"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Jewish Interlude And The Happy Epiphany Of A Boston Brahmin

Blanding  Locke was a hero of sorts – impeccable family pedigree, Yale, Harvard, marriage to a Cabot, a house on the Vineyard, and skiing at Gstaad.  He had it all, wondered at the marvel of it, sometimes wondered at the felicity of his fate, but never doubted its correctness.   Some men are anointed and others are damned, the lots of life unpredictable and unknowable.

He graduated from Yale with a Gentleman’s C – his were the days when hard work was considered unseemly, and middling grades were a sign of an appreciation of the good life, a life of balance and ease.  A career in one of America’s corporations awaited the proper graduate, and a continued life of privilege and ease awaited him.

As a young man already known on Park Avenue and Wall Street as well as on Beacon Street, he had no cares or troubles.  His parents lived in the same historic townhouse where Lockes had lived since 1795 but they spent their summers in Tisbury on the Vineyard, an equally historic area settled and developed by his wife’s family.  His mother’s garden parties were famous for their elegance, sophistication, and good taste; and his father’s literary eloquence  was an island standard. 

Small Martha's Vineyard Map

His marriage went along smoothly, although not without its occasional knots and tangles.  He had a number of mistresses, women of the same milieu who led their lives with the same tact and discretion as he.  One knew of course who was seeing whom, but the protocol of indifference was part of his society’s cultured ethos.  One simply did not make a fuss about cinq-a-sept liaisons.  Everyone returned home for dinner

All went along swimmingly for many years.  Blanding maintained an appropriate level of competence at Parker & Billings, treated his wife and his mistresses well, sent his children to private schools with the high expectations of his class, summered well, and all in all was a happy man.

What caused the niggling, disturbing thoughts that began to trouble him was a mystery.  Why when turning a familiar corner did he feel disoriented?  Why was he suddenly, unexpectedly sad, not with just the benign sadness of saying goodbye or remembering childhood; but an immeasurably mournful one, a sadness within and without?

These moments passed quickly.  Of course, he said to himself, there was Bonwit’s, the Yale Club, the broken window on 57th Street, the children let out from school, the drilling, and the dank smell from the subway.  Nothing to be concerned about, a passing wave, a minor disturbance.

But these minor disturbances began to occur more frequently and lasted longer and longer.  He began to be afraid of them, how he might freeze in panic, lose his way completely and fall into space.  He of course could not talk to his wife about these moments and certainly not his colleagues at the Yale Club , nor was psychiatry in any Blanding’s repertoire.  He would have to muddle through, sort through and sort out these unpleasantries on his own time. 

Image result for images the yale club of new york

The Late George Apley is a 1937 novel by John Marquand.  The title character is a Harvard-educated patrician New Englander living on Beacon Hill.  Apley contracts a writer to chronicle the history of the Apley family, and the image of George Apley that emerges in the course of the novel is both comic and poignant, but ultimately sympathetic. Apley is revealed as a man deeply conflicted about his status among Boston's elite, sometimes feeling imprisoned in his privileged world, but sometimes passionately defending the old order.

Image result for images jp marquand

Blanding had of course read Marquand’s book – anyone living on Beacon Hill felt it only right to do so if only to disprove the author’s familiar and unpleasant nostrums about the fading relevance of the Boston aristocracy – and at the time thought nothing of it, an ambitious tell-all about social jitters and America’s new populism; but when he read it again, he was George Apley – a troubled, insecure, intellectually floundering man with epiphanic notions.  The book was predictably melodramatic. Marquand was no Thomas Wolfe - children going off with the wrong kind, affairs losing their luster, and the whole well-constructed life of Beacon Hill taken apart and its shaky, precarious assumption of birthright exposed – but could it be that he had Marquand’s congenital disease of malcontent? 

There’s always a woman involved, and so it was with Blanding, this time a Jewish woman from the Bronx who turned his head and saved his soul – or so he believed as the affair went on, coaxing him away from Marquand and Beacon Hill.  Jewesses were was supposed to be pushy, pampered, and loud, but she was none of the above, a quiet girl of modest ambitions, no pretense, and simple vitality.

It’s all about the sex, after all”, says the Zuckerman character in Roth’s The Human Stain, commenting on his friend Coleman Silk’s affair with a much younger woman, a janitor, prostitute, and abused wife; and Blanding agreed.  No Belle de Jour could possibly do for him what Shana managed, sucking him somewhere other than where he was.  Turning the corner had its suspicious moments – he was unused to trusting anyone outside his own cabal – but there were no lawyerly codicils in the relationship.   There were no bombs in her closet, no seditious tracts under the bed, only a consciousness that never veered into righteousness.  She was graceful and empathetic.  She couldn’t seduce him away from patrician privilege – that would take some serious emotional plastique  – but brought him to the alphabet avenues of the city and the A Train and let him look around.

Image result for images poster the human stain

The transition was a bit wobbly and very noisy, hard to keep a stable center when change is about; but there was not a drop of screed or bile in Shana, no slogans, memes, or plug lines.  Her compassion was respectful; her concern intellectual; her passion undiluted and transferable.  Her sexual energy matched her political will.  Both were fiery, but channeled.

His wife began to question his longer than usual business trips to New York.  While always affecting a patrician diffidence, his attitude was now one of remove.  This man of propriety, principle, and above all received taste was changing; and without much feminine instinct necessary, assumed he was moving away.  Honesty being the best policy, and financial and economic affairs having long ago been put in order, beneficial to him, he admitted his liaison, expressed doubt that he would return, but finished with more than a dram of consideration for his wife.  It was still a man’s world.

Epiphanies rarely last, especially if they are sexually inspired, and so it was with Blanding Locke.  Although he was a changed man – his anxiety attacks, those disturbing moments on 57th and Fifth when the buildings seem to dissolve in the sunlight, went away, and Shana Levin certainly had something to do with it – the changes were only on the margins, a sort of readjustment of the furniture rather than any redecorating or renovation. Shana Levin had given him a new twist on conservatism – one could be staunchly for bootstrap enterprise, but a dollop of tolerance for those whose boots slipped on the way up the ladder was added.  He was not one for social ‘inclusivity’ – he was and would always be a West Side Story realist (“Stick to your own kind”) – but he noticed the brown, yellow, and black incursions into his space with a little more give in his spirit.

Image result for images rita moreno west side story

In the end run, he had to agree with Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional character.  It was about the sex.  Roth and D.H. Lawrence were more right than he had ever suspected.  Sex was not just sensual satisfaction but a cleansing, reordering of perspective.  His and Shana’s libidos crossed nicely, but it was for the outing of the tacky assumptions of sexual liaisons that he liked her; and by extension the unseemliness of a social hermitage. 

Blanding was never sure what Shana got out of the relationship; but maybe she was happy enough giving him some of her energy, and, being so complete in herself, wanted little.  Or maybe it was her appreciation of serendipity and ignoring risk.  Or just plain sex with an older, sexually patient, attentive, and delighted older man.

“Granted, she is not my first love; and granted, she is not my best love, but she is certainly my last love.  Doesn’t that count for something?”, Coleman asks Nathan; but Zuckerman knew, that even if the relationship between Coleman and Faunia survived for a while, it would end; and only the sadness, sense of loss, and the unequivocal realization of the nearness of death would remain.

And so it was for Blanding, but his stiff upbringing shielded him from the worst of their parting.  One simply moved on, went back the familiar squares on the chessboard, played reasonably well, and retired when loss was inevitable.

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