Read an Excerpt
Later he was vilified and disgraced; Archbishop Cooning denounced him from the pulpit of Saint Vibiana’s as a corruptor, and the archbishop’s words spread throughout the land. But before the disgrace and the vilification Jules Mendelson was, seemingly at least, on top of the world: awesome in appearance, brilliantly married, and revered in the manner that the very rich are revered in America.
Clouds, the Mendelson estate, which looks down on Los Angeles from its lofty mountaintop, remains unlived in but cared for, although the massive iron gates that once fronted a ducal residence in Wiltshire have become dislocated, their hinges pried loose by vandals. The caretaker on duty has backed the gates with plywood boards to keep the curious from staring in; but, even if they could stare in, they would see nothing of the house and gardens, for a few hundred feet up the drive there is a sharp turn to the right. Pauline Mendelson’s greenhouse, where she grew her orchids, has fallen into disrepair, but the kennels are kept up still, and a pack of police dogs patrols the grounds at night, as always.
There was a time when people said that the views from Clouds were the prettiest views in the city. Pauline Mendelson, mindful of this, had created one room to take best advantage of the sunrise over the downtown skyline, where she and Jules were meant to have breakfast together, but never did, except once; and another room for watching the sunset over the ocean, where, on most evenings, she and Jules did indeed meet to drink a glass of wine together and discuss the events of the day before dressing for dinner.
Probably no one ever conducted herself so well in a scandal as Pauline Mendelson. Everyone agrees on that. She held her head high and invited neither pity nor scorn. The city, or that part of the city that figured in the lives of these people, was beside itself with excitement. Nothing so thrilling had happened in years, except among the movie people, and no one they knew saw the movie people. Within a year of the events that riveted the city for so many months, Pauline became Lady St. Vincent and moved to England. She not only married quickly but also, being by birth one of the McAdoo sisters, the marrying McAdoos, as the papers often called them, married extremely well, even under the terrible circumstances. People say that all traces of her life as Mrs. Jules Mendelson have been totally obliterated, and in her new life she is not at home to people who knew her in Los Angeles, not even Rose Cliveden, and, God knows, if anyone was a good friend to Pauline Mendelson, it was Rose Cliveden.
“There were splendid times at Clouds for over twenty years. You had only to look at the signatures in the guest books when they came up for auction at Boothby’s, along with the furniture, the personal effects, and, of course, the extraordinary art collection, to get an idea of Pauline Mendelson’s voracious appetite for what she always called “interesting people.” As to the pictures, or the auction of the pictures, there is still rage in the art world today. The Metropolitan Museum in New York said it had been promised the collection. The County Museum in Los Angeles said the same, as did the Kimball in Fort Worth. And there were other museums, with lesser claims. But that was typical of Jules Mendelson. He liked being called on by heads of museums—being courted by them, as he put it—and hearing them praise his magnificent collection. He enjoyed walking them through the halls and rooms of his house, spelling out the provenance of each picture, as well as the stage in the life of the artist at the time the picture was painted. He liked letting each one think it was his museum to which the collection would go, in time; and surely he meant to leave it to one, because he often said, even in interviews, that he never wanted the collection to be broken up, and that he was leaving money for the construction of a wing, the Jules Mendelson Wing, to house it. But the fact remained that he did not make such a provision, although he had intended to, just as he had intended to make a provision for Flo March. Or poor Flo, as she came to be known. It was Pauline who decided to break up the collection and auction it off along with the furniture and personal effects, minus van Gogh’s White Roses and the bronze cast of Degas’s fourteen-year-old ballerina, with the original pink ribbon in her hair, which, some people say, are already installed in Kilmartin Abbey in Wiltshire.
Pauline Mendelson was one of those people totally at home in the inner circles of several cities, although she seemed to belong to none. Even after twenty-two years of living in Los Angeles, and becoming a prominent citizen there, Pauline always seemed like a visitor rather than a resident. Her parties at Clouds were famous, and rightly so. She left nothing to chance in the planning of her evenings. It was through one such party that young Philip Quennell was brought into the orbit of the renowned couple. Pauline liked to ask writers and artists to her house to mix with her grand friends. Once Philip had seen her take communion at Andy Warhol’s memorial service at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and he had met her once before that, by accident, during the intermission of a play in New York. Pauline knew the stepmother of the woman he was with, and, after introductions, she and his companion chatted briefly while Philip stood by, simply watching her. She spoke in a fashionable contralto. “Awfully light, isn’t it, but I’m being amused, aren’t you?” she asked, about the play. They answered yes. “Dreadful about Rocky, isn’t it?” she asked, about someone Philip didn’t know, but his companion did, whose private plane had recently crashed. “Both his pilots were killed, but he’ll be fine, in time,” Pauline added. And then the bell rang, and it was time for the second act, and they didn’t see her again. Given this minimal exposure to Pauline Mendelson, Philip Quennell was therefore surprised to find an invitation to her party, hand-delivered to his hotel by her chauffeur, on the very day he arrived in Los Angeles for what turned out to be a considerably longer visit than he could ever have anticipated. It was his birthday. He was twenty-nine, turning thirty that night, but of course that milestone, known only to himself, could have nothing whatever to do with the invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Jules Mendelson, as their names read in engraved script on the ecru-colored card.
He was late. The parking valet told him so. So did the maid who opened the door. Inside, on a hall console table where little envelopes with dining-table numbers inside had been alphabetically placed, there was only one left, his. The convivial sound of sixty voices, talking and laughing, could be heard from an interior room. Even late, however, with a butler hurrying him toward the voices—“They’re about to sit down,” he insisted—it was impossible for Philip to be oblivious to the grandeur of the interior of the Mendelson house. There were six ground-floor doors opening onto the front hallway. A curved staircase of superb proportions seemed to float upward on invisible pinions, its green moiré wall lined with six Monet paintings of water lilies, Philip’s first glimpse of the Mendelson art collection; below, at its base, were masses of orchid plants in blue-and-white Chinese cachepots and bowls.
“Beautiful,” said Philip, to no one in particular.
“It’s Mrs. Mendelson’s hobby,” said an efficient, secretarial-looking woman.
“What?” asked Philip.
“The orchids. She grows them herself.”
“Will you first sign the guest book, please,” she said. She handed him a pen, and he wrote his name beneath the names of one of the former Presidents and his First Lady and that of the great film star Faye Converse, now in retirement. His eyes scanned the signatures. Although he knew no one, he recognized many of the illustrious names. It was not the sort of crowd that Philip Quennell was used to dining with.
Just then one of the six doors opened, and the party sounds increased in volume as Jules Mendelson entered the hall. He closed the door behind him again and strode across the marble floor with the purposefulness of a man who had been summoned to take an important telephone call. He was enormous, both in height and in girth, unhandsome and compelling at the same time, the possessor of an appearance that was likely to intimidate the fainthearted. His aura of power enveloped him like a strong scent. But people discovered on meeting him that he could be surprisingly gentle, and, more surprisingly still, a gentleman. When biographers of great men questioned him for his reminiscences of their subjects, Jules invariably replied (if he could not get out of replying) with kindness and benevolence, even about great men he had disliked or done battle with, for he was always aware that his own biography loomed as a certainty at some future time.