6. THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS
In my first term sophomore year, to my pride and joy, I was elected a member of the Right Wing drinking club, so I drank heavily and managed to get in a lot of cutthroat poker games besides. Sophomores could get jobs, so I got one at the Gallup Poll. I'd get dressed in my best John David blazer, charcoal grays and penny moccasins and ring doorbells or collar people on the streets. I had a stash of advertising layouts and I'd poll the folks on which ones caught their fancy. I made a hundred dollars a month -- for me a fortune. The cash was vital to my financial well-being, for my father wouldn't listen to my suggestion that he increase my seventy-dollar allowance.
I sensed my prep school advantage was waning fast but I still failed to attend classes regularly or to read the textbooks avidly. The ones I did attend turned out to be difficult. I remember the first lecture of Economics 201, delivered by the legendary economist Paul Samuelson, who went on for an hour about economies based upon "butter and guns." I had no idea what he was talking about. Little did I know at the time that economists seldom talk so anybody can understand them.
My grades dropped to an average of 4.4. A mark of 1.0 was the best anyone could achieve and below 4 was flunkout territory. Without realizing it, I had plunged into something deeper and more perilous than the expected sophomore slump.
Then on my 20th birthday, as I have described, I hit bottom with the three-day drunk. Yet, miraculously, I eked out a 4.0 average in my mid-term exams. Dean Francis Godolphin called me to his home and over gin and tonics told me what I had to do to remain in Princeton.
"Leave your roommates; they -- and I include my son -- haven't been a decent influence on you. I advise you to go to a single room, which I can arrange."
I moved to a single room in 1901 Hall next to one inhabited by a snow-white-haired twenty-three-year-old graduate student who was working on his second Ph.D. Did any scholastic gloss rub off on me from the brilliant Ken Scott? Perhaps.
The only times I went back to Holder Hall was to try to impress the representatives of the various eating clubs who came to call during the so-called "bicker week" or the tapping of the sophomores for the exclusive eating clubs. At Princeton there were no fraternities, merely a dozen or so eating clubs all situated on lovely elm-shaded Prospect Street. They were for meals and parties, some classy, most not. Traditionally, most sophomores were asked to join clubs, but usually some five percent or so were considered "sandbags" and were spurned. The class of 1952 had demanded one hundred percent bicker and had won it. My class demanded the same and got it too.
There were three "high society" clubs where everyone wanted to go -- The Ivy, Cannon and Cottage Club. I knew I'd never be picked for one of those; my raucous reputation was well known. My only hope was to go where Chauncey Loomis was a member, raunchy Tiger Inn with its amusing mixture of top athletes, men-about-town and a select few intellectuals -- all were heavy drinkers, of course. Chauncey was a unique combination of all three.
The "bicker" representative from Tiger Inn who interviewed me was a twenty-nine-year-old World War II veteran. He was a pal of Chauncey's and had hung around for several hours at our burning party. He had loved it and liked me, thank God. "’Artful Tommy,’ that's just the kind of bash we like at Tiger Inn." So he recommended me and I slipped in.
After I moved away from my roommates, my grades began to improve. I deciphered Professor Kurt Weitzman's German accent and realized how good a teacher he was, always pushing the class just so. I became hooked on the subject of medieval art. The slides and photographs showed exotic, thrilling works of art I’d never seen before -- early Christian marble sarcophagi loaded with mysterious reliefs, rough-hewn but beautiful manuscripts of the 5th century with scenes from my old friend, the Aeneid, and dazzling ivory carvings from the 6th to the 9th century with fanciful figures draped in draperies that looked like water rushing through rapids. I remember surprising the professor when he abruptly asked me to name the principal Carolingian manuscript schools, which several other students hadn’t known, by crying out, "Princess Ada Palace Rheims makes a Tour of Saint Denis." It was my way of remembering the crucial schools of Ada, Palace, Rheims, Tour and St. Denis. He raised an eyebrow and smiled. That’s when I knew I would make it and make it very well. Because of my newfound love for medieval art I decided at the end of the year that my specialty was going to be art history and archaeology. I was feeling confident that I might actually not flunk out.
The eating clubs allowed sophomore members to attend spring house parties, essentially a long weekend drunk. I actually got a blind date -- I don't recall how. She was pretty and amusing but not in the least fascinated with the Right Wing club's goal of getting every female invited to our bash senseless and thus quickly into someone's bed.
The spring drunk was held on a small island in Lake Carnegie ("the only rubber-bottomed lake in the country, ha, ha"). To get to it, the guests had to navigate a narrow land bridge. The lawn of the small island was strewn with passed-out young men and women. People who had fallen into the water making their way over and back the narrow spit wandered around in a daze in drenched clothing. As I thrust yet another drink upon my date, she refused and walked away, managing to avoid falling in. I called out in cavalier fashion, "Don't expect me to pay for your room if you leave this party."
For the rest of the weekend in my half-drunken state, I imagined that my date was tracking me down to get the money for her room, so I roamed Prospect Street visiting various clubs, looking warily for her. I ended up in Cottage Club, played some pool, had a few more drinks and, still on the look-out for my date, positioned myself on the wide staircase of Cottage club, the traditional meeting place for dates on house party weekends. As the crowd dispersed I spotted an attractive blond girl sitting alone nearby.
I moved in on her, throwing some inane bon mots. To my delight and surprise, she responded in a like-minded fashion. One riposte led to another and soon we were one-upping each other in what we must have thought was clever repartee. I learned she was waiting for her date, who, she said, "probably stood me up for some visiting British rugby player." She was dressed for a party; I was disheveled and sockless, which she pointed out wryly. We quickly learned each other’s names and found out that we lived around the corner from each other in New York and that our fathers knew one another. We danced and laughed and forgot about our missing dates.
I spun a wilder and wilder tale about how I was wearing no socks because Princeton had this phantasmagorical university beneath the one on the surface and Nancy Bell laughed at it all. We were both a bit smashed and silly and intrigued with each other. I stayed with her until she sighed and told me that she guessed she simply had to find her date. We parted without another word. My blind date never caught up with me.
The rest of the academic year passed with my becoming a dedicated "grind." At finals I received a 2.0 average and was asked by my faculty advisor to come in for a serious chat. He was complimentary about my dramatic changeover from Dean's List Bad to Dean's List Good and asked me what I had in mind for the next two years. Boldly, I told him I didn’t want to take the remaining electives. I had decided to major in art history and archaeology because I had been inspired by Kurt Weitzman and wanted the official go-ahead to take only art history courses and a few languages. I took him aback by asking to be able to audit some senior and even graduate classes so I could take more courses than the curriculum mandated. We worked it out and I was elated.
Had I changed profoundly? I suppose so, although I didn't resign from the Right Wing club and got blissfully smashed at the last Tiger Inn bash before leaving for New York for the summer and a new job my father had lined up for me, an assistant to interior decorator William Pahlmann, the chap who had decorated our apartment on Park Avenue and Pauline's Riverhouse "Palace." Pahlmann was decorating a new Bonwit Teller in Cleveland.
My father warned me that Bill, a handsome, soft-spoken southerner of impeccable taste and a gentle wit, was a "pansy," as were no doubt every one of his colleagues at his firm, and that someone there might try to pinch my ass. I wasn’t worried, having met a few gay students at Eaglebrook whom I liked. I found the Pahlmann crowd all gay, bright, attractive and funny as hell, but wary of the 20-year-old straight guy who had been thrust into their midst.
I eventually became close with the half dozen men working on the Cleveland project, especially the gifted designer of fabrics, Jack Lenor Larsen. I also remember Ferris McGarrity fondly as well as hilariously funny Jack Connor, a short, beautifully proportioned young designer with a mind full of the most outrageous straight and gay jokes, some of which I remember to this day.
My job location was essentially in solitary confinement -- not in the main office, but on the third floor of the Gramercy Warehouse on 53rd between Third and Second Avenues. I had to make sure that the mountain of furniture, paintings, bibelots and fabrics, draperies and curtains and swags were deposited in storage and readied for transportation out to Cleveland.
The new Bonwit Teller was to be the sensation of the retail world, decorated entirely with real French, Italian and Spanish antiques. In those days along New York's Second Avenue you could amble through dozens of "To-the-Trade-Only" antique stores with bursting inventories of genuine 18th century furniture, paintings, small sculptures and even wallpaper and fabric. The prices were nothing.
Pahlmann purchased furniture by the ton, and had it restored and covered in flashing modern fabrics. The old pieces were to be grouped with Pahlmann originals. The combination of one of his modern bamboo-framed mirrors with, say, a pair of 18th-century French chairs was fresh, terribly chic and eye-catching. Fifty or so 18th- and 19th-century paintings were purchased as well -- still-lifes, landscapes and portraits. Most cost less than a hundred dollars apiece.
My work was routine and I didn’t have to think much about it. What I really had in mind was the house party beauty, Nancy Bell. I went through the Bells in the New York phone book -- there must have been fifty or so. I was a third of the way down the list when I came across N. Bell at a Regent 4 number. In the evening I called and the unmistakable Nancy Bell of the Cottage Club stairs answered. (It turned out that her father, Elliott V. Bell, was a director of Bell Telephone, so she had her own number).
"I am the underground Princeton man who met you on the steps of Cottage Club last April."
"Movie? Drink? Dinner?"
"Come tomorrow for a drink and we'll do something after. Make it 6:00 here at 150 East 73rd Street, second floor; we have something you may not -- air-conditioning."
Her father was also on the board of Carrier Corp., the world's largest maker of air conditioners.
The apartment -- where we still live -- was in a pleasant building on the corner of Lexington, with a modestly appointed series of small rooms -- not "The Palace" or even 340 East 72nd Street.
We congregated for drinks on the bed in Elliott and Amelia Bell’s bedroom, where it was deliciously cool. Papa Elliott, as Nancy called him, was a short, slightly heavy-set man with a broad, handsome face, thick eyebrows and a massive head of hair. When he stood up to greet me I could see his back had a lump. Didn't matter to me. Later I learned the tragic story of his physical condition. He wasn't a hunchback at all; his back looked slightly like one. As a child he had contracted tuberculosis of the spine and, growing up, his back had become bowed. Despite that, he was an avid athlete -- a crack fencer at Columbia -- a skier and an enthusiastic hunter and fly fisherman.
Elliott was brilliant, seemed to know everything about current affairs and politics, adored poetry and the playwrights and was a sparkling writer and editor. He worked at McGraw-Hill as Editor and Publisher of Business Week, the hot magazine, which he had started. Mother Amelia Bell was a lovely, slightly stout woman with a captivating laugh and a quiet and captivating sense of humor. I hit it off with both of them at once.
That evening we went to a Chinese restaurant on Broadway where Elliott taught me how to eat with chopsticks. It was, oddly enough, the first Chinese restaurant I'd ever been to in my life.
Nancy and my relationship progressed slowly, mostly because of my shyness with women. We went to movies, dinners at cheap restaurants, and night ball games, where she was taken in by the sport and my expertise.
Physical love started off with heavy handholding and neck nuzzling in the back booth of an Irish joint under the Elevated at 73rd Street where we went to have drinks. At evening’s end it would be a cautious kiss, getting warmer and more natural as time went on. I never took her to my apartment and her parents were always in theirs. Every weekend she went to her family’s country house on Quaker Hill in Pawling, New York. On weekends I joined the Pahlmann boys at their rented beach house at Old Quogue, Long Island.
Then suddenly the rather boring job of sitting in the deserted warehouse cataloging the goods changed for the better; I met a man who taught me one of the most valuable lessons of art history I’ve ever had, although he didn’t mean to. This was Frank X. Kelly, our paintings restorer. His studio was on the fourth floor of a building between Lexington and Park on 57th Street, among a bunch of art galleries. Frank was a thin-faced man in his forties with his shoulders perpetually slumped and a cigarette ever-present on his bottom lip. He was addicted to horse races and would disappear at intervals, go down to the corner to place a bet at the local newsstand, which boasted a permanent bookie, and return.
Frank X. was amused about my tales of the betting on horses at the Mirror and we became buddies. He had marvelous hands and could take a battered French landscape of the late 18th century, fill in the missing paint areas, glue together the rips and clean it and its battered gilded frame within a week. But there were so many pictures for the store that he -- and I -- began to worry about getting them all done in time, for every fitting room in the new Bonwit's was to be decorated with an old painting.
On one of the many days I stopped in to check on the progress, Frank wasn't there. I figured he was placing a bet and on my own began to search his bins for our material. I saw to my pleasure that twenty or so works had been transformed into "veritable museum pieces," as Frank called his finished work. We were on schedule.
I casually flicked through his other bins and came across a couple of Sisleys, followed by a pair of Pissarros, Renoirs and some Monets. And after that some more Impressionists -- all unfinished.
Intrigued and puzzled, I went through about a dozen uncompleted works by various Impressionist masters and heard a cough near my head.
"Kid, I'll make a deal with you," said Frank. "You keep this side work of mine on the Q. T. and I'll teach you everything I know about the game of forgery -- seeing that yer going into art history."
Several hours a day for three weeks Frank X. Kelly showed me how he crafted his fakes. Some were "pastiches," parts of three or four Renoirs brought together in a new ensemble, others were totally dreamed up. He showed me how he stained the canvas so that it looked convincingly old, and how he laid in the drawing and the oils.
I was bowled over when he told me that he supplied dealers all over New York, London and Europe and that he received over a thousand dollars -- sometimes two thousand -- for each work. His annual output? Over a hundred. No taxes.
"But I put it all on the nags, so I don't see much of it."
Over the years I have spotted at least a half dozen Frank X. Kellys in art galleries and private collections around the world. He was never caught. This chance experience no doubt started me on my way to becoming a "fakebuster," a person able to spot fakes in a flash of a second.
I was finally hit upon by one of the Pahlmann crew. I was coming out of the cool surf one night on the beach at Old Quogue after a swim to sober up when someone jumped me, folded me in a terminal hug and tried feverishly to kiss me. I laughed and broke free. That same night I awakened very late to see in the moonlight a mouth around my surprisingly erect cock. I have to admit that it felt good and I waited for him to suck for a second before gently batting him away. "Hey, I'm fucking straight and have a woman whom I love."
Before I went off to Cleveland, I joined the Bell family at their country house in Pawling. It was on a high, breezy hill looking due west with a five-acre field in front of a small porch. The house was a tiny saltbox with one guest room downstairs into which Nancy Melissa Bell sneaked after midnight. We didn't "screw" -- it became her favorite word for making love when she pretended to use racy language -- but we disrobed and went to the edge. We both laughed until we feared her family would hear us. She kissed me passionately before she crept upstairs to the four-poster bed where she'd slept in all her life.
I was ga-ga.
The next morning I flew to Cleveland for two weeks. Getting the huge store installed was chaotic and we often worked eleven hours a day. But we always hit a local gay nightclub for a couple of drinks before stumbling into bed. There was a young singer who was dynamite, and who sang in both male and female voices. Our favorite was "Cry." He was the then undiscovered Johnny Ray, who burst like a rocket onto the music scene a few months later.
From my Cleveland hotel I wrote my first real love letter: "I have to tell you how I keep thinking of you. Every now and then at night or during working hours any time I think of you and don't feel good about it. Not getting too much sleep this way. Not only do I think of you sexually -- and that I do -- but in other ways -- mostly I think because of what you do and say -- in short everything. I miss you terribly and want to see you now! . . . Had a small cocktail party with Pahlmann and the gang -- everybody got quite drunk -- including me -- had bad hangover this morning which laid me so low that I couldn't get to the glorious new store until 10:30 -- and there as I came in the door -- my father extended his arm -- great! I do miss you so much and can't keep that Saturday night out of my skull. Never, I think, have I felt the way I did the next day. Every time I think of that I go crazy thinking about when I see you again."
I returned to Princeton charged up and for my final exams, received a phenomenally high score of 0.7 (better than the highest 1.0). In a test asking about the nature of the spiritual relationship between church and state in the early middle ages, I argued that the relationship was a purely economic one. The professor asked me if I'd consider publishing the exam paper. My God! How far I'd come from rock bottom, especially with a gorgeous and loving young woman to help me and occasionally to thrust a dagger deflating some of the hot air from my ideas and pronouncements. Nancy Melissa Bell could really hit the nail on the head.
I made some new friends. One was Don Kennedy, whose twin brother Dick had been expelled with me from Exeter, and another was John Wintersteen, or "Wince," a short, stocky, blond hellion with a keen intellect and sharp wit. Wince came from a socially prominent, art-collecting Philadelphia family. I once visited a mansion owned by his uncle, Henry P. McIlheny, a grand collector and a curator at the Philadelphia Museum, on Rittenhouse Square. The mansion had its own ballroom. "Every house has to have one," McIlheny told me. The lavish place was decorated with Degases, Seurats (a study for La Poudreuse was hanging in the downstairs toilet) and assorted Titians and Rembrandts. Johnny's mother, Bonnie, owned a masterpiece by Henri Matisse, Woman in Blue. I had just studied the picture in my modern art course and was allowed to gently touch its surface. When I did my spine tingled.
By the end of my first term my grades were so stellar that I was allowed to audit several seminars for graduate students. One, taught by Professor Frederick Stohlman, was a crackerjack seminar on European sculpture from the 17th century to modern times -- my first exposure to the delights of the Baroque and Rococo. One morning the professor deposited on the table a silver object about ten inches long by four high set into a polished wooden base. It looked to me vaguely like a large tongue depressor with winglets at one end and a horizontal handle.
The professor asked for opinions. The grads wafted lyrical over the "'implied force fields," the "quiet and latent, yet surging energy," the "steely contrapposto," the "supine power of a body at rest," the "epitome of modernist Baroque."
Then it was my turn and I gulped and said, "It's not a sculpture. It's too utilitarian."
The grads smirked. Dr. Stohlman said, "The undergraduate is right. It's a vaginal spatula. But, of course, it is also a work of art -- a ‘found object,’ found by me and proclaimed a work of art. Like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal."
One of the most advanced undergraduate courses that I was also allowed to take was given by the brilliant and unpredictable Professor Albert A. M. Friend, Jr. (called "Bert," though not by his students). His specialty was northern Renaissance painting and particularly Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. The midterm examination was typical "Bert," because it was not a spotting test. The sole question on the exam was, "To be or not to be?"
You could answer in any medium you liked. I chose painting and in oils on board loosely paraphrased van Gogh's moving image of an old man seated on a wicker chair in a chamber of the St. Remy madhouse holding his head tightly in his hands, face obscured, clearly pondering the horrors of life and suicide. "Bert" liked my choice of van Gogh’s painful imagery and gave me a 1.0.
Wince muttered that if I continued to pick up such high marks, my reputation would soon be irretrievably sullied.
By this time I was addressing the Bells as Papa and Amelia and I turned more and more to Elliott for advice. For Easter break Elliott asked me to join the family on a vacation to Haiti -- they’d pay for my transportation and the room. I managed to scratch together enough cash from my Gallup poll earnings to pay for my bar bills. Like today Haiti was then poverty-stricken and backward, but, unlike today's wrecked and failed state, it was at least tackily charming. The president was one Paul E. Magloire ("Hope of the People"). When he ran out of town he took the entire island’s treasury with him.
We stayed at a lovely hotel overlooking the tall spires of a half dozen sparkling white churches and listened raptly to the constant voodoo drums accompanied by hundreds of police whistles playing in the hills -- the canonical Easter jump-up. I even took a drum lesson from a legendary voodoo drummer by the name of Ti-Ro-Ro and brought back a goatskin-topped, yard-high, tree-trunk thick blue drum, which I still pound from time to time to amuse the grandchildren. We spent hours in the central market of Port-au-Prince, which was teeming and disheveled and exciting.
Part of the adventure was a trip across Haiti to Cap Haitien to see the Citadel, the palace-castle built by the formidable Henri Christophe from volcanic rock bonded together with sugar. The plane -- you couldn't drive -- was an aging DC-3 seating fifteen. Our luggage was weighed carefully as were the passengers. Just before taxiing, we were startled by a knocking on the door. The plane halted to allow four strapping young Air Force officers to climb aboard. Each wore a different uniform with plumes and medals and patent leather belts, grenades, pistols and bandoliers of cartridges. Each "bravo" was smoking a stogie and the officers casually flicked their ashes through the open oval windows of the DC-3. They were allowed to sit in the aisle and we took off ponderously -- very much overweight -- and just made it.
After a half hour of low flying over thick jungle, suddenly the plane went into a slip and plummeted towards the trees. At the last moment I spotted a grass strip and we landed safely.
In the morning we went to the Citadel on mule back and got the standard tour. This included the tale of how Henri Christophe would have 200 soldiers parade on the flat top of the castle and disappears through an arch only to be followed by another 200 in a different uniform, followed by of course the same 200, who made five or six quick-uniform-changes to impress foreigners that his army was vast. We also heard the no-doubt apocryphal story about his ordering his crack bodyguards to march off the side of the high Citadel to their deaths to dazzle the foreigners with Christophe's inhuman resolve. I spotted the rusting iron rings just below the precipice, which had been used, I guessed, for the nets to catch the guards.
On our return to Port-au-Prince we went to the hills after dark to see voodoo ceremonies and dined at a chic nightclub where the gentlemen, all in black tie, were requested to check their side arms at the cloakroom. It seemed we were the only clients not packing a weapon.
It was in Port-au-Prince that we found and bought a bunch of excellent watercolors -- the Haitian renaissance was then booming. The cathedral was decorated with a recently completed apse oil of the Visitation by Andre Pierre. We also saw explosively lovely works by the master of masters, Hyppolite, but they were far too expensive for us.
We also found another masterpiece, the local dark run, Babancourt. One star was lighter fluid. Three Star was like good scotch whiskey. And Five Star Special Reserve was not that far from a decent Calvados. Nancy and I have imbibed it ever since. I concocted a family drink out of the stuff, which I dubbed the "Brownskin Girl," half of which were bananas squashed up in a blender plus Falernum and the other half Babancourt Three Star. I shall never forget the placid evening on the terrace at our hotel with a Babancourt in hand watching night creep up on the hills before us, hearing the beginnings of the night-long voodoo ceremonies. Naturally, Nancy and I managed to sneak into each other’s rooms for hours of languid and delicious lovemaking. On our return we both contracted German measles, arousing a bit of suspicion from the Bells.
What I admired most about Elliott Valance Bell was that, despite his crackling intellect and wisdom, he was thoroughly and proudly middle-class. He had attended Dewitt Clinton High (like my father) and had gone to Columbia, graduating high in his class. His father had been a caterer by trade and an amateur stock trader and so Elliott gravitated towards economics. He served as a financial reporter at the New York Herald Tribune and subsequently financial editor at the New York Times and is legendary for having analyzed the Twenties Boom not as good times but as a bust-to-be before a Crash, which he timed virtually to the moment.
Politically acute as well as financially savvy, he became the superintendent of banks under Governor Thomas E. Dewey and in both 1944 and 1948 was Dewey's chief speechwriter and policy advisor in his run for the presidency. One late night he told me the story of how he and Dewey knew they had fallen behind Truman and could never catch up despite the polls that proclaimed a Dewey landslide. Dewey, standing upon principle, had made a speech in Iowa condemning huge farm subsidies that Truman supported. All of Dewey's political advisers -- except Bell -- had begged him not to make a speech condemning subsidies, but he gave it anyway and the crowds began to surge towards Truman.
Nancy and I studied hard and played hard. We’d get together whenever we could in New York and saw every Broadway show we could afford. We adored the dark and cynical Pal Joey (starring Harold Lang and Vivien Segal) and laughed uncontrollably at Ronnie Graham in New Faces of 1952, especially the skit where Graham, as a velvet-and-lace-clad Lord Fauntleroy kid in a crime family, consistently got great marks and merit badges. His father and mother cursed him roundly -- "You're destroying our reputation." We laughed because that was what I was doing myself. We also went to New York Rangers hockey games to which I'd introduced her and to which she became addicted.
On our second house party weekend we got furiously drunk at a Tiger Inn South Seas party and wandered back to my dormitory at three in the morning, grasping pineapples filled with some deadly brew and clutching ourselves for support as we tripped and fell several times, laughing like hell. My door was unaccountably locked and so I coolly kicked in a door panel so that my girl's small hand could slip in and free the latch -- this is where I learned she had "terminal" claustrophobia. Thank God, no campus police were crawling around that night.
In my final exams I scored an average of 1.8 and made the Dean's Super Good list.
This is chapter 6 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.