The day I married Ensign Edwin M. Burke it was rainy and cold. The Portsmouth Navy Yard was dank and dirty, and the chapel smelled like wet tarpaulin. Edwin coughed all the way through the ceremony and mother acted like any mother and feigned tears. She was enraged the whole time, and I was edgy and irritable. Edwin kept waxing optimistic about the war and our future together as husband and wife when he returned; thank God I only had to put up with him for a few hours. I think if he hadn't returned to duty that night-and only Edwin would have sacrificed his wedding night to voluntarily sleep with twenty other men in a military bunker - I would have strangled him in his sleep like Desdemona.
The Times glossed the ordeal over beautifully and I made the front page of the society column, wearing that awful white mink stoll I detested and facing the camera with an expression that made me look like a cruel brunette hybrid of Shirley Temple and Mae West. My brother Elliot called it "the Hepburn pout." Every time I would look at that picture afterwards I would always think of Bill grinning the first time he saw it: "Well, hello beautiful! For once you've taken off the pants and slipped into something a little more uptight!"
The thing that shocked everyone, which mother, by the most fortunate of miracles, managed to keep from finding its way into the papers, was that I did wear trousers for my wedding - navy-blue pin-stripes of basque. Which to my credit had been featured in Vanity Fair that fall - though of course the model was a sleek five-nine blonde who looked every bit as feminine as she was supposed to. The look at least managed to make me feel more than sixty-five inches tall, but the mirror revealed to me a brassiness that was so well-established by then there was no disguising it by frilliness of any sort; it was pants now and always for Miss Nancy Von Rohr. The day of my wedding Ed looked askance at me and said in the voice of a gentle pacifist, "I did hope you'd stop trying to be a man for one day of the year, darling." Elliot joked afterwards that mine was the only case he'd heard of where there was confusion as to who was the ensign and who was the bride.
I laughed at that, only because the whole idea of our marriage was a joke. My mother had laughed at the first mention of it; Elliot had actually guffawed before realizing I was serious. Even Edwin had to have me repeat my acceptance of the proposal: "Are you sure, Nance? I mean-there's no getting out of this thing once you take the plunge, and I'd hate to think you were doing this just to make me happy-"
"What do you think, Ed, I have some ulterior motive in wanting to be with you? If I really wanted to marry someone for the hell of it do you think I'd pick a man headed for the front lines?"
"Course not, but you have to admit this is awfully sudden-"
"Yes, it's sudden, you dope, it would have to be whether I said yes today or a year from now. I changed my mind because I changed my mind, and that would happen suddenly no matter what, wouldn't it?" Ed looked hurt, and I kissed him. "Darling, you know I would never tell you I loved you if I didn't mean it-especially not if I were agreeing to spend the rest of my life with you…" whereupon I fixed him with a serious gaze and gave him the Hepburn pout. "Now, really, Edwin. If you've had a change of heart since you first made me the offer-if someone else has appeared who could make you happier-" and of course he didn't let me finish my sentence before bombarding me with declarations of his undying devotion, faithfulness, et cetera.
I admit I knew how to be cruel. Especially to the men around me. My brother Elliot once appraised me thus: "The problem with you, Nan, is that people-no, men-who see you are attracted to you because you're beautiful, not because you're strong. You think they're drawn to you because you're an intelligent, liberated woman, or whatever. I'm telling you that once they get to know you and find out what a bitch you can be they'd never think of getting involved with you. But when you relax a little and put on the charm and let yourself be-well, when you act like a woman instead of some dogmatic activist-they fall all over you. I've seen it."
"And have you ever seen me fall all over any of them?"
"Dammit, Nancy, it's okay to let men like you for your beauty, it's not something you should have to be ashamed of."
"But why can't you ever tell your friends at Rutgers when they're about to meet me that your sister is a member of the Junior League or a student of Max Kalish. Or that I was valedictorian of my class, not that I'm a brunette with a beautiful figure, that I never cry, and they should watch out for my temper?"
"What's wrong with warning them that you're a little-a little…"
"What? Hard around the edges? An over-aged tomboy? I already am everything I want to be, Elliot. And the more you try to gloss over the fact that I don't act like most of the silly twits you date, the more I will make it obvious to you that I'm not made of the same fluff they are-and I never will be."
That whole speech sounded like a sound bite for the WAAC. But I made Elliot happy more times than I cared to admit. I could never predict what would set it off, the coyness or the flighty laughter that would usually gain me at least one attentive admirer for a night. Most of the time I had no interest at all in the man and paid only slight attention to his fawning-men are such weaklings when it comes to a woman they think they like-they will drown her with such attention and such material gifts, and very little of themselves. Usually those ventures into the other side of femininity ended by my using the timeless technique of mood swings to all but dump my poor suitor and either leave or go sulk in a corner.
Oh, I made for fabulous company! I don't mean to say that I was so catty all the time. But I lived in the land of three names, where everyone's stature depended on their family or their glamour or their money-especially their money-and where, if you proved yourself eccentric enough you would be the item everyone wanted on their social list. I was sufficiently at a disadvantage in Manhattan, having only two names and being short physically as well as in the area of pedigree, that I had to assert myself by other means, and the chiefest means I chose was to become the boldest, most tailor-made feminist on Long Island.
I think this was a plan I had subconsciously formed in my mind ever since my father had taught me to ride at Ballyshear. There was little reason for me to exult in my childhood-much of my education took place at boarding school in Connecticut-but Ballyshear was my home, and what a home it was. It was the aspect of our family that made up for the fact that our last name was German, and that our history in America extended only four generations instead of the usual six or so. In a time when we were asked to establish our true-blue American sentiment more than once, my father would always stroke his thick beard, cut by the most anti-Fascist barber in Manhattan, and answer the inquisitive patriot: "Oh, yes. Out family is absolutely on the side of the Allies, we support the war 100 per cent. Just ask anyone in Southhampton, where we keep out estate-have you ever been to Ballyshear?" And my father would always persuade the victim to come to the Shinnecock Hills with him to view his pride and joy, all six hundred acres of Ballyshear. It was immense, it had everything a wealthy American fortunate enough to have flourished in the Depression would have needed to establish his reputation: swimming pools, tennis courts, oriental gardens, huge tree-lined parks, a garage full of imported cars, and a separate living area for a house full of servants. I truly loved that house as a child, before the Depression struck. I spent those years in Connecticut at the Ethel Walker School for Girls, and every time I returned for the summer the house took on an increasingly cold, desolate aura. And the money I had taken for granted before seemed to accuse me; to blame me for being wealthy when all around me was black poverty. Ballyshear became a relic of the past, and when my days competing in the riding events of Southhampton ended I rarely returned.
I could never fathom why my ancestors had given it an Irish name when they were German to the core. Somewhere along the line, however, they had merged with the Italians, and thus produced the gene that had given my brother and I flashing brown eyes and dark olive skin. Some thought Elliot had Latin blood, and my schoolmates had intimated more than once that I could not possibly have been the product of the union of my passive Scottish mother and her husband. Oh, but my mother had too much pride for that. She was the one who had refused the divorce when it became a widely known fact that my father had a mistress in town which kept him away from his loving family, who really could have cared less. I had long known my father had a rampant and roving eye for women, and his blatant good humor about it made me love him for it. My mother had an annoying stiff-necked-ness that I detested, and when she attempted to keep the marriage intact I felt only that she was being weak and behaving desperately. It was a loveless marriage. My father eventually agreed to a quiet estrangement and Elliot and I lived with our mother.
I loved my father dearly, and after the scandal I spent as much time with him as possible, perhaps in defiance of the social code that said one should not associate with the skeletons in their family closet. I felt my father had meant to blacken himself from the beginning, and by this time I had designs of contributing to the bones rattling around in storage. I felt we understood each other, he and I. When I announced to him my intention to marry Edwin the ensign he did not disappoint me: "Why? You don't love him, do you, Nancy?"
"Of course I do. Why marry him otherwise?"
"Oh, but I thought you were willing to wait ‘til you met a man as bold and embittered as you are so you can go hand in hand through life crusading for the equality of mankind. You marry Edwin, you'll wind up being another dead-bore society hostess-that's if he survives the war, which I doubt."
"Really, Daddy. I can marry him if I want to. And there's nothing so freeing as the thought of being wife to someone so conscientious and loyal to his country-"
"You're not facing the truth, Nance, or else you think me a fool. What about Bill Jeffries?"
"William Jeffaray, you mean? Oh, Daddy, didn't you know, he's marrying Audrey?"
"No. No, I didn't." My father had a way of fixing me with this cold stare that always made me feel like a silly, confused schoolgirl. I hated it. Every time he looked at me that way I knew I had given something away that no one else in the world would have guessed. "And this news…is not common knowledge, is it?"
"No, it hasn't been formally announced yet. I heard it from him only last week."
"There'll be quite a fuss about this when it comes time for the engagement announcement. Mrs. Druhmel will be buying out the columns of every paper in town. How do you feel about this?"
"How do I feel?" I blanched. I did not want to continue this conversation and my father would not let me avoid it. "How do you want me to feel?"
"Stop skirting around the issue, Nance-you're strong, be a man, admit the truth-are you entirely content with this?"
I forced myself to refrain from yelling at my father. "No, I am not."
"Have you talked to Bill?"
"The situation is resolved, there can be no good in discussing it further."
"Do you love the fellow or not?"
"I-am sufficiently-content-to want to marry Edwin, father, and that's what I'm going to do whether or not you approve, so please don't try to cloud the issue by bringing up irrelevant facts that have no bearing on me or my life."
My father raised his eyebrows and finally laughed, "And I thought your generation was supposed to be so much smarter when it came to romance. Ah, well-take it from me, you can always marry for prestige and then seek love on the side."
Not long after that the Pond's advertisement appeared. Ever one to delight in secrets, Audrey told no one, and so it was with complete ignorance that my mother opened the Ladies' Home Journal one morning to see Miss Druhmel's lovely face gracing the page beside the huge words in bold face: She's ENGAGED! She's Lovely! She uses Pond's! The note of explanation above this ecstatic statement elaborated: Audrey Druhmel, daughter of Mr. And Mrs. F.L. Druhmel of Wood-Ridge, is engaged to William W. Jefferay, uniting two New Jersey families of Colonial lineage. January wedding bells will ring out for Audrey and Bill-and a brand-new and bride-like apartment is waiting for them. Four times Diving Champion of New Jersey, Audrey has a slim-princess figure and exquisite brunette beauty. Romantic Bill calls "Moonlight and Roses" Audrey's theme song-her complexion's so luminous, flower-soft. Practical Audrey says: "Pond's Cold Cream helps me keep it that way." There were other pictures included, pictures of Audrey and Bill at the Rainbow Room, of their meeting Ozzie Caswell. Bill always loved to hang around 52nd Street and hob-knob with the jazz artists-and of course, the ring: Her engagement ring is platinum, set with baguette diamonds each side of the beautiful solitaire. The diamond is an heirloom jewel that belonged to Bill's grandmother."
My mother, who had been reading in bed, let out a shriek that brought me and the maids running. "Good God! What a way to announce your engagement!" She flung the magazine at me, and I looked. Audrey's face was angelic. Her lips were large and full, ready to break into her characteristic wide smile. Her eyes were accented with all the flawless touches of shadow and liner, and they looked just as wide-eyed and luminous as they did in person. Her eyebrows were arched and perfect. Her hair was done up and ornamented with a beautiful orchid-she always set her hair with fresh flowers, and the scent would perfume the room wherever she went. It was one of the most beautiful pictures I had ever seen of her, and I had seen many that had flattered her well. The picture of the two of them was just as sweet: Bill looked like the enamoured suitor completely delighted with his bride, while Audrey looked just as happy to be on his arm. She's engaged! the ad screamed. Looking at the glossy black-and-white print even I believed for an instant in the fairy-tale I was looking at. Happy Bill, I thought. Fortunate Audrey.
It was one of the rare instances in my life when I could not utter a word. The only thing I could think, which eventually come stumbling out upon my lips, was: "She hates it."
"Pond's. Once she told me it was greasy and oily and I should never use it if I wanted my skin to breathe."
"To breathe? Well, certainly, what difference does it make whether or not she uses it, she's getting married to William! Has she sent out the announcement yet?"
"Well, then, what on earth is-I'm going to call Mrs. Druhmel right now and see if there isn't some mistake. Nancy, fetch me the phone."
"There isn't any mistake, mother." I told her from what source I'd had the information directly. Her reaction: "Oh. Well, I see. How unfortunate, I always thought he'd be a good match for you if you ever got tired of holding men at arm's length."
I laughed at this, for some time, much to my mother's chagrin. The first time Bill kissed me that's what I had done; although I had never wanted a man with such intensity before I was petrified of letting him become too close so soon after I met him. We were at the Waldorf-Astoria, and it was the night of my debut, five years ago, one of the things I was truly grateful to my mother for. All of the upper crust and eligible of Manhattan had attended, my mother hired out the Starlight Roof, and in a gesture of kindness for which I will forever be grateful, allowed me to choose the music I wanted. Five hundred people, at least, every old fogy and new money society dandy on the East Coast-and I shook hands with every one of them. I had names passed around in one ear and out the other throughout the night, and I promptly forgot all of them, except for a few people who impressed me either because of their absurdity or because of their cartoonish air of importance.
Elliot, then in his second year at Rutgers, introduced me to a few of his friends, all rather clean-cut and drab except for one. He was handsome, though not more so than many others, and I would not have paid him any attention, except that when he listened to others around him he had an interesting smirk that appeared occasionally. It made me think he would rather be somewhere else entirely, a sentiment I had been feeling throughout the evening. It piqued my interest.
I asked Elliot who he was. "William Jefferay, quite rich, quite intelligent, and quite the lady's man," was the reply. "I brought him so you could talk to him about politics if you got bored out of your mind. I warn you, he'll try to make love to you before the night's over if you give him enough leeway."
And, because I was feeling strangely empowered and intoxicated by being the center of attention, I ran my eyes over William Jefferay's immaculate figure and replied, "Thank you. I'll be sure to do that."
When I was formally introduced to him I found I could hardly look into his eyes. Which was infuriating because he had a very intense, probing gaze, and something about the light that emanated from them-they were a deep, deep green, and sparkled cheerfully most of the time-made me think he was laughing at me. This was the thread of interest that caused me to stand talking to him a moment longer than normal instead of going over the normal chit chat and then politely moving away to some other guest. I had just finished giving him my background, and told him about my pursuits in horse-riding, sculpting, charity work, the point at which most guests nodded and said something favorable about my active lifestyle and how rewarding it must be to be helping others. Bill looked at me and said, "That truly is a benefit to society, and the world is a better place for your tireless efforts." I thought he really meant that at first, but an instant later he added with sang froid, "But don't you get beastly tired of people saying one thing about you up front and then another the moment your back is turned?"
"Why? What do you intend to say about me the moment my back is turned?"
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose I could say you're a dreadfully spunky girl when it comes right down to it, far too spirited to make a good wife, and much too involved in all those political areas a woman has no place in-but that would be dreadfully unoriginal, wouldn't it? So I'm probably going to stick with the standard 'I won't know until I get her into bed' line until further notice."
I looked at him and for some insane reason, instead of being offended, I laughed. "Well, sir, let me assist you on that point. I'll turn my back, and you can say that not only am I even more hard-boiled than you suspected, I'm a complete tight-end because I didn't leap at the first opportunity to have sex with you. Only don't feel bad, this includes you in a long and glorious line-up of men who have fallen over themselves in order to have the distinction of being refused by me." I said all this in a tone so acerbic I even sounded cold to myself. Bill looked at me and began laughing, a genial, appreciative laugh that rang in my ears long after I had indeed turned away.
Later that night I found him again. I had been planning ways to escape from my mother, who had me front and center shaking hands the whole night, and finally, around eleven o'clock, I succeeded and made my way to the first immediate place I knew she would not look, the billiard room. He was there, playing pool with a friend. "Come here, Miss Nancy Von Rohr," he said without looking at me as I entered, for he was preparing to sink the five-ball in a corner pocket at an insane angle. "Is this shot the most impossible you have ever seen or what?" he said blandly.
"Bank it and it will go into the side."
"Perhaps," he said, and immediately smacked the cue ball, which slammed into the five ball, which, in defiance of every physics law known to man, rolled in the corner pocket. He straightened and looked down at me with interest. "But I prefer to make my own mistakes."
I think I loved him from that moment. I met his gaze and wordlessly took his cue. He followed me with that intense stare I would come to know so well; he did not do it out of malice, it was an ingrained part of his nature, as was the natural command his voice often held when he spoke. As it did then, when, after I proceeded to sink with no trouble at all his remaining three balls, he said to the man with whom he'd been playing, "Leave, and pull the door to behind you." The other left without a word. Bill never took his eyes off of my face, and when the room was ours, he calmly went to me and put his arms around me. The first time he moved in for the kill I gasped-though not because I was playing the coy feminine game with him, I was absolutely stunned at his boldness-and moved away. He laughed and tried again, only to meet with even less success. And here William Jefferay put his hands on his hips, drew his head very close to mine, and intoned harshly, "Miss Nancy Von Rohr, I am trying to kiss you. You can either tell me to leave you the hell alone or quit the cat and mouse game and let me cut to the chase. Only if you'd like me to leave you the hell alone you're going to have to do better than this, because whatever you're doing to turn me off isn't working."
"You make me sound like I'm getting in the way of a business deal."
"Oh, I imagine you could very easily find some sort of ulterior motive-wealthy Long Island girl, member of the New Jersey elite-great material for a rendezvous. Or it could be that I just want to kiss you because you make me laugh."
I didn't know whether I wanted to kiss him or hit him, which was, I would discover, the way I usually wound up feeling about him. "Oh, anything I can do to entertain," I said sarcastically. He pressed his lips against my neck. He smelled of Chesterfields and mint oil.
"Marry me?" he muttered.
"If you thought I'd say yes to that you'd never ask."
"I like the way you think, Nance," he replied, and kissed me.
That was not the last time he kissed me, or was it the most dramatic occasion. We drank a little and danced a lot for the remainder of the evening. We discovered that our tastes in music were so similar they were frightening, and William, as he drifted over onto the woozy side, had the band play "This Time the Dream's On Me" because he swore I was the first women he'd ever met who knew who Johnny Mercer was. His conversation was so witty it almost sparkled, and yet despite my cynicism towards people who relied upon wit to get them through any social occasion I could find nothing to censure about him, for he had a mind that was quick and an insight that was deep and fascinating. In his company I found myself absorbed in topics I had never before been approached with, and in the course of one night our discussions ranged from the legitimacy of segregated jazz clubs across America to the virtues of the new fluid-drive Chrysler. For the first time in my life I was addressed as though I were a man, by someone other than my father. It was the most liberating feeling I had ever experienced. I discovered that night that it was perfectly rational for me to have an opinion about who would win the pennant that season, to admit that I had been deeply excited when Whirlaway won the Crown. From that night on I knew women could be treated with a completely different level of respect by men. William W. Jefferay (the W., I later found out, stood for Wordsworth, his mother's favorite poet) had proven that point clearly.
At the end of the night he kissed me on the cheek and said goodbye, and I did not see him for six months. At the end of that time he came to New York for an extended stay before his return to Rutgers in the fall, and remembered me. At first I felt sure Elliot had asked him to drop by, but then I realized that Elliot had no inkling of the level of affection I had for Bill. Indeed, I had forgotten about him until the day he showed up with his half-smirk, carrying a present only he would have chosen-a box of swastika-shaped Swiss chocolate. "Imported direct from Europe," he said. "If you can't defeat Fascism, you might as well enjoy it."
At the end of that week I could not decide whether I was madly in love with him or deeply frustrated with him. Sometimes when he made love to me I felt he was doing it out of pity, but there were instances of camaraderie so great between us that I knew instinctively he loved me because we were equals, because I had earned his respect. For the next two years he and I saw each other with some frequency, though we never arranged anything formally. I became more and more involved with the work of the Florence Nightingale charity organizations downtown, and became more and more known as an outspoken Democrat, while Bill graduated and set out to pursue his lifelong dream of entering the music industry as a manager or a business executive. It's so vastly easy to make your dreams reality when there is money behind them; within three months of his leaving Rutgers he was working for NBC radio as a jazz consultant.
This meant that he was forever attending the nightclubs on 52nd Street, and often I went with him. One night when he needed a date and I couldn't go, I introduced him to Audrey Druhmel. She, I felt sure, would get along with him splendidly. She was staying the weekend with me, as she had done with regularity since our days together in Connecticut. I thought of her as my other self: she was everything I was not, and everything I could never quite decide whether I wanted to be. She was tall, muscular and toned to perfection, with long, thick waves of brunette curls and doe-like eyes that absolutely captivated everyone in sight.
The image of innocence was entirely unfeigned; she had a child-like exuberance that never failed to amaze me, which was why I think I remained her friend for so long after childhood, through many instances when I wanted to beat a smidgen of reality into her flighty head. It was she who had suggested in school that each of the girls in our class donate a pie to the depression-relief society in Simsbury. And who had that same day received an order of silk evening gowns from Paris which she declared she would never wear, but which were still awfully fun to look at. She was completely dependent upon flattery, and would dissolve into heartfelt tears at the least sign of reproach or anger from someone close to her; I had perhaps unnecessarily driven her to tears more than once in the past just to exult over her weakness.
Still, I liked her, and I welcomed her sweetness, which was something I lacked so greatly in my own personality that I resorted to hiding in hers. I had grown so used to playing off her magnetic charm that I had long since lost any discomfort attached from being around her; in fact more often than not I used her beauty to my advantage: she had grace, poise, femininity, but I had intelligence, wit, self-confidence, straightforwardness. Surely there was something as infinitely endearing about my qualities? I had seen many men lose their hearts instantly to Audrey, men who afterwards swore they would much rather have a plain sensible creature as a wife than anyone with such impractical logic as Miss Druhmel. But none of them ever thought twice about me when I was in her company. In a way it was a game I played with myself: someday a man would come along who wouldn't be interested in Audrey, who would be interested in something deeper that he could only find in me. Perhaps that was why I so obligingly let her join Bill that night at the Cotton Club-I wanted to test him, to see if he was the man I thought he was.
"How did you like him?" I asked her later.
"Oh, he was all right, very charming-I imagine under the right circumstances you could call him seductive. But he was a bit too bold, too-oh, I don't know. I imagine he's the type that grows on you."
About her Bill only raised his eyebrows, smiled smugly at me, and said, "Beautiful woman."
"Is that all you have to say about her?"
"Oh, I could say she was lovely, sweet, exuberant, quite the eye for fashion, perfect society girl, all that. But with women like her-all that really matters is that they're beautiful, right, Nance?"
I looked at him silently for a moment, and wanted to kiss him more than any moment before. "And women like me?" I asked quietly.
Bill appraised me with his clear green eyes. He wore a somber expression, which did not sit well upon a countenance usually lit with jocularity. "Nancy, don't ever believe for an instant that you're like any other woman on earth."
"Is that a compliment?"
"It should be. I don't know if it is." He drew near me, and then stopped short of taking me in his arms. "Do you love me, Nancy?"
"Do you want me to?"
He did not reply, and I did not venture a second response. He ran his hand through my hair and muttered as an afterthought, "Your friend Miss Druhmel will make some poor chap an excellent wife someday."
Another year passed, and it did not bother me that the two of them continued to see each other-after all, why should I worry? Bill and I had never officially declared our attachment to one another, but it was evident to me from every gesture and look and smile and exchange between us when we were together. We were neither of us the type to be overly sentimental, and few people noticed anything deeper underneath the normalcy of our conversations. Elliot mentioned it once to Bill, and it was only afterwards I found out his reply: "Am I interested in Nancy? 'Course. She's the most vivacious, brazen women I've ever had the misfortune to meet, and I love her dearly." Would you marry her? my brother had queried. Bill had only laughed. "I'll tell you when you need to start worrying."
In the meantime he and Audrey grew chummy and would go out, with or without me. For some reason, I suppose because I really was in love with him, I did not care whether or not he made love to her-she was, after all, my other self, and in a way he was not being unfaithful. His career was growing more demanding, and my involvement working with the city organizations against poverty had gotten attention from the more elite snobs of Manhattan society. I took to staying away from the circles where I knew I would be ridiculed, and I saw less and less of Bill. I even went back to Ballyshear for extended periods of time, for the first time in years; the opulence it had known in my childhood seemed jaded and worn, and the fond memories I had of it clashed with a much more bleak reality. I was torn, for part of me wanted it to be as it was, with a fabulous coterie of guests and everything money could buy, and a lovely host and hostess presiding over all. And part of me was repulsed by the sight of such extravagance thrown aways for nothing, while the world crumbled around it. And I discovered, as I reflected there upon my life, that I could never be that society hostess, nor could I deceive myself into believing that I wanted what everyone around me wanted. Elliot, Audrey, Bill, all wanted success among the elite. Bill at least wanted to fulfill his own dreams in the process. I only wanted to be active, somewhere, somehow, in making the world fit together more nicely, to end division among peoples, among classes, among men and women…a naïve dream for a most pessimistic era of history. Maybe all I really wanted was to spend the rest of my life with someone who loved me…with Mr. William Jefferay of upstate New Jersey.
I believe I thought myself into the dissatisfaction which arrested me soon after my returns to Ballyshear. I became edgy, completely irritated with everyone and everything around me. I did not enjoy talking to Bill, and was extremely grateful that he understood, or at least, that he didn't press the issue. I began spending my time downtown among the offices of the Red Cross and the Disaster Relief Organization. They were areas that gained much public attention and gratified the critics of my behavior who felt I was too general in my crusading for this and that cause and finally has settled down to something reasonable. But they fell short of my expectations in so many ways, particularly because it was 'quite the thing for a concerned woman to take part in,' that I was no less discontent.
Somewhere through all this I was introduced to Edwin Burke. To his credit, he was quite handsome. And very passionate about many things, a trait which I admired. My first impression upon meeting him, at a convention to discuss the effects of possible American involvement in the war upon poverty-fighting efforts here at home, was that he was exactly the type of person whom Audrey would take delight in. It was for this reason, perhaps, that I allowed myself to know him better, and to deny steadfastly that there was nothing about him which did not secretly infuriate me.
I had not counted on his falling in love with me, however, which, for reasons I still cannot fathom, he chose to do, and continued to do even after I had kindly introduced him to Audrey. They hardly noticed each other-though by now her interest in Bill was obvious to everyone but myself, and Edwin had thought himself too deeply into his attraction to me to be able to dissuade him from it by dangling someone else before him. He fancied we were kindred spirits, he and I. He was excelling in the study of political science at Princeton, and had an engaging personality that meant great things for him in that area, it was said. He was avidly democratic, and very enthusiastic about women's rights, though in reality the subject got on his nerves. He was deeply religious, where I only yawned at the topic. Once I asked him if he knew who Johnny Mercer was. He shrugged and wondered whether he wasn't one of those character actors in Hollywood.
As long as I knew him not a day passed when I didn't compare him to Bill and find him wanting in every respect. I was cruel towards him, and perhaps that created an unnatural sympathy in my demeanor which he mistook for love; at any rate he felt confident enough to ask for my hand in marriage six months after I first met him, in the spring of 1941. I was absolutely taken aback and told no one of his offer. I reflected (supposedly) for several days and then refused him. He would only accept my response on the grounds that it was open-ended, that things might continue as they had done, and I would consider changing my mind at a later date. I agreed, feeling certain that nothing should ever persuade me to marry him.
Mr. Jefferay was faring exceedingly well in his position at NBC, moving steadily and swiftly up the ranks of executives and consultants to become the coordinator for all the major jazz broadcasts out of New York City. He would talk for hours to me about his passion: "Guess who I met today, Nance? Bix Beiderbecke! And guess who he brought with him? Hoagy Carmichael!" He never had to ask to share his enthusiasm with me, for I knew he wanted to share it with no one else. Indeed, conversations such as these were soothing reminders to me that I stood in no danger of losing him to Audrey or anyone else, for her interest in such matters was only shallow, and went no further than, "You met a songwriter? How interesting." I loved him all the more for his passion, which grew every day, and for the fact that it was reaping rewards for him. The rumor began in late fall of 1941 that NBC was looking for someone to replace one of their key radio announcers on the West Coast, and that Bill Jefferay was their top pick for the job. Manhattan rumors are foolproof. When I heard this particular whisper I could not know what I felt. I could not stand the thought of his leaving because I knew it was not his nature to visit; it was the first time I could not discuss something with him, and the next time he saw me an unspoken tension pervaded everything we said. He was visibly disturbed, and left me with the promise that he had something to discuss with me the next time we met. That something kept me on edge for all of four days, for the word which I could not let myself think raced incessantly around in my head. I could not allow myself to believe even for an instant that I knew what he wanted.
The fourth day was December 7th.
The war hit America with the cold force of an iron glove. Everything changed, for everyone, everywhere. Manhattan did not quite know what to do with itself during the first moments of shock, especially the ranks of society accustomed to ignoring social crises. The Red Cross went into overtime and as a member of the board I was hurled into overtime along with it. The WAAC began knocking on my door for any number of miscellaneous requests and favors, and I discovered that being a wealthy New Yorker carries with it a great responsibility to pull strings and use connections in time of crisis in order to do your duty to your fellow man. Max Kalish's New York studio shut down because Max, who had already lost Jewish family members to the concentration camps, was completely overwhelmed by the bombing. NBC temporarily forgot about Bill. Audrey did her part and contributed to the war effort by donating rubber and encouraging all her friends to do the same. The whole country reeled as in the earliest days of the Depression. It lowered speed limits and rationed and prayed and bought bonds and brought out the yellow ribbons. It was a time of national shock such as I had never experienced either before or since.
Of all the people around me, the one who was transformed the most was Edwin. He was, not surprisingly, one of the first to voluntarily enlist. He did so joyfully, gleefully, I thought, flaunting the wishes of his parents and friends, all of whom suspected that he had of all men the constitution least likely to withstand the horror of war. But suddenly he had a mission: his patriotism and fervor for his country could now take shape in a tangible, active form of service, and when he returned victorious, he declared, he would be able to stand proudly before his fellow citizens and say honestly that he had given his all for his country once and would be honored to do so again as its public servant. He sincerely believed he would be president someday. Looking at it from that standpoint I was admittedly honored that he had chosen me as his First Lady, so to speak.
The irony of this was not far from my mind when at last I did speak to Bill. It was two months later, and I had not spoken to him for some time-indeed, no one had. He had done something most unlike him-he had requested to see me at Ballyshear, a place he had never before visited. I obliged, and showed him the place one frigid afternoon in early February, when the icicles made top-heavy all the aged oaks and snow covered all the parks and gardens I loved so dearly in spring. Bill was genuinely impressed, but in his entire demeanor was an agitation I did not fancy, and when at last we began to broach the subject he had come to discuss there was no little amount of nervousness in the room.
"Nance…do you remember, the last time we talked-really talked, just before…" I nodded hastily. I had a most uncomfortable sensation in the pit of my stomach.
"You said you had something to discuss with me?"
"Yes. At the time it was only a matter of pure speculation, but…" Bill rose and went to the window. We were in a private drawing room in the warmest corner of the house. I had not bothered to turn on the lamps and so the only light came from the huge marble fireplace flickering in the corner, and from the fading light of the western sun, setting in a hue of orange and pink directly across our view. His face was silhouetted in the light. He looked-disenchanted. "Aw, Nance, you know what I'm talking about, don't you?" he said, almost plaintively.
"NBC wants you to move out to L.A.?"
He nodded. "They're prepared to offer me a five-year contract as the host of the Swing Hour. That's a national broadcast, twice a week."
It was…an amazing offer. "What are they offering to pay you?" He told me. "Why aren't you excited?" My voice was flat because I knew instinctively that I was going to be tempted to cry during this conversation. I never cried. But if he told me that he didn't want to leave, or that he wanted me to come with him…
"They're offering me this on one condition-that I come to California a married man. Or at least engaged."
My countenance cleared with relief, but I could not fathom the agony I saw in his countenance.
"Well, you dope, there's nothing to be so upset about," I said, going to him and smoothing his forehead. "I bet you can find someone crazy enough to-"
He jerked away from my touch with a violence that scared me, and then instantly pulled me to him, very close, and took my face in his hands. "I'm marrying Audrey," he said, and kissed me. I felt as though twenty Pearl Harbors had exploded in my soul. I could not speak, I could not think, and I barely felt the pressure of his mouth against mine. After an interminable length of time I pulled away and gazed at him. He met my glance with eyes full of shame. "Why are you doing this?"
"I need a trophy. They want-a trophy."
"What do you want, Bill?"
"I want-my music, I want-a secure career, a job, a family I could be proud of…" his voice trailed off. "I want…you, Nancy. I want you, I-love…you."
"Then marry me."
"Because you're too-much-of everything. I don't know. Because you have a mind and a purpose and you love what you do and you want to pursue your dreams and you don't care what anyone thinks, and that scares people, Nancy. Do I know? Because it would mean the end of my career if I married a woman so politically outspoken, because my bosses are a bunch of asses who can't handle a woman like you."
I could barely control my voice. "You're saying that because I share every quality your executives prized and fawned over you for-that simply because I am a woman the things they love about you make them unable to tolerate me?" Bill was silent. "And you would sacrifice your life-your happiness-to…" I broke off and felt the film develop around my eyes. "I'm sorry. I can't tell you how to live. It's your choice."
I turned away. He remained silent for a long moment. "I love you, Nancy," he said at last, firmly. "I've never said that before, to anyone."
"I'll see that you're awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in the line of duty."
"So am I."
We stood staring determinedly out across the landscape of Southampton. Ballyshear lay shrouded in white. The sky had turned into the brilliant glow of scarlet clouds and golden sunbeams.
"Looks like fire," Bill said, and that statement meant much more than the words themselves.
Cities burned as we watched the sky, while advancing from the east, the thick, oppressive night grew more and more ominous around us.
"You think we'll win?" he asked in a monotone.
"No," I said shortly. "We're too idealistic."
"And idealists never win?"
I laughed. "If we ever won, what would we have to fight for?"
"I love you," he said.
"You keep telling yourself that," I replied.
The next day, I announced to Edwin that I would marry him. Two weeks later Audrey announced to the world her devotion to Bill and cold cream, and the NBC executives were so pleased by the picture of Bill and Audrey with Ozzie Caswell that they insisted he take the job in Hollywood immediately. He moved out to the West Coast, and began his stint there still engaged. Once married I returned to the home front to face the war effort pretending I was perfectly content with my life. One day six months after my wedding I received an unsigned, handwritten note that read, Somewhere, someday, we'll be close together, wait and see; oh, by the way - this time, the dream's on me. Accompanying the note were a dozen roses and a box of chocolate Tokyo Roses.
I bit the heads off, gave the flowers to my secretary, and crumpled the note.
I never heard from him again.
© 1999 Copyright held by the author.