The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
FOR seventeen summers, until my departure for France in 1917, the Beach, the treeless barrier beach separating Barnegat Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, was my summer habitat. Here a thin scrawny boy with a peeling nose did his growing and learned to respect the sea. The first impression each June was of the salty air, the diamond points on the water, and the blazing brightness of the sun, a brightness which seemed to glance off the white sand with a force that made the eyes squint. There wasn’t a tree on the windswept stretch from Bay Head to Seaside Park. The handkerchiefs of lawn had to be ceaselessly watered; only the morning glories, nasturtiums, and sweet peas flourished in that sun-baked spot.
My mother rationed me to two soakings a week; if I fell into the bay or the ocean with my clothes on oftener than that, I got no allowance. But in our bathing suits the two hours from eleven to one were a daily ritual we missed only during the Northeasters. At low tide the beach would stretch halfway to Spain; at mid-low it was ideal for our primitive surfboards; and at high tide, with an inshore wind, the breakers rearing up twelve feet or more would toss us head over teakettle, rolling us up the beach with the string that held our trunks together untied or broken. Bathing suits were very proper in those days, and to have one’s trunks slide down was the depth of ignominy.
For most of us the beach was not for fishing. As I remember, Dr. Studdiford in his hip boots was our only surf caster. The beach was where you found moonstones at sunrise; where you collected driftwood for the cottage fireplace, and held your marshmallow roasts after dark. The beach was where the flights of snipe came arrowing in just above wave-top. The beach was the meeting place for our gang, romantically known as the Booze-beers, though at twelve none of us could stomach the darned stuff. The beach was our window on seafaring: here at noon and again at six in the evening the steamers of the old Dominion Line passed as punctually as clockwork, and here once, standing in against a good Westerly, came the Thomas W. Lawson, the only seven-masted lumber schooner in the world. On Sundays the beach was our glass of fashion: here on the boardwalk after church the more elderly gallants like John Montgomery, immaculate in his blue coat, white flannels, Panama with club hatband, and bachelor’s buttons, would tease and compliment the ladies.
The whole complexion of our world changed when the three-day Northeasters bore down on us in August or in early September. This was no temporary deluge: the east wind became a gale; the sky was leaden, the air heavy with moisture; and the power of the breakers as they pounded at our jetties and thundered on the sand was awesome. We measured the force of the storm by what it did to the boardwalk. The great ones would rip it apart and fling the spray against the porches of the seaside cottages; as the wind rose, we wondered if the sea would break a new inlet through our narrow sandy isthmus as it had on rare occasions.
It was thrilling to walk out in the Northeaster in oilskins, leaning against the wind, the rain and sting of the sand on one’s checks. Our first port of call was the life-saving station with its heady aroma of tar. Here, one at a time, we would be permitted to climb up into the lookout tower where the Coast Guard on duty would be scanning the angry sea for signs of trouble. The lifeboat in which the crew had practiced capsizing on placid days now stood in its cradle ready to be wheeled to the beach, and the breeches buoy with the little brass cannon was ready to go. On one never-to-be-forgotten day an oil tanker had been driven aground and was being battered. She was out of range of the breeches buoy, and luckily no crew were aboard. But when after the storm they jettisoned the oil to float her free, our beach became an oil-streaked shambles.
A real Northeaster seldom subsided before the third day; sailing, tennis were out of the question, and in this predicament we all took refuge in the Nimick’s big cottage, where the Nimick girls were sure to cheer us up. We sat on the floor playing slapjack with the greasiest cards in the world, or we formed in lines and played round-the-table ping-pong; we made huge pans of fudge, with the Booze-beers struggling for the spoon, listened to the Victrola, or stretched out on the window seats with a book. None of us could have imagined that within our lifetime, in the great storm of March, 1962, the sea in three monstrous high tides would gobble up the jetties, dash away the boardwalk, destroy many of the beachfront cottages, and leave only a remnant of our broad and sunny strand.
THE MAN ON THE BEACH
THE WINTER BEACH by CHARLTON OGBURN, JR. (Morrow, $6.95), is a rousing Thoreauvian book for winter weekends. The author, who served as an officer with Merrill’s Marauders, is a self-reliant traveler, a geologist with a special fondness for birds and beaches. Having parked his family at East Hampton on Long Island, he set forth alone in his specially equipped bus, a small winter cabin on wheels, to explore the famous stretches of the Atlantic Coast at that season of the year when the face of the land is most deserted and most exposed. He drove north in the late autumn to the Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, and here his reading of the rocky cliffs, his interpretation of the gigantic spasms which transformed the earth during the Ice Ages, makes man seem very puny indeed. Having primed us to observe what the ice sheet did to Maine and the islands, and had his say about his favorite shore birds and the King’s pine, the fir, and the spruce, he begins a long trek southward which carried him to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Other readers will pause as I have over those portions of the Atlantic Coast which are most familiar. I am particularly pleased with what he says about the Refuge on Plum Island; I am the wiser for what he tells me about Cape Cod; and I wholly approve of his account of Nantucket, which I, too, have visited only in the winter months. Mr. Ogburn is not as gregarious as Edwin Way Teale; he is more solitary, and we depend upon the various moods which seize him as he travels. He is rightly contemptuous of the beer-can rubbish with which vacationers foul up any site; he is scornful of the Natty Bumppos in their fluorescent-red shirts who make his survey hazardous during the hunting season; he has a fine eye for birds in action — the loon, the scoter, the Canada goose — and angry words for the slaughter of the whales, which began 150 years ago and still goes on. His descriptions are exact and sometimes poetic, and his amusement in the history and idiosyncrasies of American society keeps the chronicle from ever becoming pedantic. The jacket is a beauty, and the drawings which enhance the text are by Marcia and Edward Norman.
SARAH BERNHARDT AND BOHEMIA
Otis Skinner, when asked by his daughter to compare the acting of Eleonora Duse with that of Sarah Bernhardt, replied, “Duse was all thought and poetry but Bernhardt was an incandescent light.'' I saw each of them on their farewell tours of America, and my heart went out to Duse; she was poetic and graceful, and her hands were lovely to watch; she played with an air of sadness, as if the breakup of her love affair with D’Annunzio had left her in the shadow. But the great Sarah was seventy-one. The loss of her leg had made her a captive of her chair, and her voice, in which Lytton Strachey said there was “thunder and lightning,” had lost its timber. I remember her unearthly pallor, her red hair, and her imperiousness.
When Sarah Bernhardt was young and enjoying her first success, a fellow actress, Madeleine Brohan, sent her this wise advice: “If you want to remain the You you’re creating, be prepared to rise on a pedestal constructed of calumnies, gossip, adulation, flattery, lies and truths. But once you’re up on it, stay there and cement it with your work and your excellence.” Sarah could control her temper when she had to, but the moods which inflamed her acting, the beauty which she could wear or shed like a costume, her intemperate rage and equally intemperate generosity were creating a legend which still survives. The task of separating the fact from the fiction about Bernhardt is a difficult one; to it CORNELIA OTIS SKINNER has brought her warm heart, her professional knowledge of the theater, and her love for Paris, where she, too, studied for the stage. In her biography MADAME SARAH (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95) she makes believable the discipline, the extravagance, and the contradictions of the enchantress.
There is a rule of thumb about stage books that nothing palls so quickly as success, and that the life of a matinee idol, with its succession of rehearsals, first nights, and long runs, is a guaranteed bore. But Sarah’s career was as unpredictable on stage as off. The illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, her formal education in a convent school was scant, and at fifteen she was shy, gawky, and threatened with tuberculosis. The steps by which she moved to her success, first in the Odéon, then in the Comédie Française, then in London, are a revelation of her will and of her genius in parts which fired her spirit. Meantime, her fabulous talk, her affection for tiger cubs as pets, the magnetism which drew to her such distinguished admirers, her feuds with managers and directors, from which she so often emerged triumphant, made her the most talked about and written about actress of her time. Her defeats, such as those she experienced at the hands of her leading man and short-time husband, Jacques Damala, seemed only to have scratched the surface; her loyalties, such as those to her illegitimate son, Maurice, or to Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, were lifelong; and the itinerary of her grand world tour, which ran from February, 1891, to September, 1893, is a stunning record of an indomitable spirit. Sarcey, her greatest critic, wrote: “This is nature itself served by a marvellous intelligence, by a soul of fire, by the most melodious voice that ever enchanted human ears.”
The Revolution of 1830, so EMILY HAHN tells us, left Paris full of impecunious artists and writers, and out of their dilemma came the term “Bohemian” for young hopefuls leading a gypsy existence. Balzac was the first to bestow the nickname, and Henri Murger the first to romanticize the calling in his popular short stories La Vie de Bohème. In her book ROMANTIC REBELS (Houghton Mifflin, $5.95), Miss Hahn, using a wide-meshed net, endeavors to sort out the true Bohemians from the false in America. She rightly rules out Poe, Walt Whitman, and Bret Harte for being too serious; our first Bohemians, she says, were Adah Menken, Ada Clare, and Joaquin Miller, and what seems surprising is the swiftness with which they orbited from their native ground to a credulous success abroad. She says that the original Bohemians in New York were those who congregated at Charlie Pfaff’s basement bar under Broadway’s sidewalk, and this may be so, though the leaders she mentions, Henry Clapp and William Winter, are pretty dim. She looks into the qualifications of Ambrose Bierce, Lafcadio Hearn, and Stephen Crane, and finally reaches the heartland in the Greenwich Village of Floyd Dell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Maxwell Bodenheim. This to me is the most sprightly section of a book which is by its nature disorganized and sketchy. Of the present-day Bohemians who are most at home in California, I am held by her account of Gregory Corso, Eric Nord, and Henry Miller.