— Chapter Twenty-Three: Once in a Lifetime —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me,‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
— opening lines of The Great Gatsby
Jock and Betsey’s New York home in Manhasset was built in 1910 by William Payne Whitney, and gifted to his son, Jock, as a dock for his boats and a hanger for his seaplane. The stone and timber home had been modified over the years to include the addition of a 280-foot dock that extended far into the bay from the center of the house. Stewart arrived at the Plandome Manor enclave at noon on New Year’s Eve, carrying only a suit bag which contained his rental tux, changes of underwear and a toiletry bag. Neither Whitney nor his wife were at the home when he arrived, but he was shown to his room that overlooked the circular drive leading to the house by a member of the staff. A bottle of wine and a board of cheese and fruit were waiting for him as he entered, along with a note from Whitney:
Enjoy your stay. There are extra blankets in the chest at the foot of your bed. We’ll be back around 4:00, so we’ll have time to chat before the other guests arrive.
With little to put away, he remained in his coat and decided to take a tour of the house and property. Walking through the lavish club room, Stewart realized how little he knew about his wealthy sponsor, who apparently had associations with individuals from all segments of society and all walks of life. There were photos of Whitney with Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard at a costume ball, another of Whitney on the set of Gone with the Wind with Clark Gable and David O. Selznick, and several of his host in uniform in France during World War II. The center hall featured paintings of four horses that Whitney had apparently entered into the Kentucky Derby in the 1930s, captioned with their names: Stepenfetchit, Overtime, Singing Wood and Heather Broom, and the date of each event along with how they placed at the finish line. There were also many photographs between books on shelves of Whitney with Franklin Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Family photos in silver frames graced the grand piano and included: Whitney’s wife, Betsey, with King George VI; James Roosevelt with Betsey’s father, Dr. Harvey Cushing; and Jock with CBS founder William S. Paley.
Why me? Stewart wondered. What did Whitney see in me that made him take notice and invest in me, and then invite me to this estate to welcome in the New Year?
Stewart exited the club room that looked out through paned windows on the bay and then followed the planked walkway to the end of the dock before turning to view the house. Though the air was cold, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and Stewart thought of Carol and how he wished she could have joined him for this grand occasion.
For the moment, Stewart was calm, and worried little about his limitations, but, like Cinderella, he feared that somehow all of this would disappear at the stroke of midnight and the dawn of 1969.
He wandered around to the side of the house and to the front gate before returning down the drive to the house and up the stairs to his room. He took off his shoes, and lay down on the comforter that covered the bed and drifted off to sleep for what seemed to be an eternity. He was awakened by a rap on the door, and arose from the bed to open it.
A man in a gray-vested suit was at the door. He smiled and simply stated, “Mr. and Mrs Whitney have returned, and have requested your company in the sitting area downstairs, if you are so disposed, Mr. Little.”
“I’ll get my shoes on, and I’ll follow you down,” said Stewart, wondering if it’s the first time he’s ever been called “Mr. Little.”
When he arrived downstairs, he spotted Whitney and his wife talking with two members of the staff concerning preparations for the party that evening. Whitney interrupted his talk when he spotted Stewart, and immediately came over to him, took his arm and led him into the great room to meet Betsey. She greeted Stewart warmly and extended her cheek for a kiss while asking Stewart if he had any difficulties finding the house. Stewart responded by telling her that the only difficulty he had was after leaving the highway. “There don’t seem to be any street numbers on any of the properties.”
“That’s true,” said Betsey. “We forget that some of our guests have no idea where we live.”
“I actually stopped one of the workmen who was fixing a gate several houses up, and he explained the numbering system to me. I made a couple of wrong guesses, but finally found you.”
“Well, I hope you thoroughly enjoy yourself during your stay. We have an indoor pool and a billiard room, and our other guests won’t be arriving until 7:30 or so. If you didn’t bring a swim suit, we have extras reserved for guests.”
Stewart thanked Betsey and asked Jock about a few of the photos he’d seen while privately touring the estate. “You were friends with Clark Gable?”
“Yes, and also his wife, Carole, before she died suddenly in a plane crash in ‘42.” Whitney then went into the story of his years in the business of film making, his role in the development of Technicolor film, and his partnership with David Selznick. “I was a co-producer on Gone with the Wind... it was a magical time... and then came the war and I volunteered for service.”
Whitney mentioned how he had escaped imprisonment by the Germans in France, and how proud he was of his role in the war effort and his engagement with the enemy head on. “It gave me a valuable perspective on life, and was essential to choosing the organizations I supported after the war... and still support.”
Betsey excused herself, and Jock and Stewart continued their chat that wandered from Whitney’s ownership and loss of The New York Herald Tribune and his interests in philanthopy, to Stewart’s co-op job at Lubinville, where he had his first real job, and the building’s history in the filmmaking industry.
Stewart also spoke of his childhood, his learning difficulties and his fear of roaches, at which time he laughed and pulled out the money clip that Carol had given him for Christmas.
At a pause in the discussion, Stewart asked Whitney why he had taken the time to contact him after viewing the second Kafka cartoon in The New Yorker.
“I’ve been a big fan of the magazine my whole life, and I’ve collected several original drawings published in it by Edward Steed, Bob Mankoff, Peter Arno and Bob Weber. I hadn’t heard of you, and had to do some research to find you, which, by the way, wasn’t easy. The editors provided your address, and I quite by accident discovered that you were working for the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation and Richard Fenimore, with whom I’ve had business dealings. He explained the process of taking you on as a paid intern after being contacted by the director of the co-op program at Temple.”
“It just seemed to me that it took a lot of effort on your part, just to find an unknown cartoonist,” said Stewart.
“Fenimore was extremely positive about you and your talent, and told me about his referral of you to the people at Mad, so I decided to reach out to you and see if my instincts were still good, since my past few years in business haven’t been stellar. Though we haven’t spoken about it before, I lost control of the syndicate shortly after my failure to save The New York Herald Tribune in ’65, so I hadn’t much to lose reaching out to you and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed.”
Whitney was quiet, and Stewart waited for him to speak again.
“On another subject, Stewart, I’m sorry to see that your girlfriend wasn’t able to accompany you.”
“Me too,” said Stewart. “She’d already made plans with relatives and couldn’t get away.”
“There are people I want to introduce you to tonight, including Charles Addams.”
“Yep. The same guy. I bought a full-page color piece done by him for The New Yorker that I have at my Fisher Island home, as well as several other panels of his in my home in Georgia.”
“What’s he like in real life?” asked Stewart.
“As strange as you might think... somewhat similar to Uncle Fester in his cartoons. He’s the real deal and a character. I think you’ll enjoy meeting him. You’ll recognize him easily. He dresses a lot like Gomez.
“I’ve got to run out for awhile, Stewart,” continued Whitney. “But I’ll be sure you get introduced to most of the people at the party tonight. If I can’t do it myself, I’ll make sure someone does the honors. Then you’ll be on your own.
“And, by the way, how long do you plan to stay?”
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow afternoon. I’ve got a lot of work to do to keep my agent and Field Enterprises happy.”
“Glad you can join us. As you know, I’m betting on you.”
Although the boathouse hadn’t been decorated for the season, since the Whitneys had spent their holiday in Manhattan, over the final week of 1968 the boathouse had been transformed into a fairyland for the New Year’s Eve celebration. The outside walls and roof were outlined in white lights, as well as the windows, door and entry gates. Stewart had driven into town after his conversation with the Whitneys and strolled the nearly empty streets, stopping in stores that were open to find a gift reminiscent of the area to bring home to Carol. To his surprise, a card and gift store had placed on display framed black and white photographs of waterfront estates, and he found a photo of Whitney’s boathouse that was taken from the end of the dock at dusk.
The print was matted, as well as framed, and measured 16” x 20.” It was signed, and not numbered, but was nevertheless a work of art, and a personal remembrance of his trip. He paid for it and had it wrapped and placed in the trunk of his car before returning to the Whitney residence.
Stewart hadn’t eaten anything but a sliver of the cheese before leaving his room and had had nothing to drink but a cup of coffee prior to his departure early in the morning. He was therefore pleasantly surprised when he noted that someone had delivered a trimmed toasted roast beef sandwich with apple slices and a bunch of grapes as a snack before dinner. A pot of tea and a mug were also waiting for him on a small table by an overstuffed armchair. He took several bites of the sandwich and poured some tea. He then removed from his coat pocket The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a book he’d read as an assignment at Temple, and most recently found in paperback form in the book department of the Lit Brothers Department Store.
As he started to read, he recalled just how much he’d envied Nick Carraway’s adventure when reading the book the first time. Gatsby was no Whitney, and far more mysterious than his host, but the book helped him realize just how far he’d come since first reading it less then three years ago.
He read until 6:30, and then took a shower and retrieved his rental tux from his bag. His shoes were black, not formal, but they would have to do, and although his suit wasn’t very well made, he believed he looked the part in this drama of his life. What he didn’t know was that there was a dress theme for the evening, and everyone was to wear something silver. He hadn’t realized this omission until he reached the staircase leading down to the club room and watched as the women entered wearing silver tiaras, with their escorts dressed in shimmering silver tuxedos. Another group of gents and ladies came through the door in silver togas, and still others in flapper-style gowns completely covered in narrow silver streamers.
Stewart had no other clothes into which he could change, and no way to alter his attire, but he remembered that he had Carol’s money clip with him, and it was as if Carol had provided the clip for just this purpose. He placed the back side in his breast pocket with the clip and the roach sculpture at the top peeking out. He looked in the mirror and realized that his suit exhibited just the right amount of restraint, and also offered an obvious entrée for conversation.
There were many celebrated people there that night that Stewart had heard of, but whom he had never met in person. Lauren Bacall was wearing a vintage silver dress once worn by the actress Jean Harlow. Maureen Stapleton showed up wearing a silver fox jacket, and Fred Astaire wore a silver top hat, socks and bow tie to complement his black tuxedo.
When the music began, played by a pianist and a twelve-piece orchestra, Fred Astaire rose from his seat and improvised a dance with Cyd Charisse, who, at 46, was still mesmerizing. Peter Bogdanovich arrived with sci-fi film producer Roger Corman, accompanied by Mamie Van Doren, who had just completed the film Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, co-directed, but uncredited, by Bogdanovich. They all wore silver facial makeup, yet were otherwise draped in black.
Whitney introduced Stewart to Charles Addams, Jonathan Price and Orson Wells, who immediately noticed the roach clipped to the young man’s pocket, and cornered Stewart for several minutes relating a story about Franz Kafka, while confusing Stewart’s focus on roaches with Kafka’s personal story of his literary output. Fortunately, Stewart was saved from the bore by a young model, Cybil Shepherd, who had recently competed in the Model of the Year pageant, and was on her way to becoming a top model in New York City. She had already consumed two glasses of champagne and had removed her heels. She was dazzling and assertive, and neither knew nor cared about Wells, as she interrupted him and turned her attention to Stewart. He was flattered when she reached up to touch the tiny roach on the clip and asked him what it represented, and then, not pausing to hear his explanation, she asked him to dance. Though Stewart’s dancing had improved greatly after dating Debra, who loved to dance, he still wasn’t all that confident in his abilities, but apparently functioned well enough to be asked by Shepherd for another dance which resulted in a round of applause for the couple as they remained under the spotlight on the dance floor.
The number the band played for the second dance had been picked by Miss Bacall, who was attending the event alone without her husband, Jason Robert, and felt free to gave a nod to her late husband, Humphrey Bogart, by requesting “As Time Goes By” from Bogie’s 1942 film Casablanca. Shepherd was flirty and danced close to Stewart, pressing her breasts into him as she continually pushed back her hair to reveal her profile to whoever was watching as they danced. Halfway through the number, Peter Bogdanovich tapped Stewart on the shoulder and cut in, and although irritated by the older man’s advances, Stewart was somewhat relieved to be separated from Shepherd, feeling for the first time guilty about spending New Year’s Eve away from Carol.
Stewart had no calling cards to hand out to the people he met, but, as promised by Whitney, he met a lot of people that night, including the U. S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, David Bruce, the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall; and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Museum of Modern Art, David Rockefeller.
Towards the end of the evening, and after more drinks, he felt confident enough to dance to the Waltz No. 2 by Shostakovich with Betsey Whitney, who seemed to enjoy the spotlight with Stewart and spoke with him during the dance, and long after it was over, about Somerset Maugham.
As the clock neared 12:00, the music became more raucous and included songs by The Beatles, The Monkeys and a rousing version of the Herman’s Hermits’ hit “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am,” which led to the countdown to midnight. Wives rushed back to their husbands’ sides and confetti was dropped from pre-filled canisters located in the rafters. Stewart found himself standing alone, not far from the bandstand, as Cybil Shepherd rushed over to him as the clock struck twelve, wrapped her arms around him, closed her eyes and kissed him passionately and drunkenly on the lips, continuing until the band stopped playing.
Shepherd then took hold of Stewart’s arm and lead him to the stairwell and asked where he was staying. Stewart disengaged from her grip and thanked her many times for the attention and the dances, but expressed his urgency to find his ride before it left without him.He hurried off towards the end of the long driveway and hid in the rhododendrons until he felt it was safe to return to the house.
Stewart was shaking with cold as he walked back towards the veranda a half hour later, but couldn’t help smiling. He just couldn’t believe that someone as beautiful and irrepressible as Cybil Shepherd had selected him for a fling, but he also couldn’t avoid the knowledge that Carol remained in his thoughts. If he had acted on impulse, he’d never be able to talk with her about the magical night he was having, even though he knew that Carol would have forgiven him his indiscretion. But he also knew that he couldn’t forgive himself if he’d accepted the advances of the young model.
The party was still in full swing when he arrived back at the house.Whitney, dressed in his overcoat, was smoking a cigarette on the veranda as if waiting for him to return.
“Looks like you got lucky,” he said to Stewart. “That’s one beautiful lady.”
“Yes she is, but I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Expecting and accepting are two different things,” answered Whitney.
“I guess they are, but I think she’s a little too much for me to handle.”
“All women are,” responded Whitney, as he flicked his cigarette to the ground and crushed it out.
“This is some party you’re throwing, Jock! I’ll never forget it.” said Stewart.
“I think you’ll have many more opportunities for nights like this as the years go by,” answered Whitney. “Did you know that Bogdanovich just offered that girl you were with a role in his new picture?”
“But he doesn’t even know if she can act,” said Stewart.
“Does it matter?”
Stewart thought about it, and then realized he hadn’t proven himself, and yet had been given a chance to become a syndicated cartoonist.
“Maybe she just wanted to celebrate,” said Whitney, smiling at Stewart.
“Maybe so,” answered Stewart, as he recalled his deflowering by Carol, and her apology for, as she put it, “using him.”
Whitney went back inside, leaving Stewart shivering in the cold. The band was still playing and most of those in the crowd had a partner for the last dance of the evening. A traveling spotlight moved from couple to couple, and for a moment settled on Cyd Charisse, who was dancing slowly with her husband, Tony Martin, to the song “At Last.”
Realizing that this was a moment to celebrate, he walked across the dance floor and tapped Martin on the shoulder.
“What do you want?” he answered gruffly.
“I’d like to have the remainder of this dance with your wife,” Stewart said with a big grin on his face.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” asked Martin, turning towards Stewart as if to throw him across the floor.
“I’m just a kid who recently turned 21 and would like to dance with the most beautiful woman in the room.”
Cyd Charisse looked at her husband, and then smiled at Stewart. She then pulled away from their dancing position and said to Martin, “Go get me another drink!” as she took Stewart’s hand, put his arm around her waist, and then danced with Stewart until the end of the song.
I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known.