Secretary of State Cordell Hull was not one to “pay much mind,” as he would put it, to his minions. With a few he feuded; to a few he listened — rather more, the outsiders thought, than their contributions warranted; but for the most part, he let the rest of us go our own way, which often led nowhere in particular. So, when I was shown into his office in the old State, War, and Navy Building after three weeks’ absence presiding over an international conference, it would not have surprised me if he had not noticed that I had been away.
His greeting disclosed nothing. When he was displeased, his greeting was, “Come in, Doctor.” I never thought that this reflected a prejudice against the medical profession, perhaps not even against doctors of philosophy, but vaguely against know-it-alls. Normally, he merely looked over his black-rimmed pincenez, held to him by its black ribbon, and asked, “How you feelin’?” I made the conventional claim to good health. The Secretary took off his pince-nez and gave me a searching look. “You’re kinda peaked-lookin’,” he observed.
If I wasn’t, I should have been. For three exhausting weeks the conference had maneuvered around proposals for post-war relief. UNRRA was in gestation. FDR’s newfound enthusiasm for international organization, born of his coining a year before that delusive phrase “the United Nations,” was to bring together through an international agency the supplicants for and the givers of relief. The problems involved were not complicated, but difficult of solution, since the idea that it was more blessed — or at any rate more desirable — to give than to receive was not the postulate of the conference. My job was to be the John the Baptist of the Marshall Plan, without giving the receivers of relief an unrestricted drawing account on the United States Treasury.
This is not the story of that conference. It is enough to say that for some reason, not altogether clear to me after the lapse of twenty-three years, it seemed to require innumerable midnight conferences and the consumption of considerable quantities of what the revenue laws call vinous and spiritous liquors. I remember being alarmed at the condition of one colleague whose eyes seemed to be disappearing behind narrowing slits. Others urged me not to worry since if worst came to worst, we could always buy him a seeing-eye dog. I remember, too, the staunch support of a delightful Cuban, representing the now much abused Batista regime, who upbraided his fellow Latinos, saying that they reminded him of the crowds on the day of a great fiesta, marching into the cathedral carrying banners and singing a Te Deum, but when the offering plate was passed, slipping out a side door.
At any rate, I was tired and admitted it. The Secretary nodded with his air of infinite benevolence. “Better take a holiday,” he said.
It couldn’t be true. No one took a holiday. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” was the vicious quasher of ideas like that.
“But, Mr. Secretary,” I gasped.
Cordell Hull was a man of decision. He had had enough of this interruption and report. “Yes,” he said, with an air of finality and dismissal, “take the afternoon off.” He put on his pince-nez and picked up a paper; I gathered my unmentioned report and left.
A few minutes later on the telephone: “Listen carefully, my dear,” I said. “Whatever you have planned for lunch and the afternoon is off. As soon as I can get home, we leave on a holiday, at the Secretary’s command. You may not have noticed it, but his more compassionate eye sees me badly in need of a rest.”
“But where are we going? How? What do I pack?”
“That is secret,” I cut in. “Even the longest holiday can be unraveled by a woman’s tongue. The immediate thing is to have the bicycles brought up from the cellar and dusted. When I get home we can see to the tires.” I hung up while I had the advantage of mystery. The plan was forming as I got an official car, unavailable by law for personal use, to drive me home before my seniors got it for the governmental purpose of taking them to lunch.
The bicycles were ready, and the lady’s curiosity had overcome annoyance by the time we were wheeling them to the filling station for air and a few drops of oil. Then, using the momentum of the steep plunge from P Street down to Rock Greek and Potomac Parkway, we skimmed along in glorious December sunshine. The creek soon gave way to the majestic river in “raiment white and glistering,” in the Prayer Book’s phrase. Patient fishermen dozed along the embankment. Gulls circled and screamed around a towboat taking a string of empty barges downstream to Newport News. An eight-oared shell from Georgetown University paddled slowly up, its blades flashing in rhythm with the coxswain’s chant, the crew absorbingwisdom from the coach’s megaphone. The sight always takes me back nostalgically to afternoon paddles in New Haven Harbor when the wind had dropped, to the ecstasy of the long reach of a crew in perfect balance and rhythm, to the breathtaking stab of icy water as a wavelet struck a forward outrigger. On we went, past Mrs. Whitney’s sculptured memorial to the Titanic dead, skirting the Lincoln Memorial by the passage under the bridge, and cutting off to the left toward the Tidal Basin, passing the small village of “temporary” buildings which housed government offices in their hot ugliness for twenty years. The basin, now deserted and its cherry trees bare, reflected the calm, cold beauty of the Jefferson Memorial.
We were now on the last lap. A dive under Fourteenth Street and the railroad tracks, a short pedal along Maine Avenue, and we reached Fisherman’s Wharf. Twenty-five years ago a row of oyster and clam bars (known as “raw bars”), seafood restaurants, and fish markets stretched along the waterfront. Today the flow of a Vesuvius of concrete has covered them all to create a mad swirl of overpasses, underpasses, and bridges, to the utter confusion of the motorist without an inertial guidance system.
Our destination was called Eacho Fish. Rumor had it that Eacho was the name of the proprietor, who dispensed seafood, beer, and spirits. But another school asserted that it was a command in the vernacular to “eat your fish.” Be that as it may, the oysters and clams were fresh and salty from Chesapeake Bay, and the fish and crabs only a few hours from water to pan. A cocktail or two carried us through waiting while the barman opened oysters and clams until we had to call a halt. Then we moved on to butterfish so fresh, fat, and sweet as to be food for Valhalla.
So intent were we on the nourishment of the inner man and woman that a party at the other end of the long bar quite escaped notice until its growing noisiness and evident interest in us drew our attention.
The director of the discussion was a plump woman well past the first, and perhaps the second, blush of youth and responding generously to the inspiration of Mr. Eacho’s cocktails. Her friends were trying to modify her enthusiasm. We thought we could best help them by goodnatured aloofness. So we smiled at her sallies and occasionally waved. In this we were wrong. She announced loudly, “Well. I’m going to find out!” and made her way, a bit unsteadily, along the bar in our direction.
As she reached us, I made a halfhearted gesture of rising, motioned to the adjoining stool, and murmured. “Won’t you sit down?”
She did, with something of a flop. Then, peering at me with unfocused intensity, she asserted more than asked, “You’re Robert Montgomery, aren’t you?”
While it seems impossible, it is doubtless true that since that December day generations have grown up in the land who know the Beatles but have never heard of Robert Montgomery. For them I explain that he was a motion-picture actor for whom any right-thinking man would have been honored to have been taken — far more so than for any or all of the Beatles. In view of the circumstances, including the fact that I must clearly know the answer to her question, the wiser course seemed to be neither to affirm nor deny.
“Why be so formal?” I asked. “Why not just call me Bob?”
With that she made a lunge and planted a moist kiss in the neighborhood of an ear. When we managed to get disentangled, she shouted down the bar, “I’m right.” Then turning back to us with a smirk, she pressed on: “And is this Mrs. Montgomery?”
A glance at my companion suggested the need for caution. “Not yet,” I murmured.
“This calls for a drink,” she announced, and started back toward her friends.
“Robert,” said my companion, “ I’m leaving.”
With a brief pause by the cash register, I followed amid cheers, and with some vigorous pedaling caught up.
“Why be so formal?” I repeated my question, but drew no smile.
Instead, “You didn’t ask me to call you Bob,” she said, and pushed on.
The sun was slanting down to the southwest, warning that the flood of homebound traffic would soon engulf us. We sped along in silence and beat it to the still walk uphill to P Street. Two blocks more, and we were wheeling in our back gate as the sun disappeared. The lady was chuckling.
“One thing I will say for you,” she offered. “When you plan a holiday, there’s not a dull moment in it.”