If these are not automatically the most electrifying of attributes, they are nonetheless great assets here. Mr. Auchincloss has an enveloping story to tell and a perfect, understated knowledge of those who inhabit it. Janet Maslin
The Scarlet Lettersby Louis Auchincloss
The year is 1953, and the coastal village of Glenville, on the opulent north shore of Long Island, is shaken by scandal. Ambrose Vollard, the managing partner of a prestigious Wall Street law firm, gets word of an alleged affair in his family. Most astonishing, the adulterer is Rodman Jessup, Vollard's son-in-law, junior partner, and most likely successor. Until now… See more details below
The year is 1953, and the coastal village of Glenville, on the opulent north shore of Long Island, is shaken by scandal. Ambrose Vollard, the managing partner of a prestigious Wall Street law firm, gets word of an alleged affair in his family. Most astonishing, the adulterer is Rodman Jessup, Vollard's son-in-law, junior partner, and most likely successor. Until now Jessup has been admired for his impeccable morals and high ideals, so what could explain his affair with a woman of fading charms? All is on the line for Jessup, who threatens to upset Glenville's carefully calibrated social order. As each family member learns of the affair, the story reveals layer upon layer of abiding loyalties and shameless double-crossing.
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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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Read an Excerpt
It was commonly said, in the early 1900s, in the large and not
undistinguished Manhattan social circle of the Vollard clan, of Ambrose, then
a lad of twelve or thirteen, that he seemed the all-American boy: comely,
tousle-haired, blue-eyed, grinning, the prototype of a youth out of Mark Twain
or even Horatio Alger. But only a few years later he had grown into something
quite different: a large, rather hulking type, almost menacingly muscular,
whose good looks were darkened by an air of surly moodiness not quite
redeemed by his brooding, now blue-gray eyes.
If there were, or at least had been, two Ambroses, it might have
been because there seemed to be two Vollard families in which the boy had
been reared. There was what might be called the older branch: Papa, Mama,
son Russell, nicknamed 'Stuffy' by his school pals, and daughter Elsie,
known with unblushing sentimentality in the home as 'Rosebud.' And then
there were the two younger children, the twins, Ambrose and fat little Bertha.
Why did that make two families? The answer, as in so many
American social problems, must be sought in Mama. When Fanny Vollard
had found herself the mother of two fine infants, the required son and the
desired daughter, she supposed that she had fulfilled her generative duties
and could present a completed family to the proper ranks of her excellently
proper relatives. But whether it was a too importunate husband — or one who
lacked the discretion of Onan — she made the unwelcome discovery that
she was again pregnant, and most uncomfortably so with twins, and was
obliged to undergo a delivery that wasnot only excruciatingly painful but that
almost cost her her life. Thereafter the partition that divided the two families
was like the closed door of Fanny's bed chamber — shut, that is, to Papa,
consigned to a back room of their Manhattan brownstone overlooking the
bare yards, while his wife continued to occupy her comfortable and
commodious apartment in the front of the house whose three large windows
faced the street.
Taking up the Vollards in reverse order of their importance, Elias,
Papa, was the first. He was a large, expensively clad gentleman with a big
potbelly and features that might have been well enough in younger, leaner
days, but which now bore the blankness of one who sought relief from real
things in perfunctory tasks and compulsive habits. He looked the part of a
sober and prosperous man of affairs, and indeed he sat on some important
boards where his fixity of apparent attention concealed his daydreaming, but
his ineptitude as an investor had reduced his wife's inherited capital far more
than she knew, and he maintained only with difficulty their brownstone in
town and the larger shingle cottage in Newport that she had taken over on her
father's death and clung to with a tenacity that he dared not disturb. Elias's
life consisted in forms; they were the only things of which he could be sure,
and he clung to them as his salvation from an eternity of nothingness.
His son Russell, or 'Stuffy,' justified his nickname. He had a high
brow, a large nose, a square chin and slickly combed, diminishing brown
hair; his air of arrogant self-sufficiency was a wide shield to cover everything
wild outbursts of fatuous enthusiasm, who once told her kid brother Ambrose
that she would rather see him dead than a disbeliever in the divinity of Christ.
What he replied disposed permanently of what little there was of her sibling
This trio obviously needed a more robustly equipped individual to
guide and manage them in the highways and byways of a New York and
Newport life, and they had one in Mama. When one knew that Fanny Vollard
had been born a de Peyster — she never mentioned it because she never
had to — one knew not the most important thing about her but what she
considered the most important. The de Peysters were old Knickerbocker
stock, related to Van Rensselaers and Stuyvesants, and Fanny belonged to
a minor branch of that tree which still looked askance at the new railroad and
steel barons of the postbellum era, and disdained, unwisely, to seek marital
alliances with Vanderbilts and Goulds. Remaining pure, she had married
a 'gentleman,' and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the past,
pronouncing 'girl' 'goyle' and 'pearl' 'poyle' in the aristocratic manner of the
late eighteenth century, embarrassing her descendants who mistook it for a
But Fanny had character. Diminutive, disciplined, with some hint
of faded beauty, with lips virgin to rouge and cheeks to powder and hair
unwaved by machinery, she possessed a dignity and quiet force that was
almost regal. Few suspected that her air and demeanor constituted a fort to
protect a garrison of inner fears, fear of contagious diseases, unprincipled
men, stock market upsets and, above all, a day of judgment waiting at the
end of the road and the very real possibility of hellfire. What bore her up was
her pride and her ability — or was it an instinct — to draft other humans into
a regiment to afford her both moral and material support.
If it was an instinct it was that of a parasite plant or animal. Fanny
would reach out, presumably unconsciously, to grasp in a tight ineluctable
embrace the neighboring organism most endowed to supply her own
deficiencies. In Elias she sensed the male who would always sympathize
with her valetudinarianism, surround her with the comforts she imagined she
required, and admire the fortitude with which she bore her anxieties and
depressions. In her son Stuffy she flared the insecurity behind his pomposity
and in her daughter Rosebud the anxiety beneath her little spring showers of
good will, and knew that a mother's love and approval, or at least the easily
adopted appearance of such, would be rewarded by a devotion gratifyingly
Fanny's instinct may even have been what guided her steps as far
as Philadelphia where she consulted the famous Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose
popular prescribed 'rest cure' for wealthy society ladies totally justified to the
eyes of Elias and the two elder children the long hours that Fanny spent in
her chaise longue and the hushed atmosphere of a household where family
and servants silently and uncomplainingly performed what otherwise might
have been considered her duties.
But all that left out the twins. Indeed it did. The parasite at once
recognizes the that will not welcome its octuple embrace. Fanny
felt in the very agony of her delivery that Ambrose and Bertha would not be
her subjects, at least not willingly. The remedy for this was simple enough: it
was to make it appear to the world that the twins, rowdy and ungovernable
juniors, had by their own stubborn and ungrateful natures rejected the love
that their irreproachable mother so freely offered them. Few guests at the
family board could have detected any reprehensible difference between the
ways Fanny treated her elder and younger offspring. But perhaps a keen one
'Ambrose, my dear, don't wolf your food down that way, and do,
child, try to sit up a little straighter. The way Russell does. Of course, I
realize that Russell is older and has had the advantage of boarding school
discipline, but you can still take him as an example. There, dear, that's
better. And Bertha, darling, how many times must I tell you that ladies don't
put their elbows on the table? You don't see Rosebud doing that, do you?
Oh, but I must stop calling Elsie by that name, now she's almost a
debutante, mustn't I? And Bertha, dear, remember that we want you too to
be a debutante one day, and debutantes certainly never put their elbows on
'But I don't want to be a debutante! Ever!'
Bertha's retort demonstrated the difference between her reaction
to the maternal solicitude and that of her twin. Bertha, a large, rather blocky
girl with a very square chin and wide scornful brown eyes was not taken in for
a moment. Ambrose was. He did not feel any engulfing warmth towards a
mother whose frail health her from his bear hugs, but he tended to
assume that she was essentially like other mothers. And so he continued to
suppose until, at fourteen, he was sent off to boarding school.
Chelton, an Episcopal church academy for boys a few miles north
of Boston, boasted a handsome campus of red-bricked, white-columned
buildings around a well-kept oval green lawn at one end of which stood a gray
Gothic chapel. Ambrose, now a husky athletic youth with friendly manners,
was immediately popular, his only drawback being a hot temper and quick
and effective use of his fists. Such fits were followed by moods of sullen
silence that his pals charitably attributed to remorse. His high grades and
skill at football won him the approval of both the boys and the faculty, and in
his next to last year he was considered a candidate in the following autumn
for the high honor of senior prefect. But it was not to be.
He had become uncomfortably aware that he was never in a
position to return the hospitality of his friends, whose visiting parents often
asked him to supper on Saturday nights at the local inn where they spent the
weekend. For his parents never visited the school. Indeed, they were almost
the only parents who didn't.
At home on Christmas vacation Ambrose finally complained about
this to the always sympathetic Bertha. 'They used to come up when Stuffy
was in school,' he pointed out ruefully.
'Ah, but that was Stuffy!' Bertha exclaimed, with heavy
sarcasm. 'You're not comparing yourself to the great Stuffy, are you? Pardon
you, if you do!'
'Papa says Mama's health isn't up to the long trip to school,' < insisted, irritated now by her tone.
'Isn't up to four hours in a comfortable parlor car! Well, it was
certainly up to it when Stuffy was at Chelton. And she was just as set on her
daffy 'rest cure' then as she is now. Has she ever praised you for standing
second in your form? Has she even mentioned the fact that you may be in
line to be senior prefect?'
'She did say something about it.'
'When you called it to her attention.'
'It's true I did tell her about it,' he admitted reluctantly.
'And she already knew because I had bragged about it to her!'
Bertha cried in triumph. 'She knew but didn't say a word! And when Stuffy,
who had rock bottom grades, was finally made rober to the rector in chapel,
to keep his page in the yearbook from being a total blank, didn't she and
Papa pop the champagne corks? And when Rosebud got B for effort in her
gym class, didn't they practically declare a holiday?'
'You're so bitter about Mama, Bertha.'
'Bitter? That's not the word. I hate her! And so would you if you
weren't as blind as a bat. Or blind as a boy, I should say!'
This brief but illuminating interchange marked the beginning of a
profound alteration in Ambrose's personality and general outlook on life. Thus
far he had tended to denigrate his twin with the condescension of a male
teenager, regarding her as a somewhat silly and vastly opinionated girl who
was always pushing her unthinking self into the councils of her betters, but
he began to perceive that she was able to make brutally clear all kinds of
things of which he had previously been only dimly aware. Now when he
moved clo customary morning or evening kiss,
and she placed a mildly restraining hand on his shoulder it was distaste, and
not, as he had previously imagined, to guard her frail body from the possibly
unpremeditated assault of a wild and undependable beast. And then, alerted
by jealousy, he took careful note when she put her arms around Stuffy's neck
or chucked Rosebud under the chin.
Oh yes, it had become a different world. Seventeen is a violent
age, and it doesn't take much to turn the landscape sour. When Ambrose
went fishing with his father now, in the latter's fly club in the Catskills, he
would no longer, on a wide rock by an idling stream at noon, while they ate
their sandwiches and drank their beer, relate to him his tales of school and
football. He knew now that his parent never listened; Elias Vollard was
perfectly content with the sunshine and silence and nothingness.
If the rock basis of parentage is once displaced the rest of the
edifice will soon cave in. The cloud that darkened the home soon caught the
school in its shadow. Wasn't it part and parcel of the same fabric? Surely the
deity so punctiliously worshiped by his starchly dressed parents on Sunday,
so regularly invoked at grace before meals and so grovelingly implored at
night, was the same who presided over the Chelton chapel and inspired the
headmaster's throaty sermons about boys keeping themselves pure for the
pure maidens they might one day hope to wed. Dr. Close himself, a small
plump man with toadlike features, and as Ambrose now saw him, a Trollopian
snob, conducted a fifth-form class in sacred studies in which the sharp note
of h docile student's emancipation was first heard.
The class discussion was of the superiority of monotheism, as
devised by Jews, Moslems and, best of all, Christians, to the worship of a
more populated Olympus by pagan rites.
'But why, sir?' Ambrose wanted to know. 'Might it not be better to
have several gods rather than just one? Is there anyone of our faith wiser than
Socrates? Or Cicero? Or even Augustus Caesar?'
'But from the very multitude of pagan deities, Vollard, must one
not infer that they have different personalities? Different qualities? If they were
all the same, they would have to be one, would they not? And if they are
different they cannot all be perfect; only one can be that. Which means that
all but one would be imperfect. And imperfection implies faults. Why should
we worship a god with faults? One, for example, who would turn a maiden
into a tree for resisting his lust?'
The headmaster nodded to the class as if to invite the titters that
respectfully followed, and turned back to his notes as if he had coped with
Ambrose's interruption. But he hadn't.
'But it seems to me, sir, that this one God had faults.'
'How do you mean, Vollard?' The tone was graver now. 'And be
careful in how you state it. You mustn't tread lightly on the faith of others.'
'I can only say what I think, sir. Is a god perfect — is he even very
good — if he created organisms that could only survive by eating each other?'
Dr. Close frowned. But he wished to keep at least the appearance
of a free discussion alive. 'There are things that pass our understanding,
Vollard. Their meaning may n this lifetime.'
'But this God, sir, not only created men who had to kill to live. He
wants them to praise him and magnify him forever! If a man did that, wouldn't
we call him a pompous ass?'
'That will be all, Vollard. We have heard enough from you. More
than enough. I'll see you after class. And now let me hear from some of the
rest of you.'
A much less adventuresome discussion followed this.
Somewhat to Ambrose's surprise, but not at all to the alleviation
of his new doubts, the headmaster, normally so high and distant with the
boys, accorded him two long individual sessions in which he mildly and
tediously lectured him on Christian orthodoxy. He had, after all, a soul to
save. But Ambrose was obdurate. He stoutly declined to consider being
confirmed in the church and refused even to soft-pedal his efforts to spread
his atheism among his classmates.
This resulted not in his being expelled, but in his being sent home
for a term.
'I am running a church school, Vollard,' the headmaster
explained, with a sad but dismissing shake of his head. 'And I cannot
tolerate the presence here of an active proselytizer of what we used to call
heresy. It is my hope and belief that when our boys have graduated and are
turned out in the world, their faith will be strong enough to withstand
arguments such as yours. But while they are young and impressionable I
deem it my duty to protect them from confusing elements. If after you have
talked to your parents and reflected on my words, and have taken a more
enlightened attitude towards our faith, you will be welcome back at school.'
'You needn't wor bother you again. I'll never come
The headmaster sighed but made no answer, and Ambrose was
sent home that very day. He was given no further opportunity to corrupt his
At home his suspension caused less of a scene than he had
expected. His parents seemed put out but hardly surprised. His father
confined himself to a few gruff and reproving remarks, and it was quickly
arranged that he should be enrolled in a private day school — the new
popularity of boarding institutions with affluent parents who dreaded the effect
of city streets on their boys had depleted the ranks of the old urban
academies and caused them to welcome even heretical recruits. Fanny
Vollard, however, had a few matters to settle with her disappointing younger
son, and she subjected him to a quiet lecture in her boudoir.
'I don't understand you, Ambrose. And I don't think I ever really
have. You and Bertha have never shown me half the love and affection that
Russell and Rosebud have. Perhaps I don't deserve it. Who knows? But I am
your mother, and it will always be my duty, however painful, to point out to
you any wrong road you are taking. I have, of course, read carefully your
headmaster's report. I see that you have prided yourself as a free thinker
among the benighted, in which class I am sure you include your parents as
well as the faculty of Chelton School. You think you are brave and bold and
forward thinking. But in fact you are just another impudent boy determined to
bring down anyone or anything that threatens to be higher or bigger than
yourself. If you fail you will look a fool, and if you succ — which God
forbid — you will simply find yourself pinned in the wreckage.'
The terrible thing about Fanny was that she never thought of
children as children. The moment they offended her they were just as much
adults as herself, and she struck back with every arrow in her quiver. Mortals
were divided into her friends and her enemies, and once she had spotted a
child as among the latter, she had no more mercy on him than for a
pickpocket in the street.
Ambrose trembled a bit at the impact of her hostility, but he soon
rallied his inner forces. He was learning that if he was to lead his life without
any significant parental love, he might also dispose with worrying unduly
about parental opposition. He never bothered to explain his rejection of
orthodoxy to his mother — indeed he hardly bothered to explain it to himself;
he knew that her mind was closed to argument, and for the next year, until
he entered Columbia College, he lived with his parents in a kind of armed
truce. This was not difficult with two persons as self-absorbed as Elias and
Fanny, particularly as the routine of their domestic life was as fixed as the
rotation of the planets. He had only to avoid any open friction, which, with a
father who at home passed the greater part of his time alone in his study, the
silence of which was broken only by the occasional clink of decanters, and
with a mother intent upon preserving her body from the least exhaustion, was
no great task. And his mornings were all spent in class and his afternoons in
the school gym.
It helped, too, that Stuffy and Rosebud were both now married and
aw from home. Ambrose's family life, and even social life, were mostly
reduced to Bertha, on whom her mother had largely given up after her
adamant refusal to 'come out' or even to attend any debutante parties.
Bertha, stout, plain and emphatic, was allowed to come and go pretty much
as she pleased. She adored Ambrose, and her passionate espousal of his
side in any family dispute contributed to the comparative silence in which
meals at the Vollards were held. And when, in Ambrose's first year at
Columbia, he came home drunk one night and encountered his shocked
mother in a corridor, it was Bertha who quieted the ensuing furor by
suggesting that he move to a college dormitory, which the very next day he
He had chosen Columbia because he had no wish to resume his
old acquaintance with Chelton classmates at Yale or Harvard. The Chelton
values, which he now associated with the parental ones, he had repudiated.
As an angry young man he cultivated the radical elements of his new
institution, inveighed against the trusts and found President Taft a sad step
backwards after the great Teddy. But his political liberalism was tempered by
moods of deep depression when nothing seemed really worth fighting for,
when the world seemed a flourishing garden only for such noodles as Stuffy
and Rosebud, and a desert for the likes of him. Then he would turn away from
his dogmatic and obstreperous new friends and solace himself alone in his
room with whiskey. He had no opportunity to travel or even to wine and dine
expensively; his father, fearful that he would give his money to some leftist
cause, kept him on a spare allowance.
But he had one salvation; he read. As with his hero, Teddy
Roosevelt, reading with him was a 'disease.' He reveled in the English poets,
especially Byron and Shelley, whose fire and cynicism he tried to emulate;
he delighted in the madness of Dostoyevsky, the oratory of Milton's Satan,
and the violence of Ahab in the newly appreciated Moby-Dick. He wrote
stories himself, about evil men who preyed on dolts, women who betrayed
their lovers, bankers who degenerated into vampires, and clergymen who
dwindled into sheep. He sent them to magazine editors who invariably
rejected them, though one more percipient reader commented on the vigor of
his style and suggested that he try his hand at more neutral subject
matter. 'For neutral read neuter,' he snorted in disgust.
It was Bertha who promoted the idea of his going to law school.
She was just as antagonistic to the old world as he was, but more objective.
And she was less wrapped up in Bertha than he was in Ambrose. She was
capable of putting herself in his shoes while preserving her own outlook. But
then she loved him, and he, as yet, loved no one.
'Male and female twins aren't really twins, you know,' she told
him one day as they lunched in a Broadway café, which they frequently did
now that she was enrolled in Barnard. 'Obviously they can't resemble each
other in all respects. Vive la différence! as the French say, though I'm not
sure what good it's done me. But the point is that you've got a bigger brain
than I do. And a bigger spirit, a bigger future. Your trouble is that you don't
know what to do with it. You need time to decide. And th classic way to
spend that time is in law school. For whatever you ultimately decide on, a
law degree will be a bonus. Except perhaps in medicine, but I don't see you
becoming a doctor.'
Of course he had thought of this. But now she helped it to take
root. 'Will Papa stake me to it?' he wondered.
'Leave that to me!'
In fact she had already crossed that bridge, by persuading her
parents that the study of law was really the study of law and order and might
have a mollifying effect on their wide-eyed son.
Which it did. Or rather which Professor Gideon Gregg did. He was
a small dry neat bald sexagenarian, with a voice so low that he lectured
through an amplifier, who had devoted his life to the study and teaching of
contract law, with rare but well-paid appearances in court as an expert
witness to edify the bench. He was supposed to have thus answered a
judge's question as to who was the foremost authority in his field: 'I believe,
your honor, that Mr. Williston at Harvard is generally deemed the second.'
Unlike many law professors he disdained the barking approach; he was
invariably kind and courteous to his students, and was notorious, when
questioning one of them in class, for offering broad hints as to the correct
answer. He wanted to believe that every man or woman seated before him
was a natural lawyer, but he nonetheless had a keen eye for a real talent,
and when he found a paper of Ambrose's on unilateral contracts unusually
perspicacious, he called him into his office and offered him on the spot a job
assisting him in revising an edition of his famous casebook. It was, of course,
quit take on in addition to Ambrose's class work, but as the
stipend was generous, thanks to Gregg's soft heart, and as the Vollard
allowance, from a still doubting father, was still on the stingy side, he jumped
at the chance.
The close relationship that ensued between master and
apprentice gave Ambrose his first real purpose and incentive in life. He came
to see his wonderful little mentor as an inspired artist who could use words
as his tools to clamp the golden wires of civility around the dark chaos of life.
Offer and acceptance, good faith and bad, the meeting or non-meeting of
minds, consideration and specific performance, breach and damages — the
areas of contractual obligation opened up to him like a massive clearing in a
dense dark threatening jungle, and the beauty of Gideon Gregg's prose in the
essay portions of his casebook, the tight flashing mesh of his Anglo-Saxon
short words and his Latinized long ones, seamlessly concise and pregnant
with meaning, provided Ambrose with a kind of creed, or art, or even faith that
might be almost enough to live on.
By the middle of his second year at law school Ambrose had
completed his work on the casebook, which was just as well, as he had
accepted, at the professor's strong urging, an editorship on the Law Journal
that would henceforth preempt his every spare moment.
'Whatever else happens to me in life, sir,' he told his mentor, 'I
know now that I will always be a lawyer.'
Gregg stared at him in astonishment. 'Great Scott, my boy, was
there ever a doubt in your mind about that? What the devil else did you come
to law school for?'
was a good preparation for almost everything.'
'It's a good preparation for the practice of law, that's what it is.
And if ever I saw a born attorney, it's you, my boy. If you do anything else,
you're a fool, and if you're that it's time I retired. For if I'm wrong on that, I'm
wrong on everything.'
'But is it necessary to practice, sir? Couldn't I be a teacher like
you and the writer of treatises?'
Gregg was silent for a moment, and his face expressed the
seriousness of his thought. 'You could, yes. But I think your particular forte
will be for an active practice. I see you as a fighter, my boy. Nor do I for a
minute minimize that. The judge, the law professor, the treatise writer and the
practicing lawyer are all equally indispensable to our sacred profession. The
law comes out of our words: words penned for books and treatises in sober
reflection, words used less temperately in briefs and oral argument, words
chosen wisely in opinions or dramatically in classrooms, it's all the same
Ambrose had another talk with the professor about his future a
year later, in the spring before his graduation.
'Am I not correct, Ambrose, in supposing that Charles de Peyster
is a relative of yours?'
'He's my uncle, sir. My mother's brother.'
'May I suggest, then, that you apply to his firm for a position? It's
one of the first, perhaps the best, of the great corporation law firms of our
city. I have had the occasion to testify for them in a number of cases. They
do fine work.'
'But I'm afraid, sir, I've been rather remiss in my family duties. I
have seen my uncle only at Christmas or And I'm afraid
he may have formed an unfavorable opinion of me when I dropped out of
'Pish tush, that water's long under the bridge. You'll find he'll take
a very different view of you when he hears my recommendation. And that he
is certainly going to have!'
Copyright © 2003 by Louis Auchincloss. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.
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