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The Making of Ashenden (Excerption)
I’ve been spared a lot, one of the blessed of the earth, at least one of its lucky, that privileged handful of the dramatically prospering, the sort whose secrets are asked, like the hundred-year-old man. There is no secret, of course; most of what happens to us is simple accident. Highish birth and a smooth network of appropriate connection like a tea service written into the will. But surely something in the blood too, locked into good fortune’s dominant genes like a blast ripening in a time bomb. Set to go off, my good looks and intelligence, yet exceptional still, take away my mouthful of silver spoon and lapful of luxury. Something my own, not passed on or handed down, something seized, wrested―my good character, hopefully, my taste perhaps. What’s mine, what’s mine? Say taste―the soul’s harmless appetite.
I’ve money, I’m rich. The heir to four fortunes. Grandfather on Mother’s side was a Newpert. The family held some good real estate in Rhode Island until they sold it for many times what they gave for it. Grandmother on Father’s side was a Salts, whose bottled mineral water, once available only through prescription and believed indispensable in the cure of all fevers, was the first product ever to be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, a famous and controversial case. The government found it to contain nothing that was actually detrimental to human beings, and it went public, so to speak. Available now over the counter, the Salts made more money from it than ever.
Mother was an Oh. Her mother was the chemical engineer who first discovered a feasible way to store oxygen in tanks. And Father was Noel Ashenden, who though he did not actually invent the match-book, went into the field when it was still a not very flourishing novelty, and whose slogan, almost a poem,’Close Cover Before Striking'(a simple stroke, as Father liked to say), obvious only after someone else has already thought of it (the Patent Office refused to issue a patent on what it claimed was merely an instruction, but Father’s company had the message on its matchbooks before his competitors even knew what was happening), removed the hazard from book matches and turned the industry and Father’s firm particularly into a flaming success overnight―Father’s joke, not mine. Later, when the inroads of Ronson and Zippo threatened the business, Father went into seclusion for six months and when he returned to us he had produced another slogan:’For Our Matchless Friends.’It saved the industry a second time and was the second and last piece of work in Father’s life.
There are people who gather in the spas and watering places of this world who pooh-pooh our fortune. Après ski, cozy in their wools, handsome before their open hearths, they scandalize amongst themselves in whispers.’Imagine’, they say,’saved from ruin because of some cornball sentiment available in every bar and grill and truck stop in the country. It’s not, not…’
Not what? Snobs! Phooey on the First Families. On railroad, steel mill, automotive, public utility, banking and shipping fortunes, on all hermetic legacy, morganatic and blockbuster blood-lines that change the maps and landscapes and alter the mobility patterns, your jungle wheeling and downtown dealing a stone’s throw from warfare. I come of good stock―real estate, mineral water, oxygen, matchbooks: earth, water, air and fire, the old elementals of the material universe, a bellybutton economics, a linchpin one.
It is as I see it a perfect genealogy, and if I can be bought and sold a hundred times over by a thousand men in this country―people in your own town could do it, providents and trailers of hunch, I bless them, who got into this or went into that when it was eight cents a share―I am satisfied with my thirteen or fourteen million. Wealth is not after all the point. The genealogy is. That bridge-trick nexus that brought Newpert to Oh, Salts to Ashenden and Ashenden to Oh, love’s lucky longshots which, paying off, permitted me as they permit every human life! (I have this simple, harmless paranoia of the good-natured man, this cheerful awe.) Forgive my enthusiasm, that I go on like some secular patriot wrapped in the simple flag of self, a professional descendant, every day the closed-for-the-holiday banks and post offices of the heart. And why not? Aren’t my circumstances superb? Whose are better? No boast, no boast. I’ve had it easy, served up on all life’s silver platters like a satrap. And if my money is managed for me and I do no work―less work even than Father, who at least came up with those two slogans, the latter in a six-month solitude that must have been hell for that gregarious man (‘For Our Matchless Friends’: no slogan finally but a broken code, an extension of his own hospitable being, simply the Promethean gift of fire to a guest)―at least I am not’spoiled’and have in me still alive the nerve endings of gratitude. If it’s miserly to count one’s blessings, Brewster Ashenden’s a miser.
This will give you some idea of what I’m like:
On Having an Account in a Swiss Bank: I never had one, and suggest you stay away from them too. Oh, the mystery and romance is all very well, but never forget that your Swiss bank offers no premiums, whereas for opening a savings account for 5,000 or more at First National City Bank of New York or other fine institutions you get wonderful premiums―picnic hampers, Scotch coolers, Polaroid cameras, Hudson’s Bay blankets from L. L. Bean, electric shavers, even lawn furniture. My managers always leave me a million or so to play with, and this is how I do it. I suppose I’ve received hundreds of such bonuses. Usually I give them to friends or as gifts at Christmas to doormen and other loosely connected personnel of the household, but often I keep them and use them myself. I’m not stingy. Of course I can afford to buy any of these things―and I do, I enjoy making purchases―but somehow nothing brings the joy of existence home to me more than these premiums. Something from nothing―the two-suiter from Chase Manhattan and my own existence, luggage a bonus and life a bonus too. Like having a film star next to you on your flight from the Coast. There are treats of high order, adventure like cash in the street.
Let’s enjoy ourselves, I say; let’s have fun. Lord, let us live in the sand by the surf of the sea and play till cows come home. We’ll have a house on the Vineyard and a brownstone in the Seventies and a pied-à-terre in a world capital when something big is about to break. (Put the Cardinal in the back bedroom where the sun gilds the bay at afternoon tea and give us the courage to stand up to secret police at the door, to top all threats with threats of our own, the nicknames of mayors and ministers, the fast comeback at the front stairs, authority on us like the funny squiggle the counterfeiters miss.) Re-Columbus us. Engage us with the overlooked, a knowledge of optics, say, or a gift for the tides. (My pal, the heir to most of the vegetables in inland Nebraska, has become a superb amateur oceanographer. The marine studies people invite him to Wood’s Hole each year. He has a wave named for him.) Make us good at things, the countertenor and the German language, and teach us to be as easy in our amateur standing as the best man at a roommate’s wedding. Give us hard tummies behind the cummerbund and long swimmer’s muscles under the hound’s tooth so that we may enjoy our long life. And may all our stocks rise to the occasion of our best possibilities, and our humanness be bullish too.
Speaking personally I am glad to be a heroic man.
I am pleased that I am attractive to women but grateful I’m no bounder. Though I’m touched when married women fall in love with me, as frequently they do, I am rarely to blame. I never encourage these fits and do my best to get them over their derangements so as not to lose the friendships of their husbands when they are known to me, or the neutral friendship of the ladies themselves. This happens less than you might think, however, for whenever I am a houseguest of a married friend I usually make it a point to bring along a girl. These girls are from all walks of life―models, show girls, starlets, actresses, tennis professionals, singers, heiresses and the daughters of the diplomats of most of the nations of the free world. All walks. They tend, however, to conform to a single physical type, and are almost always tall, tan, slender and blond, the girl from Ipanema as a wag friend of mine has it. They are always sensitive and intelligent and good at sailing and the Australian crawl. They are never blemished in any way, for even something like a tiny beauty mark on the inside of a thigh or above the shoulder blade is enough to put me off, and their breaths must be as sweet at three in the morning as they are at noon. (I never see a woman who is dieting for diet sours the breath.) Arm hair, of course, is repellent to me though a soft blond down is now and then acceptable. I know I sound a prig. I’m not. I am―well, classical, drawn by perfection as to some magnetic, Platonic pole, idealism and beauty’s true North.
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