I TILTED MY head back and took in the cathedral ceiling of the marble-and-stone foyer. An uncanny replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel had been painted across the small tiles. An exceptionally wide staircase wound its way up to a long mezzanine. An immense crystal chandelier hung from the domed ceiling on a cable heavy and long enough to anchor a battleship.
“Your coat, sir,” the butler said, head bowed and arm extended. I handed him my overcoat already folded, hoping it would prevent him from seeing the tear in its lining. I had perfected this maneuver over the past year and had yet to be exposed.
“You may proceed in that direction,” he said, pointing down the long corridor to a faintly lit room barely visible from where we stood. “Mr. Jacobs has already convened the party.”
I ventured down the long hallway, passing gigantic paintings set in baroque gold wooden frames. My incredibly modest knowledge of art had been only slightly boosted by a recent fine arts course I took on the Italian masters, but I knew enough to realize that these pieces were worth a great deal of money and could just as easily have been hung with great fanfare on the walls of the Gardner Museum. According to the metal title plates on the gilded frames, John Singer Sargent had painted all but one of the portraits. I counted ten portraits inscribed with the name Jacobs, mostly sober-looking bald men, gaunt in the cheek, strong in the jaw. Only two women interrupted the line of men, their silver hair austerely coiffed and set back from their oblong faces. They were identically dressed in drab, lace-collared dresses and large double stranded pearls.
I worked my way down the hallway, and once the butler had disappeared from the other end of the foyer, I sneaked glances through the open doors. Each room was bigger than the last, with grand pianos and their shiny ivory keys, antique furniture, yet more paintings, and what seemed like miles of bookcases. Farther down the hall, marble busts of deceased family members were tucked away in lighted glass wall niches. Most dated from the late 1700s to the early 1900s and bore either the name Jacobs or Billington. The potted plants adorning the hallway were more like trees. How could just one family actually live in a house this big?
I finally neared the end of the hall. Billowing clouds of smoke blurred the faces and details of the room’s interior. I could make out a receiving line of four guys standing just inside the entrance. They were uniformed in identical navy blue blazers, khaki pants, and loafers. They were shaking hands and making introductions as I entered. They all turned in my direction.
“You must be Spenser Collins,” the first guy in line said, smiling as he offered his hand. He was the shortest of the four, with foppish sandy-brown hair and a pair of small oval glasses that sat up high on his long nose. His perfectly knotted bow tie distinguished him from the others, who had opted for long neckties. The same three torches that were printed on the club letterhead adorned all their ties.
We pumped hands firmly.
“I’m Graydon Brimmer, president of the Delphic Club,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
He then pointed to the other three in order. “This is our vice president David Fossi, treasurer Carlyle Emmerson, and secretary Oscar LaValle. Gentlemen, this is Spenser Collins, class of ’91, shooting guard from De La Salle Institute in Chicago, National Merit Scholarship Award winner, and premed.”
Did he also know my birth date and social security number?
I shook hands with them in order. “It’s nice to meet you all,” I said. “Thanks a lot for inviting me.”
“Glad you could make it,” Fossi said. He was the tallest of the four, with wavy dark hair, sturdy broad shoulders, and a narrow waist. His physical build, combined with the hard calluses in his palms, left no doubt that he rowed crew.
“How’s the team gonna do this year?” he asked.
“Hopefully better than last year,” I said. “We have a freshman in from Long Island, New York, who’s really good. He’s about six-seven, two-forty. He should be a big help in the paint.”
“All you need now is a new coach,” Fossi said. “My grandmother could do a better job than what Beasley’s done the last five years. Look at all the talent he’s recruited, and still no trophy. Any other school would’ve fired his ass a long time ago.”
“Our boosters feel the same way,” I said. “But the AD keeps extending his contract. It’s a mystery to all of us.”
“Well, give ’em hell anyway,” Brimmer said, tapping my shoulder. “Plenty of teams have been able to rise above their pathetic coaches.”
“On your way in, make sure you sign the register over there,” LaValle said, pointing to a large leather book on a wide roll top desk that looked as if it had been preserved from the turn of the century.
“The full bar is all the way in the back, and the servants are walking around with hors d’oeuvres and champagne,” Emmerson said. “Mr. Jacobs is our host for the evening. He’s one of our grad members. Make sure you get a chance to meet him before the night’s over.”
“Forget about basketball and have some fun tonight,” Brimmer said. “There should be a really good group of guys here.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, heading to the guest book. I quickly perused the list of signatures in hopes of recognizing some of the names. Half of them were illegible, but of those I could read, none were familiar. I scribbled my name on an open line, then took a deep breath and journeyed into the smoky room.On my first reconnaissance, I counted about fifty guys clustered in groups of two or three. The room was so enormous, it could easily have fit a couple hundred more.
On my first reconnaissance, I counted about fifty guys clustered in groups of two or three. The room was so enormous, it could easily have fit a couple hundred more. I worked my way around the perimeter, searching for a familiar face or inviting smile. After coming up empty, I looked to my watch for consolation. It was only twenty past seven, which meant there was still plenty of time for a familiar person to arrive.
I stood in a corner, where I could take in the elaborate room. The expansive canvas paintings in their ornate frames and the lustrous marble sculptures gave the room a museum-like feel. Massive blue silk curtains trimmed tall French doors that opened onto a patio whose stairs curved down to a long pool covered for the winter. I could see the gesturing silhouettes of two men with cigarettes in their hands, carried away in conversation.
To my right, standing next to the stone-and-brick fireplace, a couple of guys puffed long black cigars. This was the first time I had seen anyone my age smoke a cigar. In my neighborhood, teenagers smoked cigarettes and marijuana while old men chomped on cigars. But I already knew that most of what I was about to experience that night belonged to a world very diferent from mine. A ten-piece jazz band in starched tuxedos had assembled in the far corner of the room, their soft music mixing with the aimless chatter. Uniformed staff carried oblong silver platters crowded with crystal flutes of sparkling champagne. It all reminded me of the swinging parties of the twenties I had read about in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The only thing missing was women in fancy hats, elbow-length gloves, and slender cigarettes burning two-inch-long ashes.
I suddenly felt alone and out of place. What was I doing here, so far away from southwest Chicago, where the sound of gunshots was more common than birds chirping at sunrise? These guys had been pampered on gated estates in exclusive suburbs, spending long Saturday afternoons at sprawling country clubs while I hawked candy at city bus stops. It wasn’t that I lacked confidence; rather, I lacked an understanding of how all this had happened. If tonight was going to be successful, I’d have to stop thinking about our differences and search instead for our commonalities.
In the midst of the clamor around the bar, I noticed a petite middle-aged woman in a white uniform, hunched at the shoulders and sturdy in her midsection. She was besieged by the constant flow of drink orders. The irony struck me as I watched her scurry frenetically. Women weren’t allowed to join the clubs, but they were allowed to serve their members. The feminists on campus would have had hemorrhages if they had been standing there watching the scene before me. I felt guilty.
By seven thirty, the party had grown to over a hundred stiff navy blue blazers. I drained my glass of lemonade, since drinking during the season was something I tried to avoid, and decided it was time to mingle. I headed in the direction of the bar, figuring it would be the easiest place to strike up a conversation. As I made my way across the room, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to find a short, overweight guy with round, scholarly glasses, his wide neck straining his bow tie.
“Hi, my name is Clint McDowell,” he said with a slight lisp. Sweat had plastered his hair to his forehead like wet spaghetti on a cold dish. Everything about him was either disheveled or uncomfortable. “What’s your name?”
“Spenser Collins,” I said. I tried grasping his hand firmly, but his sweaty palm just slipped away. “How’s everything going?”
“Great,” he said. “Are you a punchee?”
“Yup, class of ’91,” I said. “What about you?”
“I am too, but class of ’90. This is my second party of the week. I went to the Phoenix Club’s party a couple of nights ago.”
“How was it?”
“Sucked compared to this one. Those guys are social misfits. All they wanted to talk about was school and exams and serious shit. They’re the guys the janitors have to kick out of the library at closing time.” McDowell leaned closer. A heavy rim of perspiration had soaked through his shirt collar. “The Delphic is a hundred times better,” he whispered as if someone were eavesdropping. “The members are a whole lot cooler and relaxed. They don’t treat this thing like some goddamn job interview. Is this your first party?”
I nodded. “I don’t know too much about these clubs, but I decided why not give it a try? What’s the worst thing that could happen? I get some good food in a big fancy house that I probably never would’ve had the opportunity to see otherwise.”
“Well, let me give you some advice,” McDowell said. “I was punched by a few clubs last year and didn’t make it into any of them. Obviously, which is why I’m here now. But the most important lesson I learned was you have to be really social at these parties and talk to as many members as possible. Make them think that getting into their club means everything in the world to you. The more members you impress, the more votes you get at the election meetings.” He rested his hand on my shoulder. “No offense, but my biggest mistake last year was spending too much time talking with the other punchees and not enough time chatting up members. No one likes kissing ass, but believe me, if you wanna make it to the final round, you gotta learn the trade. And fast.”
I nodded and forced a smile. I wanted to make it to the next round as much as the next guy, but I sure in hell wasn’t about to kiss some blue blood ass just to join some club I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be part of anyway. I might not have had the fancy cars and summer houses, but I had my pride. I wasn’t above making some minor accommodations, but I wasn’t going to pretend to be someone who I wasn’t. For good or for bad, I was always going to be the kid from the South Side of Chicago who grew up on South Wabash Avenue.
McDowell pulled back a French cuff that was held together with a shiny gold cuff link and stared into the crystal of his Cartier watch. “Well, it’s time for me to find a member,” he announced. “I haven’t spoken to one in fifteen minutes. Maybe we’ll see each other again if we both make it to the next round. Good luck.” I slipped out of his hand, then watched him slither toward his next prey.
I continued walking in the direction of the bar and finally spotted a familiar face from my cellular biology class. He was surrounded by three boarding school types raptly listening to his every word. I knew he was telling another one of his jokes, because the others had looks on their faces like they were getting ready to explode. Binky Grunwald was the funniest kid I had met at Harvard, and he loved to hold court. Standing barely five feet with a barrel chest, Binky had the kind of presence that could swallow a room. He was a young Danny DeVito. He had such a run of jokes one night at a seminar that he turned the class out a half hour early because the teaching fellow was laughing too hard to finish the lesson.
“Hey, Binky, what’s up?” I said, waiting for a break in his delivery.
“Spenser, how’s it going?” he said. “I didn’t know you were coming to this. Why didn’t you tell me in class last night?”
“I was so bored with all those crazy diagrams, the only thing on my mind was getting outta there,” I said.
“No one even understood the damn problems,” Binky said. “It was like a Chinese fire drill. Oh, by the way, this is Landon, Nestor, and Duke.” Binky pointed to the other guys surrounding him. They were preppie clones in too short beige corduroy pants, suede buckskin shoes, and tapered haircuts. We shook hands. I recognized Landon, the biggest of the three. He was a varsity lacrosse player.
“Landon, haven’t I seen you in the weight room at the ITT?” I said. “You work out with a guy with bright red hair.”
“Yeah, that’s Pint Stevenson,” Landon said. “He’s our coxswain on the varsity boat. Coach is on a rampage this month. He has us lifting and running before every practice. He gets in one of his moods every couple of months. You’re on the basketball team, right?”
“Yeah, we started our preseason practices a couple of weeks ago,” I said. “Beasley’s been working us like dogs too. Morning and afternoon practices.”
The five of us talked about sports and girls and parties. The conversation was easy, and for the first time since stepping into the mansion, I felt relaxed. Everyone was confident in the unique way that Harvard students can be. They knew that success in the real world was not an “if” but just a matter of “when” and where they wanted to focus their efforts. I was surprised by how easily we found common ground. Duke was heading to the bar, so he took everyone’s order and asked me if I wanted to join him.
I followed him as he walked right up to the front of the line, weaving ahead of the punchees clamoring to place their order. “Janice, I’d like you to meet one of our punchees,” he said as the harried bartender, ignoring the others, approached us. “His name is Spenser. I’ll take two Amstel Lights, a Sam Adams, a glass of red, and get Spenser here whatever he wants.” I hadn’t realized Duke was a member until he said, “one of our punchees.”
“Good evening, sir,” Janice greeted me in an Irish lilt. “A pleasure to meet you. What will you be drinking?”
“A root beer if you have it,” I said.
Duke laughed. “We have a bar full of the best alcohol in the world, and you only want soda? You gotta be kidding.”
“Beginning of the season,” I said. “Coach will kick my ass if I show up with a hangover tomorrow. He’d have me running wind sprints till I spit up blood.”
“See, that’s why I swore off all sports when I was a kid,” Duke said. “I saw my older brothers come home from practice every day, looking like they had gotten the shit kicked out of ’em. Their entire lives were controlled by games and practice schedules. So, I decided early on that I’d become a writer and dictate my own schedule and have a glass of red wine anytime I wanted.”
“Smart man,” I said. “This time every year after running the fifth or sixth wind sprint, believe me I start questioning my own decision.”
“My point exactly,” Duke laughed. “By the way, you came with great recommendations.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of the guys are really high on you,” he said. “That’s a good thing. We need some fresh faces in the club. We have enough tennis players and heirs. Same shit all the time gets old. I hear you’re from Chicago.”
“Born and raised,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“New York City. Manhattan. You ever been?”
“Not yet, but it’s on my list.”
“Greatest city in the world bar none,” Duke said. “My father works in the State Department, so we’ve traveled and lived all over the world. Rome, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin, you name it. But every time I go back home, I realize one thing—there’s just no place like New York, especially Greenwich Village, where I like to hang out.”
“Greenwich Village?” I remembered reading about that part of the city when I was applying to NYU.
“Exactly. Greenwich Village is downtown, west of Broadway. It’s more open and artsy and diverse than the East Side. If you’re ever in the city over the summer, look me up. I’d love to show you around down there. You’d have lots of fun. The coeds at the NYU summer school are smokin’ and very available.” He winked confidently.
Janice returned with our drinks. Duke gave her a nod and scooped them up. As we were turning to leave, one of Duke’s friends approached us. He introduced me to another punchee, Jason Arnaud from the crew team. He was the prototype crewbie: tall, close-cropped blond hair, sky blue eyes, and strong, callused hands from years of gripping those heavy wooden oars. As he and Duke talked about boats and regattas, I drifted in and out of the conversation, inspecting the room. As I took in the sumptuous décor, I couldn’t help but wonder what my mother and grandparents would say if they were standing next to me as the live jazz band entertained and champagne flowed like water. We saw these kinds of homes only in the movies or magazines. I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually an invited guest and not someone who had sneaked in through the back door. I wanted to memorize every detail so that I could share them back home—the silver trinkets lined up on the mantelpiece, the antique guns in lighted cabinets, and the sparkling crystal vases on every tabletop. This one room contained enough furniture to fill our entire apartment twice.
I noticed a regal elderly man with silver hair, working the room. He was dressed in a single-breasted gray pin-striped suit, French blue shirt, and bold red tie. He steadied himself with a long black cane topped with a brass lion’s head. Everyone seemed to be falling over each other, trying to meet him. Those who couldn’t get close nodded their heads deferentially as he passed. He commanded the room with ease. For a split second, he caught my eye and started to make his way across the room. As he neared, I could see the creases in his tanned, leathery skin.
“Hello, I don’t think we’ve met,” he said, switching the cane to his left hand and extending his right. “I’m Stanford L. Jacobs, class of ’47. I’m your host for the evening.” He had that distinct inflection in his voice of someone accustomed to privilege.
“I’m Spenser Collins, class of ’91,” I said, shaking his hand firmly. My stomach tightened.
“Is this your first time at one of these affairs, or have you been punched by any of the other clubs?” he asked.
“This is my first,” I said. “I was lucky enough to receive the invitation a few days ago.”
“Lucky indeed. The Gas is a very special place. Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Definitely. I’m meeting lots of interesting people.”
“Young man, if you survive the cuts, this could be the most exciting four weeks of your life. I remember my days as a punchee. I had the most divine time meeting all those wonderful people and going to all those fabulous parties and dinners. I was eventually elected into the Delphic, Porcellian, and Spee. Choosing between the three was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
Suddenly Dalton’s parting words sounded in the back of my head. “Your home is amazing,” I said. “I noticed the Rembrandt hanging in the front hall. It looked like Portrait of a Young Girl, 1645.” Thank God for last year’s Fine Arts 234b final exam.
“Excellent eye, young man,” he said. “One of my favorites. Not one of his best pieces, but in the family for five generations. On that very wall since I was a little boy.”I couldn’t help but wonder what my mother and grandparents would say if they were standing next to me as the live jazz band entertained and champagne flowed like water.
Jacobs had that rich person’s way of speaking that I had never heard until I got to Harvard, those punctuated rhythmic fragments instead of complete sentences.
“Made a few important acquisitions over the years, but most of the pieces were here when I inherited the house. Great-grandfather was a big collector. Traveled all over the world, purchasing some of these pieces.”
“Did he also live here?”
Jacobs nodded. “Built it in the early 1800s. Father added another wing, but I’ve made very few changes since he passed away. Did a little restoring and opened up a couple of the rooms. But the house is basically the same as Father left it. I sense you have a keen interest in art.”
I almost fell out right there when he said that. Me with a keen interest in art? It wasn’t that I disliked art, but keen interest was definitely pushing it. I’d memorized about twelve paintings by some famous artists, just enough to get through an exam and sound like I knew what the hell I was talking about.
“I didn’t know much about art before last year,” I admitted. “But after studying it second semester, I’ve gained some appreciation. The more I learn, the more I’m fascinated.” I was turning into a goddamn phony right before my own eyes.
“Best time in your life to learn,” he said. “Youth is like a clean canvas. So much empty space to paint on, so much time to interpret the meaning of art. A tremendous opportunity to form opinions and appreciate subtleties. Distinguish one artist from another. Father insisted I take an early interest. He’d always say, ‘Try to understand the story and intention of every brushstroke.’ Can’t say I was enthused by the idea at the time. But as I got older, I valued what he had done for me. Opened up the entire world right here in this old house. Do let me show you some of my favorite pieces.”
Without waiting for my answer, Mr. Jacobs politely excused us, leading me through the room, shaking hands with others like a politician exiting a victory party. I followed him through a back door and down another long, dark corridor. I couldn’t understand why everything was so dark.
“Follow me,” he said. I feared I was getting involved in a situation that could prove embarrassing. I silently prayed that he would do more explaining than questioning. As we made our way through the lavish rooms, I thought about what Dalton had said. Was it possible that Jacobs was a member of the Ancient Nine, and if so, would I see something on this private excursion that might confirm that? I kept my eyes open for the smallest clues.
“Let’s look in here,” he suggested as we entered yet another spacious room with yet another vaulted ceiling. “I’ll never forget the day I received my first Delphic invitation,” he said. “I still have it in a box in an armoire in my bedroom.”
We stood for a moment in the darkness. His words continued to echo somewhere off the marble ceiling.
“Why did you choose the Delphic over the Porcellian and Spee?” I asked.
“Two generations of Jacobs men had worn the torches of the Gas, my father and his grandfather. Other Jacobs men had been proud members of the Spee. But the Gas just had something special about it that I didn’t feel with the others. Plus, it was almost impossible to get into at the time. Many of the graduate members had gone on to be world leaders, and the buzz about the club was fanatical. All the rage. Everyone wanted to get into Morgan’s mansion.”
Jacobs flicked on a wall switch. We stood underneath a large, ornamental Italian chandelier that scattered light throughout the mahogany-paneled room. Three of the four walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling. A sliding ladder leaned against the upper shelves.
“Oldest of the three libraries,” he said. “My brothers and I would sit here every night for our French and Latin lessons. Mother was determined her boys would not grow up provincial, as she liked to say. She had designs to make us fashionably international.” He smiled softly. “Latin would increase our vocabulary and give us a solid command of the language. French for summers on the Riviera.” Jacobs sighed as his mind wandered back in time. “Anyway, I brought you here to show you something.”
He walked across the room and stopped at a wide cabinet, then flipped a switch that made several rows of lights flash behind the glass windows.
“That entire top shelf is from the Qin dynasty, about 221 to 207 B.C.,” he said. “I acquired most of those pieces from a museum in Baoji, a city in Shaanxi.”“That entire top shelf is from the Qin dynasty, about 221 to 207 B.C.,” he said. “I acquired most of those pieces from a museum in Baoji, a city in Shaanxi.”
The first piece was a gold crouching tiger with its mouth open and strange ears. It was only a couple of inches long, and to be honest, didn’t look very impressive. I nodded my head pensively as if I were completely overwhelmed by its historical significance.
“An important piece,” Jacobs said. “Once used as a harness ornament for horse-drawn chariots. At the back, there’s a bar where the leather strap could attach. That and the drinking vessel next to it are two of the oldest Chinese artifacts I own.”
“Was it difficult to get them?” I asked, searching for something to say without displaying my complete and utter lack of knowledge.
“Let’s just say there was a significant amount of backroom wheeling and dealing.” Jacobs smiled.
“You did the negotiating?” I asked.
“Never,” he said, as if the mere thought offended him. “One of my dealers handled all the hand-to-hand combat. Sometimes this can be a tricky business. Lots of fakes out there. Gotta be careful. I’ve got something else you might like.”
He switched off the lights and led me out the door. I followed him farther down the hall and into another room with enough space to play a full-court game of basketball. “Mother’s sitting room,” she said. “Loved to entertain her guests here.”
We stepped into the airy room filled with baroque furniture and bright watercolor paintings. This was the first time I had ever seen peach lacquered walls. To my surprise, I actually recognized several of the paintings. It was as if half the works we had studied in our fine arts course were hanging in that room.
“These paintings are impressive,” I said. “Many of them masters.”
“Indeed,” he said. “Mother liked to keep most of her major pieces here despite the best efforts of her interior decorator, who absolutely detested the arrangement of this room. She tried to convince Mother that all these pieces shouldn’t be in one room, but rather spread throughout the house. She complained that too many big pieces in one room would cause them to fight each other.”
“Then why did your mother still keep them all here?” I asked.
“She was getting older and not moving around the house as much. She wanted all of her favorites in the one room where she did most of her entertaining. Mother could be a very practical woman. But I brought you here to see what she really treasured more than anything else.”
Jacobs led me across the room to a long walnut table that was filled with vases and colorful porcelain bowls. He turned on a row of lamps, and I immediately knew what he was talking about. Anyone who knew anything about art could recognize the work of El Greco and his religious imagery, a dead Christ with blue-hued skin lying softly in the arms of Mary.
“Pietà. Circa 1592. How ironic that a Greek would become one of the greatest to swing a brush in Spain. Mother acquired this right before she died. She loved his Mannerist style of painting.”
“Do you worry about keeping all this great art in the open?” I said. “What if there’s a fire or someone breaks in?”
Jacobs smiled. “Art is to be seen, Spenser, not hidden. If collectors lived in fear of destruction, they would never have the opportunity to enjoy the work. Having said that, we are very confident in our security protocol.” He winked at me and turned off the lights.
As we made our way back to the gathering, he pointed out the masters— Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne—and told me brief stories about how a piece was acquired or why the work held such importance in the collection. We passed through one room that had a grand piano with keys made from the ivory of elephants his grandfather had killed on safari in Eastern Africa. Another room in the far corner of the west wing was used only for VIP dinners and was filled with a long table that ran the length of the room and was covered with enough sparkling silver and china for sixty people. We didn’t go into the solarium that ran along the back of the house and out into the yard, but he explained how his mother had it built specifically for afternoon tea parties to properly entertain fellow board members of the many charitable organizations she served.
The rooms looked as though they were never used, not one chair or pillow out of place. We walked down another long hall where most of the twenty bedrooms were located. They were all extravagantly furnished, many of them with daybeds and chaise lounges flanking an enormous four-poster bed draped with silk dust ruffles. At least half of them boasted grand marble fireplaces with gold-encrusted utensils. Their lavishness was dizzying.
“Before we go back to the party, there’s one room upstairs you must see,” he said.
I followed him up two short flights and into a spacious room. Windows filled three of the four walls. He kept the lights off.
“Father renovated this room for Mother on their tenth anniversary,” he explained. “The glass in each set of windows has a different magnification that offers a different view of Boston. No building in this city has a better view of the Charles winding its way through Cambridge and into Boston. When the room was complete, architectural magazines across the country ran stories on it. I can remember strangers coming to the door, asking to see ‘the room.’ It was an amazing time for this old house, like a rebirth.”
I looked through one set of windows and recognized the lighted tower of the Prudential standing gracefully above the others. It was at least eight miles away, but the magnified windows brought it within arm’s distance, close enough that I could see people moving around in their offices.
“Tonight’s a bit cloudy,” he explained. “But on a clear night, you can see the Hancock and most of the other skyscrapers in the financial district.”
We walked to another window and looked out into the darkness. I could see the old buildings of the Yard and the row of houses along the Charles. There was the famous Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, near Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox. I couldn’t help but think that my friends back home would never believe I had actually stood in a mansion with this view, next to a man as rich and powerful as Stanford Jacobs.
While I was standing there, looking out at the lights of Boston, Mr. Jacobs surprised me.
“How is your mother, Gwendolyn, doing?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said. I was too nervous to ask how he knew her name.
“Do you have any contact with your father’s side of the family?” he asked.
I shook my head. “My father was killed when I was a toddler.”
“Yes, I know that. I’m sorry. He was heading home from work. It’s why you’ve always wanted to be a doctor. You feel like his life could’ve been saved had someone with medical training gotten to him fast enough.”
“How do you know this?”
“We make it a point to learn something about all our punchees.”“We make it a point to learn something about all our punchees.”
There was an awkward pause, and Jacobs had a look on his face like he was working through something.
“Family is very important,” he finally said. “It often defines who we are and what we’ll make of ourselves.”
“I have a great family,” I said. “My mother and her side of the family have always been very supportive and hardworking. I’m here at Harvard because of their sacrifices. I will give her the life she deserves after I become a doctor.”
“And no one from your father’s side of the family has ever contacted you?”
“I met a second or third cousin once when I was in second grade. That’s it.”
“So, you don’t know your family’s history?”
“My family history is the story of my mother and her family,” I said. “Unfortunately, my father’s family history remains a mystery. He was a hardworking man who moved to Chicago from Mississippi when he was eight or nine. While he hasn’t been with me physically, I feel his presence every day of my life.”
Jacobs nodded. “I can only imagine how tough it must’ve been growing up without a father,” he said. “But by all accounts, your mother has done a great job of raising a fine young man,” he said. “It’s good to have you in the punch. Just think, you would’ve missed all of this if you had gone to Hobart.”
His last comment paralyzed me. Hobart was a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. I had applied to the school only because my high school girlfriend said that’s where she wanted to go. But I had filled out and sent in the application secretly, telling no one. My mother would’ve launched all kinds of protests with the faintest hint that I was considering a school that was so far off her radar. How could Jacobs know about Hobart when it was something I had only secretly discussed with Caitlyn?
He rested his cane against the window and pulled out a black alligator wallet, took out a business card, and scribbled on the back before handing it to me. “This is my home number,” he said. “Don’t be shy about using it.”
“This is really nice of you,” I said, looking at the card, then sliding it into my jacket pocket. I tried to hide my discomfort. It was the first time in my life that someone outside of my family had offered to do something for me without asking for anything in return. But I was still confused about why he had decided to pick me out of the group, and why he knew so much about my personal life.
“I think we’d better rejoin the party,” he said. “They’ll be sending a search and rescue team for us if we don’t get back soon.”
The jazz band had come to life and the party room was now filled with anxious chatter and boisterous laughter. The free-flowing alcohol had done its job, dissolving tensions and boosting confidence. Brooks Brothers blazers now hung on the backs of the nearest chairs, and the once-starched shirts were wrinkled and opened to the second button. Thick cigar smoke circled heavily in the air.
I walked through the room, catching pieces of conversations, updating my running Rolex count, which already hovered near thirty-five. I passed one group standing around the pool table, talking about a weekend getaway to the Bahamas.
“C’mon, Bernie, we’re just going away for the weekend,” the tallest of the three prodded.
“I know, Parker, but we flew to Paris last month, and my father had a damn cow,” Bernie said. “He told me I was cut off till further notice.”
“But this trip won’t cost us anything,” Parker insisted. “My dad said he won’t be needing the plane, so we can use it. And the staff opened our winter house last week, so everything is all ready to go.”
“Bernie, how can you say no?” the third guy nudged. “Three days in the sun, and native women running around the beaches. We’ll be getting laid forty-eight hours straight.”
Bernie rubbed his temples pensively. “What the hell?” he finally relented to a round of high fives. “You only live once.” Triumphant, the three raised their glasses of Dom Pérignon in a toast.
I moved on to another group debating the World Series. They were rooting for the Dodgers over Oakland since Oakland had beaten their beloved Red Sox.Sports, women, family businesses, ski trips to the Alps, powerful relatives who ran multimillion dollar companies. Who were these guys?
And that’s how the conversations went. Weekend getaways to private islands and summer vacations to distant continents. Sports, women, family businesses, ski trips to the Alps, powerful relatives who ran multimillion dollar companies. Who were these guys?
I spotted the first casualty of the evening, a semiconscious punchee lying face down on the floor. His blazer was half on, and with his free arm he was hopelessly tugging at the knot in his tie. A couple of members came to his rescue, and he looked up into their faces with a pathetic expression. “I’ll get in, right?” he stammered. “Please tell me I’ll make the cut?” The rest of the party barely took notice of the sputtering drunk as they made their way to and from the bar, stepping over him with more concern about spilling their drinks than the condition of their fallen comrade. The boasting and laughter continued, and the band played on.
By midnight, the party began to wind down. Mr. Jacobs stood in the center of the room, surrounded by the four officers who had greeted me at the door. Glasses were tapped, and once the room was quiet, Jacobs announced, “It has been an absolute pleasure hosting all of you this evening. As I no longer enjoy your youthful stamina, I must retire. But please feel free to carry on without me. My staff and hospitalities will continue to be at your service. Best of luck the rest of the way, gentlemen. And long live the Gas.” He bowed his head slightly, and raised his hand to thunderous applause. He turned on his heels and swept out of the room with his butler following behind. It was an exit that Hollywood couldn’t have scripted better.
As I walked back to Lowell House that night bundled up against the chill, the conversations and images from the party continued to play in my mind like a movie in slow motion. In one night, I had seen and learned things that four years of Harvard classes never would have taught me. But what weighed most heavily on my mind as I traveled back along those cold, empty streets of Cambridge was my conversation with Jacobs and his line of questions. Something wasn’t right. I felt like he was asking me questions not because he didn’t already have the answers, but to see if I knew them.