WE WERE a generation suddenly infatuated with the new ragtime and the dances that went with it, and the Thé Dansant was our coming out. The Vernon Castles were of course our beaux ideal — Vernon slim, spare, straight-backed, very graceful with his guiding arm, the left, not stretched out as in the waltz, but in an upraised right angle; and as for Irene, when you looked at her with the calf’s eves of sixteen, you saw the pretty face framed in the curly, glossy bob, the lovely legs, and the incredible way she followed. They danced closer together than any other couple we had ever seen, with daring swiftness, and as she followed Vernon she set him off. “The C astle Walk, the Castle Walk”— I can hear it now as the six Brown Brothers played it on their saxophones, as the Van Epps Trio — banjo, sax, and piano — played it at the Country Club, as the full orchestra played it in Watch Your Step when the Castles stopped the show forty-one springs ago.
You couldn’t imitate the Castles without training, and four of us trained winter weekend after weekend in Ellen’s front parlor. Pilly and Paul, Ellen and myself, we’d roll up the rugs, push the furniture back, put the record on the Victrola; and as the first bars sounded, Ellen with arms upraised would be dancing toward me. Forehead to forehead, elbow resting on elbow we’d done nothing like this in our lives before, and we loved it. Not only the Castle walk (which needed a long straightaway) but the turkey trot (everybody’s doin’ it!) which was a good deal more jouncy, the maxixe, and the hesitation waltz. We played them all, did them all with a minimum of pause from 8:30 to midnight — by which time Mr. and Mrs. Dudley upstairs must have been groaning for sleep.
With such rehearsals we were ready for the Thés Dansants (4 to 7 P.M.) which came in a cluster in the holidays after Lent. The gardenia with its card was delivered that morning (Paul, whose father was the Mayor, sometimes sent an orchid), and punctually at four we picked up the girls in the Mayor’s Buick. It wasn’t until they had left their coats in the checkroom that we saw how attractive they looked in their brown velvet with the corsage at the shoulder. There was always a jam getting up to the receiving line, and this time at the end of it was a vivacious stranger, a girl from New York, full-breasted, all in black with a flower in her hair.
Then you were out on the floor, and was it slippery! “How’s this for a party! Boy, you lead well. . . . Ouch, I’m sorry. . . . Get out and get under, get out and get under. . . . May I break? . . . Gee, what music! It’s Meyer Davis. . . . Avalon just makes me feel creepy all over. . . . May I cut? . . . O-o-oh, you beautiful doll, you. . . . Hi, Bud, have you tried that doll from New York? Some kid! . . . And then he’d row, row, row. May 1 cut? ... I like your dress. (Pause.) Black is so becoming — always makes a woman look older. (Pause.) Is this your first visit to Elizabeth? (Pause.) I love a man who can talk as well as he dances. (Pause.) . . . Bud, you rat! We’ve just started. . . . They’ll never believe me. . . . That poor guy, lies been stuck with her for an hour. Might as well wave a dollar bill. . . . That blonde from Plainfield smells like Cleopatra, YOU can have her. . . . Watch Ed Hixon reverse over there in the corner; he’s in a class by himself. I want si-imp-athy, si-imp-athy is all I ask (swoop, rise to your toes, and hold). ... I could go on doing this forever. . . . Make them give us an encore. . . . Good night, ladies. (Oh, no!) Good night, ladies. (Where’s Ellen?) Good night, ladies, we re going to leave you now. Merrily we roll along, roll along. . .”
The great reader
The debut balls which were the fashion in Cleveland and elsewhere in the 1920s and which Orville Prescott writes about in his engaging autobiography, The Five-Dollar Gold Piece (Random House, $3.50), were very different from the afternoons I have been describing — more elaborate and with a higher alcoholic content, thanks to Prohibition. Mr. Prescott’s forebears came from New England and they had done very well for themselves in the environs of Cleveland before young Orville came on the scene. One of his grandfathers was the president and founder of the Sherwin Williams Paint Company, while Grandfather Prescott, who was both an ordained Baptist minister and a weallhy Yankee trader, owned a lumber yard, general stores in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and farms in three states.
Subscribers who would like to haw autographed copies of the Jirst edition of THE OPEN HEART, autobiographical essays by Edward Weeks, can place their order with their local bookseller or direct with the Atlantic. The price is S3.50, and checks should be made out to Little, Brown & Company.
Orville grew up in a cultivated, sheltered atmosphere, reading prodigiously (his grandmother gave him the gold piece as a reward for his first reading), learning a little in a strange medley of schools, and discovering at Williams College that what he most valued was quietude, literature, and independence. He held fast to these values as he went up the rungs of journalism, as a contributing editor of Newsweek, Cue, and the Yale Review, and the same quiet devotion distinguishes his criticism today in the New York Times.
Mr. Prescott writes in an amiable tone with a nice sense of humor, with a sharp edge of discrimination, and with a buoyancy not to be confused with sheer optimism. The far-off days have a serenity and quaintness most inviting: summer at Winden, Grandfather Sherwin’s big farm outside of Cleveland, the incredible expeditions led by Colonel Bolt at the Bridger Ranch School in the Rockies, the more formative book learning at Plymouth Academy, and the years at W illiams are panels of American life which we share in with pleasure. When in 1934 he married Lilias and she gave up her job at Newsweek for the sake of a family, they both began learning their jobs as parents with an affection that made their suburban life durable.
His reviews began to attract attention, and so he moved on into the realm of lecturing and criticism, even-tempered, perspicacious, and with that inexhaustible fund of curiosity and appreciation which is the prerequisite of the great reader.
The English and l’amour
David Garnett, like Robert Nathan and Conrad Richter, has made a specialty of the short novel. Lady into Fox was his first, and of others more recent T recall with pleasure The Sailor’s Return and The Grasshoppers Come. His new narrative, Aspects of Love (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), is a revolving crystal, reflecting the clashing temperaments of the English and the French; the amusing differences between a French wife and her English lovers; the contrast between the passions of the late teens and the tolerant, more experienced devotion of a man in his sixties.
The story begins with the stage-struck Alexis. He has been expelled from an English public school, and while doing penance in the south of France falls in love with the leading actress in a little stock company at Montpellier. In an interval between engagements they run off to “la’s Pervenohes,” his guardian’s country place at Pan; there she initiate’s him quite charmingly to the fact that she is a maneater, and there Sir George Dillingham, his uncle, who has been notified by the caretaker, interrupts their idyl.
Sir George for all his Edwardian fastidiousness is taken with Rose, and when Alexis departs for his military service, Rose moves into the elder’s delightful flat on the Ile St. Louis. So the trio are bound together, and the moods of reconciliation, anger, repudiation, and revenge which pursue them thereafter make a series of well-lit theatrical scenes and add up a score which is never really closed even at the very end when Alexis is beginning to fall in lov e with Rose’s ingenue daughter.
Mr. Garnett has the Englishman’s delight in the French countryside, and he invests the clandestine visit to “Les Pervenches” with a very real flavor. The meals which Alexis cooks there, the taste of the native wine, the masquerade when the lovers discover Lady Dillingham’s dresses in the attic and begin to rehearse the parts which Rose will soon have to play — all this is refreshing. Alexis is naïve and attractive; Rose, nearly ten years his senior, the more robust. And you see her grow - her triumph as a leading lady in Paris; her happiness at La Grange, the farm close to Chinon where she installs Sir George; her tact in managing her young lover Vincent; her protectiveness for her daughter Jenny - in all of this she reveals her lovely French vitality. It is, alas, Alexis who proves to be the stick. The magnetism he had at seventeen is soon consumed in his selfishness, and his military life shuts him off from the experience which has made Sir George such a darling.
To the annals about bis famous farm, Malabar, Louis Bromfield has added a most appealing book and one which is chock-full of personality, Animals and Other People (Harper, $3.75).
Louis, who could have been just as successful a ringmaster or lion tamer as he is a writer, has what it takes to make creatures love him: he is hearty and protective; he is considerate and not given to timidity; and with these attributes he has gathered about him at Malabar a menagerie whose escapades are fun to follow. The boxer is his favorite breed of dog — but this does not preclude his having strays of other kinds, such as his Scotty, Dash — and the clan of boxers, headed in turn by the favorite “boss-dogs,” Rex, Prince, and Baby, soon took over the Big House. They learned to open the doors and to chew their way out of windows, they slept on the chairs or on Louis’s bed, they found the thousand-acre farm hugely to their delight; and since Louis loves to show off the place it wasn’t long before they were showing off, too. Their ingenuity as described in these pages is sometimes questionable, but seeing is believing; and what Louis hasn’t taught them they have learned for themselves. The place wouldn’t run without them.
Put next Sylvester, the prize bull. Sylvester is a handsome great Guernsey, and for his plaything Louis provided him with a big iron oil-drum which Sylvester would butt uphill on the slope of the bull pen. The game became a kind of handball which the bull would play for as much as an hour at a time until the day when, the drum having become rusted, Sylvester pierced it with his horns and his head became imprisoned in a noisy, impossible wedge.
Then there is Haile Selassie, the black ram with the great curling horns and the habit of butting visitors through the front door— including no less a personage than Vladimir Popoff, the animalbreeding expert from Soviet Russia. These are a few of the soloists to which one must add the foxes, the skunks, the raccoons, who are the real natives of that rich, half-wild country near Mansfield. I remember the bees who gave Louis such a beautiful working-over and the enchanting mongoose Rikky who lived on at the old house in Senlis long after the Bromfields had moved away. George, Louis’s affectionate secretary and alter ego, walks sunnily in and out of these pages, and so do others to whom Malabar and its animals matter. Pleasant days pleasantly recalled.
When Senators stand out
For obvious reasons, Senators seldom write books. It took great courage for Senator John F. Kennedy to carry to completion his Profiles in Courage (Harper, $3.50), for the book was written during long illness by one who candidly admits that he is neither a professional writer nor a trained historian. What he has done is to signalize eight United States Senators who stood out in stubborn devotion to the country’s welfare at a time when few people understood or valued what they were doing.
Senator Kennedy begins quite properly with “J.Q.A.,” who never hesitated to stand alone, and I think he is at his best in reviving our respect for “old Bullion” Benton and Lucius Q. C. Lamar. Sam Houston is almost too unwieldy to crowd into a single chapter, and the episode about Bob Taft seems too fragmentary. But it is a worthy undertaking, and to it Senator Kennedy brings a knowledge of political methods and pressures and a sensitivity to the tension between a man’s private necessities and his public responsibilities. His concluding pages are firm and eloquent, and one of the best things about this book is that it is handmade — I mean written without the assistance of a public relations officer.