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I FIRST MET HORTENSE Garrett at her home in Wilmington, Delaware on a spring morning last year. I wasn't calling on her but on her husband, Richard Garrett, the financier, to make a pitch for money—a lot of money, twenty million or so. It was for a project I had in mind, an institute of biography which I hoped he would endow—and, incidentally, name me as director.
Promptly at ten, as my appointment called for, I went up to the top deck of the Newcastle Arms, the apartment house where he lived, first by express to the fifteenth floor and then in a private elevator to the twentieth. I rang the bell marked GARRETT and was let in by a Swedish maid who first asked my name through a peephole. After taking my hat and coat she showed me into the living room—or drawing room, I suppose one would call it, that was big going on gigantic.
"I tell Mr. Garrett you here," she said and left, while I started looking around. And there was plenty to look at. First, there was a view of the Delaware River and what looked like half the state of New Jersey, which was nothing short of breathtaking. Next, there were furnishings of an unusual kind: a big, rich, overstuffed sofa and chairs, all in a uniform light beige; tables, cabinets, and knickknacks in dark mahogany; and two oriental rugs placed edge to edge, which carpeted the floor comfortably, yet left some hardwood showing. Around the walls were pictures, all by the same artist, apparently. There were woodland scenes with streams running through and sunlit roads with trees shading them.
It was overwhelming, yet at the same time homelike, perhaps because of the sentimental look of the pictures. But in the midst of my tour of inspection, this girl came whirling into the room with her hand outstretched. She was in her midtwenties, medium-sized but verging on small, with nice contours. Her features, though stubby, had shadows high on the cheeks. Her hair was a tawny blonde, about the color of cornhusks, and her eyes had an odd way of looking at me, sort of half-closed. She was wearing a bottle-green pantsuit that helped the green of her eyes, with a blouse under the jacket that was pulled slightly tight in front.
"Dr. Palmer," she announced, "I'm Mrs. Garrett. My husband will be with you directly. He apologizes for making you wait, but a call just came in from Paris and he felt he should take it."
I was taken by surprise. Who's Who in America gave his age as forty-one, and though it mentioned his marriage, I wasn't prepared for a girl who looked even younger than I was, which was twenty-eight at the time.
I took her hand and said: "Mrs. Garrett, if it means the delight of your company, I hope his call goes on and on and on."
"That's a very pretty speech."
"To a very pretty girl."
We both laughed, then she asked how well I knew Senator Hood of Nebraska who had introduced me over the phone and set up my appointment with Mr. Garrett.
"Not very well," I said, "but a lot better than casually. I was able to help him once when his boy got in trouble with the law, and a senator never forgets. Also, a senator's wife is not indifferent to a young man with a dinner jacket."
"Oh my, God's perfect gift to the hostess."
To change the subject, I asked who the artist was.
"Wallace Nutting. A friend of my husband's father. They're nice watercolors but no better than that, really. Nutting was the greatest furniture-maker this country ever produced, though—or at least, so my husband thinks." She waved toward the mahogany things, which even I could see were quite special.
Mrs. Garrett motioned me to a seat on one of the sofas facing the fireplace and took her place on the other, facing me. The way she sat highlighted her blouse and what was inside it, so I only half-paid attention as she resumed talking about Senator Hood and how close her husband and the senator were.
Suddenly Mr. Garrett walked into the room, apologizing for keeping me waiting. He was tall, almost as tall as I am, which is six-feet-one, gray-haired and rawboned. He had on a sweatshirt and slacks. His eyes were a watery gray, his voice a toneless drone. And yet his manner was friendly enough, even more than had been necessary in order to comply with protocol for seeing a young college professor who had been introduced by a United States senator.
Mr. Garrett explained that he had to take the call from Paris, "on account of the time differential—they stay up all night to call at an hour that's convenient for me, so I can't just give them the brush." He kept looking at me, then suddenly asked: "Dr. Palmer, have we met before?"
"Well ... have we, Mr. Garrett?" To say "not as I recall" wouldn't have been very friendly, but to fake something would have been worse. I couldn't recall ever having laid eyes on him, though. Mr. Garrett shot another couple of glances at me. Months later, it became clear where and how I had met him, why he had remembered and I had not; but for now he cut it off and switched to what I'd come about. "An institute of biography, the senator said. I'll admit, just hearing that much about it, I'm intrigued. So let's have the details." When he had sat down beside his wife on the sofa and I had resumed my seat, he continued: "I've asked my wife to join us because in a matter like this, it shouldn't be my decision alone. Unless she shares my enthusiasm, I won't undertake it."
"I'm sure I'm going to."
We all laughed, and he motioned for me to get going. So I gave it the works. I talked about the American preeminence in biography, waving the flag quite a lot as he began to nod his head. I mentioned the strange academic indifference to it, "there being no courses in it as, at least as far as I know. It's not what's called a discipline anywhere." Warming to the subject, I spoke of the various ways an institute could help the biographer, "for example, by claiming a half-dozen study rooms in Archives and the Library of Congress."
"You'd be based in Washington, then?"
"I would think so, yes."
"Just wanted to know. Go on."
"We could assign those rooms ourselves without going through the bureaucratic rigamarole, one of the nuisances a writer runs into nowadays." I mentioned the microfilm room I thought we should have, "with a battery of Recordak readers available at all times." He seemed to know about these and nodded. "Also," I said, "and quite importantly, we'd maintain a taping studio on the order of the Department of Oral History that Allen Nevins started at Columbia, where our writers could put their subjects on some kind of permanent record. And I think we should provide genealogy researchers to ease that kinky angle all biographers dread and yet can't sidestep—what a lift that would be."
"What about cash grants?"
"Oh, grants-in-aid will be necessary. In fact, they will be desperately needed. You have no idea how expensive biography is."
He got up, found a clipboard in the escritoire, stuck some paper in it, and began taking notes with a ballpoint pen. He studied them as I sat across from him, watching. I had the excited feeling that I had scored.
"Dear?" he asked his wife. "What do you think? Does it interest you at all?"
"Oh definitely ... Yes, it thrills me."
That's what she said, but it had a phoney ring; and if I noticed it, so did he. He studied her for a moment and then growled: "Well? What don't you like about it?"
"But I do like it, Richard," she exclaimed. "I think it's wonderful. And I know, myself, that they don't have the courses in it. You forget, dear; I was a teaching assistant at Delaware U where I found out some things—a lot of things, things most people don't know."
"Why don't you say what you mean?" he snapped. "Why do you always have to beat around the bush?"
Suddenly I realized that I was caught in the middle of a family argument. I also realized that the key to the whole thing, Richard Garrett, was on my side, whereas the other half of it, Hortense Garrett, which I had at first taken for granted, was what was blocking me. Apparently Mr. Garrett didn't know why but meant to find out.
"Hortense, will you please tell us what your objection is? I confess, this thing appeals to me a lot more than hospitals do or some angle on education or the various eleemosynary activities I'm constantly being asked to support—as an outlet for this money that's piling up, and—"
"Richard, it also appeals to me, as I said. I'm for it. I'll be glad to help Dr. Palmer in any way I can. If you want to endow his institute, that's fine, but I won't be its den mother, which is what I think you want."
"Well, somebody has to be."
"Somebody else, not me."
"That was a song."
He sat there, snapping his nails against his ballpoint. He was obviously annoyed, but no more annoyed than I was. To come so close and yet miss depressed me. He asked: "Will you give me a memo on it, something I can refer to if the subject ever comes up? No hurry. When you get back to Nebraska will be soon enough."
"Maryland," I corrected. "The senator comes from Nebraska, but I'm at the University of Maryland, where his son is a student. He got into a scrape once over marijuana, which I was able to get him out of. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"Well, I should hope so."
"Where do you live in Maryland?" she asked me.
"College Park. It's a little town near the District—"
"Oh, I've been to College Park. Are you driving there now?"
"Why—yes, of course."
"He's putting ideas in my head," she said, turning to her husband.
"Oh," he said vaguely, "you mean that car?"
"That you left there," she finished for him, sounding a bit waspish. "I was going down with Jasper tonight to bring it back, but—"
"I'm sure Dr. Palmer would be more entertaining company, if he cares to give you a lift." Then, to me: "Would you haul my wife down to Washington when you go?"
"Of course. I'd love to."
For a moment I must have given it a blank stare, because they started talking at the same time; explaining that for various reasons having to do with ARMALCO, the conglomerate he was president of, he maintained a branch office in Washington and an apartment in Watergate. Three times a week a courier—Jasper—went down there at night with a pouch containing correspondence, memos, and tapes and then drove back in the morning with a pouch from the other end. Mr. Garrett had left the Cadillac at the Watergate apartment some days before when he had business with a friend who had brought him back in his private plane. Mrs. Garrett had expected to drive down with Jasper to bring the car back, but fortunately, here I was instead.
For a moment I glimpsed the world of patents, lawyers, lobbyists, and fixers that they lived in, but then, there she was, wagging her finger at me and bending forward so that those attachments bulged.
"And you stop sulking!" she said. "I really am for your institute. I mean to help you get it, just so long as you leave me out. In fact, I have one or two ideas that could actually get you somewhere."
"Go to it, Dr. Palmer," Mr. Garrett said with a kind of grim look. "At least you'll have her for two hours as your captive audience."
"No, I'll have him for two hours as mine."
Apparently her bag was already packed for the trip she was to take, because it took only a minute for the Swedish maid to bring it, as well as two coats—one a sort of light spring cape and the other a standard mink. Mr. Garrett took the coats and I took the bag after putting on my own coat and hat, and we went downstairs to the parking lot. I put her bag in the trunk of my car and the coats on the back seat. Then I helped her in.
Mr. Garrett put his head in the window and kissed her. Then he came around to my side of the car and shook hands. Nothing more was said about the institute project. He stepped back and waved as I started the motor and drove out to the street.
When we stopped at the first light and I turned the air-conditioner on, I could smell her. It annoyed me that I wanted her. I was still sulking, and not feeling very friendly toward her, but I felt the same hot lech I had felt when she swept into the living room. I tried to fight it off, with no success whatsoever.
"The light's green," she said quietly, and for one throbbing moment I thought she meant her light.
"Oh—thanks." My voice sounded as though I were inside a bass drum.CHAPTER 2
NOT MUCH WAS SAID until we were outside Wilmington, rolling on Route 40, when she suddenly sounded off: "Dr. Palmer, to clear up why I'm interested in your institute and at the same time want no connection with it—no personal connection, that is. My husband's interest in it is genuine. He respects, reveres, achievement, which is what biography honors, so there's nothing phoney about what he told you. Just the same, there's a little more to it than what was said, on his side as well as mine. Genuine interest or not, his immediate concern is to use this thing as bait, to dangle it in front of me, to get me to take it over so that we'll shift our base to Washington—our secondary base, that is—because, of course, Wilmington would still be home. He thinks that by giving me this toy, I'll be so excited about it, so excited about the prospect of running a high-toned salon for the great, the near-great, and the would-be-great who'll be getting themselves written up, that I'll fall all over myself to move down and become the new Marjorie Merriweather Post, patroness of the arts, encourager of the intelligentsia, and chief cook and bottlewasher of all that's fine and beautiful. I will—in a pig's eye. What's your name?"
"Your first name, Dr. Palmer?"
"Mine's Hortense, if you'd like to call me that."
"Hortense, I'd be honored."
"Lloyd, the reason is simple, and it's not subject to change after a sales talk, even from you. In Wilmington I'm a great big beautiful frog in the biggest puddle on earth, and I'm not trading that off for something tiny, like a tadpole in a millpond, which is what I'd be in Washington."
"Washington is tiny?"
"Compared with Wilmington, yes."
"I never heard that."
"Now you have."
"Just how do you measure ponds?"
"With money. How do you?"
"Why, with power, for one thing."
"Money is power."
"That's one of those spread-eagle statements that's true every foot of the way, not true for every inch. In other words, it's as true as you think it is, but that still leaves the beautiful frog. She is beautiful—every inch, every foot, every yard—"
"Every mile? I'm not that tall."
"Get on with what you started to say. Are you talking about Du Ponts or what?"
"Something wrong with Du Ponts?"
"Not that I know of, no."
"They don't blow their horn, that's true. It's one of the characteristics of money that it does not like its name in the papers—except for pictures, of course. For us beautiful frogs, that's permitted, and I confess that I like it. I like seeing my photograph in print, with my shadows touched up just a bit with mascara. Do you like my shadows?"
"I took them for real."
"They are real. But for the camera—"
"O.K., I dote on your shadows. May we get on?"
"Which way is on?"
"Is your husband hooked up with the Du Ponts?"
"Lloyd, I don't know, and I'm not at all sure he does either. The whole thing is an interlock so complicated that people have gone mad trying to figure it out. He could be hooked up with them—by stock they hold in his companies, by dummy names on the books, so he wouldn't even know it. Possibly he is, but he doesn't think so, I gather from the little he talks about it, and neither do I. He has reasons for not telling anyone, and I have mine, but mine are simple: the way they act when we go to their houses for dinner and when they come to mine. In general, Du Ponts sell chemistry—processes, dyes they know how to make, fibers they cook out of oil and spin into cloth like nylon, seat covers, stockings. Richard, however, sells things. He boasts that he knows a thing from a thing, like tractors and bulldozers and carts, and boats, boats of all sizes and shapes. If you had met him at his office, you'd see the scale models he has there, of everything he makes. But, of course, just like General Motors, all those things need paint, as well as the other things Du Pont has for sale. So he doesn't hurt them; he helps them."
"Where does General Motors come in?"
Excerpted from The Institute by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1976 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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