Opening in 1943 and spanning over a decade, The New Yorkers is Hortense Calisher’s most ambitious novel. Judge Simon Mannix, a well-educated upper-middle-class New Yorker, is faced with a terrible decision when his unfaithful wife is accidentally shot and killed by their twelve-year-old daughter. Mannix insists upon keeping the truth a secret, claiming that the death was a suicide, as he attempts to save his child from a life of psychological trauma. Shame accumulates in his consciousness, and Mannix finds himself obsessed with the nuances of guilt.
Calisher weaves a complex tapestry of closely observed human behaviors and emotions, accentuated by a collection of fragmented portraits of the lives that intersect with those of the judge and his daughter.
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The New Yorkers
By Hortense Calisher
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Hortense Calisher
All rights reserved.
The Judge's Evening Ride January 1943
Passersby often remembered the house. Even on such a good street, where new young trees, carefully wired against dogs, wind and anarchy, are regularly set out to spindle, a house still occupied by a single family is a fireside glory to all. Such houses are against the natural design of cities, and from the time of the Dutch here were unlikely to be poor ones. After the Second World War, even the rich had lost interest in them. But trees were not enough to signal to the cold, pure heavens far above this particular city what was still single and humane down below. So, on those brilliant winter nights when the stars came out over the gas fumes, rich and poor, alike on the way to their hives, walked slower at the sight of the Mannix house, four stories above the stoop, all softly Florentined from within by light which seemed to come from another clime. Or, on those swathed, semi-tropic nights which rise out of New York harbor at any odd time of the year, they lingered past the deep, flower-ledged windows. The house was one they had once owned or visited, or dreamed. And afterwards, they thought they remembered it.
The street, a cross street, as side streets are more often called in a city built so much on the square, was in the borough of Manhattan, which meant that any house on it was in full view of the city, however much its own prospect might seem restricted to the houses opposite. On the northeast corner of the street, facing both it and the avenue, there was what at first appeared to be either a large mansion or three brownstones joined by the removal of stoops and the use of dropped entrances. Actually, its turn-of-the-century builder, dazzled by the Diamond Jubilee over the water, had conceived of these houses as "mansion-flats." By means of extraordinary rentals to his estate, these were still so maintained, with cream-and-brass foyers, leaded bow windows, and occasional glimpses of one of those fashionably confused interiors where old, coffered ceilings are lit by the bright, stark lamps of the latest transient. Center rear of "the old Ralston houses" as these were now called, an enormous iron-enclosed elevator cage, scrolled as ponderously as its era could manage, and topped by a water tower, rose to a height which once had dominated the land here, and still stood out against the flat rears of the avenue's apartment houses. When erected, it had at once curtailed the space, light and value of the plot adjoining on the cross-street side; no mansion could be built there. But on the next plot after that, going eastward, someone, a parvenu perhaps, had put up a French imitation, a narrow, sour-faced limestone château with a green dunce-cap roof, gone early to institutional use and for as long as anyone now knew inhabited, by secretaries who were slipped through its door in the first fall mornings and not seen again until the six o'clocks of spring.
Between this and the Ralston houses, in the despised plot, which had lain empty for some years, "the Mannix house" had been erected. An ordinary brownstone except for its larger frontage, solidly conventional from service entrance to fanlight to fourth-floor salon, it was hard to imagine now as the young couple's enterprise it had been. Once built, it had inspired—both on the other side of "the French house" and opposite it—whole terraces of smaller ones of its kind, now no longer singly inhabited, their continuous stoops twice interrupted by one of the low, six-story apartment houses of the twenties, after which the street dwindled, much as it had in the beginning, to the tailor-shop and picture-framer crannies of a discreet or shabby small commerce.
All this lore, mixed with family ecology, European tours and Sunday afternoon anecdote as suited to the age and relationship of the hearer, was known in various degrees to all the inhabitants of the Mannix house. Most thoroughly perhaps not to its supposed inheritor, its mistress—but to her husband, its master. Already resident in the house for some twelve years, when he returned to it tonight—though as yet unaware—he would make his first real contribution to its history.
"Yes," said the Judge. "That's our house."
Across the banquet table of the best of those midtown men's clubs whose auxiliary dining-rooms had become so familiar during his scant year of political dinners as a trial judge, he answered the lady's question. With the sharpness his nearsightedness had at this range, he noted her emerald eardrops, almost as large as seckel pears, and the ermine coat she'd carried all the way to the table. Also checked was the French face of his schoolboy's watch—worn on the right wrist, under a cuff custom-shortened for that purpose. Although coffee cups had already been gently tapped with knives for the last time, cigars were well on, and some chairs had even been emptied with the usual excuses, he wouldn't be able to leave until things broke up—since this particular testimonial dinner was for him. Soon, as a member of the appellate court, he would be able to ignore these dinners. Putting on his distance glasses, he was reminded again how often the apparel worn to these occasions was more oddly agreeable than its wearers—as if some very superior cloth, jewels and furs whom one wouldn't at all mind meeting had been brought to dine by various rednecks and vaseline blonds whose acquaintance one could well spare. As on so many recent evenings for months prior to his appointment, he deeply wished to go home, out of a more urgent worry than had ever attacked him down all the years before. He was also aware that two men, on the other side of the table and a few chairs down the line, were commenting on his answer to the lady.
"Our? Our house?" one had almost certainly said—and he knew what they were saying, whatever the exact words were: that he was here without a wife; he was here alone. And that he had his particular wife. Meanwhile, the lady opposite, returning the flat, dark gaze, almost a miniature one, of the guest of honor—"Like a Japanese," she said later, "or like, if you could imagine it, a Japanese Jew"—gathered from the Judge's glance only one of these things. She touched an earring. "You like?" she said, smiling. "But oh—that house! I've been passing it for years. Those marvelous old écru lace curtains on the parlor floor, where did your wife ever—!" She shook her head at him. "Why ... until the brownout—why, I bet I knew as much about that lovely room as anybody in it. As you."
At the age of twelve, the Judge had been a black-haired monkey who was mirror-writing champion (ambidextrous and simultaneous) of his modest West Side private school, a fiend at "points" (a ball game of the era, played mostly against the cornices of residences which were not singly occupied) a collector of Daumier prints (as inspired by his own father but not too much relished by the latter), a fast beginner at chess (which he had since made himself forget), and—thanks to a math teacher's explanation of compound interest—an incipient moneylender. An innocent one too. He was probably the only boy who had ever sincerely tried to teach himself math by the use of money. As a reward for coming out with the right answer (better than even), he was also probably the only boy on the proper Jewish West Side who had been flogged, at least for that reason, his father considering himself a Sephardi sensitive to any ingrowth of what he chose to think of as "Polish" practices.
The son was after that sent to a Massachusetts private school, where he learned how not to be a champion—though he remained a prodigy. For having been cured afterward even of this latter, he was grateful (with a few minor reservations, like hate) to the French school which he'd attended between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, during a family stay in Paris because of his father's practice, which was occasionally that of private international law. Thanks to the school's habit of ostracizing foreigners, particularly Americans, he never did learn much spoken French. At nineteen, therefore, he was normal, even scruffily dressed (a not quite five-foot dandy would have been too much), and ready to enter, first Harvard, which he left after two years, and then—via his father, who was a trustee—Columbia, which he left after another. There had never been any real trouble, merely mutual bewilderment, at times. Perhaps his only trouble, it had sometimes been said, was that he was small. "And lively," said his first school. "And inscrutable, of course," said the French one, in some surprise at having been asked. The Massachusetts one said nothing, merely referring his father back to him. His own answer was on record in the family humor-book, and until well past his majority often in use. "I don't want to be coxswain," he had said. Subsequently he had studied for the bar on his own, and allowing his precocity only that far, had passed, after which he had at once settled down to hard work—for he had an ambition which he concealed as jealously as if it were a soul—and to the business of forgetting how to play chess.
But the possession of all these talents still didn't explain how he could tell almost literally what those two men down the table were continuing to say about him—though the explanation was a simple one. While he gave the lady the ritual answers and cues in this house-dialogue which he had played so often, he watched that other pair—the elder a long-retired Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, the other a trial lawyer—both of whom the Judge, still Daumier in his preferences, thought of as "advocates."
The younger and heavier of the two, who had heard the Judge's reply while walking past him to greet the other, was smiling. "If that isn't like Simon," he said. "'Our' house. Never my. Though surely it couldn't be more his—" He sat down.
"And you couldn't be more wrong, Borkan," said the elder, a nonagenarian who'd known both the Judge's father, and the Judge—who was now fifty-two—as a child. "Not that it isn't typical of Simon. It is. To say it that way." His wrinkled, silvery face looked as if it were retreating from life back to substance, but at its own pleasant-mannered rhythm, the eyes hooded, the mouth still flexible and strong.
"Oh Chauncey, so it was the old Mendes house once of course, but—" The younger man shrugged, his heavy sleek head to one side. Like many of the larger men here, Borkan had a look of the bruiser well bartered; actually he was a Grand Street boy who had come up the hard way, but from a strict, immigrant home. A "theatrical" lawyer, with a professional reputation as fleshy and night-owl as some of his demimonde clients, he knew all the ropes, and must have swung on a good many of them, but at home kept a good wife (upper Park Avenue, acquired the easy way) who had given him a late-begotten son—and many dull dinner parties for judges.
"Mirriam's father left the house specifically to him," said the elder. "Not that she would care—no, the house is his in every way, one can be sure of that. No, this is another attitude, and one of the things I admire him for. When you people say 'our house,' Nathan, you mean more than a family or even a clan, something biblical still. A moral entity is what Simon or any of you means. In a howling world."
"And what about you people?"
"Holding on by a feather," said the old one, grinning. "A few deposit boxes, and St. Thomas's Church."
The other laughed with the professional ease of a diner-out, but looked uncomfortable. "Don't romanticize us, Chauncey," he said. The consonants would have a slight heaviness, if one weighed them. "I pick up the papers these days, I don't know where I am. Don't even single us out." He spread his hands to signify he gave up the subject, folded them between his knees and pursed his lips, thick ones but mobile, a speaker's mouth, like so many others here. "Specifically to him? Not to his own daughter? Well, what do you know." Then he turned his back and the rest of the conversation was hidden.
The Judge leaned forward to light the lady's cigarette. "I grew up in a different house, one my father built, on Riverside Drive. My father-in-law built the present house, as a young man. Had to fight his whole family to do it."
He gave her the very deferential but firm nod which ended crosstable conversations and turned to his lefthand neighbor, who he already knew was hotly engaged with a man on his other side. This released the Judge to himself, since the chair on his right had for the moment been deserted, and also kept him turned away from the two whose colloquy he had been following. Then, to make sure he had removed himself from a talent which sometimes came over him inadvertently, he took off his glasses. He would have known what his friends had been saying underneath, anyway. They'd been saying—or, thinking— that he was here alone, and that he had his particular wife. But the explanation of how he'd heard their words at some distance was simpler. He had once, long ago, acquired this trick for a good reason—to help him understand a child. His own hearing was ordinary, but he could lipread. He had a deaf son.
Left to himself, as guests of honor sometimes were after these functions got rolling and the real drawing card—influence—magnificently emerged, he preferred to look at the room in the large, as he was fairly well able, his glasses being mostly for driving and the theatre. To go on using that old trick would be to feel as a paranoid must—for there was always a certain amount of filling in to be done. No sane man would choose to live in such an eavesdropper's world. He had to live his mental life untinged, except for the timeworn exchanges men made face to face or in the saving reflections of print. No confident man would choose to live among the abysmal whispers from that underworld of what people inevitably said about each other. To him, face-to-face talk wasn't the morass it was to some; it was a natural, Talmudic game—though the Talmud itself was all but unknown to him. To him, the reflections of men as embodied in print were also no burden, but the natural lipreading of men and nations. Otherwise, he meant to keep his mental life unhampered except by the considered judgment—odd as that might seem for a man with a wife, and children too. He had to be able to feel this way, for the sake of that private ambition which he well knew to be a paraphrase of a much meeker biblical one, not from his part of the Testament. Judge not, that ye be not judged—that was the Christian twist of it. The Semitic interpretation was simpler: Judge, that ye may be. He wanted to judge— yes, in the courts, and yes, in the highest one. And he wanted to do it so that in those far, ancestral courts or heavens which even Jews like him—third or fourth generation assimilated reform Jews—still listened to, he might be judged.
Otherwise, Simon Mannix didn't count himself too self-conscious a man, and took a strong delight in such scenes as the one before him. Where else could one sit as onlooker, club member and actor too, before such relatively bloodless seats of power, and yet, unlike in the synagogue, the study or even the university, find oneself so much and heterogeneously in the world? Those presidents whom universities had directly or indirectly given the nation had either been nonentities or warped into excessive action by their own sudden immersion in the world of it. Business had plenty of color, dirt under its fingernails and—scratched from armaments contracts here and there—a little blood, in spite of which not even the rabbis mixed among his own merchant ancestors had denied that it was a necessary pursuit and could be an honorable one. But no one nowadays, even in America, or in the paid-for biographies anywhere, could give it any philosophy of the ultimate. Whereas in these city haunts of the law—from the district clubs of the police judges to these secondhand Vaticans of red velvet and marble where higher jurisprudence gave its dinners—one saw every jowl and paunch, nape and nose of male humanity, and of power too. Here was his boyhood collection all over again, not Daumier but Veronese, and with all the thronging, kneeling, bowing men in black tailored suits. One virtue of democracy was that potentate and retinue alike wore dinner jackets, which brought out the man inside. "In a monarchy," his father used to say, "coats-of-arms make themselves known when you go in to dinner; here, it takes a little longer—until dessert."
Excerpted from The New Yorkers by Hortense Calisher. Copyright © 1969 Hortense Calisher. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. THE CRIME CIRCLE,
1. The Judge's Evening Ride,
2. A Major Visit,
3. In the Upstairs Sitting-Room,
4. Mirriam Upstairs,
5. A Bridge,
6. What the Judge Said,
II. FAMILIES BEHIND THE LINES,
7. Accessory People,
8. Two on Their Way to the Host,
9. Dinners with God and Man,
10. The Young Three,
11. The Honest Room,
12. Red Rooms,
13. Hunting a Judge,
14. Finding a Girl,
III. BEAUTIFUL VISITS,
15. A Buzzing Man,
16. The Servants,
17. The Great Blues,
18. Getting There in Time,
19. The Assoluta,
20. In Full View of the City,
About the Author,