The Wentworth Legacy
A Long Island Novel
To read Chapter 1, click here.
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.
Leaden gray clouds hovered across the sky. The wind was still howling, but the heavy rain that had fallen hard in the morning had slowed down to a drizzle. Spencer Wentworth had left his London home in Knightsbridge in heavy rain to go to Southampton to board his ship, which would take him back to the United States. The morning was cold and damp, and he could feel the chill dampness even underneath his heavy wool coat, but it did not dampen his spirit as he looked forward to coming home after three years abroad.
At the pier, passengers started arriving with their vast amount of luggage and trunks. Louis Vuitton luggage and trunks with the LV pattern and some with the checkerboard pattern with a wood brace were prominent among the wealthy passengers. Others brought large suitcases for gowns, tuxedos, dresses, and business suits. There were special boxes for footwear also. There was smaller luggage for whatever they needed while on board. The big ones were held on the ship’s baggage hold. Some passengers checked their luggage straight to the ship from their home location, confident that they would be on their ship when they boarded the ship.
Passengers would dress up to board a ship, even those on the third class, mostly in black or gray with few exceptions. The younger passengers opted for a brighter color. They brought books, magazines to read, and diaries to write down their thought and experience. They carried cash, and some had a letter of introduction. The rich had their jewelry and other valuables stored at the purser’s vault for safekeeping. Everyone seemed to have a gold watch, with some men had a pocket watch.
Spencer found his way amidst the huge crowd at the pier, where men in topcoats, fedoras, and caps and women with large hats mounded with sewn-on flowers carried their umbrellas, bags, and other belongings outside the terminal. Toddlers and young children all bundled up in heavy coats held on tight to their mothers or nannies. At the far side of the building, the RMS Olympic’s hull loomed above the harbor in a black wall of steel with the funnels spewing braids of gray smoke into the mist above, getting ready to depart as thousands of well-wishers gathered along the pier.
There were three different classes of passenger cabins at RMS Olympic based on wealth and social class. The wealthiest passengers traveled in first class. They were mostly members of the upper class, wealthy businessmen, politicians, socialites, professional athletes, and others who could afford the first-class ticket.
Spencer was traveling alone in first-class. Some in first-class traveled with their staff – maids, nurses, governesses for their kids, valets, cooks, and chauffeurs. They were given the list of first-class passengers, a “who’s who” of the rich and famous. Mothers made sure their daughters meet rich bachelors while on board. Spencer was a target of some mothers for their daughters.
The first-class passengers had the most luxurious accommodations, some with a private promenade deck. They enjoyed several amenities, including large dining rooms, a lavish Grand Staircase, a smoking room for men, a Veranda Cafe decorated with palm trees, and several other places for meals and entertainment, a saltwater swimming pool, electric and Turkish bath, gymnasium, a squash court, and a barbershop.
The middle-class travelers, which included middle-class English and American families, clergy, authors, professors, some tourists, and the ship’s musicians, were the second-class passengers. The musicians were not considered members of the crew but worked with an agency under contract to White Star Line. Second-class passengers ate at the dining room for the second-lass passengers. They had their library, and the children could read children’s books at their own library and played shuffleboard at the second-class promenade.
Some traveled alone or in small family groups. Several groups of mothers were traveling alone with their young children. They would be joining their husband, who had left for America before them, to find jobs in the new country and saved for their families’ passage to America.
The third-class, or steerage passengers were mostly immigrants moving to the United States for a better life. Compared to other ships, they had reasonable accommodation. They had their dining room with chairs, not benches as in other ocean liners, and the third-class kitchen staff prepared their meals.
Although single men and women in third-class were separated, they have their own cabins; women in the stern and men in the bow section of the ship. There were two public bathtubs, one for men and the other for women. They could play cards or chess in the third-class common room. The third class even had their own smoking room, and children played in the common area.
The White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class ocean liners was RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic, and HMHS Britannic. The RMS Olympic was the lead ship and the largest transatlantic ocean liner in the world for two periods during 1911-1913, interrupted only by slightly larger RMS Titanic. The White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class ocean liners’ name ends with ‘ic’, paralleling Cunard line ending with ‘ia’. All of them had nine decks, of which seven were for passenger use. They also have four funnels, but one was a dummy funnel used as a huge ventilation shaft.
Two did not have long service lives and were lost early in their careers. RMS Titanic sank on the night of April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic, claiming more than fifteen hundred lives. HMHS Britannic sank on November 21, 1916, after hitting a mine laid by the German minelayer submarine U79 in a barrier off Kea Channel in the Mediterranean during World War I killing thirty people. Unlike her younger sister ships, the RMS Olympic, the lead vessel, enjoyed a long and illustrious career and had a career spanning twenty-four years. During World War I, RMS Olympic was used as a troopship earning her the nickname “Old Reliable”, and her captain was knighted in 1919 for valuable services in connection with the transport of troops.
Spencer boarded the RMS Olympic to take him home to New York. Once aboard the ship, Spencer was led by a steward through one of the three elevators behind the lavish Grand Staircase onto his luxurious cabin, a stateroom equipped with a private bathroom on B Deck starboard side. The steward told him he could have his meals in the ship’s large and luxurious dining room, in the more intimate A La Carte Restaurant, or at the Café Parisian, giving the first-class passengers more options for their dining pleasure. Spencer deposited his small suitcases and made sure his trunks and shoe case had arrived. He thanked the steward, gave him a tip before he left. He tested the locks on his suitcases and trunks and then went back out to join the crowd on the A deck promenade, which was wide open along the ship’s whole length.
Behind the Grand Staircase were three elevators that went up to A deck and down to E deck. Since he was only going one flight, he opted to use the Grand Staircase with two rows of stairs bisected by a middle railing. At the foot of the Grand Staircase stood a putti statue on a plinth holding a torch lamp. Above a fancy grillwork starting from the newel of carved acanthus leaves, there was a set of sweeping railings. An elaborate niche for a wall clock stood prominently below the domed ceiling at the center of the top landing, surrounded by paneled walls.
He saw family and friends of passengers were allowed easy access to come aboard without question to see passengers off. He looked out to sea, and it was rough and metal gray. He wished it was better weather to cross the Atlantic, but it couldn’t be helped. Weather was always unpredictable, and so was life. You could not know what would happen next. It happened to him just as suddenly as the weather changed. He had not envisaged coming back to New York this year, although he missed home once in a while and wanted to go back. He still could not believe that within a matter of days, he would be in New York.
As the whistle blew and the stewards ordered the visitors to disembark, Spencer began to relax, knowing he would be home in six days. He was drained, mentally and physically. The last few days were hectic trying to get everything in order before his unexpected departure. The break-off of his lease to his home at Knightsbridge was left to the care of his London solicitor. Regarding the shipment of his belongings to New York, he gave instructions to Mr. Granger on what to ship and the rest to be given away. His bank account had to be closed. All of these things had to be taken care of. He sought the help of some trusted friends to help him out with the details of his leave-taking. He found a job for Mr. Granger and his wife and gave them a hefty bonus for which they were grateful, and they wished him good luck and safe crossing.
Leaving England was a hard thing for him to do. He was getting used to a life of leisure. He loved the English countryside, and he was fascinated with the English ladies of the aristocracy. With his impressive credentials, a man with deep pockets, and good looks, he was constantly invited to parties. Mothers of the young English ladies vied for his attention to get him to their parties and be introduced to their daughters. As his association with the British high society broadened, he found English women were more reserved than their American counterparts, but no one seemed to capture his heart. He did not think he had found the right woman to share his life with. He was having such a grand time and did not want to be tied down with anyone. Still, the invitations kept on coming. At the start of the London Season, he was invited incessantly to fancy balls.
Spencer was glad to be able to book a passage to New York on the RMS Olympic. So, in a cloudy spring afternoon in early April 1927, Spencer stood with his face toward the wind, gripping the RMS Olympic railas it set sail from the White Star piers of Southampton. With the wind blowing vigorously, he looked sad and nostalgic about leaving. He realized it would be a while before he would set foot on English soil again, if ever.
As the RMS Olympic left port, life at sea began to set in, and passengers had to adapt themselves to the assigned tablemates or dined alone. Like Spencer, unaccompanied travelers faced the prospect of being seated with someone he had nothing in common. If he was lucky, he could meet a pleasant fellow or a beautiful maiden, and romance got kindled, or he could get dumped. If he was unlucky, he could be seated with a boor and be miserable the entire voyage. But the food was always excellent and plentiful, even in third-class. In first-class where Spencer was, it was lavish. They had soups, hors d’oeuvres, and delicious entrees and desserts at all meals. There was plenty of liquor – several cases of Canadian Club Whiskey, Black and White Whiskey, Plymouth Gin, French red wine, Chablis, and barrels of stout and ale. Passengers drank and smoked a lot which was a significant source of profit for the White Star Line. There were thousands of cigarettes and cigars from Havana, Manila, and the United States. For those passengers who brought pipes, there were several hundred pounds of loose tobacco in 4-ounce tins. Some passengers also got their own. During the voyage, the scent of combusted tobacco was ever-present, especially after dinner.
Spencer did not mind sitting with strangers at his assigned table. He saw it as a way of meeting new friends. It was on his second night at sea when he was having dinner with a new group of passengers when all of a sudden, someone said, ‘Either I am getting a little drunk, or it is getting rough.’ They found themselves swaying and leaning sideways in their chairs. They heard a crash and the sound of falling cutlery. At their table, the wine glass toppled and rolled over as they steadied their plate and forks. They looked at each other with expressions of profound horror.
Silence followed the crash, then a high, nervous babble of laughter. Stewards laid napkins on the pools of spilled wine. They tried to resume the conversation, but all were waiting as the next significant blow, and it came heavier than the last. The ship rocked from side to side. Some women at their table started rising and saying good-night. The dining room was emptying fast.
Then, there was another climb, then another drop. The stewards were at work straightening things up, shutting things down, and putting away insecure items. Spencer left with two couples and aimed for the lounge. On their way to the lounge, they had to cling to a pillar. It was almost deserted when they got there. The band played but no one danced. A few passengers read books, a few playing bridge, some men drinking brandy and smoking cigars, but most of the guests had disappeared to their cabin. Then the two couples decided it was time to call it a day, and Spencer was left alone. He decided to walk around the ship on one of the covered decks where the wind howled, and the spray leaped up from the darkness and smashed white and brown liquid against the glass screen. He then decided it was time to go to his stateroom and go to bed.
He went to his stateroom with the ship swaying back and forth. She was rolling now as well as pitching, and his head rang with every creak and thud. All he could think of was the RMS Titanic, and he hoped and prayed to make it to New York. He did not get much sleep that night.
The next day, the wind had dropped a little, but it was still blowing hard, and there was a very heavy swell. Spencer decided to go to breakfast. He went around the promenade, but it was hard going. When the ship rolled heavily, he held on to the rail. He could see the grey sky and the black water outside. The howl of the wind was now subdued. There were few people about that day. Only the brave souls were about, but they did nothing except sit rather glumly in their armchairs, drank occasionally, and exchanged congratulations on not being seasick. A web of lifelines stretched across the lounge, and they seemed like boxers, roped into the ring.
The wind stopped howling, and the sun was up on the fourth day. Passengers started coming out on the deck and began socializing again. Spencer wanted to be alone for most of the day till dinnertime.
He would sit on the deck with a steamer rug over his shoulders, reading or just staring at the sea and wondering what lay ahead in his future. He would give some extra cash to the steward to obtain him a good seat. The quality of mid-ocean wind and sun was curiously invigorating. Sometimes, he would take a break from reading and enjoyed watching some of the games played on deck during the daytime. He found it quite entertaining and relieved some of the boredom he found unbearable.
In the evening, there were concerts and talent shows in the first-class lounge. The room was large and warm and carpeted in maroon and beige with two grey marble fireplaces with serpentine mantelpiece in the front and rear walls and a curb of a pierced scroll-and-shell pattern. The lounge was the finest room built in a ship and as opulent as a stateroom in a palace. The room was decorated in the Louis XV style based on interiors at the Palace of Versailles. The walls were paneled with finest English oak carved with delicate boiserie decorated with scrolled floral-and-shell ornamentation. At the entrance to the First-Class restaurant, there was a revolving door, a feature that only appeared on RMS Olympic, which needed a way of keeping sea breezes out of the room.
As the days passed, he began to enjoy his voyage more and more and made new friends, such as one does on an ocean crossing. Unhappily, the voyage was nearing its end. Before the crossing was over, Spencer Wentworth, like most young people in the first-class, discovered that the third-class lounge was far livelier than their public rooms’ stuffy uprightness. All the most attractive girls on the ship seemed to be in third-class, and they were having more fun at their party. However, just as the young men in the first-class were trying to go to the third-class, some bold young passengers from the third-class were trying to sneak into the first-class. All they needed was a dinner jacket and the audacity to break the barrier.
How ironic could that be? Spencer began to see the difference between the social strata of society. He was never exposed to this situation before. The things that he took for granted, he found out was very important to some young people. He also discovered that the less privileged class had more fun in life than the upper class.
Spencer found some young men of his age from the third-class to trade places, so they sneaked into the third-class. It was awkward at first, but as the music got louder and livelier, they forgot their inhibition and joined in the fun. The dance got wilder as the evening progressed. By the time they left the third-class and met their counterparts to retrieve their jackets, Spencer could not care less if he got his jacket back. He had the most wonderful time of his life, which he would never forget.