Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

In any national organization, the persons whose names are listed down the lefthand side of the stationery, the persons who are supposed to love the organization and guarantee it and work daily for it — these old friends are sometimes labeled the Directors, sometimes the Trustees, the Sponsors, the Advisory Board, the State Chairmen, the Honorary Vice–Chairmen, the National Committee, the General Committee or the Central Committee.

In the T.A.F.A.R.P., these apostles were called the Trustees, and in January, 1930, Dr. Planish was elected a trustee of that association — the True American Federation to Attack Racial Prejudice. With the suspiciousness of one who has now lost his philanthropic innocence, he skimmed over the names of his fellow trustees and even that of the treasurer — the president of an insurance company — knowing that they would all be the familiar bunch of Signers, and he looked sharply at the name of the executive secretary (or, technically, the Works). He approved. The Works was Professor Goetz Buchwald, of the psychology department of Erasmus College, on leave of absence — a leave that had now lasted for seven years.

Buchwald really was an honest and earnest man. He had read all the books, and he hated the oppressors of the Chinese, the Negroes, the Slovenes, as much as he hated the oppressors of the Jews. He spoke vigorously, but he was equally vigorous with scissors and typewriter. He nudged the press about hundreds of small incidents of tyranny or prejudice. A good man and a good organization, felt Dr. Planish. There were only two things wrong about it: Buchwald would keep on calling himself Professor, letting his staff and the newspapers call him Professor, being introduced at public meetings as Professor, though he had stopped professoring years ago.

No, felt Dr. Planish. In a democratic world like this, where we rebel against all such artificial distinctions as titles, a man ought simply to be called Doctor.

The other flaw in the True Americans was that they had never yet been able to convince anybody who was not already convinced. But that, argued Dr. Planish, with the greatest fairness, was scarcely their fault, since it was also true of ninety-seven per cent of all national organizations — practically all of them except his own. And maybe it overlapped the work of a few dozen other bodies, but then, insisted Dr. Planish — but THEN!

He respected the officers of the True Americans: Natalia Hochberg, the general secretary; Bishop Albertus Pindyck, of the Catholic or more acrobatic wing of the Episcopal Church; Dr. Christian Stern; Monsignor Nicodemus Lowell Fish, Ph.D., known as “the apostle to the Yankees”; and Rabbi Emile Lichtenselig. When he was invited to attend the annual conference of the T.A.F.A.R.P. in New York, in April, he was delighted. He felt that here he would be stimulated, and meet the better minds.

Besides, Peony wanted to see the Empire State Building.

She did, and she smelled the ocean and the roast chestnuts. She moaned, “Oh, lover, it looks — it looks like New York!”

There is a particular flavor to Celebrities, to people who have their names in the papers and who expect to be recognized on the street. Most of them will, within a year or two, slide back into the pit of anonymity whence they scrambled, and that will either make them human again or, in their resentment, destroy them utterly, for a Celebrity who has lost celebrity is the emptiest of God’s curios. But a few of them will remain notorious till the hour when respectful ears reach for their unintelligible dying words, and the majority of these regulars will cease entirely to be human beings. They will be overly cordial or preposterously peeved; they will be irritable when reporters bother them at the train-gates and hysterical when no reporters show up at all; they will shake the hand, chirp the good morning, willingly give the autograph, leeringly pose the picture, and say a few nice words about soy beans or the football team.

There are also adhesive persons who are unlikely to become Celebrities themselves, but who relish the stir and smell and incessantly clattering noise of the rotogravure Olympus, just as merchants may enjoy being volunteer firemen, or elderly ladies like watching dog fights.

Of all Celebrity fans none was livelier than Peony Planish, and when the delegates to the convocation of the True American Federation to Attack Racial Prejudice met in the elegant lobby of Terpsichore Hall, in New York City, she could enjoy her mania at its highest. On view were Bishop Pindyck, Msgr. Fish, Dr. Christian Stern, Professor Buchwald, United States Senator Felix Bultitude, General Gong, who was not only a general but an army general, not a real-estate or newspaper general, Captain Heth Gishorn, the distinguished explorer, Dr. Procopus, who was so famous a psychiatrist that the Freudians took time out to hate him, Judge Vandewart, Henry Caslon Kevern, rated at twenty million, and a genuine but social-minded actress — Ramona Tundra, the movie star. Not only that, but there was a title of nobility, the first that Peony or Dr. Planish had ever tasted, the Principessa Ca’ D’Oro, a real princess though she just happened to have been born a Miss Togg of Arkansas.

She wrote social columns.

But, nobler than nobility, bluer of jaw than the principessa was blue of blood, was Colonel Charles B. Marduc, deity among advertising agents, owner of a dozen magazines, major on the Western Front in World War I and now colonel in the National Guard; a man of fifty, sleek as a greyhound but burly as a mastiff, with a planned graying mustache against a cherry face.

Dr. Planish quivered, “That’s Marduc, the fellow Ham Frisby admires so much,” and Peony answered, “And could I go for him! I’m going to wriggle over and talk to him.”

But Colonel Marduc, after shaking only the whitest and plumpest of the assembled hands, slipped away, and the Planishes forgot him, for coming toward them, hands out, was their friend Professor George Riot.

“One drink and one drink and one drink makes sixteen drinks, hurray,” said Professor Riot, a little later.

Dr. Planish wanted to know how these authentic Top Men talked, that he might do likewise.

He was sorry to find (he reported to Peony and George Riot) that they didn’t seem to talk much about saving mankind. Chiefly, they all said, with slightly different vocabularies, that they had lost their shirts in the crash. But Dr. Planish did see that only in New York could you adequately keep a national philanthropic organization. Where else could you count on generals and principessas and stars and Marducs and bishops of every brand from Roman Catholic through Methodist to Pentecostal Abyssinian?

He devoted himself to the Reverend Dr. Christian Stern; he even attended services at the reverend’s Universalist Byzantine basilica — the first time he had gone to church, except twice at Dr. Kitto’s, in a year. He got himself and Peony invited to the parsonage for tea, and told Dr. Stern that it was a shame the Heskett Foundation was not situate in New York, in proximity to Dr. Stern’s spiritual guidance, to give pious publicity to him instead of to those selfish and violent men, Kitto and Frisby.

Dr. Stern agreed with an enthusiasm that was good to see in such a busy man of affairs. His imagination trembled. Yes! If they had the Foundation here, he’d be willing, as chairman of its executive board, to have an office in its quarters, and to combine its work with his other activities, to the greater glory of God and the little red schoolhouse. Yes! If Dr. Planish would circulate around and find other Heskett directors of like mind, he would be glad to talk to them at the annual conference in Chicago, next summer.

So Dr. Planish informed Peony that she could get ready to move, that the Heskett Foundation would be established in one of the taller and more gaudy midtown skyscrapers in New York, that he would undoubtedly be getting a salary of ten thousand a year, and that the way he saw it in his new position, if she and George Riot didn’t quit horsing around Greenwich Village joints and drinking rotgut, he’d — he’d get uninhibited.

To all of this the Doctor’s wife murmured, “That’s just lovely, Pan.”

She was so absorbed in New York that it seemed to her but natural that they should be moving here. She spent hours at the windows of Fifth Avenue jewelers and perfumers and furriers, which, trying to deny that their better customers were now ruined, were brilliant as they never had been, with jet and crystal and gold and cocky little signs in French.

But this time she had not gone shopping-mad. She had not bought one dress, one footstool for their flat — one steel-point ring. No, she had merely found a basement lingerie shop conducted by the most beautiful Hungarian countess, who had had misfortunes and had smuggled her silks and laces through without paying duty. They were so cheap that they did not constitute shopping but really an investment, and —

Anyway, Dr. Planish paid for them perfectly easily by merely omitting the next few installments on the radio and on most of their other possessions.

With a thoroughness that one was surprised to find in her young and smiling head, Peony examined New York like a housewife buying melons. She saw the Episcopal cathedral, the Catholic cathedral, the Rockefeller uptown cathedral, a burlesque show, a Chinese restaurant, a Roumanian restaurant, a Hindoo restaurant, an Oletime Sunny South restaurant, one gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and George Jean Nathan. It was her one purpose now to conquer New York and make it recognize her and her husband and her baby.

If she could make this spiritual triumph, she said, she would for all time be willing to put up with a maximum spending-reservoir of forty thousand dollars a year.

In the quality of the entertainment given to the T.A.F.A.R.P. delegates as much as in the solemnity of their discussion panels, the more shining life was demonstrated. The final public dinner, at the Waldorf–Astoria, had a much larger percentage of tail-coats and of necklaces rising and falling on the tide of plump powdered bosoms than the Planishes had ever seen in Chicago, and the chief speaker was no clergyman nor professor, but Colonel Charles B. Marduc himself.

The Planishes and George Riot, way over at Table D 17, could only look from afar upon his glory. Standing up there at the speakers’ table on the dais, his graying brown mustache a handsome streak across his beefy cheeks, the Colonel looked like God arising from His throne and twirling His eyeglasses.

He began, “Friends and Honored Chairman and Your Right Reverence, I cannot speak to you as a profound scholar, like my friend Professor Buchwald, but only as a blunt soldier and merchant.”

Off among the second-string Celebrities, among the Intellectuals whose lecture fee was not over two hundred dollars, Peony whispered to George Riot, “I’ll bet he’s just as darn profound a scholar as anybody in the room, at that. All those ads his agency gets out about glands and refrigerators.”

Dr. Planish inquired, “How big IS his agency?”

Dr. Riot said reverently, “Well, Marduc & Syco is one of the Big Four. The Colonel is supposed to have something like five million tucked away.”

Dr. Planish sighed, “He looks like a fellow it would be nice to know!”

“Hush, you boys! I want to hear what the Colonel said to Pershing,” commanded Peony.

Besides the dinner, the delegates received, in the most luxurious and Manhattan manner, a reception at the apartment of Dr. Procopus, on Park Avenue, and Peony knew finally that New York is not so much a city as a state of bliss.

They never did understand the role of Dr. Procopus. He was called a psychiatrist; he was supposed to teach women how to endure rich husbands; but beyond this, he seemed to be the midwife for every intellectual movement in town. He was always introducing authors to radio executives, and politicians to managing editors, and Austrian bankers to American bankers, and pretty wives to doctors who knew somebody who knew the address of an abortionist. His apartment had twelve rooms, each as large as the Planishes’ cottage in Kinnikinick, and all of them splashed with the signed photographs of opera singers.

It was here that Peony conceived an innocent passion for Captain Heth Gishorn, the explorer. He was English and trim and monocled and he had been in Celebes, which impressed Peony, though she never could remember whether that was an island or a state of matrimony. He kissed her hand and brought her a pink cocktail.

“You boys never will have the savoir-faire of that monkey,” said Peony to George Riot.

“Nonsense! He’s a powder-puff!” protested George. “If you fall for anybody, you fall for either Gid or me.”

“Yes, and you can go farther than that, Peony — you can fall for just half that number!” raged Dr. Planish. He glared, then remembered that George was his only friend in this staggering world of twelve-room apartments and explorers and colonels who were millionaires.

He longed to be sitting with his classmate Hatch Hewitt in a beer saloon. . . . Peony, Hatch, George Riot, his daughter Carrie — had he anybody else in the world to rest with? . . . He was dimly glad that Peony and George would probably never go farther than a finger-tip of flirtation.

Behind all this intellectual shimmer, Dr. Planish was busy mustering directors of the Heskett Foundation to support him in the plan to move the Foundation to New York. He got promises of backing from George Riot, Mrs. Hochberg, and a newly elected director, a fine, manly New York clergyman named Dr. Elmer Gantry.

Dr. Gantry was perhaps the best known of Manhattan radio pastors. It was said that he had studied at Harvard and in Germany, but there was a folksy quality about his regular daily broadcast, “Love Is the Morning Star,” that won him a million far-flung auditors, particularly shut-ins, and had brought him no less a sponsor than Phosphorated Chewing Gum. He had an audience, too, in his church, but the experts noted that there was something about Dr. Gantry that exactly suited the radio.

But even with this encouragement from the more powerful directors, Dr. Planish kept from tackling Hamilton Frisby about the hegira till May, two weeks after his return to Chicago. Before the scene, he studied all the possible interpretations of his role: the tender and sensitive, the manly and courageous, the aloof and slightly amused, then decided upon the brusque man of business. In that mood he played to Frisby:

“Been making a lot of investigation and looking into things pretty sharply. We mustn’t be prejudiced or sentimental. Much though I like Chicago, for the sake of usefulness it’s about time to move the Foundation headquarters to the Atlantic Seaboard. Like the proverbial homing pigeon!”

Frisby looked at him a long time. “Yes, I’ve been hearing from Chris Stern. So Chris and you think you can take this racket away from me! Planish, you’re fired!”

“W-w —”

“Illegal? Of course it’s illegal. But the directors eventually do what I tell ’em. You won’t be re-elected at the annual meeting. So you have from now till summer to find a new job — if any, Planish, if any.”

He stormed at the Reverend Dr. James Severance Kitto. He said that if Dr. Kitto took orders from that poker-faced hijacker, Mr. Frisby, then he was a slave and a hypocrite.

Dr. Kitto said it was a shame, it was indeed a — a — in fact, a shame.

And that was all that Dr. Kitto did say, there in his handsome pastoral study with its portraits of Alexander Campbell and Calvin and Cotton Mather.

His parsonage was a bulging, brick-fronted, semi-detached dwelling on a respectable old residence street in Evanston. Dr. Planish looked at it as he went back down the street. He stared at the window of Dr. Kitto’s study. The curtain was up a few inches, and he could see Dr. Kitto thoughtfully scratch his chin, yawn, pick up the fresh evening paper, open it, and with untroubled placidity begin to read the day’s pleasant toll of murders, traffic deaths, divorces and starvation. Dr. Kitto did not even raise his eyes in reflection.

Dr. Planish stood looking up, and he knew then how dead men feel.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38