Our Philadelphia/Chapter 6

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Our Philadelphia
The Social Adventure

CHAPTER VI: THE SOCIAL ADVENTURE

I

Let me say at once that I know no adventure is more important for the Philadelphian, and that mine was scarcely worth the name as these things go in Philadelphia.

It is the one adventure that should be roses all the way, but for me it was next to no roses at all. To begin with, I was poor. My Father had lost his money in the years of upheaval following the Civil War and had never got it back again. Nowadays this would not matter. A girl of seventeen, when she comes home from school, can turn round, find something to do, and support herself. She could in the old days too, if she was thrown on her own resources. I had friends no older than myself who taught, or were in the Mint—that harbour of refuge for the young or old Philadelphia lady in reduced circumstances. But my trouble was that I was not supposed to be thrown on my own resources. A Philadelphia father would have felt the social structure totter had he permitted his daughter to work as long as he was alive to work for her. When he had many daughters and luck went against him, the advantage of this attitude was less obvious to them than to him. Exemplary as was the theory, which I applaud my Father for acting up to since it happened to be his, it had

THE CUSTOMS HOUSE

its inconvenience when put into practice. To be guarded from the hardship of labour by the devoted father did not always put money into the daughter's pocket.

Had I been more at home in Philadelphia, my poverty might not have stood so much in my light. A hundred years before Gouverneur Morris had praised Philadelphia, which in its respect for "virtuous poverty" he thought so much more generous than other capitals where social splendour was indispensable, and in this the town had not changed. It was to Philadelphia's credit that a girl's social success did not depend on the length of her dressmaker's bill or the scale of her entertaining. More than one as poor as I would have a different story to tell. But I suffered from having had no social training or apprenticeship. The Convent had been concerned in preparing me for society in the next world, not in this, and I had stayed in the Convent too long to make the many friendships that do more than most things to launch a girl on her social career—too long, for that matter, to know what society meant.

It was a good thing that I did not know, did not realize what was ahead of me, that I allowed myself to be led like a Philadelphian to the slaughter, for a little experience of society is good for everybody. Unless men are to live like brutes—or like monks—they must establish some sort of social relations, and if the social game is played at all, it should be according to the rules. Nowhere are the rules so rigorous as in Philadelphia, nowhere in America based upon more inexorable, as well as dignified, traditions, and I do not doubt that because of the stumbhng blocks in my path, I learned more about them than the Philadelphia girl whose path was rose-strewn. Were history my mission, it would be amusing to trace these traditions to their source—first through the social life of the Friends who, however, are so exclusive that should this part of the story ever be told, whether as romance or history, it must come from the inside; and then, through the gaieties of the World's People who flatter themselves they are as exclusive, and who have the name for it, and whose exclusiveness is wholesale license compared to that of the Friends:—through the two distinct societies that have lived and flourished side by side ever since Philadelphia was. But my concern is solely with the gaieties as I, individually, shared in them. Now that I have outlived the discomforts of the experience, I can flatter myself that, in my small, insignificant fashion, I was helping to carry on old and fine traditions.


II

The most serious of these discomforts arose from the question of clothes, a terrifying question under the existing conditions in the Third Street house, involving more industrious dress-making upstairs in the third story front bedroom than I cared about, and a waste of energies that should have been directed into more profitable channels. I sewed badly and was conscious of it. At the Convent, except for the necessity of darning my stockings, I had

UNDER BROAD STREET STATION AT FIFTEENTH STREET

been as free from this sort of toiling as a lily of the field, and yet I too had gone arrayed, if hardly with the same conspicuous success, and, in my awkward hands, the white tarlatan—who wears tarlatan now?—and the cheap silk from Second Street, which composed my coming out trousseau, were not growing into such things of beauty as to reconcile me to my new task.

As unpleasant were the preliminary lessons in dancing forced upon me by my family when, in my pride of recent graduation with honours, it offended me to be thought by anybody in need of learning anything. One evening every week during a few months, two or three friends and cousins joined me in the Third Street parlour to be drilled into dancing shape for coming out by Madame Martin, the large, portly Frenchwoman who, in the same crinoline and heelless, sidelaced shoes, taught generations of Philadelphia children to dance. Even the Convent could not do without her, though there, to avoid the sinfulness of "round dances," we had, under her tuition, waltzed and polkaed hand in hand, a method which my family feared, if not corrected, might lead to my disgrace.

I seem rather a pathetic figure as I see myself obediently stitching and practising my steps without an idea of the true meaning and magnitude of the adventure I was getting ready for, or a chance of being set about it in the right way. That right way would have been for somebody to give a party or a dance or a reception especially for me to come out at. But nobody among my friends and relations was obliging enough to accept the responsibility, and at home my Father could not get so far as to think of it. He would have needed too disastrous a panic in Third Street to provide the money. Madame Martin's lessons were already an extravagance and when, on top of them, he had gone so far as to pay for my subscription to the Dancing Class, and, in a cabless town, for the carriage, fortunately shared with friends, to go to it in, he had done all his bank account allowed him to do to start me in life.

It would be as useful to explain that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west as to tell a Philadelphian that the Dancing Class to which I refer was not of the variety presided over by Madame Martin, but one to which Philadelphians went to make use of just such lessons as I had been struggling with for weeks. The origin of its name I never knew, I never asked, the Dancing Class being one of the Philadelphia institutions the Philadelphian took for granted: then, as it always had been and still is, I believe, a distinguished social function of the year. To belong to it was indispensable to the Philadelphian with social pretensions. It was held every other Monday, if I remember—to think I should have a doubt on a subject of such importance!—and the first of the series was given so early in the winter that with it the season may be said to have opened. Perhaps this fact helped my family to decide that it was at the Dancing Class I had best make my first appearance.


III

Youth is brave out of sheer ignorance. When the moment came, it never occurred to me to hesitate or to consider the manner of my introduction to the world. I was content that my Brother should be my sole chaperon. I rather liked myself in my home-made white tarlatan, feeling very much dressed in my first low neck. I entertained no misgivings as to the fate awaiting me, imagining it as inevitable for a girl who was "out" to dance and have a good time as for a bird to fly once its wings were spread. If there were men to dance with, what more was needed?—it never having entered into my silly head that it was the girl's sad fate to have to wait for the man to ask her, and that sometimes the brute didn't.

I had to go no further than the dressing-room at the Natatorium, where the Dancing Class then met, to learn that society was not so simple as I thought. I have since been to many strange lands among many strange people, but never have I felt so much of a stranger as when I, a Philadelphian born, doing conscientiously what Philadelphia expected of me, was suddenly dropped down into the midst of a lot of Philadelphia girls engaged in the same duty. There was a freemasonry among them I could not help feeling right away—the freemasonry that went deeper than the chance of birth and the companionship of duty—the freemasonry that came from their all having grown up together since their perambulator days in Rittenhouse Square, having learned to dance together, gone to children's parties together, studied at Miss Irwin's school together, spent the summer by the sea and in the mountains together, in a word, from their having done everything together until they were united by close bonds, the closer for being undefinable, that I, Convent bred, with not an idea, not a habit, not a point of view, in common with them, could not break through. I never have got quite over the feeling, though time has modified it. There is no loneliness like the loneliness in a crowd, doubly so if all the others in the crowd know each other. In the dressing-room that first evening it was so overwhelming to discover myself entirely out of it where I should have been entirely in, that, without the stay and support of my friend, of old the Prince of Denmark to my Ghost of Hamlet's Father, and her sister, who had come out under more favourable conditions, I do not think I could have gone a step further in the great social adventure.

As it was, with my heart in my boots, my hand trembling on my Brother's arm, to the music of Hassler's band, I entered the big bare hall of the Natatorium, and was out with no more fuss and with nobody particularly excited about it save myself.

Things were a little better once away from the dressing-room. My Brother was gay, had been out for two or three years, knew everybody. If he could not introduce me to the women he could introduce the men to me, and the freemasonry existing among them from their all having

THE PHILADELPHIA CLUB
THIRTEENTH AND WALNUT STREETS

gone to the Episcopal Academy and the University of Pennsylvania together, from their all having played cricket and baseball and football, or gone hunting together, from their all belonging to the same clubs, was not the kind from which I need suffer. Besides, those were the days when it was easy for the Philadelphia girl to get to know men, to make friends of them, without the Philadelphia gossip pouncing upon her and the Philadelphia father asking them their intentions—they could call upon her as often as they liked and the Philadelphia father would retreat from the front and back parlours, she could go out alone with them and the Philadelphia father would not interfere, knowing they had been brought up to see in themselves her protectors, especially appointed to look out for her. Some signs of change I might have discerned had I been observant. More than the five o'clock tea affectation was to come of the new coquetting with English fashions. Enough had already come for me to know that if my Brother now and then asked me to go to the theatre, it was not for the pleasure of my company, but because a girl he wanted to take would not accept if he did not provide a companion for the sake of the proprieties. I am sure the old Philadelphia way was the most sensible. Certainly it was the most helpful if you happened to be a girl coming out with next to no friends among the women in what ought to have been your own set, with no chaperon to see that you made them, and, at the Dancing Class, with no hostess to keep a protecting eye on you but, instead, patronesses too absorbed in their triumphs to notice the less fortunate straggling far behind.

Well, anyway, if honesty forbids me to call myself a success, it is a satisfaction to remember that I did not have to play the wall-flower, which I would have thought the most terrible disaster that could befall me. To have to sit out the German alone would have been to sink to such depths of shame that I never afterwards could have held up my head. It was astonishing what mountains of despair we made of these social molehills! I can still see the sad faces of the girls in a row against the wall, with their air of announcing to all whom it might concern: "Here we are, at your service, come and rescue us!" But there was another dreadful custom that did give me away only too often. When a man asked a girl beforehand to dance the German, Philadelphia expected him to send her a bunch of roses: always the same roses—Boston buds, weren't they called?—and from Pennock's on Chestnut Street if he knew what was what. To take your place roseless was to proclaim that you had not been asked until the eleventh hour. It was not pleasant. However, if I went sometimes without the roses, I always had the partner, I had even moments of triumph as when, one dizzy evening before the assembled Dancing Class, I danced with Willie White.

It is not indiscreet to mention so great a person by name and, in doing so, not presuming to use it so familiarly—he was the Dancing Class, as far as I know, he had no other occupation; and his name was Willie, not William, not Mr. White. Willie, as Philadelphians said it, was a title of honour, like the Cœur de Lion or the Petit Caporal bestowed upon other great men—the measure of the estimate in which social Philadelphia held him. Beau Nash in the Pump Room at Bath was no mightier power than Willie White in the Dancing Class at the Natatorium. He ruled it, and ruled it magnificently: an autocrat, a tyrant, under whose yoke social Philadelphia was eager to thrust its neck. What he said was law, whom he approved could enter, whom he objected to was without redress, his recognition of the Philadelphian's claims to admission was a social passport. He saw to everything, he led the German, and I do not suppose there was a girl who, at her first Dancing Class her first winter, did not, at her first chance, take him out in the German as her solemn initiation. That is how I came to enjoy my triumph, and I do not remember repeating it for he never condescended to take me out in return. But still, I can say that once I danced with Willie White at the Dancing Class—And did I once see Shelley plain?


IV

There were other powers, as I was made quickly to understand—not only the powers that all Biddles, Cadwalladers, Rushes, Ingersolls, Whartons, in a word all members of approved Philadelphia families were by Philadelphia right, but a few who had risen even higher than that splendid throng and were accepted as their leaders. It was not one of the most brilliant periods in the social history of Philadelphia. Mrs. Rush had had no successor, no woman presided over what could have been given the name of Salon as she had. Even the Wistar parties, exclusively for men, discontinued during the upheaval of the Civil War, had not yet been revived. But, notwithstanding the comparative quiet and depression, there were a few shining social lights.

Had I been asked in the year of my coming out who was the greatest woman in the world, I should have answered, without hesitation, Mrs. Bowie. She, too, may be mentioned by name without indiscretion for she, too, has become historical. She was far from beautiful at the date to which I refer, she was no longer in her first youth, was inclined to stoutness and I fear had not learned how to fight it as women who would be in the fashion must learn today. She was not rich and the fact is worth recording, so characteristic is it of Philadelphia. The names of leaders of society in near New York usually had millions attached to them, those there allowed to lead paid a solid price for it in their entertaining. But Mrs. Bowie's power depended upon her personal fascination—with family of course to back it—which was said to be irresistible. And yet not to know her was to be unknown. Intimacy with her was to have arrived. At least a bowing acquaintance, an occasional invitation to her house, was essential to success or its dawning. She entertained modestly as far as I could gather from my experience,—as far as I can now depend on my memory—gave no balls, no big dinners; if there were select little dinners, I was too young and insignificant to hear of them. I never got farther than the afternoon tea to which everybody was invited once every winter, a comfortless crush in her small house, with next to nothing to eat and drink as things to eat and drink go according to the lavish Philadelphia standard. But that did not matter. Nothing mattered except to be there, to be seen there. I was tremendously pleased with myself the first time the distinction was mine, though of my presence in her house Mrs. Bowie was no doubt amiably unconscious. I never knew her to recognize me out of it, though I sometimes met her when she came informally to see one of my Aunts who was her friend, or to give me the smile at the Dancing Class that would have raised my drooping spirits. The only notice she ever spared me there was to express to my Brother—who naturally, brother-like, made me uncomfortable by reporting it to me—her opinion of my poor, unpretentious, home-made, Second Street silk as an example of the absurdity of a long train to dance in, which shows how completely she had forgotten who I was.

Her chief rival, if so exalted a personage could have a rival, was Mrs. Connor, from whom also a smile, a recognition, was equivalent to social promotion. Her fascination did not have to be explained. She was an unqualified beauty, though the vision I have retained is of beauty in high-necked blue velvet and chinchilla, which I could not have enjoyed at the Dancing Class or any evening party. I realise as I write that in the details of Philadelphia's social history I would come out badly from too rigid an examination.


V

To Mrs. Connor's I was never asked with or without the crowd. But other houses were opened to me, other invitations came, for, if I had not friends, my family had. My white tarlatan and my Second Street silk had grown shabby before the winter was half over. At many parties I got to know what a delightful thing a Philadelphia party was, and if I had gone to one instead of many I should have known as well. Philadelphia had a standard for its parties as for everything, and to deviate from this standard, to attempt originality, to invent the "freak" entertainments of New York, would have been excessively bad form. The same card printed by Dreka requested the pleasure of your company to the same Philadelphia house—the Philadelphia hostess would not have stooped to invite you to the Continental or the Girard, the LaPierre House or the Colonnade, which were the Bellevue and the Ritz of my day—where you danced in the same spacious front and back parlours, with the same crash on the floor, to the same music by Hassler's band; where you ate the same Terrapin, Croquettes, Chicken Salad, Oysters, Boned Turkey, Ice-cream, little round Cakes with white icing on top, and drank the same Fish-House Punch provided by the same Augustine; where the same Cotillon began at

THE NEW RITZ-CARLTON; THE FINISHING TOUCHES
THE WALNUT STREET ADDITION HAS SINCE BEEN MADE

the same hour with the same figures and the same favours and the same partners; where there was the same dressing-room in the second story front and the same Philadelphia girls who froze me on my arrival and on my departure. There was no getting away from the same people in Philadelphia. That was the worst of it. The town was big enough for a chance to meet different people in different houses every evening in the week, but by that arbitrary boundary of "Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce and Pine," it has made itself socially into a village with the pettiness and limitations of village life. I have never wondered that Philadelphians are as cordial to strangers as everybody who ever came to Philadelphia knows them to be—that Philadelphia doors are as hospitable as Thackeray once described them. Philadelphians have reason to rejoice and make the most of it when occasionally they see a face they have not been seeing regularly at every party they have been to, and hear talk they have not listened to all their lives.

Sometimes it was to the afternoon reception the card engraved by Dreka invited me, and then again it was to meet the same people and—in the barbarous mode of the day—to eat the same Croquettes, Chicken Salad, Terrapin, Boned Turkey, Ice-cream, and little round Cakes with white icing on top, and to drink the same Punch from Augustine's at five o'clock in the afternoon, and at least risk digestion in a good cause. But rarely did the card engraved by Dreka invite me to dinner, and I could not have been invited to anything I liked better. I have always thought dinner the most civilized form of entertainment. It may have been an entertainment Philadelphia preferred to reserve for my elders, and, if I am not mistaken, the most formal dinners, or dinners with any pretence to being public, were then usually men's affairs, just as the Saturday Club, and the Wistar parties had been, and the Clover Club, and the Fish-House Club were: from them women being as religiously excluded as from the dinners of the City Companies in London, or from certain monasteries in Italy and the East. Indeed, as I look back, it seems to me that woman's social presence was correct only in private houses and at private gatherings. Nothing took away my breath so completely on going back to Philadelphia after my long absence as the Country Clubs where men and women now meet and share their amusements, if it was not the concession of a dining-room to women by a Club like the Union League that, of old, was in my esteem as essentially masculine as the Philadelphia Lady thought the sauces at Blossom's Hotel in Chester.

But there were plenty of other things to do which I did with less rather than more thoroughness. I paid midday visits, wondering why duty should have set me so irksome a task. I received with friends on New Year's Day—an amazing day when men paid off their social debts and made, at some houses, their one call of the year, joining together by twos and threes and fours to charter a carriage, or they would never have got through their round, armed with all their courage either to refuse positively or to accept everywhere the glass of Madeira or Punch and the usual masterpiece from Augustine's. It was another barharous custom, but an old Philadelphia custom, and Philadelphia has lost so many old customs that I could have wished this one spared. I went to the concerts of the Orpheus Club. I went to the Opera and the Theatre when I was asked, which was not often. I passed with the proper degree of self-consciousness the Philadelphia Club at Thirteenth and Walnut, the same row of faces always looking out over newspapers and magazines from the same row of windows. And I did a great many things that were pleasant and a great many more that were unpleasant, conscientiously rejecting nothing social I was told to do when the opportunity to do it came my way. But it all counted for nothing weighed in the balance with the one thing I did not do—I never went to the Assembly.