Nantucket was a favorite place of mine ever since I’d gone there one summer with my family as a teenager, and I had gone back since, often, usually bringing friends, for a long weekend after Labor Day. With the island drained of most of the summer frenzy and a little nip in the night air, the quiet and tempo of the place had always been soothing to me. This time it was early October and I had gone with my friend Fred. He was recently widowed, lived across the street and his wife had been a friend. At the time, neither one of us had a regular job and for whatever reason, was always able to make the other one laugh. It was extraordinary, like delicious medicine. It wasn’t romantic, we didn’t sleep together, it wasn’t complicated or annoying, just comforting, simple and diverting. We went everywhere together, had lunch together sometimes eight days in a row. We always had something to talk about and weren’t ever bored. After a year and a half of sadness, hospitals, bedpans and morphine drips for me with Mom (and even more of that for him with his wife), it felt almost miraculous to be able to laugh so often and so well. And to see how other people managed to make that a steady diet rather than an exotic treat. I got a taste of this that late October on Nantucket.
I was showing Nantucket to Fred and we’d gone to dinner at Le Languedoc, a beguiling French favorite of mine I loved so much, years later my husband and I had dinner there the night of our wedding.
Fred and I were just beginning our meal. The waiter brought us a breadbasket and told us to watch our fingers because the bread inside was very, very hot. Fred then peeled back the cloth covering it and, seeing that inside was a badly charred loaf of bread, said: “Oh my God, look. The English Patient.” I started laughing so loudly that I almost missed the arrival of an extremely tall and terribly elegant woman, probably in her late seventies or early eighties, with a sumptuous fur jauntily tossed over one shoulder. She made quite an entrance, looked famous and familiar but I couldn’t place her. Trailing after her were six men, all well-dressed, prosperous looking, one younger than the next. They were seated at the next table and Fred and I turned to gape. She was wrapped in peach silk, with not a wrinkle on her stunning aristocratic face. Her jewelry was tasteful but blinding. One wrist or finger alone would have been enough to bring my grandmother to her knees, shuddering, weeping both with delight and a savage but piquant jealousy.
The woman’s laugh was throaty and her eyes flickered with plucky, fetching devilishness. She was obviously a woman used to commanding a great deal of attention. It wasn’t just money, it wasn’t about money at all, it was a heady joie de vivre, something money can’t buy, and as we know, money can buy a great deal.
Fred and I watched her hold forth at her table of spellbound, captivated men and could tell that she was a fascinating creature. In a moment of blind, sheer fiscal recklessness, we sent her over a bottle of Dom Perignon. I cannot speak for Fred but I had certainly never indulged in such an extravagant gesture ever before, or since, in my entire life. She came right over, sat down with us, focused in on Fred (who was not unattractive), and after thanking us, proceeded immediately to regale us with enthralling stories. Her husband, whom she’d amicably divorced many years before, was heir to one of those distinguished, spectacularly moneyed American fortunes, like the Rockefellers, DuPonts or Astors. We’d been right about her, the world was her oyster and in her case, she owned the oyster boat, the oystermen and quite possibly even the sea the boat navigated.
“I’ve shot everything but a man,” she announced to us straightaway, having landed quickly somehow on the subject of her numerous safari expeditions taken years before, with her ex-husband. As if to prove her point she produced from her wallet a small black and white snapshot of herself in the bush, toting what she told us was a classic 1903 Mannlicher-Schönauer, the serious and particularly frightening-looking (then again, aren’t they all?) gun she described having been very popular with big game hunters and Hemingway, she said. She began telling us about her marriage and said that when she was first married, her husband was in the army and they lived on a base in the South. “I used to throw on my best Balenciaga at lunchtime and go take my husband his lunch in my Bentley,” she told us, “always with an ice bucket and a bottle of champagne,” knowing the great commotion she must have caused within all the ranks. Oh those poor other army wives with their wilted ham sandwiches, warm bottles of Schlitz and rusty hinged lunch boxes.
She invited us to her elegant club in Siaconset the following day for lunch, the Chanticleer, and then returned to her table. She and her party had just stepped in for drinks as it turned out, so they ended up leaving first. We watched her through the upstairs leaded window as she got into a car alone, a tan Masarati convertible with its top down, roaring off down the quaint, quiet street of cobblestones and now locked shops filled with scrimshaw, fudge, sweet-smelling candles and Lily Pulitzer, down the street and into the inky, foggy night. Her guests, the gaggle of men, all waved goodbye to her as she screeched off but were too late. She was already around the corner, gone. The dining room, without the fine tinkle of her chatter and gravelly laugh seemed suddenly funereal.
Told to appear at one the following day, we showed up early, wondering if she and this invitation had all been a dream. She was half an hour late but showed up, with friends, laughing and smelling sensational. She ordered champagne and wine for the table and then told the head-waiter to bring us a “little bit of everything,” and somehow managed to pick up the thread of her tale precisely where she had left off the previous evening. She had known every Hollywood star and director. She had known every big author here, in Europe and all over South America. She read everything, knew at least a bit about everything. Her mind was like a pinball machine never on tilt.
She divided her time between Palm Beach and Nantucket, had many lovers and they all had to be very young, “thin enough to fit through a keyhole.” She went out dancing every night, staying out until quite late, usually smoked pot and it had been years since she’d woken up before noon, groaning at even the possibility. As she put it, “Think about it. Nothing delightful ever happens before noon.”
Lunch lasted six hours, at which point she invited us back to her house, on aptly named Pleasant Street, for a little tour. Fred got a ride with her friends. I rode with her in the Maserati and shut my eyes tightly as she drove faster than anyone I had ever known. I had a sudden feeling that this ride would end in catastrophe, especially after she informed me, halfway home, that she’d left her glasses behind by mistake at the Chanticleer and couldn’t see a bloody thing without them. She fumbled around in the glove compartment in case there was an extra pair but there wasn’t, and all this time, as she drove, her eyes were anywhere but on the road. This is how I will die, I remember thinking, roaring up a quaint street called Pleasant, in the bracing October chill, with the salty air of the sea in my lungs because, of all things, next to a tipsy septuagenarian or octogenarian million or billionairess, with a glove compartment stuffed with fat spliffs, in a tan Masarati convertible, and all my friends back home and my father would ask: “What the fuck?”
Somehow we arrived in one piece. Her house, pure and simple, was a revelation, The Maserati was parked not in a garage but in what she referred to as its “room.” A barn-sized area larger than most Nantucket homes, with white carpeting. Her indoor pool had erotic murals surrounding it. Fred and the hostess’ staff stayed upstairs and toured her gardens while she escorted me to the basement to show me where she stored her furs, what appeared to be hundreds, as far as I could see, floor to ceiling. A lot for anyone surely, but especially for a woman who spent most of the year in the sun, in Palm Beach.
It was down there, when she had me alone and cornered, in that bunker of chilled, temperature-controlled dead pelts, where she could finally ask me, conspiratorially, the one question that had been plaguing her since we’d met the night before, the only question, clearly, about me of any interest: “Tell me seriously now. How is our boy Fred in the kip?” she asked, naughtily.
Alarmed, I played dumb. She eyed me with fussy annoyance. What, after all, had been the point of me if I could not at least provide her with at least this momentary amusement? I considered telling her the truth, that he was not, by definition, “my” Fred and that sometimes a friendship is just that, but by the time this thought had fully formed itself, she was leaning into my face, blocking the doorway, pushing me back against the Great Wall of Fur, cornering me.
“Don’t you even know what I’m talking about? The horizontal hokey pokey? “ she began, thinking that perhaps I had not understood her. When I was still dumbly silent, she went on. “The rumpy-pumpy? The Blitzkrieg Bop? Buffing the bumpers? Organ grinding? Pelvic pinochle? Doing the oompa loompa? Buttering the corn? Laying pipe? Cleaning the gutters? Marinating the nether rod in the squish mitten? Humpty Dumpty? A dig in the whiskers? Polluting the crab tank? Putting down the duckie? Pounding the snow possum? Taking the beef bus to tuna town? Cattle prodding the oyster ditch with the lap rocket?” Oh, she was off and running, so thoroughly disgusted with me was she by then, so irritated and bored, if she’d had her Mannlicher-Schönauer nearby, I had the feeling she might have blown my brains out.
“Actually, we don’t sleep together,” I told her, knowing how much she didn’t want to hear this and how keenly it would disappoint her.
She thought for a second and then let out a kind of hearty, inelegant snort. “Oh, you poor, dear misguided muskrat. Then, I think it’s time for us to throw that toy back.”
Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, throws open the doors on her family’s history and skeletons in her wry, mordantly funny, heartbreaking memoir Yossarian Slept Here. A love letter to a New York City that barely exists today, this revealing and engaging memoir tells of Heller’s life and her relationship with her father and Catch-22 (the catch being she admits to never having read it). On the radio recently, when asked at the end why she has never, in 50 years, managed to read Catch-22 all the way through, she answered with typically Hellerian Talmudic logic: “What’s the rush?”
Yossarian Slept Here was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Pick in 2011 and will be available in paperback in August.