In the eighteen fifties there was in Cincinnati, Ohio a merchant named Robert Mott Rogers. A large dark-haired man, he was said to have murdered a whole pioneer family in the west, and to have then used their money to start his business. Rumors such as that abounded at the time, and, whether or not they were true in fact, they often had a sublime metaphorical truth.
Mott Rogers was also suspected of having a Cherokee mother somewhere in the southern mountains. If so, his ancestry wasn't betrayed in his movements, which were slow and rather clumsy. If he really had killed his pioneer family, he had most likely used a blunt weapon.
Cincinnati, in those years, was a boom town. A canal system linked it to the Great Lakes and, ultimately, to the eastern seaboard. Railroads were being built in all directions. Above all, the great Ohio River swept a good part of several generations west to the Mississippi and the Missouri.
People of all sorts arrived in town every day. A merchant with a good location near the riverfront could outfit them at a profit and send them on their way with a cheery wave. Even if the goods he sold them deteriorated radically fifty miles down the river, the strong current made it unlikely that the disappointed customers in their flatboats would return to demand a refund. Indeed, what would ordinarily have amounted to a bad commercial reputation got washed irrevocably west, along with the complainants and the maggots in the salt beef.
Even though Rogers must have saved his better wares for the local customers who might return, he seems to have been roundly disliked. Everyone knew how grasping he was, and, having left his premises with a bad taste in the mouth, they promised themselves and others never to come to him again. On the other hand, his prices were competitive and he gradually came to have the best stock anywhere in the district. The same people who had forsworn Rogers, and who had made unpleasant jokes about him in the meantime, often came shame- facedly back to buy from him again.
People said that the reason Rogers refused to marry was to save money. It may well have been true. Living above his shop, he ploughed almost every penny back into the business. This gave him an additional advantage over his competitors, all of whom were burdened with large houses and families.
The basic dishonesty which kept a successful business from really taking off in peacetime had a dramatically opposed effect when the Civil War broke out. Part of it was again the luck of being ideally situated when great events took place. The western campaigns of the Union Army were supplied from Cincinnati, and Mott Rogers was the merchant best able to quadruple his operation. In truth, he did it well. He worked even harder than before, hired assistants, acquired buildings, and never lost control of his operation. However, the decisive factor was that he began to deal with people who were spending, not their own money, but that of the government.
It's not known whether Rogers kicked back to the purchasing agents some of the government money he received. It would have been in character for him to have spared himself even that expense if the same results could be obtained by the cheaper expedient of getting the agents drunk. His tactics, whatever they were, must have been successful. By the end of the war he had over half a million dollars.
It was in 1865, when he was sixty years of age, that Rogers did, according to local legend, the only generous thing in his life. He married Wilhelmina Stuart, his eighteen year old mistress. This is perhaps not an extraordinary piece of philanthropy, but it surprised Rogers' contemporaries. They had expected him to abandon the girl in favor of a younger prettier face.
One who chronicles fortunes can understand Rogers' action. He didn't seem to have cared about paternity in the ordinary sense, nor was he the man to have tolerated any nonsense about achieving immortality through children. It was simply that he had to arrange for someone to take care of his fortune after he was dead. He probably would have left it to a friend if he had had any.
Rogers was dead two years later. Perhaps the girl, promoted to wife, was too much for him. Perhaps she poisoned him. It is no matter.
The young widow Rogers ultimately had only one child, a son by her second husband, a man named Sanderson. Ironically, it was his name, rather than that of Rogers, which was attached to the fortune. Sanderson never had any control over the money. He was merely a walk-on character, signed on for breeding purposes. Mott Rogers, no sentimentalist, would have approved the arrangement.
A son was produced quickly. As it happened, Sanderson died in 1873, when the boy was three.
Under the management of Wilhelmina Sanderson the fortune grew to proportions which would have astounded Rogers. Moreover, her methods would have disconcerted him. She didn't try to cheat people or take advantage of anyone. She was an investor rather than an entrepreneur. She never really made an unsound investment decision. In the course of many years the only significant setback was a railway washed away by a flood no one could have foreseen.
Having outgrown Cincinnati, Wilhelmina moved to New York in 1880. By 1893 she had built the fortune up to twenty million before it was temporarily checked by the panic of that year.
Sanderson junior was married by that time, and he started having children. A real playboy in the tradition of the Gay Nineties, he went out almost every evening, usually without his wife, and came back at two or three. One supposes that, on nights on which he felt particularly in tune with the universe, he woke his wife up and begat another child. She died in childbirth with number nine. He replaced her and produced two more children before himself running out of gas at the age of thirty eight in 1908.
Wilhelmina, an active and vigorous matriarch, held the family together for the rest of her long life, doling out a little money with the arrival of each new great-grandchild. More important, she shepherded the fortune through the crash of 1929 without any loss whatever.
It was late in 1930 that Wilhelmina Sanderson followed the example of old Mott Rogers and married her young lover. The difference in age was over fifty years, and there were pictures in all the tabloids. The old lady seemed to be the only Sanderson who wasn't embarrassed. She also refused to change her name.
In fact, the arrangement wasn't entirely unreasonable. Wilhelmina, at eighty three, played tennis and swam every day. She could easily have passed for sixty. Slim and erect, she had a hawk-nosed face that had never been pretty, but remained interesting. The young man, Terry Adams, was an impecunious artist of good family. He was pleasant in a fey way, and was actually rather amusing. He would have failed in almost any other role, and he knew it.
There was one part of the Sanderson empire, rather minor in itself, which plays a disproportionately large role in our story. The Sanderson Trust Company, founded more as a convenience than anything else, nevertheless attracted a good deal of business. There was the name, of course, and the fact that Wilhelmina, unlike so many others, had flown unscathed through the crash. I went to work there as a trust officer on June 17, 1931, when I was forty one years of age.
I had been a functioning, and occasionally published, poet for some years. But I was finally running out of money in a definitive way. I didn't know much about finance, but I didn't have to.
A trust officer doesn't have any responsibility for the management of money. His job is simply to meet with clients, most often wealthy old ladies, and reassure them. Their money, he tells them, is as safe as it possibly could be. He gently assuages their fears of a communist revolution. The intention of a niece to marry a Catholic, while reprehensible, can be dealt with. She can be cut off without a penny. It is, in short, quite reasonable to hire a poet as a trust officer. He has sensitivity, if not tolerance, for the feelings and failings of others, and he has a way with words.
Conversely, it is quite reasonable for a man of letters to be a trust officer. If his fortunes are at a low ebb, he will be provided with a small but regular income. His real work can be kept discreetly in a desk drawer, and can be worked on in the long intervals between the calls of clients.
One of my clients was Mrs. Sanderson herself. She, of course, would have laughed at any financial reassurance I might have given her. But she did need someone to deal with all the charities which pestered her, and I was well suited for that. I was poor enough to be tight-fisted, and I suppose I was appropriate in other ways.
For my part, it was fascinating to meet the woman who had been serving girl and mistress to Robert Mott Rogers an impossibly long time previously. I was curious as to how she had built her fortune, and Mrs. Sanderson was happy to tell me.
Wilhelmina Rogers, at twenty years of age, had begun with the assumption that anything most people believed would turn out to be false. Everyone around her believed in the manifest destiny of Cincinnati. It would continue to be the Queen City of the west, the center of a vastly rich agricultural and industrial region. They also believed that river valleys, particularly those of the Ohio and its tributaries, would be the magnets of wealth, both in terms of transportation and agriculture. A detailed examination of the available facts might well have supported that conclusion. But Wilhelmina went by people, not facts. Everything she had experienced inclined her to a profound contempt of humanity, at least as it existed in Cincinnati. She consequently voted against Cincinnati, not yet with her feet, but with her money.
Wilhelmina did have some positive beliefs of her own. It seemed to her, for example, that the McCormick Harvester, a horse-drawn machine which multiplied the productivity of a farmer, was the first step in an agricultural revolution. This machine wasn't popular in the Ohio Valley because it worked well only on level ground. Wilhelmina concluded that it would be the great plains that would generate great wealth. They would be served, not by river boats from Cincinnati, but by railroads from Chicago and St. Louis. At that time, Chicago was a town of minor importance when compared to Cincinnati, but Wilhelmina gambled on its success. She turned out to be more right than even she could have imagined.
In the years that followed, that same principle, the principle that most people are wrong, proved itself over and over again. When investors became euphoric, Wilhelmina sold stock. When they became depressed and discouraged, she bought. In her personal life, she also tended to take exception to the opinions of the masses. It was no more difficult to take a young lover, and then marry him, than it had been to swim against the tide of commercial opinion sixty years earlier. In fact, as the old lady saw clearly, she was risking virtually nothing when she created a scandal in 1930. As a young woman making those first critical investments in Chicago she had risked everything.
I had only known Wilhelmina for a month before she suggested, rather delicately, that my attire wasn't quite appropriate for the job. She then, quite shamelessly, took me shopping. Afterwards, at tea in her home, she told me what Mott Rogers had really been like. That was before I started writing "autobiographies", but she wouldn't have commissioned one in any case. Wilhelmina not only knew the truth, she also knew that she wanted certain parts of it to remain hidden.
The Sanderson Trust had Mrs. Sanderson as its largest single client. It turned out later that the investment people, hardly more competent than myself, had depended almost entirely on her for their decisions. Unusual as this reversal of the natural order might seem, it wasn't really unreasonable. Mrs. Sanderson had multiplied her fortune many times, and few professionals could have matched that record. The ones at Sanderson Trust were humble enough to know it.
In the May of 1932 Terry Adams was killed in Times Square. He was evidently in the middle of a lunch-hour throng about to cross Broadway when someone came up behind him and stabbed him expertly in the heart, perhaps with an ice-pick.
Wilhelmina was as upset as a young woman would have been. She was also very angry. The murder was thoroughly professional, and it was obvious that one of her heirs wanted to remove an obstacle.
The police did their best, but there were too many potential suspects, and there weren't any clues at the scene of the murder. Wilhelmina called me to her house and asked me to write down on a piece of paper the name of the person most likely to have commissioned the murder.
We had arrived at the sort of understanding of each other that made such a request possible, and I complied by putting down the name of the wife of one of the grandchildren. Wilhelmina nodded. That was all the corroboration that she needed. The supply of money in that direction was cut off, absolutely and forever, at the end of the month.
I, however, was curious, more so than Wilhelmina. I wanted to know how Mrs. Harriet Sanderson, an assertive and not unattractive youngish woman, had managed it. Wilhelmina agreed to put a private detective on Harriet's rather provocative tail, and I did some shadowing myself.
In that last month of her affluence, the only suggestive thing Harriet did was to take tennis lessons. I watched casually, from between two pine trees, as she bounced around in her little white dress and flirted with the pro. He was a lean dark young man with the most extraordinary black eyes I had ever seen.
When the lesson was over, it was clear that Harriet wanted to be with the pro more than he wanted to be with her. But he treated her gently, if a little distantly, and had a drink with her on the club terrace.
My private detective discovered that the lessons had been going on all the previous summer, and that Harriet and the pro had been seen in positions of conversational, if not physical, intimacy. He was a bright young Jew from Brooklyn who, but for the depression, would have been in medical school.
I invited the tennis pro to lunch, and so began my acquaintance with Mr. X. It was an odd lunch. I told him of my connection with Wilhelmina Sanderson, and he was amused. He knew perfectly well that I had no evidence whatsoever. I suppose I must have made it clear that I had no intention of confiding my suspicions to the police. For his part, he hardly denied them. Indeed, he seemed to think that I might possibly steer future commissions his way.
The young Mr. X allowed that he had once been a prize- fighter, but had quit before getting both his face and his brain scrambled. I remarked that being a tennis pro at an exclusive club must provide much better opportunities of several sorts. That was so, he agreed, although some of the opportunities were hardly worth the trouble. It seemed that my new acquaintance had little desire to get Harriet out of her little white dress and panties and prang her. I went so far as to suggest that there might be other women in the club more elegant and self-possessed than the young Mrs. Sanderson, but still available under certain circumstances. Mr. X smiled and replied,
"The women you describe would expect any young man to jump at the chance. No money would change hands. It's only a woman with very special needs who's prepared to offer a significant reward."
He was waiting, I suppose, for a woman who needed to have her husband murdered.
When I told Wilhelmina, she replied,
"We could commission him to kill Harriet."
But Wilhelmina's anger had already diminished, and she was never one to take foolish and unnecessary risks on the basis of emotion. Besides, she had to wait only a few days to see the reaction of Harriet and her husband to the non-arrival of the usual check.
I was, in fact, the one called on to inform Mrs. Harriet Sanderson that the elder Mrs. Sanderson no longer chose to give her or her husband money. I further explained that a donor didn't have to give any reason at all to stop giving. It was a telephone conversation, and I rather imagined that Harriet was in her boudoir, clad lightly, her breasts bouncing as she emoted.
As soon as the news sank in, Harriet and her husband hocked everything they could in order to live in much the same style. When the money gave out, a little over a year later, they executed a rather spectacular double suicide.
It was in the summer of 1933 that Wilhelmina, at eighty six, died of a sudden stroke. She had seemed ready to live to be a hundred, but I suppose she was more tired than she let on. I wondered afterward if she had hung on only long enough to see the end of Harriet. She was survived, and mourned in varying degrees, by her daughter-in-law, ten grandchildren and twenty three great grandchildren.
There was a sum of two hundred and ninety million altogether. Sanderson Junior's second wife and widow, Thelma, got ten million. No less than a hundred and forty five million disappeared into the coffers of various charitable and educational institutions. The rest was duly divided up, a little over four million to each grandchild and great grandchild.
Four million dollars might not sound like much, but this was the depth of the Great Depression. The stock of the General Motors Corporation, not to mention that of U. S. Steel and Standard Oil, could be bought for a song. Valuable real estate could easily be acquired and parcelled together. For someone with any money at all, business opportunities were better than they had been since the time of Mott Rogers. There should have been at least half a dozen new fortunes arising out of the ashes of the old.
The money for the heirs was left in trusts, one for each. They were all managed, naturally enough, by the Sanderson Trust Company. Unfortunately, Wilhelmina's death unleashed the speculative urge in all the men who had been afraid to say 'boo' to the old lady. I could see the change immediately. There was a sort of euphoria. The nice old boys who had come running at the sound of Wilhelmina's imperatives now began to twirl their gold watch chains. Knowing nothing, I knew that the remains of the fortune were in danger.
As it happened, there was not only incompetence but fraud. A pleasant sixtyish gentleman actually ran off to the Caribbean with another man's young wife. He would never have thought to do it, but for Wilhelmina's example with young Terry Adams. I remember marvelling at the irony. The only generous thing that Mott Rogers had ever done contained in it a seed which, at two removes, brought down the divided fortune. Since all the trusts were equally affected, damned little remained at the end of 1935.
I might mention that my own banking career ended at that point. A good many people besides the Sandersons lost their money. The outcry was very considerable. There was anger, too, particularly when it became clear that the absconded gentleman had got away clean to an idyll without a treaty of extradition. The rest of us, left behind, had to answer many questions. It was useless to try to explain that the job with the title 'Trust Officer' really wasn't supposed to have anything to do with trust. Still, I wasn't charged with complicity in any crime, and, by that time, I had saved a little money. A new start was called for, and I resolved to return to England, where I had previously spent ten years.
Strictly speaking, the fortune wasn't quite dead. Wilhelmina had had two favorites among all her dependents. One of these was the youngest grandchild and subject of the present account, Brenda Sanderson. The other was the oldest great-grandchild, Ralph Wambsganss. In 1935 Brenda was thirty, and was the only one of the grandchildren not to herself have children. Perhaps Wilhelmina liked her partly for that reason. Anyhow, in addition to her trust, she was left a hundred thousand in cash. It was meant, apparently, as play money. More important, it escaped the debacle. Ralph Wambsganss, a pleasant young man, was ten years younger than Brenda. He, too, got his hundred thousand.
Microscopic as these sums seem in comparison to the lost fortune, a single person could live quite comfortably on the income from a hundred thousand in the thirties. Brenda and Ralph would have been perfectly all right if it hadn't been for the others.
Rich people who suddenly discover that they'll have to work for a living are often the objects of rough humor. The laughter is malicious, the outgrowth of an unattractive jealousy. No one likes to be put in the position of having to do what he or she hasn't been trained or prepared to do. It's no wonder that most of the Sandersons gave way to panic. They then found out that Brenda and Ralph had a little left. There were, in all justice, a couple who didn't come begging. However, if the money had been divided among the beggars, it wouldn't have done anyone any good. It came down to a question of personality.
Brenda, in her good-looking elegant way, could be quite a tough girl. She helped with the education of some of her nieces and nephews, but stood firm beyond that. The others, including her mother, could sell their expensive houses and yachts and use the proceeds to get along. In some cases, such as that of her mother, a rather affluent life-style was still possible, albeit without foolish luxuries. In the case of the larger families, the sale of property would support life at a lower-middle class standard indefinitely. Brenda pointed out to those so afflicted that they could always take jobs to improve their lot. On Thnksgiving Day of 1935 Brenda still had about ninety of her original hundred thousand.
Poor Ralph was another matter. If his parents had been alive, they would have bagged him for the whole sum. It was really fortunate that they were killed in an automobile crash within a couple of weeks of Wilhelmina's death. But almost everyone else got to him. By the time I stepped in, Ralph had only forty thousand left.
I'm not now sure what my motivation was. I didn't, at that time, have any unusual liking for either Brenda or Ralph. She seemed awfully distant and rather hard, and, without really knowing her, it was easy to think of her as a typical spoiled rich girl. I remember thinking of Ralph as rather weak, although that judgment would have to be entirely changed in the light of later events. It was probably his youth which accounted for that impression.
I was aware that Wilhelmina would have expected me to do something to protect her favorites from the others, many of whom she held in open contempt. And I did like and respect Wilhelmina. However, I don't believe that the dead watch us from on high, or that it makes any difference to them what we do.
I was concerned, I think, with money in the abstract. This may seem an odd attitude, but one must think of it as part of a defense against sentimentality. It's important for a poet not to be sentimental. Nothing else gives rise to as much bad poetry. However, everyone seems to have an irreducible core of, let us say, romantic silliness. The poet does well to neutralize this element by directing it toward something that isn't likely to produce trite poetry. I have chosen money. It's quite safe. If I ever write sonnets to shillings or an Ode to a Million Dollars, people will think I'm joking.
In the present case, then, I couldn't bear to let the Sanderson fortune finally disappear in such an ignominious way as it would have in the hands of the Sanderson relatives. If it must end, I remember thinking, let someone take the remnants to Monte Carlo and bet them all on red.
Just before Christmas in 1935, Brenda stood firm, but was under great pressure. Women came and emoted, and strong men snivelled in her presence. Ralph, on the other hand, was only weeks away from the soup line. I called them together for lunch at the Plaza.
The problem was slightly complicated by the fact that Brenda and Ralph weren't as easy with each other as one might have wished. More precisely, Ralph, thrown off balance by Brenda's beauty, teased her in ways that irritated her.
It could have been predicted that they would arrive separately, Ralph a little early and Brenda a little late. I took that opportunity to talk with the boy.
Ralph was tall, rather slim, and athletic without being very competitive. He had literary tendencies, and was majoring in English at Columbia. We therefore had something in common, but not really very much. He wasn't, for example, a fellow writer. He seemed to lack the discipline which, in a young man, is seldom separated from drive and ambition. For all that, he was pleasant. I remember that it was then that I first came to like him.
When I taxed Ralph with already having given away over half his capital, he responded easily with a surprising amount of grace and dignity. He knew that he had been taken advantage of in some cases. However, luxuries had never been important to him, whereas, he pointed out with a wry smile, it was hard to imagine some of his relatives existing without them. I can still remember what he said. We were in that room with large potted plants, a violinist, and some very expensive women. He waved airily at the surroundings as he spoke.
"I know these are the good things in life. I suppose it's something wrong with me, but I just don't seem to enjoy them very much."
Just then, as if to make a point in opposition to Ralph's statement, Brenda appeared.
It was extremely difficult to know, or even guess, whether Brenda wanted men to look at her. She went to the best stores and bought clothing that no one would have thought risque or daring. She didn't wiggle or sway as she walked. She wore high heels, but she didn't mince or trip along. She stood straight, held her head up, and moved authoritatively without hurrying. There was no affectation of gesture or flirtatiousness of manner as she approached, only a little smile as she saw us. No one outside an Amish or Mennonite community could have specified any fault in her appearance or demeanor. But, just the same, every man in the room watched her intently for as long as she remained in view from his particular perspective. Was it just her natural beauty or something extra?
Brenda's full-skirted dress merely floated on her, as if she had just slipped it on as an afterthought before going out of the door. I glanced quickly at Ralph to see how he might be taking her approach. He was the son of Brenda's oldest half-sister, and was, if there is such a thing, her half-nephew. They were understandably a little confused by this relation. Brenda, at any rate, sometimes referred to Ralph as a cousin.
I wasn't sure whether he thought of her as an aunt, with whom any sexual relation need be at least moderately perverted, or in some other way. What I saw indicated the latter. I would have urged him to try to be calm and relaxed if there had been time. Brenda swept up and greeted us quite warmly, distributing herself, so to speak, equally between us. Again, her behavior was impeccable. But I feared that her affability would get Ralph's hopes up, and that she would complain about him later.
It was hardly a secret that Brenda had affairs. But, then, when the man wanted to marry her, leaving his wife if he had one, she always refused. A week later, she would talk about him as if there had never been any question of anything serious with anyone so inappropriate. However, in the very next sentence, she would worry that she was getting older, and that there would be no one for her to marry.
On this occasion I wanted no nonsense, and began immediately. I told her,
"Ralph has given away sixty of his hundred thousand dollars. He needs to be rescued before he gives away the rest."
That engaged Brenda's attention sharply, as I had known it would. She and I talked for a while about Ralph and the relatives, almost as if he weren't present. As usual, Brenda was intelligent and reasonable. We concluded that Ralph must be gotten out of New York, well out of range of his relatives. It was imperative that they not know where to find him.
Since I had already made my own arrangements to go to London, I suggested that he come along. It would mean leaving Columbia in the middle of term, but he could go to an English university. Ralph consented casually to the move. He thought, however, that he would break off his formal schooling for a while, as he had some other projects he wanted to work on. It seemed to me unlikely that he would ever study seriously again, but it was more important that he not be wiped out financially. It was agreed that he stay anonymously in the Plaza for a few days until we could get him on a ship. I would tell the relatives that he had gone prospecting for gold in Bolivia.
The conversation then turned to Brenda's plans. She owned that she, too, was finding things unpleasant, and would also like to get out of New York. She then said to me one of the most absurd things I had ever heard.
"I thought of going to Washington. But there are thousands of secretaries who work for the government. I'd be in competition with them for the eligible men."
I have always prided myself on my restraint. Instead of telling people that they're being ridiculous, I respond with the same kind of idiocy. Suggesting that she instead try London, I told her that there was there a high ratio of unmarried men to unmarried women. I had no reason to think this true, but Brenda seemed to believe me. She said that she had always wanted to go to London. I also surmised that, despite her previous impatience with Ralph, she might now want to be with the only member of her extended family who wasn't trying to touch her for money.
I told Brenda that, if she did come, she should also conceal her destination. We had great fun concocting a story. She suggested becoming a woman of pleasure in Cairo. Ralph thought she should go to Moscow to try out for the ballet. There was a definite air of fantasy about the whole thing, and I privately doubted that Brenda, older and more settled than Ralph, would really be as willing to uproot her life at a moment's notice.