A teenage attraction dormant for 34 years explodes in a fury of art theft and orphaned children, soap mummies and Assburgers!
(Read excerpt below. Click on cover to purchase at Amazon.)
Prologue: A mother's advice to her son.
In her last days, I told my mother how sorry I was that I’d never given her the grandchild I knew she’d always longed for.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said, her voice calm but so final. “Things have a way of working out—just not the way we think they will.”
“I haven’t disappointed you?”
The hand that first held mine took it once more.
“How could you? You’ve had your writing…your photography. You have made me so proud.”
“But my personal life, Mama. It’s been such a shambles.”
“Don’t say that. Everybody’s personal life has problems.”
“But Mama, Lila dying. I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered. Geoffrey Hayes says that ever after I’ve been a ‘wreckuva guy.’”
“Geoffrey Hayes is a drunk. He’s the wreck.”
“What about my wives? What the hell was I thinking about?”
“Saving them. You’ve always married strays. The last one I didn’t understand. She just never wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea with me. Well, she was a teenager.”
“She wasn’t a teenager, Mama.”
“Well, she wasn’t a woman either.”
“She was too young, I’ll admit that. It was my fault. I should’ve just dated her. I didn’t have to marry her.
“She trapped you. Men are sitting ducks when a woman wants them.”
“You just said she wasn’t a woman.”
“Hey, don’t pick on me! I’m an old lady. Whatever happened to that movie star you liked?”
“Aleda Collie? Nothing happened to her. She’s a movie star, that’s what happened to her.”
“You two used to like each other, didn’t you? I liked her in that TV show, what was it, she was a detective.”
“The Dish and the Spoon.”
“That was it. I think you should look her up. She would be good for you. Listen to your old mother.”
“I’ll think about it, Mama.”
“Don’t think about it. Do it!”
A few days later my mother quietly slipped away, and in the weeks that followed, in the sifting down of memories, the shifting feelings, I pondered our last conversations including her desire that I get in touch with Aleda. It was an idea I’d toyed with over the years, but each time I came to the same conclusion: it wouldn’t work.
First there was the the geographic impossibility. Aleda lived on the other side of the continent. Second, and most importantly, she was out of my league. I didn’t have enough money to play with her.
“Nice fantasy, Mama. But even dead, you can see this bird won’t fly.”
That was a bad thing to say. The truth was, I didn’t have concrete feelings about death.
I poured myself a glass of wine and stood still in my quiet house. I closed my eyes and made the sad admission to myself: “I am alone.”
Then the phone rang.
It was Aleda Collie.
Chapter 1. Mrs. Gardner's Party. Swanson and Aleda reunite. RISD Museum robbed.
A Venetian palazzo lit entirely by candlelight. Candelabra in every room, candlelight reaching up four stories. An open courtyard in the center filled with trees and flowers and fountains and birds singing.
From the second floor Tapestry Room surge the fresh and reckless tonalities of Debussy, performed by fifty members of the Boston Philharmonic.
A birdcage elevator whirls down from the private residence on the fourth floor. Fires blaze in hooded fireplaces big enough to walk into. Galleries, cloisters, halls, passageways, swarming with guests in evening clothes; shimmery gowns, black tie, white tie, cutaways and everywhere paintings, sculpture, antiquities, rare books—Art.
In a room with walls covered in red brocade hangs one of the world’s most famous paintings: Titian’s Rape of Europa. Jupiter, disguised as a white bull carries off the Phoenician princess, Europa, against a bruised and bloody sky, while onlookers from the shore and angels with arrows are helpless to intervene.
A man excitedly flips wooden panels hung like shutters. Attached to the panels are framed drawings and paintings.
“She hasn’t just collected old masters. Look here: Degas! A bunch of them!”
“And there’s a Manet downstairs, a man wearing a top hat,” says an exceptionally handsome woman, auburn hair swept back. She is, in fact, the very woman whose presence has brought me here tonight and my eyes brim up.
“Yes, yes,” responds the man, “and a Matisse downstairs, too. But, by God I love Degas! The man has a way with the horse. I ride the hunt, myself.”
“I find the horseman quite attractive,” says Aleda. “The coat, the breeches, the boots…the crop. Are you familiar with the work of Doctor Freud?”
Falling snow can be seen through the windows.
In the second floor Dutch Room, the walls covered in green brocade, Isabella Stewart Gardner herself and Bernard Berenson, her art broker, stand in front of Rembrandt’s only seascape, the imposing five foot high Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Crammed together in a tempest-tossed boat, Jesus tries to calm his terrified disciples.
Gardner glimmers in a violet dress that displays to maximum effect her shapely figure, the fine modeling of her shoulders and back. Two, enormous diamonds sparkle in her hair.
“Where would I be without you, Bernard? You who found these two friends for me,” and she gestures to Rembrandt’s Storm and its neighbor, another Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black.
Berenson puffs contentedly on his cigar, his face a dainty valentine decorated with a luxuriant mustache and pointed beard. He coughs, a small cough.
“But remember Bernard, it was I who found the Vermeer,” and Gardner’s gaze crosses the room to a smaller, but no less valuable painting of a young woman playing a clavichord. The Concert has all of Vermeer’s characteristic precision, slanting light and shadows.
Berenson releases a cloud of smoke. “I wonder where all of this will be in a hundred years?” he muses.
“It will be as we see it tonight,” bristles Gardner. “When I die, this will become a museum to enchant the public. I have stipulated that nothing will be added nor subtracted. Not even moved.”
An ancient Chinese “Big Nipple” gong sounds and the palace falls silent, all two hundred guests freezing in mid-gesture, mid-conversation as Gardner makes her final pronouncement:
“Nothing here will ever change!”
“CUT! Print it! That’s a take.”
Lights bang up illuminating the cavernous drill hall of the Cranston Street Armory, as January 1915 comes to a halt, replaced by October 2010. Actors swarm off the set, a gigantic doll house-like cutaway of Fenway Court, today known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and crew scurry through the rooms dousing the candles, packing away the food and beverages.
Aleda is talking to the director and I step back to stay clear of the commotion, but where I can still keep an eye on her.
I have to smile. “Here I am,” I murmur, finishing the thought silently: waiting for Aleda again, thirty-four years later.
Running a hand through my hair, pinching my upper lip I can vaguely smell the Alberto VO5. At fifty-three, my greying hair is dryer and needed something. I decided my height needed something too. Even though I wear orthotics, boosting my five-nine to almost five-ten, I’d snipped the heels off a pair of extra running shoe inserts and stuck those into the shoes too, for an extra quarter-inch. My recollection is that, in bare feet, Aleda and I are the same height.
A pair of blue-grey corduroys, an ancient black and white herringbone Harris Tweed sports coat, the lining ripped up, but nobody can see that…hand knitted grey and black scarf…Looking good. Distinguished, I hope. Yet jaunty.
She’s nodding her head, smiling, breaks off…she’s coming toward me now, removing an elaborate peacock feather hairpin, shaking loose her famous hair. I remember when she gave me a smoldering look from my portable black and white TV and told me she used L’Oreal Preference hair coloring “Because, I’m worth it.”
Our eyes meet, the pace quickens, we are moving toward each other….
“Swanson,” she purrs, as though it’s she who’s been waiting for me her entire life.
Southern gals know how to make a guy feel like he’s the only guy in the world. It’s a femininity this Yankee boy has come to increasingly appreciate. Northern ladies are often too dry and sharp-edged for my taste.
“Aleda.” Her name floats out of my mouth like an iridescent bubble and we embrace.
“How did it look?” she asks excitedly.
“Almost as beautiful as you.”
“You’re a dangerous man, Swanson.”
God that smile. She turns it on like a light. Same smile right off the cover of a 1976 Glamour magazine.
“It was a dream, Aleda. A sumptuous evening hosted by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1915. And your scene with that guy in front of the Degas—is it Degas or Degases? Funny, funny, funny.”
“The humor played? I wanted to toss in a little funny/sexy. I think funny and sexy are important. Don’t you?” That smile again, relaxing down into a mischievous grin. Aleda was always best at playing herself.
“Oh, yes. The riding crop…Dr. Freud. Absolutely.”
“Great! Hey—let’s get out of here!” She grabs me by the hand. “I need fresh air! I need to walk! I need food! Most of all, I need to learn about You!”
In a private dressing room she sheds her rose-colored Edwardian dress, the diamond necklace, the shoes, and pulls on a pair of blue jeans a sweater and brand new pair of green and white Adidas.
“Where can we get oysters?”
She whips out her iPhone….“Philip, a table for two at Hemingway’s in….?”
“It’s Hemenway’s. About ten minutes.”
Waiting outside is an enormous, gold Cadillac Escalade commandeered by a burly Teamster with a flowing salt and pepper beard and long hair pulled back in a single braid. He holds the door for us and we climb in. He’s wearing a black satin baseball jacket with the name of the film, Belle, embroidered in white across the back.
“Look at you,” says Aleda. “You look fantastic! Must be from all the…exercise you do and healthy eating. Dan said you run ten miles a day.”
“Not quite. But I get around.”
“Will you teach me how to run?”
“If you teach me how to smile.”
“You have a beautiful smile.”
“But I can only do it when I’m genuinely happy.”
“How sweet of you to say that. I think you should keep it that way.”
With every moment the years are falling away. She’s a little heavier, but the smoothness of the skin is still there, the luster of the hair. A few wrinkles around the eyes, near the mouth. No evidence of the knife or Botox freeze-face. Physically, she looks just terrific for fifty-three, and she has the same exuberant nature.
She claps her hands together, excited like a little girl. “Here we are, together again. How long has it been Swanson?”
“Not that long. About thirty years.”
“Yeah. Sometimes life sure does feel quick, doesn’t it? I remember when you told me back then that you thought a movie about Isabella Stewart Gardner would be amazing. Now, here you are, making it. That’s amazing.”
“I’ve never produced a movie before, Swanson. But I think it’s gonna work out. I’m glad I just have a small part. Beep Gamble is a great director. Georgette Fanning’s, fabulous, don’t you think so?”
“She’s Gardner. And the guy playing Berenson. Very sly.”
“Marcus Drowne. Very British. But they can do anything.”
Downtown at the College Street Bridge we hit a red light.
“Oh, look at this river, Swanson. It looks like a mini Seine.”
“The Providence River.”
“Is this where they do that fire-in-the-water thing? I read about it. I want to go.”
“WaterFire. They stack wood in those metal baskets down the middle of the river, and light them at sunset. We’ll come one night. They play haunting chant music…opera…soulful, contemplative things. The burning wood smells wonderful. They give gondola rides.”
“I saw a picture of that in a magazine. Providence is very pretty, Swanson. I can see why you live here.”
“So, why are you shooting here—if everything Gardner is in Boston?”
“Tax Credits. Rhode Island is giving us major tax credits. And Providence has all the right period architecture. We’ll be doing a few exterior shots in Boston. Everything is much less expensive here than in Boston The European filming—Paris and Venice locations—has already been wrapped up.”
“This movie must have a hefty budget.”
“Hefty. That’s a good word for it, Swanson.”
At Hemenway’s we order a dry Graves and a dozen local Watch Hill oysters on the half shell. Then another dozen.
“When you grow up land-locked, you can eat fresh seafood all day long,” says Aleda.
“Growing up near the ocean, I took seafood for granted.”
Aleda looks out the window. “I grew up on a river. Being near a river makes me feel at home. The ocean is open and honest, but rivers are mysterious.” After a pause. “Dan told me about your girlfriend who died. I’m sorry. How long were you together?”
“Seven years. Lila died of a brain tumor at thirty-seven. We were both thirty-seven.”
“It must have been hard on you.”
“It does cut both ways. I did my best. I just wish I’d done better.”
“You were young.”
“We were young.”
From our table we look out across the river to the center of old downtown, a view of buildings rich with rococo flourishes and decorative ironwork dating from the 1800’s and the early part of the twentieth century, the glory days of America’s downtowns.
“A lot of those are being converted into lofts,” I tell her.
“The empty-nesters are getting bored with the burbs,” says Aleda. “And kids today aren’t havin’ children. They have dogs. Or children and dogs. They must have dogs.”
“Hey—I read newspapers. And I have family too, in Georgia, goin’ through stuff. But I learned a long time ago, you can’t be good-lookin’ and smart.”
“Couldn’t they make an exception in your case?”
Aleda reaches across the table and puts her hand on mine. In her face I see a gratitude that surprises me—and months of grueling work.
“So—what do I need to see that’s special?” she asks quietly.
“Well, there’s a Degas show, but at this point I’m sure you’re Degad to death.”
“They’re just copies. I love Degas! I’ve been in the house where he was born, in Paris!”
“How long will you be in Providence?”
“Until December twenty-third. But let’s not talk about that….”
Leaving the restaurant Aleda cries out, “Oh, look!”
A transit bus whooshes by with a big advertisement plastered along its side: Six Friends at Dieppe—Degas at the RISD Museum.
“Providence: You think it, and there it is!” I proclaim with a sweeping gesture.
“Rhode Island School of Design.”
“I should know that. We have an art authority from there working on the film.”
“And the R-I-S-D is pronounced Riz-dee. Everyone around here just refers to the school as Riz-dee.”
“I need to stretch my legs, Swanson.”
I walk her one block up the hill to the undulating brick and slate sidewalks of Benefit Street. We scuff through crinkly leaves, past charming clapboard colonials with dainty little windowpanes dating back to the early 1700’s and magnificent mansions of later periods, including the imposing brick, John Brown House surrounded by towering elms.
“Tell me what you’re working on now, Swanson.”
“Basically, struggling along on a novel about two gay football players—”
“Dan told me about that.” A few steps later: “And a girlfriend?”
“No. What about you? Any boyfriend?” Dan’s told me she has a fairly serious boyfriend, a real ‘man-among-men’ type with a ranch and all.
Aleda ignores my question and focuses her attention across the street.
“What’s that?” she asks pointedly.
The grey granite building looks like a large mausoleum. Set atop an ivy-covered slope it looms above the sidewalk.
“The Providence Athenaeum.”
“Is there anything special I should know about it?”
“It’s a library. Edgar Allen Poe used to meet his beloved, Sarah Whitman there—before she dumped him.”
“She dumped him?”
“She was society. He was a writer. He drank too much for her. Doubtless made the occasional ‘crude’ remark. Her friends didn’t like him. He never had much money.”
“Let’s cross,” says Aleda.
In front of the Athenaeum is a granite wall fountain, a stream of water splashing down into a stone basin. Carved above it is the inscription: Come hither everyone that thirsteth.
Aleda sticks out her hand, catches some of the flowing water and brings it to her mouth. Then I do the same.
“What do you thirsteth for, Swanson?”
“Wisdom, I suppose. Some kind of wisdom.”
“That’s too big.”
“What do you thirsteth for?”
“Getting this film done.”
In the next block I swing my arms around. “This is all RISD.”
“Beautiful buildings,” sighs Aleda. “Nothing like New England for that classic look, in brick.”
“And that grassy knoll over there with the kids lolling is called RISD Beach. How do your legs feel?”
“It’s wonderful to be walking after sitting in airplanes and cars.”
“There’s a terrific view of Providence from Prospect Park, a couple blocks up.”
We cross over the intersection and head up the hill. As soon as we turn the corner onto Prospect Street, we see police cars and a news truck.
The vehicles are in front of Woods-Gerry Gallery, an adjunct of the RISD Museum. It’s a particularly lovely place, an Italianate stone villa surrounded by old beech trees, bequeathed to the school years ago and currently housing the Degas exhibit.
A police car blocks the entrance. Squeezing by, we hurry up the cobblestone driveway and I spot Susan amidst a throng on the portico. She notices us and breaks away.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“We’ve been robbed,” she gasps. “We’ve been fucking robbed!” She turns to Aleda. “I’m so sorry…I’m just…I was so looking forward to Swanson bringing you to—” and she stops, distraught, bringing the back of her hand to her mouth.
“Hey,” says Aleda, and she gives Susan a hug. “Just breathe….breathe….”
Two big breaths later, Abby rolls up on her pink bicycle with the banana seat.
“Yo, Aunt Susan. Yo, Swanson. S’up?”
Susan pulls away from Aleda and straightens herself. She is a compact person with square shoulders and straight hips. With her close-cropped black hair, flecked with grey and almost non-existent bust, it would be easy to mistake her for a trim male.
“The gallery’s been robbed, honey. Please wait here with Uncle Swanson and…his friend. God—we have the biggest show since—and this happens. I can’t effing believe it! Could you please keep an eye on her for a sec? Thanks, Swanson,” and Susan heads back to the crush.
Abby is shaking a tube of powdered candy into her mouth and examining Aleda.
“Whoa! Lookit that watch.” She’s staring at Aleda’s Rolex. “Are those real diamonds?”
“Yes, they are,” says Aleda, holding her wrist out so Abby can admire the diamonds encircling the face.
“Can I try it on?”
“Sure you can,” and she slides it around Abby’s skinny wrist.
“Where did you get it?”
“Coco Chanel gave it to me,” says Aleda.
Susan is striding back toward us.
“Swanson, I’m gonna be tied up here for awhile. Would you mind watching after Abby? I’m sorry to do this, but—”
“She can come with us,” says Aleda. “We were just heading back to my hotel….”
(End, Chapter 1)