Commentary Magazine


My Little Marjie

When my brother was born my mother, phoning from her room at Michael Reese Hospital, asked what name I would like to give him. I was five years old. “Spencer,” I said without hesitation, thinking of a skinny redhead, a neighbor of ours on Sheridan Road, who must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time and had always gone out of his way to be kind to me. Spencer my little brother became, and that is the pretentious and slightly comical name he would have dragged through life had he not succumbed to crib death at the age of six months.

Such was the shock of this event that my mother waited a full six years before having her third child, my little sister. Again she consulted me. “Marge,” I volunteered: after another redhead, one of my mother’s dearest friends, a tall and freckled and (though I wasn’t aware of it) somewhat tragic figure.

Marge Lederer played cards with my mother: poker and Kalooky and Canasta. She never married but went around for nearly 30 years with a heavy-set, gruff Irishman named Fred White who, the story was, had been unable to obtain a divorce from his very Catholic wife. Marge worked as a bookkeeper for a liquor store in the Loop and smoked Pall Malls, on which she would invariably leave a firm lipstick imprint. She used to say that I was going to be a heartbreaker when I grew up. Things turned out quite the reverse, but she won my heart with her sweetness and the tinge of sadness I sensed in this large and lonely woman. She died of cancer.

My baby sister and I connected immediately. She would reach up to grasp my finger as I hovered over her crib, while I, lightly touching her stomach and babbling her name, could almost unfailingly make her smile. If our mother could not calm her, I could sometimes do the job just by taking her in my arms and patting her back. Although I was in every other respect a perfectly normal eleven-year-old boy—an athlete, a reader of comic books—I found myself spending an abnormal amount of time standing over her crib as she slept, handing her toys in her playpen, or, later, taking her for walks around the block in her stroller and playing with her on the grass in our small backyard. I can even remember leaning over my sister’s crib at night and praying that no harm ever come to her.

Marjorie had our mother’s good looks, her deep brown eyes and dark brown hair. There was a fineness about her face: high cheekbones, a small but somehow not disappointing nose, good teeth, a winning smile. Her fingers were long, her hands well formed. Everything about her suggested high intelligence. In my memory—this can’t, I realize, be accurate—she began speaking in full sentences. Before she was two, she had picked up on humor, knew what was expected of her, and was expert at manipulating others, not least me.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted for my baby sister—except, in a vague way, a grand life lived on a high plane. I know I worried about her becoming too popular. I wanted her to have in her social arsenal the power to charm, but never to waste it by using it indiscriminately. Perhaps even then I was afraid of losing her some day—though God knows there was little enough sign of that. On the contrary, as she grew older Marjorie came to think of me not only as her brother but as her adviser and protector. One of her first words was “Bruddy,” short for brother, and Bruddy she called me ever after. “Bruddy”—I had only to hear the word to come running.

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By the time Marjorie was in high school I was twenty-six, a graduate of the University of Chicago, my two years in the Army over and done with. As I came of age I began to offer my little sister a fair amount of advice. A mild Francophile headed for a university career, I made sure she studied high-school French, which she did with great efficiency, and in particular I put her on to the novels of Stendhal. I never told her why, but I was sure she would absorb their chief point—namely, that men, with their ambitions and romantic conceptions of themselves, are essentially clownish figures, never to be taken at their own self-valuation and predictably beastly in their use of women to bolster their always shaky egos.

At seventeen, Marjorie was tallish (5?7 ? or so), but she had never gone through anything like an awkward phase, and already it was clear she was going to be a knockout. She graduated ninth in a class of 500-odd students at Mather High and had her choice of colleges. I was against the University of Chicago; good as it was, the school seemed too dark and dreary for her. In the spring of her junior year I took a week off and drove her around to the eastern schools. Harvard, Yale, Princeton were not yet coeducational. Vassar was too isolated; Bennington, despite the beautiful setting, too much the breeding ground of female neurosis. Between us we decided on Wellesley. The main point, I told her, was that she attend a school that the world reckoned good; although she would quickly enough discover otherwise, at least, later in life, she wouldn’t wonder how things might have turned out if only she had gone to a supposedly good school. My father, less than eager to send his daughter so far away, succumbed to my argument that Boston represented a larger world than Chicago.

At Wellesley, whatever the reigning system of snobberies, she not only survived but flourished, graduating summa cum laude with a combined major in French literature and modern history. Her senior honors essay on Marcel Proust and the Dreyfus affair, a paper of some 70 pages, showed, I thought, an orderly, lucid, and well-stocked mind, especially for one so young. As a teacher by then in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, I knew a thing or two about Proust myself, and I felt my baby sister had insinuated herself impressively into that little genius’s richly textured and ultimately heroic mind.

So, apparently, did others. Her teachers in the French department at Wellesley urged her to attend graduate school, assuring her that a graduate fellowship at Harvard or Yale was a certainty.

“What do you think, Bruddy?” she phoned to ask me.

“Baby,” I said, “I think you need a bigger playing field than any university can provide.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

“Great minds think alike, no?”

“Ours seem to.”

Through a Wellesley connection, Marjie was offered and took a job at Vogue. It was 1969 and the magazine still wasn’t hiring many Jewish girls, but for my sister they made an exception. Called an editorial assistant, she became in fact a woman of all work: proofreading, writing captions, turning out small gossip bits, occasionally going on photo shoots. She reported back to me on the wild comedy of life under Diana Vreeland. “She’s a genuine monstre sacré, Bruddy,” she said, “most of the time without the sacré.”

Marjie shared an apartment in the Village with an Irish girl who had gone to Smith and who also worked at Vogue. The only men in her life, so far as I knew, were a third-year law student at Columbia named Jonathan Kahn and Allan Greenberg, an assistant professor of English at NYU. Once, on a trip to New York, I took Marjie to dinner and Allan met us for drinks afterward. He was clearly more taken with her than she with him. I thought him nice enough but dull, not a serious contender.

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I recognized that my solicitude for Marjie was above and beyond the ordinary. But then I tended to think of the two of us as above and beyond the ordinary in every way. I was intent on protecting her, even if I knew that I could do so only within very strict limits; I was intent, too, on her happiness, even if the limits here were greater still. What I hoped—was this naïve?—was that at least I could steer her away from life’s obvious mistakes and traps.

Not long after leaving school, I myself had begun keeping company with a dazzling woman named Sally Maddox, blonde, green-eyed, bosomy, long-legged, the works. At first I thought myself privileged to be with so desirable a creature; later I started to feel edgy. Returning from the men’s room in a restaurant or bar, I would discover guys had sent her notes or come up to the table to pitch her directly. Walking down the street, I would register the look in the eyes of the men we passed; even male dogs, I began to think, were stimulated by her. Unable to stand the pressure, I abandoned the field.

But a sister you don’t abandon. Marjie was a Sally Maddox—but for men of taste and sensibility. She had always been beautiful; now, entering upon womanhood, she became sexy. A certain luscious ripeness about her caused men to stare as she walked past, then to do a double-take, as if to say, “Did I just see what I think I saw?” The rather intimidating intelligence in her eyes, her natural refinement, would be enough, I felt sure, to put off most waiters, bartenders, and parking-lot attendants; also, most jocks and construction workers. But that still left a fairly full roster of potential predators.

In our conversations, Marjie and I always kept a nice balance between frankness and tact. We could be entirely candid talking about other people, including our parents, or about money or politics. But in the realm of sex, diffidence had been the rule. Throughout her high-school years there was generally some boy or other to take her to dances or to the movies, but no steady boyfriend. I assumed that my baby sister had gone off to college a virgin. At least it pleased me to think so—I speak here as a male of my generation, for whom sex, never a trivial act, was all the more desired for the prohibitions hedging it about and the dangers it entailed, including the dangers of pregnancy and, for a young woman, loss of reputation. I was on the old program, and in some ways still am.

What sort of man did I want for my little sister? I had in mind a man of the world, settled in his vocation, certain in his integrity, strong and serious. I preferred someone perhaps ten or so years older than she, someone whose work opened the world at a wide angle—in high finance, say, or diplomacy, or international law. And I wanted someone for whom the problems of money were already well settled, who could give my talented baby sister the best chance to flourish at whatever it was that she eventually decided she wanted to do with her life.

What Marjie wanted to do was not yet certain. Opportunities opened before her, as they inevitably will for that small minority of women who are both strikingly beautiful and very smart. She was offered a job as a sub-editor at the New Yorker, another in the antique-furniture section at Sotheby’s. She took the Sotheby’s offer, which paid less, at least at first, but seemed to provide greater prospects. These included living in London, where the firm sent her for six months to learn the trade, putting her up in a small apartment on Marylebone near the Wallace Collection.

When I visited her there, I was amazed to see how cosmopolitan my baby sister had become. Taking me in hand, she made me feel very much the country mouse as she arranged tables for us at elegant restaurants set back in mews in parts of the city utterly unknown to me. On one of these occasions we were joined by an attractive young guy named Paul Lester, a Balliol man who worked for the BBC. He had an upper-class accent and strong left-wing opinions, and was clearly nuts about my sister. She seemed—appealingly, in my view—considerate but ultimately indifferent. If, as I believed, there was always an inequality in love, my sister was likely always to be the more loved party. The thought gave me a certain pleasure.

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Sotheby’s sent Marjie on two-month tours of its Paris and Rome offices before returning her to New York. There she settled in again easily enough, and soon became what I think of as a naturalized New Yorker. Although I was frustrated in my desire to have her near me, she did come back to Chicago at least twice a year: once for our father’s birthday, which was on Christmas day, and once in the spring for Passover. And when I made my few trips each year to New York, we always saved at least one meal to be alone together, usually in her neighborhood on the Upper East Side where she would invariably know a quiet restaurant with splendid, no-nonsense food.

We always found things to talk about: books, movies, intellectual celebrities, our earnings, our expenses—everything but what, in another time, would have been called Marjie’s love life. Once, however, planning a one-day visit to New York on which my evening would be spoken for, I called to ask if she could set aside lunch, and she told me there was someone she very much wanted me to meet.

“His name is James Newbolt,” she said.

At first I didn’t recognize the name, but then I did, though barely. Newbolt was a sculptor, an abstract expressionist of the generation of the New York School. His work had been overshadowed by David Smith’s, or so I learned when I asked a friend on the Committee who knew the intricacies of the New York art world. My friend told me, too, that the sculpture of James Newbolt could no longer be considered contemporary; it had slipped from the contemporary to the modern—which is to say, to the historical.

Newbolt turned out to be himself rather historical. We met for lunch at a small French restaurant. I had arrived first. Ten minutes later, I saw my lovely sister enter, accompanied by a tall, very thin man, bald, with steel-rimmed spectacles. When I say tall, I mean 6?5? or more; his slenderness made him seem even taller. A stiff leg gave him a pronounced limp. He had to be a man near seventy. Marjie was not yet thirty.

In the time I had had to do a bit of research, I had discovered that James Newbolt was a New Englander, sufficiently well-born to be called a scion. He used to run with Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers, was part of that hard-drinking crowd. Although I had never met any of the artists in this group, I had known the art critics Clement Green-berg and Harold Rosenberg, who were themselves fairly tough characters, intellectual bullies really. It was altogether a tough bunch, tough on one another and tough on the rest of the world. The thought of my sister falling among such tigers was not easy to contemplate.

Newbolt, who had been married three times, worked chiefly in steel, and made vast, angular, abstract pieces carrying jazz-song titles like Stars Fell on Alabama and Softly, Like A Morning Sunrise. I gathered his critical reputation was now high and, with David Smith dead, rising. In a brief comment, Clement Greenberg had referred to Newbolt’s “unvarying allegiance to a chaste, immitigable, unforgiving modernism,” four highly approbative words.

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Marjie introduced us, and Newbolt shook my hand in a loose, negligent way. His brown tweed suit was worn, he wore a chambray work shirt and a black knit tie; the right temple of his glasses was held together with scotch tape, and one of his lower front teeth was missing. His nails were gray, the skin around them gritty—not so surprising, I suppose, in a man working with heavy metal. The first two fingers on each hand were orange, from smoking: Camels, unfiltered, and lots of them, to judge by his gravelly voice and the half-pack or so he sucked down at lunch. My mind involuntarily flicked on a quick slide of those hands on my dear sister’s body, causing an inward shudder.

Newbolt wasn’t much given to small talk; there wasn’t much give to him generally. He kept silent as I filled Marjie in on Chicago doings: marriages and divorces among our cousins, the health of our father, who was recovering from the still relatively new procedure of bypass surgery. Newbolt ordered a second martini before we picked up our menus.

After we ordered, he turned to me. “Marjorie gave me some of your stuff to read,” he said. “It ain’t much.”

I wasn’t expecting him to come on so strong so quickly. “How so?” I managed.

“It doesn’t do much to advance the argument.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, trying not to seem daunted. “Tell me, what is the argument?”

“The argument is about the way people ought to live in a time of heightened spiritual crisis. Nothing of yours I’ve read even touches on that.”

“What do your sculptures have to do with it?”

“If you don’t see it, then there’s no point in my spelling it out for you,” he said.

With that for starters, the rest of the meal went cold and sour before us. Poor Marjie, try though she might, could find no way to save it.

“Jim knew Edmund Wilson, Bruddy,” she offered, knowing my admiration for the great literary critic. “He went to the same prep school, though of course much later. The Hill School, wasn’t it, Jimmy?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I met him a few times. A nonstop talker. A monologist. He always had to show you he knew more than you did about your own life’s work. An arrogant bastard, for my money.”

“Jim,” she tried again, “tell Bruddy about Ravel. Bruddy loves everything about Ravel.”

“An amazing little guy, really. Very small, very elegant, a dandy. As an artist, he claimed to have gotten more out of joy than out of suffering. I don’t think it’s true, but when he said it you tended to believe it.”

“There’s a remark of Ravel’s that has always impressed me,” I put in. “Someone once accused him of being artificial. He said that his accuser didn’t seem to realize that some people—meaning himself, I assume—were naturally artificial.” And here I couldn’t resist a dig at this creep. “It also works if you turn it around: some people are artificially natural.”

Newbolt ordered a third martini, the drinking of which sent him into a sullen silence. There followed oysters and a lobster salad, at both of which he picked while downing two German beers. While Marjie and I had dessert, he went for a Drambuie, double. Just as the check arrived he ducked into the men’s room. I looked at my sister, who looked away as I took out my wallet.

_____________

 

The next evening, Marjie called me in Chicago. “I’m so sorry about lunch, Bruddy,” she said. “You didn’t see Jimmy at his best.”

“I assume he can do better, or he wouldn’t still be alive. What’s the matter with him, anyway?”

“I’m afraid,” she said, “that he isn’t very comfortable around Jews.”

A long and awkward silence, which I was prepared to maintain for five minutes.

“I mean, Bruddy,” she said at last, “he grew up in New England with shabby gentry, lots of pretensions, knowing no Jews at all. Then, when he came to New York, he felt the Jewish critics held him back. He still bears a grudge.”

“But what about you, sweetie? You aren’t exactly a Plantagenet.”

“He makes an exception for me. He loves me.”

“Why do you suppose that is? Maybe you help advance the argument.”

“Bruddy,” she said, “that isn’t fair.”

“What do you see in him? I don’t get it.”

“He’s an artist, Bruddy, the real thing. Maybe a genius. And he seems to need me.”

“Don’t overrate art, Marjie,” I said. “And especially don’t overrate artists. It’s all very well for the small number lucky enough to produce the real thing, but people who give their lives to artists usually come out with the short end of a very dirty stick.”

It’s not as if I didn’t understand the special pleasure that comes from being singled out for the affection of an artist—being chosen by someone who himself seems chosen. But was this all there was to her infatuation for James Newbolt, who seemed a serious candidate for the most unappealing man I’d ever met? Was my sister telling me everything I needed to know?

Some women, of course, are stimulated by worthlessness, or have convinced themselves that theirs is the magic that will transform every toad into a prince. My sister wasn’t so foolish as that. Nor, in keeping company with a man nearly 40 years older, was she seeking a father. She already had a good, sturdy, philistine father, the recognition of whose limitations never got in the way of her loving him.

But if I could not yet fathom what sort of fantasy was operating here, the question that interested me even more was how I could get her to cut away from this son of a bitch without pushing her further into his arms. In my twenties, I remember sitting toward the back of a Michigan Avenue bus on a steamy summer’s day, coming in as an eavesdropper in the middle of a conversation between a mother and her adolescent daughter seated just ahead of me. I shall never forget the mother’s strong Mittel-European accent as she said, “Sondra, lissen to me and you vill alvays treeumph”—or the sensation, upon hearing it, of a high heel being placed firmly on my adam’s apple.

But, since her adolescence, had I not been playing with Marjie exactly the part of Sondra’s mother? Our parents, proud though they were of their daughter, also not so secretly thought that my ambitions for her were, as my father more than once put it, “hifalutin.” My own two failed and fallow marriages did not give them much confidence in my judgment. They would have much preferred Marjie to stay in Chicago and marry what they called a professional man: a physician or dentist or CPA (although not a lawyer, a species against whom my father harbored a longstanding animus). It was precisely from this fate that I had determined to set Marjie free. If only she would listen to me, follow my instructions on how to live her life, she would emerge triumphant. And so far, owing in large part to her own talent and good looks, she appeared to be well on her way—until now. I had set her free, all right: free, it had begun to appear, for James Newbolt.

Marjie and I talked at least twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday nights, usually around ten. In our next conversation, I asked if it was all right to return to the Newbolt question.

“What, precisely, is the question, Bruddy?” I could feel a slight tensing in her voice.

“I guess it’s, why him? What do you see in him?”

“One of the things I love about you, Bruddy, is your relentlessness when it comes to motives. Does every act really have to have a motive?”

“For people like us it does, baby sister. If we don’t understand what the motive is, we might as well be in the mail-order business.”

“Is love a motive, Brud?”

“Is that really what we’re talking about here? You feel love for James Newbolt? Or are you only swept away by his proclaimed love for you?”

“When you say his name, could you please try to restrain the industrial-strength contempt?” she said.

“Sorry, but you two aren’t a conventional couple, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“I thought avoiding convention was one of your chief lessons to me, Bruddy.”

“Sweetie, this guy is 40 years older than you. I’m not saying anything about his drinking habits or his views on the Jewish question. But if you marry him and he lives long enough, you’ll wipe the drool from his jaw, push his wheelchair down the boardwalk, change his diapers. That’s a little beyond unconventional. Forgive me, but I think you’re making a really major mistake, a horrendous mistake.”

“Sorry, Bruddy, but I happen to think otherwise. If you must know, I think Jimmy’s a genius and I take his love for me as a tribute.”

“Genius?”

“Have you ever seen his work?”

“Only in photographs.”

“Jim has a show right now at the Milwaukee Museum of Art. Before you say anything more, please run up there. Then maybe you’ll know more about why I feel about him as I do.”

_____________

 

I was perfectly prepared to despise everything that Newbolt had constructed, hoping to find a coarse and crappy life mirrored in his work. But once in the museum’s sculpture garden—many of his pieces were too large to be shown indoors—I found myself deeply moved by a few of these cold but impressively suggestive works, awed by the monumentality of others, and quite swept away by the cumulative effect. I must have stood for at least fifteen minutes admiring a Giacometti-like figure titled Our Davey, which despite its abstraction uncannily caught the effeminate arrogance of the elegant little David by Donatello that I had seen years ago in the Uffizi.

Who would have thought that the miserable James Newbolt had the power to charm? Maybe he really was a genius, I thought, reminding myself that one must never underestimate the secret powers of the artist—powers often capable of touching many lives other than his own.

“He’s a considerable talent,” I conceded to Marjie over the phone that evening, in what I hoped was a measured tone of voice. “No doubt about it. The real thing, just as you said. But then why should I doubt your word in such matters?”

“Oh, Bruddy, I knew your judgment would win out over your feelings.”

“Actually, they coexist. He’s a serious artist whom I don’t want connected in any way with my sister.”

“Then you haven’t changed your mind?”

“No, baby, I haven’t. Forgive me, but I can’t.”

“You trust my eye but not my heart.”

“Marjie, he’s not for you.”

“Who is, Bruddy, who is for me?”

“Not James Newbolt—that much I know.”

“Jimmy says you think the only one good enough for me is you, Bruddy. He says your feelings for me border on the incestuous.”

“I’m not surprised to hear it. That whole generation is awash in cheap Freudianism. Tell him I said there’s nothing wrong with incest, so long as you keep it in the family.”

There was a short but significant pause—a beat, I think they call it in movie scripts.

“Bruddy,” my sister said, “Jimmy and I were married in Maine on Friday.”

“No, Marjie,” I heard myself cry out. “Please God, no!”

“Bruddy,” she said, “I want your blessing.”

“I can’t give it,” I said. “I would like to, but I can’t”.

“I’ll always love you,” she said, “you know that.”

“I know it,” I said, “but this isn’t the end I had in mind for you, warming the bones of this old boozer.”

“Bruddy, he’s my husband. Be careful.”

“Don’t you see you’re writing the wrong ending to a brilliant life?”

“But, Bruddy,” she said, strangely calm, “it’s my life, it’s my ending to write, not yours.”

I didn’t answer.

“Bruddy,” she said, “I still want your blessing.”

“Marjorie,” I said, “forgive me but I can’t—not now, not ever.”

“Are you certain?”

“Of nothing more in my whole life.”

I heard a gentle click on the other end.

_____________

 

This was the only argument my sister and I ever had. My parents never met Marjie’s husband. As long as our parents were alive, she continued to visit Chicago, but now only once a year, on Passover; I always found an excuse to be out of town. My mother ceased talking about her in my presence. What, if anything, she and Marjie said about her marriage I never discovered. When my father asked me what Newbolt was like, I said that I had met him only once and hadn’t gotten a very clear sense of him.

Another time, my father asked me to make things up with Marjorie. “It’s not your place to sit shiva for her,” he said. “She’s your sister. Call her and make up.” But I never did.

Our parents died without grandchildren. As the years passed, whole days would go by without my thinking of Marjie; sometimes a whole week. I began to consider myself alone in the world, detached from family altogether. Then one day, more than two decades later, I returned after lunch to my office at the university to find a pink-slip message, “Call your brother-in-law.” I was taken aback, not least by the thought that I had ever had a brother-in-law. The phone number on the message was somewhere in Maine.

“I’ve got bad news for you,” Newbolt said.

You are bad news personified, I thought to myself.

“Your sister died last night, of bone cancer. It started as breast cancer.”

“Dear God,” I managed to blurt out. “Did she suffer much?”

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “She’s being cremated tomorrow.”

“Did she mention me at any time?” I asked finally.

“Afraid not,” he said. “She left no will. She wanted her ashes spread around the garden here.”

“Thank you for calling,” I said, and hung up, forgetting to ask him to send me something of my sister’s, a piece of clothing, a photograph, a bit of costume jewelry, something to hold in my hand. She would have been fifty-two.

James Newbolt, so far as I know smoking and boozing at the same clip, died two years later, making it to ninety-one. His death was noted in a half-page obituary in the New York Times, with a picture of him in his studio and another of Our Davey. The Times mentioned his having been married four times, but no names of wives were given. An oversight, I guess.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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