Read an Excerpt
A Lanny Budd Novel
By Upton Sinclair
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1944 Upton Sinclair
All rights reserved.
Sweet Aspect of Princes
Like two ships that rest for a while in some port and then sail away to distant seas; years pass, decades, perhaps, and then by chance they meet in some other port; the two captains look each other over, wondering what time has done to an old-time comrade, what places he has visited, what adventures have befallen him, what losses, what gains he has made. So it was when Lanny Budd caught sight of Professor Alston in the lobby of one of New York's luxury hotels. "Long time no see," he said — for it was the fashion of the hour to be Chinese; you greeted your friends with the words: "Confucius say," followed by the most cynical or most absurd thing you could think of.
"Really, Professor," Lanny continued, seriously, "I'm ashamed of having lost contact with you. You can hardly guess how important a part you played in my life."
"Eighteen years almost to a day since we parted in Paris," calculated the other.
"And almost half my life up to now," added Lanny.
Alston still thought of him as a youth, and saw now that the ensuing years had dealt kindly with him. There were no lines of care on the regular and agreeable features, no hint of gray in the wavy brown hair and neatly trimmed little mustache. Lanny was dressed as if he had just come out of a bandbox, and he had that ease of conversation which comes from having known since earliest childhood that everything about you is exactly as it ought to be. When you are so right, you can even be wrong if you want to, and people will take it as an amiable eccentricity.
What Lanny saw was a rather frail little gentleman with hair entirely gray, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and a linen suit with some of the wrinkles which these suits acquire so quickly. "Charlie" Alston would never be exactly right; he had been a "barb" at college, so Lanny's father had told him, and he would never be free from the consciousness that the people who had always been right were watching him. He was a kind and also a wise old gentleman, and that helps somewhat but not entirely, as all the smart world knows. Lanny recollected that he had come upon the mention of Charles T. Alston as one of the active New Dealers; so perhaps he was no longer teaching classes in college.
"I have heard from you indirectly," said Alston; but he didn't elaborate the remark. It might have been from the newspapers, for the ex-geographer added: "I hope your divorce didn't hurt you too much."
"My ex-wife has moved up the social ladder, and I was one of the rungs." Lanny said it with a smile; he didn't really mean it, for he was satisfied with the position on the social ladder assigned to a grandson of Budd Gunmakers and son of Budd-Erling Aircraft.
"What has life been doing to you?" the older man wanted to know.
This was an overture and called for a cordial response. "Have you anything to do for the next hour or two?" Lanny inquired, and went on to say that he had an appointment to view a collection of modern paintings which might soon come on the market. "That's how I have been earning my living. There are people who are naïve enough to trust my judgment as to what paintings are worth, and that enables me to spend the rest of my time as an idler and parasite." Again he said it smiling.
The ex-geographer replied that he would be happy to inspect works of art under the guidance of such an authority, and they left the hotel and took a taxi. A short drive and they stepped out in front of one of those establishments on Park Avenue where you either own your apartment or pay several thousand dollars a month rent. A personage who might have been one of Frederick the Great's grenadiers opened the taxi door for them; a clerk wearing a boutonnière took Lanny's name; a young woman with shiny red lips spoke it over the telephone; an elevator boy with several rows of buttons shot them toward the skies; and an elderly caretaker admitted them to a tier of rooms which apparently went most of the way around the building, and gave a hawk's-eye view of Manhattan Island and its environs.
The family was away in midsummer; the furniture was shrouded in tan-colored robes and the shades were drawn, but the caretaker raised one, and the visitors stopped to admire a penthouse rose garden. Then they strolled from room to room, examining paintings, each with its separate "reflector" which the caretaker turned on. They would stand for a while in silence, after which Lanny Budd would begin one of those well-modulated discourses with which he had learned to impress the most exclusive sort of people, those doubly élite who possess both wealth and culture.
"You observe the aristocratic aura with which Sargent could surround his model. You note that the head is somewhat small in proportion to the rest of the lady. Mrs. Winstead wasn't really that way, I can assure you, for I knew her; nor was it any blunder of the painter's, for I knew him even better. I watched him work in the hills and valleys around my mother's Riviera home, and can testify that he was able to get his proportions exact when he thought it desirable. It was his aim to select the salient characteristics of his subject and bring them to your attention. If you wanted literal exactness, he would say, a photographer could get it for you in the fraction of a second. It was the business of a painter to portray the soul of his subject."
"Not entirely overlooking what the subject might choose to believe about his soul," remarked Alston, with the trace of a smile.
"Surely not," agreed the other. "As far back as the days of ancient Egypt painters learned to make the masters taller and more impressive than the slaves. It is only in recent times, beginning perhaps with Goya, that painters have ventured to mingle a trace of humor with their subservience."
"Would you say that was the case here?"
"This was a sad lady, as you can perceive. They were enormously wealthy and correspondingly proud. They lived on an immense estate, and their two lovely daughters were brought up with great strictness and chaperoned in all their comings and goings. The result was that one of them eloped with a handsome young groom and the other made a marriage hardly more satisfactory. The haughty old father never consented to see either of them again. He has been one of my clients and I have had chances to observe his sorrow, in spite of his efforts to conceal it. I have no doubt that John Sargent, a kindly man in spite of all his brusqueness, thought that if there was any way of bringing a moment's happiness to Mrs. Winstead, there would be no great harm done to art. In his later years he wearied of such charity and refused to paint the rich at all."
"Charlie" Alston realized that this was the same informed and precocious Lanny Budd who had accompanied him to the Paris Peace Conference and shared a six months' ordeal. A youth who had lived most of his life in Europe; who not merely could chatter in French, but knew the subtle nuances, the argots, even the bad words; who knew customs and etiquette, personalities, diplomatic subterfuges; who could stand behind the chair of an "expert" during a formal session and whisper things into his ear, point to a paragraph in a document or write the correct word on a slip of paper — thus equipping a one-time farmboy from the State of Indiana to be something less than helpless in the presence of the age-old and super-elegant treacheries of Europe.
Now Lanny Budd was the same, only more of it. He had lived nearly two more decades between Europe and America, meeting the prominent ones of all lands and learning to take care of himself in all situations. Art to him was not just art; it was history and social science, psychology and human nature, even gossip, if you chose to take it that way. You had to get used to the fact that he really knew the "headliners," and that when he mentioned them he was not indulging in vainglory but just trying to make himself agreeable.
"Here you have an interesting contrast, Professor: a John and a Brockhurst side by side, and both dealing with the same subject. It is as if our host had wished to decide the question who is the better painter — or perhaps to provoke a perpetual debate. This is one of Augustus John's earlier works, and in my opinion they put him in a contemporary class by himself. Poor fellow, he is not taking good care of himself nowadays, and his work is not improving. Gerald Brockhurst is technically a sound painter, but I imagine that he himself would admit the supremacy of John at his best. Brockhurst's success can be attributed to his firm line and to his color. Both these characteristics have increased with the years, and that, I am sure, is why he has just been chosen to paint a portrait of my former wife. She has become Lady Wickthorpe, as you perhaps know, and is engaged in renovating a castle whose former chatelaines were painted by Gainsborough. Irma will be delighted with a portrait which will make her appear like a cinema star."
So once more an ex-geographer perceived that art was also psychology and even gossip!
"You have children?" he felt privileged to inquire.
"One daughter," was the reply. "She is seven, which is old enough to make the discovery that to live in an ancient castle is exciting, and that titles of nobility are impressive. It will be her mother's duty to see that she marries one of the highest."
"And you, Lanny?"
"I am the father, and, for having achieved that great honor, I am allowed to visit the child when I wish, and am shown every courtesy. It is taken for granted that I will not do or say anything to break the fairy-story spell under which the little one is being brought up."
With the hot copper sun sinking low behind the long stone canyons of Manhattan Island, the two friends strolled back to the hotel where they had met. Lanny had a room there and invited the other up; he ordered a meal, and when it was served and the waiter withdrew, they lingered long over iced coffee and conversation. So many memories they had to revive and so many questions to ask! A score of men whom they had worked with at the Peace Conference: where were they now and what had happened to them? Many had died, and others had dropped out of sight. Alston spoke of those he knew. What did they think now about their work? He had been one of the dissidents, and Lanny had gone so far as to resign his humble job in protest against the misbegotten settlement. A melancholy satisfaction to know that you had been right, and that the worst calamities you had predicted now hung over the world in which you had to live!
Better to talk about the clear-sighted ones, those who had been courageous enough to speak out against blind follies and unchecked greeds. Lanny's Red uncle, who still lived in Paris — he was now a député de la république française, and once or twice his tirades had been quoted in the news dispatches to America. Lanny recalled how he had taken Alston and Colonel House to call on this uncle in his Paris tenement, this being part of President Wilson's feeble effort to bring the British and the French to some sort of compromise with the Soviets. "How my father hated to have me go near that dangerous Red sheep of my mother's family!" remarked Lanny. "My father still feels the same way."
They talked for a while about Robbie Budd. Alston told with humor of the years in college, when he had looked with awe upon the magnificent plutocratic son of Budd Gunmakers, who wore heavy white turtleneck sweaters, each with a blue Y upon it, and was cheered thunderously on the football field. Alston, on the other hand, had had to earn his living waiting on table in a students' dining room, and so was never "tapped" for a fashionable fraternity. Lanny said: "Robbie isn't quite so crude now; he has learned to respect learning and is even reconciled to having one of his sons play the piano and look at paintings instead of helping in the fabrication of military airplanes."
"And your mother?" inquired the elder man. When informed that she was still blooming, he said: "I really thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen."
"She was certainly in the running," replied the son. "Now she contemplates with grief the fact that she is in her late fifties, and with a seven-year-old grandchild she cannot fib about it."
The ex-geographer was persuaded to talk about himself. He had made an impression upon his colleagues in Paris and had been offered a post in Washington. Among the acquaintances he had made there was the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a tall, robust young man of ability and ambition who appeared to have a weakness for college professors. "Likes to have them around," said Alston; "has an idea they know a lot, and that their knowledge ought to be used. A novel idea in American public life, as you know."
"It is one that annoys Robbie beyond endurance," replied Robbie's son.
"When F.D.R. became governor of New York State, he invited me to come to Albany and take a minor post — not to have much to do, but so that I could have a salary and be at hand to consult with him about the problems of his office, more complicated than any one man could deal with. A strange destiny for a geographer, but you know how it was in Paris; we all had to be politicians and diplomats, linguists, ethnographers, jurists — or anyhow we had to pretend to be. It is the same in government; you have to study human nature and the social forces that surround you, and apply your common sense to whatever problems arise. F.D. seemed to think that I was reasonably successful at it, so he brought me to Washington, and now I'm one of those 'bureaucrats' whom your father no doubt dislikes."
"Don't get within earshot of him!" exclaimed Lanny, with a grin.
"What I really am is a fixer. I have a subordinate who runs my office reasonably well, and I keep myself at the President's disposal, to find out what he needs to know, if I can, and to straighten out tangles if anybody can. When two self-important personalities fall to quarreling I go quietly to see them and persuade them that the Republicans are the only people who will profit by their ill behavior. All kinds of disagreeable and disillusioning jobs like that — and every now and then I get sick of it and decide that this shall be the last; but more troubles arise, and I am sorry for an overburdened executive who is trying to keep a blind world from plunging over a precipice."
"You think it's as bad as that, Professor Alston?"
"I think it's as bad as possible. What do you think, Lanny?"
"You mean about this country, or about Europe?"
"It's all one world — that is one of the things I learned as a geographer, and that the American people have to learn with blood and tears, I very much fear." It was the summer of 1937.
Lanny, as he listened, had been thinking hard. His thought was: "How much ought I to tell?" He was always restraining the impulse to be frank with somebody; always having to put a checkrein on himself. Now, cautiously, he began:
"You remember, Professor Alston, that I was an ardent young reformer in your service. I didn't give up even after Versailles. I used to travel to one after another of the international conferences — I believe I went to a dozen, and met the statesmen and the newspaper fellows, and served as a go-between; I used to smuggle news — whatever I thought needed to be made known. I really believed it would be possible to instruct the public, and bring some peace and good fellowship to the unhappy old continent where I was born. But of late years I have been forced to give up; I was antagonizing everyone I knew, breaking up my home — it was like spitting against a hurricane. You must understand, I have built up something of a reputation as an art expert; I have played a part in making great collections which I have reason to hope will be bequeathed to public institutions, and thus will help in spreading culture. I persuade myself that this is a real service, and that taste in the arts is not just a fantasy, but an important social influence."
"Yes, Lanny, of course. But can you not also have political opinions and exercise some influence on the side of humanity?"
"It would be difficult, almost impossible. Most of the persons for whom I buy pictures are conservative, not to say reactionary, in their opinions. I have met them because I move in my father's world and my mother's, and in neither of these would I be received unless I kept a discreet attitude on the questions which now inflame everyone's mind. I don't doubt that you know how the people of money and fashion abuse and defame Roosevelt."
Excerpted from Presidential Agent by Upton Sinclair. Copyright © 1944 Upton Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.