|Pennington's Hoax By Patrick Brown|
Our marriage hasnâ€™t necessarily run its course, but our focus has been on two separate careers. Heâ€™s an internationally famous Michelin-starred chef with his name on restaurants in every major city, an extensive product line, and a creative mind that never rests.
I, on the other hand, am a writer in my forties who romanticizes the era of investigative journalism in the days of Watergate and The Washington Post. I went to school and laid out a path to become like Woodward and Bernstein, but I got sidetracked by lousy jobs, sexist bosses, and a culinary school graduate who needed a ghostwriter. He needed a ghostwriter, but ended up with a wife. I admit I had fun, and my raw instincts about food were shaped by a man who mesmerized me every day of our early marriage and taught me the nuances of flavor, wine pairing and presentation. I admit that the man I loved would forever change my concept of a good steak, a delicate piece of Dover sole or even a gourmet burger. Mark-Mario Van Heflin-ShrÃ¶der was still at the top of his game and destined to become the James Beardâ€”or even the Escoffierâ€”of our generation. For the moment, however, he was on the phone.
â€œHey, Lady,â€ he began. For some reason heâ€™d never come up with a better pet name in 20 years. Iâ€™m Maggie, short for Margaret, but never Mags except by those who have a death wish. Mark-Mario only addressed me as Maggie when he was serious such as, â€œHey Maggie, taste this sauce and tell me what you think.â€ All other times he called me Lady, which made me wonder if his affection didnâ€™t go deep enough to call me Baby or Sweetheart. With all the time weâ€™d spent apart, it occurred to me that heâ€™d forgotten my name. Such a lapse of memory was better than his thinking of me as a buddy more than a wife.
â€œHey Lady, I can barely hear you. Can you hear me?â€
â€œYes. Where are you?â€
â€œHeathrow. Iâ€™m on my way home. I should be in the neighborhood about nine, local time if you want to join me for dinner.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a bit late isnâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œYouâ€™re not getting old on me, are you? Remember those days when we thought nothing of eating at eleven?â€
â€œIf you put it that way, then yes. Iâ€™ll join you.â€
â€œThatâ€™s my gal. Why donâ€™t you make a reservation at Simone Bartwellâ€™s new place?â€
â€œIâ€™m sure theyâ€™re booked solid for tonight.â€
â€œOnly for mere mortals. If you drop both our namesâ€”you being that famous food critic who strikes terror into the heart of every American chefâ€”Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll be happy to shove one of those Goldman Sachs assholes to a spot by the kitchen.â€
â€œIâ€™ll see what I can do.â€
Mark-Marioâ€™s call was more than an innocent invitation to dinner. It was a signal that he was returning to New York after five months abroad. Since my departure from the Dallas newspaper and subsequent release of Murdered Justice, the case of the late Supreme Court Justice Vittorio Scarpia, my primary residence had been the Manhattan apartment weâ€™d shared since cookbook number three hit the best-seller list. Sizable by New York standards, the place was still tight quarters for two people who shared very little, including a bed, and since we had no pets or children, there were no living creatures to ease our discomfort or disguise the fact that we had nothing to talk about outside our work.
Up to this point, weâ€™d met in passing. Either I was on a publicity tour or writing assignment, or Mark-Mario was making the talk show circuit or taking on long projects in England with the lately acclaimed Chef Jenson Nettles. My agent communicated regularly with his publicist, and so far the two of them had managed to stagger our occupancy with no more than three days together in that apartment for almost two years. Things were different this time. Mark-Mario had been working on a BBC television cooking series, which had wrapped early, but I was well past promoting Murdered Justice.
Someone who struggles with sobriety knows the true consequences of a seemingly minor slip. The lie is that one pill or a shot of booze wonâ€™t do any harm. Itâ€™ll simply take the edge off the dayâ€™s fight against addiction. Iâ€™ll do better tomorrow.
Without meaning to trivialize the struggle for sobriety, I understand the consequences of a seemingly minor slip. One sip wonâ€™t do any harm, and Iâ€™ll do better tomorrow. Social media was my addiction, and I knew where a quick peak would lead. For the past 92 mornings, Iâ€™d â€œglancedâ€ at trending news items, insisting that the morningâ€™s posts and comments by â€œfriendsâ€ wouldnâ€™t hinder me. I wouldnâ€™t â€œlikeâ€ their memes, affirm their political views, watch their pet videos or react to their culinary photos. Iâ€™d simply scroll quickly, search the headlines, and close out of every medium. Five minutes. Tops. Just a glance.
For 92 days Iâ€™d failed. Iâ€™d signed onto every format, kept multiple windows open, and five minutes had turned into four hours. At 11:00, Iâ€™d still be in my robe, having gathered more opinions than facts. I knew better. Iâ€™m a journalist, and I know the difference between opinion, fact and outright lies, known these days as â€œfake news.â€ I was addicted to scrolling and reacting. In spite of my earnest promises, tremendous shame and consuming guilt, I couldnâ€™t seem to break the cycle. A project wouldâ€™ve distracted me, but there had been very few opportunities to lure me away from the Internet for the past three months.
Iâ€™d written little more than e-mail and social media comments since the last weeks of my final publicity tour. The world had moved on. Scarpiaâ€™s murder had been solved, his vacancy had finally been filled on the high court, and the United States had lost interest in everything except the next scandal or pop culture phenomenon. I wasnâ€™t Miss Marple, stumbling across dead bodies every week at a tea party, nor was I likely to uncover a scandal while sitting around in my bathrobe. The whole Scarpia thing had come about because Iâ€™d been commissioned to write a culinary feature on Jenson, and I happened to be at the right place at the right timeâ€”or the wrong place, as Mark-Mario reminded me whenever the subject came up.
Iâ€™d spent so much time on getting Murdered Justice exactly right that Iâ€™d taken time off from food writing. Mark-Mario had another ghostwriter, and it wasnâ€™t a good idea for us to work together any longer. My agent Rina Akin had been doing her best to find work, but she was quick to point out that newspaper food writing was in its final stages since every â€œshmuck in this country,â€ as she put it, had a phone app, which allowed them to give instant, â€œrealâ€ reviews of restaurants from fast food to haute cuisine. The problem lies with those who have under-developed palates and rarely eat anywhere fancier than TGI Fridays. Coquilles Saint-Jacques is as illusive as a pink unicorn to a self-taught expert on potato skins.
I argued that the discerning diner was still interested in an expert opinion. Rina rebutted by pointing out that discerning diners these days were smart enough to trust their own opinions. With the decline of newspapers and the rise of amateur food reviews, my former career was on the endangered occupation list like steel workers and coal miners.
â€œThe world has changed, honey!â€ she groused in that distinctive New York accent. â€œThereâ€™s not a person alive who doesnâ€™t know what a beurre blanc is if theyâ€™re the least bit interested. The rest of the world doesnâ€™t give a damn. Their asses are spilling over the sides of those tiny chairs the fast food industry lures them into. Quality food writing is a thing of the past. You need to focus on investigative journalism. Thatâ€™s your passion, and youâ€™ve certainly proved your ability with that book. Do more of that!â€
Do more of that. Sure. I donâ€™t have the imagination for fiction, and itâ€™s not as though one regularly lands writing assignments and finds herself in the middle of murder investigations. While I had no new murders to solve, I had been giving serious thought to revisiting some of the loose ends connected to the Scarpia case. Rina had gotten some positive feedback from my publisher about the illusive John Benzonator, but I was wary.
I had no idea where he was, but on more than one occasion heâ€™d shown up when Iâ€™d least expected him. Some dark, shadowy figure tied to a Roman Catholic prelature, he had explained his presence and had warned me against revealing too much about him or that secret society. I had written about him in as much detail as I knew, and there had been no backlash until I appeared on The Revolution with Andrew Campton. Heâ€™d phoned me as I left the CNN studio that evening, issuing a vague warning to back off. I admit he frightened me, and throughout my book tour and subsequent promotional appearances, I soft-pedaled discussions and questions about John while scanning the audiences for anyone resembling the man I remembered.
He was not without a certain charm, but he was a killer. He had admitted it in front of me with the coolness of a defiant teenager who admits to stealing a beer out of the fridge. Regardless of his devotion to the Personal Prelature of St. GeneviÃ¨ve de Chantal and its mysterious work â€œfor the greater good,â€ as he had described it, John had no moral compass with regard to human life. He admitted to murder then killed again a few minutes later! While part of me wanted to dive into the prelature story with journalistic gusto, I was paralyzed by fear. I knew very little about the organization, which was their aim, and I also knew how far theyâ€™d go to protect themselves from scrutiny.
Rina had never insisted I write a book about John and the prelatureâ€”I think she knew betterâ€”but she had danced around the topic numerous times, especially after her lectures about newspapers and food writing being dead.
Mark-Mario had not lingered long in New York before flying off to parts unknown. Actually, I knew exactly where heâ€™d gone. There were issues with one of the restaurants in Miami, and he informed me of his publicistâ€™s suggestion that since he was in Florida, he might as well do a couple of promotional interviews in Seattle. What Miami had to do with the Pacific Northwest was beyond me, but it at least bought me a few more days alone in New York as I battled my social media addiction and looked for a project that might get me out of the apartment. I received more good news when Mark-Mario texted to say heâ€™d be away an extra week, scouting a new venture in the Portland, Oregon vicinity.
At the risk of getting another lecture about dying newspapers and amateur food reviews, I phoned Rina. Even though I had no intention of writing about John Benzonatorâ€™s activities, I decided to tempt my agent with the possibility in hopes of motivating someone to commission an article. Once I got my foot in the door with a magazine editor, I could make a few subtle departures from the agreed-upon project, eventually coming up with something that would make us both comfortable. Murdered Justice had covered a broad range of topics and organizations. I had dealt with the Los Angeles Police Department, a civil rights attorney, a fashion writer, a food importer, a high-class madam, a forensic expert and a former beauty queen. There had to be an interesting topic somewhere.
â€œYou gotta be kiddinâ€™ me!â€ exclaimed Rina. She always seems to be shouting into the phone. â€œAfter all this time, youâ€™ve changed your mind?â€
â€œI can change my mind, canâ€™t I?â€
â€œSure, but you rarely do. What gives?â€
â€œI just think thereâ€™s more to tell. A man rescues me after I was kidnapped by the person who killed one of the highest profile citizens in the United States. He stands in front of me and admits he killed someone else before walking out the door, pretty as you please. The murderer runs after him, and he turns around and shoots the killer in cold blood before disappearing into the night. Thereâ€™s so much to tell.â€
â€œThereâ€™s nothing to tell!â€
â€œYouâ€™ve said so over and over to me all these months. Heâ€™s some dark-haired handsome guy who speaks very calmly and scares the shit out of you. He knows more about you than you do about him. Heâ€™s crazy. He shows up when he feels like it, calls you at all hours when he wants to get your attention, and has threatened you if you write about him.â€
â€œStrongly advised against writing about him,â€ I corrected.
â€œOh, brother. It wasnâ€™t all that long ago you were looking over your shoulder and forbidding me to mention his name.â€
â€œBut the public has a rightâ€”â€
â€œNo!â€ she butted in. â€œYou wouldnâ€™t be dangling this carrot in front of me unless you had a plan. Iâ€™m not sure what youâ€™re scheming, but itâ€™s not gonna work.â€
â€œNo scheme. Honest.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve worked together too long. I know what youâ€™re trying to do. You get me all excited, I start a pitch and before that husband of yours is back in town, youâ€™ve charmed some editor and packed your bags. When are you ever gonna sit down with that man and have a serious talk about your marriage?â€
â€œDonâ€™t even!â€ she shouted. â€œHell! Itâ€™s none of my business. If you want to continue taking turns sharing that apartment, what do I care? But honey, you canâ€™t go on like this. For your own peace of mind, have a talk. Decide where you want to take this. Get your own place or go on a second honeymoon. Just figure it out and donâ€™t bother me with cockamamie ideas you know youâ€™re never going to write about. Youâ€™re not my only client, you know. I have too much to do to get sidetracked with your meshuga marriage.â€
â€œIâ€™ve got a lot on my plate.â€
â€œAnything I can help with?â€ I was eager to do whatever she might need, hoping a little occupation would inspire me to take on something bigger.
â€œI doubt it. Iâ€™ve got a new client.â€
â€œOh? Do you need an editor before you place the book?â€
â€œSheâ€™s already got a publisher.â€
â€œOh, a woman writer, huh? Why does she need an agent if sheâ€™s already got a publisher?â€
â€œYou writers are all alike. You donâ€™t give a damn about us agents unless weâ€™re doing something for your career. For your information, I do a hell of a lot more than send copies of your lousy manuscripts around town.â€
â€œRina! Of course I know you do more. I was simply pointing out that the hardest part of your job is out of the way. It sounds like youâ€™ll be doing more promotional work, and how difficult is that compared to placing a manuscript withâ€”â€
â€œYouâ€™ve gotta a lot of nerve!â€
â€œSave it! You have no idea what it takes to put you writers over the top. I never get a day off. Iâ€™m always on the phone, always creating miracles from nothing. And what do I get in return? A bunch of ungrateful creative types riding my ass day and night because something isnâ€™t going their way.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t know you felt that way. Iâ€™m happy to take my commissions elsewhere if it means improving your quality of life.â€
â€œDonâ€™t start with me, missy!â€
â€œCalm down. Iâ€™m just messing with you.â€
â€œIâ€™m not in the mood.â€
â€œSo, whoâ€™s this new client? Whatâ€™s the book about?
â€œI canâ€™t say.â€
â€œCanâ€™t or wonâ€™t?â€
â€œIâ€™m not at liberty to say much. Westcott Publishing contacted me to see if Iâ€™d arrange for a national campaign to launch a book by one of their clients.â€
â€œNever heard of Westcott.â€
â€œItâ€™s one of the Berman and Brewster imprints. Smaller operation they bought up some years ago. Seems they managed to sign a major name.â€
â€œWho is it?â€
â€œCanâ€™t give out any names, but Iâ€™ll give you a clue. If you can guess, then I didnâ€™t tell you. Sheâ€™s been out of circulation for a while, but a long-awaited novel is about to hit the stands and rattle the literary world for the first time in decades.â€
â€œIâ€™ll never figure it out based on that! Tell me!â€
â€œNope! Now get off the phone. Iâ€™ve got work to do.â€
She hung up on me, and I was suddenly back in the room with no clue as to what I was going to do next. I didnâ€™t even have an idea what I was going to do for lunch. My phone began to vibrate.
â€œI was just thinking.â€ It was Rina again. â€œYou might be able to help me after all. What are your plans for lunch?â€
â€œWell, actuallyâ€”â€ I hesitated.
â€œThatâ€™s what I figured. Meet me at Le Bernardin in an hour. I have a standing reservation.â€
I knew the restaurant quite well. Iâ€™d once reviewed it rather favorably and had had several lunches there with Rina since. It wasnâ€™t far from either of us, and itâ€™s where she liked to go when she was in a celebratory mood. There was a good chance Rina would throw back a succession of their famous manhattans throughout several courses and dessert while supplying the details of whatever she had in mind. If the task werenâ€™t that important, she wouldâ€™ve told me everything over the phone in two minutes.
â€œI have to confess Iâ€™m having a little trouble getting started.â€ Rina had just finished swallowing the last drops of her first manhattan. â€œThe guy over at Westcott sent me a copy of the manuscript a few days ago, and Iâ€™ve been trying to read it ever since.â€
â€œWell, you should probably set aside some time to get through it. Knowing something about the book isâ€”â€
â€œYou donâ€™t understand. Itâ€™s not that I donâ€™t have time to read it. Itâ€™s that the book is very difficult to read. Iâ€™m having trouble following it.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s the topic? Sci-fi with a lot of technical passages?â€
â€œNothing like that. Itâ€™s the style. This is a very well known writerâ€”celebrated authorâ€”but Iâ€™m having trouble getting into the book. Itâ€™sâ€”and I donâ€™t want to be mean about a book thatâ€™s set to do very wellâ€”itâ€™sâ€”the style of writing, the plot, the idea. Itâ€™s somewhat familiar, but at the same time sort of amateurish. Oh! I really hate to say that, but I need a second opinion. I need someone who can read this book, tell me what to think about it, maybe write a review or provide a comment for the back cover.â€
â€œIf itâ€™s all that bad,â€ I said, â€œthen why are they publishing it?â€
â€œOh, no! Donâ€™t misunderstand. Itâ€™s not bad. Itâ€™s just not my cup of tea. I donâ€™t think I understand the style. Thatâ€™s it. Iâ€™m just having a bit of trouble, and if I could get some insight from a readerâ€”better yet a great writerâ€”who can point out the better partsâ€”the meaningful passagesâ€”I can put together a better campaign.â€
â€œYou just called it amateurish, and youâ€™ve read thousands of manuscripts to know whatâ€™s good and whatâ€™s bad. If you think the bookâ€™s terrible, perhaps you should say so. Why commit to a project thatâ€™s doomed to fail?â€
â€œBut itâ€™s not going to fail. Itâ€™s going to make money, so why should I pass up an opportunity?â€
â€œHowâ€™s it not going to fail? An unreadable book doesnâ€™t sell many copies.â€
â€œIt wonâ€™t fail if youâ€™ve got a highly anticipated author whoâ€™s known for one very famous book, but has been a virtual recluse for a thousand years.â€
Two manhattans in, and Rina was about to spill the beans. I was on the edge of my seat, completely sober. My brain was quickly calculating the list of American authors who fit this category? Salinger? Margaret Mitchell? Harper Lee? Everyone I could think of was dead, but while I was thinking, Rina mistook my silence as a grand pause in which she could finally, and with considerable flair, reveal her mysterious client.
â€œEly Pennington,â€ she said at last.
â€œEly Pennington?â€ I repeated. â€œYouâ€™re kidding me! Ely Pennington is releasing a new book?â€
â€œShut up! Keep your voice down!â€
â€œStop saying her name!â€ Rina scolded in a whisper louder than my murmur. â€œYes! Sheâ€™s finally got a new book coming out, and Iâ€™m going to oversee the marketing campaign.â€
â€œRina! Thatâ€™s wonderful. This is going to be so easy! A couple of press releases, some advanced reviews, and then you can sit back and watch the books fly off the shelves! The news outlets get hold of the story, and the book sells itself!â€ I was so excited, and now that I knew it was Ely Pennington, I was looking forward to taking on anything Rina asked.
â€œIt may sell quickly at first, but Iâ€™m worried.â€
â€œAbout what? That it canâ€™t live up to the hype of Rebelâ€™s Last Yell? Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s fine. Itâ€™s a completely different book. Readers wonâ€™t be expectingâ€”â€
â€œMaggie, yes, they will. Readers have all sorts of ideas. They like a book, and they want more of the same. How many failed writing careers are scattered along the highway because early success doomed all future attemptsâ€”especially when the authors decided to move in a different direction?â€
â€œSo, after all this time, sheâ€™s releasing something completely different from Rebelâ€™s Last Yell?â€
â€œNot exactly. Well, I donâ€™t think so, but I canâ€™t tell. I havenâ€™t read Rebel in forty years, but there are parts of this new book that seem familiar. I canâ€™t put my finger on it, and I donâ€™t have time to figure out the problem. My understanding is that this latest manuscript is a stand-alone work, but there are definitely familiar names and places. Thereâ€™s also a lot of racist shit, but Iâ€™m trying to deal with that by keeping in mind Ely Pennington is southern and sets her stories in the Jim Crow South. On the other hand, modern writersâ€”especially privileged white writers covering the same eraâ€”tend to minimize the use of the N-word. Penningtonâ€™s new book uses it so liberally, I canâ€™t figure out whose side sheâ€™s on.â€
â€œAnd the publisher isnâ€™t concerned?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re not letting on if they are. I hinted around about editors to see what I could find out.â€
â€œTheyâ€™ve been told not to touch a goddamned word. Miss Pennington is a national treasure, her words will live on to the end of the world, and if she typed it, there is no room for negotiation.â€
â€œSurely she can be made to seeâ€”â€
â€œThe woman is at least ninety and set in her ways. Sheâ€™s not the type to see any viewpoint other than her own or those of her characters. Sheâ€™s a creature from another time, both in writing style and in her ways of dealing with publishers.â€
â€œBut by now sheâ€™s certainly figured outâ€”â€
â€œFrom my research, it seems she went through hell with Rebelâ€™s editing. Her people have said she wonâ€™t allow any changes. Probably feels she wouldnâ€™t live to see publication if she spent a decade going back and forth with the publisher on every word.â€
â€œI understand your concern. I have no idea how I might be able to help, but tell me what you want me to do.â€
For those who were not assigned to read Rebelâ€™s Last Yell in high school, or even as late as freshman year in college, I include this book review of Ely Penningtonâ€™s first novel, which I found on the Web prior to reading the manuscript of her second book. Though written in the 1960s, Penningtonâ€™s novel of racial terrorism in the Jim Crow South is an iconic masterpiece of American literature, which remains relevant after half a century since its original publication. From Edsell Goodnightâ€™s article in Hewlettâ€™s Literary Review:
Ely Penningtonâ€™s Rebelâ€™s Last Yell is part coming-of-age story, civil rights anthem, social commentary and religious criticism woven from a series of anecdotes and southern folklore. Miss Pennington, an heretofore unknown, has landed squarely in the middle of the modern literary world without prior publication in any periodical, collection, or the briefest of letters to the editor of her hometown newspaper. Her career has seemingly washed ashore like Venus with no traces of a natural literary birth. From whence has she come?
Pennington, clearly influenced by Mark Twain and contemporaries such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery Oâ€™Connor and Harper Lee, joins the pantheon of female southern writers, having been thrust instantly into their sorority, but without leaving traces of the usual footsteps to glory. No Harperâ€™s, no Vogue, no Atlantic Monthly. Where has she been, and why not a word until now?
And what words they are, now that this genius has chosen to release her vision to the rest of us. The rhythmic undulations of her prose are like the gentle rippling of a pond on which a pontoon sits with the reader savoring every word and nuanced phrase. Nothing more is required than to open his mind to the vivid imagery, as this newly minted author carries the reader from the shore to greater depths. Once unmoored, stories unfold, reminding us of times described as simpler, but which were far more fraught than the idylls romantic writers have lead us to believe.
Set in the 1930s, Pennington immediately introduces us to Jefferson â€œLittle Jeffâ€ McComb of Cumberville, Mississippi whose father Big Jeff is the small-town doctor raising his son as a widowed father with no help except for his devoted housekeeper Olivia and a handyman named Blodgett. Because their house is located on the edge of Cumberville nearest the colored section, Little Jeff has few white playmates to choose from and becomes best friends with Oliviaâ€™s nephew Titus.
Because Dr. McComb is a wise man of principle and without prejudice, he doesnâ€™t see skin color as a barrier to friendship, and encourages the boys in their summertime pursuits of fishing and exploring the nearby woods. Titus is allowed to spend the night, though the boys are both relegated to the summer sleeping porch on those occasions. Dr. McComb explains that while he has no issues with a colored child sleeping under the same roof, Cumberville is filled with people who do not believe the same way. Since he is their doctor, he cannot risk undermining their confidence in him or his medical practice.
Written in First Person with Little Jeff narrating vivid scenes from childhood, Penningtonâ€™s young hero doesnâ€™t question his fatherâ€™s reasoning, but there is an unspoken sense that he is troubled by Titusâ€™s being made to sleep outside like a pet who cannot be trusted in the house unsupervised.
As that particular summer progresses, Little Jeff and Titus hitch rides into Cumberville with Dr. McComb where they encounter various townspeople. There is Mrs. Haisten who plays the piano at the First Baptist Church. She gardens early in the day before the sun is high and â€œstarts to roast me alive!â€ She lets the boys come inside through the back door for large pieces of cake while she offers insight and dispenses advice for living.
Miss Flora Belle lives across the street from Mrs. Haisten. Miss Flora acts young, but the boys have heard whispers that she is an old maid. She is full of giggles and squeals, and the curls on her head quiver each time she convulses with mirth. Miss Flora always calls after Little Jeff and asks how his father is doing, and the boy senses that she could end up his stepmother if he offers the slightest encouragement. Not wishing this, he and Titus tend to exit Mrs. Haistenâ€™s property via the alley, which leads to the woods that separate Cumberville from the colored community where Titus, Olivia and Blodgett live.
Olivia has worked for Dr. McComb since he was first married, and she has been bragging about her kind employer to all the people in her community and to the Negroes who come from various parts to worship on Sundays at the Ebenezer Church of Mt. Pisgah. Everybody in the segregated community knows Little Jeff and welcomes him each time he comes through with Titus. There are no stores for penny candy among the shanties. The residents do not have leisure time to bake cakes and dispense advice, nor do they stand in their yards or sit on porch swings giggling as they ask after handsome doctors.
On the contrary, the Negro population seems sparse during the days. Many of the women are in Cumberville working for one of the white families who cannot seem to get through daily life without domestic assistance. The black men are also mostly gone, as they were taken away before sunrise to work in fields if they have not been lucky enough to find work in warehouses or at the cotton gin.
The Great Depression is in full swing and poverty is rife. There is a feeling among impoverished whites that the Negroes have stolen their jobs and their birthrights. Itâ€™s time to send a message.
One evening, when Titus is staying the night with Little Jeff, Dr. McComb is called away to an emergency after Olivia and Blodgett have gone home. The boys, unsupervised, decide to sneak out of the house and down to the creek to check their trotlines. They can hear music from the midweek prayer service coming across from the Ebenezer Church of Mt. Pisgah. Little Jeff asks Titus if he can attend church with him one Sunday. Titus replies that itâ€™s fine with him as long as his Aunt Olivia gets permission from Dr. McComb.
Suddenly the night air is rocked by a series of three explosions followed by what sounds like a pack of howling coyotes. The music has stopped and there is screaming. The full moon, which had lit their way, seems much brighter, but the boys soon realize amidst the screaming that the orange glow is coming from a distant fire. They leave their fishing and head toward the inferno, which has engulfed the Ebenezer Church.
There is a flurry of activity as men carry bodies from the building, women cry out, and attempts are made to extinguish the flames. There is no fire-truck, nor does anyone from white Cumberville come to help. That is, no one comes from Cumberville except Dr. Jeff McComb who was driving back from his rural house call when he saw people gathered around the church house, which has quickly become a bonfire. Immediately, Dr. McComb pulls his bag from the back of the car, shouts for Olivia to help him, and they form an impromptu mobile clinic. Blodgett assists in carrying bodies until Dr. McComb sends him into town to retrieve more medical supplies from the office and to inform the sheriff.
Law enforcement doesnâ€™t arrive until dawn when the church is nothing but embers. Two deputies gather information, but insist that the fire mustâ€™ve been an accident. The church was nothing but a wooden frame structure with no electricity or running water. Lanterns had been used after dark, which they determine was the cause. Six church members are dead, and the protests of the injured go unheard by the deputies who insist that the suddenness of the fire has affected the survivorsâ€™ recollection.
Days later, Little Jeff tells his father that he and Titus were there. They heard three explosions that were so loud the coyotes started howling. Dr. McComb insists that there are no coyotes roaming the woods. Heâ€™s sure of it. Little Jeff thinks perhaps itâ€™s wolves if not coyotes, but Dr. McComb assures him that there are definitely no wolves in their area.
Dr. McComb has no more time to consider howling canines, as he is having problems of his own. Word has spread about his stopping to help the wounded Negroes, and Cumberville wants a new doctor. They cannot see beyond their own prejudices to hail their altruistic physician as a hero, but see him as a â€œnigger-loving piece of trashâ€ who has thrown away his respectability by crossing racial lines.
The good doctor hides his fears from his household, but each of them senses something is wrong. The final weeks of summer bring frustration, as Ebenezer church members get no justice for what they feel has been a crime committed against them. Two nights before school starts again, Little Jeff is seated on the porch with his father. They are discussing injustice when all of a sudden there is a high-pitched chorus of wailing.
â€œDaddy! Itâ€™s the coyotes again! Just like the night of the fire!â€ And before Dr. McComb can respond, two Ford trucks round the corner with men clad in white sheets packed into the backs of each. Gunshots are fired into the air and a ball of something in flames arcs through the twilight, landing on the dried front yard grass. There is more high-pitched wailing and gunfire followed by shouts of â€œGet the hell out of our town!â€ Truck engines are revved before the Klan speeds into the night.
The grassfire is quickly extinguished before it can spread, and Dr. McComb immediately calls the sheriff. Early the next day, Little Jeff and Titus are questioned along with the doctor. They describe what they heard the night of the church bombing, and itâ€™s determined that there were no coyotes in the woods. The sound was the Rebel Yell as the local white supremacists took action, which resulted in the deaths of six Negroes.
The final section of Miss Penningtonâ€™s book deals with the following summer when two deputies, also Klan members, go on trial with four other men who have been accused of bombing the black church. There is tremendous conflict in the McComb household as the doctor supports Little Jeffâ€™s decision to testify. Oliva is at her breaking point as she cries for her employer not to allow it. â€œAinâ€™t no way those white men gonna be found guilty for what they done. They gonna be walkinâ€™ free â€™round Cumberville, and if you let this poor child take the stand and testify against them, they gonna get out oâ€™ jail and come for both of you. Next time theyâ€™ll be sure to shoot you and burn this here house to the ground. You canâ€™t let that boy take the stand, Doctor, you just canâ€™t!â€
In what is the most memorable passage of the book, Dr. McComb attempts to assuage his housekeeperâ€™s fears while simultaneously demonstrating his character: â€œOlivia, what kind of man would I be if I stood by and did nothing? What kind of father am I if I do not teach my son that when we hide from the tasks we must face, when we let fear rule us, when we let ignorance rise to power, then we are doomed to live in a society where no one receives justice, the truth is meaningless and corruption is accepted as normal. No, Olivia, out of his love and sense of duty, Little Jeff has more courage than all those cowards who roam the night in white hoods. Those who stand trial may not be found guilty, but they will surely be acquitted if we do nothing. Little Jeff must take the stand, speak the truth and together weâ€™ll face the rebels who have hopefully yelled for the last time.â€
Time will tell whether or not Miss Pennington has given readers the best she has to offer, but Gentle Reader, your faithful book reviewer believes that this authorâ€™s literary well runs deep, and our thirst will be quenched repeatedly in the years to come.
While not described in such watery terms as in Edsell Goodnightâ€™s article, a number of other archived book reviews for Rebelâ€™s Last Yell can be found online. Even Atlanta, New Orleans and Dallas had newspapers offering up praise for Pennington, but there was nothing but silence in Jackson and Mobile, as if theyâ€™d been unaware of the book, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Having read the book in high school almost 20 years after its release, I had, of course, never seen the reviews, nor had I fully understood its reception in the context of the times. It seems that certain southern newspaper editors were delighted, as were their northern counterparts, but if a communityâ€™s readership was unreceptive to integration, the book was panned if mentioned at all.
I skimmed through Rebel in the course of an evening before I dived into Miss Penningtonâ€™s latest manuscript. Rinaâ€™s request was that I read Confederate Cry, reassure her that while the prose might seem dated to the contemporary reader, Ely Penningtonâ€™s highly anticipated second novel would satisfy her devoted fans who had lived long enough to read the nonagenarianâ€™s latest work. While I was not to bother with editorial commentsâ€”after all, I was no one to advise such an esteemed authorâ€”I was to take notes for Rina, drawing her attention to the best points. She wanted it in the form of a book review, quotes from which would be used on the back cover.
My book sales had been good enough to get me at the bottom of the bestseller list, and Rina felt such an accomplishment deserved getting my name on what would be the number one best-selling book of the year. I had to agree. That I might also get the review into a leading magazine was equally thrilling, which led me to rush through Rebel in order to get started.
I have to admit that I was immediately surprised. Ely Pennington hadnâ€™t given an interview since 1988, in which sheâ€™d floated the idea that she was nearing the completion of a book that had been promised since 1964. It was my understanding that she was writing a non-fiction novel about Mary Todd Lincolnâ€™s southern relatives. There was talk that it might be made into a play, but whatever the project turned out to be, it was definitely going to be set in the 1860s.
It was clear from page one that Confederate Cry was set almost a hundred years after the Civil War. Rina was correct in that many of the characters from Rebelâ€™s Last Yell had been used again, but while the names were the same, the characters were older. Their conversations and philosophies were less evolved than those of â€œLittle Jeffâ€ and the wise and revered Dr. McComb. Little Jeff was now called Jefferson, and he had returned from Ohio where he had been working as a newspaper editor. The old doctor, now retired, was in need of caregiving since Olivia could no longer take care of him.
In Confederate Cry, Pennington had made Olivia into Blodgettâ€™s wife, and Titus was their son. Titus drove a milk truck and Jefferson seemed to have no recollection of their close childhood friendship. It was as if Pennington had decided not to put the pair together in this second book, but stranger still was that if Confederate Cry was the sequel to Rebelâ€™s Last Yell, the author had seemingly forgotten everything that has been etched into the minds of young readers for over 50 years.
Gone was the nobility of Dr. McComb. Instead, he was a curmudgeon calling out the N-word on every page of his dialogue. Jefferson, having spent 15 years up north, had driven into Cumberville, now called Cumberlandville, to see the highway littered with signs advising people of color to vacate the city limits by sundown. Jefferson is appalled, but I immediately wondered why he hadnâ€™t been struck by racism until that point. Had he not been to see his father within those 15 years? Had he not grown up seeing such signs? Surely his character had not forgotten what he had witnessed in Rebel, including the Klanâ€™s extreme cruelty.
I made every attempt to consider Confederate Cry as a completely separate work. Perhaps it was a sketch along a similar theme with similar characters, a technique used by a number of writers who have produced various short stories or novellas before settling down to write the acclaimed novel, which turns out to be the most familiar to their readers. If that were the case, why had Ms. Pennington billed Confederate as a follow up to Rebel when her aged characters displayed very little resemblance to their younger counterparts?
I continued reading into the early morning hours, but I felt myself fighting to stay awake. I was also struggling with what I would describe as â€œjagged prose.â€ In Rebel, Pennington had written:
â€œCumbervilleâ€™s rows of antebellum mansions lined the northern road into the townâ€™s main square. Untouched by the ravages of the Civil War, succeeding generations maintained an elegance and gentility among the architecture in spite of the economic hardships imposed by Reconstruction. Even 70 years after Leeâ€™s surrender, folks still sat on their porches after dinner as other townspeople promenaded, waving helloes and wishing each other good evening before darkness fellâ€¦â€
By comparison, Pennington had described a similar setting in Confederate with less grace:
â€œJefferson turned off the main highwayâ€”he was driving the new car he purchased to make the trip, choosing to arrive in his hometown of Cumberlandville showing the signs of big-city success. As he turned off the main highway and headed down Old Port Road, he looked to the left and to the right to see the old houses that had been standing in those same spots since before the War of Northern Aggression began and changed the way of life for these people forever. The old Haisten House, now disguised by an overgrowth of neglected and woody azaleas and the yard cluttered with the fallen magnolia leaves that no one had bothered to clean up because times were hard and some people could no longer afford to employ gardeners to maintain the beauty of what was once their pride and joy, was dark and looked deserted at dusk. Jefferson made a note to call on old Mrs. Haisten as soon as he was settled. He would also ask her about the signs on the road since he was appalled by the hated Cumberlandville city ordinance that only white people could remain in town and walk these streets after darkâ€¦â€
I had promised to read the book for Rina, but it was difficult to find the point of the story when I had to wade through pages of paragraphs that could have been written by an unsupervised high school student. By the time I reached page 155, I started to realize what Ms. Pennington wanted to tell us. With a good editor, she could have whittled everything Iâ€™d read up to that point down to 30 pages of solid introduction before beginning the story of a young man who had returned home to soon learn that his father had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan until his recent debilitation had rendered him almost homebound.
Gone were the beautiful interactions of Dr. McComb and Olivia, which had been substituted by an uneasy coexistence where the former housekeeper had worked for a man who shouted at her with an exuberant racism because she had no way to escape her servitude. She could not escape because the old doctor knew a secret about her husband Blodgett. The beautiful anecdotes from Rebel had been replaced by scenes of black people portrayed as shiftless simpletons. I could only wonder what Ms. Pennington had in mind by releasing this dystopian horror story.
I might understand why she would want to create a portrait of southern life during the 1960s that contrasted Rebelâ€™s enlightenment, but had she lost her mind? What would possess anyone to destroy Dr. McCombâ€™s image, since he was still considered the noblest character of the genre to come out of the Civil Rights era? Had her self-imposed seclusion gotten to her? Was she unaware that Dr. Jeff McComb cannot be touched? Had she forgotten the first book, and had she lost her beautiful writing ability through decades of neglect?
I got to the end, tossed the manuscript onto the sofa and went to bed. I had fitful dreams about lynchings, for Pennington had written that Titus had been strung up for some infraction or other. Jefferson, angered by the news, but not distraught by the loss of his childhood friend since Pennington had not made them friends in Confederate Cry, confronts his father about the townâ€™s racism. I tossed and turned until I woke up a few hours later still shaken by what I considered an amateurish sendup of the great American novel.
â€œWhat did you think?â€ Rina didnâ€™t bother to say hello when I phoned her.
â€œItâ€™s a piece of shit,â€ I declared. I thought Iâ€™d get to the point and relate my findings in terms Rina was most familiar with.
â€œItâ€™s not that bad!â€
Under the influence of a few manhattans, Rina had been free enough to express her misgivings about the Pennington book, but when I provided her sober side with my blunt assessment, she sounded defensive as if I had hoped it would be bad.
â€œYes, it is! Youâ€™ve got to figure out a way to distance yourself from this mess.â€
â€œAnd miss my opportunity at marketing the best selling book of the year?â€
â€œItâ€™s not going to be for long.â€
â€œA lot you know! People have been waiting fifty years for her next novel. Itâ€™s going to fly off the shelves!â€
â€œFor about three weeks. Then the reviewers are going to rip it to shreds and that old lady is going to die in disgrace when her heart is broken. Who the hell told her this crap is good? If it didnâ€™t have Ely Penningtonâ€™s name on it, no decent publisher wouldâ€™ve touched it. If John Carver had submitted this, he wouldâ€™ve received rejection letters across the board.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s John Carver?â€
â€œI just made him up to prove my point.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what I thought. And I also think that you donâ€™t know what the hell youâ€™re talking about. You barely land on the best-sellerâ€™s list of one major newspaper for three weeks, and suddenly youâ€™re an expert on what makes good literature.â€
â€œItâ€™s not literature. Anybody whoâ€™s read Rebel will instantly see that this is an unpolished, unedited stream of consciousness compared to the great work sheâ€™s known for. Itâ€™s career suicide.â€
â€œHoney, sheâ€™s over ninety. What does she care about her career at this point? Sheâ€™s going to sell a million copies even if all she publishes is a notebook full of to-do lists.â€
â€œSurely she cares about her legacy. Why would she risk her status among the greats to shit all over her lifeâ€™s work? If itâ€™s for book sales, why now? Why does she need the royalties from a million books when Rebel has never been out of print in all this time?â€
â€œWhat do I care? I just want to get this book in the stores, fly off the shelves and move onto something else. Itâ€™s not like this old dameâ€™s gonna be up for a national book tour. Sheâ€™s not even agreed to appear on television. Iâ€™ve got to do everything I can to promote this book on my own. The publisher wants to make his cut, she probably wants to make sure her heirs are taken care of, and I want my fees before the hype diesâ€”along with that old woman!â€
â€œI want no part of it,â€ I said quietly.
â€œI canâ€™t believe you!â€ Rina was yelling again. â€œDo you mean to tell me youâ€™re not going to favorably review this book and help out an old friend?â€
â€œIâ€™ve got a good mind to drop you.â€
â€œWe have a contract.â€
â€œIâ€™ve got a good lawyer. You are really pissing me off! After all Iâ€™ve done for you and for your career. Iâ€™ve been a friend, listened to you go on about your problems for I donâ€™t know how long, and then you canâ€™t even do me one fucking favor. Iâ€™m very upset with you.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t expect this reaction. I thought youâ€™d understand.â€
â€œUnderstand?â€ she asked.
â€œYou seemed troubled by the book, and then I tell you itâ€™s horrible. I confirm your initial impression, and then I suggest that you dropâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™ve got to make a living! I need to boost my retirement fund, and if I can get a little financial security, Iâ€™m going to with or without your help. I donâ€™t need your goddamned review! Iâ€™ll call over to Westcott and find somebody else. Gâ€™bye!â€
I wasnâ€™t sure what she meant by good-bye. Was that the end of our call, our professional relationship, or our friendship? I couldnâ€™t remember an instance when Rina had been so angry with me. As a matter of pride, I had no intention of groveling. Even if Iâ€™d felt the need to resolve our dispute, I didnâ€™t have time since I had a number of errands and thought it would be in my best interest to squeeze in a nap before dinner.
Iâ€™d maintained a reliable professional relationship with Andrew Campton, and after all this time Iâ€™d finally been invited to his Greenwich Village brownstone for one of his famous dinner parties that he co-hosted occasionally with his aunt.
I didnâ€™t get to see the entire brownstone that night since the television journalist was not offering tours, but what I saw amazed me and sparked envy. What were Mark-Mario and I doing wrong? It seemed that a man of my husbandâ€™s means would cut back on business investments and let us get an apartment large enough to cohabitate in unending elegance, but for some reason weâ€™d not explored the concept of gracious living beyond a few nice pieces of furniture and a fully outfitted kitchen that no one used beyond making coffee and scrambling the occasional egg.
I was greeted at the door and directed to the first floor above street level, accessed by a wide, winding staircase. It was there that Andrew was seeing to his guests while a regal woman held court, seated in a tall, tufted leather chair near the fireplace. The back of the chair was so monumental that the mature female seemed like a tiny child getting to stay up late with the grownups.
I rightly assumed the woman was â€œAunt Phoebes,â€ as Andrew often referred to her. To the rest of the world she was artist, designer, actress, socialite and former royal Phoebe VanRyder of the New York VanRyders who had once summered in Newport in a house that made the Vanderbilt properties look like garden sheds. Raised by two governesses and a veritable stranger to a set of parents whoâ€™d spent their lives avoiding children, Phoebe VanRyder had spent her childhood imprisoned in a series of Gilded Age residences, which have since become museums. Suspecting that there was more to life than changing clothes six times a day and maintaining a rigid schedule when there were very often no other adults in the house than the governesses, maids, cooks, footmen and the driver it took to keep Miss VanRyder going, she readily accepted the proposal of the man her parents agreed upon.
At the time, there seemed to be some hope that the prince of a deposed royal family exiled from some eastern European country then under Soviet control would somehow reclaim the familyâ€™s birthright with his American wife standing at his side as queen, but the VanRyders were daydreamers whoâ€™d already forgotten that Phoebeâ€™s second cousin, a 19th-century Buccaneer, had fled from her life as a duchess, disgracing the family name and never quite regaining her sanity after trying to blend in with the aristocracy.
Phoebe had been known as Princess Schmutzigen-Jagdschloss for much of the war years until the mid-1950s when she separated from the prince and accepted a small part in a Broadway revival. She cast off her title and was known again as Phoebe VanRyder, and when her husband heard of this, he begged her to join him in London where he had moved in order to lay the groundwork for reclaiming his birthright. In Phoebeâ€™s autobiography A Bird in the Gilded Age, she published the letter she wrote to him, saying that she no longer loved him and wanted to marry the aviation magnate and film producer Langston Howard. The prince was reportedly devastated and returned to Jagdschloss where the Communists promptly placed him before a firing squad.
Phoebeâ€™s life truly began at that point as a serial monogamist with a total of six marriages (only three divorces), one Tony nomination, a Grammy for reading an album of her own poems, two spring fashion collections, an exhibition of her sculpture from 1968â€”1988 and her watercolors from 1970â€”2000. At 93, sheâ€™d begun to slow down, hosting dinner parties for Andrewâ€™s friends and a few people with whom sheâ€™d socialized before 1995 and were still alive from â€œthose marvelous daysâ€ as she describes them.
Closer to 100 than 80, Phoebeâ€™s voice was still stronger than most peopleâ€™s, and the raspy quality, from age rather than smoking, cut through the din of what must have been 50 dinner guests circulating about the enormous room, clinking glasses and kissing the air as they â€œnetworkedâ€ before dinner.
â€œHalston was a dear!â€ she announced slowly with sustained vowels. â€œTaken from us waaaaayyyy too sooooon!â€ I couldnâ€™t hear what the person speaking with her had said to prompt the outburst, nor could I hear his response. It was clear, however, that she had known every famous creative person from Fats Waller to Lady Gaga. She was like an oracle of culture seated as the queen she had never been. However, this queen was wearing a black bobbed wig, professionally applied makeup, jewelry from Cartier and an embroidered Alexander McQueen evening gown that looked like Gustav Klimt had painted it.
I suddenly felt underdressed and scanned the room to see how I compared. Phoebeâ€™s gown skewed the average, which I was sure cost the annual salary of her personal assistant, but I imagined I was in the lower-middle range of garments. Andrew had said that his dinners were casual affairs, but there was no way Phoebe VanRyder had ever understood the contemporary definition of â€œcasual.â€ I started to giggle, envisioning her curled up in front of the TV in a caftan with a bag of Doritoâ€™s while a pan of Betty Crocker brownies baked in an oven she didnâ€™t know how to operate.
Dinner was served, and like my middle-ranged outfit, I was placed in the middle of the table while Andrew took one end and Phoebe the other. There were 12 people seated to my left and eleven to my right. The width of the table was slightly exaggerated to make up for its dramatic length, which I thought would prevent me from having a decent conversation with three or four of the 24 souls seated across.
It was immediately clear that Aunt Phoebes had never shaken the rigidity of her younger days, as seat assignments, flatware, dishes, and stemware resembled the evenings her Edwardian grandparents had no doubt enjoyed. The only stark difference was in conversation. There seemed to be no concept of speaking to those nearest you as Phoebe shouted down the table to her nephew or to any other guest when her exceptional hearing tuned into something she found interesting. Andrew, in turn, would shout responses or prompt Phoebe to tell a story about this notable person or that troubled soul.
â€œAunt Phoebes,â€ called Andrew. The serving staff had just removed our first-course plates and we were awaiting the entrÃ©e. â€œWhy donâ€™t you share that bit about Rachmaninoff you told me last week?â€
â€œOh, Andrew!â€ she shouted back with her long, sustained vowels. â€œWhy do you do this to me? You make me sound like an unabashed name-dropper! I didnâ€™t know the man. We werenâ€™t friends. And you date me since he died in the forties!â€
â€œPlease Auntie, I know everyone would love to hear it.â€
â€œHonestly!â€ she shouted, and then looking to the gentlemen on her right and left, â€œYou donâ€™t want to hear about some tortured Russian composer that I didnâ€™t even know.â€ She paused, giving them both an opportunity to look expectant. â€œYou do? I canâ€™t believe it, but if you want me to tell it, I shall!
â€œI was just a young girl, barely marriedâ€”in fact, it was on our honeymoon when Billâ€”Prince Wilhelm Frederich Earnst von Schmutzigen-Jagdschlossâ€”did you know I was once a princess in exile? Exiled to my own country! Well, Billâ€”I called the prince Bill. Bill had heard that the famous composer, pianist, conductor, what-have-you, also in exileâ€”but I think his was self-imposed from the Communistsâ€”had recently moved to Beverly Hills where we had gone on our honeymoon. It was so beautiful in those days. The skies were still blue enough to remind you of turquoise back then, and we were rarely confined indoors.
â€œBill had heard the man wasnâ€™t doing well and feared he might be in decline. They had met years before. Bill was about twenty-five years older than Iâ€”I married him to get out of the house. He married me to get an heir, but I never produced one!â€ Phoebe paused a moment in case this remark elicited some chuckles. On Andrewâ€™s cue, there were a few.
â€œI had taken piano in my day, but when I was playing, all they taught young ladies was a Mozart sonata, a Schubert impromptu, and something for after dinner entertainment like a Chopin nocturne with lots of chords, dripping with melancholy. I was not allowed to play Beethovenâ€”much too much passion required, and Rachmaninoff was not something they were teaching on Park Avenue in those days. Still, I was familiar with his third concerto. I had a mother who insisted on my cultural education, you understand.
â€œTo be perfectly honest, I was too young to appreciate the gift of Rachmaninoff meeting me, and I think thatâ€™s what I was trying to express to my nephew the other day. Sometimes people have too much thrust upon them when they are young; too unfamiliar with the world to appreciate the opportunity or the information or the exposure. On the other hand, some people do not encounter the world until they are too old to fully participate in the experience. For instance, Andrew suggested we go kayaking of all things. I talked about this for years, but I was in the studio or the atelier doing whatever it was I was doing at that moment. I was creating! I had no time to indulge such play, but now I have the time, though it would be impossible to bend this brittle old body and squeeze it into such anâ€”oh! Here I am, going on and on. What were we talking about?â€
â€œRachmaninoff,â€ someone murmured.
â€œOh, that divine man! He was not well when Bill took us over there. He was outside on a chaise longue, wrapped in a cashmere blanket. He was ever so gracious. He took my hand in both of his. What enormous hands he had! I was once in a receiving line for some basketball team, and one of the players shook my hand. Remember that Andrew? Well, when that large athleteâ€™s hand enveloped my bony appendage, I was immediately thrust into the past on that day when Sergei Rachmaninoffâ€™s hand made mine feel like such a babyâ€™s reaching up to her daddy to take her for a walk. He was an amazing composer, but again, what did he have to say to a teenager?â€
â€œYou were a princess,â€ said the sycophant on her right.
â€œSome princess!â€ she yelled. â€œA slip of a girl who didnâ€™t know a goddamned thing. When I recall those instances, I am utterly horrified to think what peopleâ€™s opinions of me were. Fresh-faced, richer than Croesus, perfectly turned out, a goddamned princessâ€”but absolutely ignorant! Because of the war, I had only been abroad once because one of Mummyâ€™s relatives had requested we go over in the early thirtiesâ€”when I couldnâ€™t really comprehend the arts and the history, so everything I knew was conveyed to me later on through teachers and pictures. The only reason Bill wanted to marry me was because he had high hopes that Daddy would fund his quest to go after the throne before his ailing father King Friederich died.â€
The rest of the dinner was much the same format. Rather than conversation, Andrew provided Phoebe opportunities to discuss her past. She was nonstop once she got started, and I was reminded of those animatronic tour guides in museums telling visitors about life in their time. She moved from Rachmaninoff to Bob Hope, back to Halston for a brief moment, and then to a rather lengthy homily on George Balanchine.
I was thankful I had no pressing engagements the next day, but having stayed up most of the night before reading and with an appallingly short nap, I was doing my best to win the battle over sleep, which I felt I was losing when I heard a distant clock strike 11:00. The staff returned a while later to collect dessert plates, and Phoebe led the women away from the table as if feminism and the modern age hadnâ€™t influenced dinner party rituals.
â€œYouâ€™re Margaret, arenâ€™t you?â€ she asked. I was stunned. I supposed she knew everyone else, and she had singled me out because thatâ€™s the kind of curious person she was. Andrew had probably told her that he was inviting someone new, and since I stuck out like a sore thumb in a plain black dress with no more jewelry than my wedding ring and a thin chain around my neck, I was obviously the impoverished interloper whoâ€™d stumbled into that cultured circle.â€
â€œYes,â€ I responded. I was sort of frozen in place as she lowered herself onto that tall leather chair by the fire. â€œMost people call me Maggie. Youâ€™re welcome to.â€
â€œI like Margaret better, if you donâ€™t mind. When I was a little girl, I had very few friends, but I had a friend named Margaret. I was held prisoner behind our walls, and she was the only little girl I played with. She was the daughter of one of the maids who joined us for those summers in Newport. My grandfather, the Admiral, allowed certain staff members to bring their children as long as they were unseen and didnâ€™t attempt to mix with the family. Of course, forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, as they say, and Margaret and I were instant best friends.â€
â€œDid anyone ever find out?â€
â€œNo! I once managed to steal one of my dresses and sneak it downstairs. I convinced her to put it on so that I could introduce her to one of my governesses and our driver. That way we could get into town for an ice cream and go as friends. As I pointed out before, I knew nothing whatsoever until I separated from the prince. I didnâ€™t even know how to put on my own clothes, and of course Margaret was unfamiliar with a wardrobe like mine. I could barely manage all the lacing, and Iâ€™d forgotten to bring the proper undergarments to her. She looked like a drowned ratâ€”terribly unconvincing. She was the wiser of us and quite adamantly refused to attempt the charade. Out of that frock and back into her regular clothes, she fled to the servantâ€™s floorâ€”it was on the top level of our houseâ€”leaving me to explain to Dagmarâ€”that was the name of one of my governessesâ€”that my friend would not be joining us. I was punished for befriending naughty little girls who do not honor their social commitments, which meant no ice cream for the rest of the summer.â€
â€œDid you remain friends beyond childhood?â€ I asked.
Phoebe VanRyder had a way of pulling you into her stories, no matter how seemingly trivial they might be, and I really wanted to know.
â€œOf course not!â€ she blurted out. â€œThat wouldnâ€™t have been possible. It was very likely that her mother didnâ€™t stay in my grandfatherâ€™s serviceâ€”he was not an easy man who treated his staff very wellâ€”and she simply wasnâ€™t there the next summer. I couldnâ€™t ask about her, and if for some reason our paths had crossed in life, I highly doubt she wouldâ€™ve made herself known to me.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a very sad story,â€ I said.
â€œBut the way things were. We simply never considered that we could lower ourâ€”you know what I meanâ€”reach out to those less fortunate people our family didnâ€™t consider appropriate companions.â€
â€œHave you ever thought of searching for her?â€
â€œAbsolutely not!â€ She was aghast. â€œLife took us down different paths. Our childhood at the same estate was the only thing we had in common. What would we say to each other? And besides, sheâ€™s surely dead by now.â€
â€œOh, good!â€ It was Andrewâ€™s voice. â€œI see the two of you have met. I knew youâ€™d hit it off.â€
â€œAndrew speaks so highly of you Margaret. Says you are a fabulous writer.â€
â€œI despise false modesty, my dear! Besides, Iâ€™ve read your book about Scarpiaâ€”what a dreadful man! He once tweaked my breast, and I slapped his face! I watched you on Andrewâ€™s show, and I immediately called him to bring me a copy of your book. Those people involved! You have met some interesting people, my dear.â€
â€œBut not like you.â€
â€œI know artists. You know murderers!â€
â€œOnly two or three.â€
â€œThatâ€™s more than I know. I only know the acquitted!â€ I knew she was speaking of a socialite or two who had stood trial for murdering their spouses only to have narrowly escaped conviction.
â€œMaggie,â€ said Andrew, â€œtell Aunt Phoebes what youâ€™re working on right now.â€
â€œOh, itâ€™s nothing really.â€
â€œWhat have I said about false modesty, my dear?â€
â€œSorry. Itâ€™s just that I was asked to read a manuscript, but itâ€™s turned out not to be very good.â€
â€œTell her who the author is. Auntie, youâ€™re never going to guess whoâ€™s finally written another book.â€
â€œEly Pennington,â€ I said.
â€œWho?â€ asked Phoebe as though Iâ€™d provided the name of some forgotten cleaning lady.
â€œAuntie,â€ Andrew scolded, â€œdonâ€™t be that way. Youâ€™ve heard of Ely Pennington.â€
â€œThe name rings a bell,â€ said Phoebe. â€œSheâ€™s a writer?â€
â€œShe wrote Rebelâ€™s Last Yell back in the sixties.â€
â€œAh! Yes! I remember hearing about her. She was a childhood friend of Garvinâ€™s. He always talked about her.â€
â€œGarvin?â€ I asked.
â€œGarvin Canfield,â€ said Andrew. â€œFamous writerâ€”wrote Before the Gallows. I think he won a Pulitzer for it.â€
â€œHeâ€™d slap your face for thinking it and not knowing for sure. What a vain little sissy, but he was such fun.â€ Phoebe paused, and I suspected she was envisioning one of their nights at Studio 54. She spoke a great deal of her past, but I suspected she was just as tight-lipped as other celebrities whoâ€™d survived that era of sex and drugs. â€œAnother one who died too soon!â€
â€œThatâ€™s funny,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™d forgotten that he and Ely were childhood friends.â€
â€œBut they were enemies when he died. Something to do with professional jealousy. He claimed she was nothing but a typist. He was the one with imaginationâ€”the storyteller, but she supposedly helped him research his book. Remind me what her book was called.â€
â€œThe new one?â€
â€œNo. The one people used to rave about.â€
â€œThatâ€™s it! You know, Margaret, itâ€™s interesting that sheâ€™s writing again after all these years.â€
â€œWhy is that?â€
â€œBecause of the talk.â€
â€œThe talk?â€ She was going to make me pull the information out of her.
â€œYes! Pennington was living in New York in those days. Some cold-water flat in a neighborhood most of us wouldnâ€™t be caught dead in. She only left the house for typing paper and cigarettes. She struggled so as an authorâ€”at least Garvin indicated that was the case. He was a brilliant writer, but had not made his mark. They were both unknowns, and Garvin was determined to find out whether or not publishers had rejected his work or his flamboyance. In those days we called them queersâ€”no offence Andrew.â€
Andrew gave a tight-lipped smile and a half nod to his aunt.
â€œGarvin was a presence, you might say. A fabulous collection of coats to match his infinite wardrobe. He was short, and wore amazing hats with the widest of brims. He was rarely without a colorful scarf around his neck. If you saw him coming you couldnâ€™t take your eyes off him. If you heard him before seeing him, youâ€™d think some bitchy woman was bawling someone out. He wrote beautifully, but none of his early work was selling. He pretended this didnâ€™t matter to him, but those of us who really knew him knew that he sank into deep depressions with each rejection letter.
â€œRumors abounded in the days that followed Penningtonâ€™s book. No one had ever read anything of hers, but those who had read anything of Garvinâ€™sâ€”an article here and thereâ€”swore that their writing styles were similar. So remarkably similar, in fact, that Garvin could have written entire chapters. There were a few people so loyal to Garvin that they thought heâ€™d written most, if not all, of it. Colt Barker came right out and admitted Garvin was the true author of Penningtonâ€™s book. He said heâ€™d been sworn to secrecy that Garvin had convinced his dearest friend since childhood to circulate his book for publication to see if it was any good. If it got published, then heâ€™d know he could write, and heâ€™d continue to write. Supposedly, the book in question was her famous book, which gave Garvin enormous satisfaction.
â€œOf course, Colt dined out on his relationship with Garvin for years. One never quite knew if anything he said was the truth. If he were telling the truth, Pennington and Garvin perpetrated a tremendous hoax, and the public never knew it had been duped.â€
I was shocked! In a few sentences, Phoebe had aroused my journalistic instincts, and I wanted answers. Phoebe, what do you believe? Are you reliable? How can I find out more about Pennington? Who is Colt? Is he still alive? Can I meet him? Is there anyone else who has ever heard Coltâ€™s stories? If true, why didnâ€™t Garvin ever publicly admit that Rebelâ€™s Last Yell was his book?
The hour was late, but I was suddenly alert as though my lack of sleep didnâ€™t matter. I was intrigued by the notion of Ely Penningtonâ€™s having not written Rebelâ€™s Last Yell, which would certainly explain the stylistic differences between it and the inferior Confederate Cry.
Phoebe had wound down at last, and Andrew joined her on an elevator hidden behind a door, which appeared to be part of the wall. They descended to street level while I took the stairs. He motioned for me to wait as he tucked her into a black sedan headed uptown.
â€œMaggie, I have an idea.â€
â€œYou always have ideas.â€
â€œTrue, but this one involves you.â€
â€œI think Iâ€™m in trouble.â€
â€œHear me out. Youâ€™re one of the few people who knows that Ely Pennington is coming out of retirement. How old do you think she is?â€
â€œThatâ€™s my guess. I know your mind works like mine, so why, after all these years, has she decided to publish another book? Rebel has never been out of print, and colleges across the country order thousands of copies every year for their students. She must be having money problems to risk her reputation if the book, as you say, is remarkably inferior to her first success.â€
â€œThatâ€™s exactly what Iâ€™ve been thinking!â€
â€œI knew we were on the same page. Rather than write a sympathetic review you donâ€™t believe in, risking your own reputation when the bookâ€™s inferiority is finally revealed, why not go in another direction? Tell Rina youâ€™re working with me. Youâ€™ll interview Ely Pennington, weâ€™ll air it on my show, and the exposure will drive sales way beyond a magazine article with less circulation than my audience share.â€
â€œDo you think sheâ€™ll be happy with an interview?â€
â€œWho wouldnâ€™t? Rina knows the book is crap, but the world will drop everything for a look at Ely Pennington. It would be as if Howard Hughes had stepped out of his hotel room one last time before he died. No one ever produced him on camera once he became a hermit, and if we can get Ely Pennington, people will buy the book regardless. They might be more forgiving of it if they can see her.
â€œAfter listening to your aunt, Iâ€™m a little concerned about people coming forward to say Ely Pennington is a fraud. Or what if we find information proving it? Rina would be livid if we tanked her sales.â€
â€œWeâ€™re reporters. Uncovering the truth is what got us into this business in the first place.â€
â€œIâ€™m hardly in â€˜this business.â€™â€
â€œOf course you are. Youâ€™ve proven your investigative ability with Murdered Justice. Youâ€™ve been saying lately that you have no projects. Youâ€™re just sitting around, wasting your days, and now we have something to dive into.â€
â€œThis sounds a lot like Iâ€™ll be doing the work, and youâ€™ll be getting the credit.â€
â€œMaggie, I canâ€™t help that I have one of the most popular shows on CNN, but it provides a platform most people donâ€™t have. Sure, Iâ€™ll be the one producing the story, giving it airtime, but youâ€™ll be on frequently. Iâ€™ll make sure your name is mentioned as often as I can. At first youâ€™ll break a small story at about a literary sensation whoâ€™s not very sensational. Weâ€™ll establish a basis for those rumorsâ€”and then youâ€™ll do weekly follow-ups until we reach a satisfactory conclusion.â€
â€œYou seem to have this all figured out; Iâ€™m impressed by your mental agility.â€
â€œYou have to be quick in this business. So, what do you say? Are you in?â€
â€œIâ€™m still concerned about Rina. What will she think if we uncover a very inconvenient truth?â€
â€œWhat does it matter? If we break the story of the new book coming out, sales will be good, and if we follow that with future reports about Ely Pennington perpetrating a hoax for over fifty years, thereâ€™ll still be people whoâ€™ll buy the book. Theyâ€™ll want to re-read Rebel and compare the two to test their own investigative skills. Scholars will come out of the woodwork to prove or disprove the true authorshipâ€”like Shakespeare! And youâ€™ll get the credit for breaking the story!â€
â€œAnd youâ€™ll get a ratings boost?â€
â€œYou say that like itâ€™s a bad thing.â€
â€œIt has a sleazy ring to it.â€
â€œI hate to break it to you, Maggie, but when youâ€™re in television, you have to keep the audience or you donâ€™t get to stay in television. You donâ€™t think I waded in those Texas floodwaters last year because I wanted to risk getting bitten by a displaced water moccasin, do you?â€
â€œI get your point, but I cringe when I think of the sensationalism attached.â€
â€œThen look at it this way. Letâ€™s assume thereâ€™s been a hoaxâ€”it doesnâ€™t even have to be Ely Pennington. Letâ€™s consider that Roosevelt presented the American people with forged documents presenting false evidence in order to convince the country to enter the Second World War. Pearl Harbor happened, but letâ€™s say the reports were hyped. FDR got what he wanted, the United States joined the war, and it all turned out fine in the end. Decades later, the truth is discovered, and the only place the truth can be told is on my show. Is it wrong of me to report the hoax simply because it happened a long time ago? Doesnâ€™t it still have some effect on us? Can I not make a big deal of it and benefit from it at the same time? The benefit is that my show gets ratings, my audience grows, and I get to stay on the air and uncover more truth for a much longer time. Tell me how itâ€™s wrong to pursue truth and ratings at the same time.â€
â€œYou are a seducer.â€
â€œAnd you want this opportunity.â€
I struggled with my conscience, but my desire to seek the truth won out over my aversion to sensationalism. At least this is what I told myself while trying to silence the internal voices, which accused me of taking on this project because I had something to prove to Rina while making myself scarce before Mark-Mario returned to New York.
Following a good nightâ€™s sleep, and after adequate fortification against her anticipated moodiness, I phoned Rina to explain Andrewâ€™s concept. I didnâ€™t provide every detail, but stuck to emphasizing that Penningtonâ€™s interview would provide insight into her new book, her reasons for completing it at such a remarkably mature age, and an explanation for taking Dr. Jefferson McComb off his pedestal when she could very well have left him in the hearts and minds of her many fans.
â€œI have to admit that I like the sound of this,â€ said Rina. â€œItâ€™s not the review I asked for, but I think Andrewâ€™s onto something. People are much more interested in mysteries than book reviews, and though Iâ€™d bet most of his viewers are not readers, a story about a living legend will grab more headlines and tear up the Internet. You have my blessing.â€
I cringed. Lying by omission to my agent could put us at odds, but if my story turned out to be nothing but unfounded gibberish, Rina would be thrilled with Elyâ€™s appearance.
â€œAnd you donâ€™t mind that Iâ€™ll ask her why she ruined Dr. McCombâ€™s reputation?â€
â€œIâ€™m not exactly thrilled, but itâ€™s obvious to both of us, and it will be to the public, that she took him down a couple of notches. Maybe she had something to get off her chest before croaking. I wouldnâ€™t put it past her to write a book that basically calls the first book a lie. What harm is there? Itâ€™s not like millions of people can return all the books or the film can be unmade. Sheâ€™s got her money and surely less than a decade to live. This book may be the result of a very sick sense of humor.â€
Rina made a good point. Ely Pennington might have written both books and decided to blow up her masterpiece before dying. The â€œjagged prose,â€ as I described her style, might simply be the best she could do after letting her writing muscles atrophy for half a century.
A driver greeted me at baggage claim and delivered me to my hotel on St. Charles, just around the corner from the French Quarter. The boutique establishment was centrally located and not terribly far by cab or streetcar to Ely Penningtonâ€™s house. When I got to my room and pulled back the curtains, the sun was setting and the lights on the surrounding buildings were just coming on. I was craving seafood, but wasnâ€™t in the mood to go out alone on this first evening. Iâ€™d traveled much of the day, having been driven, scanned, crammed and hauled, and I wasnâ€™t up to looking cheerful at Mark-Marioâ€™s restaurant, which might be viewed as the wife dropping in unannounced to spy on the team. My hotel had a nice restaurant so I glanced in the mirror, made an adjustment and went downstairs.
Alone and uninterrupted except to order, I finally had a chance to take a closer look at messages and e-mail, and I noticed that my husband was arriving home the following day. I breathed a sigh of relief, as continued separation meant the postponement of any deep discussions. There was a note from Andrew about my expense account. CNN had put me up in a nice hotel, and while they were paying for everything, I was encouraged not to go crazy. He wrote it as if I had a reputation for having bottles of Veuve Cliquot delivered via room service on the hour, every hour. I wouldnâ€™t be draining the minibar, but if I felt like having an $8 package of M&Ms, I wouldnâ€™t hesitate to do so as long as someone else was footing the bill.
I was getting nervous about Rina. There had been no e-mail or texts to update me on my meeting with the reclusive Ely Pennington. When it was decided the interview was a good idea, all she had said was â€œGet your ass to New Orleans. Iâ€™ll handle the rest.â€ That was four days before my arrival. In the past week, Iâ€™d received and read Confederate Cry, determined it was awful, learned that Penningtonâ€™s first book might not be her creation, and was preparing to become the first journalist in over 30 years to interview her. Such a whirlwind was preferable to sitting in my apartment all day checking social media like it was a sick child.
I tapped into the hotelâ€™s Wi-Fi, which brought on a flurry of new messages, the last of which was Rinaâ€™s, telling me that sheâ€™d briefed Jason Boudreau, Elyâ€™s current literary executor, about my desire to interview his client. Westcott had given its consent and encouragement, and Mr. Boudreau had spoken with Mary Lee Charbonneau, Ely Penningtonâ€™s great niece, the daughter of Penningtonâ€™s late nephew.
Penningtonâ€™s sister had been Alma Lee Pennington Charbonneau, and Mary Lee, apparently the only surviving family member aside from unmentioned distant cousins, was closet to the reclusive writer. It was my understanding that she was the gatekeeper and go-between with the literary executor. Something in Rinaâ€™s message indicated that Miss Charbonneau was unconvinced of me, my motives and her auntâ€™s ability to participate in an interview, but if I put forth some dates and times, she would do her best to get us together.
I spent the rest of the evening going over my notes and editing my potential questions so they did not sound accusatory. I needed to bring Ms. Pennington out of seclusion and make her feel comfortable enough with the interview process so that I might charm her into discussing her past, how she had gotten Rebel published, and why her writing style seemed to have devolved since her previous literary success. There would have to be a nice way of asking that without accusing her of fraud. I certainly couldnâ€™t inquire: â€œIs the bookâ€™s shoddiness due to the aging process or had you not written so much as a grocery list in the last fifty years?â€
Surely the author knew her soon-to-be released novel was inferior to the first. On the other hand, perhaps her awareness had lost its edge in the same manner sheâ€™d lost her way with words. And if she werenâ€™t Rebelâ€™s true author, she probably never had a way with words to begin with. I was positive Iâ€™d never get a confession, but I couldnâ€™t help fantasizing about a hermit seated across from me, admitting that Confederate Cry was a way to come clean, clear her conscience, and actually produce a book before it was too late to receive absolution. I was determined to find out the truth and get my interview on the air.
New Orleans moves at its own pace. New Yorkers are in a constant rush, Chicagoans are always battling the elements in an effort to get things done, and Californians have the best intentions, but constant gridlock prevents punctuality. The Crescent City, by contrast, seems to be unaffected by measured time. Streetcars come to unscheduled stops when the notion strikes a passenger to get off. Between restaurants, bars, markets and revelry, no one seems in a hurry to get anywhere.
Mark-Mario noted on more than one occasion that getting his restaurant opened took four times as long in New Orleans as compared to other places. Not that he didnâ€™t love the city, but he admitted that too much time within its borders took a toll on his equilibrium. â€œI lose track of hours, and eventually days,â€ he said. â€œI show up on Wednesday, and the next day itâ€™s Thursdayâ€”a week later. It must be the ghosts pulling at people that slow things down.â€
I remembered what heâ€™d said because I had arrived on Wednesday, and it was suddenly Monday before Jason Boudreau bothered to call me back. Iâ€™d found plenty to do between eating, shopping on Magazine Street, even taking an airboat tour of a bayou, but my patience was growing thin as I worried that Andrew and CNN would think Iâ€™d done nothing except take a vacation on their dime.
â€œYes, Iâ€™m calling to speak with a Miss Maggie Lyon. Is that how I pronounce the last name? Lion? As in the animal?â€ The accent was not southern in the way one thinks of Mississippi or Alabama. Jasonâ€™s voice reminded me of men Mark-Mario and Iâ€™d met when opening up a restaurant in Brooklyn. The French surname and the care with which the caller had clarified the pronunciation of my last name indicated he was a native of the city, but my ear was still hearing New York.
â€œYes, this is Maggie. Who is this, please?â€
â€œMiss Lyon? I havenâ€™t meant to neglect you. Itâ€™s just that Miss Pennington isnâ€™t up to speaking with anyone right now. It seems like writing a book and dealing with publication is more than the she can handle.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry to hear that. I naturally assumed that you and the people at Westcott were handling publication. Iâ€™m surprised sheâ€™s being called upon to do more at this stage than answer a few questions.â€
â€œPublishing a book, Miss Lyon, is a process that takes many people. Itâ€™s more than thinking of a good story and typing it up.â€
Who was he to explain publishing to me? I let the remark pass, as I didnâ€™t want to risk turning him off and losing my chance to meet Miss Pennington.
â€œYes, of course.â€
â€œI feel bad that weâ€™ve wasted your time, but as I told Miss Akin up in New York, she shouldâ€™ve checked with us first before sending you down here. All that time and expense. Itâ€™s all been for nothing.â€
â€œAre you telling me that there will be no interview?â€
â€œI wouldnâ€™t rule it out completely, but it shouldnâ€™t come as any surprise that Miss Pennington hasnâ€™t given an interview in years. Certainly not in my lifetime. Given her age and the strain of the publishing process, I just donâ€™t see how sheâ€™s going to be up to talking to any reporters.â€
I fought to stay calm. Iâ€™d been in town for days without any word, and now I was being confronted with the possibility of no interview. However, my greatest annoyance was the self-assured manner of some man-child explaining the situation to me in a condescending tone typically reserved for politicians when they talk down to constituents, as if receiving votes had somehow bestowed upon them great wisdom.
Rina had assured me Iâ€™d get an interview, but something had obviously changed. If, in fact, Ely Pennington was under the weather, Iâ€™d stay in town eating my $8 M&Ms until she got well. If it turned out that she truly didnâ€™t want to meet with me, Iâ€™d interview someone connected to the book or its author even if that forced me to sit down with Elyâ€™s arrogant representative.
â€œThatâ€™s a shame, Mr. Boudreau. The public would love to become reacquainted with such a legend. Theyâ€™ll have many questions such as why Miss Pennington has waited until nowâ€”in her nineties and over half a century since her last bookâ€”to publish again.â€
â€œNot only that, but why has she dismantled the reputation of one of her most beloved charactersâ€”an iconic figure in American literature?â€
â€œShe hasnâ€™t doneâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™m sure she wants the book to do well in sales.â€
â€œMiss Lyon, I can assure you the book is going to sell. Itâ€™s Ely Pennington, after all. This will be the most anticipated book of the year, and it will skyrocket to the Times best-seller list.â€
â€œPerhaps, but how long do you think it will stay there after people actually read it and the reviews come back?â€
â€œI have no idea what youâ€™re implying.â€
â€œI think you do. Iâ€™ve read the manuscript, and I know that Miss Pennington said to keep editors away from it. It desperately needs an editor. Itâ€™s really ghastly by comparison to Rebel. You know that. I suspect Westcott knows it and probably Miss Pennington herself. The publicist is certainly concerned. Donâ€™t you think itâ€™s in everyoneâ€™s best interest to rally the author so that she might address these concerns?â€
â€œI can assure you that the book will be a success.â€
â€œI can tell by the sound of your voice that you canâ€™t even assure yourself.â€
â€œMiss Lyon, I believe this conversation has reachedâ€”â€
â€œJason? If I may call you Jason, have you read Confederate Cry?â€
â€œWhat does that have to doâ€”?
â€œI have. Itâ€™s not good. I was asked to read it and review it. I couldnâ€™t review it favorably. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m in town. I want to help toward the effort because Ms. Akin is a friend of mine, and we believe focusing on the author will be better for sales than letting critics review it.â€
â€œWho are you to decide if a book is good or not? Youâ€™re just some journalist making a judgment!â€ There it was. Iâ€™d sensed his loathing, and now his contempt was on the table.
â€œPerhaps you arenâ€™t aware that Iâ€™ve already published as many books as Miss Pennington. I may not have written the Great American Novel, but I know damn well that this latest book of hers wouldnâ€™t earn a passing grade in high-school English. As an author and a great admirer, I care about her reputation. Miss Pennington has taken a great risk by rewriting her first book and turning her beloved characters into deplorable people.â€
â€œShe has done no suchâ€”â€
â€œI find this risk confusing and so will the public. Itâ€™s also very clear sheâ€™s either lost her ability to write or someone is about to perpetrate a fraud on the American people.â€
â€œYouâ€™re just down here trying to stir up trouble.â€
â€œIn my brief examination, Iâ€™ve compared the two novels. If an expert suggested the person who wrote Rebelâ€™s Last Yell was not the same person who wrote Confederate Cry, Iâ€™d be inclined to believe them. Rather than have Miss Penningtonâ€™s reputation as a national treasure come tumbling down, Iâ€™d like to meet with her as plannedâ€”whatever day you chooseâ€”and Iâ€™d like to meet her a second time for an on-camera interview. I simply need to arrange with CNN to fly down a small crew when weâ€™re ready.â€
â€œIâ€™m getting the impression, Miss Lyon, that you are not a very nice person.â€
â€œAnd my impression of youâ€”â€
â€œI was led to believe that youâ€™re a team player. I was told you were coming to do a written piece to help us out with promotion, but when you donâ€™t get your wayâ€”and for reasons beyond my controlâ€”you turn into a rather nasty woman.â€
â€œIâ€™ll take that as a compliment.â€
â€œIt wasnâ€™t meant to be. As I said at the beginning, Iâ€™m very sorry to have inconvenienced you, but itâ€™s time for you to go home.â€
â€œIâ€™m rather enjoying myself in your city. Thereâ€™s a lot to keep me occupied for a while. If itâ€™s okay with you, Iâ€™m going to stay and poke my nose into one thing or another. I came for a story, and Iâ€™m not leaving without one. If I canâ€™t get my information from Miss Pennington, Iâ€™ll find what I need from other sources.â€
â€œAre you trying to intimidate me?â€
â€œI already have.â€
â€œI can assure youâ€”â€
â€œI need no assurances except that youâ€™ll produce Miss Pennington. Iâ€™m staying in town, and if she rallies, please call me and confirm a time she and I can meet.
I was shaking with rage when I hung up. I tossed my phone across the room and it landed behind the bed. As I was hanging over the side, trying to retrieve it, I pondered my conversation with Mr. Jason Boudreau. I could be wrong, but I felt the idea to conduct an interview had been repugnant to these people all along. I would phone Rina to let her know they werenâ€™t cooperating. I doubted Ely Pennington was all that ill. She might have decided to cancel the interviewâ€”that is if Jason had ever informed her of it.
I was just about to tap on Rinaâ€™s number to call her when a text message came through. It was Andrew asking me how the story was going. I didnâ€™t want to keep him waiting so I responded that things were moving ahead much slower than I had intended. I didnâ€™t want to alarm him yet by saying that theyâ€™d cancelled, but I felt I needed to let him know that Ely was not up to speaking with me at the moment. I tapped the phone to send the message and it began to vibrate. It was an incoming call from a 504 area code.
â€œMay I please speak with Miss Maggie Lyon?â€
â€œUh, Miss Lyon?â€
â€œI just spoke with a member of the family, and Iâ€™ve been informed that Miss Pennington is feeling somewhat better. While sheâ€™s not at her bestâ€”and I ask you who is at that ageâ€”Mary Leeâ€”uh, Miss Charbonneauâ€”has just informed me that her aunt can meet with you this week after all. I asked for an hour, but Miss Charbonneau believes thirty minutes is probably the limit.â€
â€œThatâ€™s wonderful news Mr. Boudreau. Tomorrow?â€
â€œNo. She indicated Thursday afternoon at one, if that works for you. That way Miss Pennington will have had her lunch and still be up and around. Itâ€™s my experience that early afternoons are the best time to see her if you have goals to accomplish.â€
â€œThatâ€™s wonderful. Do you think the camera crew and I can return on Friday or should I have them join me on Thursday? I was hoping to have one day for a preliminary interview and then the next for theâ€”â€
â€œOh, Iâ€™m sorry. Youâ€™ll get Thursday without cameras. Miss Pennington has decided that she will not be filmed. Vanity, you understand. She would rather the public remember herâ€”â€
â€œBut I was told weâ€™d get aâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™m sure you understand the touch-and-go nature of the elderly. Besides, Iâ€™ve been most generous by talking the family into Thursday. The other choice is to go home without anything.â€
â€œYou have the Philip Street address?â€
â€œI look forward to meeting you. Iâ€™ve adjusted my schedule so that I can sit in. Never hurts to have another person to fill in any blanks Miss Pennington might leave.â€
I wasnâ€™t completely satisfied. Iâ€™d obviously shaken Jason up a bit, but to come all that way and not get any footage would make Andrew very unhappy. Iâ€™m a writer not a TV personality, and though I could get what I needed without cameras, his audience would react unfavorably to my reading a report and presenting a few old publicity photographs.
â€œWHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING DOWN THERE?â€ Rina was shouting into the phone again. Apparently, Jason had phoned New York. He seemed to have complained to Westcott who, in turn, bawled Rina out for sending down a hostile reporter to harass a sick old lady who wanted nothing more than to grant the literary world a final opus before she closed her eyes forever.
â€œIâ€™ve been trying to get an interview, but Elyâ€™s people have been shutting me out at every turn until now.â€
â€œThe guy over at Westcottâ€™s having a shit-fit! He said youâ€™d ripped Penningtonâ€™s lawyer a new asshole and threatened to accuse them of conspiracy to commit fraud if you didnâ€™t get to meet with that old woman.â€
â€œJason Boudreau should take up writing fiction. Heâ€™s certainly better at it than his client!â€
â€œThey donâ€™t want to have anything to do with you, and if thereâ€™s a grain of truth to what theyâ€™re saying, I donâ€™t want you covering this story. The book is on the verge of release, and I wonâ€™t let you or anyone else jeopardize its sales by printing anything negative!â€
â€œReally? Iâ€™m supposed to march in lockstep with you, Westcott and the Pennington camp even if I find somethingâ€™s wrong? Rina, there are two books with two different authors. Iâ€™m all but convinced. Thatâ€™s why I want some answers. However, if Iâ€™m wrong, Pennington needs to come out of hiding and get in front of this story.â€
â€œThatâ€™s her brand. Sheâ€™s a recluse. Mysterious. Like Salinger!â€
â€œExcept he didnâ€™t come out fifty years later with a pathetic sequel.â€
â€œStop saying that! Iâ€™ll give you that somethingâ€™s off, but we have to assumeâ€”â€
â€œI donâ€™t have to assume. Iâ€™m an investigative reporter. Iâ€™m searching for the truth.â€
â€œDo me a favor, Miz Woodward-Bernstein. Let this go. Whatâ€™s in the past stays in the past and we can all move on with this new book.â€
â€œFor your information, there was talk at the time that she didnâ€™t write Rebel. Now that people are going to be able to read and compare, Penningtonâ€™s teamâ€”including youâ€”is going to need an explanationâ€”preferably in the authorâ€™s own wordsâ€”as to why the styles and characterizations are so vastly different.â€
â€œYou listen to me! I know all about the rumors. You donâ€™t work in the book business as long as I have without hearing some old stories. I also know that Ely Pennington alluded to the fact several times over the years that she was working on a new book. None of her announcements gave clear indications what she had in mind, but sheâ€™s finally come up with something for anyone who still gives a damn about that old hermit. Most people think she died years agoâ€”prematurely like Margaret Mitchell. Thereâ€™ll be shockwaves when this new book hits the stands.â€
â€œFor several reasons.â€
â€œI admit this new bookâ€™s not as good, but your job is to take everyoneâ€™s mind off that by telling the story of a sweet little old lady trying to make us happy while sacrificing her cherished privacy.â€
â€œThatâ€™s my whole point, Rina. I came down here to interview Pennington, but her people arenâ€™t exactly cooperative. Her executor is a baby who doesnâ€™t really give a damn about her or her reputation. He believes the bookâ€™s going to sell and nothing else matters. Heâ€™s unconcerned about anything beyond pre-order and the first weekâ€™s revenue. Get in and get out before they discover the bookâ€™s a flop. Iâ€™m very concerned, and you should be too!â€
What I didnâ€™t say was how concerned I was that Rebelâ€™s Last Yell was going to be blemished. Dr. Jefferson McComb, fictional or not, had continued to be one of the most admired Americans. If Ely Pennington had created him, why destroy him? If, on the other hand, Garvin Canfield had really created him, I might understand that her bitter estrangement from a childhood friend had manifested into some canker of hatred, which had become the driving force to ruin his legacy. But if no one really knew the truth about Garvinâ€™s authorship, how, exactly was she destroying her enemyâ€™s legacy?
Perhaps there was some deeper motivation in transforming good characters into ignorant bigots, which was why I needed to speak with her. I needed to know the reason for such a monstrosity. Uncovering true authorship was at the top of my list, and for selfish reasons like breaking the biggest story in decades, I prayed that Garvin was the man. If Garvin had written Rebelâ€™s Last Yell, I then needed to isolate the books from each other in the publicâ€™s mind, preserving the beloved depictions of Rebelâ€™s characters while simultaneously dispelling an American myth.
Rebel had provided hope when there had been so little, and it had inspired many of us to be better people. The characters deserved to remain undisturbed. Confederate Cry was just the opposite. It was not only bad writing; it was bad for our culture.
â€œIâ€™m not making any promises,â€ said Rina, â€œbut Iâ€™ll make some calls and smooth things over.â€
â€œAm I still scheduled for Thursday afternoon or not?â€ I was still 48 hours away from my meeting.
â€œHave you heard anything different?â€
â€œIâ€™ve heard nothing.â€
â€œThen assume youâ€™re going to meet the old gal.â€
â€œMight I ask why you need to make calls?â€
â€œTo be on the safe side. I need the people over at Westcott to cool down. They know you have your doubts as to authorship, and they wanna work with somebody whoâ€™ll rubberstamp the thing. Part of me wants that, too, but if the truth is going to come out sooner or later, Iâ€™d rather know up front so I can pull out.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™re okay with me talking to her?â€
â€œYouâ€™re gonna do what you think is right. Itâ€™s why I admire you.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t sound convinced.â€
â€œI hate to kiss those fees goodbye, but if thereâ€™s the slightest possibility of a mess, Iâ€™m not going down with it.â€
After Rina hung up, I sat there thinking what a strain this had already put on our friendship. Iâ€™d never brought her so much frustration. All sheâ€™d asked was a favor from me, and Iâ€™d complicated the matter of a simple book review.
Mid-morning Thursday, Iâ€™d just inserted my key card to re-enter my room after a session in the hotel gym when my phone rang. It was that 504 number again. As was my usual practice, I didnâ€™t enter numbers into my phone if they were short-term acquaintances like interview subjects and their handlers.
â€œGood morning, Jason,â€ I said without any emotion.
â€œMiss Lyon, good morning. I hope this isnâ€™t a bad time,â€ he said.
â€œPerfect timing. I was just about to check my notes once more before going over to Miss Penningtonâ€™s.â€
â€œAbout the interviewâ€”â€
â€œI donâ€™t like the sound of that. If youâ€™re calling to cancel, please understandâ€”â€
â€œMiss Lyon, please. Please listen to me.â€
â€œThereâ€™d better be a very good reason if youâ€™re cancelling. I can promise youâ€”â€
â€œMISS LYON! Please! This is very difficult for me to say.â€
â€œThen say it. Just know that Iâ€™m not leaving town until I get a story.â€
â€œItâ€™s going to be much more difficult for you to do so.â€
â€œI canâ€™t be intimidated.â€
â€œIâ€™m not trying toâ€”â€
â€œThen I donâ€™t know what youâ€™d call it. You phone me up at the last minute to turn the tables on me. There are people waiting on my report, much of which hinges on my speaking with Miss Pennington. Without it, Iâ€™ll have to try another angle. Iâ€™ll find people to talk, and you all may be rather unhappy with the results.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure we would be.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™re fine with that?â€
â€œNo, actually, but thatâ€™s the way it has to be.â€
â€œWhy do you say that? All you have to do is permit me to interview Miss Pennington as you promised.â€
â€œI canâ€™t do that.â€
â€œWhy the hell not?â€ I was starting to raise my voice.
â€œBecause sheâ€™s dead.â€ His voice was so quiet, I thought Iâ€™d misunderstood.
â€œWhat did you say?â€ I was stunned.
â€œMiss Pennington passed away in her sleep. The housekeeper found her this morning.â€
* * *