He forged a letter from President Pierce appointing a postmaster, ending the letter with "It is our desire that you locate the office in a part of town which will accommodate its inhabitants, and see that they always vote the Democratic ticket in all elections." The appreciative beneficiary rushed to Flandrau's home "with a brown jug and a tin cup, from which we all drank a bumper."

Rebecca Blair McClure Riddle and Charles Eugene Flandrau went east to Pittsburgh and were married in early 1871. That he so quickly won her heart is not surprising. He had frontier-style decisiveness, "something in him both of the eighteenth century and the age of chivalry," wrote Grace. "He detested loud talk, loud laughter, uncouth behavior. He was intolerant of being bored." He sometimes sent female clients bills in amorous verse. While exploring for gold in Nevada in the mid 1860s, he wrote poems for the local newspaper, including one dedicated to a "beautiful and accomplished lady" that went in part:

Gorgeous tresses, exquisitely arrayed; Nobel brow where intellect displayed; Liquid eyes that penetrate the heart; teeth of pearl, whose brilliancy impart To the whole expression of the face a ray of love, a fascinating sense of grace. A bust - but here presumptuous mortal stay; Let artist gods this beauteous bust portray ...

Rebecca was devoted to him - kissing each lump of sugar for his after-dinner coffee - but, for whatever reason, their marriage deteriorated into one of convenience and formality. They grew distant. Between 1880 and 1892 she took three extended trips abroad with her sons - three months, six months, almost a year - and frequent trips east for weeks at a time. He was impatient, intolerant of fools (even confessing one of his daughters bored him). Years later his celebrated impatience became the theme of one of his son's whimsical essays. "The Bustle" recounted the night Judge Flandrau had to wait hours to see the day's newspaper because his mother-in-law, Lydia, had tucked it under her dress to form part of her bustle, the artificial derriere of the era. "The evening ... tarried, lingered, hesitated, changed its mind, got its second wind and took fresh hold," Charlie wrote. "From ten to one A.M., however, was pure, abstract, metaphysical, Einsteinian eternity, with a kind of beginning, perhaps, but no predictable end."

The judge believed in self-reliance. Charlie's younger brother, Blair, recalled walking with his father on the Mississippi high bridge in St. Paul. They came upon an old Flandrau acquaintance slumped on the sidewalk.

"Why, there's old so-and-so," said Blair. "What should we do?"

"Oh nothing - played out, played out. We'll just go along."

"And leave him here?"

"He'll be all right."

When they returned, the old man passed them in brisk stride on the bridge swinging his cane.

He showed the same casual indifference with his children. Walking with a friend one evening, he found a gang of boys playing in the front yard of the Flandrau home. "Which ones are yours?" the friend asked. "I really don't know," said Flandrau, "probably the dirtiest." He seldom took interest in raising his children; perhaps he expected them to be as independent as he was. Charlie called him "the most tolerant, easy-going, liberal, picturesque of personalities," but they were not close until his father's final years. The father was, above all, confident of his instincts, his fortitude tested at an early age. "If a young man migrates to a new country over which no government exists," he once wrote, "... he is confronted with great problems.... He takes his position in life according to his own merits and not upon the false basis of inheritance or fortunes. His mind expands. He becomes an original thinker." There is no doubt whom he had in mind.

On December 9, 1871, Rebecca gave birth to their son Charles. He came into the world in a house, he was fond of saying, where later stood a bar. It was the site in a few years of St. Paul's elegant Metropolitan Hotel with its pillars, verandas, and balconies. As with most births of the period, no official record was kept. He was baptized in Christ's Church on Fourth Street, christened Charles Eugene after his father. As a fifteen-year-old, in a fit of independence, he changed his middle name to Macomb after his uncle, commander in chief of the U.S. Army in the 1840s. Earlier in the week a fierce northwester with drifting snow and high wind whipped across the prairie, delaying trains, plunging the mercury in the thermometer on Third Street to twenty-six below zero. The ice harvest had begun on the river. Teams of horses pulled giant steel teeth across the gray-green ice. Eleven-year-old Mary Egan, who was to be the family maid for four decades, carried the baby home from the christening that bitterly cold day, unable to protect his ears from frostbite. It amounted to a subzero anointing. Minnesota was simply saying, recalled James Gray, "There! I make you mine!" Charlie said he never set foot in Christ's Church again.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from IN GATSBY'S SHADOW by LARRY HAEG Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Larry Haeg and his family have a home in the Flandrau-Fitzgerald neighborhood of Ramsey Hill in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is his first biography.

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