We reached Penge, the estate in Wiltshire that is owned by our good friend Clive Durham, early in April 1927. This was to be the last notable stage of our journey around the world. Maurice would join us after a few weeks. By the end of June the three of us would sail to Dublin and spend a few days in Ireland before embarking on a steamer to New York.
We had first met Clive and his wife Anne in 1923. They were old friends of Maurice’s and had come to America for a visit. Back then, I believed their only objective was to enable Anne to attend the wedding of a boarding school friend of hers in New Haven. They stayed for months, however, at the Plaza in Manhattan and then at my villa on West Egg. Like Nick had predicted, they roamed up and down the East Coast, even as far as New Orleans in the south and the bitter shores of Nova Scotia in the north, riding in railway carriages or driving hired cars and sojourning in every place where people played golf or tennis and were rich and bored together.
In fact, I had met Clive before. In 1919, I enrolled at Magdalen College in Oxford to study, a privilege granted to officers from allied forces who had performed outstandingly in the war. I had left school without a diploma at fifteen and it had only been thanks to a forged college certificate that I had secured myself a military course as an officer when America prepared to send its sons to the European battlefields in 1917.
At thirty-three, I was still as unsuspecting and naïve like one would expect from a man born and raised on the fertile soil of northern Minnesota. When I had my first interview with a mentor at Magdalen, I inquired if the institute offered any courses in German literature. ‘We do,’ the man said. ‘But it would be unsuitable for an American officer. You fought the Huns so bravely. Why would you take any interest in Goethe’s or Schiller’s works?’
I cleverly refrained from mentioning my own background. My parents were Germans, originally from Homburg in Hesse. Our family was Jewish. None of this was very apparent now, since I had changed my last name from Gatz to Gatsby at eighteen. If the man had known all this, he would not have encouraged me to take a German course anyway. An American was supposed to be purely American at all times.
Quite honestly, I had not come to England to attend college. I wanted to find Maurice Hall, the officer from London whom I had met at a staff meeting in France and who had captured my heart. He was the first man I had loved. I still do, in spite of better knowledge. I still conjure the warm, sweet nights we spent at dirty hotels in Montmartre on leave. When he was taken ill in July 1918, all contact was broken off.
The war was over now, and I was determined to find him, to flee to Scotland with him and to live with him forever. I had heard him whisper or cry out a name while he was asleep in my arms in Paris - Clive.
Clive, the man who had been his lover during their college years at Cambridge.
Maurice had called it a fling, but I did not believe him. Since he was a bachelor, I expected him to return straight into Clive’s arms after the armistice, even though Clive was a married man.
I had a feeling that trysts, even with a person of the same sex, were considered less immoral in Europe than in America. So-called buggery was punishable by law in England, but I assumed the matter was considered quite acceptable in intellectual circles where works by Lawrence and Wilde were read and discussed.
I went out of my way trying to find Maurice in London. He had never told me where he lived. I telephoned every listed under the name of Hall and got nowhere. The only choice I had was to travel to Penge, for I was sure I would find him there, as a guest or some kind of tenant, an illicit lover to a married squire.
I hired a car, drove to the estate, found my way in through some hawthorn bushes and then met Clive Durham. A man probably in his late twenties, riding an Arabian gelding and not wearing a protective cap. He sported gold-rimmed glasses and his physique was frail. When he saw me, clad in uniform, he mockingly gave me a military salute and asked me if I was lost.
‘I read about Penge in an American travel guide and I very much wished to see it, sir,’ I said, taking great care to speak clear Oxford English. He laughed, he laughed at me, and then remarked that the estate was not a tourist attraction. His apologies for an obvious misunderstanding sounded gratuitous.
I walked back to the car. Clive Durham was an ungrateful tyrant. He should have been more welcoming. After all, the American forces had come to the rescue in 1917 when the power of the British army was suffering.
My anger was artificial, though. Clive Durham had delightful chestnut-brown hair, sparkling eyes like a spring sky and tempting pink lips that begged to be kissed. He was beautiful, and for a split second, the image of Maurice struck me as atrociously ugly compared to this man.
I returned to London and resumed hunting for people listed under the name of Hall. When I was about to give up and book a ticket back to America, I managed to speak to Miss Kitty Hall, Maurice’s younger sister. She told me that her brother was not in London at the time, but that I was very welcome to come to tea.
I met a girl in her twenties, dark-blond brown-eyed and always sporting a mother-of-pearl cigarette holder. Her voice reminded me of Maurice’s, the sweet looks she gave me were like Daisy’s, the girl I had courted and loved in Louisville before I had left for the trenches.
Kitty and her mother were most cordial. My American uniform did all to convince them, I suppose.
They expressed their regrets that I would not meet Maurice. He had boarded a ship to New York the previous week. So why did you invite me, I thought, I’m wasting my time here.
The glow on Kitty’s cheeks told me all. She was presumably unattached, and any man in uniform, even the ugliest one, looks dashing, and my home country was the most powerful nation in the world. It amused me how Britain had always fascinated me with its proficiency to adopt and to display true culture and how these people now looked up at mine in awe.
All I learned from Mrs. Hall and her daughter was that he intended to find a position on Wall Street. I did not ask if he already had a home address in New York. Luckily, they did not ask me to give them mine. I was registered as a tenant with a landlady in Milwaukee then. It would have seemed like the back of beyond to these English ladies who lived in a charming villa near Alfriston Gardens, a district in Buckinghamshire on the border of the capital.
When I took the bus back to Pimlico, where I had a room in a boarding house, I decided to engage one of my staff to oversee my small drugstore and fuel station business in Milwaukee and to move to New York. I wanted to earn a fortune vast enough to buy an enormous house that could rival the one on Penge, outside Manhattan, far from prying eyes, for only then would Maurice come back to me.
I bought a place on West Egg, a peninsula on the northern Long Island shore and started inviting anyone I had happened to meet in Manhattan. Soon my villa turned into New York’s most acclaimed fairground where liquor was drunk in enormous quantities in spite of the Prohibition.
This legal restriction is in fact the best thing that happened to me. Besides the revenues from the fifty drugstores I owned and many shares in oil businesses in the South, I had gained a fortune as a bootlegger in a few weeks. If this had not been so, I probably would never had lain eyes on my beloved Maurice again. It was not until June 1922 when I shook hands with him at my neighbor Nick’s house.
The irony struck me. I had spent royal amounts of money to attract guests to my place hoping he would be among them one day, and all it took me in the end was a tea party hosted by the man next door to finally have my love at my side again.
As I am writing this, I have to stop very often to take of my glasses and to wipe away my tears.
Poor Nick, he had happily said yes when I had learned that he knew Mr. Maurice Hall who worked on Wall Street like himself. I asked him if he would invite Maurice to tea and not tell this man that I would be present, too. I had been too scared to do it otherwise, since I believed Maurice had now cast off the so-called unspeakable part of himself, that he would avoid me at all cost to prevent our erstwhile love to become known, moreover, that he had turned decent and married.
But fortune smiled on me. Maurice fell in love with me again, we shared a bed at my house, we basked in happiness and bliss.
In September 1922, he announced that Alec Scudder would come to America. This man had been an under-gamekeeper on Clive’s estate and Maurice’s lover before the war. He had lived in Argentina for nine years and ran a successful garage business outside Buenos Aires, but he missed Maurice too much, and Maurice missed him too.
I am laughing now as I fit another ink ribbon into my typewriter. All my hard work had proved to be useless. I had risked being lynched and prosecuted in order to found my empire where I would live with my adorable, beautiful Maurice. Maurice, however, chose to be reunited with a man he had courted for two or three weeks in 1913 and who was as poorly educated as me.
All this does not signify now. Alec has become a dear friend to me and Nick.
But what irks me is how Nick always hovered in the background, saying nothing and doing even less.
I did not know he had fallen in love with Maurice and then with me. It took him a breakdown and a flare of passion that nearly drove him to murder and suicide to open my eyes a few days before Christmas in 1922. I rescued him from my patio while he was about to attack me, and one desperate embrace ended all. He had been let down by Maurice and me and saw no use to go on living. It was then and there that I fell in love with him. My sweet, wonderful Nick, my husband of nearly twenty-six years.
I hurt him so much then, like I would later on, and yet he chose to stay with me.
‘I wish I could marry you,’ he often says. This makes me happy, but he suffered so much that the very thought of those dark times still has me in tears when he’s not around.