From a renowned chronicler of American high society, this is a novel set in the small but distinguished New York law firm of Shepard, Putney & Cox in the early 1970s.
The son of a rich mother and a socially ambitious father, Beekman “Beeky” Ehninger makes a successful career for himself in the narrow upper echelons of his profession. For years, he has quietly guided his firm through numerous periods of transition—not to mention marital strife, forgery, and fraud. But as times have changed, Beeky and his colleagues must decide whether to join forces with a new and different breed—tough, but undeniably successful.
The Partners is a masterful characterization of moral men navigating an amoral world, of lawyers, their families, and the rich and powerful people they serve.
“Vintage Auchincloss—sensitive, ironic, sympathetic, affecting. Auchincloss is particularly good with the interior reality of seemingly minor conflicts; he also shows, over and over again, that seemingly large and dramatic conflicts are often not the important ones.” —New York magazine
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About the Author
In 2000, Louis Auchincloss was honored 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.
Read an Excerpt
A Kingly Crown
Beekman, or "Beeky" Ehninger, had always known that his rise from clerk to partner in Shepard, Putney & Cox had not been wholly due to his legal aptitude. He was aware that he was a competent lawyer and comfortably conscious of his popularity with partners and associates alike, but he was also very much aware of the large and devoted family of sisters and cousins and aunts who, through the years, had faithfully made up a large part of his clientele. Such clan loyalty is not characteristic of New York, but it is sometimes found among the issue of "robber barons." Money can be thicker than blood, and the hundred-odd surviving descendants of Augustus Means, railroad magnate of the 1870s, contained several dozen still well-to-do individuals who remembered the common origin of their good fortunes and were glad enough to help each other out. Only a small number of the males had gone into law, and Beeky was the beneficiary of this statistic. It had helped to keep him youthful, right up to the age of fifty-six. Being "Young Beeky" to aging and aged clients seemed appropriate to his vivid check suits and bow ties, to his large, staring, lemurish eyes, to his diminutive, agile, "smart kid" figure. Beeky liked to think of himself as the naive young hero who always outsmarted the villain in the silent film comedies of his boyhood.
He was modest about his position but by no means humble. If he was not the administrative head of the firm, like Hubert Cox, or its great litigating light, like Ed Toland, or even a recognized expert in a particular field of jurisprudence, like many of his other partners, he had still a sound, round, general knowledge of law, and he kept comfortably abreast of every new statute or regulation affecting his clients. Beeky might have come to those by family ties, but he had nonetheless hung on to them. He never allowed any of them, no matter how specialized their problems, to fall under the jurisdiction of another partner. He always saw that the problem — a merger, a divorce, a will, a bankruptcy, a tax audit — was assigned to the proper technician, but that technician then worked under Beeky. Though his own work was largely supervisory, the combination of his attentiveness to detail with a certain shrewd common sense, not always characteristic of the legal expert, had given him a reputation for wisdom among his partners and clients. Beeky knew that life had dealt him a good hand. He also knew that he had played it well.
But his roster of clients was not what Beeky regarded, with an inner pride amounting at times to exhilaration, as his greatest contribution to the firm. No, this had been rendered twenty-five years before, in 1946, when he had saved the fading old firm of Shepard & Howland by converting it into its dynamic successor, Shepard, Putney & Cox. The memory of this success was the mainstay of Beeky's emotional life, the constant, comforting source of a timid assurance that he was, to himself anyway if not to the public or even to his friends — and that despite the disadvantages of his small size, his limited renown and his funny marriage — a leader of men.
What did it matter that hardly anyone now remembered or cared that it was he who had pulled it off? Had he not read somewhere that any man who was known as a great diplomat could not have been one? He had been so quiet and unobtrusive — with authority from no one, certainly not from poor old Judge Howland — in luring his classmates, Hubert Cox and Horace Putney, over from Sloane & Sidell that they had come in time to think that it must have been their own idea to remold the crumbling remnants of Shepard & Howland into a great modern firm. But if the cause was obscure, all downtown knew the result.
And now it looked as if the job was going to have to be done all over again. Beeky had had to recognize that he could no longer rest on even anonymous laurels. The crisis of the old firm, after a quarter of a century, had become the crisis of its successor. Hubert Cox was preoccupied with tax work, Horace Putney was always angling for another government job. The administrative center of the firm had weakened. Inconsistency was everywhere: in salaries, in raises, in vacations, in hours of work. The partners were forming cliques; the clerks felt exploited. For "Young Beeky," with his sixtieth year now a pale shape on the horizon of the only too visible future, there remained, as for Ulysses, a "work of noble note" yet to be done.
"What's new today in the office, Mrs. Bing?"
"They say Mr. Van Winkle is leaving. He's going over to Johnson and Knapp. At a salary hike of thirty-five hundred dollars and a promise of partnership."
Every morning, while opening his mail, Beeky discussed the problems of the day and the world with his secretary. So much of his work consisted of reading memoranda prepared for him by associates that Mrs. Bing had little to do. Never, however, did she take advantage of this circumstance to join the girls in the ladies' room or even to read magazines. A breathless, excitable, popeyed little bird of a woman, she kept busy, a tense acolyte, in constant readiness for a task from her worshiped boss. Mrs. Bing, Beeky knew, had a Mr. Bing somewhere in Plandome, and even a married daughter, but the circles of her professional and private lives never intersected. Beeky even suspected that she talked as little of him to her husband as of her husband to him. Before she had been Beeky's secretary she had been briefly secretary to the late Judge Howland to whom she had shown the same exclusive devotion. She was like a poodle, a well-clipped, well-disciplined, sleek and glossy black poodle, totally loyal to one master — at a time. In their morning dialogue she sat opposite him, smiling, like a client.
"Now how do you girls know that already?" Beeky demanded. "Van Winkle told Mr. Cox only yesterday."
Mrs. Bing's unaltered smile seemed to take this as an accustomed tribute. "And that will cause a rumble in the tax department. Mr. Cummings will think now he'll be the next partner, whereas really it will be Mr. Carroll. Only Mr. Carroll won't know that, so he may leave, too."
Beeky threw up his hands. "What are we coming to, Mrs. Bing? We used to be a firm. Now it's dog eat dog. And even when somebody does want to treat the young men decently, it's no good because he won't tell them in time." Beeky slapped his hand on the desk and rose to roam the office. "We need a leader. We need a leader desperately."
Mrs. Bing's eyes followed him admiringly. "I've always said that's what you should be. You're the only partner with the authority and the vision. The only one whom everyone in the firm respects. From Mr. Cox right down to the lowest office boy!"
Mrs. Bing was an enthusiast for law and order. She had a photograph of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy lovingly pasted to the inside cover of her office diary. Beeky was a Democrat, but Mrs. Bing refused to take his now old-fashioned New Deal liberalism as anything but the amiable, rather lovable eccentricity of a prince.
"You think I should be a dictator, Mrs. Bing?" he asked with a self-depreciating smile.
"So long as you take the first position, Mr. Ehninger, I don't care what the label is."
"So long, then, as I'm a despot, it doesn't matter if I'm a benevolent one?"
"Oh, you'd always be benevolent. Too much so, I'm afraid."
Beeky remembered with a little pang that it was the same phrase that his wife had used the Sunday before when he had refused to reprimand their old gardener for spilling water on her card table in the conservatory. Annabel Ehninger and Mrs. Bing understood each other. The difference was that Annabel did not share the secretary's admiration of her husband. She left Beeky to Mrs. Bing, recognizing with a breezy scorn that that was all he really wanted from a woman. Oh, yes, Beeky had had it all out on the analytical couch, had faced it hundreds of times! He and Doctor Fellowes had jointly recognized that he had married Annabel when he had been an innocent bachelor of forty and she a buxom, raven-haired, flashing-eyed, loudly laughing, triple divorcée of fifty-three, with grown children of different last names, only to prove to his dying and infinitely disapproving old mother, with whom he had always lived, that he was, after all, a man. Now Annabel was sixty-eight and golden blond, and spent her days and nights at the bridge table, a huge, rouged, laughing, terrible, gorgeous old thing.
"I can't change my spots at my age, Mrs. Bing," he protested. "And for that matter I never had many spots to change. If I could be anything, it would be a kind of gray eminence. I like power for what it can accomplish, not power itself." Here he had a momentary vision of what Doctor Fellowes might retort to that, and he made a mental face at his mental image. "Some people can't believe in disinterested action," he continued in a sharper tone, as if rebutting the absent psychiatrist. "They are quite wrong. Even pathetically wrong, I'd say. What is it to me personally that the firm be saved? My clients are looked after. My little fortune is securely invested. What I earn here mostly goes in taxes."
"Oh, Mr. Ehninger, do you think anyone doubts that? Nobody is less selfish than you. That's true. It really is. You have no idea how you're looked up to in this office."
Beeky was a bit ashamed of his pleasure in Mrs. Bing's indiscriminate laudations. It was not a very keen pleasure — he knew too well that the woman was a goose — but it was like the misty spray of a high-powered fountain on a hot day. It cooled without really wetting. Beeky reflected ruefully how different his life might be if Annabel ever spoke to him in that tone.
"I thought we had found our leader in Hubert Cox," he went on. "He seemed to have all the qualities I thought we needed: he was liked as well as admired, and he cared about everybody, not just his partners, not even just the clerks — everybody. But he's too reasonable. Maybe too soft. He sees too many sides to every picture. Cox hates to say 'no.'"
"I have one partner who doesn't."
"Now why don't you tell me?"
Mrs. Bing's eyes sparkled. She loved a game. For a moment, turning her head sideways, she seemed to reflect. "Mr. Putney?"
"He'd like to say no. But he's not capable of so simple a conclusion. There'd have to be a qualification."
"He'd say: 'Hell, no.' Or worse."
"But he's so unpopular, Mr. Ehninger!"
"From you that's unworthy. Why should a great leader care about popularity?"
"But still there are degrees!"
"I grant you, there are degrees. But Dan Purdy is not a dragon. There's some paper in him. The point is that he's the ablest corporation lawyer in the firm. At the age of only forty-one he controls more business than any other two partners. The administrator of a law firm has got to be its biggest man. Otherwise he won't be respected. He won't be obeyed."
"Wait!" Beeky had his speech ready, and he had to get it all out in order to persuade himself. "Purdy's second qualification is that he wants the job. Everyone else, including Cox himself, loathes administrative detail. They're even proud of it. A great lawyer, they think, should be above such things. What rot! And Dan's third and final qualification is that he's ambitious. Once he is well shackled to the firm, he can be trusted to take us all up the ladder of fame with him. And for a guide and philosopher to tone him down, he'll always have me."
"I see." But there was a disturbing note of doubt in Mrs. Bing's usually trusting tone. "Of course, he'll have you."
"Precisely. He'll mind me because I put him there."
"Hmm. But if I may quote you, Mr. Ehninger, haven't you always told me that Mr. Purdy has created his own little group of henchmen inside of Shepard, Putney and Cox? Haven't you described it as a firm within a firm?" She paused to gather her courage. "Haven't you even described it as a ... as a cancer?"
"Perhaps," Beeky conceded with a blush. "But that's just the beauty of my plan. The very boldness of it. I simply turn my cancer into a cure! By giving Purdy more than he could possibly expect, I render him at once harmless and useful. Because it will be to his advantage then, as well as ours, to have a great, well-organized firm. And he'll see it, too. He's not dumb, after all."
"I see." Perhaps there was a shade less doubt in her tone. "Well, it may be a brilliant idea. But I still think you should be number one and let Mr. Purdy be your gray eminence, if you have to have one. He even looks like a monk."
"You see that, do you? You're very keen. He's just the type to have been a political cleric in French or Spanish history. A Father Joseph or a Ximenes. Once he sees his way ... well, wait till I show him!" He sat down, having made his decision. "Mrs. Bing, call Miss Thompson and ask if Mr. Purdy's free for lunch."
Dan Purdy, as Mrs. Bing said, looked like a monk. Austerity seemed to emanate from his tall spare frame like dry air from the desert. He was not, perhaps, a bad-looking man: his regular features and long, strong face might have been almost attractive but for an air of juicelessness that hung about him, a hard-baked clay quality that made one see his short stiff curly hair as a tonsure. Dan moved rapidly, abruptly, awkwardly. His voice was harsh and loud, and his laugh sounded like gravel on tin. But there was a tough humorousness in his cynicism, a trenchancy in his observations, a naked strength in his observations and actions that made him a leader, if not of men, at least of cliques. He had his following, consisting of two devoted clerks, who even affected his quick, almost running gait when they walked in and out of the office behind him. They hardly bothered to conceal their scorn for their fellow associates and made no secret of their opinion that Mr. Purdy was foolishly generous to support his "freeloading" partners.
Dan Purdy himself, however, had always professed a particular respect and liking for Beeky Ehninger, and it was on this rock that the latter hoped to raise his church, despite his suspicion that Dan's respect was based on snobbishness. Dan, the son of a stationery store proprietor in Newark, venerated such relics of old New York as the Beekmans and Ehningers. Beeky understood that the danger to his project was that Dan might see himself as building a new order on the stripped foundations of the old, that he might relish the fantasy of playing Mussolini to Beeky's Victor Emmanuel, but Beeky counted on his own astuteness to control this. When the new order was fixed, it might be a surprise to all to discover which was the puppet.
At their lunch Beeky opened the conversation diplomatically with a question about Dan's collection of porcelains. This collection represented what was probably the sole outlet for Dan's aesthetic nature. The law, only too evidently, provided one for his aggressions. But at home, in his little gilded box of a penthouse on Central Park South, looking north over the zoo, he would run the square tips of his fingers over his glass cabinets of Meissen and Lowestoft and sigh almost like a human being. Dan had a wife, a timid thin woman with a twisted mouth who laughed rather desperately at everything, but she seemed more a caretaker than a spouse. She had never been the same since their only child, a Mongoloid, had been committed.
"You ought to go to London," Beeky said. "Everything is sold in London today."
"Everything comes to New York," Dan retorted. It was notorious in the office that he never left the city, even in the worst heat of summer. "All I have to do is wait. And I can afford to wait a long time."
"I see there's a good auction coming up at Parke-Bernet."
"French Empire," Dan said with a scornful sniff. "I refuse to put so much as a toe into the nineteenth century. I think you know my credo: that all beauty expired with the fall of the Bastille. That's why I admire you and Annabel. You're old regime."
"Not that old, I hope."
"I'm sure your family were Tories in the Revolution."
"On the contrary. We were at Valley Forge."
Beeky fully realized that in never discussing legal topics with him, Dan unconsciously implied that Beeky did not know enough about them. But he also realized that the circle of Dan's contempt formed a comfortably large province, and it amused him, in his own turn, to consider how uneasy Dan would have been with the denizens of his chosen century — with Horace Walpole, for example, or Madame du Deffand.
"I have a plan today, Dan, of a different kind of collection for you. Not a collection, of course, that would be a substitute for yours, but an embellishment. It would be a collection of men. Mortal men."
"You don't mean you've found a man of flesh and blood who's finer than one of biscuit de Sèvres!"
"Ah, no. Nor woman neither. But what I've found is a group that, put together, might convey a harmony even greater than the loveliest group ever conceived in Meissen."
"And what, pray, is this group?"
"Shepard, Putney and Cox."
Excerpted from "The Partners"
Copyright © 1974 Louis Auchincloss.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
Shepard, Putney & Cox,
I. A Kingly Crown,
II. The Love Death of Ronny Simmonds,
III. The Peacemakers,
IV. Agreement to Disagree,
V. The Diner Out,
VI. Beeky's Conversion,
VII. The Marriage Contract,
VIII. Shepard & Howland,
IX. The Novelist of Manners,
X. The Last of the Barons,
XI. Oberon and Titania,
XII. The Foundation Grant,
XIII. The Merger – I,
XIV. The Merger - II,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loved this book! Interesting stories revolving around a major NYC law firm and the in-house politics and family struggles the various members of the firm experience. All stories are separate, but never stray far from the behind-the-scenes conscience of the firm, Beeky. A fascinating glimpse of life in a major firm, the social responsibilities expected, the stress on families of partners and the moral dilemmas that continually barrage those doing the work. I have always liked the Auchincloss style and personal insight he has from his own life spent in a major law firm. Great detailed descriptions of these characters and what makes them tick, think, and react to what is going on around them, as well as the history that brought them to the present. And with that background context, we see they are almost powerless to avoid the ultimate conclusion of each story, something that would not have been obvious at all otherwise. Still a bunch more of Auchincloss to go and i cannot wait!