A launch party is underway for a hotly anticipated biography, the life story of Elena Franklin. As a young woman, Elena was one of the most promising literary talents of the 1920s, and over the years her legend grew. Her biographer, Martha Farrell, has combed through all the evidence of Elena’s genius and passion, from her early years in New York to her expatriate life in Paris. The result is a monumental work – but among the party’s crowd is the man who knows the book is an empty shell. Only William, Elena’s brother, knew the truth about the famed author. Martha’s flawed biography spurs his memory, and he recalls how the temperamental baby grew into a legend. He knew Elena’s hidden pain, shared their family secrets, and draws his own portrait of the troubled soul that lay behind her artistic gifts.
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About the Author
THOMAS H. COOK was born in Fort Payne, Alabama. He has been nominated for Edgar Awards seven times in five different categories. He received the Best Novel Edgar, the Barry for Best Novel, and has been nominated for numerous other awards.
Read an Excerpt
By Thomas H. Cook
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Thomas H. Cook
All rights reserved.
The first thing I remember is how small she was, and I think now that part of what I always felt for Elena—wrongly felt—resided in this first impression of her smallness.
I had not been well for the last few days, and so I had not been permitted to accompany my father to Dr. Houston's clinic to bring my mother home. My Aunt Harriet stayed with me, a large, sour woman, who moved ponderously under her black floor-length dress. Her life had been bedeviled by an erratic, drunken husband, and I suppose that the bit of advice she endlessly repeated to me that morning was the very sort she had given herself for twenty years: "You'll have to adjust, William, you'll just have to adjust." She meant that I had to adjust to no longer being an only child, but beyond this, I think, she also meant a larger adjustment, the one that must be made to the infinite quirkiness of life, its randomness and disarray.
I was only five years old, of course, hardly capable of understanding any but the most blatant ruminations. Still, from the painful way in which Aunt Harriet spoke of my coming adjustments, I gathered that having a sister was to be a most unpleasant circumstance. So I watched out the window, my face near the glass, waiting for this new intrusion upon my life, this ominous arrival.
She came in a black hansom cab, one of the last to grace the streets of Standhope, Connecticut. The driver sat rigidly on top of the coach, his gloved hands pulling back the reins. In his elegant black coat and top hat, he looked determined to ward off the clanging vulgarity of the motorcar.
My father stepped briskly from the coach, turned back, and lifted his hand to my mother. She took it and eased herself down to the ground, the tip of her shoe dipping into the freshly fallen snow. She held a small bundle in her arms, which she hugged to her breast.
And so Elena came home. She was wrapped in a large pink blanket, and it wasn't until my mother had placed her in her crib and my father had lifted me into his arms that I could see her.
Lying on her back, she did not look much larger than a rolled-up newspaper. Her hands were balled up into two tiny red fists about the size of half-dollar pieces. Her cheeks were flushed with the cold and seemed much too large for her face. Her eyes were tightly closed, so I did not bother to say hello.
"This is your sister," my father said. "Ain't she a pip?"
My mother leaned over the crib and unnecessarily adjusted the frilled collar that encircled Elena's throat.
"Where'd you get her?" I asked.
My father and mother exchanged knowing glances.
"From Dr. Houston," my father said quickly. "From his clinic."
"Is she going to live here now?"
"From now on."
I looked down at her again. So this was Elena, my sister. She appeared too small to be a real person, and I could not imagine that she would ever become one, that she would grow large like me, run and play and make noise as I did. Perhaps she could sit on a table like a vase of flowers, or move very slowly, like the last efforts of a wind-up toy. But that she would ever be fully alive, know her mind and speak it, seek a way in the world that was her own and no one else's—this was beyond my most distant imagining.
From the beginning, everything belonged to Elena. She owned space, and no place was safe from her invasion. She plowed through closets and cabinets, scattering everything in her wake. She pulled clothes from their drawers and lamps from their tables. She ripped at magazines and pulled down curtains, covering herself so completely that I could hardly hear the giggling underneath.
She owned time, and night meant nothing to her. She raged against the way it confined and limited her, and for hours I would lie in my bed listening to the tiny squeak of the rocking chair as my mother tried to soothe Elena into the sleep she hated.
Elena had nothing to recommend her. She slobbered her food out of both sides of her mouth, dirtied herself almost hourly, was always sticky and malodorous. And yet, my mother and father adored her. They washed and dressed her, powdered her behind and cooed lovingly into her small, pink ears. They showed her off to everyone, and these other people, sometimes total strangers, fell immediately under Elena's spell. Their faces lit up with broad, beaming smiles, their voices turned high and affectionate. I had never experienced anything so utterly bizarre.
As the months passed, Elena grew larger and more tyrannical. When I tried to walk away from her, she managed to follow me, her legs shooting out in all directions, her feet scuffing against the wooden floor, her head often banging into chairs or low-slung tables. She did not so much toddle as lunge, her arms beating against the air or flapping at her sides like unfledged wings.
She also began to speak. The babble of grunts and moans became isolated words. The first one was "more," and it was directed at some milky squashed substance in her bowl. "More!" she shouted, opening her mouth to its full, red width, her voice almost rattling the dishes in the cabinet over her head.
Through little skips in time, Elena's hair lengthened and grew darker. She began to rope words together into short sentences. Her eyes, instead of turning brown like mine, deepened into a darker blue. She cried less often, though she would still startle suddenly in the night and rouse herself to a terrible frenzy.
In response to Elena's loss of infancy, my mother became less indulgent with her. She slapped at her hands when Elena grabbed for her sewing, scolded her mercilessly for spills, and sometimes darted away from her so quickly that Elena was left wobbling uneasily on her feet, staring at my mother's retreating figure with a look of great confusion and abandonment.
For a time, my sister reacted to these new circumstances by with drawing from the rest of us. She would sit by the window or retreat to her room and play there, quite determinedly alone. It was a pattern, this self-contained withdrawal, that would recur throughout her life. "There's a part of me that doesn't need anyone else," Manfred Owen says to his daughter in Elena's last book, "a part that floats away from all the rest, though it's not at all an airy thing, more like a stone with wings."
When Elena was five, my father took a job as a traveling salesman for a Midwestern toiletries manufacturer. It became his fate to roam up and down New England, hawking cleanliness and sweet smells to a people already so deodorized and sanitary they were dying of it. He drove about in a dusty, battered Model T, which must surely have been one of America's first "company cars." There were days when Elena and I would sit by the window for hours, our ears cocked for the first sound of that sputtering engine as it turned the corner onto Wilmot Street. Then we would rush out the door and wait for him, our hands intertwined, staring up the street like two marooned orphans scanning the sea for a rescue ship.
But when he came home, the rewards were few. Something had taken hold of him. In an interview in 1969, Elena described our father as having suffered from "the rapture of the road." As a consequence of this condition, he never looked more ill at ease than when returning home. Again, from the interview my sister gave in 1969: "I think my father was very different from the sort of weary, downtrodden salesman, the Willy Loman type, or R. J. Bowman in Eudora Welty's wonderful story, different from those characters in that he was a romantic nomad, the sort who falls in love with long distance, as Tennessee Williams put it in The Glass Menagerie. It is easy to think of his life as pointless, of course, but I'm not so sure that's proper, and I know it's presumptuous. There's this problem intellectuals have, this ancient problem of believing that an unconsidered life is the same as a miserable one. You can take that too far, and intellectuals often do, filling up the world with wasted, blasted lives the way the Fundamentalist mind stacks up souls in hell."
I do not believe that Elena ever managed to convince herself on this point. "Whatever you do, William," she told me on the day I left for college, "stay away from large black traveling cases." She meant the ones our father carried with him on the road.
When he was at home, however, Elena tried very powerfully to attract his attention, at first by grabbing playfully at his legs or quietly crawling into his lap as he sat indifferently reading a newspaper. Later she baked him cookies or cupcakes, once even a large cake, which she dedicated to him, signing her name in pink frosting. When these ploys proved unsuccessful, however, she switched to reverse tactics, and for a time all sweetness died in her. She spilled ink all over his order forms one evening, and he was up all night rewriting them. On another occasion, she crawled into his car with muddy feet and left her tiny footprints from seats to ceiling.
But nothing worked. He simply cleaned the car, laughing and shaking his head as he did so. Then he would be off again, gone for weeks at a time, leaving the rest of us behind, feeling each absence, as Elena would later write in New England Maid, "like a little touch of death."
In an early poem, written when she was fifteen, Elena described a bird that could not find its resting place. It tirelessly flitted about from limb to limb in a towering tree, but it could never get a hold, for the tree's thin, insubstantial branches were always breaking under it or drawing away from its approach. For years I thought the bird, neurotically leaping about, was our mother during her emotional crisis of 1920, and that the swaying tree was our home during that time. Later I realized that the bird was Elena, and that the tree, with its remote and ever-shifting branches, its refusal of all that is secure and battened down, was our father, and that this portrait of his eternal restlessness was the way she chose to praise, rather than to blame, him.
When imagination fails," Elena wrote in The Quality of Thought in American Letters, "the mind naturally descends toward the statistical." I lived in Standhope, Connecticut, for the first eighteen years of my life. I was born there, as was Elena, and I suppose it can be said that I was "formed" by it, as much as anyone is ever formed by an environment that is essentially indifferent, insisting that the general civilities be observed but steadfastly avoiding, as Elena wrote, "the question of what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness actually are." Elena, of course, was able not only to imagine her hometown, as she did in New England Maid, but to portray it powerfully. For me, however, the statistical approach is best, offering at least the candor of fact, though not the glory of supposition.
When Elena was born in 1910, Standhope was little more than a few shops built around an unassuming square. It was a rectangle of woodframe buildings, all of which looked out onto a dusty park which the town fathers reseeded every year, though without much success. Last year, when I returned to dedicate a small bronze plaque in Elena's honor in that same square, I found that the grass still did not grow in those places where it never had. All else was changed and modernized, but nature had remained intractable here and there, asserting its authority in one bare spot or two.
The square itself was very modest indeed in 1910. There was a harness shop, its windows filled with leather goods, bridles and reins and a single, shining English saddle that no one ever bought. Two Italian brothers operated a barbershop, complete with twirling peppermint pole. Their cousins worked as cobblers in the rooms above the shop. Directly across the square, though obscured by the enormous willow that grew beside the bandstand, stood Dickson's Dry Goods, a large general store that distributed everything from Pape's Diapepsin to a fully prepacked steel garage. Dickson's was continually buzzing with the latest town news. None of it ever seemed very engaging to me, or, for that matter, to Elena. "They spoke in monotones of deaths and taxes and the 'Catholic threat,'" she said in New England Maid. "Only a little was worth hearing, and nothing was worth remembering." In addition, the town square boasted an apothecary, a haberdashery, and a gun shop sporting a huge wooden sculpture of a Colt .45.
Standhope was situated about halfway between Hartford and New Haven. In the sense of one-room schoolhouses and covered bridges and austere stone walls, it was not really typical of New England at all. By 1910 it had a population of over three thousand, a great deal larger than the New England village of popular imagination. It had paved streets and motorcars, and not long after Elena was born, there was even very premature talk of a trolley. There were enough Irish, Poles, and Italians to construct a small Catholic church, but not enough Jews for a synagogue. There was a hat factory near the river, and a bell foundry behind the general store. There was no hospital, but Dr. Houston maintained a clinic. There were a number of lawyers, even a small accounting firm.
And yet, for all of this, Standhope was deeply Yankee in attitude and affiliation. Those who were not foreign, as Elena later wrote, distrusted foreigners; those who were Protestant distrusted the Catholics and the Jews. Though the small police force was Irish, it enforced Yankee law. In everything there was Yankee pride and Yankee confidence. School and church taught Yankee values. The bankers were Yankee, as was the single insurance agent. Thus Elena really was a New England maid, though one born, as it were, along that borderland which existed almost like a buffer zone between the heat and noise of New York and the laconic chill of Maine.
Had Standhope been less inland, it would have formed part of that beautiful shore drive which once stretched from the northeastern reaches of New York City to Rhode Island, and which provided the traveler with lovely inlets on one side and softly rolling hills on the other. Standhope was landlocked, however, the distance to the sea being just enough to raise doubts about the trip. Elena was eight years old before she saw the Atlantic Ocean, although relative to most other Americans of the time she lived practically upon its beaches. Similarly, the town was just far enough from New York to avoid the smoky clutter that was already engulfing Greenwich and Bridge port. Thus, as Elena wrote, "Standhope rested near two great powers, New York and the sea, far enough from the former to escape a sense of its own provinciality, and too far from the latter to know a true humility."
In terms of culture, of course, Standhope left a good deal to be desired, particularly for someone like my sister. She described the cultural life of her hometown as residing "somewhere between the general store and the cave." This is a harsh evaluation, for Standhope was not Paris or New York. It was not even Hartford. It was simply a mildly prosperous town in southern New England, ready for progress, though not slavering for it, deeply Yankee, though helpless, as Dr. Houston once said at a town meeting, "before the immigrant horde," a village that had quite recently become a town and would never become a city. Its people lived, like most of the world, between glory and debasement, and if they did not produce great works of art, neither did they produce a Savonarola to burn them in the village square. It had a town band, which shattered the peace of summer evenings with wheezing renditions of hymns, patriotic melodies, and, infrequently, some tune that had wafted up from Tin Pan Alley, which the audience usually greeted with the closeted thrill of the faintly disreputable. It had a group of local singers, mostly conscripted from the Congregational choir. There was an unstable flutist who sometimes sat cross-legged in the park, tooting madly at the birds, and who was finally committed to Whitman House, the large asylum which served as the town's chief employer. It had no painter save for Mr. Webster who did signs of various sorts, and whose greatest work was the enormous representation of a Bethlehem stable that served as backdrop for the annual Christmas play in the school auditorium. It had no writer, except for Mrs. Tompkins who wrote "meditations" on mountains, streams, the willow tree on the town square, and the endless charity of a loving God. It had no sculptor of any kind. Even tombstones had to be purchased elsewhere. And except for a single black-haired Italian anarchist who asked loaded questions at the town meeting, Standhope had no philosopher at all.
Excerpted from Elena by Thomas H. Cook. Copyright © 1986 Thomas H. Cook. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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