Or rather, about the men I knew early in life—one of whom was Mame’s devoted follower—and what they taught me and how they surprised me…
Growing up I absorbed the lesson all girls were taught then: watch out for men, their appetites, out of control, will destroy you—very much the same lesson Richardson’s Clarissa learned or was supposed to learn in eighteenth century England.
I believed, although the mild boys I knew in high school didn’t seem capable of becoming ravening beasts at nightfall—but I really didn’t.
College, even in the old days of parietal rules and curfews, opened new possibilities for observation. Even before my weekend with Mame and her reader in New York, or the joint weekend in that seedy hotel on the Upper West Side, I encountered surprising revelations as I began to get to know my counterparts at Harvard. We didn’t use the word “dating” to describe our joint activities; I don’t think we used any word at all.
The lithe handsome son of a would-be president was simpler and more fun than anyone else I knew. Together, we went out to a beach town, deserted in winter, and broke into his aunt’s house, making a fire in the fireplace to try to heat a few feet of the place, then going down to the beach to work on restoring a boat that seemed to have been abandoned there. Eventually we found out that the boat did belong to someone and our dream of sailing away on it died.
The only time we kissed was through his cambric handkerchief. He was not ravening beast.
The next one, also a scion, took me for the weekend to a deeply snowed in summer cottage in the Maine woods; how he discovered it and rented it I never knew. We stocked up with provisions and went into one of the coldest, darkest, smallest houses I’ve ever encountered. It was too cold and the snow was too deep to venture outside; I cooked, we listened to records—what was the music?—and danced rapturously, like five year olds, on the bed. Or rather bounced up and down, shouting. We were seventeen or eighteen, and it was more fun than I’d imagined. Later he became a well-known authority on the dilemmas of childhood.
No ravening beast he but the sweetest gentlest boy I’d ever known.
More confusing was another scion from an unexpected family who took me to a nightclub in Boston, then got drunk and disappeared into the night. I finally got a ride back to my dormitory, to find the whole place lit up and the housemother, in curlers and bathrobe, waiting for me at the front door. She told me with asperity that there was a man in my second floor single room. The girls were standing in the hall, armed with mops and brooms to defend themselves against attack.
In fact he was passed out on my bed.
I don’t remember how he was removed, but it was clear to me that he was no ravening beast but a wounded soul in need of comfort. More comfort, needless to say, than I could provide. He barely escaped expulsion and our friendship came to an end.
The nearest thing to a wild animal I encountered at college was an angry boy who knocked me down in the bushes when I came back from a date with someone else—but I had, in the parlance of the times, two-timed him, and so I sort of felt that I deserved it. However, I turned him into the authorities, since I knew nobody had any business knocking me down. He, also, barely escaped expulsion.
Now, all these years later, I wonder if the fact that these boys were all scions of well-known families contributed to their noteworthy mildness. Was there then—certainly not now—an emphasis on right behavior and staying out of trouble that actually corralled their adolescent male desire?
I don’t think so. They were frightened, timid, needy, and the lesson I had been taught as a girl, like so many other lessons, didn’t apply.