"Vanity, Vanity," Saith the Preacher
Sometimes a single life will clearly and effectively illustrate a period. Hence, to me, the importance of this one.
I first met X—— at a time when American financial methods and American finances were at their apex of daring and splendor, and when the world was in a more or less tolerant mood toward their grandiose manners and achievements. It was the golden day of Mr. Morgan, Senior, Mr. Belmont, Mr. Harriman, Mr. Sage, Mr. Gates, Mr. Brady, and many, many others who were still extant and ruling distinctly and drastically, as was proved by the panic of 1907. In opposition to them and yet imitating their methods, now an old story to those who have read "Frenzied Finance," "Lawless Wealth," and other such exposures of the methods which produced our enormous American fortunes, were such younger men as Charles W. Morse (the victim of the 1907 panic), F. Augustus Heinze (another if less conspicuous victim of the same "panic"), E.R. Thomas, an ambitious young millionaire, himself born to money, David A. Sullivan, and X——. I refuse to mention his name because he is still alive although no longer conspicuous, and anxious perhaps to avoid the uncomfortable glare of publicity when all the honors and comforts which made it endurable in the first place are absent.
The person who made X—— essentially interesting to me long before I met him was one Lucien de Shay, a ne'er-do-well pianist and voice culturist, who was also a connoisseur in the matters of rugs, hangings, paintings and furniture, things in which X—— was just then most intensely interested, erecting, as he was, a great house on Long Island and but newly blossoming into the world of art or fashion or culture or show—those various things which the American multi-millionaire always wants to blossom or bloom into and which he does not always succeed in doing. De Shay was one of those odd natures so common to the metropolis—half artist and half man of fashion who attach themselves so readily to men of strength and wealth, often as advisors and counselors in all matters of taste, social form and social progress. How this particular person was rewarded I never quite knew, whether in cash or something else. He was also a semi-confidant of mine, furnishing me "tips" and material of one sort and another in connection with the various publications I was then managing. As it turned out later, X—— was not exactly a multi-millionaire as yet, merely a fledgling, although the possibilities were there and his aims and ambitions were fast nearing a practical triumph the end of which of course was to be, as in the case of nearly all American multi-millionaires of the newer and quicker order, bohemian or exotic and fleshly rather than cultural or æsthetic pleasure, although the latter were never really exactly ignored.
But even so. He was a typical multi-millionaire in the showy and even gaudy sense of the time. For if the staid and conservative and socially well-placed rich have the great houses and the ease and the luxury of paraphernalia, the bohemian rich of the X—— type have the flare, recklessness and imagination which lend to their spendings and flutterings a sparkle and a shine which the others can never hope to match.
Said this friend of mine to me one day: "Listen, I want you to meet this man X——. You will like him. He is fine. You haven't any idea what a fascinating person he really is. He looks like a Russian Grand Duke. He has the manners and the tastes of a Medici or a Borgia. He is building a great house down on Long Island that once it is done will have cost him five or six hundred thousand. It's worth seeing already. His studio here in the C—— studio building is a dream. It's thick with the loveliest kinds of things. I've helped buy them myself. And he isn't dull. He wrote a book at twenty, 'Icarus,' which is not bad either and which he says is something like himself. He has read your book ("Sister Carrie") and he sympathizes with that man Hurstwood. Says parts of it remind him of his own struggles. That's why he wants to meet you. He once worked on the newspapers too. God knows how he is making his money, but I know how he is spending it. He's decided to live, and he's doing it splendidly. It's wonderful."
I took notice, although I had never even heard of the man. There were so very, very many rich men in America. Later I heard much more concerning him from this same de Shay. Once he had been so far down in the scale that he had to shine shoes for a living. Once he had walked the streets of New York in the snow, his shoes cracked and broken, no overcoat, not even a warm suit. He had come here a penniless emigrant from Russia. Now he controlled four banks, one trust company, an insurance company, a fire insurance company, a great real estate venture somewhere, and what not. Naturally all of this interested me greatly. When are we indifferent to a rise from nothing to something?
At de Shay's invitation I journeyed up to X——'s studio one Wednesday afternoon at four, my friend having telephoned me that if I could I must come at once, that there was an especially interesting crowd already assembled in the rooms, that I would meet a long list of celebrities. Two or three opera singers of repute were already there, among them an Italian singer and sorceress of great beauty, a veritable queen of the genus adventuress, who was setting the town by the ears not only by her loveliness but her voice. Her beauty was so remarkable that the Sunday papers were giving full pages to her face and torso alone. There were to be several light opera and stage beauties there also, a basso profundo to sing, writers, artists, poets.
I went. The place and the crowd literally enthralled me. It was so gay, colorful, thrillful. The host and the guests were really interesting—to me. Not that it was so marvelous as a studio or that it was so gorgeously decorated and furnished—it was impressive enough in that way—but that it was so gracefully and interestingly representative of a kind of comfort disguised as elegance. The man had everything, or nearly so—friends, advisors, servants, followers. A somewhat savage and sybaritic nature, as I saw at once, was here disporting itself in velvets and silks. The iron hand of power, if it was power, was being most gracefully and agreeably disguised as the more or less flaccid one of pleasure and friendship.
My host was not visible at first, but I met a score of people whom I knew by reputation, and listened to clatter and chatter of the most approved metropolitan bohemian character. The Italian sorceress was there, her gorgeous chain earrings tinkling mellifluously as she nodded and gesticulated. De Shay at once whispered in my ear that she was X——'s very latest flame and an expensive one too. "You should see what he buys her!" he exclaimed in a whisper. "God!" Actresses and society women floated here and there in dreams of afternoon dresses. The automobiles outside were making a perfect uproar. The poets and writers fascinated me with their praises of the host's munificence and taste. At a glance it was plain to me that he had managed to gather about him the very element it would be most interesting to gather, supposing one desired to be idle, carefree and socially and intellectually gay. If America ever presented a smarter drawing-room I never saw it.
My friend de Shay, being the fidus Achates of the host, had the power to reveal the inner mysteries of this place to me, and on one or two occasions when there were not so many present and while the others were chattering in the various rooms—music-, dining-, ball-, library and so forth—I was being shown the kitchen, pantry, wine cellar, and also various secret doors and passages whereby mine host by pressing a flower on a wall or a spring behind a picture could cause a door to fly open or close which gave entrance to or from a room or passage in no way connected with the others save by another secret door and leading always to a private exit. I wondered at once at the character of the person who could need, desire or value this. A secret bedroom, for instance; a lounging-room! In one of these was a rather severe if handsome desk and a steel safe and two chairs—no more; a very bare room. I wondered at this silent and rather commercial sanctum in the center of this frou-frou of gayety, no trace of the sound of which seemed to penetrate here. What I also gained was a sense of an exotic, sybaritic and purely pagan mind, one which knew little of the conventions of the world and cared less.
On my first visit, as I was leaving, I was introduced to the host just within his picture gallery, hung with many fine examples of the Dutch and Spanish schools. I found him to be as described: picturesque and handsome, even though somewhat plump, phlegmatic and lethargic—yet active enough. He was above the average in height, well built, florid, with a huge, round handsome head, curly black hair, keen black eyes, heavy overhanging eyebrows, full red lips, a marked chin ornamented by a goatee. In any costume ball he would have made an excellent Bacchus or Pan. He appeared to have the free, easy and gracious manner of those who have known much of life and have achieved, in part at least, their desires. He smiled, wished to know if I had met all the guests, hoped that the sideboard had not escaped me, that I had enjoyed the singing. Would I come some evening when there was no crowd—or, better yet, dine with him and my friend de Shay, whose personality appeared to be about as agreeable to him as his own. He was sorry he could not give me more attention now.
Interestingly enough, and from the first, I was impressed with this man; not because of his wealth (I knew richer men) but because of a something about him which suggested dreams, romance, a kind of sense or love of splendor and grandeur which one does not often encounter among the really wealthy. Those cracked shoes were in my mind, I suppose. He seemed to live among great things, but in no niggardly, parsimonious or care-taking way. Here was ease, largess, a kind of lavishness which was not ostentation but which seemed rather to say, "What are the minute expenses of living and pleasuring as contrasted with the profits of skill in the world outside?" He suggested the huge and Aladdin-like adventures with which so many of the great financiers of the day, the true tigers of Wall Street, were connected.
It was not long thereafter that I was once more invited, this time to a much more lavish affair and something much more sybaritic in its tone, although I was really not conscious of what it was to be like when I went there. It began at twelve midnight, and to this day it glitters in my mind as among the few really barbaric and exotic things that I have ever witnessed. Not that the trappings or hangings or setting were so outré or amazing as that the atmosphere of the thing itself was relaxed, bubbling, pagan. There were so many daring and seeking people there. The thing sang and was talked of for months after—in whispers! The gayety! The abandon! The sheer intoxication, mental and physical! I never saw more daring costumes, so many really beautiful women (glitteringly so) in one place at one time, wonderful specimens of exotic and in the main fleshy or sensuous femininity. There was, among other things, as I recall, a large nickeled ice-tray on wheels packed with unopened bottles of champagne, and you had but to lift a hand or wink an eye to have another opened for you alone, ever over and over. And the tray was always full. One wall of the dining-room farther on was laden with delicate novelties in the way of food. A string quartette played for the dancers in the music-room. There were a dozen corners in different rooms screened with banks of flowers and concealing divans. The dancing and singing were superb, individual, often abandoned in character, as was the conversation. As the morning wore on (for it did not begin until after midnight) the moods of all were either so mellowed or inflamed as to make intentions, hopes, dreams, the most secret and sybaritic, the order of expression. One was permitted to see human nature stripped of much of its repression and daylight reserve or cant. At about four in the morning came the engaged dancers, quite the pièce de résistance—with wreaths about heads, waists and arms for clothing and well, really nothing more beyond their beautiful figures—scattering rose leaves or favors. These dancers the company itself finally joined, single file at first, pellmell afterwards—artists, writers, poets—dancing from room to room in crude Bacchic imitation of their leaders—the women too—until all were singing, parading, swaying and dancing in and out of the dozen rooms. And finally, liquor and food affecting them, I suppose, many fell flat, unable to do anything thereafter but lie upon divans or in corners until friends assisted them elsewhere—to taxis finally. But mine host, as I recall him, was always present, serene, sober, smiling, unaffected, bland and gracious and untiring in his attention. He was there to keep order where otherwise there would have been none.
I mention this merely to indicate the character of a long series of such events which covered the years 19— to 19—. During that time, for the reason that I have first given (his curious pleasure in my company), I was part and parcel of a dozen such more or less vivid affairs and pleasurings, which stamped on my mind not only X—— but life itself, the possibilities and resources of luxury where taste and appetite are involved, the dreams of grandeur and happiness which float in some men's minds and which work out to a wild fruition—dreams so outré and so splendid that only the tyrant of an obedient empire, with all the resources of an enslaved and obedient people, could indulge with safety. Thus once, I remember, that a dozen of us—writers and artists—being assembled in his studio in New York one Friday afternoon for the mere purpose of idling and drinking, he seeming to have nothing better to do for the time being, he suddenly suggested, and as though it had but now occurred to him, that we all adjourn to his country house on Long Island, which was not yet quite finished (or, rather, furnished), but which was in a sufficient state of completion to permit of appropriate entertainment providing the necessaries were carried out there with us.
As I came to think of this afterward, I decided that after all it was not perhaps so unpremeditated as it seemed and that unconsciously we served a very useful purpose. There was work to do, suggestions to be obtained, an overseer, decorator and landscape gardener with whom consultations were absolutely necessary; and nothing that X—— ever did was without its element of calculation. Why not make a gala affair of a rather dreary November task—
At any rate the majority of us forthwith agreed, since plainly it meant an outing of the most lavish and pleasing nature. At once four automobiles were pressed into service, three from his own garage and one specially engaged elsewhere. There was some telephoning in re culinary supplies to a chef in charge of the famous restaurant below who was en rapport with our host, and soon some baskets of food were produced and subsequently the four cars made their appearance at the entryway below. At dusk of a gray, cold, smoky day we were all bundled into these—poets, playwrights, novelists, editors (he professed a great contempt for actors), and forthwith we were off, to do forty-five miles between five-thirty and seven p.m.
I often think of that ride, the atmosphere of it, and what it told of our host's point of view. He was always so grave, serene, watchful yet pleasant and decidedly agreeable, gay even, without seeming so to be. There was something so amazingly warm and exotic about him and his, and yet at the same time something so cold and calculated, as if after all he were saying to himself, "I am the master of all this, am stage-managing it for my own pleasure." I felt that he looked upon us all not so much as intimates or friends as rather fine birds or specimens of one kind and another, well qualified to help him with art and social ideas if nothing more—hence his interest in us. Also, in his estimation no doubt, we reflected some slight color or light into his life, which he craved. We had done things too. Nevertheless, in his own estimation, he was the master, the Can Grande. He could at will, "take us up or leave us out," or so he thought. We were mere toys, fine feathers, cap-and-bell artists. It was nice to, "take us around," have us with him. Smothered in a great richly braided fur coat and fur cap, he looked as much the Grand Duke as one might wish.
But I liked him, truly. And what a delicious evening and holiday, all told, he made of it for us. By leaving a trail of frightened horses, men and women, and tearing through the gloom as though streets were his private race-track—I myself as much frightened as any at the roaring speed of the cars and the possibilities of the road—we arrived at seven, and by eight were seated to a course dinner of the most gratifying character. There was no heat in the house as yet, but from somewhere great logs had been obtained and now blazed in the large fireplaces. There was no electricity as yet—a private plant was being installed—but candles and lamps blazed in lovely groups, casting a soft glow over the great rooms. One room lacked a door, but an immense rug took its place. There were rugs, hangings and paintings in profusion, many of them as yet unhung. Some of the most interesting importations of furniture and statuary were still in the cases in which they had arrived, with marks of ships and the names of foreign cities upon the cases. Scattered about the great living-room, dining-room, music-room and library were enough rugs, divans and chairs as well as musical instruments—a piano among others—to give the place an air of completeness and luxury. The walls and ceilings had already been decorated—in a most florid manner, I must say. Outside were great balconies and verandahs commanding, as the following morning proved, a very splendid view of a very bleak sea. The sand dunes! The distant floor of the sea! The ships! Upstairs were nine suites of one-and two-rooms and bath. The basement was an intricate world of kitchen, pantry, engine-room, furnace, wine cellars and what not. Outside was a tawny waste of sand held together in places in the form of hummocks and even concealing hills by sand-binding grasses.
That night, because it was windy and dull and bleak, we stayed inside, I for one going outside only long enough to discover that there were great wide verandahs of concrete about the house, fit for great entertainments in themselves, and near at hand, hummocks of sand. Inside all was warm and flaring enough. The wine cellar seemed to contain all that one might reasonably desire. Our host once out here was most gay in his mood. He was most pleasantly interested in the progress of his new home, although not intensely so. He seemed to have lived a great deal and to be making the best of everything as though it were something to go through with. With much talking on the part of us all, the evening passed swiftly enough. Some of the men could play and sing. One poet recited enchanting bits of verse. For our inspection certain pieces of furniture and statuary were unpacked and displayed—a bronze faun some three feet in height, for one thing. All the time I was sensible of being in contact with some one who was really in touch with life in a very large way, financially and otherwise. His mind seemed to be busy with all sorts of things. There were two Syrians in Paris, he said, who owned a large collection of rugs suitable for an exhibition. He had an agent who was trying to secure the best of them for his new home. De Shay had recently introduced him to a certain Italian count who had a great house in Italy but could not afford its upkeep. He was going to take over a portion of its furnishings, after due verification, of course. Did I know the paintings of Monticelli and Mancini? He had just secured excellent examples of both. Some time when his new home was further along I must come out. Then the pictures would be hung, the statuary and furniture in place. He would get up a week-end party for a select group.
The talk drifted to music and the stage. At once I saw that because of his taste, wealth and skill, women formed a large and yet rather toy-like portion of his life, holding about as much relation to his inner life as do the concubines of an Asiatic sultan. Madame of the earrings, as I learned from De Shay, was a source of great expense to him, but at that she was elusive, not easily to be come at. The stage and Broadway were full of many beauties in various walks of life, many of whom he knew or to whom he could obtain access. Did I know thus, and so—such-and-such, and one?
"I'll tell you," he said after a time and when the wine glasses had been refilled a number of times, "we must give a party out here some time, something extraordinary, a real one. De Shay and Bielow" (naming another artist) "and myself must think it out. I know three different dancers"—and he began to enumerate their qualities. I saw plainly that even though women played a minor part in his life, they were the fringe and embroidery to his success and power. At one a.m. we went to our rooms, having touched upon most of the themes dear to metropolitan lovers of life and art.
The next morning was wonderful—glittering, if windy. The sea sparkled beyond the waste of sand. I noted anew the richness of the furnishings, the greatness of the house. Set down in so much sand and facing the great sea, it was wonderful. There was no order for breakfast; we came down as we chose. A samovar and a coffee urn were alight on the table. Rolls, chops, anything, were brought on order. Possibly because I was one of the first about, my host singled me out—he was up and dressed when I came down—and we strolled over the estate to see what we should see.
Curiously, although I had seen many country homes of pretension and even luxury, I never saw one that appealed to me more on the ground of promise and, after a fashion, of partial fulfillment. It was so unpretentiously pretentious, so really grand in a limited and yet poetic way. Exteriorly its placement, on a rise of ground commanding that vast sweep of sea and sand, its verandahs, so very wide—great smooth floors of red concrete—bordered with stone boxes for flowers and handsomely designed stone benches, its long walks and drives but newly begun, its stretch of beach, say a half mile away and possibly a mile and a half long, to be left, as he remarked, "au naturel," driftwood, stones and all, struck me most favorably. Only one long pier for visiting yachts was to be built, and a certain stretch of beach, not over three hundred feet, cleared for bath houses and a smooth beach. On one spot of land, a high hummock reaching out into the sea, had already been erected a small vantage tower, open at the bottom for shade and rest, benches turning in a circle upon a concrete floor, above it, a top looking more like a small bleak lighthouse than anything else. In this upper portion was a room reached by small spiral concrete stairs!
I could not help noting the reserve and savoir faire with which my host took all this. He was so healthy, assured, interested and, I am glad to say, not exactly self-satisfied; at least he did not impress me in that way—a most irritating condition. Plainly he was building a very splendid thing. His life was nearing its apex. He must not only have had millions, but great taste to have undertaken, let alone accomplished, as much as was already visible here. Pointing to a bleak waste of sand between the house and the sea—and it looked like a huge red and yellow bird perched upon a waste of sand—he observed, "When you come again in the spring, that will contain a garden of 40,000 roses. The wind is nearly always off the sea here. I want the perfume to blow over the verandahs. I can rotate the roses so that a big percentage of them will always be in bloom."
We visited the stables, the garage, an artesian well newly driven, a drive that was to skirt the sea, a sunken garden some distance from the house and away from the sea.
Next spring I came once more—several times, in fact. The rose garden was then in bloom, the drives finished, the pictures hung. Although this was not a world in which society as yet deigned to move, it was entirely conceivable that at a later period it might, and betimes it was crowded with people smart enough and more agreeable in the main than the hardy, strident members of the so-called really inner circles. There were artists, writers, playwrights, singers, actresses, and some nondescript figures of the ultra-social world—young men principally who seemed to come here in connection with beautiful young women, models and other girls whose beauty was their only recommendation to consideration.
The scene was not without brilliance. A butler and numerous flunkeys fluttered to and fro. Guests were received at the door by a footman. A housekeeper and various severe-looking maids governed in the matter of cleaning. One could play golf, tennis, bridge, motor, fish, swim, drink in a free and even disconcerting manner or read quietly in one angle or another of the grounds. There were affairs, much flirting and giggling, suspicious wanderings to and fro at night—no questions asked as to who came or whether one was married, so long as a reasonable amount of decorum was maintained. It was the same on other occasions, only the house and grounds were full to overflowing with guests and passing friends, whose machines barked in the drives. I saw as many gay and fascinating costumes and heard as much clever and at times informative talk here as anywhere I have been.
During this fall and winter I was engaged in work which kept me very much to myself. During the period I read much of X——, banks he was combining, new ventures he was undertaking. Yet all at once one winter's day, and out of a clear sky, the papers were full of an enormous financial crash of which he was the center. According to the newspapers, the first and foremost of a chain of banks of which he was the head, to say nothing of a bonding and realty company and some street-railway project on Long Island, were all involved in the crash. Curiously, although no derogatory mention had previously been made of him, the articles and editorials were now most vituperative. Their venom was especially noticeable. He was a get-rich-quick villain of the vilest stripe; he had been juggling a bank, a trust company, an insurance company and a land and street-railway speculative scheme as one would glass balls. The money wherewith he gambled was not his. He had robbed the poor, deceived them. Yet among all this and in the huge articles which appeared the very first day, I noted one paragraph which stuck in my mind, for I was naturally interested in all this and in him. It read:
"Wall Street heard yesterday that Superintendent H——got his first information concerning the state in which X——'s affairs were from quarters where resentment may have been cherished because of his activity in the Long Island Traction field. This is one of the Street's 'clover patches' and the success which the newcomer seemed to be meeting did not provoke great pleasure."
Another item read:
"A hitch in a deal that was to have transferred the South Shore to the New York and Queens County System, owned by the Long Island Railroad, at a profit of almost $2,000,000 to X——, was the cause of all the trouble. Very active displeasure on the part of certain powers in Wall Street blocked, it is said, the closing of the deal for the railroad. They did not want him in this field, and were powerful enough to prevent it. At the same time pressure from other directions was brought to bear on him. The clearing-house refused to clear for his banks. X—— was in need of cash, but still insisting on a high rate of remuneration for the road which he had developed to an important point. Their sinister influences entered and blocked the transfer until it was no longer possible for him to hold out."
Along with these two items was a vast mass of data, really pages, showing how, when, where he had done thus and so, "juggled accounts" between one bank and another, all of which he controlled however, and most of which he owned, drew out large sums and put in their place mortgages on, or securities in, new companies which he was organizing—tricks which were the ordinary routine of Wall Street and hence rather ridiculous as the sub-stone of so vast a hue and cry.
I was puzzled and, more than that, moved by the drama of the man's sudden end, for I understood a little of finance and its ways, also of what place and power had plainly come to mean to him. It must be dreadful. Yet how could it be, I asked myself, if he really owned fifty-one per cent or more in so many companies that he could be such a dark villain? After all, ownership is ownership, and control, control. On the face of the reports themselves his schemes did not look so black. I read everything in connection with him with care.
As the days passed various other things happened. For one thing, he tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a window of his studio in New York; for another, he tried to take poison. Now of a sudden a bachelor sister, of whom I had never heard in all the time I had known him, put in an appearance as his nearest of kin—a woman whose name was not his own but a variation of it, an "-ovitch" having suddenly been tacked onto it. She took him to a sanitarium, from which he was eventually turned out as a criminal, then to a hospital, until finally he surrendered himself to the police. The names of great lawyers and other bankers began to enter the case. Alienists of repute, those fine chameleons of the legal world, were employed who swore first that he was insane, then that he was not. His sister, who was a physician and scientist of repute, asked the transfer of all his property to her on the ground that he was incompetent and that she was his next of kin. To this she swore, giving as her reasons for believing him insane that he had "illusions of grandeur" and that he believed himself "persecuted by eminent financiers," things which smacked more of sanity than anything else to me. At the same time he and she, as time rather indicated, had arranged this in part in the hope of saving something out of the great wreck. There were other curious features: Certain eminent men in politics and finance who from revelations made by the books of the various banks were in close financial if not personal relations with X—— denied this completely. Curiously, the great cry on the part of these was that he was insane, must be, and that he was all alone in his schemes. His life on Broadway, on Long Island, in his studio in New York, were ransacked for details. Enough could not be made of his gay, shameful, spendthrift life. No one else, of course, had ever been either gay or shameful before—especially not the eminent and hounding financiers.
Then from somewhere appeared a new element. In a staggeringly low tenement region in Brooklyn was discovered somehow or other a very old man and woman, most unsatisfactory as relatives of such imposing people, who insisted that they were his parents, that years before because he and his sister were exceedingly restless and ambitious, they had left them and had only returned occasionally to borrow money, finally ceasing to come at all. In proof of this, letters, witnesses, old photos, were produced. It really did appear as if he and his sister, although they had long vigorously denied it, really were the son and daughter of the two who had been petty bakers in Brooklyn, laying up a little competence of their own. I never knew who "dug" them up, but the reason why was plain enough. The sister was laying claim to the property as the next of kin. If this could be offset, even though X—— were insane, the property would at once be thrown into the hands of the various creditors and sold under a forced sale, of course—in other words, for a song—for their benefit. Naturally it was of interest to those who wished to have his affairs wound up to have the old people produced. But the great financier had been spreading the report all along that he was from Russia, that his parents, or pseudo-parents, were still there, but that really he was the illegitimate son of the Czar of Russia, boarded out originally with a poor family. Now, however, the old people were brought from Brooklyn and compelled to confront him. It was never really proved that he and his sister had neglected them utterly or had done anything to seriously injure them, but rather that as they had grown in place and station they had become more or less estranged and so ignored them, having changed their names and soared in a world little dreamed of by their parents. Also a perjury charge was made against the sister which effectually prevented her from controlling his estate, a lease long enough to give the financiers time for their work. Naturally there was a great hue and cry over her, the scandal, the shame, that they should thus publicly refuse to recognize their parents as they did or had when confronted by them. Horrible! There were most heavily illustrated and tearful Sunday articles, all blazoned forth with pictures of his house and studio, his banks, cars, yacht, groups of guests, while the motives of those who produced the parents were overlooked. The pictures of the parents confronting X—— and his sister portrayed very old and feeble people, and were rather moving. They insisted that they were his parents and wept brokenly in their hands. But why? And he denying it! His sister, who resented all this bitterly and who stood by him valiantly, repudiated, for his sake of course, his and her so-called parents and friends.
I never saw such a running to cover of "friends" in all my life. Of all those I had seen about his place and in his company, scores on scores of people reasonably well known in the arts, the stage, the worlds of finance and music, all eating his dinners, riding in his cars, drinking his wines, there was scarcely any one now who knew him anything more than "casually" or "slightly"—oh, so slightly! When rumors as to the midnight suppers, the Bacchic dancing, the automobile parties to his great country place and the spirited frolics which occurred there began to get abroad, there was no one whom I knew who had ever been there or knew anything about him or them. For instance, of all the people who had been close or closest and might therefore have been expected to be friendly and deeply concerned was de Shay, his fidus Achates and literally his pensioner—yet de Shay was almost the loudest in his denunciation or at least deprecation of X——, his habits and methods! Although it was he who had told me of Mme.—— and her relation to X——, who urged me to come here, there and the other place, especially where X—— was the host, always assuring me that it would be so wonderful and that X—— was really such a great man, so generous, so worth-while, he was now really the loudest or at least the most stand-offish in his comments, pretending never to have been very close to X——, and lifting his eyebrows in astonishment as though he had not even guessed what he had actually engineered. His "Did-you-hears," "Did-you-knows" and "Wouldn't-have-dreamed" would have done credit to a tea-party. He was so shocked, especially at X——'s robbing poor children and orphans, although in so far as my reading of the papers went I could find nothing that went to prove that he had any intention of robbing anybody—that is, directly. In the usual Wall Street high finance style he was robbing Peter to pay Paul, that is, he was using the monies of one corporation which he controlled to bolster up any of the others which he controlled, and was "washing one hand with the other," a proceeding so common in finance that to really radically and truly oppose it, or do away with it, would mean to bring down the whole fabric of finance in one grand crash.
Be that as it may. In swift succession there now followed the so-called "legal" seizure and confiscation of all his properties. In the first place, by alienists representing the District Attorney and the State banking department, he was declared sane and placed on trial for embezzlement. Secondly, his sister's plea that his property be put into her hands as trustee or administrator was thrown out of court and she herself arrested and confined for perjury on the ground that she had perjured herself in swearing that she was his next of kin when in reality his real parents, or so they swore, were alive and in America. Next, his banks, trust companies and various concerns, including his great country estate, were swiftly thrown into the hands of receivers (what an appropriate name!) and wound up "for the benefit of creditors." All the while X——was in prison, protesting that he was really not guilty, that he was solvent, or had been until he was attacked by the State bank examiner or the department back of him, and that he was the victim of a cold-blooded conspiracy which was using the State banking department and other means to drive him out of financial life, and that solely because of his desire to grow and because by chance he had been impinging upon one of the choicest and most closely guarded fields of the ultra-rich of Wall Street—the street railway area in New York and Brooklyn.
One day, so he publicly swore to the grand jury, by which he was being examined, as he was sitting in his great offices, in one of the great sky-scrapers of New York, which occupied an entire floor and commanded vast panoramas in every direction (another evidence of the man's insane "delusion of grandeur," I presume), he was called to answer the telephone. One Mr. Y——, so his assistant said, one of the eminent financiers of Wall Street and America, was on the wire. Without any preliminary and merely asking was this Mr. X——on the wire, the latter proceeded, "This is Mr. Y——. Listen closely to what I am going to say. I want you to get out of the street railway business in New York or something is going to happen to you. I am giving you a reasonable warning. Take it." Then the phone clicked most savagely and ominously and superiorly at the other end.
"I knew at the time," went on X——, addressing the grand jury, "that I was really listening to the man who was most powerful in such affairs in New York and elsewhere and that he meant what he said. At the same time I was in no position to get out without closing up the one deal which stood to net me two million dollars clear if I closed it. At the same time I wanted to enter this field and didn't see why I shouldn't. If I didn't it spelled not ruin by any means but a considerable loss, a very great loss, to me, in more ways than one. Oddly enough, just at this time I was being pressed by those with whom I was associated to wind up this particular venture and turn my attention to other things. I have often wondered, in the light of their subsequent actions, why they should have become so pressing just at this time. At the same time, perhaps I was a little vain and self-sufficient. I had once got the better of some agents of another great financier in a Western Power deal, and I felt that I could put this thing through too. Hence I refused to heed the warning. However, I found that all those who were previously interested to buy or at least develop the property were now suddenly grown cold, and a little later when, having entered on several other matters, I needed considerable cash, the State banking department descended on me and, crying fraud and insolvency, closed all my banks.
"You know how it is when they do this to you. Cry 'Fire!' and you can nearly wreck a perfectly good theater building. Depositors withdraw, securities tumble, investigation and legal expenses begin, your financial associates get frightened or ashamed and desert you. Nothing is so squeamish or so retiring and nervous as money. Time will show that I was not insolvent at the time. The books will show a few technically illegal things, but so would the books or the affairs of any great bank, especially at this time, if quickly examined. I was doing no more than all were doing, but they wanted to get me out—and they did."
Regardless of proceedings of various kinds—legal, technical and the like—X—— was finally sent to the penitentiary, and spent some time there. At the same time his confession finally wrecked about nine other eminent men, financiers all. A dispassionate examination of all the evidence eight years later caused me to conclude without hesitation that the man had been a victim of a cold-blooded conspiracy, the object of which was to oust him from opportunities and to forestall him in methods which would certainly have led to enormous wealth. He was apparently in a position and with the brains to do many of the things which the ablest and coldest financiers of his day had been and were doing, and they did not want to be bothered with, would not brook, in short, his approaching rivalry. Like the various usurpers of regal powers in ancient days, they thought it best to kill a possible claimant to the throne in his infancy.
But that youth of his! The long and devious path by which he had come! Among the papers relating to the case and to a time when he could not have been more than eighteen, and when he was beginning his career as a book agent, was a letter written to his mother (August, 1892), which read:
"MY DEAR PARENTS: Please answer me at once if I can have anything of you, or something of you or nothing. Remember this is the first and the last time in my life that I beg of you anything. You have given to the other child not $15 but hundreds, and now when I, the very youngest, ask of you, my parents, $15, are you going to be so hard-hearted as to refuse me? Without these $15 it is left to me to be without income for two or three weeks.
"For God's sake, remember what I ask of you, and send me at once so that I should cease thinking of it. Leon, as I have told you, will give me $10, $15 he has already paid for the contract, and your $15 will make $25. Out of this I need $10 for a ticket and $15 for two or three weeks' board and lodging.
"Please answer at once. Don't wait for a minute, and send me the money or write me one word 'not.' Remember this only that if you refuse me I will have nothing in common with you.
There was another bit of testimony on the part of one Henry Dom, a baker, who for some strange reason came forward to identify him as some one he had known years before in Williamsburgh, which read:
"I easily recognize them" (X—— and his sister) "from their pictures in the newspapers. I worked for X——'s father, who was a baker in Williamsburgh, and frequently addressed letters that were written by X—— Senior and his wife to Dr. Louise X—— who was then studying medicine in Philadelphia. X—— was then a boy going to school, but working in his father's bakery mornings and evenings. He did not want to do that, moaned a great deal, and his parents humored him in his attitude. He was very vain, liked to appear intellectual. They kept saying to their friends that he should have a fine future. Five years later, after I had left them once, I met the mother and she told me that X—— was studying banking and getting along fine."
Some seven years after the failure and trial by which he had so summarily been disposed of and after he had been released from prison, I was standing at a certain unimportant street corner in New York waiting for a car when I saw him. He was passing in the opposite direction, not very briskly, and, as I saw, plainly meditatively. He was not so well dressed. The clothes he wore while good were somehow different, lacking in that exquisite something which had characterized him years before. His hat—well, it was a hat, not a Romanoff shako nor a handsome panama such as he had affected in the old days. He looked tired, a little worn and dusty, I thought.
My first impulse was of course to hail him, my second not, since he had not seen me. It might have been embarrassing, and at any rate he might not have even remembered me. But as he walked I thought of the great house by the sea, the studio, the cars, the 40,000 roses, the crowds at his summer place, the receptions in town and out, Madame of the earrings (afterward married to a French nobleman), and then of the letter to his mother as a boy, the broken shoes in the winter time, his denial of his parents, the telephone message from the financial tiger. "Vanity, vanity," saith the preacher. The shores of our social seas are strewn with pathetic wrecks, the whitening bone of half-sand-buried ships.
At the next corner he paused, a little uncertain apparently as to which way to go, then turned to the left and was lost. I have never seen nor heard of him since.