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Skinny island, p.1

  Skinny Island, p.1

Skinny Island
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Skinny Island

  Skinny Island

  More Tales of Manhattan

  Louis Auchincloss

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Table of Contents





  A Diary of Old New York

  The Stations of the Cross

  The Wedding Guest

  Marcus: A Gothic Tale

  The Shells of Horace

  America First

  Portrait of the Artist by Another

  No Friend like a New Friend

  The Reckoning

  The “Fulfillment” of Grace Eliot

  The Senior Partner’s Ethics

  The Takeover

  Houghton Mifflin Company



  Copyright © 1987 by Louis Auchincloss

  All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or trans—

  mitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including

  photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval

  system, except as may be expressly permitted by the 1976 Copyright Act

  or in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission should be

  addressed in writing to Houghton Mifflin Company, 2 Park Street,

  Boston, Massachusetts 02108.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Auchincloss, Louis.

  Skinny island.

  Contents: A diary of old New York—The stations

  of the cross—The wedding guest—[etc.]

  1. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 2. New York

  (N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3501.U25S5 1987 813’.54 86-21100

  ISBN 0-395-43295-2

  Printed in the United States of America

  S 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1



  with gratitude for twenty years

  of friendship and association

  in the practice of law


  A Diary of Old New York • [>]

  The Stations of the Cross • [>]

  The Wedding Guest • [>]

  Marcus: A Gothic Tale • [>]

  The Shells of Horace • [>]

  America First • [>]

  Portrait of the Artist by Another • [>]

  No Friend like a New Friend • [>]

  The Reckoning • [>]

  The “Fulfillment” of Grace Eliot • [>]

  The Senior Partner’s Ethics • [>]

  The Takeover • [>]

  A Diary of Old New York

  I PICK UP my journal with a heavy heart to inscribe what may be its final pages. When I started it, thirty years ago exactly, on New Year’s Day of 1845, I had the grandiose ambition of becoming the historiographer of our young republic. My considerable family connection in Manhattan, my experience in banking and foreign trade and my ventures into public life, climaxing in a term as lieutenant governor of the state, were all to have provided vantage points from which to view and describe the evolution of our great experiment in democracy. And haven’t they? I have seen riots and battles and terrible urban fires; I have been friendly with some of our bravest soldiers and noblest statesmen, and now at the age of seventy-two, only three years younger than our century, I can look back to a grandsire who was a friend of John Jay and Hamilton and forward to a new century that will see America take her rightful place as the leading nation of the planet. My reader, if reader I ever have, will surely understand why Adrian Peltz at one point of his life considered himself uniquely qualified to be the American Saint-Simon.

  But I have lost that faith, and what is more, I have lost it in a single day. I used to mock the classic rule that confined the action of a tragedy to twenty-four hours. How could mighty events be circumscribed in so small a time? Yet now I have seen that this could be true in my own life. Let me set down exactly what happened to me on January first, 1875.

  I started my usual round of calls on relatives and friends in midmorning. It would take me from my house in Washington Square as far north as my daughter Agatha’s residence on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. By then I should have walked more than two miles, quite enough for a gentleman of my years in icy weather, and Agatha’s carriage would take me home in plenty of time for the dinner of the Irving Club.

  I sallied forth, smart and trim in my greatcoat with the high fur collar, my stovepipe hat and my cane with the gold handle given me by Hamilton Fish on my seventieth birthday. I turned back, as was my wont, to gaze up for a moment at the third floor window of poor Cecilia’s bedroom, from which the brave invalid used to wave farewell to me. For two years now I have kept her chamber just as it was on the day she died. How she used to love those New Year’s Day calls before her terrible last illness! I sometimes feel guilty at being so much stronger than most of my contemporaries, but I remind myself that if the good Lord has given me greater robustness in old age, it is because he expects more of me.

  Leaving Washington Square to proceed due north up the Avenue does not always strike me as following the course of progress. Of course I have always been one of the first to hail the imagination and ingenuity of our native architects, who have fashioned for our wealthy citizens these magnificent replicas of European palaces and châteaux. All this is no doubt stimulating and enriching, but I cannot suppress a faint whiff of regret as I look back to my own noble square of white wood and red brick, of serene, uniform façades behind which some of our most high-minded citizens have been content to dwell in nobly proportioned, unostentatious comfort. They have been happy to depend more on their high wit and good spirits to impress their neighbors than on Romanesque arches or Minoan columns. But, as my children point out, I am hopelessly old-fashioned.

  An early call that day was on my son Philip and his lovely wife, Mary. They live in one third of a Moorish structure on Thirty-third Street, the other two thirds of which is occupied by my daughter-in-law’s parents, the Schuyler Clintons. As no family is older New York than the latter, they feel they must be modern, and they are very proud of their hideous gray house with its narrow spooky slits of windows and its stunted minarets for chimneys. A reception was being held in the Clintons’ part of the mansion in a clutter of curled and twisted draperies, odd copper appliances, gleaming lanterns and a few incomparably beautiful Persian carpets. But the latter, one could hardly see under the crowd.

  Philip has been growing apart from me lately. I suppose I should not resent this. After all, he is forty-seven, and I never dreamed that I would live to have a child so old. It is not that he resents me, certainly not that he is jealous of me, and probably not that he is becoming any less fond of me. It is more as if he were beginning to despair of ever being able to make me comprehend what to him are the obvious facts of life. Philip is as flat as I am exuberant, as dark as I was once blond, though now of course gray. He seems paler these days, and tired.

  He and I stood in a corner while I quaffed a glass of punch, as tasty as the house was ugly. Philip drank nothing, explaining that it was going to be a long day. He seemed totally unconcerned with the other guests.

  “There’s something I think you ought to do for Jake Smull,” he said to me suddenly. “It’s only a little thing, really. He wants to have the Historical Society put on an exhibit of his project for a fairground in Central Park.”

  I have made few entries about Jacob Smull in my journal, so perhaps I should pause now to do so. Everyone knows he is the principal owner of the East Coast Railway Line, and most people assume that he is a man of more energy than scruple. Certainly he is a poor shred of flesh to house so big a brain and to h
old up such shabby black suits. He has recently acquired a controlling interest in the Standard Trust Company, and I suppose it is generally assumed that, as its president, I have become his puppet. But at least until this last New Year’s Day I had not found it so. Smull has been silent and civil at the few board meetings he has attended, and he accepted quite graciously my bid to him to join my dining club, the Irving. I have always considered it the duty of the older members of society to train and take in those newcomers who show promise. After all, the Peltzes themselves are by no means old New York by the standards of the Schuylers and Clintons. My mother’s father was an auctioneer and his father a mere carpenter. We started simply, but we have sunk deep roots. It behooves us to help others to do so.

  “I see there are a couple of matters that I have to straighten out, my boy,” I said in a kindly paternal tone, laying a hand on Philip’s shoulder. “I know that I’m talking to one of the luminaries of the New York bar, but attorneys sometimes wear blinkers where their clients are concerned. Jacob Smull of course is very important to your firm—”

  “He’s rather important to you, too, Father.”

  “Yes, yes, dear boy, I’m quite aware of that.” I paused to allow any testiness to drain out of my tone. “But you must remember that to a public servant such as I have been—and still, to an extent, continue to be—there are civic obligations that transcend any private interest. I was, after all, one of the original commissioners of Central Park.”

  “Do you think Jake Smull isn’t aware of that? Any more than he isn’t aware that you’re president of the Historical Society? Why do you think he came to me with his project?”

  I smiled patiently. “If Smull thinks I am going to use my public influence for his private advantage, he must be taught differently. Look here, Philip. I don’t blame any man for seeking preferential treatment. That’s only human. But he should understand when that treatment is refused.”

  “I’m not sure Smull will.”

  “Well, that’s his concern, isn’t it?”

  Philip tried to control his impatience. The old man, he was telling himself, had to be handled. “But is this really preferential treatment, sir? It isn’t as if Smull were feathering his own nest. His proposed fairground is a public project.”

  “Oh, Philip. No Wall Street lawyer could be that naive. You know as well as I do that Smull is looking at his fairground with just one purpose in mind: a fat profit for Jacob Smull. It’s no secret that he is transferring some of his railroad profits into city real estate and concessions. And now that the original commissioners have been kicked off the Park board and replaced by hungry politicians, I suppose our little urban Garden of Eden will be up for grabs. But don’t ask Adrian Peltz to contribute to the destruction of his own handiwork!”

  “Father, one fairground is hardly going to destroy a park. It may even enhance it.”

  “Don’t you believe it, my boy! It will be a honky-tonk full of old Smull’s vulgar sideshows. And that will be just the beginning, too. The poor park will soon be—”

  “You don’t seem to think too much of your friend Smull,” Philip interrupted me. “And haven’t you even taken him into your sacred Irving Club?”

  “I have,” I replied imperturbably. “And I have hopes for him. Jacob Smull has the makings of a gentleman. But he was not bred as such. He has rough corners, craggy edges. It is the duty of our class to educate the new rich in the old ways and manners. Only in that way can society, which is a constantly changing body, hope to maintain its high customs and traditions.”

  “And you really believe you can educate Jake Smull?”

  “I believe there’s a chance of it, yes.”

  “You don’t think he’s trying to educate you? In the ways and means of buccaneers?”

  “I disdain to answer that, Philip. But I might point out that you are not speaking with very noticeable loyalty of the principal client of your firm.”

  “I’m speaking to my father,” Philip replied in a lower, tenser tone. “If I can’t speak candidly to him, to whom can I? Of course, I owe loyalty to Smull. But I also owe loyalty to you. I’ve got to make you see the kind of man Smull is. You are in his hands, sir!”


  “Well, your bank is. Your welfare is. Smull never does anything without a reason, and one of the reasons that he wanted to control Standard Trust was to control its directors.”

  “He’ll find he’s bitten off more than he can chew there.”

  “Father, listen to me.” Philip’s tone was almost pleading now. “I happen to know that Smull has set his mind on this fairground and that he’s counting on that exhibition at the Historical Society. Just as he counted on you to get him into the Irving Club.”

  “I did that for the reasons I have just described,” I retorted.

  “But, Father, he doesn’t believe that! He believes you’re simply dazzled by his money. And that you’ll do pretty much anything he reasonably requests of you. And he believes this exhibit is a reasonable request. What difference does one exhibit more or less make to the Historical Society?”

  “It makes the difference that it will put the Society in the position of plundering the Park. It will make cannibals of the city’s cultural institutions! My answer to Jacob Smull will be a polite but firm negative.”

  “Father, please! For your own sake!”

  “For my sake? Isn’t it rather for yours? Isn’t it for your client that you’re arguing now? You speak of your duty to me, but I suggest that you may have a conflict of interests. It even occurs to me now that you may have had the same conflict when you induced me to persuade my board to accept the control of Standard Trust by Mr. Smull. Were you acting in my best interests, sir, or in your client’s?”

  Philip waxed pale indeed as he clenched his fists. For a moment he could find no words, and when he spoke his voice trembled. “You accuse me of a conflict there? Well, indeed you’re right. I did have a conflict. I persuaded my client to take over a wobbly bank that might have failed without him. Only I didn’t tell him how wobbly it was. I betrayed Jacob Smull for you, Father.”

  I eyed him in disbelief. “You grossly exaggerate the precarious condition of my bank. My only concern is why you are doing so.”

  Philip looked up at the ceiling as if in appeal to whatever deity might exist among the chandeliers of a Moorish house. “Father, you’re living in a fool’s paradise. Listen to the prayer of your son. Don’t let Jacob Smull turn it into a fool’s hell!”

  I glared at my unhappy heir. “I can only presume, sir, that you have had a glass too much of your father-in-law’s excellent punch. Let me wish you a happy new year!”

  Turning to the hall I should have left the party then and there but for the fact that Mary, my lovely daughter-in-law, hurried after me and caught me by the arm.

  “Mr. Peltz! You can’t go without drinking to the new year with me.”

  I turned at once back to the punch bowl with dearest Mary, and we each took up a glass.

  “I saw you talking to Philip, and you both looked so glum! I’m afraid Philip has been worried about business matters. I’m so relieved you’re here. You always put things in their right proportion. You make sense out of the most chaotic messes. When I am with you I believe that the world has a beginning, a middle and an ending. I like that. Oh, dear Mr. Peltz, I like it very much!”

  I looked devotedly into those dark, dark eyes and at that concerned, heart-shaped face. “I hope you don’t like it too much, my dear. We live in a strange new world.”

  “Oh, don’t say that! Don’t you say that. That’s the way Daddy and Philip talk.”

  I took her hand to pat it. “Then I shan’t, my dear. You and I will show them the way. We’ll show them there’s not only a future, but a great and noble past. And that it’s always with us!”

  My daughter, Agatha, was my last visit that day, all the way north on Fifty-seventh Street in the row of French houses that Mary Mason Jones had erected for herself and her le
ssees. I have never seen the sense in trying to turn our chocolate city into a feeble copy of Paris. It simply emphasizes all the things we haven’t got. Agatha went to France in the winter after the terrible commune and was able to bring back all sorts of Second Empire furniture, some from Fontainebleau itself. Now her house is full of gilded bees and eagles and odd curlicued chairs whose seats turn on wheels and long narrow divans you can’t really sit on. I wonder she doesn’t sometimes reflect on the fate of the empire that produced these things.

  Agatha has gushing good manners that seem to go with her buxom blondness and the frou-frou of her heavy taffeta dresses, and she always treats me with elaborate respect and affection. But I well know that beneath her demonstrativeness there beats a heart that is the willing slave of her handsome, philandering husband, whose total lack of imagination, sometimes erroneously identified with sound business acumen, has led him into some very bad deals indeed. I feared that the new year was going to bring further troubles when she led me aside from her guests for a private conference.

  “Father, I know you’ll forgive me for intermeddling in a matter that is, properly speaking, only your affair. But sometimes things come up where I just have to.”

  “What sort of things, my dear?”

  “Well, now, don’t get all mad when I tell you it involves your sacred Irving Club.”

  “I can’t ever get all mad at you, silly girl. But I fail to see how you could be very much involved with a gentlemen’s small dinner club.”

  “It’s just that I gave a great friend of Charles’s the least little reason to believe you might not oppose his membership.”

  “In other words,” I said, smiling, “you promised him my vote. Which in the Irving is still tantamount to his admission. Well, I don’t know that’s such a terrible crime. Charles knows we need younger members, and I can’t imagine where we would rather look for recruits than among the young bloods who make up his circle.”

  “Except this wouldn’t exactly be a young blood.”

  “Oh? Well, age need not be a total disqualification. I am hardly the one to raise it as a bar. Who is this gentleman, pray?”

  Agatha paused. “You may be surprised.”

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