She was married to Paul Fussell.
* We began to give dinner parties in the slab house, enticing the Princeton literary set up Route 27 with lavish displays of food and drink. In Germany we’d made friends with a Fulbright couple who lived in Princeton and were part of a circle that sat at the feet of R. P. Blackmur, a poet and critic who was a maverick in the academy—no Ph.D.—and the smartest man I’ve ever met. Like Dr. Johnson, he had absorbed a great deal of the world’s learning and expounded it best in conversation. There was reason to sit at his feet and pay attention to his words. Although he could be ruthlessly cruel, he was also a sage, and I was flattered when he took a shine to Paul and me. He invited us to join not only the elect at the invitation-only Gauss Seminars, which sponsored guest lecturers of renown, but also the super-elect for drinks at his house afterward. This was a world I’d been missing at Rutgers, a world I wanted to join. Paul’s ticket of entrance was his own sharp wit and literary acumen. Mine was as a well-packaged and intelligent sex object who gave good value as a hostess.
One night when Paul couldn’t go to the Gauss, I went without him, and afterward went on to drinks at Blackmur’s. It was a heady crowd of writers and aesthetes and intellectuals, including Kingsley Amis, Al Alvarez, R. W. B. Lewis, Eric Kahler. Paul had asked me to come home early because he wanted to make love. I said I’d try, but I got home late. Paul was angry. “We had a date,” he said. To me it felt like blackmail. I felt a constant current of hostility from him and, for the first time, thought seriously of packing my bags, bundling up the children, and leaving. But I could already hear him asking, “Where would you go?” I certainly couldn’t run home to Mother. Without a cent of my own, I certainly couldn’t take off for New York or some other city and expect to land a job that would pay for an apartment and care for the kids. No, the thing to do was to have another child.
* We picnickers were mostly young academics in our thirties, from Princeton and Rutgers, some with young children, some without, all of us frolicsome. R. P. Blackmur was our rubicund Lord of the Revels, our Bacchus, with vine leaves in his white hair. The respectables of the Princeton English Department scorned him as a mere writer, a poet-critic with no scholarly credentials at all. And of course they scorned anyone from Rutgers, a state university. But we saw ourselves as outsiders because we cared about Art, in contrast to the philistine Establishment.
* Curiously, our picnics were not a rebellion against kitchen work. The woman who cooked indoors cooked outdoors as well. I don’t know if blue-collar men were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers in their backyards in the early sixties, but I do know that white-collar academics were not, any more than they were going bowling, hunting, or to the Elks. It was women who toted the bags of charcoal and loaded up the Weber grills and squirted kerosene and watched the flames explode and then subside and the gray ash grow while they manipulated six pounds of ground chuck into thick patties and laid out giant wooden bowls of chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes and grated red cabbage slathered with blue cheese dressing and shooed the kids away from the grill as they chased fireflies and each other, while the men stood around and drank. Heavily.
Princeton was an outpost of Cheever territory, where you could drink your way across town from party to party in one long moveable feast. While the women tended the grill, the men tended the thermoses of iced martinis and wrestled with the corkscrews that opened the wine and dispensed the brandy and cigars that finished off the meal. Drinking was men’s work, and the men went at it manfully. The women drank too, of course, and not just to keep up with the men. Drinking was vital to our picnics, loosening tongues and lips and hearts and kidneys. Men could turn their backs and pee openly in the bushes. Women had to choose their coverts more carefully. But the unspoken rule was that you could do things on a picnic that you couldn’t or wouldn’t do in a parlor. Such license was sanctified by a host of pastoral forms, literary and cinematic…
* Sex was in the air and on our lips and in the pressure of our bodies when we kissed each other hello and goodbye, a social custom that had infiltrated America’s upper bourgeoisie in the fifties and lingered on, putting a full-mouthed American twist on the Continental habit of kissing both cheeks in greeting. Women rubbed cheeks so as not to leave lipstick behind, but women and men rubbed bodies together like Boy Scouts starting a fire, and the prolonged good-night kiss that began as ritual courtesy might end as rendezvous. Or not. It was an era good for kissing and flirting without anything happening at all.
Except, of course, it did. It had to, the way the Cold War eventually had to hot up after the prolonged foreplay of threats and counterthreats, simulated and real. With Ike and Khrushchev flashing their missiles, Russia was bound to fire off a Sputnik and a Lunik just as we were bound to counter with a Jupiter and an Apollo. Nationally we believed we were in control of our fears, just as privately we believed we were in control of our lusts. Self-delusion clotted the air like sex, and it took but a small charge to blow it sky-high.
Our Princeton pals had already been primed by a quartet of Brits, writers and their wives, who’d revived the days just after the war when a crew of bacchants had danced across the quad—John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell. But the Eisenhower years had lulled the Establishment into a false sense of security, so when Lucky Jim arrived at Princeton in the person of Kingsley Amis, few were prepared. Kingsley cut a swath a mile wide through the faculty wives, literally laying them low with his charm, celebrity, curly blond hair, and bad-boy antics. He’d propositioned me once in the bathroom of our house in Piscataway while I washed out baby Sam’s diaper. “Not quite my idea of a romantic setting,” I said. “Oh,” he said, as if surprised, “would you prefer a bed?”
The Amises had inspired a whole year of husband- and wife-swapping in Princeton before we moved there, and I didn’t know whether to be sorry I’d missed it or glad. There was no scandal left in who had slept with Kingsley. Who hadn’t? The Amises were so very English, and yet not at all like the English revered by the English Department and mocked for all time by Lucky Jim . I tried to imagine resisting Kingsley’s irresistible combination of comedy and sex, as he single-mindedly put one in the service of the other, and I longed to be put to the test. Laughter is the most powerful seduction of all, and for these English, America, with her straitlaced Puritans, was one big laugh-in. They would as soon fuck as say the word; they seemed to have no verbal or sexual inhibitions at all.
In Princeton the Amises lived out scenes Kingsley had already written in Lucky Jim . They accidentally burned a bed-sheet in their rented house and tried to cover it up by cutting a hole in the sheet; Kingsley went off to Yale to deliver a lecture and forgot his briefcase with his speech inside. They were also living out scenes that would appear shortly in One Fat Englishman , like the infamous barge party on the Delaware River by New Hope, in which drunken revelers who’d been screwing in dark corners of the barge kept falling off the boat and having to be fished out of the water half naked. A lot of the time Kingsley couldn’t remember whom he’d screwed, it meant so little and he drank so much.
Another pair of Brits doubled the charge the Amises had ignited. Al Alvarez was an explosive nonfiction writer and his wife, Ursula, distantly connected to D. H. Lawrence, was a ripe raven-haired beauty who wore her hair long and her bosom full. Men flocked to Ursula the way women flocked to Kingsley, but for sex in the opposite mode. Ursula was pure romanticism La Belle Dame sans Merci, silent to the point of being sullen. When she placed a white rose in her bosom, you could hear the room heave a sigh. Not much later, she ran off with an Irish poet. The poet’s wife committed suicide and Al later attempted the same, then wrote a book about it. The Alvarezes played out tragedy while the Amises played out comedy in our small university town of Anglophiliacs.
Adultery was in the air like wood smoke, only no one called it adultery. It was called Letting Go, and Letting It All Hang Out, in the jargon of that prefeminist era. Now that Freud and Kinsey and Joyce Brothers had told us that women were as sexual as men, now that Marx and Marcuse and Norman O. Brown had told us that sexual morality was the opiate of the masses, it was a liberated woman’s duty not to go out there and get a job, but to go out there and fuck. We were not at war with men. Men were our heroes, and we wanted to love them all, in the high style of Simone de Beauvoir. French women of a certain class had always had lovers, just as their husbands had. So had the English. Why shouldn’t we?
In food as in sex, America was slipping behind us as Europe beckoned. The moment classes were over, we all hopped boats for Europe, often the same boat so that we could continue partying at sea…
* On one climactic occasion it all came together—food, literature, sex, and art. Paul and I staged a dinner to honor Muriel Spark, who was giving a lecture series at Rutgers she called “L’Amour de Voyage.” She appeared at our little cottage in a chauffeured limo, which impressed us and our neighbors neighbors no end. She wore a bright red wig and fake eyelashes that nearly swept her plate and entertained us with bawdy stories while we stoked her with course after course…
* last. From now on, I’d be sexy. I made my own clothes, because that way I could afford expensive fabrics and make a good show. I cut the tops of my dresses lower and made the waists tighter. I put tissue in the bottom half of my bras to push my cleavage up. I could feel men buzz around me like drones to the honey pot, and I liked that feeling.
I discovered that all I had to do was ask intelligent questions, and men of all ages would find me intelligent. I could wrap my arm in the arm of the distinguished Eric Kahler, a fellow émigré and friend of Thomas Mann, and while we strolled across campus feel his pleasure as he discoursed learnedly on the relation between Klimt and Freud in the Vienna Circle. I could feel the drama theorist Francis Fergusson glow when I sat at his feet by the fireplace in his Victorian parlor and asked questions about Sophocles. I was only half aware that I was adding new weaponry to my arsenal, the weaponry of flattery and adoration and argument, not as an intellectual exercise but as a form of sex.
If I couldn’t use logic professionally, I’d use it for fun. With the lights on, I would engage one or another young male instructor in heated argument over the superiority of Whitman to Milton, say—the more outrageous the thesis, the better, because it required more skill to defend. It was a fencing match, the thrust oblique and the parry direct, designed to challenge, provoke, and parry other thrusts when, lights out, we danced close and closer to old recordings of “Sunrise Serenade” and “How High the Moon.” So blatantly sexual was argument to us that the wife of one instructor, a trained nurse, rose from her chair one night and said, “I know I can’t discuss la-de-da poetry or the works of Emerson, but I can do this … and this … and this ,” and she executed a couple of bumps and a grind that put my mental gyrations to shame.
Dancing, we made love standing up and swaying slow, the way we had in high school and college, teased by the same urges and the same prohibitions, only now it was not virginity we were protecting but marriage. In effect, these were licensed petting parties and there were subtle, unspoken rules about what was and was not permitted. Sitting on laps was okay, dancing so close you could feel each other’s body parts was okay. Fondling in public was not, nor was disappearing into bedrooms, but disappearing outside into nature was. Once I sat on our picnic table out back, huddled under a blanket with a vet who’d seen a lot of action in both military and marital wars, a man whose heroism I much admired and whose horniness when drunk was commanding. He got drunk compulsively, as we all did, and when I indicated kissing was fine but that was it, he didn’t argue, he simply masturbated while we kissed.
Decades before Bill Clinton’s equivocations, we were looking for a presidential solution to the semantics of sex. One evening after a great deal of brandy in front of the fire, Paul and I traded partners with this same vet and his wife. Paul was delighted when we took off clothes, because the vet’s wife had unusually large breasts. I hated to be naked because mine had diminished to nonpregnancy flatness, and I was ashamed of them. I was not surprised when the vet proved to be less interested in kissing them than in kissing parts further south, at which point his wife came alive and hit him on the head with her shoe to make him stop. Nudity was permitted, kissing below the belly was not.
* Only years later did Paul confess that during that time he’d been screwing one of his single colleagues at Rutgers for real.
Another visiting writer and his wife became the catalyst for further explosion. Philip Roth’s breakup with his first wife, Maggie, left a wild and hungry girl on the loose. She was, as we used to say, dynamite. Roth had not yet written Portnoy’s Complaint , but he clearly had sex on the brain just as Maggie had it on the body. Maggie, born into the hardscrabble poor of the Midwest, had been a teenage mother and bride in that order. She’d left her children with relatives in order to work and get herself educated, and at the University of Chicago she’d had the good and bad fortune to team up with a manic young writer on the rise.
As a couple, the Roths were far too absorbed in each other to bother with any genteel hanky-panky with the rest of us. They seemed to make war and love simultaneously and with equal violence. But when Roth abruptly left his wife and moved to New York, Maggie was a loose cannon. She was less restrained, repressed, or undamaged than the rest of us, and in her language as in her actions she called a spade a spade. “Come on, I’ve seen the way you dance with Dave, why don’t you fuck him, for chrissake?” she’d ask me. “Who do you think you are, the Great White Ice Queen?” She called me IQ for short. She loved to spar with Paul and me, pitting her energy and despair against our underdeveloped emotions and overeducated brains. The three of us became close, and when Kennedy was assassinated, we took her in to share that long Thanksgiving week glued to our TV, bonded by popcorn and tears.
* Maggie too appeared one night in the doorway of our bedroom, naked. Paul was away and Maggie had come over for supper but was too drunk to drive home, so I opened the sofa bed in the living room for her. It had been an emotional night as the drink took hold, with her trying to call “that fucker” in New York, leaving alternately tearful and threatening messages on his answering machine. I was exhausted when she finally went to bed. But before I could get to sleep upstairs, there she was. “Can I come in?” she whispered. She was crying. Oh Lord, I thought. But I was a mother after all, so I took her in. She immediately took my hand and put it between her legs. “Oh no, Maggie, no, I can’t do that,” I said. “Please,” she begged. I sat up, feeling desperate because I couldn’t do what she wanted, but my instinct for survival was as strong as hers. “Go back to bed, Maggie,” I said. By that time she’d finished what she came for without any help from me. She thanked me for “being there” and tottered back through the doorway, down the stairs, and into bed.
For a long time, that was my image of Maggie, a long, thick torso on short but sturdy legs, silhouetted against a backlight of trouble. When she tried to kill herself with sleeping pills in New York, I was heart-struck but not surprised. Someone found her in time, but a couple of years later a car she was in plowed into a tree in Central Park. The driver was unhurt, but Maggie was dead.
* Dave was taken aback by my passion. So was I—I who was always in public cool and self-controlled. I knew he had had many affairs in Europe, so I was not surprised by his skill, even as I relished it. This was an unknown world. Paul and I had been married for nearly a decade before we’d learned about The Clitoris and then only from a book, which Paul read first and then passed on to me. All that time I’d wondered exactly what a female orgasm was and whether I’d ever had one.
* Knowledge was not virtue, because I knew what I was doing, and I knew it was wrong.
I began to understand people who had eating disorders. They were as obsessed with food and its image as I was with sex. I understood people who tried to give up smoking and couldn’t. I was one of those myself. I understood people who tried to give up drugs and couldn’t, even though the only drug we knew, nicotine aside, was booze, and we weren’t about to give that up. I played tug-of-war with Dave and myself, swearing and forswearing, for a biblical seven years.
* Dave and Vittoria went off to Tuscany every summer, where Vittoria’s family had a villa, and where Dave picked up where he had left off with one village girl or another. “It has nothing to do with you and me,” he’d say. “I’m like a father to them.” An incestuous father, I muttered, jealous as hell. He was constantly falling in love with their innocence, their swelling bosoms, their budding knowledge, and it burned me up that I knew this about him and still couldn’t stop.
* After we separated, he finally went to see a shrink for a few weeks, just long enough to discover, as he related with disbelief, that he’d always connected sex with shame, with dirtiness, which he’d gotten from his mother—of course. A mastoid operation as an adolescent had kept him home for six months and he’d become a mama’s boy, learning to knit and sew while his older brother went out for sports and girls. “The shrink says I’m a permanent adolescent,” he said. “I never grew up and that’s what makes getting old such a shock. Adolescents aren’t supposed to be old.” He was attracted to students who were straight, he said, because he got a charge from their youth. “I don’t want to be with old people like me.”
* In the end, he [Paul Fussell] took each child to lunch separately in New York and told them he was a pederast and I an adulteress. For a civilized person, it was a brutal way of putting it. Sam cried. Tucky took it on the chin, and exploded later.
* Paul sat opposite me on a chair and ticked off items on a list he held in his hand. One, a tax bill of $1,309.40, due February 1, must be paid on time or the borough would charge interest. Two, living alone in England, he’d found out how much he loved me and how much he hated living alone. Even if we got divorced, he wondered if we might not live together. Three, he’d discovered he was not homosexual. He didn’t want to touch young boys, he just wanted to look at them. Four, he’d done what he’d done to punish me, because I didn’t like his students, because I was jealous of them. It could have been a girl just as easily.