It has just now struck me strongly that I am writing more about myself than about the Sanderson fortune. I could have read what the financial analysts have said over the years, and could have interviewed Brenda's competitors to get their views. I could have put certain questions arising from my research to Brenda herself. While not showing her any part of the draft so far written, I have raised these issues with her.
Brenda assures me that she doesn't want an "objective view" of the fortune. Two books and many articles have been written about it, and some of this material is genuinely scholarly. The last thing she wants is a piece of skewed scholarship from Muggs and myself. What she does want is a personal account of all our relations to the money (that is, she thinks, to herself) from one who knows things the scholars cannot know. So here goes. Or, more precisely, here I continue to go.
I have recently read a little piece by a literary lady who describes her nervous breakdown as "a reasonable response to an age of nuclear terror." How very affecting. One wishes to bracket it with the old football coach's motto, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." The sentiments expressed appear to be opposite, but which, I wonder, is worse? If faced with an unspeakable torture, and forced to utter one or the other, which would it be? I think, on the whole, that I would rather sound as if my IQ were 73 than join the literary lady in an obscene romp through a hot tub of gross self-deception and whining bathos.
My growing alcoholism was not, so far as I know, a response to the rise of Hitler, Mussollini, or the price of soybeans. It did consist in the release of a great amount of awfulness that was within me. I was not, at least by the autumn of 1936, one of those happy drunks who thinks he's charming everyone within earshot.
I knew perfectly well what was happening. I consequently refused to associate with decent people. I went years without seeing any of the principals of our story. I did continue to employ Muggs, purely in a literary way, but communicated with her mostly by letter.
Everyone wanted to help. I told them simply that I couldn't both see them and continue to drink, and that I preferred to drink. I promised that, if and when I was "cured", I would look them up. As if by agreement among them, and it probably was an explicit agreement, Brenda called me every few months for years. She always communicated to me the best wishes of Ralph and Jane and asked how the drinking was going. The reply was always the same.
Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, my alcoholism interfered not a whit with my career as a literary associate. The people whose commissions I accepted were, on the whole, just as awful as I was. Some of them managed it without alcohol. Sitting in my room with a glass of brandy at my side, turgid prose bubbled from my pen and defaced countless sheaves of best sixteen pound bond.
I was accounted a great success. Everyone wanted me. I once urinated in the fireplace of a stately home, fortunately with no ladies present. The servants hardly batted an eyelash, and my fellow drinkers thought me a very fine fellow indeed.
When I began my retreat in the autumn of 1936, Brenda had only four houses in Pilgrims Lane, the one in which she lived, the neighboring one just acquired from Smith, and two more modest ones. All were among the forty or so houses on the uphill side of the lane as it straggled and curved along the contour line of Hampstead Hill. On the downhill side there were many lots too steep for practicable building, and there were thus only about twenty houses. Brenda's four were concentrated in the middle of the lane with two in each of two adjacant terraces. It was this little neighborhood that she contrived to ruin in very short order.
After Smith and I had put on our little performance with the removal van, Brenda filled all four houses with young Mediterranean men. On two Saturday nights, there were staged fights with broken bottles and thrown bricks. The combatants dispersed just before the arrival of the police, but there were many horrid cries and desperate screams. On the following Sunday mornings, it looked as if a battle had taken place.
There was mention of these incidents, so atypical of British residential life, in the papers. Various people took Brenda to court on charges that didn't stick. Meanwhile, her agents continued to go up and down the lane offering people ridiculously low prices for their homes. Eight families caved in and sold by September for a total price that was easily covered by the amount Brenda had budgeted and raised for that purpose. She now had twelve houses, ten uphill ones, all in the central section of the lane.
If Brenda had used the same methods to acquire another dozen houses, she would have driven the whole lane, not to mention the adjacant streets, into an irreversible decline. She instead did the opposite. The soccer players changed overnight from rowdies to industrious workmen who painted trim, tuck-pointed brick, gardened, and cleaned. Brenda had the temerity to start an organization dedicated to improving the local environment. She fooled no one, but the remaining householders, who had been driven almost to the wall, realized that they had been reprieved.
Brenda didn't sell any of her houses for some months to come. The prices were set so high as to preclude quick sale, or, it must have seemed, any sale at all. However, they daily acquired more and more touches of elegance. The young men, compensated for their work only by free rent, included in their number a good many of artistic bent. In one of her telephone calls, Brenda informed me of all this. I, curious, strolled down the lane early one Sunday morning before Brenda would be awake.
Even at that hour, men were at work. Although I didn't recognize any individuals, I saw immediately that they belonged to the soccer group. It was also easy to pick out all twelve houses that Brenda now owned. Stucco walls that had always been white now blossomed in pastel colors. Columns whose fluting and pedestals no one had ever noticed were now picked out in three colors. The result might have been dreadful, but the colors had been chosen by a master. Certainly not by Brenda. Whoever it was, there was now an Italianate face of Hampstead Hill, standing out from the rest like a gleaming royal villa in a place where colors had been forbidden to commoners.
While none of Brenda's houses sold until the spring of '37, people came in droves to see them. They became famous. When they did start to sell, they all went in a rush. Brenda kept only the one in which she lived, and she pocketed a very large sum. She also proved a principle. If one offers low prices long and hard enough, those prices fulfill themselves. Then, if one demands high prices long and hard enough, they, too, will eventually be met.
Mrs. Sattell was paid back very quickly. I imagine that she was pleased with the prompt repayment. Another beneficiary of Brenda's maneuvering, was, of course, Smith. Brenda informed me in another of her calls that he had been paid a sum far exceeding his expectations. So far as I know, Jane is ignorant of that arrangement to this very day.
This real estate triumph helped bring Brenda's total capital up from the original ninety thousand dollars to something like a hundred thousand pounds, and that was when a pound was worth five dollars. It also set a precedent in other ways. Most of the people Brenda collaborated with profited from that collaboration. They were generally rather pleased with the results, but Brenda's profits exceeded those of the others by a factor of five or ten.
Still, by the summer of 1937, Brenda, though possessed of capital, was scrabbling along like the rest of us, squirrelling away small sums in order to create larger ones. One reason for her periodic calls, perhaps not the main one, was to make sure that I kept to, and even increased, my schedule of monthly investments with her.
The next thing I found out, perhaps a year later, was something I didn't know how to interpret at the time. I didn't hear it from Brenda herself, but from a mutual acquaintance, a man called Phelps. Brenda had become a Jew.
I suppose I could have asked her about it when she duly called a month or two later, but I was still drinking, more than ever, and was determined not to ask the sorts of questions which would lead to a long conversation and renewed meetings. I did, however, ask some questions of Phelps.
Phelps, a member of Parliament for a rural Conservative district, was not, of course, a nice person. He had an interest in Brenda which was, I should think, partly prurient and partly financial. She apparently kept him at a distance, but, as she was now a minor celebrity in certain circles, they were invited to some of the same houses. I knew, therefore, that she told him exactly what she wanted to be known publicly, and nothing else.
Brenda told the rabbis that her motivation was not just religious, but that she wished also to make a political statement by her conversion. In ordinary times they would probably have told her that a person could take an interest in Judaism, and work in support of Jewish causes, without herself becoming Jewish. However, Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany had reached such proportions that it must have been hard to resist a non-Jewish American who was willing to go to such lengths to demonstrate publicly her position.
I suspect that the course of religious studies she was required to undertake was a bit less rigorous than it would otherwise have been. Since she was a smart girl who larned quickly, the thing was done in short order. Some accounts of the matter shortly appeared in the press, where it was treated as a brave and generous gesture.
The conversion was certainly that, but it also played an important part in the reconstruction of the Sanderson fortune. As was natural in the circumstances, Brenda threw herself into the work of resettling Jewish refugees in England, and, to some extent, in America. She found housing for many. She helped refugee doctors and lawyers get the credentials they needed to practise in England. She introduced refugees to people who could help them, and she herself fed or bought food for anyone who looked hungry. And, then, she did one other thing.
Brenda bought from the refugees options on property that had already been confiscated by the Nazis. Having sold her houses in Pilgrims Lane, she had cash, and she bought options on a lot of Jewish property in Germany. There was no chicanery about that. After all, the property was gone, and no one else would have given anything for it. Hitler would certainly never give it back, and, at that time, he was going from one diplomatic and quasi-military triumph to another. The refugees were thankful to get the substantial sums Brenda offered them. It was enough to get them started anew.
War always poses a problem for ex-patriates. Should they return to their "own" country, in this case America? Should they join the armed forces of the new country, or otherwise participate in the war effort? Or should they go to Switzerland and sit the war out while deploring violence in the cafes?
While I was no longer in close touch with my friends, we had, even in 1936, extensively discussed the question of our national loyalty.
One of the things Americans newly arrived in England first noticed in those days was the striking absence of most forms of vulgarity, at least as compared to America. Ralph and Brenda, for example, were almost thunderstruck when they met cab-drivers and hotel porters who spoke with accents which sounded educated to an American, and who could discuss world affairs in quiet well-modulated tones, sometimes with touches of whimsy and even irony. It was true. The sorts of working class English people who had jobs which put them in touch with the gentry could sound more than a little like Jeeves when occasion demanded. If one were used to their opposite numbers in America, people who made truly horrid noises in the course of speaking what passed for English, one couldn't help but be impressed.
There were a thousand other little things. Even Londoners queued peaceably for busses, and there were never any unseemly mob scenes replete with pushing and yelling. At any rate, such things occurred only in places such as Rotherhithe and Stepney, places no American was at all likely to go. The perspective offered Ralph and Brenda was a compelling one. Here was a thoroughly civilized country in which one could go for days and weeks without ever seeing or hearing anything that made one wince.
All three of us were aware that we would never sound English to the English, and that it was an affectation to pretend otherwise. We had all seen Americans who said 'blimey' and 'What ho!' after a week in London. On the other hand, there was no reason to positively resist certain tendencies as they naturally occurred in the process of coming to terms with a new country. To resist all British habits of speech and manner would be like refusing to speak French in France. With that proviso and that rationale, each of us went about adapting ourselves to what we took to be a superior culture as quickly as possible. I had a ten-year head start, but Ralph and Brenda were younger and more adaptable.
That being the case, we made our decisions, mine alone and the other two in consultation with one another, when the war came. In each case, it was to stay in England and do what we could to help.
Ralph, despite being an American citizen, joined the RAF within a few days of the outbreak of war. He was too big to fit into a pilot's cockpit, but he became a ground officer with special responsibilities for catering. Unromantic as this role might seem, he was in the thick of the action in the first summer of war, when the Germans attacked the fighter bases around London. Ralph was, in fact, instrumental in getting the pilots fed and the fighters refuelled on one disastrous occasion when the ground personnel, including some officers, hid underground in the face of a determined attack. He would doubtless have been decorated, but for the RAF's natural desire to cover up the whole seamy episode.
After that, Ralph was sent to Egypt, where he helped set up and organize air bases in the North African campaign. When America entered the war, he was switched to the USAAF, but continued to do the same work in Sicily, Italy, and, finally, East Anglia. He had, not quite what was known as a "good war", but a very useful one. His administrative skills may well have made Ralph more valuable than most combat pilots.
Jane spent the war with MI5. Although it was theoretically the main military intelligence organization, and was talked of in awed whispers, it was, in fact, an odd collection of odd persons. There were Colonel Blimps of the most eccentric and hopeless kind. There were amateurs, sometimes brilliant ones, and, of course, pretty girls. All of them enjoyed playing spy. The secretaries and assistants were often, like Jane, recruited at dinner parties. As one of the luminaries of the organization remarked later on, they looked for "girls from good families with good legs." Given that criterion, it's no wonder that they selected Jane.
The most valued possession of MI5, which set it apart from the other intelligence services, was its huge and exhaustive record file. Supposedly, they had the goods on everyone. Unfortunately, as Jane discovered, the files were less impressive the closer one got. For example, one woman was suspect because she had been seen to stand on a beach staring out to sea for long periods of time. One can imagine the sorts of things Jane would have said. Her satiric tongue may, indeed, have saved her life. She was transferred to another office before the Germans, seemingly with great good luck, scored a direct bomb hit on the MI5 London headquarters, destroying the record file. Some, Jane among them, said that the English profited far more than the Germans.
The outbreak of war found me in a blaze of patriotism for what amounted to my adopted country. I was, in reality, too alcoholic for effective military service, but I was far from being the only one. That wouldn't have kept them from taking me. But I was also too old. I ended up as a civilian aircraft spotter in Richmond Park, at the southwest corner of the great London sprawl.
In the beginning, there was a certain romance to it. I took lodgings on affluent Richmond Hill overlooking the Thames and the meadows bordering it. In the autumn dusk of those first days of war, I would walk through the great gates of the park and proceed to my isolated shack on top of the highest hill. My gas mask and night glasses slung around by neck and my flask secure in my pocket, I was ready for the most desperate kind of encounter with the enemy.
Almost everyone expected London to be massively attacked, and perhaps wiped out, by wave after wave of Nazi bombers. After the city had been laid waste, with fires raging out of control, the bombers would return with canisters of poison gas to get those of us who might have survived. In expectation of this catastrophe, children were being sent out to the countryside. There was put in hand a vast program of decentralization in a very centralized country, all with the object of saving what was possible from the Germans.
In that atmosphere it was possible for the civilian aircraft spotter to think of himself in rather dramatic terms. He was the sentinel on his hilltop, starkly outlined against the night sky, ready to give the alarm at the first sign of the invading horde. I remember comparing myself to Paul Revere, at least in my thoughts, and very probably in conversation with my companions. I am at least thankful that I followed through on my resolution to avoid decent people. Brenda, for example, will learn of such conceits only when she reads these pages. Of course, had she known at the time, she might well have thought me funny. But I am not now amused at the thought of her potential amusement then.
Everyone now knows that the attacks didn't come for the best part of a year. Even then, violent though they were, they didn't begin to approach the original expectations.
By spring, the RAF had set up a much more efficient system of spotters, and had integrated it, not only with the radar network, but also with the controllers at Fighter Command. There was, in a word, no remaining place for old drunks. I suspect that they kept me on only because I had influential friends.
It must be realized that the literary associate, having completed his work, particularly if it's a biography under his own name, must jump many notches in the esteem of his client. After all, the biographer able to set forth all the sterling qualities of his subject in vivid relief must be a rather extraordinary person. He must be possessed of insight, a proper appreciation of moral worth, and a judiciousness which, despite his admiration, ensures objectivity. And he must have courage, too, the courage to speak the truth in the face of calumny from all sides.
There were thus some of my clients, ones who carried weight in high places, who would happily have placed me in command of a battleship or armoured division. I therefore remained a volunteer aircraft spotter among the gambolling deer in Richmond Park. I was, however, given a different shift, from four to six in the afternoon. It was a much shorter stint than most, and was considered a less critical one.
When the daylight attacks did come in the summer of 1940, the period known as the Battle of Britain, they were directed at the fighter airfields, most of them south and east of London. Only a few strayed west to Richmond to be reported by myself.
The standard procedure, when one saw an aircraft, was to call in from the telephone in the shack. Everything went according to form. One gave a few code words identifying oneself and one's station, and then gave the approximate bearing and distance of the aircraft. Finally, one identified its type by referring to the recognition cards provided. Only in that last act did one indicate whether it was friendly or hostile. The theory seemed to be that, unless the spotter could tell the aircraft type, he couldn't be relied on to say whether it was hostile.
I fell between the cracks in this system. I could almost never tell a Hurricane from a Spitfire, but, because both British fighters had rounded wing-tips, I could tell either from the German Messerschmidts, with their squared-off wing- tips. There was no provision for reporting "friendly fighter, type unknown", so I reported all single-engined aircraft as unidentified. I don't know how many extra sorties Fighter Command may have flown to track down aircraft which turned out to be Hurricanes or Spitfires. I hope it wasn't many, particularly during those summer days on which they were stretched so thin.
If I had been in better shape, I would either have insisted on putting things straight, or, better, resigned in favor of someone who could tell a Hurricane from a Spitfire. However, it was important to me to feel that I was an important cog in the war machine. It was a measure of my impoverished spiritual estate that I allowed such considerations to outweigh ones so much more important.
It was only much later that I discovered that the RAF had a category into which I neatly fitted, except that it was applied only to military personnel. It was abbreviated, "LMF." The phrase which was abbreviated, "low moral fibre", was seldom uttered in its entirely.
It was directly after the most critical period, just before Christmas, when I came upon a young gentleman of my acquaintance whose moral fibre was most assuredly not low. Mr. X, now Flight Lieutenant X, called to me softly one early evening as I was negotiating the little tables scattered in front of the bar at the Charing Cross hotel. Hard by the railway station that served the fighter airfield at Kenley, it was a favorite gathering place for the pilots when they came up to London.
He was at one of the tables with some other fighter pilots, all of them well decorated with medals, "gongs' as they called them, and he came over to speak to me. I, the hero of Richmond Hill, managed to ask him whether he was flying a Spitfire or a Hurricane, affecting the manner of one who could tell them apart. I can't now remember his answer, but it didn't matter. He was a born hunter, and the war had attracted him, along with a few dozen other young Americans.
I now wonder what the English thought of him. He was already an ace, and the English were delighted to have aces. It didn't matter whether they happened to be Poles and Czechs intent on revenge, Irishmen bored with home-bred violence, or American murderers. The Flight Lieutenant and I didn't say very much, but he inquired about Brenda. When I told him that she was in London, he was quite keen on having her address and telephone number. I dare say that he called her, but I have no additional information on that score.
Later on in the war, I was given a further reduced shift, only two hours each on three week-day afternoons. There was then less need for spotters, but I sensed that my reliability was held in question. I was sure a month later when, alone of all the spotters on Richmond Hill, I was sent an "assistant." He was a twelve year old boy scout with incredibly good vision and an encyclopaedic knowledge of aircraft types. But they reckoned without me.
By that time, America was well into the war, and one of the more common aircraft to be seen was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a big blunt powerful fighter that was quite distinctive. On the first day of the new regime we saw one that even I could identify. The boy, Daniel, wanted to report it at once. I stopped him.
"Are you sure that it's a P-47?"
Daniel was a well-bred boy, and I was sure I could ride roughshod over him. I asked,
"Is there no other aircraft that's at all similar?"
"Well, there's the P-43 and the AT-12, also built by the same aircraft company."
That was where he made his mistake. By this time, I was sensitive that I had done less than my bit to win the Battle of Britain, and I was trying to compensate. I had become a fanatic about identification. I went about trying to convince the other spotters that their identifications were false. It was a pitiable attempt to rationalize my previous behavior, but I boomed out obstreperously at the boy,
"How in all conscience, Daniel, can we report a P-47 when it might be a P-43 or an At-12?"
Needless to say, I had never heard of these types, but I had him on the run. He explained that a P-43 was much smaller, really an earlier, unsuccessful, version of the P-47. It had never been produced in quantity and was now thoroughly obsolete. There were probably only a dozen or so still in existence, all in America or the Pacific. The At-12 was yet rarer, a P-43 modified for use as an advanced trainer. But it was too hot a plane, and too dangerous, for that purpose. There certainly wouldn't be any outside America.
I brushed aside all this rational argument, using the crassest sceptical techniques. Had poor Daniel realized it, the same sorts of considerations could have been used to cast doubt on the likelihood that the sun would rise the next day. I ended by making him feel guilty for having even suggested reporting a P-47. Some twenty minutes after the event, we reported sighting an unidentified aircraft.
Just when air raids on London had almost ceased to be a problem, there came the buzz bombs. A buzz bomb was a small pilotless flying bomb with stubby wings and an early jet engine. Launched from just across the Channel and aimed at London, the engine would be timed to stop over the city. When that happened, the aircraft would flutter down in almost any direction. Its large explosive charge would annihilate whatever it hit. It had virtually no chance of destroying any military objective, but, launched in droves, buzz bombs were effective terror weapons. One could hear them coming for a long way, and, worst of all, there was no predicting where they would land. A bomb might easily fly past and then, when the engine cut out, reverse along its path.
Since the bombs came over at all hours of the day and night, it was largely impracticable for people to go to shelters. Many, like myself, slept in basements. But that was little protection against a direct hit.
In the daytime, whenever people heard a bomb coming, they would drift toward a place of relative security, generally a substantial house or shop building. Then, if it cut off anywhere in the vicinity, they would dive for the basement. That was the worst time, the minute or so of utter silence while one waited to see whether one was to be buried as the building was blown down into the basement. People sometimes prayed or swore, but, most often, they said nothing until the explosion was heard somewhere else.
Brenda, shopping in Oxford St., was only a short distance from one of the earlier buzz bomb explosions. Undeterred, she rushed to the scene to help pull people out of a shattered and burning shop while other bombs were buzzing overhead. In the end, she narrowly escaped death or injury when one of the others came down in the same street. I heard of her gallantry from Phelps, but was hardly surprised. It was the sort of thing one expected of her.
When, a few weeks later, Brenda rang me up, neither of us mentioned this incident. She did, however, joke about buzz bombs. I thought at the time that she positively enjoyed being able to share some of the danger with the men at the front. My own experience with a buzz bomb came a little later.
It happened when I was walking up Richmond Hill from my lodgings to my station in the park one fine bright afternoon. A heavy lorry was slowly climbing the hill, and it wasn't until it had passed that I heard, quite clearly, the sound we had all come to dread. It seemed to be coming right at me, and I looked for shelter. The nearest was a terrace of several large houses some fifty yards away, and I ran to them. It wasn't unusual, in those circumstances, for even a perfect stranger to call out, and to be admitted. I did so when I reached the first house, but there was no answer.
The noise was now loud, almost a scream, and I ran from house to house, shouting and trying the doors. All were locked, and there was no answer anywhere. I could, of course, have broken one of the ground floor windows with a brick, hopped in, and taken cover. Still, terrified as I was, I had been in England quite some time. The act of breaking and entering seemed almost beyond contemplation in its enormity.
Moreover, I was probably dimly aware that such a course of action wouldn't have been perceived as justified. The bomb was flying nearby, but its engine hadn't shut down. It might fly for a good many miles and explode in Ruislip. I, standing amid broken glass in someone's drawing room while the bomb flew away, would be seen as the sort of chap who loses his nerve and sets a poor example for the lower classes.
Suffice it to say, I cowered against the front of a house while the fearful noise seemed to recede. Then it stopped. I felt relieved. It's hard to explain why I did. I knew that the bomb could easily reverse course. However, in those days of the "second blitz", I must have come to fear the sound of a bomb's flight more than the explosion. Perhaps I had even come to fear the feelings associated with that sound more than death. It is, after all, easier to fear something than nothing.
The upshot is that, when no one would have blamed me for breaking in and diving for the basement, I didn't do so. I was still very frightened, but I remained exactly where I was.
The bomb came back. I even heard the whistle of its flight as it passed. It landed in the middle of the road with an explosion that utterly dwarfed anything I had ever heard. Fortunately, the street was empty, and, although glass was broken for some distance, no one was killed.
It turned out that the person closest to the explosion was another pedestrian, a middle-aged woman caught out as I was. She had been on the other side of the street, and had watched the bomb, evidently with little anxiety, as it flew over. When the engine stopped, she watched it turn and glide almost directly at her. Only then did she take evasive action, throwing herself into a shallow ditch beside a hedge. After the explosion, she picked herself up, dusted off her clothes, and looked around to see if anyone were hurt. It was then that she saw me.
Ears ringing painfully, I ran crookedly from the house- front to the street. I there flung myself into the gutter. I don't know why. Could my alcoholism have so delayed my reactions that I took the appropriate action a minute or so too late? The woman rushed to me, thinking that I had been hit, and had subsequently collapsed. She was the sort of thoroughly competent Englishwoman who's up to any emergency. I was truly in a pitiable state, jabbering and weeping, but I remember exactly what she said as she searched me for signs of damage. She asked,
"Are you quite all right?"
I was shouting. I was now terrified that she'd go away. And, of course, I did have some minor cuts and bruises from my dive into the street. A couple of other people came up. It took some little time for the truth to come out. I was, in fact, quite unhurt. I had, by this time, gotten some control over myself, and had been helped to my feet. My first response was to reach for my flask, uncap it, and take a long drink, dribbling some of the brandy over my chin. The woman, my erstwhile angel of mercy, spoke again. This time, she said,
"Oh, I see."
She then turned and disappeared. The man still holding my arm, a rather seedy youth, was amused. He released me, winked at a young woman who had come up, and called after me,
"Carry on, old chap."
As I staggered away, it was the woman's utterance, "Oh, I see", that stuck with me. What she had seen was that I was an alcoholic, my nervous system so badly damaged that I made extremely heavy weather of something she had taken in her stride. The solution was simple. I haven't taken a drink from that day to this.