Helena always said that all she had from her father was the big clock that stood in the hall, engraved with a touching testimonial from his employees, but she forgot the eight million dollars and the driving, restless ambition that had led him to accumulate his money so relentlessly. She had also from him a pair of mystic, deep-set eyes and an unbroken, round hairline and a deep, straight crease above her lips when she laughed. These showed very plainly in her wedding photographs, when she was still completely under his living influence.
When I first knew her she was already twenty-seven, and the corners and ridges of a successful personality had been modulated and polished by a Parisian finishing school, seven years in Town Topics, two children, and an enormous collection of second prizes from golf tournaments. Heaven knows what the force of her must have been in its aboriginal state! She once showed me lots of grayish-brown photographs of a huge frame house whose ground plan must have looked like a roller coaster, so much was it of the billowing Nineties. Here she had spent a dynamic, motherless childhood. It was easy to imagine her skipping rope on the circling verandas, while the summer rain trickled down the tin gutters onto the deep hydrangea beds. She must have been a small, slight little girl full of sudden flashing indications of a firm and constant energy, because she was still like that years after when I got to know her.
At first it was disconcerting because her vitality did not come and go like most people’s, but simply changed from one sort to another. From a vibrant excitement that she could convey when she wanted to be disturbing, it would quiet down into a smouldering yellow light back of her light eyelashes, back of her yellow-brown eyes crouching there independent of Helena, watching you, always taking note of everything.
That was one of the ways she established social dominance over people: she would sit and watch until she frightened them, and then suddenly be friendly and free and just as charming as she had been formidable.
The summer that I knew her best, she was already in the direct line of succession to the social throne of the big windswept Middle Western city where she had lived since her husband had taken her there after their wedding. It was not such an easy place to subjugate; the people there were terribly rich and awfully proud of their fine possessions. Everybody who counted had everything; their houses were full of sea green bowls of fragile things that grew in their own conservatories, and their walls were lit with those expensive globules of light that only millionaires’ architects seem able to invent. There were marble bathrooms and painted ones whose pictures were in Town and Country, and there were dozens of houses with rooms as long and still and thick as a very fashionable hotel lobby. The cream brick facades and the concrete drives, punctuated with heavy powerful roadsters, forged a chain about the rendezvous of the people of importance, whom Helena wore like a string of glass beads. The others loved that nonchalance of hers.
The winter I was there, they liked going to dinner at her house. It was always a sort of boyish affair where Helena sat half holding her breath in the hope that perhaps the menu would be different from what she had ordered, suppressing in herself a feeling of guilt that she had not given her afternoon to improving it, impatient with the Nordic progress of the Swedish maids about the table, pleased and jocular after the first mishap which released her of feeling that somehow, in spite of her carelessness, the meal might achieve perfection, as a race that’s run releases the rambler’s tension.
Helena’s personality was so strong that the most insensitive of her guests could never relax if she was nervous; they must all await the figurative plate-breaking. That excitement in her did not come from shyness. I’ve seen her walk into a Christmas cotillion and butlers and footmen fall about her at the door like a flurry of early snow, and I’ve asked myself what it was that gave her so much instantaneous authority, because even on the most formal occasions of the winter she never looked any way except like a very young person with very clean ears.
She went through her wintertime beaux with the same air of impassibility and detachment. On the list of her admirers there were sober, efficient young men who organized balls, and middle-aged men with fine figures and a devoted reticence, and tall, trim men from New Orleans, and two or three admirable pianists, and an almost magnificent tenor. She had around her, too, lots of young boys still in college—very attractive, straight young athletes, mostly, who were afraid of the difficulties that lay in sentimental relations with girls their own age. In winter she kidded these young ones mercilessly and asked them one at a time to the parties she gave and sometimes went to their sleigh rides, all bundled up in tawny, fluffy wool, with her feet in doeskin moccasins. In summer she kissed them—on flag walks beside freshwater lakes; in the webbed moonlight spun into fragile patterns by pine needles, beside a cool wide river; on long asphalt roads beaten by the sun till the tar and rubber melted and the automobile wheels whirred like telephone wires as they rode along.
Helena was far too personal to like dancing, and often from the screened balcony of the Yacht Club during the Saturday night celebration, I’ve watched her strolling along the jetty, with a pair of flannel trousers; with a few truncated gestures, changing a likely candidate for the diplomatic corps into a hopeless gigolo who would speak his lines for life like a person talking a jazz ballad. Inconstant, consequent Helena! The others fared just as badly.
It was hard to find and keep chauffeurs in our state at that time (I think they were all in Congress), so Helena used to borrow the great, rolling, padded cells of the portentous men of affairs, who kept the vases inside these limousines full of orchids for her. Her own garage had a place for three cars and there was one that was always broken, but she liked using other people’s things, not for what she got out of them but for the sense of power it gave her to have somebody doing things for her. She was like a beautiful general on a tour of inspection when she picked the finest car she could for paying her Sunday calls—sipping the eggnog in one place, nibbling the cinnamon toast in another, her gray fur coat trailing behind her like a Greek toga, everything gray but her black suede slippers and herself. She was rose-gold.
All through the winter she went about talking of how dull life was and how she wanted to go away. People listened to her with the same rapt hope of illumination with which unaccustomed sinners listen to the Lord’s Prayer.
When summer came, all the people who liked the summertime moved out to the huge, clear lake not far from town, and lived there in long, flat cottages surrounded with dank shrubbery and pine trees, and so covered by screened verandas that they made you think of small pieces of cheese under large meat safes. All the people came who liked to play golf or sail on the lake, or who had children to shelter from the heat. All the young people came whose parents had given them for wedding presents white bungalows hid in the green—and all the old people who liked the flapping sound of the water at the end of their hollyhock walks. All the bachelors who liked living over the cheerful clatter of plates and clinking locker doors in the Yacht Club basement came, and a great many handsome, sun-dried women of forty or fifty with big families and smart, crisp linen costumes that stuck to the seats of their roadsters when they went to meet their husbands escaping from town in the five o’clock heat.
With all those people, you see how it was that there were always so many parties during the summertime. Helena never tried much to be a good hostess; she was content always to be the perfect guest and liked saving her energies for being attractive. An important part of her line was kidding things about her, and that was easier when she wasn’t at home; in her own house a great chorus of “Oh, no’s” arose when she put on that very surprised look and made some horrid remark about the dinner. Sympathetic protestations slowed her up; she liked better to be somewhere else and, saying things in that explosive way of hers, to start giggles and whispers scurrying about the long lace tablecloths.
I remember one summer when Helena had a green dress with patches sewed all over it, in which she used to play golf. When she stood on the first tee to drive off over the embankment, she gave the effect of clean laundry in a March wind, there was so little of her and so much of crispness silhouetted against the Queen’s Checker Board of the golf course. Her hard gold hair did not escape into the sunshine but lay close to her head like a protective helmet. That and her tanned skin and a “stripped for action” quality she had made me think of a pine wood, when I saw her blowing in and out of bunkers, up and down the long grass aisles.
It was the same summer of the big regatta on the lake. Canadians in blue blazers and Americans from all around the Great Lakes and from all over the West came with their fast, graceful boats and sun-beaten faces, and Helena captivated them all. She seemed awfully happy, running about in her big station wagon, supervising the seating of people for dinners, choosing between orchestras for dances and pretending she would have nothing to do with the arrangements.
I think that was the last summer that she got any real pleasure out of doing what she liked with us all, because toward autumn when the deep woods began to smell of Indian campfires from the past, and goldenrod lined the dusty roads, she was less and less with us. She started riding again and became awfully serious about golf. Her parties weren’t the same either; at some of them there were even people quite obviously tight. Helena usually kidded those propensities out of her guests, forcing them to behave to their best advantage, but now she didn’t seem to care.
By the time the tiny purple asters baked in the yellow autumn sun, she was so definitely bored that night after night she didn’t go out at all, leaving the dregs of the summer moon to a disbanding crowd—a crowd becoming every day less harmonious, a crowd without a leader, breaking up into small groups, drifting with their individual inclinations now that Helena had lost her former interest in being our center.
When everybody moved back to town, Helena bought a new house, a huge stone place with a fountain in the conservatory and a series of gloomy velvet rooms, all with official titles: the Music Room, the Library, the Study—and there was a stairway that should have been in an embassy. She said she meant to do it over, but I think it got to seem a sort of protection from the intimacies of a town where in every familiar face you saw, you could trace the family likeness. What she did over was her list of friends. The charades that rose against the heavy paneling of the dining room took on a suggestion of obscenity in the expensive candle shadows, and Helena’s parties gave off that aroma of danger that only people already in the age of security can afford.
Handsome men who spent their mornings telephoning fortunes to New York and San Francisco, spent their evenings in defiant supplication of chance, nature, and God to place in the pearls of their friends’ wives just one disastrous gleam. They were all too used to each other to furnish much mutual excitement, so it was easy for Helena, with her affrontal gallantry of a boy of thirteen and her uncomplaining husband, to become indispensable to that roster of owners of railroads and banks and nationwide trademarks that made up the older set in search of pleasure.
After Christmas, when the snow wears gray and glassy and the cold is so severe that even the biggest houses get full of week-old steam heat, she and her family and her dogs and her maid and chauffeur, and the children’s maid and nurse, and the valet that she thought her husband should have, all set out for Florida. All that retinue must have given the press photographers the same impression that it gave us, of a young prince and playmates traveling, because every Sunday, for the two months she was away, there were brown pictures of them in all the papers big enough to boast a rotogravure section.
Of course all of us were jealous, and we said how silly and affected it was of Helena suddenly to become so doggy. The real affectation had been when she ran about the lake pretending she was not as rich and powerful as infinite charm and inexhaustible funds could make her.
So Florida was a series of successes. There were two Knickerbocker names, and a cruise on a world-famous yacht that became public property, and I don’t know what private triumphs. It was natural that she should find us dull when she came back to the dripping, crunching slush of our late spring, and that she should turn her eyes toward theaters more worthy of her talents.
Chicago took her just about two weeks, I should say. I was living in the East then and I saw her only occasionally for lunch on the flying shopping trips she made. She would sit chuckling and smoking over a green sea of salad, the rise of the social barometer plainly visible in the immaculateness of her hairline, in the quiet insistence of her very correct accessories. She was trimmer and prettier than ever, and formidable! She could devastate a person with an apparently harmless little story about his personal eccentricities, and annihilate another with a broad, good-natured joke about his physique.
Judging from the way she looked when I last saw her, with her smooth gold hair drawn tight from the middle over her ears and her yellow eyes full of the promise of sun in the winter and cool summer shadows, she should have had a good ten years of organization ahead of her. But then she met the most famous young man in England.
We heard several versions of the story about how he singled her out of a party in Chicago and sat talking with her through a heavy, silhouetting moon, on a balcony, both of them dangling their legs over the Renaissance balustrade and making wisecracks. He stayed only a few days and after he left, the rumors whirred about like hummingbirds’ wings. People exaggerated and pretended they were sorry for a husband in so obviously helpless a plight. Even the few people who had not been interested in Helena became consumed with curiosity to gauge the charm that had thrilled the young-man-who-had-everything.
Their overtures weren’t very long in boring Helena to a terrific impatience. One morning, with very little warning, she packed the white lace film in which she’d first laid eyes on that famous boyish face, and with that and all her household goods, stepped briskly over the bent back of Chicago into a big white house that sat in the center of a mystic maze of pebble walks in the most fashionable corner of Long Island.
Motoring home on summer evenings through the blue dusk that turns New York to a city under the sea, she would roll over the scalloped bridge hanging like draped lace between the stenographers and the families of American capitalists. From it she could see a sign flashing forth its mechanical pride in the product of her father’s ingenuity. I remember her telling me once that that sign made her feel safe and secure. She had always thought of herself as an Easterner. It must have been pleasant and familiar to her to step out of the big car and guess who was waiting on the dusky porch, by the timbres of their voices. There would be the crunch of shaved ice in the sweating silver glasses and the smell of mint, and they would all stay for a summer supper under the spell of Helena. She must have had a vague sensation of comfortable recognition such as you would feel on finding yourself in a place where you’d been in a dream, but it was not a life she’d ever really led—that drifting and whirling through the piles of raw material and great plans drawn in the sky that make New York so glamorous.
However, it was the environment in which she was born, and the atmosphere of the place in which we pass our earliest youth seeps into us through the slats of our cradles. But I don’t believe she was happy even here, back in the place she came from. There is something infinitely disturbing in the phosphorescent rosiness that surrounds the successful and the great, a mystic magnetism that promises the same freedom from doubt and trouble that is part of themselves to all who surround them. Hundreds of people must have felt it at one time or another about Helena in her triumphant progress across half a continent and back, and now, contact with a personal power more compelling than her own left her wanting to seek its mystery in the rhythm of railroad wheels and the creaking beams of ships at sea.
One night in Paris she found him again. A sudden summer rain fell, drenching the gala fleuri at the Chateau de Madrid, passing through the colored lights like a blurring hand over a wet picture, forcing the trick shadows to disgorge their secrets. From behind the gauze of fountains and from out of the dark, under elms, streamed the incognitos, the maharajas, the figurants of current scandals, and many millionaires who knew what to buy with their money. Then, just as the nicest presents on a Christmas tree are hidden far under the branches, Helena saw his boyish face, covered with raindrops, charging into the light where she stood. That meeting marked the beginning of a time when they were seen about Paris together a lot.
When the time came that this most famous person had to leave, he probably said to Helena, “Well, if you ever are in my part of the world, look me up, won’t you?” And she promised she would, and she did, because not very long after the good times they’d had in Paris had come to an end, she found herself quite by accident in the great gray city where the magic person lived and had his palace. He was awfully pleased and excited at the prospect of seeing her again, and insisted that she come to tea. Helena was charming: she told him that she was desperately afraid of so many butlers and lackeys and footmen and guards, and he could only persuade her to come when he promised to send them all away.
Picture to yourself Helena, trim, golden, dynamic, getting out of a yellow taxi in front of a palace so big and full of spires that to stand in front of it gives you the feeling that you are one of those dots of people in the engravings of biblical market squares. And picture the most romantic young man of our era, sitting whistling on the top of the second flight of long steps, without a butler or a soldier or a lackey in sight.
And that is the last news I had of Helena, though she is often on the passenger list of the fashionable transatlantic liners and is usually registered at the Ritz in Paris and New York in between seasons, or in some small, unpretentious hotel on the Left Bank that costs more. You will know her immediately, if you should run into her, by the raillery in her confident voice and by the awkward, stuffy way you feel before her.
If you are famous or rich or very, very handsome, she will annex you and give you a good time and hurt your feelings. If you just meet her because chance has thrown you into her path without exciting her curiosity about you, she will simply hurt your feelings, and you will never be part of that fine group of Helena’s intimates all over the world whose insides fit their outsides as they should.
When she’s finished with dashing about, disturbing the susceptible, making susceptible the disturbing, perhaps you will find her one day enveloped in Venetian shawls, hugging the most elaborate heating system that money can buy and ending her tales with, “Of course it’s true; it happened to me.” But she will have to be a very old grandmother, indeed, because she doesn’t like talking about herself and has so little of the romantic about her that, so the story goes, she took the bracelet (which she will always keep as proof that romance has not passed out of the world) into a jeweler’s to have it valued.
I wonder if the reflections of the palace lying in the depths of the stones added to the weight in the jeweler’s scale, or if that added importance is only for Helena, to help her remember her best fairy story when life leaves her time for telling it.
Published in College Humor magazine (February 1930), published as by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Illustrations by R. F. Sclabelitz.