The Enormous Room

10.23.2004 | David Walley | NP, National Affairs | 2 Comments
from the forthcoming The Shackled Historian: The Life and Time of Herbert Feis

It’s going on five years since I was drawn to that second floor back bedroom study with its overflowing 14’ x 8’ bookcases in that sprawling must-suffused house spread over on a rocky ledge which overlooked the York River in York, Maine. Those massive overflowing bookshelves flickered and radiated with a weird kind of bluish white energy on that damp October afternoon like I’d walked into some time portal. Those were seriously old books, diplomatic memoirs from the World Wars, European histories, poetry, old foreign language grammars in German, French, and Spanish, street atlases for Paris, Rome, Venice. The spines and bindings reflected a bygone era when hardbound books were substantial productions, when the printed word mattered enough that books were made to last, or at least were taken with more reverence than now. The rest of the room stood in time present 1997; aside from the book cases there was a beaten-up sleigh bed, some cardboard boxes—- the vacant summer bedroom of a college student long gone, nothing special. Through faceted glass house conservatory windows one could see at the bottom of the terraced front lawn set off by low stone walls the remains of an Olympic-size salt water swimming pool, a decaying artifact of a Pre-Depression, pre-income tax era.

The house my wife and I had been inspecting was a rambling heavily-improvised portmanteau affair whose various serial additions and modifications had been masked by exterior white clapboard siding. On one end of the relocated farmhouse a narrow servant’s wing with tiny bedrooms upstairs and kitchen/pantry downstairs had been appended; the present owner camped out there in the winter since, the only part that had ever been properly insulated. Neither was the other add-on wing of the farmhouse, as was customary with most Maine summer ‘cottage’ construction, since it was only used from May through August, otherwise it stood empty, boarded-up, the pipes drained the remaining nine months of the year. The two-story addition which was wrapped around the farmhouse had a very Twenties feel in design and proportion, due perhaps to the multitude of conservatory windows which gave it the appearance of a lacquered Chinese lantern box. Upstairs were two sunny bedrooms with bath surrounded by casement windows which faced either the river or the ornamental oriental goldfish pond. A third bedroom suite with full bath and appended study/library was built over a be-columned porch that opened on two sides to the river and lawn—- it was that back room I’d been drawn to on that gray, damp October day. All the upstairs bedrooms as well as the ‘public’ rooms downstairs were wired into the servant’s “below stairs” pantry by an elaborate buzzer system, long since disconnected.

A narrow staircase off the upstairs bedrooms and the hallway led back into the original farmhouse structure to a dining room, a small sitting/parlor room, small bedroom and dingy library/study with jury-rigged red painted bookcases that were edged in green trim. On the library floor was a hideous thick green Seventies-style wall-to-wall shag carpet, an “improvement” by the most recent owner. Into the side of the original farmhouse sitting room had been cut almost as an afterthought, a double French door. One stepped down into the 35’ x 21’ Great Room, so-called for its dimensions as well as its function in the mechanics of summer entertaining; over this the bedrooms had been built. Double sets of floor-to-ceiling conservatory separated by a huge fireplace, opened onto a red-tiled patio overlooking the York River. Even in the gloom it took little imagination to visualize what had gone on here long ago when the house had been properly maintained and staffed. Energized by the frenetic beat of a five-piece acoustic jazz band, the shades of flappers and fashionably dressed slender young men in summer flannels were still dimly to be seen cavorting on the dance floor doing the Black Bottom, Turkey Trot or Charleston. Those not dancing were crowded around the makeshift wet bars set up on the patio, sipping their champagne cocktails, side cars or slow gin fizzes which the bartenders poured with alacrity and practiced skill. If F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby had summered in southern Maine instead of on Long Island, this might all have been his I was thinking.

Chance but most of all the goddess Coincidence in retrospect first brought my family to this house. We’d been looking further up the Maine coast when I saw the ad in the back pages Preservation Magazine. Since place was represented by the same real estate firm, located in the same general area, we had little to lose; we couldn’t afford it, was there any harm in taking a look? There are some times when houses find you, and as it was supposed to happen, when the place we were originally pursuing proved inadequate for our needs and not cost effective, we decided, just for pure sport I suppose, to bid on The Orchard, as it was known locally. The realtor was dubious, the place was known as a white elephant, having been on and off the market for eight years, the result as much of its price as the fact that it was the last prize in a acrimoniously contested divorce. Little had been done in that interval, and what had been previously was either shoddy or substandard. We factored in the kinds of restorative work it needed (we’d done this kind of work twice before but not on this scale), and made an offer, never expecting anything to come of it. We were wrong. We dithered, we dickered, went back and forth, the price fell somewhat. “Real life” intervened when we learned that our youngest son needed a heart valve operation and we withdrew from the negotiations until matters stabilized. Half a year passed; my son’s operation was successful. In the interim the price dropped some more, and finally we closed the deal.

I was between projects, a dangerous place to be as any writer’s spouse will attest. Writers are very much like actors in that respect: no matter how busy or successful they might be, they still worry about finding work, and compulsively hold on to their New York apartments. Writers have a tendency to be obsessed, compulsive and abstracted most of the time. If they’re not working on a project, they’re obsessed about finding one; if they have one, then they obsess about researching, an occupation which encourages obsessive /compulsive behavior if one is to be thorough enough (and how thorough is thorough? Ask any 45-year-old everything-but-the-doctorate candidate about that sometime.) Once research is completed, they then obsess and become abstracted with writing, shaping and proofing. Afterward they freak about the selling of, promotion for, etc. until the project sees the light of day and the process repeats itself ad infinitum. From the outside the process reassembles nothing so much as an oraborus, a serpent who is either chasing or eating its own tail. Talk about the categorical imperative of the Way of the Why. An associated occupational hazard is that a writer might go into a project one way, and come out a completely different person, life having continued on its merry way without him or her. Comparatively speaking, there’s only a small window of time when the writer is, “all there,” and here’s where spouses are supposed to fill them in on what happened while they were gone, which children married, who’s driving, etc. Writers don’t mean to be “out there” they just are. Is it any wonder that writers effusively thank their spouses somewhere prominently in a book’s acknowledgments?

I was at that stage, having just completed a book of essays called Teenage Nervous Breakdown: Music and Politics in the Post-Elvis Age, the culmination of years of ruminations on the state of American consumerist culture, how and why rock and roll music was its dominant rhythm, and what were the results. The effort had temporarily fried my circuits; I needed a rest, a breather. But really I was just feeling lost and in need of another something having already I’d conveniently forgotten how out of it I’d been working on TNB. Usually when I get to this place in my creative cycle, I pull out some interim projects which I’ve started and stopped numerous times, projects which exist in the realm of eventual time—-they get done, but it takes years and years to complete. But even those held no allure, and anyway I wasn’t really excited about going backwards after TNB.

In the course of the negotiations for the house and for a few months after we closed the deal, we stayed in touch with the owner and his ex- who divulged some interesting tidbits about the area, the house and its contents. From the latter part of the 19th century well into the Twenties just before the Crash, the area itself had been known as an exclusive and restricted summer vacation community for the rich, well-connected and high born from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and points west. People still went there for summer vacations, but it no longer had the same cachet, the ex. implied —-not that it mattered much. In essence the house was an artifact of this bygone era; the downstairs library belonged to the original owner, Charles Cross Goodrich, son of the B.F. Goodrich founder of the Goodrich Tire and Rubber Company. Built specifically to be a retreat and refuge, The Orchard was built as a place where Charles, his wife and their friends could go to escape from the stultifying formalities of The River House next door, a capacious and monstrous neo-Georgian summer “cottage” run by his mother, Mary Marvin Goodrich. Since 1913, the Marvin/Goodrich clan had “summered” there for the month of August where it was customary to dress for dinner. Goodrich gradually assembled the adjoining property from smaller parcels over the years, dragged a roadside farmhouse up to the banks of the York, appended the front and rear sections. He’d also added formal gardens watered by an elaborate in-ground copper-tubed irrigation system, the swimming pool, a boat house, and various outbuildings, all of which required the services of a small army of housekeepers and gardeners to maintain. Indeed it was his parties I was seeing up on my psychic radar replay that damp October day!

CC Goodrich was a civic-minded solid citizen of those two Yorks. Well before he “went native” and changed his official residence from New York City to York in 1927, Goodrich’s extensive fortune allowed him to play the role of benefactor/patron for both the summer and “year-rounder” communities. For the welfare and amusement of summer residents, he was instrumental in founding the York Country Club which catered to resort guests and summer residents and brought them golf. He was also the moving force behind the Reading Room, a waterfront clubhouse in York Harbor where distinguished members of the summer colony and their guests could retire to smoke cigars, play cards, and get inebriated of an afternoon and thereby escape the tyranny of their socially-minded wives and their frivolous entertainments. No summer resort colony in Maine worthy of the name was without one of these establishments. He was not only a substantial benefactor of the fire department, a commodore of the Agamenticus Yacht Club, but also a chairman of the York Water District. In the fall of 1928 however, his life started to unravel when he lost his wife to illness, and then his money in the Crash of ‘29. Though elected to the Maine state legislature in 1931, his deteriorating health prevented him serving. In 1932 broke and dispirited, Goodrich, his beloved house in receivership, died at age sixty of surgical complications while being treated for bleeding ulcers. The Goodrich house was more than just a house, and the town it was in was more than just a small seaside Maine town and former summer colony as the ex., a self-styled “amateur historian” told me—-wheels within wheels to contemplate, an intriguing story.

Maine resort politics at the turn of the 20th century, playboys who lost their money in the Crash of ‘29, those stories possessed a certain charm, but didn’t grab me quite the same way as the owner of the books which had radiated such a turbulent intellectual energy in that 2nd floor library did. They belonged to Herbert Feis, a former State Department official turned diplomatic historian who’d won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for history for a book about the Potsdam Conference and the origins of the Cold War called “Between War and Peace.” His books had come with the house, and since the room was only used seasonally, had remained pretty much undisturbed and for the most part unexamined on the second floor. Feis himself was sort of an anomaly for the York community. He was a Jew who had married the granddaughter of James Garfield, 20th President of the United States! I had never heard of Feis nor his book, (I had heard of Garfield, but I couldn’t have told you much) which wasn’t that unusual since my undergraduate field of interest at Rutgers University, class of 1967, was Modern European history, more specifically French intellectual history 1870 to 1914. When the Vietnam War rumbled across my campus in the mid Sixties, like many other students I took a crash course in American foreign policy if only to better understand why my government wanted and needed to ship me over to SE Asia to fight a war against a people with whom I had no direct quarrel. It was at those teach-ins ironically enough that I heard lectures from some of the same New Left scholars who a few years later would be attacking Herbert Feis for his views on American foreign policy—- but that’s getting ahead of our story, at least for the moment.

A self-described observer/participant as Economic Advisor and later Economic Advisor for International Affairs to the Department of State in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, Feis was in a unique position to observe the calculus of the change that American foreign policy underwent in the period between 1931 and 1943, to untangle the intricate details of international power politics, and to examine the genesis of the emergent ideological conflict between Russia and America that was to consume much of the latter part of the 20th century. His historical overview extended from the Treaty of Versailles which concluded World War I into the latter stages of the Vietnam era. He brought unique skills to the craft of writing history. Because he had been in the centers of power, he knew how decisions were really made unlike many of his colleagues historians who could only surmise. His intimate knowledge of how government bureaucracy worked enabled him to track down information and documents which eluded outsiders, a continuing bone of contention among his younger colleagues. Finally, having been a bureaucrat himself, he knew not only how they talked but what they meant when they did answer questions. But though he may have been an “insider”, he never allowed his personal feelings to influence the conclusions he drew from the data, and was anything but a “servant of power” as was claimed by his critics and detractors on the New Left. My kind of guy!

The unexpected entrance of Herbert Feis into the Goodrich/York mix was a definite wild card that quickly centered and focused my attention. I hadn’t bought a house, but a time travel machine, though something a little more comfortable than Dr. Who’s tardis which nonetheless retained within its walls and on its bookshelves many juxtapositions of culture and class, parallel sagas, and story lines that connected the lives of Charles Cross Goodrich and Herbert Feis to a cultural and political history which spanned much of 20th century America. As I gradually eased into the disparate backgrounds of the two and expanded my historical overview, I started to grasp the artful not-so-coincidental ironical symmetry of their lives: one the aristocratic product of St. Paul’s school, the son of a business magnate, the other born of immigrant German Jews on New York’s Lower East Side, and yet the former’s old-money fortune had built a refuge in which the latter chronicled America’s journey to superpower. And as America had changed its ethnic and demographic make-ups over the course of the 20th century, so too had York changed.

This book has been as much a visceral experience as an intellectual one. Though he’s been gone for more than thirty years, Herbert Feis’ s presence is still eminent in the house, but especially in the rooms in which he thought, paced, and wrote. Strange about that, how the previous owner may have occupied the interim period and made some physical improvements (good, bad and mostly indifferent), but never left any sort of imprint. When we arrived, I had the distinct feeling that the house rejoiced that life had returned, but more importantly that the shade of Herbert Feis was delighted that a fellow historian had moved in, perhaps to be inspired. After all, between 1944 and 1972, he’d written 13 books, surely there was energy enough to spare.

In the last analysis, this book is as much a function of this place as it is of time. It is a quintessentially American story which spans most of the 20th Century whose scope extends from the Spanish American War to the Jazz Age, from the Aspirin Age to the Acid Age and hot damn Vietnam. There are many characters, plots and subplots where coincidence not only is king, but reigns. Some aspects examine how patricians and emigrants despite themselves managed to come together in the Thirties and Forties to beat the Depression, win the war and “lose” China, and whose lives intertwined with the time of one man. This book is especially about time and those waves, as well as how the state of Jewish identity became wrapped up in American identity. The narrative contains portraits of snobs and social climbers, socialites and anti-Semites, shrinks, writers, politicians and drunks who sometimes inhabited the same time/space continuum, especially at the Herbert and Ruth Feis’s Georgetown dinner parties in the Thirties. It delves into fashions in intellectual history and fashionable intellectuals, and how the two clashed and nearly succeeded in stifling academic freedom in the late Sixties.

This book is dedicated to the proposition that history is composed of many different times over which the historian exercises some editorial restraint; it also explains as best as it can how an economist became a participant in the historical process. But most of all, this is the story of how a Lower East Side New York Jewish boy went to Harvard, married the granddaughter of a WASP president of the United States and had his life became woven into the historical tapestry of 20th Century America.

It this Borges-esque metafiction, or an acutal account? Incredible!
10.26.2004 | Simon Polsky
Probably a little of both!
10.26.2004 | David Walley

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