He that dies pays all debts.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
When he was dying, Rupert Falkes had the best care money could buy. His wife, Eleanor, saw to that. After the last round of chemo failed, she installed him in New York–Presbyterian in a large, comfortable, private room with a window facing the Hudson. She could have put him in hospice but she knew that in his rare moments of lucidity, he’d want to be in a hospital. He’d fought the prostate cancer tooth and nail, and even when it took over his bones, inflicting almost unbearable pain, he fought on. He wasn’t ready to go. He was only sixty-five. “Why can’t you stop them,” he had said to the oncologist when the third off-label drug didn’t shrink the tumors. He fiddled with his wedding ring, worrying it like a loose tooth. The doctor gave a small guilty shrug. He was out of drugs and words. “How much time do I have?” Rupert said. “Will I see in the millennium?” It was a week to Thanksgiving. The doctor nodded cautiously. “If things progress as I expect, you should make it, with a bit to spare.” Rupert rubbed the top of his head, shiny and bald from the chemo. “I remember when Nixon declared war on cancer. It must have been thirty years ago.” He shook his head. “I voted for the bugger.”
Eleanor’s sons-she had five-knew her as playful, even mischievous, but in the presence of others, even close friends, she rarely revealed that part of her, except in her sly, darting wit. The qualities that drew people to her were her democratic manners, her openhandedness, and her attention to the comfort of others. Often, these qualities passed mistakenly for charm, but charm is natural, innate, a gift. Eleanor was like a ballet dancer; what she did was hard work, born of arduous training, made to look as effortless as breathing.
As she had always reliably primed the social pump, so she made Rupert’s last months easier for everyone. She bought Starbucks cards, spa gift certificates, pizza, and wine for all the aides, porters, and nurses on the floor. Rupert had always been fastidious-understandably, Eleanor thought, but overly-and though he slept most of the time, she rallied the staff to spare him the indignities of his body’s failing systems. The aides kept him spotlessly clean, changing his diapers and sheets when they needed changing, and turning him over gently to prevent bedsores. The porters took care as they mopped and scoured not to bump his bed. The nurses were attentive, never stinting on the morphine. Unless he was so medicated that he barely breathed, Rupert couldn’t bear touch. Most days, Eleanor was unable to tell if Rupert sensed anything other than pain. Still, three times a week, she brought in fresh flowers, unseasonal and riotous, to put at his bedside; and she kept a radio humming by his ear, tuned to WQXR. Every afternoon she looked in to see him and read him short stories, Updike, Cheever, Munro. His doctors made it a point to drop by when she was there. Afterward, she often went to the movies.
Eleanor belonged to that class of New Yorker whose bloodlines were traced in the manner of racehorses: she was Phipps (sire) out of Deering (dam), by Livingston (sire’s dam) and Porter (dam’s dam). Born in 1938, during the Depression, to parents who had held on to their money, she was never allowed to buy anything showy or fashionable. It had to be good and it might be costly, but not obviously so to someone outside the walls of New York’s Four Hundred families. She went to Brearley because the women in her father’s family had gone there and because Brearley girls wore shapeless, navy, hand-me-down, Catholic-school uniforms and brown oxfords.
Eleanor’s upbringing had been conducted by a martinet mother and a succession of brisk English nannies who drilled her daily on grammar, hygiene, deportment, and dress. In truth, she wasn’t so much raised up as subjugated, yoked to a set of rules and rituals that rivaled Leviticus for their specificity, rigor, piety, and triviality. On the subject of manners, Mrs. Phipps swore by Emily Post’s diktat that the Chief Virtue of Children was Obedience.
No young human being, any more than a young dog, has the least claim to attractiveness unless it is trained to manners and obedience. The child that whines, interrupts, fusses, fidgets, and does nothing that it is told to do, has not the least power of attraction for any one. . . .
When possible, a child should be taken away the instant it becomes disobedient. It soon learns that it cannot “stay with mother” unless it is well-behaved. This means that it learns self-control in babyhood.
When, years later, at Vassar, Eleanor read Mrs. Post’s 1922 monumental Etiquette in a sociology class, she saw the “it” as the key to her upbringing. She wrote her term paper on obedience, “Portrait of the Debutante as a Young Dog.” Her professor gave her an A. His only comment was: “So, Miss Phipps, what do you think it would have been for you, as one raised under authoritarian principles, in WWII? Hitler Youth? White Rose? Kinder, Küche, Kirche?” Eleanor showed her roommate. “The creep is flirting and insulting me at the same time,” she said.
Mrs. Phipps, had she known, would have bridled at the “authoritarian” epithet the professor had so slickly applied to Eleanor’s upbringing. She was no narrow dogmatist, doing unto Eleanor as had been done unto her. She never struck Eleanor or locked her in a closet or made her stand in the corner. Her childrearing regimen was up-to-the-minute and scientific, based on the soundest principles of “child development.” An early and avid subscriber to Parenting magazine, she was a votary of the psychologist J. B. Watson and kept his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child by her bedside. She took to heart his nostrums against hugging and kissing and often quoted to Eleanor his most famous axiom: “Mother love is a dangerous instrument that can wreck a child’s chance for future happiness.” Everything she did was for Eleanor’s own good.
Deference to males, no matter their age, was an article of faith in the Phipps household, and by the time she was twelve, Eleanor, with no show of temper, would lose regularly at tennis to boys who weren’t nearly as good as she was. With similar equanimity, she would never argue with a boy or, worse, correct him, no matter how thick he was. At most she’d allow herself a “Do you think so,” then clear her throat. Mrs. Phipps took the hard line against female intelligence, thinking it suspect in a woman, unpardonable in a girl. Vulgarity was the besetting sin, the mark of the ill-bred, covering a range of behaviors extending well beyond conspicuous consumption to reading French novels, confusing a fish fork with a dessert fork, nodding off at the opera, using “lay” instead of “lie,” and wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
Adolescence offered no escape for Eleanor from the maternal dragnet except in furtive play. Pre-Kinsey, she didn’t have a name for it; she only knew she wasn’t to do it. “No decent person does it,” Mrs. Phipps told her. “Only perverts.” Eleanor’s response, by now second nature, was to slip into silence, which passed for submission, and take long baths.
Her mother always blamed Vassar for Eleanor’s marriage to Rupert, and certainly it contributed to her general “Bolshiness,” as her mother called it. In truth, the path was laid down when she was sixteen in a setting Mrs. Phipps would have thought, if not entirely wholesome, then safe enough.
Eleanor was spending the night at the home of a Brearley classmate, Clarissa Van Vliet. Clarissa’s parents, despite impeccable antecedents, were by Mrs. Phipps’s lights “Bohemian.” They lived on the Upper West Side, not the Upper East. Their living room bookshelves held books and not antique Chinese export pottery. Their three children, ages eleven to sixteen, regularly ate dinner with their parents. They socialized with Jews and homosexuals.
That evening at dinner, Mrs. Van Vliet directed her conversation toward Clarissa and her guest, telling them about “a terrific book” she was rereading, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. “It’s as good as I remember-I first read it when I was at Vassar, English 225, I think,” she said. “The professor was advanced.” Her husband looked up from his plate, amused. “Very advanced, even for Vassar. Isn’t it what we called in my day a ‘dirty’ book?” he asked. “Well, of course it is,” Mrs. Van Vliet said. “How are young women supposed to learn anything?” As she said this, she knocked her water glass to the floor, where it shattered into scores of tiny, spiky shards. “Oh, shit,” Mrs. Van Vliet said. The hair on the back of Eleanor’s neck stood up. She’d found the whole conversation exhilarating, but this last outburst was thrilling. She’d never heard anyone’s mother use a swearword, and she had believed that if one ever slipped out, a thing almost unimaginable, the woman would be filled with chagrin, falling over herself to apologize. Not this mother. Mrs. Van Vliet laughed and called to the maid to sweep it up. The next day, Eleanor went to Scribner’s and bought Women in Love. She stayed up all night reading it. When she’d finished, she told her mother she was going to go to Vassar. Years later, Eleanor would think of that dinner at the Van Vliets as her Emma-Bovary-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment.
Eleanor’s first act of open rebellion was to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960. No one in the family, not since McKinley, had voted for a Democrat. Her second was to marry Rupert Falkes, a penniless Englishman.
Rupert Falkes had only one social rule, which he observed punctiliously: a gentleman is never unintentionally rude. He was equal parts charm and rudeness, and in his prime, he was rude at some point or other to almost every person he knew, and many he didn’t. Occasionally, he larded his insults with obscenities. The exceptions were Eleanor, the boys, and her father. He knew that Eleanor wouldn’t tolerate rudeness to herself or the boys. She had made it clear early in their marriage when he criticized their firstborn’s table manners. “He’s not fit to eat at table,” he said to Eleanor. The child, Harry, was sixteen months at the time. He had scant control of the spoon, but insisted on using it, carrying his porridge to his nose as often as to his mouth. When Eleanor tried to help, he pushed her hand away and shook his head. “Self,” he said.
“Right,” Eleanor said. “Off to boarding school with him then.” Rupert took the warning. “I’m not used to eating with babies,” he said. His explanation passed for an apology.
Eleanor never minded his rudeness to others, shrugging it off. “It’s like Tourette’s or hiccups with him,” she would say if a friend mentioned it. “Raise it with him, if you like. He might respond well.”
Rupert had had the good fortune he’d always say of being an orphan. A foundling, he’d been left in the English winter of 1934, when he was no more than a month old, on the steps of St. Pancras in Chichester. He was fair and rosy, healthy, and nicely swaddled, and the priest who’d found him, the Rev. Henry Falkes, was sure his mother would have a change of heart and come fetch him. She didn’t. Rupert grew up in St. Pancras’s Home for Orphaned Boys, a childhood no more brutal than one offered in the Depression years at a Church of England prep school. Whatever the weather, the boys wore shorts. Whatever the games and season, they bathed once a week in communal tubs. Until he came to America, he didn’t know that chilblains were frostbite.
Rupert had a lovely boy’s soprano voice that made him stand out from the unruly, runny-nosed, scabrous little boys he lived with. It would prove not only the saving of him but the making of him. When he was seven, Reverend Falkes made an application for him to the Prebendal School and he was accepted as a chorister. From there, he went to public school at Longleat on a scholarship, and then to Cambridge, as a scholar. Holidays, he spent with Reverend Falkes, who was proud of Rupert and always kind to him but unaffectionate in that wooden way of Englishmen sent off to boarding school before they cut their second teeth.
Rupert emigrated to America in the summer of 1955, when he was twenty-one. Reverend Falkes had died without warning on Boxing Day the year before and there was nothing to keep him in England. Twice abandoned and orphaned, he had no home, no one looking out for him, no useful connections. Despite his first-class education, his prospects, if he stayed, would be limited. And he was made for America. Americans loved his accent and his Cambridge pedigree and regarded his orphaned status almost as an asset, the stamp of authenticity of the self-made man. The first time Eleanor saw him weep was when he read The Great Gatsby. “We don’t read this in England,” he said. “Witless arrogance.”
Rupert never talked about his first year in America, and Eleanor was never sure how he’d got on. The story he would tell was that he met the dean of Yale Law School, Eugene Debs Rostow, on a train that first year, and talked his way into a scholarship there. Rostow would not regret the decision. Rupert made the Law Journal, clerked for Judge Friendly on the Second Circuit, and then went to work for Maynard, Tandy & Jordan, where he practiced antitrust law in the golden age of antitrust. He made a lot of money, and when he retired at sixty-five, he endowed three chairs at Yale, one in honor of Dean Rostow.
Eleanor was attentive to Rupert’s needs, pushing aside all feelings of loss until they could not be ignored. She would miss him, she knew, but she couldn’t wish him longer life. She wondered what the boys were feeling. They were now men, the oldest thirty-seven, the youngest almost thirty, and they no longer confided in her. Sam, the middle son, would take it hardest, but she didn’t believe Rupert’s death would be wrenching for the others, except perhaps in the feeling of what-might-have-been-and-now-never-will. But that is loss too, she thought.
Harry and Sam, the two boys living in New York, visited him at the hospital at least three times a week, usually before or after work, and Sam often stayed through dinner and read to his father, picking up where Eleanor had left off. Will, Jack, and Tom came from Los Angeles, Austin, and Chicago every few weeks. Although Eleanor had been, they would tease, an overly fond mother, she had not rejected all the lessons of her childhood, but had instilled in the boys a sense of responsibility to family and community. “We do what decency requires,” she regularly said to them. “Never less.” The boys loved Rupert-he was, after all, their father and he had always looked out for them-but he had been, for so much of their early lives, so little there, they had few childhood memories of him. They remembered their mother and grandfather. Eleanor had taught them to ride their bikes and serve a tennis ball. She had held them when they were sad and kissed their scrapes. Poppa took them to baseball games and museums. He’d let them sit on his lap at dinner. A natural Watsonian, Rupert never hugged or kissed his sons. When they were two, he patted them on the head; when they were seven, he met them with a handshake. He couldn’t help it, much as he cared for them in his buttoned‑up English way. Eleanor told them not to take it personally and, except for Tom, the youngest, they didn’t.