Among the Daughters/Chapter 27
I SAID TO MYSELF
On a clear morning the middle of November from the window of her small back room at the top of a Madison Avenue brownstone Vida Bertrand made a discovery. An isosceles triangle of sun on a square of grey brick divided by a washline equals one New York backyard. Would an artist, abstract, ink in the thin black ladder of the fire escape, paint in flat forms the dirty white towels, paint a grey shadow red, and the sun spot, blue?
"Go away, pigeon, have you no manners, sir or madame, to do that on my window sill?"
It wasn't much of a discovery, but at least a thought unrelated to Lucy and thus symptomatic of release to think of ideas about writing that bubbled like yeast in the sweetness of new freedom. As much as I love Lucy it is impossible to clear one's mind of her observations when with her or alone in her apartment. What Lucy observed, thought, did, always had exclusive reference to herself. When they talked for hours about other people it was Lucy's point of view that was the most original, and it had a submerging effect of making you feel a lack of individuality.
But Lucy isn't self-centered. It's not her fault I have no individuality. Besides, how can you talk about abstract painting to someone who only thinks of the figures in paintings as living people she likes or dislikes and sometimes for the craziest reasons? But crazy reasons which make sense when looked at with Lucy's eyes.
Lucy's black ensemble brought me luck when I mentioned to Norma of the chorus that I was looking for a room. Norma had said, "Why don't you take Janine's room? She left all her furniture when she married her playboy last week. The rent's cheap. Corinne and I have the two front rooms, and we all share the kitchenette, bathroom, and telephone off the hall." Fate shook this room out of her sleeve for me, she thought, noting pleasurably and through a slot between the buildings a cornice of the Morgan Library.
Chinese write with a brush. That's too clumsy and slow, even for abstract writing. Books are superior to painting because—because. Because they tell more. Perhaps I have no imagination. I had to write about a sleighride party I was at. I couldn't invent anything. How do authors know about the inside of people? The outside is difficult enough to describe. I didn't write what I intended about the sleighride party. About Lucy's feeling about boys. A man would have written as I did except he'd have told what the boys felt too. I can t do that yet. I'd like to write about women as they are and actually feel. You mostly get a portrait of a woman as a female in terms of what men seem to want women to be and to feel, what men seem to want to see. I agree part of that portrait is true, but it's only a partial portrait in which women are acting as men want them to act but, as Lucy says, don't know why. I know, since men began making passes at me, and then being with Lucy and the girls backstage, and now sharing this floor with Norma and Corinne, that women see themselves, each other, differently than men see them. Women play parts and read lines the men seem to want, but when women are by themselves they don't act or speak or think that way, or as they are presented in novels. It's as though the men were ventriloquists and the women were puppets. Lucy says a girl has to be what the man wants or he isn't satisfied. I know the past three months of observing Lucy, the girls backstage, Norma and Corinne here, listening to them speak frankly of their affairs, has been an education which has opened my eyes to a clearer understanding of myself as a woman. I recognize now that I've been trying to be like the portraits of women I've encountered in literature. I'd like to write about a woman, Lucy for example, as she sees herself, plus what a man would see. Lucy says, as do the other girls, that men only seem to want the act of lovemaking from women, and so it doesn't matter much to them who it is, and that is why men can go to prostitutes.
She was fourteen when … and I'm almost nineteen and still a virgin this month and year of Our Lord, November, 1924. Oo la la! Is this a crime against nature? Or F. Scott Fitzgerald? I must admit I was shocked when Lucy told me about Clem. I'm freer of inhibitions now. Of course she didn't know I had had a crush on Clem, though it wore off when I knew I was coming to New York. I even had a slight one for a few days on Semy. That's me, easy Vida, the well-known author. Some writer! A writer who doesn't know what to write. Nevertheless.
Nevertheless whenever I think of writing Lucy is on my mind. Is this transference? I love this room. Girls shouldn't live together even when best friends. Poor Mae, that awful ovary operation. Still, as Lucy says, that's one thing her mother won't have to worry about any more. Lucy certainly comes up with the strangest information. She says men don't care what color your hair is when in bed with you! She was furious when I said I was going to have a henna rinse because hazel hair is neither one thing nor another. She dominates me. I want to be a jazz baby too. No, I don't. Only part of the time.
"I said to myself, it can not be—" Of course, Sappho meant death. Takes me a long time to think that word. It's the odor of death I smell when I read Scott Fitzgerald. His flappers seem to be dying as they bloom.
"Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds—" At least Maupassant's people grew up. Not merely neckers and petters.
This coffee smells good. Odor is an essence hard to describe. Hard for me, I mean. If I didn't have to meet Clem I could write and write. About what? I don't know any Scott Fitzgerald people. Main Street? Not me, I just came from there. Lucy thought the Pearl Necklace story much ado about nothing. Who is right? Right is—write! Handwriting is deceptive. Lucy's is prim. Mine, big and bold. That's me, shy, and act bold. That's no way to find a lover. Lucy is vice versa. Talk, talk, talk—that's me.
I wish I knew shorthand. I wish I could remember what Paul Vermillion said at the Chennonceaux. I like him. He talks in sentences. That's what I'm going to do. I'd really like to have a talk with him again. I wonder what his paintings are like? Which reminds me, I'd better watch the time so I don't miss Clem's train.
She put on her coat but dawdled over a pile of notebooks on Janine's trunk. Each, save for a few lines on the first page, was empty. One ought to write whatever came into one's head, or hand. That would be up-to-the-minute modern. Ouija-board Vida. Why not write all my thoughts about Lucy and what she says? Have her out of my head and between the covers of the notebooks or perhaps even one big notebook. I won't be really free to write something else until I do.
The thought was so compelling that she was almost late for Clem.
First sight of tall burly Clem standing, cane in hand, in the long grey overcoat, and one of those wide-brimmed black hats worn by Councilman Lauter and his rich grain and cattle rancher friends, made Vida wish he had worn something less, well, farmerish. Reproving herself, she greeted him effusively. He was obviously disappointed though that Lucy hadn't come.
"See who I brought along," he said, kissing her cheek awkwardly.
Semanter Klug, sporting a rakish checked cap, grinned.
"You remember Herold Lauter."
Left of Clem was the Councilman's son in a pinchwaist suit, Oxford bags, a collegiate felt hat, and with a raccoon coat over his arm.
"What are you all doing here?"
"You haven't heard? Senator Lauter is in Washington. He came in with Coolidge last week," Semy said.
"Semy helped elect him. He wrote his speeches," Clem explained.
"I wouldn't put it that way," protested Semy with the self-deprecating smile Vida remembered. "It was kind of, well, collaboration. He was so busy campaigning I merely wrote, polished up, what the Senator wanted to say."
"Oh, then you've come to New York to celebrate?"
"To work. The Senator is going to start a middlewest chain of newspapers and he thought it would be a good idea for Herold and me to study New York newspaper methods."
"You mean you thought it would be a good idea, and the Senator fell for it," Clem jibed good-naturedly.
"It was really Herold's idea," Semy said magnanimously.
"Let's get going, " Herold said impatiently, "we got a lotta drinking to do."
"What hotel are you going to?"
"A friend of the Senator's—in advertising—got Clem a studio on Central Park South. We're all staying there," Semy explained.
"That's a wonderful location."
The elevator man had the keys and in high spirits they admired the duplex studio apartment and its park view.
"It's expensive but worth it and the light's perfect," Clem approved.
"This is the life!" Semy's boyish moon face glowed. He still was amazed at the ease with which he had achieved the big city in style and all expenses paid through the simple expedient of buttering up a credulous politician and his stupid son.
"You said it!" Herold agreed and winged a Charleston, his Oxford bags flapping. He looked hopefully at the Congress hot baby. "Maybe you and your friend Lucy will show us the town tonight."
Vida glancing at Clem saw him redden at this first mention of Lucy's name. He was still in love with her, Vida thought, and said directly to him, "Lucy asked me to bring you to see the show tonight if you'd like to come and then go backstage afterwards to say hello."
"Oh boy!" Herold included himself.
"Of course she doesn't know you are here but I'll find out if she can get seats for you both too. The show is almost always sold out," she said to Semy.
"Thanks, that would be fine," Semy said mildly, and sent Herold to make drinks before he pulled any more boners.
"It will be good to see her again," Clem accepted stiffly, and looked at Vida as though seeing her for the first time since his arrival. "You've changed. You're quite a New Yorker."
She accepted the comment as a compliment, brushing aside the hint of an ironical overtone. "Thank you. I was a farmer when I arrived but you can't stay that way around Lucy." She wished she could take back the words as Clem looked offended, probably because of the farmerish implication. "You look wonderful," she added self-consciously.
"I feel up," he said, a touch of defiance in his voice. He had tried not to hope Lucy would be at the station too. Now, though he felt a surge of pleasure at hearing her relayed invitation, a metropolitanized Vida made him regret the rancher's hat worn as a symbol of his spiritual return home to Congress and he wished he had stuck to the old Paris beret. Perhaps he never should have returned to Congress but remained in New York to keep in touch with what was going on.
"I can't wait to see your paintings. When will the exhibition be?" Vida asked eagerly.
"Not until the end of January. Vedder, my dealer, says he wants to wait until art collectors are over the shock of Christmas bills. But I thought I'd come early with Semy and Herold. Guess I'd better phone Vedder. The crates of paintings came on the same train."
"We accompanied the corpses," Semy interjected, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
Vida looked at him with distaste. That was another of his irritating habits, laughing silently at his own jokes. "I don't think that's funny," she said sharply.
"Oh, Semy isn't happy unless he's trying to hurt someone," Clem said tartly, seized again with apprehension about the New York reception of his paintings, beginning with Vedder who was "giving" him the exhibition for the $500 gallery rental fee.
"I was just kidding," Semy protested with mock innocence.
Herold handed around the drinks.
Vida wanted to make Clem feel happy. "We'll drink to the success of your exhibition."
"Not so fast, it isn't up yet."
"I know you'll knock 'em cold."
"I'll show New York that America has its own art. It doesn't have to ape the French." He spoke with an aggressiveness she had not seen him ever display.
"I'm sure it will be different from anything New York has seen," she assured him earnestly, wondering how Clem's careful renditions of home Congress subjects would seem in comparison with the wild but exciting transatlantic fantasies and even those of the mad Cynski, whose work recently had been shown at a third-floor 57th Street gallery. Then there was the painting of "the Ashcan group"—John Sloan, George Luks—"I'm sure it will be different," she repeated lamely.
"What are the New York crowd doing? I've lost touch these last few years."
"To tell you the truth," she began, realizing she was using Lucy's favorite expression, "I haven't seen much of New York painting. Of course, there are Bellows, Henri, Sloan, and Luks, but they aren't of the new abstract school, as you know—though I hear Sloan is off on a new tangent, painting nudes in a new style, crosshatching they call it. Then there's John Marin, who is wonderful."
"That isn't what I mean, and Marin is only a water colorist."
"I don't care what he paints in, he's got it."
Clem jealously noted the positiveness with which she spoke of Marin. "Oh, I know he's good."
She decided this was not the time to debate the relative merits of a medium. "There is a big French show at Durand Ruel's you will certainly want to see. New Picassos, quite different; some stunning Matisses, which remind me of very early Persian miniatures I saw at the Metropolitan, a new Spaniard, Miro; Rouault—everything up to surrealism and Mondrian. I don't care for everything there—but it's an exciting exhibition."
"I'm not interested in decadent French art," he rejected loftily. "America doesn't have to kowtow to European culture."
"I know," she soothed him, though it struck her as odd that a painter could refuse art on the grounds of nationality while stating himself as intensely national, "but I thought you might like to see what's going on in Paris too. Several of the canvases in the show were loaned by a collector here whom I know. His name is Raymond Figente."
"I know him well. Is he still doing those little terra cottas?"
"Imagine you knowing Figente! Yes indeed he does. Do you know his friend, Paul Vermillion the painter?"
"Is that guy here? Last I heard he was mixed up with a singer in Paris. What's he doing?" he asked in a disparaging tone that startled her.
"I don't know. I met him about two weeks ago at Simone Calvette's opening. I've never seen his paintings."
"Same old Vermillion, the painter who never shows his work," Clem scoffed.
"Maybe he doesn't feel he's ready," she defended.
"Maybe he doesn't paint."
Suddenly he felt good again. Of all the American crowd in Paris it was only himself of that group who had accomplished anything. He had sold paintings to important people in the Midwest, he had evolved a new American style, and he was going to have a New York exhibition. The rest sat around and talked or, like Vermillion, played with women.
"Here's to New York," he said happily and raised his glass high.