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A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts


WHEN THEY ASKED her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredations, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts—when they asked why she did the extreme things she’d done, Alva said it all began quite simply: Once there was a desperate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out. It was 1874. Summertime. She was twenty-one years old, ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch.

* * *

“Stay together now, girls,” Mrs. Harmon called as eight young ladies, cautiously clad in plain day dresses and untrimmed hats, left the safety of two carriages and gathered like ducklings in front of the tenement. The buildings were crowded and close here, the narrow street’s bricks caked with horse dung, pungent in the afternoon heat. Soiled, torn mattresses and broken furniture and rusting cans littered the alleys. Coal smoke hung in the stagnant air. Limp laundry drooped on lines strung from one windowsill to the next along and across the entire block from Broome Street to Grand. The buildings themselves seemed to sag.

“Stay together?” Alva’s sister Armide said. “Where does she imagine we’d go?”

“To the devil, surely,” one of the other girls replied. “Like everyone here.”

The speaker was Miss Lydia Roosevelt of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, a cousin or niece (Alva couldn’t remember which) of one of the charity group’s founders. She would tell every Roosevelt ancestral detail if asked. Alva wouldn’t ask.

Among the “everyone” here were numerous haggard, bundle-laden girls and women moving to and from doorways; a few old men propped on stoops or reclined against walls; and the dirtiest assortment of children Alva had ever seen—barefooted, most of them—playing in the street.

Miss Roosevelt’s act-alike friend Miss Hadley Berg said, “To be fair, what else can you expect? These people are born inferior.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Alva said.

“I don’t believe what?” Miss Berg asked, adjusting her hat to keep her face in shadow. “That they’re inferior?” She pointed to a little boy with greasy hair and scabbed knees who picked his teeth while he watched them. “That their poverty is natural?”

“Yes,” Armide said. “Certainly circumstances play a role.”

Alva glanced at her. The two of them knew this well. If their circumstances didn’t improve dramatically and soon, they and their two younger sisters might be the ones living in a single room with no running water, doing their business in a dim alley or open courtyard where everyone could see. Already they were rationing food, restricting their entertainments, managing with two servants when they’d once had nine—and disguising these truths as best they could.

The group waited while Mrs. Harmon directed the coachmen to unload their baskets, each of which held twenty muslin bags tied with twine. Every bag contained a small sewing kit of two needles, thread, pins, and a thimble; a bar of soap; a short book of simple, uplifting poems; a lollipop; and four pennies. They’d spent the morning assembling the kits and now were to hand them out to some of Manhattan’s poorest children—foundlings, runaways, immigrants, orphans, street urchins, what have you. Mrs. Harmon said that once able to sew, a highly skilled person could earn as much as ten dollars a week. Even the younger ones could earn twenty cents in a day, which might make all the difference.

Miss Roosevelt said, “You can clean up the white ones and send them to school, but it’s not as though the boys will become gentlemen. They can’t. It’s not how God made them.”

Miss Berg added, “If this sort could resist going for the bottle when difficulties come—”

“That’s just it,” said Miss Roosevelt. “The Irish are practically born drunk, and their men—why, drink is a part of everything they do. Even the women are susceptible. We had to fire a maid for it last week. My mother caught her roaring drunk and stuffing silverware into her pockets!”

“The Germans are nearly as bad,” said Miss Berg.

Armide said, “We did have a terrible German governess…”

“Did? Who tends your sisters now?” asked Miss Roosevelt.

“Armide does,” Alva said. “She’s very capable, and with our mother gone, the girls prefer her.”

“Four motherless, unmarried girls.” Miss Roosevelt shook her head. “So unfortunate.”

“But it’s the Jews who are the worst,” Miss Berg continued. “Not with drink; I think liquor is against their beliefs. They’re … sneaky and underhanded. Conniving, that’s the word.”

Alva said, “But white Christian Americans are perfect, I suppose.”

Miss Roosevelt rolled her eyes. “We’re simply stating facts, Miss Smith. Perhaps if you were better educated, you’d recognize how stupid you sound.”

Armide stepped between them. “I think Mrs. Harmon is ready.”

“All right then, girls,” said Mrs. Harmon as she joined them. “I remind you that good Christians are generous in deed and word.” She directed them each to take a basket and choose a partner, then said, “Every one of us can improve ourselves, no matter the circumstances of our births. Given sufficient tools and training, we can all be clean, responsible persons.”

“Yes, Mrs. Harmon,” they chirped.

Clean and responsible. That might be the most Alva and her sisters could hope to be unless at least one of them married well—a difficult achievement when there were no offers. Having first come to New York from the now-disgraced South and then returned here after spending the war years in Paris, the Smith girls were no longer quite good enough for Knickerbockers, those well-to-do gentlemen whose families were deep-rooted Manhattanites. Nor were they important enough to attract the social-climbing nouveaux riches now coming to New York in droves. They’d had to aim for the narrow in-between.

Yet even that had proven profitless. Here was the trouble: they were four perfectly nice young ladies among a throng of others of equal merit, and there were so many fewer gentlemen to try for since the war. Given all of this, Alva had reluctantly agreed to participate in a marriage plot for one of those in-between fellows, to be concluded a few weeks’ hence.

Mrs. Harmon entered the building and the young ladies filed in behind her, so that they were all standing inside the oppressive, odorous hallway. The air here was much warmer than outside. Mrs. Harmon pressed her handkerchief to her neck and forehead in turn. Miss Roosevelt pressed hers to her nose.

Mrs. Harmon said, “If we act efficiently, we won’t need to be here long.” She assigned Miss Roosevelt and Miss Berg to the first floor, and then worked her way down in rank, up in floors. “You Smith girls, you’ll have the fourth,” she said, then gave a nod toward the building’s dark interior. “All right? I’ll be outside if you need me.”

“I’m very sorry for your luck,” Miss Roosevelt said.

Miss Berg said, “Yes, too bad. I hear they house the lepers and idiots up top.”

“Even lepers and idiots deserve our charity,” Armide replied, giving Alva a look of warning to leave it alone.

Alva marched up the stairs. She would not give them the satisfaction of believing she was offended. First floor, fourth floor—what difference was there, really? Circumstances. Nothing inherent.

Armide was close behind Alva. The scent of urine was stronger now, trapped in the stairwell along with the hot air. Trying to breathe through only her mouth as she went, Alva hooked the basket in her elbow and used both hands to keep her skirts off the greasy treads. Below, the others were already knocking on doors. Good afternoon, madam

Their instructions: two girls to a floor, a stop at each dwelling, where they were to knock politely; announce yourselves; inquire about children in the home. If invited inside, stay in the doorway and avoid touching anything. Lice and fleas jump! They were to offer one kit for every child over the age of six but under the age of fourteen. At fourteen you were on your own. At fourteen, you might already have a means to avoid being removed from your home and shipped out from Grand Central Depot to lord knew where, sent to work on farms or ranches or plantations or in mines. Alva had heard that some Southern families were taking children to replace the slaves they’d lost in the Emancipation. Some girls who were sent west, to the territories, were being put to service as wives. She imagined it: orphaned and exiled and married off to an old pockmarked tobacco-spitting homesteader, rising before dawn to milk the goat or cow, a runny-nosed baby on one hip and another on the way … Alva was glad that Julia, her youngest sister, was fifteen.

She and Armide reached the dim fourth-floor landing and paused to get their breath. There was a strange metallic scent here, pungent and sharp. Alva started to remark on it, then spotted a young woman lying inert beside the second door. Blood, so dark that it looked black, had pooled around her sodden skirts. Armide gasped, turned, and ran down the stairs, calling for Mrs. Harmon to find help.

Trembling, Alva knelt at the girl’s shoulder and took her hand. It was cool and pliant. She watched the girl’s chest; it didn’t move. She put her ear to the girl’s breast. Silence.

Alva sat back. Her hands were shaking, her whole body trembling so much that she put her arms around herself and clamped them to her ribs.

Dead. After being frightened and in pain.

At a party Alva had been to a few years earlier, two women of middle age, well fed and well turned out with pearls and furs, remarked on a tour they’d taken of the Five Points slums not long before:

Wasn’t it fascinating?

Yes, horrific! Imagine that being your life—a short one, probably.

People are simply dying to get out of there!

Then laughter at their cleverness. Alva had smiled, too, as yet unaware of how narrow the gap between privilege and poverty. Dying to get out, ha!

Now she sat at a dead girl’s side. Had the girl been lying here terrified by what was happening to her, or relieved by what was possibly her best prospect of escape?

The sound of someone running up the stairs—

“Katie?” said a girl whose resemblance to this one was unmistakable. “Oh, no, no, no—” Alva moved aside as she kneeled down and grabbed the dead girl’s shoulders, attempted to lift her. “Katie, come on,” she said. The dead girl’s head lolled backward. The other girl’s eyes were panicked. “They said someone went for a doctor, but it could be hours. Where’s she bleeding from? What can we do?”

“It’s too late,” Alva said. “I’m so sorry. She wasn’t breathing when I—We were too late.”

“This can’t be!” the girl cried. “What happened to her? She was perfect when I left this morning.”

“I am so terribly sorry.”

In Alva’s purse was perhaps fifty cents. Her hands shook as she held it out to the girl. “There’s not a lot here, but—”

The girl slapped it away. “Money’s no fix!”

“It can help—”

You people. Get out of here,” she said. Her face was red and streaked with tears. “Go!”

“I’m sorry,” Alva said again, and left the girl there to wait for help that would not help, her words sounding in Alva’s mind. Money was no fix for that girl, true—But please, God, she thought, let it be for me.

Copyright © 2018 by Therese Anne Fowler

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts
by by Therese Anne Fowler