A visitor's first impression of Harvard Square was that of a hippie swarm. On any given day-but especially between September and June-the educational crossroads was a mass of guitar-playing, candle-lighting students who had managed to corner the bead market despite the marijuana haze in which the days disappeared. Women wore loose skirts, sandals, no bras, and even less makeup. Men wore beards.
But amid that swarm, there were plenty of young women just like Grace Montgomery, attractive students of art history, English literature, and landscape design, who preferred Lilly Pulitzer to tie-dye, and who wouldn't consider ingesting anything more intoxicating than a glass of Fumé Blanc. These women were intent on getting a proper education and graduating with a good degree, a process made slightly more exciting by the prospect of meeting an eligible bachelor along the way. Each wanted a husband, too, and preferably one with no facial hair.
Grace had come to Harvard Square in the fall of 1964 from across the river, the only daughter of Eleanor and William Montgomery of Chestnut Street. As most of her peers had done, she'd applied and received admission to Radcliffe and Barnard. She chose to remain in Cambridge, heeding her father's advice. "You can concentrate on your studies without the distractions of Manhattan.
That city could swallow alive the most sophisticated of New England girls and you, my dear Grace, are not one of those. I don't want to imagine your fate once you were to cross the Willis Avenue Bridge."
William's reservations about his daughter venturing beyond the borders of Route 128 had been well founded. She hadn't gone to boarding school or even summer camp. Despite her classic beauty, her lithe figure and heartshaped face framed in blond curls, shyness got in the way of accepting dates, and she'd had no experience with men. She wouldn't have attended her senior prom except that her second cousin agreed to escort her.
William had never publicly acknowledged her innocence, but it was there in her face, her childlike enthusiasm reflecting off her porcelain skin.
Plus she seemed so happy in Boston. She liked the quaint brick sidewalks of the Back Bay, the beauty of the Public Garden and the Charles River, Brigham's ice cream and the Red Sox.
Most of all, there was no reason for her to consider leaving because no other place in the world could replicate the lively atmosphere of 37 Chestnut Street. Her father's work as an economic consultant to public and private institutions alike, and his brief term as undersecretary to the Cuban ambassador, meant the Montgomerys had an array of personal friends and professional colleagues, and the family's elegant town house was a gathering place for what she'd been raised to think of as the best of Beacon Hill society. Her parents did more than their fair share of entertaining professors, business leaders, political strategists, philosophers, and even the occasional out-of-towner. Grace passed many an evening lying on the floor of her attic bedroom, listening to the hum of voices several stories below her and staring at the night sky through the window in the small gable. Whether it was improvement of the Emerald Necklace of Boston's urban parks, fund-raising for Children's Hospital, or acquisitions for the Museum of Fine Arts, these adults shared intense conversation while consuming Eleanor's overcooked flank steak washed down by the contents of William's ample wine cellar.
Upon her fifteenth birthday, she was invited to join in her parents' soirees, to hear firsthand the intellectual debate, and to add her own opinions so long as she'd thought them through. Although she rarely availed herself of this opportunity-by high school she had friends and dreams that consumed her time-there were certain evenings amid her parents' company that she would never forget.
It had been a Thursday in August. Grace had graduated that spring from the Windsor School for Girls, and had already begun to pack her trunk for her impending move to Cambridge.
The cherrywood table was set for only seven, a small gathering by Montgomery standards. Lace place mats, starched white napkins, and an array of glasses accompanied each place setting. Light from the taper candles reflected off the polished silver pepper shaker and footed salt dish. To Grace's right was a visiting professor of political science from Columbia, a relatively young man in a tweed blazer and an ascot who emitted a strong odor of sandalwood. On her left was the assistant rector at Christ Church in Cambridge, who was under consideration for a faculty appointment at the Harvard Divinity School. It was between these gentlemen that the "Vietnam situation" was transformed from an issue seemingly to circulate in the air as she walked to the Charles Street T-stop into something tangible in her conscience.
Eleanor had forgotten about the pumpkin dinner rolls warming in the downstairs oven, and a faint smell of charred bread permeated the room. Politely ignoring it, the professor opined about the political instability in the region and the need to control communism. "Congress was absolutely justified. Johnson needed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. We've got to stop this aggression."
In terminology she didn't completely understand, he then expounded on Truman's Cold War policy. "We don't want to have to put his domino theory to the test."
The minister disagreed. His voice was gentle but firm, and his bushy eyebrows seemed to dance on his forehead as he spoke. "Imperialism as a goal cannot be justified."
"You saw what the North Vietnamese did to our destroyers."
"Because we have no business there." Eleanor lit a cigarette, to which William didn't object. "The images are so haunting. You must remember that poor monk last year? I can't imagine what it feels like to self-immolate," she offered.
"The war is immoral," the minister persisted. Grace somehow expected him to add Amen, but he didn't.
"Immoral," the professor scoffed. "That's the kind of language that colors the debate, that makes people afraid to be honest. What war is ever moral? The Crusades were supposed to be, and they were the bloodiest massacres in history."
Grace listened intently, turning her head left and right to watch each man as he spoke.
"Why should we pick up the mess the French left behind?" her father asked as he poured more wine and settled into his chair. "They lost the fight-even with our assistance-and now we're supposed to correct the situation. But I ask you, if they no longer care, why should we?"
Eventually her eyes grew heavy, and Grace excused herself long before the debate reached a conclusion. But as she lay in her bed in the moments before sleep overcame her, she mused again over what a complicated matter the war seemed to be. That her brother, Ferris, would return to college instead of enlisting only muddied the issue. There had been no discussion of his deferment-at least in her presence-but she wasn't sure that meant her parents disapproved of the war. Although from what she'd deduced, Ferris seemed to be drinking his way through his four years, her parents put the highest premium on education. It wouldn't surprise her if, in their view, the South Vietnamese simply had to wait for him to obtain his bachelor's degree before they could enjoy his aid.
All these thoughts spun around in her mind, keeping her awake, and she only managed to quiet the noise by remembering that her opinion didn't matter anyway. The men in Washington would determine the right course of action.
Radcliffe as a choice for college held additional appeal to Grace beyond its proximity to home. Ferris was a junior at Harvard by the time she arrived, and a very popular one at that. While still at Windsor, she'd visited him regularly and met many of his friends. They were confident, striking, articulate young men who seemed so worldly, so experienced, and so very, very handsome. As she wandered the elegant brick-and-ivy campus, gazing up at the myriad clock towers each set to chime a few minutes apart, it was difficult not to be impressed. These men could do anything to which they set their highly intelligent minds.
So it was no great surprise that she fully believed Bainbridge Alcott when he informed her that he planned to write "the great American novel." He made his proclamation as they sat on a plaid blanket on the Esplanade with a crew race along the Charles River as their backdrop. It was the fall of her junior year and their second date. Grace had spread out her carefully made picnic of egg salad sandwiches, cold roast beef, carrot sticks, and homemade shortbread before them. For his part, Bain had surprised her with a bottle of champagne, which he'd popped as she'd cried out with delight. Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps it was the company, but one plastic cup's worth had gone to her head.
"I'm going to be the next Salinger or Scott Fitzgerald. I may sound immodest, but I assure you that most would agree." Bain leaned toward her and rested his palm over hers. "I'll write a novel that makes people look at themselves, really examine who they are. I want my words to be a mirror-even if the readers don't necessarily like what they see. If the intellectuals-America's only true aristocracy-can't make a difference, then we're quite lost as a civilization."
His touch excited her. The portable radio crooned a hit from the summer of 1960, "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." "The world looks at America as the land of opportunity," Bain continued. "People can come from nothing and make a fortune, thereby changing their place in the social caste. But we also have to recognize the inherent gifts of those whose families have succeeded for generations."
She tried to concentrate, but her mind wandered to the idea of a very small bathing suit. Perhaps she should get one. She'd always worn a one-piece, the kind with a skirt attached.
"This is not an issue of luck. Cream does rise to the top. My novel will focus on those differences-the attributes of a chosen few and the need for the rest of our country to accept gainful employment in factories or on farms and stay the course. That's a proper division of labor, healthiest for any economy."
She didn't bother to question him. It all sounded fine, or at least as if he'd figured it out. His words blurred into the music as she focused instead on his chiseled features and deep blue eyes.
Everything about him was perfect. A senior, he was a member of the AD club, the son of a North Shore family, and fifth-generation Harvard. His great-grandfather had endowed a chair at the medical school. They'd met at a party for the Crimson. She hadn't planned to attend and hadn't been invited, but a group of nice girls from her dormitory had convinced her to come along with them. "Anyone's invited. It's not like that at all," Melody Berkowitz had explained.
Eileen Baker from Swampscott, who lived in the room across the hall, stepped forward. She had an hourglass figure, which her clothing tended to accentuate. "Writers for the Crimson have a reputation, if you know what I mean. It should be fun. What other plans do you have, anyway?" she had asked, adjusting Grace's headband in a maternal way. "You won't meet any men sitting in a dorm room on a Saturday night."
She'd been introduced to Bain almost immediately. He was editor in chief and the obvious host of the evening. But his smile alone had been enough to keep her glued to his side, and she'd allowed herself to hope from the moment he first took notice of her. He smoked a cigar and discussed a piece he'd almost had published in Life magazine, an article he'd submitted urging the nation to stop the protests, support its president, and get behind a fullblown war against the North Vietnamese. Sadly, the magazine's editors had rejected it. "Barely," he explained. "They thought it was brilliant."
Life magazine. At the end of the evening, he'd offered to drive her home. She reluctantly declined. She'd come with her girlfriends. It wouldn't be right to leave them behind. But his offer was very kind, very kind indeed.
He'd given her a puzzled look, a mixture of confusion and disappointment, which she understood later but didn't at the time. He wasn't a man accustomed to rejection. "Would you care to join me for a coffee tomorrow? There's a great place in Central Square. Turkish I think it is."
A coffeehouse seemed exotic, and a Turkish one even more so. In accepting his invitation, she kept to herself that she didn't drink anything with caffeine. Fuel oil would have been palatable for the pleasure of his company. And it had been that brief date-an espresso and a shot of brandy for him, with a sip of the house blend for her-that had led to the picnic on the river. "We won't feel so rushed if the waiter isn't looking to clear our table," he'd said. He would pick her up at one.
"Pull!" The sound of a coxswain on the Charles River caught her attention, and she looked up to see several sculls speed by. Even from this distance, it seemed as though she could make out the biceps on each oarsman as he dipped his oar, pulled it through the black water, and lifted it for only a transitory moment to put it back into position. The synchronization was hypnotic.
"Eileen tells me you're going to the protest rally tomorrow night."
She turned to gaze back at Bain, who reached for the Moët to refill her cup.
Eileen Baker? That was odd. Grace recalled that Eileen had been filled with questions about Bain when they returned from the Crimson party, but she'd perceived her dorm mate's curiosity as friendly excitement, shared giddiness. Eileen knew of Bain but hadn't had the pleasure of being introduced at the party. Or so Grace had thought. So when had they had the conversation to which he now referred? It must have been within the past twenty-four hours. Grace had only just agreed to attend.
"Several girls from my English class want to go. We thought we should go together since none of us knows what to expect." She forced a smile, suddenly recalling his article, the almost published piece in Life. Hadn't it had a pro-war premise? She faulted herself for not remembering details with more accuracy.
"Grace, you aren't honestly against this war, are you?" His face looked concerned, but his tone was stern. Honestly sounded as though it came with the full weight of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not protest the war in Vietnam.
She paused, not knowing exactly what to say. Pro-war, anti-war; she'd hardly thought all the arguments through in her head. But she did understand that American soldiers were being killed-lots of them-and all because of a country so far away, she wasn't sure she could locate it on a map. "It seems to me more appropriate to let the indigenous people decide what kind of government they want to have. Isn't that why we had the American Revolution?" She hoped her pronouncement didn't sound stupid.
"The North Vietnamese don't want a democracy. That's the whole point." He took her hand in both of his and gently kissed the top of it. "Now, promise me you won't go and that you'll leave decisions about the war to people who know what they're talking about."
She stared at the hand that had just experienced the softness of his lips against its skin. What would a real kiss feel like-his lips, his teeth, his tongue against hers? Despite a smattering of male companions and even one gentleman who might have been considered a "beau" during part of her sophomore year, physical intimacy still remained a mystery. On the threshold to her dormitory, she'd offered her left cheek or given a tentative kiss to her date, but these were acts of politeness, nothing more. She'd heard what other girls were doing and knew her reticence and lack of experience made her different. But she hadn't yet figured out what to do about it.
Now it appeared Bain was set to change that for her. He picked himself up and moved next to her. As he sat beside her with his legs outstretched, she could feel their hips touch and his thigh against hers. He put his arm around her and drew her to him. She wished she'd had a mint, or wished she hadn't yet taken a bite of egg salad. It didn't seem the most romantic of foods to have in her teeth. But she'd waited nearly twenty years for this moment, her first real kiss, and decided to put the lunch menu out of her mind. She closed her eyes in anticipation. Or was she supposed to watch?
As she was debating how best to handle the matter, he turned her face toward his and kissed her, pressing his lips against hers, then gradually opening his mouth and exploring her with his tongue. It was long and wet and wonderful and he tasted of raw carrot. She never wanted it to end, and when it did, she wobbled slightly.
He laughed and gently kissed her cheek. Should she kiss him back? She wasn't sure, and blushed instead.
He reached both arms around her and gently laid her back onto the grass. His face was inches from hers, and their chests were pressed together. She could feel his weight, his chest expanding with each breath. They kissed again and again and again.
When they finally sat upright, she felt dizzy. Her lips tingled and her heart pounded.
Bain reached for a slice of roast beef, rolled it into a tube, and took a bite. Then she thought she heard him mumble, "I couldn't possibly propose to a war protestor, now could I?"
Maybe she'd misheard, given the thoughts swirling in her head from the kisses and the champagne, the sunshine, and his presence. But whether she'd heard correctly or not, it was enough to change her mind. She'd never been all that committed anyway.
Being Mrs. Alcott
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 0446697567
- ISBN-13: 9780446697569