Morgan (The Iron Butterfly, 2015, etc.) offers a historical novel about a wealthy young man struggling to choose between marrying the woman he loves and maintaining his family’s legacy.
In 1927, 25-year-old Spencer Wentworth receives a telegram calling him home to New York City from his travels in London. When he returns to his family’s estate on the North Shore of Long Island, known as the “Gold Coast,” he’s devastated to learn that his grandfather has died. Worse, the old man has bequeathed all his personal holdings to Spencer. Daunted by his new obligations regarding the family banking business and the Wentworth Hall estate, he decides to work as a teller in order to learn his business from the ground up. Meanwhile, he grows emotionally attached to his sister’s friend, Lorna Beckett, a middle-class girl of striking beauty. At the bank, Spencer learns quickly, but his success is eclipsed by the impending economic depression; he worries that his growing debts will result in the loss of the family’s business and home. As a last-ditch effort to salvage the family portfolio, he forsakes Lorna and attaches himself to Sally Sinclair, an affluent longtime acquaintance, as he’s convinced that marrying her is the responsible choice. But will he amend his path to contentment before it’s too late? This plot-driven, emotionally complex tale effectively details Spencer’s determination to sacrifice his own happiness in favor of his family’s success. In accessible prose, the novel provides numerous historical tidbits about Long Island and Manhattan in the age that immediately preceded the Great Depression (“the arrival of modern technology…brought about the bicycle, Model T, radio, electricity, electric appliances, motion pictures and towering skyscrapers”). With harrowing intensity, Morgan also illustrates the pervasive anxiety just before a disastrous era hit. Overall, she delivers an engrossing love story while also depicting surprising burdens borne by New York’s wealthiest families during the late 1920s.
An engaging tale of a young man’s coming-of-age that will appeal to fans of complicated family sagas.
He walked quietly into the entrance hall, where only one light was turned on. The whole house was dark except for the table lamp, dimly lit, casting a shadow across the hallway. As he walked in, a light yellow piece of paper caught his attention right away. It was staring him right in the face as he opened the door. It was placed neatly on the silver tray on the entrance hall table in his home in Knightsbridge, an exclusive residential and retail district in Central London within walking distance from Hyde Park and Harrods. It was odd that there was something on the silver tray.
Mr. Granger, his butler, a man of medium height about 5’10” with a round face and bespectacled and an air of authority, delivered his mail to him on the silver tray when they came in the day but usually nothing at night. He remembered telling Mr. Granger not to wait for him when he left his house earlier that evening to go to the 1927 Spring Ball at Grosvenor Square. He knew he would be very late. It was now almost two o’clock in the morning. Mr. Granger must have left the yellow piece of paper on the silver tray, knowing he could not miss it when he came home.
Spencer Wentworth had too much to drink at the party and was too intoxicated to comprehend what he saw. He picked up the yellow piece of paper gingerly, opened it, and tried to focus his eye with difficulty. It was a telegram. He started to read.
The telegram said, “COME HOME STOP URGENT STOP.” Just five words, so powerful in their brevity. He stared at them and frowned, his mind slowly absorbing what he read. It was not what he expected to see coming home late at night. He read it one more time. “COME HOME STOP URGENT STOP,” it said. There was no explanation and no denying it was urgent. It said so. He looked at the signature. He thought it might be from home, from his father, George Wentworth Jr., but it was not. Their family lawyer, Alistair Prescott, signed the telegram. “Why would Prescott send me a telegram? What could be so urgent?” He wondered what it all meant.
He put the telegram in his pocket and turned on the sconce light on the stairway. Then he switched off the table lamp light and went straight upstairs to his bedroom. He could not do much tonight and decided to deal with the telegram in the morning when he would be sober.
Upon entering his bedroom, he took off his clothes and draped them on a chair by his secretary desk. He took off his cufflinks and his pocket watch and placed them on his bureau. He sat by the edge of his bed, took off his shoes, and donned his pajamas, which Mr. Granger had laid on his bed earlier and got ready for bed. He felt tired and exhausted and just wanted to go to sleep.
He turned off all the lights and slipped under the bed covers. As soon as he hit the pillow, he forgot about the telegram and went right to sleep.
A few hours later, he woke up with a start and rubbed his eyes. It was still dark. He wondered what time it was. He closed his eyes again but could not go back to sleep. He opened his eyes, and he stared at the ceiling. He suddenly remembered the telegram.
He got up, turned on the light on his night table, and walked to the chair where his clothes were. He remembered he put the telegram in his pocket but could not remember what was in the telegram. He turned on the light on his desk, retrieved the telegram from his pocket, and read it. “COME HOME STOP URGENT STOP,” it said. He placed the telegram on his desk.
He walked toward the window and opened it. The night air was cool, and he could feel the breeze on his face. The crescent moon was casting a shadow on the landscape. He stared at the pattern of the opposite rooftops and walls of the nearby buildings, barely able to recognize their familiar outlines. Aside from a couple of night stragglers on the street walking by, the street was quiet and empty.
He thought of home, but unpleasant thoughts came circling in his mind. He thought of reasons why the family lawyer wanted him home. He wondered if it had anything to do with his grandfather’s death, George Wentworth Sr. It had to be. He was sorry he missed the funeral. That was the last time when he received another telegram, a few months ago. It was from his father informing him of his grandfather’s death. His father said there was no need for him to come home, so he stayed in London. Now the lawyer wanted him home, and it was urgent. “Why?” he wondered.
Spencer Wentworth, a tall, lean, and handsome young man, in his mid-twenties with blond hair and deep blue eyes and a penchant for expensive clothes, was a scion of one of the fabulously wealthy families in New York. He loved to party and had never done any work in his entire life. He grew up in a privileged environment with all that money could buy. His father, George Wentworth Jr., was the only child of George Wentworth Sr., the founder of Wentworth Bank. His mother, Margaret Ashforth Wentworth, a beautiful debutante from Tuxedo Park when George Wentworth Jr. met her at her Debutante Ball and married her within the year of their acquaintance, also came from a prominent old money family in New York.
Spencer and his family lived in Meadow Brook on the North Shore of Long Island in a huge estate called Wentworth Hall. It was on a high elevation surrounded by over 500 acres of land where one could even see the Atlantic Ocean on the south shore on a clear day. Spencer’s grandfather, George Wentworth Sr., built the Wentworth Hall. They also had another large house in New York City on Fifth Avenue near Central Park and a winter residence in Palm Beach, Florida. The Wentworth family belonged to several private clubs, most notably the Piping Rock Club, the Meadow Brook Country Club, Knickerbocker Club, and Colony Club.
Spencer Wentworth, aged twenty-five, and his sister Emma, four years younger than he, always lived in luxury. They grew up with a nanny, a tutor, and a governess always watching their every move. A butler managed the house, assisted by a housekeeper and a cook. Under their management, there was a large staff of servants in all their homes: footmen to help the butler, upstairs and downstairs maids who took care of the maintenance of the house, stable men to take care of the horses and the stable, gardeners to take care of the grounds and chauffeurs to manage the garage and the dozen cars that replaced the horse-drawn carriages and have them ready at will for the family. Work at the house started in the morning’s early hours before the family members left their beds. In the hierarchy of a large household, the scullery maids, parlor maids, and chambermaids scuttled about, removing the remains of the previous day’s fires in all the grates, polishing, dusting, so that when the family arose, everything was ready for them and the work continued till the family retired to bed.
Spencer and his sister, Emma, were tutored at home before he went to boarding school at aged eight, and Emma went to Miss Potters School for the Girls. From boarding school, Spencer went on to prep school in New Hampshire and on to an Ivy League school like all men of his social standing would do. Spencer went to Harvard as expected of him, a Wentworth, like all men in his family, did.
Before the 1920s, few people other than the wealthy children attended college and were almost universally men. In the 1920s, effectively freed from tradition by World War I, young people began swarming colleges – to learn, but also, for the first time for many, simply to have fun. By the end of the decade, 20 percent of American college-age youth were on campuses. Few women did. Emma went to Vassar College later on. A famous limerick of the time went: She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t pet. She hasn’t been to college yet.
Three years ago, after his college graduation from Harvard, Spencer left the United States and sailed for Europe on a grand tour in June 1924. Although he went away to boarding school since he was eight years old, his sojourn abroad was the longest he had been away from home. At boarding school, he could always go home on holidays. Going away to Europe was another matter. It was too long to make the crossing, and so he stayed in Europe. He spent his days enjoying the life of a bachelor with plenty of money to pay for whatever his heart desired. With his good looks and a never-ending supply of money in his bank account, he was able to mingle easily with the moneyed class and the aristocracy.
Spencer wished he was home when his grandfather died. He was very close to his grandfather, who was instrumental in why he was in Europe enjoying the good life. It was his grandfather who insisted he take the grand tour of Europe after his college graduation. He believed that a young man of his stature should and was expected of him. It would be an excellent education for him to see the world. Harvard education was not enough, according to his grandfather. His grandfather told his parents that he would finance his sojourn in Europe and money would be deposited in his bank account every first of the month, and so he sailed for England on the RMS Olympic, the largest ship in the world at that time.
Being the most luxurious transatlantic ship and the first in a new class of superliners at that time, RMS Olympic made her maiden voyage on June 14, 1911, and arrived in New York seven days later, on June 21, 1911. The press gave her extensive coverage, and she attracted much attention from the public. After she arrived in New York, RMS Olympic was opened up to the public and received thousands of visitors, and more spectators came to watch her depart from the New York harbor for her first return trip.
RMS Olympic attracted the rich and famous of the day during its run, including Charlie Chaplin and Prince Edward, then Prince of Wales among the celebrities that she carried. One of the RMS Olympic’s attractions was that she was nearly identical to the RMS Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage. Many passengers wanted to experience the voyage of the ill-fated sister ship of RMS Olympic. Spencer was one of them and enjoyed his voyage to England three years ago.
For his first year abroad, he visited most countries in Europe except Germany. He went to England, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, enjoying various cities along the Mediterranean coast, hopping from club to club, going to art museums, attending concerts and operas, and having a great time. He played the field, and women flocked to him like bees to honey where ever he went, but he refused to get hooked with somebody for too long. He met plenty of expatriates from the States doing mostly the same thing as he did. He enjoyed the nightlife in Paris and Monaco tremendously. He found life at the Riviera to his liking with the more intellectual attractions a city had to offer.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Riviera was visited frequently by writers and artists, including Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso. While Europe was still recovering from WWI and the American dollar was strong, wealthy Americans started arriving. Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence at a villa near Hyeres, winning the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so. F. Scott Fitzgerald first visited with his wife, Zelda, in 1924 and eventually stayed at Saint-Raphael, where he wrote much of The Great Gatsby and began writing Tender is the Night.
Spencer loved Italy with all the arts, the museums, and the opera, which he enjoyed tremendously. He went beyond Europe to Istanbul. He enjoyed and admired the exotic atmosphere of the place. He spent a couple of weeks in India and visited the Taj Mahal. After his trip to India, he went back to Europe and stayed a month in the south of France, then on to England again, where he wandered in the countryside and fell in love with it.
While touring the Continent for a year, he discovered he liked England the best. The English countryside reminded him of home with its sloping vistas and grand houses with fabulous gardens. The City of London was a vibrant place, and he enjoyed the social scene there and loved hobnobbing with the elites of London society. He was in a constant whirlwind of social events, which made him stay. He decided to settle in England and rented a house in London where the social scene was more to his taste and within a driving distance to the countryside where he was welcome as a house guest in some of England’s great houses.
Now that his grandfather was gone, will the money still be deposited in his bank account? He was certain his father would make sure the money would be there. What if he was wrong? What would happen to him abroad? He could not continue his leisure life, hopping from club to club without the money from his grandfather. It was his means to luxurious living. The thought of not having enough money made him so depressed. Maybe that was the reason. Maybe the money would stop. He never thought of that before. He suddenly felt vulnerable and homesick. Maybe it was time for him to go home. He had been away for too long. Three years seemed like a lifetime. He had lived in England for two years of his three-year stay abroad. He contemplated living in England for the rest of his life, but of course, life was unpredictable and constantly changing.
It was unexpected that he was summoned to return home as soon as possible, leaving him no choice. At first, he did not think he wanted to go, but after some thought, he decided it was best to go home and find out what the telegram was all about. He suddenly realized that he was getting old and it was time to settle down. There were more things in life than the pursuit of empty pleasure. He had sown his wild oats. Enough of that already.
Time to get serious. Yes, he wanted to go home more than he realized. Once he made up his mind, he went back to bed and finally fell asleep.
The next morning Spencer woke up with the sun shining brightly. He got up and walked to the window. People were up and about, and he saw some people already strolling towards Hyde Park. He could smell the spring air. Spring blossoms were appearing everywhere.
He turned around and aimed for the bathroom. He saw Mr. Granger had already drawn the water for his bath. He undressed and dropped his nightclothes on the tiled floor. He dipped his toes in the warm water and sank into the tub.
After his bath, he put on his morning clothes, which Mr. Granger had laid out in his dressing room, and then he headed hurriedly downstairs.
“Good morning, Granger,” he greeted his butler, a man in his fifties, always appropriately attired in his butler’s uniform and took pride in his job as Spencer’s butler and valet at the same time. He loved his position, and he was devoted to Spencer, who he found to be a very pleasant employer who treated him very well.
“Good morning, sir. Did you see the telegram I left on the silver tray at the hall last night?” Mr. Granger asked.
“Yes, I did. Thank you,” Spencer said as he walked past Mr. Granger, who held the door to the dining room open.
The dining room was a gracious room painted a very pale yellow and was bright with light coming from the morning sun through the open window facing east. On one wall stood a Georgian sideboard with a pair of silver candelabra on both sides of a porcelain Famille rose punch bowl. Flanking the sideboard was a pair of armchairs in the Jacobean style. At the other end of the dining room was a marble fireplace with a roaring fire giving warmth to the room. Above the Hepplewhite dining table with ten chairs in Queen Ann’s style hung a crystal chandelier with a golden wire chain. A couple of hunting scene pictures graced the wall above the sideboard and the fireplace. The table was set for one person.
Mr. Granger had Spencer’s breakfast of buttered toast, marmalade, eggs, bacon, ham, and kippers ready on the table. Spencer sat on the chair, flipped his napkin, placed it on his lap, and started to eat.
He turned to Mr. Granger and said, “I have to send a telegram today and also see if I can book a passage to New York right away.”
Mr. Granger’s eyebrows shot up. After the initial shock, he asked, “You’re leaving, sir?”
“I’m afraid so. I have to,” Spencer said and continued eating.
“Does it have anything to do with the telegram?” Mr. Granger asked, suspecting it had something to do with it.
“Yes. Our family lawyer wants me home. It says ‘Urgent ’.”
“Urgent? Did it say why?” Mr. Granger was curious to know.
“No. No explanation. Anyway, I have decided it’s time to go back. I hope I can get a passage on the RMS Olympic. I love that ship. It’s the same ship I sailed coming over three years ago.” Spencer picked the last piece of bacon from his plate and chewed it.
“I heard it is like the Titanic,” Mr. Granger said solemnly.
“It is, but better and safer. The company put in so many improvements after the Titanic sank to improve safety. The number of lifeboats was increased from twenty to sixty-four, and extra davits were installed along the boat deck to accommodate them,” Spencer said.
“It’s terrible there were not enough lifeboats on the Titanic.”
Spencer nodded. “I agree. They learned a big lesson from the disaster. An inner watertight skin was also constructed in the boiler and engine rooms to create a double hull. Five of the watertight bulkheads were extended up to B-deck, extending to the entire height of the hull. I understand improvements were also made to the ship’s pumping apparatus.”
“That’s nice to know. It makes one feel at ease and worry free.”
“Exactly. The ship also has plenty of amenities that I enjoyed. The first-class section has a Georgian-style smoking room, a Veranda Café decorated with palm trees, a swimming pool, a Turkish bath, a gymnasium, and several other places for meals and entertainment. It has the most luxurious accommodation among the ocean liners. It’s a home away from home. Maybe even better.”
“That’s wonderful,” Mr. Granger said.
“I understand even the second-class facilities include a smoking room, a library, a spacious dining room, and an elevator. The third-class passengers even have reasonable accommodation compared to other ships. Instead of large dormitories offered by most ships, the third-class passengers of the Olympic travel in cabins containing two to ten bunks. Facilities for the third class also included a smoking room, a common area, and a dining room.”
“That sounds terrific.”
“Yes, it is,” Spencer said as he picked up his cup and drank his coffee.
Seeing Spencer almost finished with his breakfast, Mr. Granger asked hesitantly, “What are you going to do with the house?” He was afraid he would lose his job. He liked his employer, a fine young man, kind and generous.
“I have not made up my mind just yet. I would most likely break off the lease. I don’t know if I am coming back. Not for a long time anyway,” Spencer said and took another sip of his coffee.
Mr. Granger looked down, not knowing what to say. He felt depressed. He knew at this time in his life, it would be difficult for him to find a job, much less a good employer like Spencer Wentworth. It did not escape Spencer’s attention. Spencer realized his butler was worried about losing his job.
Mr. Granger and his wife, the cook, had been in service at his house for two years since he leased his home and were conscientious employees, and Spencer liked them. They were highly recommended by a friend who worked at the U.S. Embassy who knew Spencer’s father back in the States. Mr. Granger and his wife used to work for a young American couple who was recalled back to the States. At their first interview, Spencer took a liking to Mr. Granger, who seemed very pleasant but knew his place in the house hierarchy. Spencer hired him immediately, and the Grangers took good care of him, and he appreciated their loyalty and service.
“Granger, if you are worried about your position, I will try to find you and your wife a job with my circle of friends when I leave for the States. You should not worry about that. I will give you an excellent reference,” Spencer said.
“Thank you, sir. That is very kind of you. I do appreciate it very much.”
Mr. Granger beamed broadly. He noticed Spencer had finished his breakfast. He came closer to the table, cleared Spencer’s plate, and gave him the morning paper. He stepped back and left the room.
Spencer picked up the morning paper, glanced at the headline, and stood up. He headed to his study and drafted a letter to his solicitor in London, then left it on the silver tray on the hallway for Mr. Granger to have it delivered before he went out to answer Prescott’s telegram and book his passage to New York.