LOOKING back on it, a picnic gone wrong is about the most rueful experience in the so-called world of pleasure. For this, one must blame the caprice of nature but even more that stubborn optimism which settles on those who are determined to picnic. The food can be ordered, guests invited, site chosen, husband placated, days in advance, but the one thing you cannot order is the weather. If a northeaster sets in, you call things off; it is the lowering, overcast day that leads you astray.
I have known some mighty fine picnics and more that weren’t, but the most humiliating I can remember was an expedition from our suburb in New Jersey to Bronx Park in May, 1910. It was organized by my Aunt Hattie as a birthday party for my cousin Katharine and six of her classmates; the girls were a little older than I — I was twelve and I knew I had been included because I wouldn’t take liberties and might be a help.
We got off to an ominous start. It looked like rain but nothing could daunt Aunt Hattie’s optimism, and so the nine of us gathered punctually at the railroad station, where I was put in charge of the wicker lunch basket. I was too inexperienced to realize that you never carry a picnic basket by its handle; and as I followed the girls up into the day coach I tripped on the top step, lurched forward into the car and out into the aisle, and under the seats poured the hard-boiled eggs, the chicken and jam sandwiches, the pickles and cupcakes some wrapped, some not. I had barely retrieved our cindery repast by the time we reached Newark, and by then it was raining.
Rain streaked the windows all the way into New York and all the long way uptown on the Elevated. “Rain before seven, clear before eleven,” said someone cheerily. (But what about after eleven?) When we reached the Bronx Zoo it was still raining hard, which meant that we had to run from cover to cover. I was now carrying the lunch basket in both arms, and my first chance to set it down was in the monkey house. This, of course, was in the days when the intimacy between animal and spectator was more sensitive than Dr. Fairfield Osborn now permits. Rain will do wonders for the esprit de corps of a monkey house, and there they were frisking, flea-picking, and fondling in an atmosphere of undiluted monkey.
The rain never let up, so at one o’clock I was sent out to find a cave, some sheltered spot where we could breathe and eat our lunch. Had we thought to ask the Director, he might have provided us with an empty cage, but this idea never occurred. Instead I found a dank opening in the rocks where, if you sat on your raincoat, it wasn’t quite as wet as sitting in the open. We ate in silence punctured by the steady drip.
After lunch — still with that darn wicker basket — we made a dash for the next house, which happened to contain the larger mammals — elephants, hippos, and the rhinoceros. They, too, it appeared, had eaten, and now they were digesting, copiously. This was a lesson in anatomy not to be missed. “Come, girls,” said Aunt Hattie, “let’s move on.” And we did, out into the wet. We saw the snakes, the birds of Oriental plumage, and the big cats — and at 3.30, thank the Lord, we started for home! It was still raining.
In my book, I think I shall speak of other picnics in which the unpredictable occurred: the Oxford picnic on the banks of the Isis where, in the circle of English friends, I had my wind knocked out by a sharp blow to the solar plexus delivered by my intended because I had triflingly removed a cigarette from her lips; the Sedgwick family picnic on Crane’s Beach where the men at the four corners of the beach blanket, armed with relays of cigars, were just able to keep the mosquitoes out of the food; and that happy expedition to remote Plum Island where I locked the keys inside the car and spent the rest of the daylight trying to fish them out with a twisted wire coat hanger. You don’t have to depend on rain.
The world of elegance
Ludwig Bemelmans is, I suspect, the most consistently underestimated entertainer in American letters. In his style he reminds me of Max Beerbohm: precise, urbane, witty, as much to be enjoyed for his power of implication as for what he says. I can think of no other contemporary who can match his gusto in describing the delights of food and wine, flowers and servants, women and architecture; and certainly there are few satirists who have impaled more neatly the ostentatious in New York, the vulgar in Hollywood. Why, then, is he taken so lightly? Because he calls himself “the confirmed lover of life and professor of happiness”? Because his titles — Dirty Eddie; I Love You, I Love You, I Love You; Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep — sound frivolous? It is time we realized that he is as nice a gift as Austria has bestowed upon us in a long while.
To the One I Love the Best (Viking, $3.75) is the story of his friendship with Sir Charles and Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe) and by its nature is more affectionate and less bizarre than his love affair with the Hotel Splendide. The book begins in the mid-forties in Hollywood, where Bemelmans was writing and painting in a little shack at the beach in Topango which he had rented for $40 a month. Lady Mendl invited him to a cocktail party, and with her instant recognition found him wonderfully companionable. Shortly he was urged to move in, and so he did, as a kind of adopted son; their temperaments rejoiced in each other, and he stayed on with her until the war ended, when, with the Liberation, he accompanied her back to France and to her exquisite little house in Versailles.
“She weighed about ninety pounds without her jewels,” he writes, “and when I met her she was ninety years old.” But actually she was timeless, with a beauty that comes with sapience, valiant, artistic, and incredibly vital. The portraits Bemelmans has drawn of herself and Sir Charles are rounded, vivacious, and endearing; and against them as in counterpoint are set the caricatures of some of Hollywood’s phantoms whom Lady Mendl had constantly to oppose —The Empty Stomach, Mr. Halvah, and Mrs. Munchin to mention three. One is always tempted to quote Bemelmans, but this is unfair; the mosaic is destroyed if unpieced. Better to recall the affectionate scenes — Sir Charles in his custom-made, long English underwear; the gloom when “Mother” has been rushed to the hospital; the death of Blue Blue, the poodle; the outrageous Russian party; the boredom at San Simeon; the motor accident when the red pepper got in Bemelmans’s eyes — who else but ToulouseLautrec could have painted this way?
The most persistent instrument of torture in America today is a slip of paper; those white scraps on which a wife lists the nagging chores she must not forget in the care of her children, husband, pets, and mechanical servants — electric fuses, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, refrigerators — who can so easily get out of hand. “Mothers and housewives,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class. . . . Woman’s life today is tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word, Zerrissenheit — torn-to-pieces-hood.” The world, says Mrs. Lindbergh, does not understand in either man or woman the need to be alone, and it is in affirmation of this need that she has written her lucid, self-searching, and lovely essays, Gift from the Sea (Pantheon, $2.75).
To release her words Mrs. Lindbergh, who is the mother of five children and the wife of a busy man, found a retreat for herself in a small beach house on a warm remote island. For two weeks no telephones, no distractions, no invasions. She had gone there, she tells us, “to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work, and human relationships.” The sea, the sand, and the quiet were conducive, and the shells which she found and brought back to her writing table became symbols and stimulants of the truths she was striving for. Her tonic was to be alone: “For a full day and two nights 1 have been alone. I lay on the beach under the stars at night alone. I made my breakfast alone. Alone I watched the gulls at the end of the pier, dip and wheel and dive for the scraps I threw them. A morning’s work at my desk, and then, a late picnic lunch alone on the beach. And it seemed to me, separated from my own species, that I was nearer to others. . .”
I give these fragments to remind others of the purity and compression of Mrs. Lindbergh’s prose. An electric current of identification runs through her words here as it did in North to the Orient; she makes us share in her experiences and she makes us the better for her aspirations, which stir responsive chords. In this calm slender book there are solace for the distracted and a fresh stressing of those simple verities without which existence would be unendurable.
A novel of Galway
Whenever I read a new novel of Walter Macken’s, my thoughts go back to the first time I saw the Irish Players in The White-Headed Boy. The book, like the play, lays hold in a twinkling, and these unadorned people, these simple villagers, will swiftly reveal to you the strong humor, the passion and tenderness of Irish life. Sunset on the Window-panes (St. Martin’s Press, $3.50) is a contemporary story of the village of Boola in West Ireland. The driving force in the place is the blackhaired, turbulent Bart O’Breen. Bart has been expelled from college; he has the strength and rebelliousness to unfit him for any drudgery. He has a way with the girls and a quick and challenging wit.
The story is the story of Bart’s doings and of the mark he leaves on those who love him: on Breeda who is blinded because of their scuffle on the cliff, on Sheila whom he dances off her feet, and on gentle Joseph, his half-brother, who tries so hard to be a priest and whom Bart alternately plagues and protects. It is Mr. Macken’s gift to let you see these people and to let you live with them; he makes you see Bart’s stepfather, John Willie, the little shopkeeper who contrives to do so many kindnesses despite his virago of a wife; he lets you see how Breeda, the loveliest woman in the book, learns to live without her sight; he makes you feel the emotions of the village, the singing, the dancing, and the drinking at the wedding, the lighting of the fires as the valley welcomes the new priest, the taunts which are aimed at Sheila, the religious fervor of which Joseph is the cause.
Mr. Macken is a playwright and an actor as well as a novelist, and his stories are full of incident and action. They are also full of music, for he writes with that limpid clarity and poetry of the land which the best of the Irish writers bring to their storytelling. His figures of speech are a delight: Breeda in her bare feet “liked the silky feel of the dust”; “I’m as thick as a turnip, let’s face it,” says Joseph, disgusted with his failure; and when John Willie comes to shut up shop he notices that “It was a very clear evening, as calm as the heart of an old nun.” What a relief it is to think that the enforced learning of Gaelic will never destroy this Irish mastery of English.
The impartial eye
The Army-McCarthy hearings were a phenomenon which I trust will never be repeated in our lifetime. When one thinks of the millions of words which were devoted to it in the press, and the revulsion and absorption with which it was followed on the screen, one can hardly believe that there were any aspects of the case which it would be well to call to mind today. This, of course, is a mistake, for there were two elements in that investigation which were constantly lost sight of in the welter. I mean objectivity and interpretation, and these are precisely what you do find in Michael Straight’s Trial by Television (Beacon Press, $2.95). At the time of the hearings the partisanship was rabid; one side was terrible, the other right, and the mistakes of each were glossed over. The testimony came too fast for the interpretation to keep pace: the recording of even a single day’s hearing filled pages, and the editorials were devoted to the highlights. Few of the millions who were caught up in this mesmerism could keep a running score of the fantastic, shocking departures from almost every American concept of law and decency which occurred and reoccurred in the hearings. That is what Mr. Straight does in his book; Trial by Television applies long-tested standards to the behavior and testimony of the principals in the case. Reading his even-tempered and inexorable account of what happened and why is a heady corrective for the hysteria, the timidity, and the hoodlumism in this historic case.