Ship's Auction


TRAVELING with my father was always comfortable and efficient, particularly if there were not too many sisters along. If one was alone with my father one shared equally in all the services that sprang up at his appearance. Drawing rooms on trains were found for him when all had supposedly been reserved by other people; and when the orchestra was with him, engineers made special stops and whole timetables were altered. trait in liked

My father and I had one trait in common: we liked to arrive in plenty of time to catch a train. Neither of us was capable of being late. The morning that we knew we were going on a journey we were in a nervous fever of excitement for several hours before we had to go to the station.

One year I went with my father to Saratoga Springs, where he was to conduct a pair of concerts. The orchestra had gone the day before on a special train and we were to follow the next day on the 10.00 A.M. We breakfasted at a quarter to eight and at ten of nine were at the station in time to catch the earlier train for Saratoga, the 9.05. This pleased my father: it was proof positive that we were on time. I was for taking the first train, but my father liked to stick to what he called “the arrangements.” He bought the papers which we had read at breakfast and said that we could amuse ourselves by “studying human nature.” We studied human nature for four minutes and were done with it. The 9.05 had not yet gone and we still had a chance to make it, but my father did not trust it. It wasn’t his train. So we waited the hour, caught the ten o’clock, and were standing in the aisle, ready to get out again, a good twenty minutes before the train reached Saratoga.

My mother took a chance on any journey. It never bothered her if she had no reservations. She climbed into an upper berth or sat up all night and took it all very casually. If there was a stopover of a couple of hours, she went sight-seeing. She drove out in a cab to see the waterfalls or the outside of the new insane asylum while my father waited agitatedly at the station looking anxiously every few minutes at his big gold watch. My father had more confidence in his watch than in station clocks, which he claimed ran about ten minutes slow.

My father traveled so much and so far on his tours with the orchestra that he associated train trips with work. To my mother a trip was adventure and an escape from home and children. As a result, their attitudes were very different. My father, knowing he had a schedule with a number of one-night stands, followed the timetable carefully. But he tried to make himself as comfortable as possible. He often sent a bottle of wine into the dining car to be iced for dinner, and he liked to discuss with the steward what might be specially cooked for him. Trout appeared at his table alone, and the salad was mixed according to his directions.

All this was too much like home for my mother. She ordered a chop and a baked potato for her first meal and never varied the order through thirty-five states. In vain did my father try to argue her into eating something different. My mother wanted to get back to the book she finally had time to read, or jump out at the next station for a seven-minute look down the town’s main street. My mother and father both liked traveling, but for quite different reasons.

It was on an ocean voyage that my father really relaxed. The arrangements had been made; there was no timetable to study, and he could give himself over to amusing himself with human nature and enjoying his popularity with the passengers and crew. Particularly did my father blossom on the French Line.

The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique was to us, as to many other Americans, the most remarkable line that existed, and we helped support it for many years. We had been on British boats but we never had so good a time. The English were apparently determined to make us remember we were on the ocean. Their boat drills were serious and genuine affairs. A lady, except for first place in the lifeboat, seemed to have no privileges. She was kept out of smoking rooms and bars and was allowed in only one salon, where she could drink tea. No English passengers spoke to us or even to fellow Britishers without an introduction. I used to wonder whether, if we and the English landed in a lifeboat together, after the third day of washing around we would break the ice and shake hands. I never was sure.

An English ship seemed designed to keep people apart. The passengers liked privacy and that was the last thing my sisters and I wanted on a voyage. The English made us feel younger than we were, and on a boat for a week each of us wanted to add at least three years.

With the French Line, from the moment we stepped on board it was gala, gala. The French tried to conceal from their passengers the fact that they were at sea. Sometimes there were life preservers in t he cabin, often not. A sign pointed to Canot de Sauvetage, but if one followed the sign, the lifeboat might not be there at all. If there was a whistle for a boat drill, passengers might lift their faces from their Vermouth Cassis to wonder what the noise was about, but it was a sign of a complete lack of sophistication to go anywhere.

I humiliated myself on an early trip by appearing tied into a life preserver, on Pont B. Standing there were a bored stewardess, a nurse, and a child. That was all. Covered with shame, I rushed back to my cabin. I had done the unpardonable; I had not been sophisticated. How my sisters would laugh at me if they knew.

One reason for the success of the French Line was the illusion that it gave to all its passengers that they had a special drag. Businessmen, students, buyers, felt that the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique knew that they were les grands amis de la France and wanted to recognize this fact by bettering their cabins. A long line formed outside the purser’s office, and for three days everyone changed accommodations. Somehow the pursers, from Monsieur Latour-Maigret down, gave the passengers the illusion that their claims were recognized and something immediately would be done about them. If the cabin one had originally been given had Art Moderne décor, one was moved to an identical cabin, décor Louis Seize. All decks played a kind of gigantic “ Going to Jerusalem” and seized each other’s places.

There was one group that did have a special pull and whose claims were genuinely recognized. These were the artists. The French loved and understood the musicians and the actors, and no cabin was considered too good for them. Pianists, conductors, or leading ladies, from the moment they stepped on board, were treated with particular attention and flattery. What was more, judgments of the worth of an artist were very genuine. Señor Arbos, for example, the Spanish conductor, on his first trip to America, received a bigger cabin than the newest star of the movies, though the star earned ten times as much as Señor Arbos.

The ships’ concerts had a list of performers that rivaled Paris or New York. The piano was always in tune, and somehow the man who thought he could whistle and the lady who was determined to sing “Home, Home, from the Hills” were eliminated and a delighted, though often an intoxicated, audience heard and cheered Paul Kochanski or Artur Rubinstein.


ONE August my father found he had to return from Europe earlier than he had planned, and brought Polly back with him. The ship was the France, the handsomest of the French Line. Monsieur LatourMaigret was the purser, and when my father appeared at his office, Monsieur Latour-Maigret embraced him with joy and then threw up his hands in despair on his problems of cabin assignments. The boat was too crowded on this trip, Le bureau à Paris had made a dozen mistakes, having sold the same space several times over.

Monsieur Latour-Maigret of course immediately found a better cabin for my father, with private bath — but for Mademoiselle Pollee, très, très difficile. Would she consent to share a cabin with Mademoiselle Piccard, une chanteuse rarissante, and in two days, parole d’honneur, a perfect single cabin would present itself.

Polly looked at the arrangement with some misgivings, for her French was weak, particularly in verbs and high numbers, though she made a constant effort to be idiomatic. She had seen in her French reading the expression hein, which she used frequently but pronounced it to rhyme with “fine.” If she could survive the language difficulties with Mademoiselle Piccard, the cabin presented a definite advantage. It was on a lower deck than my father’s and so would give her greater independence.

Polly was adding the customary three years for the trip. She had several new dresses from Paris and some belonging to her sisters that she was taking home for them. She planned to wear them all in rotation so that she could assure the customs in New York that they were old stuff. It was a point of honor for all of us to get as much as possible through the customs without declaration. In Polly’s shoes were little bottles of liqueurs, and perfume was hidden in hats and in the pockets and linings of her coat. When she walked, she clinked like John Gilpin.

When Polly arrived at the cabin, Mademoiselle Piccard was already lying in the lower berth with a thick cream spread over her face. Polly was not sure if she was awake, so she climbed into the upper berth as quietly as possible. A guttural voice spoke.

“Croyez-vous en Dieu, Mademoiselle?”

“Croyez-vous?” asked Polly anxiously.

“Naturellement, mais en même temps —”

“Bon soir,” said Polly determinedly.

The next day Mademoiselle Piccard had herself moved to another cabin, having found conversation with Polly unrewarding.

Captain Jacquemot immediately asked my father and Polly to sit at his table. Captain Jacquemot was a handsome Breton with black hair and dark eyes and possessed a fine tenor voice. He loved to sing, and late at night when the bar and salon were nearly deserted he would leave the bridge and perform happily with the musicians who were on the trip. He also liked to dance and play bridge, and his dark eye was well aware of which women who were making the voyage were jolies, délicieuses, or formidables.

Captain Jacquemot was enchanted with Polly. Polly possessed an eerie quality which only exasperated my father—he never could make out if she understood the point he was making or was merely giving him her wide smile and thinking of something else. But Captain Jacquemot became convinced Mademoiselle Pollee grasped every one of his best nuances. He placed her opposite to him, then on his left, then on his right, and he constantly lifted his glass to her. He believed or did not believe her alleged age — but he was interested in the variety of costumes that Polly was conscientiously wearing, some so wintry, some so spring-like, and he improved her French in a soft undertone.

The chief steward would bend his head close to Captain Jacquemot while they discussed whether the Bombe Glacée or the Crêpes Suzette Flambées would interest Mademoiselle Police more. Then the sommelier, his neck covered with chains, would bend over to the other side and murmur, “Parfaitement, mon Capitaine,” as Captain Jacquemot ordered unvinrosé un peu mousseux which he believed Polly would like. The sommelier would disappear and bring the special bottle, and after pouring a little into Captain Jacquemot’s glass would pour a great deal into Polly’s glass. Then Captain Jacquemot would raise his glass and the toasts began.

Each night a different guest at the Captain’s table ordered a special wine as a present to the other guests. Besides my father and Polly, there was an actress from the Comédie, a French Industrialist, Mordkin of the Russian ballet, and some Americans who said they were Steel, and Copper, and Sugar Refining Inc., and they all became very gay and lively. Polly of course found this delightful. Muffled in fur or swathed in chiffon, depending on which sister’s dress she was aging, she lifted her glass to Steel and Copper while the steward pressed on her ice hollowed in the shape of a swan in which there was caviar, and invariably she and Captain Jacquemot clinked their rosé together and ended the dinner with Crêpes Suzette.

One evening the Captain asked Polly if there was anything further that he could do for her pleasure.

“Oui,” said Polly suddenly, “jc voudrais bien voir un iceberg.”

Captain Jacquemot was startled. The ship was nowhere near the icebergs. He raised his glass again to Polly: “Pour vous je ferais n’importe quoi!”


POLLY lay on her berth and studied the ship’s newspaper. First she read the leading article, Les Parfumsde Grasse. Then she turned to the second page, Le Maroc, Paps Féerique du Soleil. This was illustrated by a blurred photograph of a bearded old man in a fez. Opposite this was another long piece, BaudelairePoète de la Vénus Noire. On the next page there was a heading Dernière Heure and under it a brief account of what was happening in England and China. Under this in larger type came the heading La Bourse with four stock quotations. Next came a heading, Le Sport. Le Shuffle et Le Deck Tennis à 3 heures, and so on. Finally, in very large type, appeared the words, “Gala, Gala, Gala. Dîner du Capitaine; Ship’s Auction — M. Walter Damrosch.”

My father was considered the top auctioneer on any voyage and he was invariably invited for this exhausting role. He had the record for raising more money pour la Société Maritime des Veuves et Orphclins than any other passenger, and the francs poured in when he went to work. He was justifiably proud of his talent in this direction and he described his methods to Polly as they paced the deck before the Captain’s dinner. Polly had never seen my father in the role of auctioneer, — in fact had never attended an auction, — and she was of course excited at the prospect.

“The important thing,” my father told her, “is to keep the bidding open. Never let anything be knocked down too quickly. Persuade someone to push it another hundred francs and you’re off again and can run it ‘way up.”

Polly listened with deep interest to the words of the master.

“Oh, I hope it will go well tonight,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” laughed my father confidently. “All I have to find is some coöperative jackass who won’t let go and will keep on bidding. That’s all I need.”

“You’ll find one,” declared Polly.

The Captain’s table was strewn with flowers, and the menu, looking like an invitation to a royal wedding, took up two pages. It began with Caviar de Sterlet and Crêpes de Sarrasin, went through Baron d’Agneau de Lait, Asperge de Serre, Sauce Mousseline, and ended with Pêche de Montreuil, Belle Dijonnaise. My father, who had been in consultation with the wine steward in a series of thoughtful meetings, was giving the champagne — Lanson 1904. The first magnum arrived with the dessert and the toasts began.

“À la grande amitié entre la France et l’Amérique!” Everyone stood up. “À la santé de Mademoiselle Dorziat, artiste superbe! ” The champagne was making a hit and my father looked about the table happily. Then his eye fell on Polly. She was smiling over her glass at Sugar Refining Inc. and in her glass was the vin rosé. He signaled to her quickly to drink champagne. Polly merely raised her vin rosé to him.

After dinner my father walked the deck again with Polly. He was perturbed.

“Do you realize what I was giving the table to drink tonight?” he asked.

“Champagne,” said Polly.

“Not just champagne — Lanson 1904. One of the finest marks in the world. You refused it!”

“I like the rosé,” declared Polly.

“I want you to promise me something,” said my father earnestly. “I want you to promise me that never again, as long as you live, will you refuse Lanson 1904.”

And Polly quite truthfully promised that she never would.

My father faced the large crowd of first class passengers. Behind him on a long table were the donations to be auctioned: perfume, wine, autographed pictures of celebrities, three handbags, a doll, an embroidered sweater, some wooden bears from Switzerland, some white pigeons fastened to an alabaster bowl from Florence, a Spanish shawl — all the vast variety of tourist purchases, including a little Reboux hat.

Polly sat at a table in the corner with Mademoiselle Piccard, the French Industrialist, and Steel, sipping a green mint as she watched the scene with great curiosity. My father after some flattering remarks to the audience picked up his first item, a pair of lady’s gloves. He ran them up to three hundred francs and then suggested that Mademoiselle Piccard stand up and wear one glove to show the audience its remarkable shape. The audience applauded Mademoiselle Piccard loudly as she held up her gloved hand. My father then refused to take any bids from the ladies. Only the men were to be allowed to vie with each other in securing ces gants élégants. They were finally knocked down for a thousand francs.

From then on the bidding grew lively. Perfumes brought the prices of liqueurs. A picture was held up with a scarf placed over it and my father challenged the audience to secure an unseen masterpiece. He then turned the picture around, pulled up the scarf, and examined it himself. Then he gasped and faced his public.

“All I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, is that it combines the best of Raphael and El Greco, with a soupçon of La Vie Parisienne. I will not reveal to you the subject of the picture. Is it old Greece? Is it the female form divine? Is it rugged nature? Only the lucky winner will find this out!”

“Is the artist living or dead?” a man cried out.

My father lifted a corner of the scarf again and peered at the signature with a puzzled expression. The crowd gave a big laugh.

“I cannot tell you that,” said my father, “but the picture is immortal!”

The francs and dollars were raised against each other. The picture was finally knocked down to an excited lady.

“You must look at it alone in your cabin,” commanded my father, “and then charge 50 francs admission to those who wish to see it. La Société Maritime des Veuves et Orphelins will naturally receive the usual 10 per cent commission.”

Captain Jacquemot and Monsieur Latour-Maigret looked happily at each other. The France was beating every liner on the take tonight.


MY FATHER held up the Reboux hat. The audience, exhausted with its efforts to secure the painting, began the bidding languidly.

“Twenty-five francs.”

“Twenty-five francs for this handbag — I mean hat,” expostulated my father. “Look at it, ladies and gentlemen.”

It was a small toque with an overblown rose tucked into the tulle. There was a long pause; the hat did not appeal.

“Come, come,” exclaimed my father, “the petals will fall if someone doesn’t buy it quickly and put it into water.”

“Cinquante francs,” said a man.

Polly saw her opportunity. Now was a chance to help my father. She took a sip of the mint and cleared her throat.

“Cinq cents francs,” she cried.

The audience buzzed and craned their necks. My father had not recognized the voice.

“There, you see. Someone realizes the value of this remarkable little concoction. Five hundred francs — are you going to let it go so cheaply?”

“Sept cents francs,” bid the Industrialist at Polly’s table.

“Un mille!” exclaimed Polly, delighted at the interest her bidding was creating. My father had suddenly turned and was looking at her. She waved cheerfully back at him. She wanted him to know that she was right there filling the vacuum he had dreaded — she was the man who was going to keep the bidding open.

Steel now entered the arena.

“Fifteen hundred francs,” he cried. But Polly wanted to do her raising in French.

“Deux mille,” she shouted back.

“C’est formidable!” exclaimed a group.

My father was flabbergasted. He was justifiably convinced Polly did not understand the principle of an auction. He was equally certain she could not count correctly in such high figures in French. He knew that ultimately he would have to pay the bill. He wanted to get the hat into the hands of someone else and knock it down quickly.

“Deux mille,” he repeated. He turned hopefully to Steel. “ I am sure the gentleman here — if he wanted this ravishing little hat before — will want it even more ardently, now that there is competition. Do I hear — twenty-five hundred? Do I hear twentythree hundred — ?”

The Industrialist jumped in again.

“Deux mille, deux cent cinquante,” he announced.

“ Going — going, —” cried my father, rapping with his gavel.

“Twenty-five hundred,” yelled Steel.

“Trois mille,” screamed Polly.

There was applause and laughter. The audience liked the competition. Polly gazed proudly at my father. She had never seen him so excited. His face was enflamed. His voice actually shook with his next remark.

“We can’t let this priceless hat go for a mere three thousand. If one of these gentlemen really wants it, I will knock it down to him quickly. Do I hear something? ”

“Thirty-two hundred,” said Steel.

“Trois mille, cinq cent!” cried Polly.

“Do I hear another bid?” begged my father looking agonizedly at the Industrialist. “Is Monsieur satisfied to leave it at thirty-five hundred?”

There was a silence.

“Only thirty-five hundred,” protested my father, looking with ill-disguised hatred at the rose-draped toque.

“Quatre mille!” called Polly triumphantly.

This was too much for my father. Polly was now bidding against herself. He thought rapidly. What would she do next? Dare he leave it open once more on the faint hope that someone else would speak and he could close the deal before she had time to move, or would she jump herself again?

“This adorable little hat is about to be sold. Is there a last bid?” Knock went the gavel and my father paused for a hopeful second. Then he saw Polly’s hand go up and her mouth open.

“Going — gone!” and my father brought the gavel down with increasing rapidity. “Sold for four thousand francs!”

There was long and loud applause. Polly blushed with pride and pleasure as the hat was brought to her. A steward appeared and asked her for the small formality of signing a little paper. Polly wrote my father’s name and the number of his cabin. Then she went into the grand salon to dance the tango with the Industrialist.

The next morning my father and Polly again paced the deck. My father began a comprehensive talk on money — money that was yours, and money that wasn’t yours; on debts and the rapidity with which they caught up with one; and a gala at night on a ship was a particularly dangerous time to risk somebody else’s — that is, your father’s— money.

“But I only did it to help you,” protested Polly.

“Promise me something,” said my father. “Promise me you will never, never try to help me again!” And he gazed out to sea with a martyred look.

The weather had turned surprisingly chilly. Two passengers passed with their coat collars turned up and one remarked that he couldn’t understand it, it looked as though the ship was way off its course.

“Can you wear the damned hat?” asked my father.

“It’s too tight,” said Polly.

This threw my father into an even deeper depression. They continued along the deck and walked slowly under the bridge. Suddenly Captain Jacquemot sprang out and waved at them.

“Mademoiselle Pollee,”he shouted, ”je suis un homme d’honneur. Regardez!”

There on the port side of the France floated a great green iceberg. Captain Jacquemot was joined by two other officers who watched with pleasure Polly’s happiness — happiness at the change of subject.

“C’est magnifique — hine?” cried Polly, looking up at them.

The France docked five hours late in New York.