3. PORT IN A STORM
My mother, my sister and I lived for four years from 1938 in an apartment on the eleventh floor of 993 Park Avenue on 84th Street. It was designed by the then-top New York interior decorator, William Pahlmann, who had been one of my father's discoveries at Macy's and had remained friendly to both sides of the family after the divorce. I would work for him later on and have a stunning experience in art, which strongly influenced my life.
Like the Lake Forest house, I can walk through our apartment foot by foot in my mind and remember vividly certain special art objects. There were two forest green bookcases at the end of the large living room, which had been spatter-dashed by Pahlmann with delicate sprays of red, blue, orange and yellow. Once I saw them I grabbed some toothbrushes and spatter dashed reams of drawing paper.
The dining room had a gleaming mahogany table with multiple leaves which I'd stack playfully into a house and then be chided by my mother, "These are genuine works of art," I recall her saying. They sure were! The table and twelve spindly and delicate openwork chairs had been made by the 18th century New York furniture maker Duncan Fyfe for Thomas Pearsall and were exceedingly rare. Not too many years ago they were auctioned off for nearly five million dollars. Why they didn’t end up with me is a tragic tale, which I’ll get to in a while. On one wall were displayed a dozen porcelain plates, bowls and tureens called Lowestoft, which I was informed were from England and dated to the early 18th century and had been handed down from the Osgoods. Also valuable, so hands off!
To get to the bedrooms there was a long, narrow corridor at right angles to the entrance hall, which my sister and I used for foot- and roller-skate races, parades and even special funeral rites for the mummy I created.
Petie's room was directly ahead, my mother's to the right overlooking Park Avenue. The latter was superbly bright and had a massive double bed with a dozen pillows. The colors of the décor, I remember, were greens and yellows. I also recall an elaborate vanity table and in the corner a recamier on which my mother stayed many hours of the day, reading or napping. On the vanity table there were several silver oval boxes with images of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in relief on their covers. I still have them.
My room was at the very end of the corridor. It was dominated by a mahogany sleigh bed next to which was a bedside table with a marble top. Inside was a false door leading to a repository where I hid my secret literature, mostly soft porn magazines.
For me the most intriguing part of the apartment was just outside my room, a door only three feet by two which opened onto a series of pipes embedded into concrete oozing through the retaining metal into fascinating tear-drop shapes. It became my special hiding place after I grouted out the concrete and fashioned several holes between the pipes where I stashed all sorts of treasures, including my Pharaoh. After my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was eight or nine, I became obsessed with ancient Egyptian art. I made a royal mummy out of clay and twine and cloth, whom I named "Senestres," and covered the cement of the secret pipe closet with hieroglyphs praising my king of Upper and Lower Egypt. I honored him with ceremonies down the long corridor lasting hours.
The time I spent at 993 Park and with my mother was blissful. I enrolled in the fancy Buckley School at 73rd between Park and Lexington and was chauffeured each day to school in our Buick. The driver allowed me to sit on his lap and steer.
The most vivid memory of Buckley was the vigorous athletics in Central Park and a wild game held on the roof of a building just east of Third Avenue. The game was called "crunch-ball." Grapefruit-sized inflated balls were handed out to everyone and at a whistle you threw your ball at someone while dodging to avoid a storm of balls. The game ended when all the players had sunk to the floor exhausted from laughing.
I excelled in painting and sculpture but bombed out in arithmetic, since I had a hard time adding up three-digit numbers. I'd write them all down in a column and then simply dream up some long-looking number as the total. My teacher went bats trying to figure out how I had come up with such a ridiculous total. Once, she got so frustrated, she grabbed my hair and yanked me from side to side. I shrieked that she was murdering me and tried to hit her to no avail. After that the school considered me a troubled student.
A powerful influence on me was the 1939 World's Fair. My mother and various boyfriends took Petie and me a dozen times. Etched in my memory is the Trylon and Perisphere and in the latter the enormous three-dimensional plan of future America with a magical tangle of super-highways.
I became a member of the exclusive New York City military group for rich kids, the Knickerbocker Greys. We wore fancy gray uniforms, which I loved, and black leather puttees and belts and a scabbard for a non-existent dagger. We drilled every week in the 7th Regiment Armory at 67th and Park Avenue. There were occasional field trips for "war games" and one visit to West Point, where we saw to our humiliation how real cadets marched.
Christmas was marvelous with my mother and stiff at Pauline's. Mom had a huge tree and lots of toys. Pauline didn't like Christmas trees. The evening at Riverhouse was celebrated in the "Swedish" style with an elaborate Scandinavian dinner and a lethal drink after dinner called "Glueg" mixed in a brass bowl consisting of bourbon and brandies with scads of nuts, herbs and berries thrown in. The whole mess was set aflame for several minutes while Swedish "carols" were sung before the roaring fireplace. I learned years later that the "carols" were mostly raunchy drinking songs. One was "Reina riva ricka risa," or "the fox runs over the ice," meaning a girl being chased by some slavering lout.
The dinner consisted of five courses with four wines and port. I remember something vile called "Lute Fisk," a salted, dank, tasteless dead fish that tarnished the silverware (tarnishing was considered a good thing) and a mass of soggy rice in which an almond had been thrown. The recipient of the almond would be the next to marry. Wild boar and pheasant, marvelous browned potatoes and several lovely desserts were the main features of the staggering meal.
When it was finished we all arose, joined hands and ran around the table several times and then through every room in the apartment before getting to the "Glueg," singing "Nooly-Ooly An, Nooly Ante Vee Da Poska, Noola Poskian" and other choruses that I've forgotten. It was actually not a Christmas song but a drinker's song for New Years Eve.
This was the only time I saw my father happy and laughing, acting almost like a "Diplodocus." Of course, after highballs, the wines, port and the "Glueg," he was slightly goofy. Pauline watched, trying to look festive, but her face was always set into a smiley grimace.
We went to the "torture chamber" where the room was piled with presents, all wrapped the same in Lord & Taylor wrapping or in time that of Bonwit Teller when my father bought that specialty store and finally Tiffany & Co. when he gained control of it. A maid was standing by to pick up the wrappings and ribbons. My presents were never toys, but little leather notebooks and once washcloths! The end of the evening was the presentation by Walter and Pauline of the "flatware," or envelopes with cash of varying amounts. Chuck Dresser told me that this part of the sacred, loving ceremony was the sole reason why he came, gritting his teeth as my father baited him about having no job.
Once we left Riverhouse we had a joyful reunion with my mother who was up awaiting us, an Old Fashioned cocktail in her hand, drinking with her latest beau. Then we were allowed to open one present and that one was always the one that pleased me the most.
It was in 1938 when my mother started summering on Martha's Vineyard. My mother and her then-lover drove the car loaded with luggage, two canaries, the cocker spaniel "Padoo," a cat, a baby alligator I had bought at the circus, me and my sister to the steamship in downtown Manhattan.
The ship sailed straight out to the twelve-mile limit, for the real reason for the voyage, which was the all-night gambling. Once the children were sent to their bunks the tables were rolled out and craps, roulette, Baccarat, poker, Black Jack and Chemin-de-Fer suddenly materialized. Petie and I sneaked out to watch our mother boozing and gambling.
The first summer we rented a three-bedroom cottage in Edgartown. She joined the Yacht Club for the cocktail parties and dances. There was also a tennis club and a golf club with a sandy course where later I would earn vast sums caddying.
My activities that first summer were mainly bicycling. I learned fast and had a rented English-style junior bike -- very hot stuff in black and red. My mother's bike had nets on each side of the back wheel so her skirts didn't get caught in the spokes or the chain and had a huge front basket. She did all the shopping with it and biked to the yacht club for dances in evening dress.
The weather was so lovely that September that she decided to stay until the third week. On the 19th she threw a cocktail party to say farewell to the season. The weather was uncannily calm and warm. One of my mother's friends complained bitterly at the party because he had bought a defective barometer from Abercrombie and Fitch. The mercury kept falling to 28.50 inches, an "impossible" low.
Of course the barometer wasn't broken. When word got around that the barometer in the Yacht Club was sinking precipitously, eventually going down to 27.94, smart folks began to load up on supplies and hunker down.
The 1938 hurricane had it all -- it crept ponderously up the coast, sucking up warm summer's-end water; there was a full moon and an uncommonly high tide. The monster winds were clocked at 186 miles per hour with sustained periods of 126 mph. The surge was 17 feet of monstrous waves. The path was straight over our little house. It started blowing the evening of the 20th and the hurricane smashed into the island at dawn on the 21st and continued all-day and halfway into the next night. In Menemsha, the fishing village on the south of the island, which was the first landfall of the brute, 53 souls were killed in their beds.
A falling branch grazed my mother as she came home with the groceries just as the full fury of the storm hit. Hastily she assembled three card tables in the living room, covered them with blankets and raincoats and put the kids inside -- Petie and me and two friends -- and instructed my sister to tell ghost stories. She invented something called the "screaming skull," which had us semi-catatonic with terror for hours. We heard the howling of the winds but were far more afraid of this shrieking skull, which we imagined creeping around trying to bite hands and feet off. We went to bed with raincoats at the foot of our beds in case the roof blew off.
The eye of the terrible storm passed right over us and I remember being amazed at the sudden cessation of the roaring winds and the intense smell of ozone. Soon the blast roared in from the opposite direction whipping telephone poles, trees and a few houses 180 degrees around.
The next morning was gorgeous and still and the milkman actually showed up in the afternoon and drove Petie and me to Gay Head to see the humungous new cracks in the great cliffs. No trees littered the long road to Gay Head; there simply were no trees left on the entire island. The stately, lofty sand dunes on South Beach, the pride of the island, looming some forty feet tall, were flattened. They have never come back. I remember vividly seeing several pieces of straw that had impaled the stump of a telephone pole.
The finest sailing yacht in Edgartown, the "Manxman," a 125-foot former America’s Cup Defender, broke its mooring chains, careened through the harbor, wiping out a dozen smaller boats, missed the yacht club by several feet, was blown on top of the 40-foot-high coal dock and settled there as if on a pedestal.
At the height of the storm 30-foot waves were breaking on lower Main Street. The water level in the Yacht Club, still marked today, was some twenty feet above the dance floor.
I loved the killer hurricane, since we were forced to stay an extra two weeks because of shredded transportation throughout New England.
After that summer my father insisted that Petie and I come to the Port of Missing Men for June. There have seldom been private estates as enchanting as the Port anywhere in America. You get to it by driving from Southampton west on North Sea Road to Scallop Pond Road and there on the left it looms a hundred feet up on a rising pedestal of perfectly manicured lawns.
The main house was New England Colonial given a special accent by a tall glass structure enclosing a marble swimming pool -- nine feet deep all around. The main house had ten bedrooms with servants' quarters nearby, a mammoth living room and a dining room with an oak table that could seat fifty. The living room was dominated by an eight-foot diameter mahogany ship's wheel, which, I was told, was the only remnant of the schooner that had been swept aground in a violent storm in the 19th century with the loss of all hands.
There were several guesthouses. The smallest and furthest away from the main house had three bedrooms, which is where we were placed.
The second guesthouse, for VIPs, had eight bedrooms with servants' quarters close at hand. Each bedroom was decorated in a different style -- of Japan, Spain, Italy, the Wild West, Nantucket, the old South and the room of the Haunt a la Edgar Allen Poe.
The room of the Haunt entranced my sister and me. The ceiling of the four-poster could actually be cranked down just a little, enough to make you think you could be crushed or giant spikes could come out of the top and impale you. The mercury in the mirror at the end of the bed was applied in such a way that you could see a ghostly visage of a bearded and cloaked "Jack-the-Ripper" at certain angles.
Looking across Scallop Pond was a painted concrete Hollywood stage set, the stern of a Spanish Galleon built into a small cliff overlooking Scallop pond. Inside it looked like a 16th century Captain's quarters but it was also furnished with a contemporary bar where evening drinks were served by one of the three butlers.
Even more sensational to me than the Galleon was the underground Port. A half-mile of subterranean passages twisted and turned beneath the main house and the large guesthouse. Electric carts were available and my sister and I commandeered one and whisked throughout the well-lighted underworld. We visited a steam bath and sauna, storerooms for liquor and wine, ironing rooms and various storage areas. For me, the most intriguing chamber was a ship model museum filled with the most beautiful vessels imaginable. I spent hours gazing at the tiny and meticulous works, some made of ivory. Pauline eventually gave the models to the US Naval Academy.
When I first started going to the Port, I kept close to the small guesthouse and sat for hours in the large branch of a tree I could climb. I perched there daydreaming for hours and having fanciful conversations with myself. It wasn't difficult to hatch dreams at the Port.
I became entranced with horseshoe crabs and spent hours each day watching them crawl their ponderous way through the shallow waters on the road leading to the Cow Neck. I tracked them as they laid their eggs on the sand and as they waddled back into the water. I made a collection of their shells from one-month old babies to those of hundred-year old monsters whose sightless eyes seemed identical to mine. I wasn't allowed to bring the shells back to the city because they smelled. But I smuggled some of the intact translucent baby skeletons anyway, dousing them with perfume and kept them in my "secret" cupboard for years. I even took one off with me when I was shipped off to boarding school.
When my sister was twelve my father took both of us to the Port garage and showed us the cars, among which were a Rolls Royce, two Cadillacs and a Packard so big you could turn somersaults on the back seat. The Rolls disappeared after my sister threw up in the back seat. No matter how many times it was fumigated, Pauline still got a hint of the acrid smell and sold the car.
My father selected a small pick-up truck for us and had the estate carpenter craft wooden blocks to build up the clutch, brake and accelerator so my sister's feet could reach them. He taught her how to drive the stick-shift truck in an hour. The carpenter painted a "seal" of the Port Forest Rangers on each door. My father handed me an amazing present, a 22-short, miniature rifle. "Now, off with you two, to catch the poachers."
My sister roped the least sleepy farm horse, "Blackie," to the back of the truck. The other horse, "Whitey," would just shuffle along, which is why he was assigned to me. We patrolled the Cow Neck with "Blackie" ambling along behind us. Once we did come across some poachers who had pulled their outboard up on the beach in Peconic Bay. I fired off a 22-short round over their heads and they bellowed in anger but fled. Petie worried for weeks expecting the cops to roll up at any moment. When my father got wind of the incident, he just laughed, but from then on I could use my new toy only when he or the tenant farmer, Mr. Howard, was with me.
Pauline and Walter threw some sensational parties -- some lasting four days. I recall what seemed like a hundred cars parked in neat rows on the grand lawn leading up to the mansion. During one dinner my sister and I waited until long after it had started, sneaked down from the room of the Haunt, crept through the darkened living room into the great dining hall and crawled under the tablecloths. We watched as fingers searched for and caressed places on dinner partners' anatomy and feet performed imaginative footsies. Pauline had never taught us those kinds of table manners.
That same weekend my father asked us Forest Rangers to take a guest on a tour of the Cow Neck. Mouths agape and barely able to utter a word, we did -- our dashing passenger was the actor Errol Flynn.
My favorite among the large staff was farmer Howard, who taught me how to fish and, even better, how to shoot a tight pattern with my 22, for which he supplied extra ammunition, including 22-long shells.
He also calmed my fear of horses and showed me how to force "Whitey" into a reluctant trot. Together, we visited every one of the luxurious duck blinds, which had central heating and refrigerators to keep the champagne chilled. During the peak of the shooting season, nine gamekeepers were added to the staff, one for each blind and special dogs were brought in to retrieve the kills.
Howard allowed me to shoot a deer. He swore me to secrecy. It was technically legal because the land was a private reserve. Henry Rogers had stocked the Cow Neck with rare, miniature black Korean deer no bigger than Labradors. We hid out in one of the duck blinds until one stag came to drink and I shot him right in the head. Mr. Howard cleaned and mounted the little rack and I smuggled it back to 993 Park Avenue and hid it in my secret closet.
This is chapter 3 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.