Defensive Backlog

I WAS brought up to believe that there was something peculiarly male about investing money, like whiskers and a newspaper at the breakfast table. It was a world which women might never enter and retain their charm, a sea in which they merely dabbled their toes -when they tried to balance their checking accounts, a trackless desert in which they walked with veiled, bowed heads while their men charted the course from the stars, like Arabs. Even the questions of Whither and Why were forbidden. It was unnecessary for them even to learn to read stock-market reports. When things went well they received presents. When things went badly they had to rally instinctively, offering a lovely refuge from circumstances beyond all human control. When a man died his helpless widow sought out the nearest faithful friend most resembling her husband in investment verve or reserve and entrusted all to him, unless her husband had made other and more remote arrangements. She was never expected to be able to take over any of the responsibility herself. One sees these women traveling now, saying tearfully to pursers or porters, ‘Mr. MacKenzie always did this for me.’ Those who set out to discover for themselves the man-made intricacies of the maze were accorded only amused incredulity. Men thought them foolish and women considered them nothing short of grotesque — abnormals who tried to get along without a man to show them the way.

The first investment I ever made was by cable. I was visiting in England and had so lost touch with my native land after a few months among the primroses as to cable my father to buy ten General Motors for me at thirty. I did not realize what a moment this was. I had refused a tip on the Derby and missed a chance to make a lot of pocket money (this would have been a perfectly acceptable female move - - part of traveling, in fact), but the idea which occurred to me, after hearing an English engineer welcome the increase in the importation of American motors, had repercussions which approached those of an elopement. I gathered, when I got home, that important people had been rendered nervous, cross, and physically upset by my peremptory request. I could have made the investment myself if the treacherous idea had occurred to me. No one would have known, or have had to know, if I had bought myself a fur coat, but when it came to investing money, instinct sent me to the fountainhead. Those in the household remembered the breakfast during which the cable arrived. Their word was ‘shocked.’ ‘Why,’ I was reproached, ‘did you have to do that?’ It was something I had done to the family.

After that I did not invest on my own again for several years. Then a cousin, visiting his rubber estates, came to stay with us in Burma. He brought such a dreadful wedding present and was so impressively head-ofthe-family that I felt I could save my hostess soul and repay him for so much unexpected joy only by some major move, so I gave him my household savings to invest in rubber stocks. Several years later he advised me to sell and I unearthed the shares for a handsome profit. But I did not deserve the luck. I have never had it since.

However, I was one step nearer to the mysterious door. I began to keep a little black book and I asked for a list of my holdings. This was strange and unfilial of me, but it was sent, although I, of course, was not encouraged to have any ideas on the subject. I began to be interested.

I think that I probably belong to that small and tender group of people who have things left to them ‘in trust,’ and that it was only a succession of early deaths which allowed me to think of my money as really my own. I was still serving an apprenticeship with the little black book, and I had never seen a broker face to face except proposing marriage, when I was left in sole charge. I began my wrestling with figures with only my first two investments as experience. My husband refused to advise in any way, and no one else realized that I was managing my own affairs.

When my husband suddenly went to war and left me his list to manage for him, I saw the world had not changed. Kind friends assumed that I would appeal to the nearest man or bank or counselor. I was asked very discreetly by husbands of friends if I was really trying to manage our investments by myself, and I was given the names of the very best firms.

All the sympathetic and penetrating hospital looks so frightened me that I did go to the biggest and best firm of investment counselors that had been mentioned and poured out all my investments to a tactfully prodding gentleman who elicited from me family secrets I did not know I knew. But for the fact that I did not lie down in a darkened room with my face turned from my questioner, it seemed to me I might be being psychoanalyzed. Except that I was not enjoying it — especially when the gentleman blanched to hear what my income was and that I was entirely dependent upon it. I gathered there was something threadbare and churchlike in raising a family of children on investments only, and something unique in that house ox soft chairs in having as little as I had. He prodded and prodded, but I could think of no other source. . . .

So he said finally that he was there to save me money and that for five hundred dollars he would reduce my income by a third and make my list into a fine pile of defensive backlogs that I could contemplate with real confidence. He was afraid — and he shook his head — that I had gambling instincts, wanting to make money. I gathered there were styles in stocks, and that there were some that everyone had to have in case one ever walked in an Easter Parade with one’s list around one’s neck. And there were things with which this very respectable house simply had nothing to do — chewing gum, for instance. My husband had, he felt, a welltailored, manly list, but there again was evidence of a hope that better times might some day come. One should never, I could see, let this show. Better to stick to bonds whose dates of maturity sounded like the Pharaohs read backwards and have something your grandchildren could leave untouched. So, feeling as if I had been married to him for at least a year, and that not quite legally, I sent back his handsome volume dedicated to my problems. And when a beautiful young man was sent to call on me six months later to see if I had rued the day, I was able to say I had not as yet lost the five hundred it would have cost me. . . . Since then I have not dared to look.

But I can tell investment counselors’ offices that they are on the wrong track with people like me. There is no point in sending me modulated-voiced athletes in pin-stripe suits. There is no charm for me in cozy offices behind ground-glass walls, so that one is at once private and safe. To people who are used to having their money passed out to them that may represent a very cheerful change, like a nursing home instead of a hospital. But the sort of man who would draw me in would be an older man with nothing to say to women on the subject of money, a man who did not even want to hear what I might think and who would try not to smile at the idea of my thinking I could invest. A long look of well-bred derision would put me right back in the harem, paying for the privilege.