THE SUMMER SEASON by Douglas Burgess
THEY SAT ON THE LAWN, fifteen ladies in summer whites with parasols and hats affixed to their hair with long steel pins. The wedge of masonry that bore the name Allwood, but Alva persisted in calling it “my cottage,” rose up behind them and blotted out the sun.
“Glorious,” they all agreed.
Shadows on the grass meant that summer was coming slowly. In the blazing height of the season one could hardly stand to be outside until after four, but today it was early June in 1907, pleasant and cool. “I understand,” said Mrs. Fish to Emily, “that you are shortly to take a holiday.” Mrs. Fish was eighty-three and kindly. She made no secret of the fact that her family had once been wool dyers. That they also came over on the Mayflower meant she held a trump card over the irrepressible Mrs. Alistair; Mrs. A’s grandfather was a sharecropper in Chattanooga.
“Yes, indeed,” Emily answered, grateful. “Father is sending me on tour.”
“How splendid. You must look up Lord Saxby when you are in London. He is a very old friend and quite a dear man.”
“You might,” Mrs. Alva Alistair interjected boomingly, “also care to look up my relations. The Duke and Duchess of Grafton, of course.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Cavendish muttered.
“My darling daughter…oh, did you know she was the Duchess? Well, anyway, the last time we visited them at Euston Hall…” Mrs. Alistair embarked on a long and meandering story, the point of which being the various castles inhabited by her son-in-law.
“What a lovely day,” said one of the ladies, desperately.
“Lovely,” they all agreed.
Emily looked around for escape. Instead she found herself staring at the Chinese tea pagoda. It squatted in the eastern corner of the lawn, a counterfeit temple framed by the silver line of the sea and rough, honest rocks. Mrs. Alistair liked to hold court there on cooler days. She called it “My most recent erection.”
Hideous thing, Emily said to herself. Just like the woman to hire a Frenchman to build an Asian pagoda. Proportions were all wrong, colors off, and those dragons! It looked like the Temple of Mysteries at Luna Park. Emily ran her eye down the gaily-colored silk banners emblazoned with characters and, with her tutored Mandarin, deciphered them:
Were they random, or did the calligraphist enjoy a puckish sense of humor? Emily suppressed a smile as she thought of Mrs. A, the “fat mosquito” herself, reveling like an eastern pasha in her own private shrine.
“Tell me Constance,” said Mrs. Alistair, turning an arch eye on her neighbor, “did you enjoy that new Mahler? I myself thought it rather garish, but…”
The noise was so sudden, so implausible that old Mrs. Evers dropped a stitch. It was a cry of pain, or lust, or some other primal emotion, and it spoke directly to the demons of the soul. Emily remembered the day her Basset hound fell into a ravine. Mrs. Fairfax was reminded of the pangs of childbirth. Mrs. Wentworth Robinson thought of her second footman, the blond one.
In fact it was a hog call, and it belonged to a woman who was now waving her parasol over her head.
“Oh, no,” murmured Mrs. Alva Alistair.
The figure billowed across the lawn. She was built like a dreadnought: clean lines and a curvaceous beam with the threat of force held in reserve.
“Hey y’all!” she called out, “’Lo, Alva! How’s tricks?”
Mrs. Alistair was pale, but recovered her poise. She even managed a vinegary smile. “Ladies,” she said, “Allow me to present Mrs. O.H.P. Bullock.”
Mrs. Bullock seated herself on an open chair and helped herself to tea and biscuits. The social solecism was overwhelming: she had not been invited, was not welcome, and yet apparently had no intention to leave. “These are good,” she said.
Mrs. Alistair’s introduction was unnecessary. Mrs. O.H.P. Bullock had arrived in Newport three weeks ago, although the term was a misnomer, since no-one actually “arrived” until they received an invitation from Mrs. Alistair to tea. Better to say she “alighted” from her private carriage, which had come all the way from Eugene, Oregon in less than six days. It was cherry red and tricked out with gold tassels on the window shades, like Barnum’s.
Two weeks before that her husband, Mr. O.H.P., had the effrontery to purchase the Western Standard Line, thus putting him into direct competition with the likes of Mr. Vanderbilt, Mr. Harriman, and Mr. Morgan. I say effrontery, because one year earlier O.H.P. was just Oswald Bullock, itinerant tin miner and dipsomaniac. Mrs. Bullock, stout and Irish, regularly walloped him with a cast-iron skillet known as the “Corrector.” He had a weak left eye and a slight limp. In the fall of ’04 he cashed in his savings, and Mrs. Bullock’s dowry, to purchase a forty-acre farm on a sloping hill in Ocasash County. Mrs. Bullock walloped him for that, too. Then one day she noticed, while cleaning her Corrector, that the local stream left little glittering pebbles in the pan.
“And I was so goddamn mad,” Mrs. Bullock would say, “It was just like Oswald to buy a place where even the stream ran dirty. You shoulda seen me when he got back home.”
Her friends in Eugene heard this story many times, and when rebellion in the social register became imminent, Mrs. O.H.P. decided to widen her circle. Newport was merely the opening salvo. She booked a parlor suite on the Oceanic, both ways, and planned to spend the interim sharing her wit and wisdom with the Crowned Heads of Europe. Ward McAllister dubbed her ursus horribilis affluensis.
Each of the ladies now assembled thought of the implications, and wondered how best to put it into words. Mrs. Cavendish, Emily’s catty neighbor, was first, and best. “I thought you were staying at the inn,” she said.
“I am. But O.H.P.’s in the city on a bit of business, and I reckoned I had a little time to survey the new pile.”
“The new pile of what?” asked Mrs. Alistair. Her lips were forming their trademark V, in preparation for an assault of belle esprit. The ladies waited.
“That place over yonder,” Mrs. O.H.P. replied, gesturing to the large and stately Gothic Revival looming above a grove of mature elms. It was perhaps thirty yards from Mrs. Alistair’s erection.
There was a moment of silence. Mrs. O.H.P. belched, and patted her stomach.
Mrs. Cavendish recovered first. “Do you mean the Borland place? You bought it?”
“Yep. Signed the papers yesterday. ‘Course it’s more of an investment really.”
“Oh, I see,” said Alva, whose speech returned in a breathy rush. “You don’t plan to use it. A wise decision. The house is in terrible repair, and I’m sure the costs of adding plumbing and redoing the floors would be well beyond…well, most persons’ abilities.”
The earth, which had shivered on its axis, resumed its normal course. All the ladies let out small sighs.
“Well, sure, it’s a total wreck,” Mrs. Bullock agreed. “Those Borlands must have lived no better’n a pack of bandicoots. I brought the architect in and he agreed with me, said we’ll have to tear the whole place down and start over. He’s thinking Italian, Palladian maybe. I told him whatever he wants is fine, so long as there’s indoor plumbing. It should be done by next year, I guess. Then y’all can come over, and we’ll have a proper shindig.”
“Oh my God!” cried Mrs. Alva Alistair, “You can’t mean you’re going to live there?”
“Naw. Just for summers, Alva. Like you.”
“That will tear through the entire fabric of Newport society!”
Raw, naked emotion needs a proper backdrop. Had Mrs. Alistair made this denunciation in her drawing room it might have been magnificent, but her lawn defeated her. The ladies looked away.
“I don’t know what you’re so worked up about,” Mrs. O.H.P. replied. “ ‘Course the place will be pretty big, and I figure I’ll be waving down at yer rooftop from the upper windows, but you don’t have to wave back if you don’t feel like it.”
This was a challenge. Mrs. Alva Alistair was many things, but she was not a coward. Beneath her corseted bosom the unreconstructed blood of the Confederacy still simmered. “I see,” was all she said.
Emily Ryerson left for Paris on the Carmania the following week, and thus relied on transatlantic reports for what followed. The lapse of time made these rather like a Conan Doyle serial or The Perils of Pauline, and soon not only she but a wide circle of new acquaintances, including the lustrous Count Wolfi von Hammersmarck, awaited the next installment. Mrs. Cavendish was a reliable, if ruthless, informant.
June 23, 1907
My dear Miss Ryerson,
Quite a to-do today. Mrs. A has inveigled dear Mr. Burnham, through what means I dare not enquire, and thus has gained secret access to his plans for The House. Well, our worst fears were confirmed! It is to be a veritable palace, though more gin than Guedelon or do I mean Guignol? Too much fenestration for my taste, and turrets mounted every which way. But the point is, it is considerably larger than Mrs. A’s, and taller as well, so that without a doubt it will quite overshadow poor Allwood in every sense!! The construction crews have arrived, and Mrs. Bullock—devious creature!—erected a gigantic fence with an even larger hedge behind. Mrs. A was quite beside herself this afternoon and dropped her digestive into her tea, much to our secret delight.
(“Excuse please,” said the Count, “but what is a digestive?” Emily explained, and the Count smiled, showing a great many teeth. “Ah, yes. In Wittemburg we use goldschlager and syrup of figs.”)
Ju1y 5, 1907
Battle has been joined!!! Mrs. A announced today that she has engaged the same architect as Mrs. B and will be forthwith pulling down Allwood for an even larger cottage, modeled after the Parthenon, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the London Automobile Club.
Also, and this must be kept strictly confidential, it appears that Mr. O.H.P. has made a bid for the Great District Line. Yes, the very one coveted by Mr. Edwin Alistair! So now Mrs. A is doubly anxious to destroy them both, and I dare say she will do it.
(By now flirtation crystallized into something more definite, and mutually profitable. An exchange of letters flowed between law offices in Wittemberg and Duluth. Summer ended, but the Carmania sailed home with an empty berth. In the fall it gave Mrs. Cavendish quiet a thrill to send her next missive via the German embassy.)
September 12, 1907
My dear Countess von Hammersmarck,
Well, I hardly know where to begin. The season has ended, but work goes on! There are now two gigantic fences side by side. Mrs. A is back in Tuxedo Park, declaring to all and sundry that she will never allow that blankety-blank tin miner’s wife to outdo her, and I daresay Mrs. B is saying much the same thing, wherever she is. I did hear she came back on the Oceanic with the entire Chateau de Bassonpierre disassembled and stored in the hold, right down to the duke’s stone privy (pardon my indiscretion!), and there is no doubt that some very large and heavy railway cars have been coming into Newport these days.
This news hit Mrs. A hard. She was planning to transport the north wing of Castle Glan-Ocre, but the peat bogs on the Irish coast defeated her, and I’m afraid the castle is quite sunken in. She did rescue the tapestries, and a large quantity of medieval artillery. One wonders what use she might make of the catapult.
No word from their respective spouses. The two men meet at the University Club and are quite civil, though not friends of course. I saw Mr. Alistair the other night at Manon Lescaut and he looked peaked, poor fellow. I gather his bid for the Great District is not going well. Mr. Morgan has expressed interest, and no-one dares outbid Pierpont!!
I must close, but I send along in this parcel an invitation from Mrs. A, who still remembers you fondly, to her Open House. The date is not yet set, though it will certainly be during the summer season. Do try to come. There will be fireworks.
It was winter now, and snow piled on the windowsill outside Edwin Alistair’s book-lined study. He liked the snow. It made him feel Dickensian and expansive. A carriage rolled by on silent wheels, and Mr. Alistair approved of that too.
His ledgers, on the other hand, were a matter of concern. He had invested nearly a quarter of his capital on the failed Great District merger, leveraging both his Colorado mines and his steamship line as security. When Morgan swooped in his stock had taken a palpable hit. Nothing serious, but palpable. He sold the steamship line for a profit, and used the proceeds to buy back some shares and stabilize the price. It had been an anxious few weeks. Now it was almost Christmas, and Mr. Alistair was looking forward to rum punch and carolers. He had had a very unhappy childhood.
“Edwin, we need to talk.”
His wife stood before him, hands on her ample hips. This was troubling. In the last few years the Alistairs did not talk, ever. They communicated through notes delivered by servants from one wing of the house to the other.
“Yes Alva, dear, what is it?” Edwin rearranged his face into a look of polite attention, as if Mrs. Alistair’s presence on his study carpet was perfectly ordinary. His fingertips brushed the handle of the loaded pistol mounted on brackets beneath his desk. She knew it was there, and he knew she knew, but he like to touch it all the same.
“It’s about the house. You sent back that shipment of Venetian statuary. Those were my statues, Edwin.”
“Well, my dear, the cost was more than we…”
“I hear you brought my contractor in here and told him to revise the budget. Take out all the marble and replace it with cork and rubberoid. Rubberoid, Edwin? Really? And the architect. And do you remember what you told him to do?”
Mr. Alistair coughed. “As I recollect, there was some question as to whether the foundation could withstand…”
“Cut off the third floor. That’s what you told him to do. Just—cut it off.” For once, words failed her.
Perhaps leather and mahogany were stimulants, but for whatever reason Mr. Alistair brought his hand down sharply on his desk. “Dammit, Alva, what do you expect me to do? This house is taking everything we’ve got, and my interests are getting hit hard, damn hard. I’m leveraged all over the place and I tell you…I can’t afford it.”
Mrs. Alva Alistair narrowed her eyes. She advanced another step on the carpet, reducing the distance between them to a lungeable range. “I’ll tell you what you can’t afford,” she hissed. “ You can’t afford to let that Bullock bitch and her milksop of a husband make us look ridiculous. Make you look ridiculous. Did you know he cut a deal with J.P. Morgan?”
“Morgan sold him the Great District Line, at cost. Didn’t you offer an extra thirty cents per share?”
Mr. Alistair had, and he well remembered the look on J.P. Morgan’s face. It was as if Mr. Alistair had broken wind all over his desk. “I don’t understand,” he muttered.
His wife was unsparing. “It’s not complicated,” she said. “This is war. Bullock’s declared war on you, and that monstrous wife of his declared war on me. You know why she’s building this house? To look down on us. To steal all our friends, our social position.”
Edwin Alistair made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat.
“Oh,” said Alva, “you don’t think that social position matters? My teas, and the cotillion ball, and blessing the fleet every August? You think I do all that to wear fancy hats? You’re a fool, Edwin. How come I knew about the Morgan deal before you? Because every one of those skinny-assed women that come to my teas go home at night to their husbands, and their husbands talk. And then they come and talk to me. They have to. They need me. But just watch how fast that will change if the Bullock house is bigger than ours.”
“She’s low class, Alva. You said so yourself.”
Mrs. Alistair had actually said so many times. But here she proved herself more astute than any in her circle would have credited. “Class doesn’t exist,” she said, committing the ultimate blasphemy. “It used to, when the dukes and earls still ran things, but now they’re broke and we’re the ones on top. And you wouldn’t know a dessert fork from a spatula if there wasn’t a butler by your side handing them to you. There’s only one divining rod of status here, and if we ever dared forget it, Mrs. Bullock has just arrived from Eugene, Oregon to remind us.
“It’s a game, Edwin. Mr. Alden played it with Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Alden lost. He shot himself. Then Mr. Bennett played it with Mr. Harriman, and Mr. Bennett lost. You ought to know, you were there to pick up the pieces. The rules are simple: stay on top, or lose everything.”
It was not clear how much of this speech Edwin Alistair understood. He had a damp mustache that always looked (and often was) dusty, and it made him sneeze. When he emerged from his handkerchief his eyes were bloodshot. “I respect your feelings, Alva,” he said, “but I just can’t see my way to spending any more money. I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Alistair did not retreat. She had one card left to play, an ace. “Oh, Edwin,” she sighed. “Do you really think I don’t know about that summer camp?”
Mr. Alistair’s left arm twitched. “What do you mean?”
“You know perfectly well.”
Camp Onandoga was a charity organized by the Alistair Foundation, and personally chaired by Mr. Edwin himself. It allowed inner city boys the luxury of a summer vacation in the Catskills, free from the drudgery of their miserable lives. And their parents. Every year Mr. Edwin, as Chief White Arrow, led the boys off on excursions to see the Onandoga Falls, under which they splashed about in a state of merry innocence. This was followed by a secret ceremony called the Rites of Manhood, where each boy disappeared into the sanctum sanctorum of the Great Chief’s tent for initiation. Sometimes Mr. Edwin invited his good friends, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Krupp, to come along and join the fun. No photographers, no press. Mr. Edwin didn’t want to flaunt his generosity.
Looking at his wife, Mr. Alistair felt his Chief’s feathers begin to molt. “How much, Alva?” he asked meekly.
“As much as it takes.”
It was a year of miracles. In July, as the protective walls went up on Bellevue Avenue, the first metered taxicabs began trundling around London and New York. In August, as the stonemasons arrived from Tivoli, Robert Baden Powell led his first troop of eager Boy Scouts in a trek to Brownlea Island. Then everything began to speed up, and out of control. In September the Lusitania left Liverpool and opened her engines off Ushant, Parson turbines emitting a sound totally alien to the century, a high pitched whine that would one day call to mind places like Heathrow, Laguardia, and O’Hare. Twin screws thrashed the grey ocean.
The comparable pace of construction in Newport could only be guessed at. Throughout the winter of ’07-’08 the high walls remained in place, and only by studying the shape of the tarpaulins coming in and out could one guess at the wonders arising within. By January two new railway spikes appeared off the main Aquidneck branch, carrying secret carloads directly into their respective compounds.
Aside from these tantalizing scraps, Byzantine silence prevailed. The construction crews of both projects were housed on site and not allowed to leave except under guard. Mrs. Alistair picked up the rumor that Mrs. Bullock had recruited an entire town from Hungary that only spoke Magyar; not to be outdone, she fired her Tivolians and replaced them with Bulgars. Then worse news came.
“Zouaves?” she snarled, “What, pray, are zouaves?”
The spy felt his left knee buckle. Zouaves were a volunteer regiment of French North Africans, late heroes of the Battle of Phu Lam Tao. This was not helpful.
There was more. While conventional construction equipment was seen coming in and out of the Bullock compound, the roar of steam dredges was sometimes coupled with other, stranger sounds.
“Buffalo,” Mrs. Alistair repeated, faintly.
The spy nodded. “They’re using them to move construction materials. It’s quite common, I believe, out West.”
Worse yet, there were signs of revolution amongst her circle. The Countess von Hammersmarck returned from Bavaria with her new husband in tow and a small dark man with a speculative eye whom she introduced as Lord Duveen. Lord Duveen was an art agent. He viewed without expression Mrs. Alistair’s Tintoretto, her trio of Hogarth etchings, the small but perfect Diana by Raphael in one of his more exuberant moods. “Very nice, very nice,” he murmured. Mrs. Cavendish, who was nearby, thrust her shaft with the skill of a champion huntress. “By the way, Lord Duveen, have you seen Mrs. Bullock’s collection?”
At once the agent’s eyes glowed with enthusiasm. “I have indeed,” he replied. “Exquisite!”
“I am so sorry,” said Mrs. Alistair, “but what collection is this?”
Lord Duveen was eager to enlighten her. “Mrs. Bullock is one of our most engaged buyers,” he said. “And I may say, she has an extraordinary eye. I myself sold her the contents of the Camberwell Estate, and would have done the same for the Earl of Orford’s had not another agent been swifter off the mark. I know she has been in contact with Dupres in Paris and Ciri in Naples. They say she bought the contents of the Palazzo di Giotto just to gain a particularly splendid Verrochio ceiling. A true collector!”
“Fascinating,” said Mrs. Cavendish, wickedly. And the other ladies all agreed.
Then one day in March, disaster. The spy called long-distance, his voice gabbling over the crackle and hum of the wires. “I saw it!” he cried. “I got inside!”
“Come at once,” said Mrs. Alistair.
It turned out that the spy had not just seen the house. There were photographs. The spy had hired a Montgolfier balloon (cost: $500) and executed a series of low passes. The images revealed a structure six stories high, covering well over an acre of grounds. The whole exterior was swathed in a latticework of scaffolding, but certain features could be discerned. At each corner a high turret rose grandly, and in the center was a neoclassical dome. Sure enough, Mrs. Alistair could make out the furry shapes of bison hauling timber from a gigantic pile on the northwest corner to the construction site.
The next set of images was even more disturbing. Under cover of darkness the spy had managed to adhere himself to the underside of a railway carriage. It brought him past the high security fence, past the zouaves with their strange fez hats and blue uniforms, into the heart of the compound. He scurried, rodent-like, from one place to another, until at last reaching an opening in the folds of canvas that surrounded Mrs. Bullock’s mansion. He poked a camera lens inside.
Now he laid the photographs mutely before Mrs. Alistair. A long carpeted hallway guarded by two rows of Ionic columns, tricked out in gold. A ceiling so high that it was almost out of sight, decorated with Grecian friezes. Statues rearing up from ornamental fountains. An endless vista of glittering chambers and red velvet swag.
“Tacky,” Mrs. Alistair said, but her insides roiled. She handed the man a check, and showed him the door.
When Alva Hapgood Tyree was eight years old, her father sat her on his knee and recounted his experiences at Malvern Hill. For seven days Robert E. Lee launched his troops again and again on McClellan’s defenses without gaining so much as an inch of ground. The entire Army of the Potomac sat on Malvern Hill, impregnable and indifferent. Now Alva Alistair saw what Captain Tyree had seen: the endless rows of blue uniforms, the flicker of a thousand campfires, the certainty of what would follow.
That afternoon she penned a short, cheerful letter. My dear Mrs. Bullock, it began. In three sentences Mrs. Alistair conveyed the terms of her surrender. It was an invitation to join the Ladies Suffrage Association at their next tea, to be held on the fifteenth of next month. Determined to do the thing correctly, she sent it by express post.
The next week was spent in a paroxysm of dread. When her footman arrived she snatched the mail off his tray and shuffled it with trembling fingers. Until Friday no word came. Then, at last, a small and dirty postcard. It showed the Festival Hall of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and had been bent several times, so that a soft edge ran through the Pavilion roof. On the obverse was written, “Hi Alva, Thanks for the invite. Won’t be arownd tho, got a date with the Duke de Freers. Enjoy! Maggie.”
It was May. Alva Alistair stood on the rear loggia of her home, facing the sea. The construction crews left giant mounds of dirt and debris about her lawn, so that it looked like the breastworks of an ongoing artillery siege.
“I am forty-eight years old,” said Mrs. Alistair. This seemed an immutable absolute. She could not tear down and rebuild her life.
In this contemplative state, she saw Mrs. O.H.P. Bullock with fresh eyes. Crude, grasping, foolish, yes. But also inevitable. That was the problem with money: someone always had more. And it had, her own rules notwithstanding, absolutely nothing to do with breeding or etiquette. Those were just the trappings, the outer vestments of wealth. Behind every potted palm, beneath every Persian rug, were the filthy smuts of oil, coal, and dirt. Mrs. Alistair had reached a great truth. Looking out on her battlefield of a yard, she watched the wraiths of Lee’s third division trudge silently past, heads bowed, dragging their rifles behind them.
Then, only slightly less credible, a buffalo burst through the hedge and dropped a gigantic turd on her lawn.
Mrs. Alistair gave out a Rebel yell. “You dozy bitch!” she screamed at the broken shrubbery. “I’ll break you, so help me God! I’ll kick that red Irish ass all the way back to Eugene!”
She thought she heard laughter, but it was only seagulls.
A note by Mrs. Gloria Snibben in the Newport Gazette social column, June 23, 1908:
In what will doubtless be the social event of the season, Mrs. Alva Alistair is unveiling her home, Ochre Point, to guests on the evening of July 4. A select few of the storied Four Hundred will attend a black tie soiree, but Mrs. Alistair has kindly agreed to open the grounds of her magnificent new mansion to the public.
Stories abound as to the wonders contained within. There are unconfirmed rumors of solid gold plumbing, a tile mosaic lifted from the archaeological digs at Herculaneum, and a Venetian canal running through the rear lawn.
Meanwhile, next door, Mrs. O.H.P. Bullock has not released any details of her new home–which is almost in sight of Mrs. Alistair’s–nor has she sent any invitations. When asked if she plans on hosting an event, Mrs. Bullock replied, “If anybody over at Alva’s wants to drop by on the 4th, why, they’re welcome.”
Guess who may come knocking?
The night of July 4, 1908 would, in some ways, never end. It became a kind of metaphysical apex of the American id, or, in post-Freudian terms, the American Dream. On July 4, 1908 New York harbor was crowded with every kind of craft, but the largest were the immigrant liners hovering off Ellis Island. For one night their human cargo was celebrated. Hunkies, coolies, dagoes and wops gazed at the glittering harbor and thought, for the last time, that they were welcome. In the New York Yacht Club, J.P. Morgan proposed a toast to the man at his left, Andrew Carnegie, and right, John D. Rockefeller. They all wore laurel crowns. Americans were rich, fat, and patriotic. And so the fireworks over New York, like a prolonged ejaculation (to return to Freud) would never be allowed to end. If the band stopped playing, if Theodore Roosevelt left office, if the night ever ended then it meant something was fundamentally wrong with the whole enterprise. War, famine, disease, and revolution would follow.
Meanwhile, at the epicenter of the Dream some two hundred miles north, preparations went on. There were towering jungles of hothouse flowers, jeroboams of champagne, pillars of confectionary brought by Fall River Line steamers from patisseries on Madison Avenue. Auguste Escoffier designed the menu, Cesar Ritz supervised the staff, and Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned hundreds of pocket-watch sized porcelain miniatures with Ochre Point on one side and the date on the other, ringed with flags. Mrs. Alva Alistair stood in the foyer in an opal Poiret gown, her hair gloriously upswept into a chignon.
“You look radiant, my dear,” said Edwin. He, in black tie and tails, hovered at her stern like a favored courtier.
It was almost eight o’clock. The walls and hedges were gone, and a great canvas curtain hung over Ochre Point, lit by acetylene lamps. The gardens were open and already full. There was indeed a lagoon, complete with carved bridges and lanterns and decorative islands after the fashion of Frederick Law Olmsted, but it was not Venetian. It was gloriously Oriental. Instead of gondolas, miniature junks with crimson sails moved over koi-filled ponds. The teahouse, Mrs. Alistair’s famous erection, now marked the eastern end of a concourse leading through three imperial dynasties and ending with a bandstand cunningly disguised as a shrine.
“Magnificent,” said the critic from the New York Times. But his eye strayed over to the bare wooden wall beyond the sculptured hedges.
There was neither light nor sound from the Bullock property. Guests in Alva’s gardens glanced over at it, nonetheless. Under the thrum of the revelers, beating out of sync with the ragtime rhythm of the band, they could sometimes hear a muffled thwack.
At precisely eight o’clock, a fireboat offshore launched a single white rocket. The projectile reached its zenith over the Alistair mansion, exploding into a canopy of stars that lingered in the air long enough to bathe the mansion with their radiance. Four giant sections of canvas fell, the band struck up “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and Ochre Point was unveiled.
I need hardly describe it, both the fame and structure of the place long surviving its first reveal. Nonetheless. The mansion was built of limestone on a steel frame, with concrete struts and a marble finish. The exterior façade was Florentine, with Moorish cornices and a Romanesque colonnade. It was Mrs. Alistair’s express instruction that no significant period of interior architecture be left wanting, and the decorators kept their word. There was a Rococo reception, Tudor library, Baroque music room, and Herrerian lounge with silk chaise longues. The ballroom was pure Louis XIV, the ladies’ retiring room a muddied Jacobean. One parlor was completely covered in gold leaf, another in platinum. Guests felt as though they were standing inside a gigantic music box. In the grand foyer, alabaster figures hung over each doorway. Galileo and Dante represented Science and Literature, respectively; Mercury and Apollo provided even weightier patronage for Commerce and the Arts. The last two figures, a dumpy man with a weak chin and an overfed cherub with thinning hair, were Architecture and Sculpture. These were taken from life studies of Mrs. Alistair’s architect and sculptor.
As the canvas fell and pyrotechnic stars illuminated the scene, a gasp arose of astonishment and awe. It was well deserved. Ochre Point remains the largest, grandest, most opulent and expensive (for its day) house in the United States. It appears in nearly every survey of American architecture, sometimes as an exemplar, sometimes a warning. Mrs. Alva Alistair produced a lasting testament to her age, and herself. It was a stunning achievement.
At almost exactly the same moment the rocket burst, the last wooden pinions gave way with a series of thundering cracks, and the wall between the Alistair and Bullock properties collapsed. The auric blaze of Ochre Point, equivalent to thirty thousand candles, enveloped its neighbor in warm light.
It was a vacant lot.
An excitable Frenchman who had come to lay the ferroconcrete slabs in the koi pond screamed out, “Behold the new modern! Fantastique!” and laughed maniacally. He was arrested at once for indecency, specifically for being French, and gave his name to police as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.
Other guests were less sure of their reactions. “Is it there?” Miss Fanthorp asked, craning her neck. “Where is it?” Mrs. Cavendish tried to stand on a pagoda to get a better view, lost her footing, and had to be extricated from the lagoon. Count von Hammersmarck laughed heartily and said to his wife, “Ach, the American sense of humor. Most amusing.”
Mrs. Alva Alistair had not moved. She remained where she had been the moment the rocket exploded, standing on the west terrace between two alabaster statues, Daphne and Andromeda. She might have been a third.
“Great party, Alva!” someone brayed in her ear. “You really know how to splash it around.”
That voice. That horrible, honking voice. Mrs. Alistair did not turn at once, but slowly, languidly. There, of course, was Mrs. O.H.P. Bullock. Alva drew in a breath, let it out, drew in another. “I’m so glad you could come,” she said.
Mrs. Bullock grinned. “Wouldn’t have missed it! And that house is really something. Tell me,” she leaned in confidentially, “Just between us girls, how much did it set you back? Ten million? Twelve?” When no answer came, she shook her head. “Well, whatever it was, you did yourself proud. Never been a house to touch it, and never will be neither.”
Mrs. Alistair’s brain resembled a switchboard with operators under high strain. “I thought…” She stopped, started again. “I was under the impression you were building one of your own.”
The other woman laughed, and slapped her thigh. “Oh, you shoulda seen it!” she said. “Reel grand, like the Ziegfeld Follies, only bigger. And a dome like the Claparnum County post office. But I didn’t need it. Nobody but me and Oswald, and we don’t take up that much room. Plus, I don’t mind telling you, we was a bit strained at the time. O.H.P.’s been working on a big deal. Standard Combine, makes everything from gunpowder to baby food. We weren’t like you folks, able to splurge. We needed every dime.”
Standard Combine. For some reason that unlovely name rang a chord in Mrs. Alistair’s psyche. She put this aside to focus on the essentials. “But you did build it,” she said slowly, as if to a child. “I saw it myself. The scaffolding, the turrets, the buffalo…” Then Alva gasped. She had said too much.
But Mrs. Bullock seemed unaware of the admission. She rocked back and forth on her heels, laughing. “That weren’t no house!” she cried. “That was a circus! Barnum and Bailey rented the space for the season, to train. Turns out it’s hard to find a lot big enough to pitch their tent without snoopers looking in and stealing their acts. This year they’ve got a talking pig and a flock of geese that can do the Bunny Hug. Want me to get you some tickets?”
Mrs. Alistair had been looking through a kaleidoscope from the wrong end. The pieces fell, reassembled themselves, fell again. She saw the scaffolding and canvas, holding up nothing but air. She saw the neoclassical colonnade, the ornamental fountains, and the little man with a paintbrush adding a final touch to their trompe l’oeil. She saw geese waltz through golden chambers with sawdust floors, and an army of Magyar-speaking aerialists vaulting overhead. A marching band in blue tunics with red fez tromped passed in double-quick time. And the buffalo.
Her head hurt. She wanted to lie down.
“Say, Alva,” the voice droned on, relentless, “I sure hope you didn’t go to all this trouble on my account.”
“Certainly not,” Mrs. Alistair said, and turned to face her tormentor. A thin vein of pure ecstasy shot through her. Only one house stood on Bellevue Avenue, hers. She had won—by default, it was true–but won nevertheless. Alva Alistair was triumphant. “Tonight, Mrs. Bullock,” she said ringingly, “you have proved once and for all that you are unfit to enter polite society. You deliberately encouraged speculation on your house, and now your failure to live up to your boast has been held for all to see. Remain in Newport if you dare, for you will only be an object of ridicule and pity. But if you wish my advice, and I give it with all Christian charity, I suggest you leave at once. Return to Oregon posthaste, or some other backwater where your money will purchase the acceptance you crave. But not here. No self-respecting family here will receive you.” Her nostrils flared. In the classical triad of the west terrace she was Clytemnestra, surveying the writhing body of her unfaithful Greek.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Mrs. Bullock murmured. Less shocking than the tone, calm and confident, was the accent. Or lack thereof.
“I’m not so sure they won’t receive me. See, I figure it like this. We aren’t in Europe, where a name is enough. Here you have to buy your way in. Okay, that makes things simpler. It doesn’t really matter how big a house I have, or whether I drink tea or Old Granddad, or which fork I use to eat my steak. What matters is money. If you have it, people will forgive everything else. They got no choice. I started buying things—paintings, sculptures, tapestries. Know what my rule was? Titties. If it’s got titties, somebody’ll want it. Next thing you know, I’m an art expert. People say ‘Oh, its from the Bullock Collection. It must be good.’ Last week I sold that whole collection at a thumping big profit. So while you were building your house, Mrs. Alistair, Oswald and me—I—were building something else. We’re pretty nearly there, too. I figure I’ll stick around a while, and see who gets to keep theirs the longest.” She nodded affably. “And thanks again for the eats.”
Mrs. Bullock disappeared back into the crowd. Alva would catch one more glimpse of her, hours later, pretending to conduct the imperial band with a chicken drumstick. Only after the guests began filing out to their carriages, and the mountain of crème glacee slumped over in the July heat, did Mrs. Alistair remember that she had seen the name Standard Combine, replicated a hundredfold, upside down on Edwin’s desk.
The disintegration of Alistair & Co. was as sudden as it was shocking. One day Mrs. Alva Alistair was presiding over the Darien Garden Show, posing with the champion nasturtium, the next she was gone. Bailiffs posted a Notice of Seizure on their Madison Avenue house. This, the Wall Street Journal reported, was the merest tip of an iceberg of unrealized debt and leveraged holdings that disappeared deep into the records of one of America’s largest investment firms. Its titanic convulsions, and the disappearance of its chief shareholder, incited a minor panic at the Exchange. J.P. Morgan rescued it with an infusion of cash. The credit storm had already passed when, in November, the steam yacht Calliope was captured off the coast of Mexico by the USS Kearsarge. According to the Hearst papers twenty-three boys, ranging in ages from eight to thirteen, were liberated from below decks. Mr. Edwin insisted they were a singing troupe from Guadalajara. Mrs. Alva Alistair was not amongst them. Indeed, she would never be heard from again.
Ochre Point came up for auction the following winter, but the panic of 1910 set in and there were few bidders. Mr. O.H.P. Bullock bought the house and its grounds as an anniversary present for his lady wife. I hear he got a very good price.
Now it is a museum, cold and embalmed in its Gilded Age fustiness. Drive down Bellevue Avenue and you will see them, the Newport palaces, sitting side by side like trophies for races long passed, given to sprinters long dead. But Ochre Point, also known as the Alistair-Bullock House, had its moments. Mrs. Bullock chaired the Ladies Suffrage Association of Newport and, after getting the vote, even ran for Congress on an independent ticket. She lost to a socialist. By then O.H.P. was long gone, drowned on the Lusitania in 1915. Mrs. Bullock married her dance instructor, and together they threw some of the most lavish parties of the Roaring Twenties. Theda Bara drank champagne out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s boot. On the Fourth of July Mrs. Bullock-Letotsky organized a treasure hunt and hid real diamonds in a pile of sand, laughing gaily as her guests dug like swine for truffles. A band played Souza marches on the lawn while a fleet of fireboats sent rockets spiraling into the air, each one arcing higher than the last, exploding in a shower of golden sparks that shimmered all the way to the sea.
DOUGLAS R. BURGESS is the author of three published books and numerous short stories. A Newport native, he currently lives in Manhattan, where he is a professor of legal history at Cardozo Law School.