Of course we asked our friends what they thought and they said it was a perfect house—though not even the California claret could induce them to admit that it was the sort of place they would have lived in. The idea was to stay there until the sheets were shredded away and the bed springs looked like the insides of broken watches: then we wouldn’t have to pack any more—the usages of tune would have set us free. We could travel again in a suit-case, and not be harassed by bills from a storage warehouse. So we gathered our things from here and there; all that remained from fifteen years of buying, except some faded beach umbrellas we had left at the American Express five years ago in Cannes. It was to have been very edifying to have only the things we were fond of around us again and maybe we’d like the new place so well that we’d never move any more but just sit behind the wistaria and watch the rhododendron disintegrate beneath the heat of June, July and August, and the fanfare of the dogwood over the hills.
Then we opened the packing cases.
Lot 1. The first case is oblong and enormous and about the right shape to have contained enormous family portraits—it holds a mirror bought a long time ago for practising ballet-dancing at home. It once decorated the wall of a bordello. Any bids? No! Take it to that little room in the attic.
Lot 2. A smaller crate of the same shape containing fifty photographs of ourselves and drawings of the same by various artists and pictures of the houses we lived in and of our aunts and uncles and of where they were born and died. In some of the pictures we are golfing and swimming and posing with other people’s animals, or tilting borrowed surfboards against the spray of younger summers. There are also many impressive photographs of old and very dear friends whose names we have forgotten. These faces were very precious to us at the time, and now those times are very precious, though it is hard to imagine how we came to ask from life such an exaggerated head of Mae Murray. It must have been that summer day in Paris when we watched the children bowl the summer sun along the paths of the Jardin des Plantes—we might, late that afternoon, have begged for the photograph. And one of Pascin, whom we met over a pebble-rocked table watching the elegant ladies circle the Rondpoint attending upon the natural functions of Pekinese—Pascin already enveloped in tragedy and pursued by a doom so powerful that he could well afford the nonchalance in which lay his sombre charm. And one of Pearl White that she gave us in a spring when she was buying the Paris nights in clusters. Any bidders? No? The little room in the attic, Essie.
Lot 3. A pornographic figurine bought with great difficulty in Florence twelve years ago. “Une statue sale—no, we don’t mean salle that way—we mean sale.” Slightly damaged—any bidders? All right take this, too, Essie, while you’re going up. It seems a shame after all the lascivious gesticulation it took to obtain it.
Lot 4. Two bronze busts of Shakespeare and Galileo with which the family had hoped to anchor us to permanent abodes. Slightly used in the fireplace but ineffectual as andirons. Any bids?—all right, Essie.
Lot 5. A barrel. Contents cost us something like a thousand dollars during the boom. Chipped pottery tea-set that was worth the trip to Venice—it had seemed such a pity not to buy something from that cluttered bazaar fanned by the plumy shade of the white plane trees. We didn’t know what we wanted to drink; the white haunted countryside was hot; the hillsides smelled of jasmine and the hot backs of men digging the roads.
Two glass automobiles for salt and pepper stolen from the cafe in Saint-Paul (Alpes-Maritimes). Nobody was looking because Isadora Duncan was giving one of her last parties at the next table. She had got too old and fat to care whether people accepted her theories of life and art, and she gallantly toasted the world’s obliviousness in lukewarm champagne. There were village dogs baying at a premature white exhausted August moon and there were long dark shadows folded accordion-like along the steps of the steep streets of Saint-Paul. We autographed the guest-book.
Fifty-two ash trays—all very simple because Hergesheimer warned us against pretentiousness in furnishing a house without money. A set of cocktail glasses with the roosters now washed off the sides. Carl Van Vechten brought us a shaker to go with them but nobody had opened the letter announcing his arrival—nobody knew where the mail was kept, there were so many rooms, twenty or twenty-one. Two curious vases we won in the amusement park. The fortune teller came back with us and drank too much and repeated a stanza of Vachel Lindsay to exorcise the mansion ghost. China, China, China, set of four, set of five, set of nine, set of thirteen. Any bids? Thank God! The kitchen, Essie.
Lot 5. Plaid Shawl donated by Carmel Myers. Slightly fatigued after long use as a table cover and packing wrapper for china pigs and dogs which held pennies turned out of the pockets of last year’s coats. Once a beautiful Viennese affair, with memories of Carmel in Rome filming Ben Hur in bigger and grander papier-mache arenas than the real ones. One gong. No memory of what it was for or why we had bought it. Stick missing. Looks, however, like a Chinese pagoda and gives an impression of wide travel. Bits of brass: wobbly colonial candle-sticks with stems encircling little bells which ring when walked with a la Beatrix Esmond or Lady Macbeth. Two phallic symbols bought from an archeologist. One German helmet found in the trenches of Verdun. One chess set. We played it every evening before we began to quarrel about our respective mental capacities. Two china priests from Vevey. The figures are strung on springs and wag their heads lasciviously over bottles of wine and hampers of food. A whole lot of broken glass and china good for the tops of walls. All right, Essie. Go on—there’s plenty of space up there, if you know how to use it.
Lot 6. Contents of an old army trunk. Nobody has ever explained where moth-balls go; moths thrive best on irreplaceable things such as old army uniforms. Then there was a pair of white flannels bought with the first money ever earned by writing—thirty dollars from Mencken’s and Nathan’s old Smart Set. The moths had also dined upon a blue feather fan paid for out of a first Saturday Evening Post story; it was an engagement present—that together with a southern girl’s first corsage of orchids. The remains of the fan are not for sale. All right, Essie.
Lot 7. The daughter’s first rubber doll, the back and front stuck together and too gummy to save for the grandchildren. Teething beads in good condition—never used. Any bids? Pulease!
Lot 8. Ski pants. Guaranteed to remind the bankrupt traveller of blue snow-padded slopes, high in the Juras in Switzerland, with gargantuan discs of cheeses served by cow-herders in flowered velvet vests; of bells and the smell of coffee drifting out over the snow mountain clubs, of yodelling and blowing melancholic flats through long horn trumpets; of melting snow to drink from the roofs of isolated cabins—all these things lie deep in the pockets of these pants, together with inconsequential trains in angry red winter dawns, cluttered with skis in stacks and the discarded wrappings of Peter’s chocolate. Any bids? Hey, Essie!
Lot 9. Cotton bathing trunks, full of the bright heat of the Mediterranean, bought in the sailors’ quarter of Cannes. They make swell dust cloths but don’t belong on an American beach. Used at present to wrap up the arsenal: a twenty-two that goes off if you stare at it hard enough, a cavalry carbine carved with the name “Seven Pines” and an uncle’s name and some suspicious looking notches, an old thirty-two, and a police thirty-eight. On the whole we keep the arsenal and would like to pick up an old sub-machine gun cheap. Whisk ’em away.
Lot 10. Another barrel full of tops of things: sugar-bowls, vanished mustard pots, lovely colored lids for jars that must have been quite nice. Look, for instance, at this rose-encrusted top to the bowl for rose-leaves: a bowl for rose-leaves. There is the top of the delicate Tiffany urn from a chocolate set that was our first wedding present. The set remained on a dressing table at the Biltmore all during our honeymoon beside a fading Easter lily. On rainy afternoons we leaned into the brick area and listened to the music from The Night Boat swinging its plaints from one walled surface of the hotel to another. Any bids? Surely this gentleman—all right then. Essie, the trash heap.
Lot 11. A real Patou suit. It was the first garment bought after the marriage ceremony and again the moths have unsymmetrically eaten the nap off the seat of the skirt. This makes fifteen years it has been stored in trunks because of our principle of not throwing away things that have never been used. We are glad—oh, so relieved, to find it devastated at last. There was a rippling sun along Fifth Avenue the day it was bought and it seemed very odd to be charging things to Scott Fitzgerald. The thing was to look like Justine Johnson at the time and it still seems a fine way to have looked. The shopper was two days out of Alabama. From the shop we went to tea in the Plaza grill. Constance Bennett was still a flapper and had invented a new way of dancing with a pendulous head. We went to Enter Madame and the actors were cross because our tickets were in the front row and we laughed appreciatively at the wrong places and uproariously at the jokes we made up as the show went along. We went to the midnight roof and stood up to see Ziegfeld’s taffeta pyramids. We thought the man was real who straggled into the show dressed like a student and very convincingly got himself thrown out. Anyhow—thank you, moths—Can you use this, Essie?
A white sweater next that really can’t be disposed of, though the front is clotted with darns and the back all pulled apart to make the worn places elsewhere meet; it was used while writing three books when the house grew cold at night after the heat went off. Sixty-five stories were forced through its sagging meshes. It was a job of years to wash it—that and the socks from England of Gargantuan wool. We have often thought seriously of having other feet knit into these; we can’t see them go. We remember that late afternoon in Bond Street where we bought them from stores looking like Dickens’ forehead, and how we had had to hurry because we had taken so much time seeking the Half Moon Crescent that appeared in Mackenzie’s Sinister Street. These socks made us late for a dinner with Galsworthy while the twilight turned purple and Turneresque over the Thames. These socks have wrinkled above the parquets of Lady Randolph Churchill’s London house and waltzed in a sad Savoy Hotel to the envy of women in black at twenty-one, because a lot of men had forgot to come home. Of course, such wool is fine for polishing mirrors—but there are other considerations. No sale. Wake up, Essie!
Lot 12. Twelve scrap books, telling us what wonderful or horrible or mediocre people we were. Try and get them. What’s that? No, not for twice that. Four dollars you say? Sold!
Lot 13. Here is a jug, a beautiful black milk jug—the dairyman left it years ago when it was cheaper to make your own ice-cream. Anyway, it once looked lovely filled with rambler roses, and now it looks nice with calla lilies. You can hardly tell it wasn’t made for such a purpose in the first place. We have mixed punch inside it for so many parties before we inherited the cut-glass bowls. We fermented our first California grape-juice in something exactly like it. These ten-cent store plates we bought for the kitchen did very well for the table the summer we tried eating outdoors. That sort of thing never works in America, but remembering how happy we were over how it ought to have been, we like these dishes. No sale.
Lot 14. Remains of a service set shot to pieces by Charlie MacArthur in target practice on the lawn at Ellerslie, the day we invented croquet-polo on plow horses borrowed of a farmer. Also this Lalique turtle which once nested in a shop across from Vantine’s, when there was such a place. Nobody bought him but he remained as expensive as ever until finally he lost one foot in the crush of modern window display, and we bought him and a joiner put him together again. It is the turtle who held the white violets the first night Ernest Hemingway came to our house, it is the turtle who hid the burned-out bulbs from so many Christmas trees over the holidays. He is out of style and no longer holds water but is good for old keys that don’t fit anything. Any bids? The attic, Essie. Lalique in the attic!
Lot 15. A silver cake basket and a table that belonged to Francis Scott Key and a bed we had copied from a design in House and Garden—but on the whole we have decided to keep all these things forever, and put them up in the attic. The house is full and comfortable. We have five phonographs, including the pocket one, and no radio, eleven beds and no bureau. We shall keep it all—the tangible remnant of the four hundred thousand we made from hard words and spent with easy ones these fifteen years. And the collection, after all, is just about as valuable now as the Polish and Peruvian bonds of our thriftier friends.
Published in Esquire magazine (July 1934).
Illustrations by unknown Esquire artist.