A Change of Direction
Ralph's intention to return to England had profound consequences for all of us. He seemed to have made his decision without consulting Jane, but she didn't react as most women, even ones in her ambiguous position, might have. While she certainly had no thought of sharing Ralph's houseboat, she was quite willing to return to Pilgrms Lane. London was, in fact, a better milieu than Cincinnati for her talents.
Maria and I looked to Brenda. Brenda was unsure. The college and surrounding apartment community was clearly viable financially, if not educationally. But there were severe risks in trying to build a larger community there. It was tempting to gradually get her money out and leave Lefty in charge of an operation which returned a robust steady profit, but which wouldn't have impressed Wilhelmina Sanderson.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the post-war German government of Konrad Adenauer was being much more generous than anyone had imagined in settling claims for the Jewish property that the Nazis had confiscated. Brenda, typically, offered to share this money with the original owners whose claims she had bought when they were thought to be worthless.
Many of the original refugees, now settled in professions in England and America, were still grateful to her and refused to accept anything. In the end, a fund was set up for those who had not done so well. Brenda sometimes went to Germany to see to the investment of money there, and we were all intrigued by the new society, so different from the old one, that was being formed. We had been finding out for ourselves how hard it is to change people's attitudes, and we naturally wondered if the Germans could do any better.
It was a week after Ralph's announcement that Brenda wondered out loud where to live. As she put it,
"We've got substantial interests in England, others here in Cincinnati, and increasing ones in Germany. I suppose people in that sort of position usually flit around and hardly live anywhere."
All of us were together, in front of the fire in Covington, at the time. Jane, looking toward Ralph, said,
"Ralph seems to be intent on living in Little Venice."
"I don't suppose he'd object to a month somewhere else."
Ralph, evidently amused at this speculation, smiled and said nothing. Maria added,
"I think Little Venice would be at its best in the summer. The rest of the year would probably be better here. Perhaps not at the college, but in this house."
Maria spoke the last few words in such a tone as to dispute Brenda's suggestion. She was far from happy at the idea of homelessness. Moreover, unbeknownst to the rest of us, she had decided that the house in Covington was her home. Brenda laughed outright and concluded,
"I guess that settles it. Ralph lives in Little Venice and Maria here. The rest of us are strung out in between."
Ralph's style in launching an enterprise was surprisingly like that of Brenda. His first move was to buy. In this case, he deputized Muggs, with handsome commissions, to buy houseboats in Little Venice. I could easily imagine Muggs, looking like an estate agent, going along the canal bank with her notebook. Knowing what Ralph had in mind, she would particularly try to buy out those nearest his boat who seemed least likely to form part of a vibrant intellectual community.
The young artists would remain, but various sorts of degenerates would step brightly away from Little Venice, unwonted sums of money jingling in their pockets. Where Brenda was intending to make great sums of money, Ralph wanted to lose small sums slowly, in a productive way.
I knew that Ralph was tempted to go to London immediately, that is in the early December of 1946, to get started on his new grand design. However, he restrained himself and remained in Cincinnati until March. During that winter, he kept up an intensive correspondence with Muggs. She had all along been looking after his own houseboat and letting friends of hers from the university live in it rent- free. In return, they made minor repairs, kept the vagrants away, and gave it a lived-in look. The plan now was for her to do the same thing on a larger scale, again giving intellectually deserving, but impecunious, young people a chance to live in Little Venice.
In January we got a rather newsy letter from Muggs, addressed to all of us. Life continued hard in London, hardly better than in wartime. A lot of university students, and even young faculty, had practically nothing. A number of them were settled in the boats she had acquired. Muggs further commented that the absentee landlord had become quite well known, and that everyone was anxious to meet him. Muggs said she had been rather reticent about Ralph, not giving even his name. He had consequently become a figure of some mystery, and had been named, "T. B. L.", the initials standing for "The Benevolent Landlord." We all twitted Ralph about that, and I pointed out that it sounded like a sub-name of God in various religions. As I said,
"I can imagine people chanting, "The First Unmoved Mover", "The Defender of the Faith", "The Benevolent Landlord." You may find, Ralph, that, instead of a group engaged in spirited intellectual discussion, there are people who wish to pray to you."
"It's lucky for Ralph that these are English academic people. Faced with God himself, they'd find errors in his premises and attempt to set him right about his conclusions."
I picked up Muggs' letter and read aloud,
"Since Brenda bought a boat, and is sheltering two Australian economists, she's known as "T. L. B.", the initials in this case standing for "The Lady Bountiful.""
It was clear that Muggs was encouraging the spread of myth concerning all of us. I considered buying a boat myself simply to see what would emerge.
Since we weren't teaching in the winter, our relation to the college changed considerably. Brenda and I had not had ideals on the scale of Ralph's to be shattered, but we, too, were sobered. We saw a good deal of Jack, and I worked with a couple of aspiring poets, but, as time went on, we handed over more and more functions to Lefty. He was happy to run an operation which was significantly more profitable than the furnace business.
One thing we hadn't bargained on was the lack of newsworthy events in Cincinnati. The two main papers, starved for material and intrigued by the Sanderson name, descended upon ourselves and our college.
For myself, the most painful part of the publicity flowed from an elderly gentleman who had, for many years, written a column called "The Cincinnatian." In one column, he lauded a juvenile court judge, apparently for his ability to cause both parents of the accused miscreant to weep copiously. The column ended with the sentence,
"The judge is so wise."
Whether the Cincinnatian concerned himself with the exploits of the judiciary, the civil government, or the Sewer Board, he had an extraordinary ability to inject sentimentality into the dryest of affairs.
The Cincinnatian had originally asked to interview Brenda for a future column concerning the college and the apartment development surrounding it. She didn't want to have to conduct the interview alone, and we queried the others. The consensus was that Ralph, faced with the Cincinnatian, might experience uncontrollable nausea. With Jane, a violent reaction of a different sort might be anticipated. We agreed that anyone of Maria's age should be sheltered from the excruciating embarrassment which the Cincinnatian seemed so likely to provoke. It was thus left to me to give Brenda some support.
We received our visitor in Covington. While he looked much as portrayed in the photograph accompanying his column, an elderly man with a rather distinguished face and a characteristic downward look, he wasn't otherwise what we expected. He didn't simper about ourselves or our house, nor did he tell us sweet anecdotes about its former inhabitants. On the contrary, he was rather brisk, almost brusque, and seemed to have been trained in the WHO?, WHEN?, WHERE?, WHAT?, WHY? school of journalism. It was impossible to tell whether he was aware that his column consisted entirely of drivel.
The Cincinnatian came, saw, and, as far as we knew, conquered. We had given him the facts, but we had little idea what he might report. Jane had eavesdropped from the next room, and our consensus was that the report would be negative. He ordinarily dripped with praise, but he hadn't uttered a single word of it to us. Ralph, who hadn't eavesdropped, disagreed when we told him of our expectations. He said,
"The Cincinnatian really only has one column, with different names and institutions. I doubt that he can write any other way. We'll get the same sugary treatment as Judge Howard Swelkin."
We had to wait a week to find out. Ralph turned out to be mostly right, at least as far as the first part of the column went. The Cincinnatian said that Brenda had "the beauty of an angel" and I "the learning of a savant." It struck me as predictable that he attributed to Brenda the one kind of beauty she didn't have. I hoped that my own description wasn't similarly inappropriate.
There were then references to "wonderful deserving young people" and the "heroic veterans of our recent crusade on foreign soil." There was, in fact, a poetic element in the Cincinnatian's writing. If one ignored the meaning of the words, some of his phrases read rather well. There was also just a hint of truth in some of the things he said. The war against Hitler had been more like a medieval crusade than the other wars of the last hundred years. These thoughts were going through my head as Brenda read the column aloud, and I tuned in again for the end.
The Cincinnatian had asked about Ralph and Jane, and did seem somewhat bothered by our arrangements. He wrote,
"Are these brilliant and talented young people, with the best will in the world, falling victim to the lures of Arrogance? Are they raising Captain Ahab's red flag against God?"
That last sentence particularly worried us. Would the average reader know that Captain Ahab's flag wasn't a communist flag? This was the city in which the Cincinnati Reds were changing their name to "Redlegs" despite the unlikeliness of confusion on that score. Were we also being accused of atheism? Since, among the five of us, the sum total of religious feeling was almost nil, we were rather sensitive on that point.
As it happened, we needn't have worried. No one accused us of teaching atheistic communism at Hiram Mason.
While another columnist rather made fun of us in a good- natured way, the society and women's pages mentioned us and our college favorably. Indeed, we even became known to the garden clubs and the Junior League. This last was probably because of Jane and Brenda, the former's talent for decoration, both their names, and, not least, Mrs. Smith's influence. We were thus making a hit with the upper class women of Cincinnati, and a good many middle class ones who followed their lead. However, Margie Smith told Brenda privately that she had had no luck in persuading any of her friends and acquaintances to move anything of importance to the Western Hills.
During this phase, Lefty, free of any constraints, moved to solve the college's problems. Mr. Abbott, to the relief of some of us, got a better job elsewhere. None of the other faculty members had any grand designs. According to Jack, the veterans had settled down comfortably, and were anxious only to get their degrees in the shortest possible time.
It was at this point that Lefty made some moves, aimed entirely at adding to the prestige of the college, that turned out to have more significance for the Sanderson fortune than any of us could have imagined.
Lefty was one of very few people who listened closely to what other people said. Always ready to exploit an opening, the pronounciation of even a single word in a certain way might suggest to him that the speaker could be sold anything from a house or a furnace to a college education. It also allowed him to pick up what are now called "buzz-words", and the associated ideas, before they gained any mass currency. One of those was the word, 'computer.'
At that time, there were only very few electronic computers in existence, and most of those had been hand-built by their inventors. But electrical engineers were beginning to talk about them. Lefty knew such an engineer who taught mathematics part-time at the college, and was in the habit of drinking with him at a bar near the railway tracks on Western Avenue. It wasn't long before Lefty started talking about computers. Along with the rest of us, he probably visualized them as rather large adding machines. However, one day when Maria was in his office, helping him re-schedule some classes (or doing it for him), he asked her about them.
Not surprisingly, Ralph and Maria had studied the work of the English mathematician, Alan Turing, who had provided a good deal of the theoretical basis for computers. Maria was enthusiastic, and, in the inimitable style in which she and Lefty communicated, she conveyed that enthusiasm to him. He, in one of his euphoric moods, announced that he was going to Washington to get a computer for the college. Maria may have realized that he was primed to tell people that he already had someone, namely herself, who would know exactly how to set it up and run it. If so, she did nothing to hold him back.
Lefty's quest was, of course, absurd. The U. S. Army had developed the ENIAC, and Harvard had its Mark I. IBM was getting started, and the major research universities had their plans, but Hiram Mason University had about as much chance of getting a computer as getting a contract to develop a hydrogen bomb.
Set against this fact was another, that Lefty knew politics and politicians, and knew how to get things. In particular, he had learned that colleges could get all kinds of things from the federal bureaucracy in Washington. He was a college president, like any other, and, instead of relying on lobbyists, he went himself.
Another relevant fact is that, when Lefty blew into the Washington office of his congressman, no one there knew that his request was absurd. The congressman and his aides were used to constituents turning up in search of all sorts of things. They were a little surprised and flattered to see that a college president had come in person, but it was their general experience that colleges were getting most of what they wanted. This one wanted a computer, a sort of large adding machine, and they didn't see why it shouldn't have one.
An assistant was assigned to guide Lefty through the vast recesses of the government, and they set out the next day.
Lefty didn't, of course, get his machine. But he got to people who were concerned with computers. One official suggested to him that, in view of his interests, he set up at his college a program to train people in the theory and practice of computers. That, he was told, could be done without actually possessing one of the few in existence.
I think that it had always been Lefty's practice to push first and then take advantage of any opening that appeared. He accepted the official's suggestion immediately. He may well have thought that, if he did set up his program and print appropriate brochures, he'd get his computer a year or so down the road.
In the meantime, even though Ralph had been very sceptical of the whole proceeding, Lefty assured everyone that he had at least two people who could get things started.
I, of course, wasn't present at this interview between Lefty and the federal administrator, probably with the congressman's assistant making a third, but I can guess what might have happened.
Despite Lefty's skills, the administrator would have wondered if there was really anyone at Hiram Mason University who was competent to run a training program in computers. He therefore indicated to Lefty that there were several organizations in Washington which used computers, and which ran small training programs for people interested in establishing their own programs. It must have seemed to Lefty that, if he sent someone to be trained, he had a good chance of getting funding for the next year.
In the event, there never was a computer training program at Hiram Mason. Maria, however, got a chance to go to Washington. It was in April that she was officially accepted as a trainee.
Our plans had to be recast. Ralph was headed for London, as was Jane. It was thus incumbent on either Brenda or myself to accompany Maria to Washington, but Brenda had to go to Germany in connection with her interests there. That left only me.