Today's Reading

"Why does Noel invite them?" he asked.

"Not them," I emphasized. "Him. Dougie. Noel told me he finds Dougie...fascinating. Doubtless a euphemism, but so be it. Moss, what he finds amusing is that Dougie, a thirty-five-year old scion of old Manhattan money who safeguarded the family treasure after the Crash three years ago, seems to be discovering life outside a Wall Street office."

A year or so ago Dougie wandered into a parry of theater folks, many jaundiced remnants of the old Algonquin Table crowd of the roaring twenties, and discovered that he liked theater—and, I gathered, the attention of Noel Coward. Dougie also discovered me, and we were friendly—I insisted that I liked him, despite his slavish interest in my life, my work, my conversation. He flattered me a little too much, "So Big—I read it—a masterpiece." Of course I agreed, but I only had to hear it once from him. A steady mantra I could do without.

Dougie swirled past me, his face flushed, sweat beading on his brow as he clutched Belinda's slender waist. A boyish man, lanky though a little too bony, with a shock of gleaming straw blond huckleberry hair slicked back from his forehead, a hint of a moustache over a thin upper lip. Blue-gray eyes spread too far apart over an elegant Roman nose. But what saved him was his infectious smile. His mouth was too big for his face, so his smile, toothy and wide, startled—and captivated. The sudden appearance of dimples also didn't hurt the charming package.

A celebrated bachelor, housed with an imperial mother in a Fifth Avenue castellated mansion, he famously avoided nightclubs, playboy binges at speakeasies, and serious thought. Suddenly he was investing his capital in Broadway shows, especially Noel's massive box-office smash Private Lives, which gave him entry to parties such as this one. Likeable, as I said, but I considered him negligible—just there in the room, the genial young man who flattered me too much when he didn't have to. Frankly, I didn't find in him the stuff of real friendship, a man lacking mettle. Last week, sipping cocktails in my apartment, Noel had argued the point with me.

"I like his wide-eyed innocence," he'd insisted. "A man without wit, true—dare I say witless?—but each experience he has seems to be a first-time experience. A child's reactions."

"And therefore tedious," I'd countered. "Dougie is...well, paper thin."

"Tedious, no!" His British inflection was exaggerated. Teejus, no!

"I choose my words carefully, dear Noel."

"But good-looking, dear Edna. That counts for something."

"I don't think so, Noel."

"We see the world differently, darling." He'd bowed at me.

"Yes, I have my eyes open." I'd wagged a finger at him. "And now he has love in his life."

Noel had grinned. "A man who experienced his first passionate love at thirty-five is like a goldfish in a glass bowl—a creature that swims deliriously in circles while those watching shake their heads in dismay."

I'd laughed then. "Let's hope he doesn't end up floating on the surface of that bowl."

"I thought you Americans believed in happy endings." Noel's eyes had brightened.

I'd pulled in my cheeks. "That is a happy ending."

Over the summer Dougie headed to Newport, yachting and doubtless wearing a straw boater and billowing white flannel trousers. Noel sailed from New York to England, then on to Egypt, madly writing fresh dialogue on board, and I traveled to France with my mother. Noel had returned to New York a few weeks back—twenty-seven pieces of luggage and a gramophone that played Sophie Tucker's "Some of These Days" till the wee hours of the morning. I returned with my mother and a case of jaundice—or was it simply bile?

A few weeks ago, everyone back from vacation, we learned that Dougie had become besotted with Belinda Ross, the dazzling new singer on Broadway. The boy who never gave in to the toy flirtations of debutantes was drunk in love.

"I was gone for the summer," Noel told me. "I come back a month ago, and Dougie is madly in love. What did I miss?"

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