The mapmakers gave it no name, being a place you could take or leave. In that sense, the Steinbrenner island, like its neighboring hundreds, was its own kingdom.
Fortress Steinbrenner was known for its white painted planks, hundreds of them shooting high and triumphant above the rocks and drumming breaks of wave. Built by the father of Linus Steinbrenner’s father, Das Weisse Haus was positioned on a skullcap-shaped landmass after a cove in the due-east-ness of Maine, where, say the poets,
the heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand.
White house, white muslin and lace billowing out from open windows, white peonies thickly settled on lawns sloping out to a craggy shore. Girls from a service caught and plucked the white aprons dancing on a temporary clothesline. The bright day was punctured by the busyness of human overabundance, the most obvious examples being the girls in white—girls of all sizes and ages cascading down and around the heights of grass. With their trailing rose ribbons, they called to Linus Steinbrenner’s mind jellied creatures from the sea. Pretty little girls, he thought on this day of his wedding, knowing none by family let alone name. He had to wonder whether they, like the plates and linens and service girls, had been rented for the event.
He would shortly speak his vows to Katherine Barlow, the same ones he’d spoken to Anna Hahn a decade earlier. She seemed so healthy when he pushed the ring onto her finger—petite but sturdy, like an impressionist painting of a jockey in silks. He’d been the sickly one for years on end. He was told he was lucky it was rheumatic fever and not polio, but he pitied himself just the same. As a sickly teenager he began reading war poetry—Kipling and Arnold, Brooke and Owen, pictograms by Apollinaire. His harsh Methodist mother who believed in divining rods disparaged the reading of secular poetry in lieu of the Bible. He disliked her immensely, whereas Anna adored her mother. Father too. Anna’s dad was a Methodist minister who later became an atheist. Her mother taught chemistry at a boy’s academy.
She was called Annie by everyone other than Linus. By the time of her death she had achieved minor renown for being a “young and cherished” correspondent of Eleanor Roosevelt. The letters to and from the First Lady originated during the time right after Anna and two of her school friends completed a cross-country drive—Eau Claire to San Diego—in a Model T. Three girls alone during the height of the Depression. Her mother—a former suffragette thought to be “fast” because she rode a bicycle—was against the trip, but her father gave the girls his blessing. He even blessed the car and the three rucksacks. Anna cried on her mother’s shoulder before the girls set off, but it was only at the thought of having to leave behind her dog, Bobo.
She’d been to Das Weisse Haus often the year they married, in 1937. They had met in New York a year earlier, at an automat on West 34th. He was twenty-seven; she twenty-three. It was intended that he meet at that automat a beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent acquaintance of his sister’s, just graduated Vassar and alone in New York. Who wouldn’t wish to meet and hopefully marry such a girl? But then, wasn’t Anna Hahn beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent enough already? Several tables away, he stared at her relentlessly as she ate a liverwurst sandwich intermittently with a pickle spear. She made unconcerned faces, stared at the ceiling, chewed each bite of liverwurst many times. And when she was finished she took a fountain pen from her handbag and wrote something on a paper napkin. She got up and slapped it on his table as would a waitress leaving a check.
What happened next? Who spoke first?
Soon she was sitting across from him at the automat, working her energetic fork over a slice of devil’s-food cake. “I want to go to Africa,” she told him. “I want to see Victoria Falls.” He replied, “I’m beginning the life of a diplomat, traveling the world.” She was anxious but happy. Wisconsin-born and -raised, she’d managed to earn a degree in mining engineering—on a dare from her brother—though she had little desire to be a mining engineer. Nevertheless, she was paid twenty-eight dollars a week to teach geology at Hunter College. They left the automat together. Less than a year later they married in a civil service so that they could quickly pack up and move to Moscow. That was their honeymoon—a vast, miserable country that mostly passed by outside train windows. It seemed like no time at all she was sick, and they decamped from their Russian honeymoon to Washington, where he was given something to do at the State Department while she slowly died.
His current title was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs—another indication of what sneering journal editors called his “frenzied ascent” in the Foreign Service, first under Roosevelt and now Truman. On Thursday afternoon he’d made the final corrections on the article. He’d carefully articulated the common problem faced by the world and the singular solution posed by America. There was no turning back.
All that Linus Steinbrenner now needed was a wife—it made no difference that he’d be getting the stay-put kind rather than someone like Anna, eager and willing to trudge to any Siberian outpost at his side. He wasn’t nervous or seized by last-minute regrets. There was much about Katherine he didn’t know, and if he died not knowing, it would be no great travesty. He wondered if all successful marriages happened like this. You tried to find your great love when you still had the naïve wherewithal—though the odds of success were mighty slim. So you married when it came time. Did he want to give his life over to fretting love, or was he going to try to live a long time? Was it cynical to think that way? People said he was no longer “courteous,” but the imperfections of the masses assaulted like a dentist’s drill. The cruelty of his mother had made him fearful in early manhood, vigilant against the judgmental aspects of the feminine mystique. Anna arrived to point him in a new direction, out of the deep dark wood of unloving. Losing her, he felt he had no choice but to retreat. He’d become a connoisseur of exceptionalism—American and human. Nothing was ever good enough.
Meanwhile, upstairs at Das Weisse Haus a woman fretted. The ceremony was already delayed because of a priest—the one Linus called “your priest” even though this one was a stranger to her. This priest who wasn’t at all hers had telephoned to say he had administered last rites early that morning on some obscure part of a peninsula. Being who Linus was, dispensation had been made for the priest to perform the marriage outside of a church. Linus had consented to an Episcopal service even though he called himself a “questioner.” After what he referred to as a Methodist reckoning, he pulled back from organized religion. He told Katherine he needed to find a new faith, one with better justifications and more spiritually solvent practitioners.
She fretted that she was plump and fretted that he didn’t love her. If she confided these fears to him, he’d smile in that knowing way that required his eyelids to almost close. Yes, that’s how you women are. She had known him only since the previous summer, and here she was getting married in his family’s enormous house. Once she got herself under the gown buttoned onto the mannequin, she would be white to match the house. She stared at the dress and fretted that maybe it was that he didn’t even like her. How painful that he’d twisted the fact that he didn’t want her with him in Moscow to make it appear that she was at wit’s end over how to make do in so foreign and harsh an environment! And he was so cruel! When they met she’d been reading The Friendly Persuasion, which he snatched from her hands a week later to replace with Frothingham, a novel that had just come out. He called the Jessamyn West a book for bumpkins.
In due time she got stuck pulling the dress over her head and stood perfectly still for a moment. Finally it fell to the floor like the final curtain. She’d have to call in her cousins to begin the buttoning, but first she had to face the oval mirror. What it told her was what she already knew—that she wasn’t tall but had a long neck, which made her appear to be always craning like a waterfowl. People told her she reminded them of a Norman Rockwell painting—a woman possessed of some civic mission. She seemed to tower over Linus with that half-head advantage. He, on the other hand, was handsomely compact and dressed well to compensate, much like a nightclub owner, she thought—though if she ventured that comment he’d be deeply offended. No, much more than offended. That was a serious drawback, the “dandyism” as her older brother called it. Linus Steinbrenner was an arrogant man, they said—not very kind—and the romanticized story of his love for Anna Hahn she found oppressive enough to have made her hyperventilate at least twice. But if it was true he was an arrogant man, perhaps the undying love saga was pure myth. Perhaps he couldn’t really love any woman—in which case you got what you paid for.
Just then four of Katherine’s cousins gushed into the room with a shared moxie that somehow reminded her of the women’s basketball team she’d seen in an Abbott and Costello picture. Her cousins reported that the priest was finally on his way, but that wasn’t the banner news. A minor crisis was in full swing downstairs: three children who’d been playing hide-and-seek could not be located. They were the daughters of three of Katherine’s more distant cousins, whom she had not wanted to invite in the first place. One of the girls was eleven; another was eight; sadly, there was a young one, a three-year-old, in tow. Mothers—and even fathers—had looked everywhere for them.
She did not want to hear this, would not have it, but she couldn’t find the Bette Davis language to vent her outrage. It was a beautiful almost-summer day; children did not go missing on such days. Frustrated with both her luck and her dithering ways, she cried into the stiff tulle pulled up to her face.
Downstairs was a-bustle with the swishing dresses of whisperers. Would the wedding go on? Would the police be called? How long could anyone wait? The prevailing fear was that they’d hurt themselves. An unmarried man suggested the possibility that they’d been abducted—but that seemed impossible on an island. There was a strong chorus of there, there speculation. They probably just fell asleep somewhere in the tall grass.
Renowned for remaining a pillar of calm, Linus took the crisis in stride as the drama escalated. The assemblage was, after all, stuck here for the moment. It proved an ordeal getting so many over by boat and would prove an equal one that evening sending them all packing. Luckily they were nearing the longest day, and would have up until nine to empty the island.
The mother of the three-year-old was a wreck. Linus had been told she was a second cousin from Chicago; the fact that she was basking in the attention almost caused him to sneer. “Oh, why couldn’t my husband come with me for once?” she wailed. “Why can’t he be human for forty-eight hours!”
Linus leaned toward Connell Mearing, his best man. “Who’s her inhuman husband anyway?” he whispered.
“That’s Karl Tobel’s wife.”
Linus looked at the woman again, as if he’d been told she wasn’t actually a woman. “Really?”
“Kind of a fruitcake. Believes in astrology.”
He was slightly ashamed for what he did so instinctively—lift his head to issue a Charlie Chan nod: Ah, women and astrology. Was astrology something to be disparaged because women zealously embraced it, or was its being disparaged the reason women zealously embraced it? He thought back to that first encounter with Anna at the automat, when she claimed she could read palms.
“You mean you’re a gypsy?” he’d asked in a sly voice.
“No, but I can and do read palms. For instance, if the palms are all bending in one direction, I would give the advice not to follow the source of the hurricane in the other.”
“You could make a name for yourself with that skill.”
She laughed. “When I die, the world will go to hell.”
At the onset of her illness, popular tunes provided comfort, particularly the Gershwin songs from The Goldwyn Follies. He never cared much for song until then, when she decided to—as a diversion from pain and suffering—set all of her own words to music. “For the fun of it” she said. She even sang to him lines from her poem on the napkin: I’ll bet you’ve never had one, so I write it to you twice. She sang and tried to make with the plum-ripe cheeks. But in colonizing her body, the disease pulled out all the stops. To Linus, this palpable degeneration was more intimate than any sexual maneuvering. Sometimes, when he’d come home and lie down beside her without removing his shoes or even his overcoat, she would awake and apologize for being “unclean.” During one of these stilted hours dragging out the long day, she informed him she wished to be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. He was perplexed at the idea. “Why on earth there?” he asked. Later she replied, “Because I won’t be alone.”
He had a colleague in Hamburg for whom any needless panic was labeled “falling to the Reds.” With Das Weisse Haus falling to the Reds because of missing children, Linus walked outside unbothered and continued down the long slope to the shore, the glistening ocean happily—and much to his liking—accountable to no one or thing. He was pleased that the piquant tang of the landscape took so kindly to his statesman’s suit—he refused a morning jacket or some varsity boy’s tuxedo. He wanted the dignity of a black suit, so he could have the kinds of things in his pockets as he felt for just now. When he lit the last cigarette from a pack he remembered being in Czechoslovakia near the end of 1938, shortly after Anna died. He had only one cigarette left as the train chugged along. Only one cigarette in the pack as the world teetered on the abyss. When should I smoke it? he asked himself. Will it be a long walk before the next pack? If not now, when? Then he spied in the distance a Slovak peasant girl with red skirt and high black boots peddling her bicycle on the horizon, a gasmask slung over her shoulder.
By this time in 1938, the Great Terror campaign—Stalin’s enthusiastic killing off of Soviet Poles—was well underway. One million people had already starved to death by 1932, years before the exterminations had begun in earnest. How hard it was for Americans to grasp that most of the killing of Jews took place in the fields and forests of Eastern Europe, one on one with a face behind the gun. That side of the globe had never been for the feint-hearted. But was it true that the living, breathing Stalin of today was an equal to the Hitler everyone wanted to forget? So many at State believed that when your particular brand of genocide was a moving target—yesterday kulaks, today reactionaries, tomorrow some other random souls but always and above all Jews—it was worth a resumption of armed conflict to exterminate your lot. So what did you do as a diplomat? What did you do as a mediator? What you did, as an individual man in an influential position, was smile and shake the hands of the Politburo—this galoot with the mustache this month because the one from February was long dead. You shook the hands and made appointments and never lost your cool.
He hadn’t yet lost his cool, although lately he’d developed an emasculating fear of flying. He wasn’t afraid of dying, but he went through a harrowing series of cold sweats at takeoff, ascending into the unknown. To calm himself he’d close his eyes and think about the island—here, where he now stood smoking his last cigarette. Sometimes, with his eyes shut tight, he’d recite Caliban’s speech:
Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
When you opened your eyes, you realized that ethnically motivated butchery wasn’t new, but institutional butchery could not be tolerated. You could not prevent the exceptional from dying young—the beautiful and the worthy, the valuable. What you could do—as an individual man in an influential position—was diligently contain the world’s butcher-at-large.