Crisscrossing a tumultuous century, these stories evoke lives both blessed and cursed by good fortune and reveal the quotidian conflicts of a wonderfully rich milieu. Here are vignettes that capture the loves and jealousies of marriage and friendship, recall days of a rarefied aristocracy, and hint at a new, ambitious young elite.
In the title story, a tour de force of humor and emotion, a clergyman prepares a toast for his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary but gets stuck when it comes to his wife’s five-year affair. The narrator in “DeCicco v. Schweizer” imagines the lives of the plaintiff and defendant and spins a wicked tale about a 1902 marriage born more of convenience than of love. And in “The Last of the Great Courtesans,” we meet the unforgettable Milly Marion, born in 1917, who has bewitched everyone she has met in her long, colorful life.
Whether these stories concern an anxious draft dodger, a repentant headmaster, or a mischievous writer who ill-advisedly draws from her own family for her fiction, they all offer soulful glimpses into an uncommon world, preserved in our past and yet surprisingly close to our hearts.
“His themes are universal—ambition, greed, disappointment, compromise. Some of the most memorable characters are women, trying to find their way in a time of more restricted choices . . . It’s easy to get lost in the author’s elegant and restrained prose.” —Booklist
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||560 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
* * *
THERE WAS NO QUESTION in Angelica Brooks's mind as to what had altered her life from a freely flowing river to a sluggish tidal area losing its force and impetus in soggy marshland. It was her resignation in 1952, three years before, from the Wall Street law firm that bore her father's name and of which her husband, Sidney, was the brightest and most up-and-coming of the junior partners. She had been just thirty at the time and an associate in the trust and estates department — admittedly a minor, almost an "accommodation," section of a corporation firm — but she had been hoping against hope that her good record and the changing times might override what was still the prejudice in the larger houses against making female partners, when her father had taken her out to lunch to enlighten her. It had not been an easy thing, for who but he had urged her to go to law school in the first place? His tone was heavy, and his great shaggy head had shaken in regretful nods.
"Having a junior partner and an associate who are married to each other has already been frowned at in the firm," he told her, "but I have been able to control that. Having two partners who are mates I might not be able to, let alone the die-hard attitude of a few old stick-in-the-muds about having a woman partner at all.
You may well ask, if that be the case, why I let you come into the firm. The truth is, I thought the training would be valuable for you in whatever you did afterwards, and I assumed that anyone as brilliant and charming as yourself would soon be married and too busy raising a family to bother with our dusty old books and cases downtown."
"Do you imply, Daddy, that I have been neglecting Tim and Elly?"
"In no way, my dear. They're wonderful kids and doing splendidly in nursery school, and I know how conscientiously you spend your nights and weekends with them. Indeed, your mother and I have even worried about the effect on your social life. But the fact remains that here in the office you may be on a dead-end street.
As far as partnership goes, that is. You can always command the highest going salary rate for your age as an associate. But I know that's not what you want. Still, you should count your blessings, my precious girl! You have a successful and utterly devoted husband, two great children, no financial worries, plenty of friends and outside interests, a first-class brain and all the charm anyone could ask. Honey, the world's your oyster!"
* * *
Sidney was much better about it than her father when he came home late that night. He was working on a hideously tangled corporate reorganization and was pale from his hours of toil, but paleness was becoming to his slightly haggard dark good looks. As always he gave his most serious attention to anything that concerned her.
"I don't want you to stay on, darling, if you can't be a partner, and your father has finally convinced me that we haven't the votes. You could get a job in another firm fast enough, and some of the smaller ones are getting much less stuffy about making woman partners, but I've been wondering if you wouldn't do better to take a year off and think over what you'd really like. Forgive me if I've sometimes doubted your total dedication to the law. I'm not, mind you, in the least questioning your expertise."
"Well, there's a limit, it's true, to my adoration of wills and estates. Sometimes I feel like an undertaker." She felt the least bit depressed, as sometimes happened, at his eternal reasonableness. He was always so fair, so balanced, so devoted. He could never see there were moments when she just wanted to spit in the eye of the world. And she was uncomfortably aware that her own amusement in putting together the jigsaw puzzle of an estate plan that would least benefit Uncle Sam was a pale simulacrum of the "hard, gemlike flame" of his passion for the legal machinery that turned the wheels of industrial competition. The practice of law to Sidney was an art to which everything else came second. Even herself, even the children! But she couldn't complain about that. It had been the thing that had first intrigued her about him.
"I can see you in a lot of other things," he went on. "In politics, for example. You speak so well, and you have a way with people. And you care about causes.
How about getting involved with the Democratic party organization?"
He really was thinking about what she should best do. Had her father ever, really? Even when he had gone along wittttth her desire to be a lawyer, in his image, hadn't he been flattered by the vision of an adoring daughter, adoring and adored, turning into a kind of lovely Portia? Hadn't it been a fantasy?
Ethan Drury had filled the heaven and earth of her childhood and adolescence. He had been the sky, whether fair or stormy, over the sober, the sometimes God-fearing commuting community of Gulls Cove on Long Island; his small, riveting eyes, sometimes glinting with a kindness almost akin to love, but never missing a slip or a tumble, had penetrated to her boarding school, to Vassar, to Columbia Law, and even in the great gray city where so many of his grinding hours were spent, they swept the narrow dark streets of the financial district and reached to the escape vents of Times Square and the parks. Daddy's power was felt by the family, by his firm, by his great corporate clients and by the Plattsburg camps for officers' training that he had helped to organize in both wars and by the thousands of men who had been conscripted by the draft laws for whose passage he had so passionately and powerfully lobbied. He was male, incorruptibly male, the incarnation of his sex; he believed in war, holy war, and might even have been grateful for the existence of the Hun to keep Mars alive and kicking.
He was appropriately large and heavy and strong with a high brow and bushy gray hair, and although he had a habit of nervous twitches and rather stertorous breathing, his grave stare created an atmosphere of awesome stillness like a chamber of justice in which anything but the truth was unthinkable to tell. Drury represented great companies in their strife, and Angelica was too well educated to be unaware that bad things went on in that strife, yet her father's reputation for honesty and integrity somehow towered over the nefarious doings of his partners and clerks. She sometimes thought of him as a saintly pope presiding over a wily college of Italian cardinals. Was it possible that they kept certain things from him? If so, they had to be inordinately clever.
Angelica had never been jealous of her mother or of her three younger sisters. The latter were giggly, boy-crazy, party-loving, amiable creatures, greedy for the prizes then accorded to their sex and spoiled and coddled by a conventionally doting sire. Their mother played the tart, realistic ("no fancy pants") part of the good plain wife who keeps her seer of a spouse from being lost in the ether of his high thoughts, but this was a veil to cover her almost servile subjection to his every whim and wish. If she was a good-tempered Fricka and the sisters obedient if rather shrill Valkyries, to Angelica was left the function of the best beloved, Brunhilde, the intimate and confidante of Wotan.
But of course Wotan had wanted a son. How could he not? What would he be, in the end, in the twilight, without a Siegmund, a Siegfried? And hadn't he almost had one in the most devoted of clerks, the lean sleek hound ever at his heels with eyes upturned for the least command, Sidney Brooks, his master's right hand, whose subtler and more imaginative mind superbly complemented the older man's and made their joint effort a masterpiece? Sidney had spent his weekends with the Drurys in the big airy shingle mansion in Gulls Cove and when he was not working with Daddy, he was sailing or playing tennis with Angelica. With whom could she more properly fall in love than with Sidney? And with whom could he than with her? Did it really matter that both were in love with her father? And that father, had he ever been in love? How could he have been? Let him, like his hero, Theodore Roosevelt, stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord!
"The world is changing," her father had told her one winter night during the war at their hotel in Washington where he had invited her to accompany him on one of his lobbying missions to the capital. "And the war is bound to speed that up. Your mind, my dear, is too fine not to be trained like a man's. You've been as much help to me in drafting memoranda to this Senate committee as any of the young men from my office. I think you ought to go to law school next year."
She was elated. Wotan had praised her for bringing a dead hero to Valhalla! And the following fall found her enrolled in the first-year class at Columbia Law.
The final seal of paternal approval had been placed on her in one of her courses. As a distinguished graduate of the law school, her father had been invited to take over a class in criminal law. He had started his own career in the district attorney's office and had never lost his interest in the prosecution of felony. Angelica thrilled with pride as she watched the large, rumpled, grizzled figure of her father amble slowly to the rostrum to address the class.
"Rape!" he exclaimed throatily. "I see rape is the felony on your schedule for today. Well, let us see what we can make of this repellent but persistent vice in our afflicted society. Will someone offer me a definition of rape?" As no one volunteered, he consulted a class list of names and addresses. "Let me call on a gentleman from one of our southern states: Mr. Darlin, of Atlanta. Mr. Darlin, will you favor us with such a definition?"
Mr. Darlin's deep drawl amused the class. "I think I might call it the violation of the chastity of a young lady."
"Well, you've got some pretty good Victorian terms there. And I don't, by any means, wish to knock Victorianism, as many are too prone to do these days. But I'm afraid your definition is subject to the same criticism as Voltaire offered to that of the Holy Roman Empire when he said it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Your victim, I must point out, Mr. Darlin, need not be young nor chaste nor a lady, whatever that latter term is construed to mean."
The class roared, and poor Mr. Darlin blushed furiously. Angelica raised her hand, and her father immediately pointed to her.
"It's the penetration by force of a woman's vagina by the penis of a male."
"Very good, Miss Drury!" He did not hesitate to show that he knew her. "Your definition unhappily is not exclusive, as there seem, alas, to be other forms of penetration, but it will do excellently for a start. And tell me, how far must this intruding male organ penetrate?" Here he stretched out his right arm to make it seem the instrument described. "This far?" With his left hand he grasped his wrist. "This far?" He shifted his grasp to his elbow. "This far?" Now he clasped his right shoulder. "Or this far?"
Angelica smiled. "Any amount. The least fraction of an inch will do."
"Right, Miss Drury! Very good! Any amount."
And she felt at last the excitement of being on equal terms with him! Together they had bridged the gulf of sex and reticence. However much in the future he orated about the duty of men to kill and of women to bear children, they would have firm ground in common.
Copyright © 1999 Louis Auchincloss. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Table of ContentsContents
Decicco v. Schweizer.................................................1 The Interlude.......................................................21 The Anniversary.....................................................44 Man of the Renaissance..............................................58 The Last of the Great Courtesans....................................82 The Devil and Guy Lansing...........................................98 The Facts of Fiction...............................................119 The Virginia Redbird...............................................139 The Veterans.......................................................164
What People are Saying About This
Louis Auchincloss remains our most astute observer of moral paradox among the affluent, and The Anniversary shows him at his most elegant.
Some writers inform, some instruct and some tell how rewarding good prose can be. Louis Auchincloss does all three and never better than in this collection.