The Ball at Versailles
Jane Fairbanks Alexander saw the creamy white envelope sitting on the silver tray on the table in the entrance hall, where the part-time housekeeper who came three times a week had put it. Gloria was Irish and had worked for them daily when Jane’s daughter Amelia was still in school, but now that she was in college, Jane didn’t need Gloria as often and she had another part-time job the other two days of the week. She bought the groceries she knew Jane liked, did the laundry, and cleaned the apartment. Amelia only came home now for the occasional weekend. It was her freshman year at Barnard. The apartment seemed strangely quiet without her. It was small, neat, and elegant, and had two bedrooms, in a prewar building in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue and Seventy-sixth Street, with a doorman, which made Jane feel safe. On the days that Gloria was there, it was nice for Jane to come home to a clean, tidy apartment, with her laundry neatly folded on her bed. Having an orderly home was some slight compensation for the fact that Amelia wasn’t there anymore. She was uptown in the dorm. Barnard was the female sister school of Columbia University.
Amelia was loving her freshman year. She was an English literature major, which made sense since Jane was the second-in-command of a venerable publishing house in the city. Amelia’s father had been in publishing too, and Amelia had clear goals. She wanted to go to law school when she graduated from Barnard, and hoped to get into Columbia, which had been one of the first law schools to accept women. For the past nine years, Jane had brought Amelia up on her own. She had been nine years old when her father, Alfred, died. She had never known him as her mother had. Jane had warm memories of him before the war, when he was still a whole person, before he had gone to war and everything had changed.
Jane had met him when she was a junior at Vassar. He had been getting a masters in English at Yale. Once they met at a deb ball in New York, he had courted her for a year and a half and traveled from New Haven to visit her in Poughkeepsie as often as he was able. They got engaged during her senior year, and married as soon as she graduated, in 1939. Alfred was twenty-four then, and Jane was twenty-two. He had an entry-level job in publishing at G. P. Putnam’s, and he had a bright future ahead of him. He had started as an editorial assistant and was rapidly promoted to junior editor. He loved his job and looked forward to being a senior editor or even editor in chief one day.
Jane got a job fresh out of college, working at Life magazine as an assistant copy editor. Their interests had always been very similar and they both loved their jobs in publishing. Alfred was assigned to the more literary books, and the manuscripts he worked on were loftier than the work Jane did at Life. But her work was lively, fun, and she found it exciting. She got pregnant three months after they married and had an easy pregnancy. She was at the magazine for a year, until she gave birth to Amelia in the summer of 1940, and never went back to work after that. She was happy staying home with their baby daughter and caring for her herself, and Alfred’s job, along with the money he had inherited, provided them with a very pleasant life. He didn’t expect her to go back to work.
Alfred didn’t have a great deal of money, but his grandparents had left him a handsome bequest that provided some luxuries as well as necessities. And later, after his parents died, one of cancer and the other of a stroke, they had left him some more money too. He still had to work, but he and Jane weren’t dependent on his job, and it was comforting to know that they had a tiny amount of savings in the bank, invested safely and conservatively. Their backgrounds were very similar. Jane’s father was the president of a bank in New York, and her mother was from a distinguished family in Boston. She came from “old money” too. Jane’s parents were from families that had once been more comfortable than they were now. They had lost most of their fortune in the Crash of ’29, but there was still enough left to provide their heirs with a comfortable, secure life. Alfred’s family were part of the Old Guard of New York. He had several cousins who had more money than he did, but his was among the best-known names of New York Society. He was by no means the richest among them, but he had enough to support his wife and daughter and there was no need for Jane to work. Alfred’s father was an investment banker on Wall Street, and like Jane’s mother, Alfred’s mother had never worked.
The two sets of parents knew each other. Alfred’s and Jane’s fathers belonged to the same club, where they often met after work, and both their mothers volunteered once a week together as Gray Ladies for the Red Cross. It was work they enjoyed. They liked sharing a granddaughter once Amelia was born and took her to the park together sometimes to see the animals at the zoo or ride on the carousel. Jane and Alfred were only children, so Amelia’s arrival was met with wonder and delight by both sets of grandparents.
Jane and Alfred’s lives rolled along smoothly from the moment they married for two and a half years, until Amelia was eighteen months old. At night they talked about Alfred’s job, his progress and latest promotions, and the manuscripts he was assigned to work on. But when Pearl Harbor was hit, Alfred enlisted within days afterwards. It was a few months before he shipped out, first to England and from there to Italy. He and Jane corresponded faithfully, and it was only once he was in Italy that she noticed that his tone had changed. He sounded discouraged, and alternated between fear and rage, and he couldn’t tell her what he’d seen, so she could only guess how hard the war was for him. Both his parents died in the first year he was away, which upset him deeply too. There were long periods when she didn’t hear from him at all, depending on where he was and if there was mail service. Then he would surface again. After he’d been in Italy for a few months, she noticed the tremor in his handwriting. The letters no longer sounded like him, and when he returned from the war in the summer of 1945, she could see why. He was a changed man. Amelia was five years old, didn’t remember him, and cried each time she saw him or he tried to pick her up, which either made him cry, or storm out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The doctors said he was suffering from shellshock and battle fatigue and it would heal in time, but it never did. He was thirty years old, and the death of his parents in a relatively short time after he left had added to his trauma. Once he came back, he no longer saw his old friends or went to his club. His job at the publishing house had been filled by a woman, who was doing an excellent job, for a lower salary than they’d paid him. She was a war widow now and they didn’t want to upset her and let her go. The job market was flooded with young, healthy men looking for work, and Alfred was turned down for every job he applied for. It was clear that he hadn’t recovered yet. He either flew into a rage over something they asked him, or, as at one interview, broke down in tears when they asked him about his war experience. Eventually he stopped going to interviews, and sat at home, brooding and drinking all day, while Jane struggled to find ways to cheer him up. His preference was gin, but he would drink anything he could lay hands on. Jane would throw away the bottles when she found where he concealed them, but he always had more hidden somewhere. Without a job and drinking heavily, and Jane not working either, Alfred went through much of the money his parents and grandparents had left him very quickly. He did some gambling at a private poker club, and a lot of drinking, and sat in a chair in a haze all day, lost in thought, staring into space. At night he usually fell asleep listening to the radio. His return was nothing like Jane had imagined it would be, with two kindred spirits finding each other again and picking up where they left off. Alfred never found his way back to that place. He was lost, never to be found again.
At thirty-four, four years after he returned from the war, he was driving to Connecticut to visit a friend from his army days that Jane had never heard of before when he drove off a cliff into a ravine and was killed. He didn’t leave a note, so she was never sure if it was suicide or an accident because he was drunk. She suspected the former but could never prove it. He had been profoundly depressed for four years, with night sweats and nightmares almost every night, and he refused to get treatment for it. He insisted he was fine, but they both knew he wasn’t.
Jane found herself a heartbroken widow at thirty-two. Her own parents had died by then, so she had no one to turn to for help when she discovered that Alfred had gone through almost all his money and had no life insurance. What he had left she put in an investment account with his military benefits, for Amelia’s education and emergencies that might come up. Fortunately, he had purchased their apartment from his inheritance from his grandparents before the war, so she and Amelia had a roof over their heads, but very little more than that.