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Friday, July 10, 2015

Sex, Highballs, And Fifties Fantasy

“You look gorgeous!”, Pettis Longworth said as her first guest walked through the door. “Simply beautiful. Randall, would you take Esther’s wrap?”.

Randall, greeted Esther Ballard warmly, kissed her on the cheek smiling ‘that Bartley smile, and as gracefully as a practiced footman removed her fur stole and hung it in the hall closet.

“Do you like it?”, Esther asked, nodding to the fur. “I picked it up from Bergdorf yesterday. It’s chinchilla.”  She was particularly proud of being the first woman in New Brighton to have chinchilla, leaving behind the many with mink and déclassé Persian lamb.

She was wearing a long evening dress, too formal perhaps for the gathering at the Bartley’s, but she couldn’t resist showing off her bare shoulders, diamond necklace, and svelte but alluring figure.  She wore L’air DuTemps perfume, a gold bracelet from Henry Winston, and carried a small, sequined Dior bag.

Pettis Longworth had invited Esther because she was a bit too obviously self-absorbed. She wanted a prima donna, but one not so much theatrical as borderline bourgeois. She affected ‘Madame X’, but she had none of the elegance and sophistication of Sargent’s aristocrat.  She was perfect for the part Pettis had written for her.

Madame X


Felicity Parker was Esther’s polar opposite. She, too had bought designer clothes, but unlike Esther Ballard wore them with grace and natural authority.  Guests turned to notice the flourish and commotion of Esther’s grand entrance; but couldn’t take their eyes off the perfectly-tailored Felicity.


   Dior www.en.wikipedia.org

Pettis’ playbill also included: ‘The Ingénue’, a soft and feminine woman who resembled Marilyn Monroe but who was always demure and quiet. The combination of sensuality and shyness was irresistible to men. ‘Mrs. Goldfinch’, a stern, unforgiving woman who reminded Pettis of her 3rd grade teacher.  She dressed in severe, high-collared blouses, long, frilly-cuffed sleeves, and shoes with stout heels. ‘The Harpy’, a tall, vixenish, eagle-nosed woman who was jittery, impatient, and intolerant of men; and ‘The Beatitude’, a youngish woman whose fresh, simple beauty and direct, happy personality made one think of St. Teresa or St. Evangeline. 

Pettis had a large coterie of friends and acquaintances from which to choose; and as a practiced director, knew how to create dramatic tension, irony, and passion by selecting the right cast. The principal characters were all women. Men were so drab and uninteresting, she thought, just like the suitors of Rosalind, Portia, Beatrice, and Viola; and an all-female cast with men as seconds and foils was perfect.  Shakespeare’s Comedies would have been airless affairs if it hadn’t been for the likes of Benedick, Orlando, or Duke Orsino who, if for nothing else, provided comedy and dramatic relief.

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Few of the women invited to Pettis’ soirees were aware of her intent; and were simply flattered to be asked to an evening at the home of New Brighton. Pettis Longworth had gained a reputation as a patron of the arts, a generous benefactor of needy causes, and above all a socially skilled and highly intelligent arbiter of taste.  Her afternoon salons reminded many of Gertrude Stein, and her tea parties and ladies’ lunches as elegantly conceived as those in The Great Gatsby. She was all about style, allure, wit, and ideas. The fact that she was a dependent wife made no difference to her at all.  Again, like Shakespeare’s women, Pettis understood that power and influence are never conferred, but inborn and innate.

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Pettis envisaged her evenings a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf but with a much larger cast of characters.  She and her husband created and directed games much like George and Martha did – “Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess, Bringing up Baby, Get the Guest,The Bouncy Boy and Kill the Kid” – but with far less serious intent.  The games in Albee’s play are all serious business, tools for stripping away pretense, getting down to the marrow, and finally confronting each other without context.  Pettis’ games were manipulative to be sure and indeed had more than a trace of intellectual snobbery and dismissiveness of the good people of New Brighton; but they were satisfying expressions of her will. 

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Hedda Gabler says that the only validation of human life is influence over others; but whereas Ibsen’s character was destructive and immoral, Pettis Longworth was a benign Nietzschean.  She took great satisfaction in writing the script, casting the characters, staging the play and directing it.  No audience except herself was required.

Like at George and Martha’s party, liquor flowed at the Longworths’. Highballs on arrival, martinis before dinner, wine with the meal, and digestifs after. Pettis drank very little, although a glass was always in her hand as she moved from guest to guest. No introductions were required at Pettis’ parties.  New Brighton was a small town and the West End was even smaller.  People went to the same churches, played golf at the Green Meadows Country Club, summered on the Vineyard, and sent their children to the same private schools.  Everyone knew everyone else, so Pettis’ job was to lubricate – or, as she saw the right combinations of guests developing, to incite.  A word of gossip here, an innuendo, or a suggestive comment was enough. 

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As Esther Ballard drank, she became even more melodramatic. Bergdorf and her chinchilla were merely openers, and she quickly moved on to popular cinq-a-septs.  As she became drunker, she became suggestive and teasing.  Pettis put her together with Harold Thomas, a known womanizer but currently in trouble with his wife, in the hopes of encouraging a new and promising liaison.  Harold was as tasteless as Esther, and Pettis knew that once he was excited by her perfume and outrageous come-ons, he would be hooked.

Pettis matched Felicity with ‘The Beatitude’ for she knew of Felicity’s fondness for sweet young things; and saw beneath the girl’s shyness and reserve to a very definite and unusual sexuality.  Felicity, Pettis knew, could be a strict disciplinarian when it came to sexual matters, and ‘The Beatitude’ could use a spanking.

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Pettis never began the evening with a seating plan for dinner; and waited until alliances had formed on their own.  She sat with the odds and ends, those few guests who had not found purpose in the evening.  She never gave up her place at the head of the table, however, and led her orchestra like a seasoned conductor – a little more brio by Filly Bigger; some scherzo down at the end with Herbie Barker and Annie Jones; and even a bit of adagio when the tempo got hectic between Archie Phillips and Madge Turner.

Pettis’ dinner parties were not all sweetness and light; for when there is drinking, there will always be some measure of spite and pissiness if not out-and-out fighting.  People did come in couples, after all, and Pettis’ matchmaking was sure to create jealousy. Husbands were always the ones to get upset.  Women somehow took sex a lot more straightforwardly – not a lot of complications when it came to sexual dalliances.  After all, only they knew who their children were, so didn’t worry much about the consequences of adultery.

Men also took remarks more personally than women.  Men do indeed have fragile egos, and a well-aimed barb can either put men off or more than likely incense them.  Pettis worked the fights like a boxing referee, and was a master at getting fighters to break.

Never did Pettis’ dinner parties get out of control. She was to strong and disciplined for that.  She was sure to see that all actors followed the script.

Some disaffected members of the West End – those who had been once invited to Pettis Longworth’s parties but quickly left off the list – said she was a harridan in disguise.  An amoral, manipulative woman who used other people for her amusement. Sour grapes.  Of course she was amoral and manipulative; and of course she arranged her elaborate play-parties for her own benefit.

Pettis Longworth was a unique and exciting woman; and not an evening went by when I didn’t want to walk out the door with her.  She never would have had any part of it, for the role she liked to play was dutiful and respectful wife.  It wouldn’t do for the maître d’orchestre to be seen fraternizing with the bass player.

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