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Three generations of the Chapin family, prominent citizens of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, struggle with the prides and passions in this epic saga of the American experience
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John O’Hara (1905–1970) was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Championed by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker, he wrote seventeen novels, including Appointment in Samarra, his first; BUtterfield 8, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor; Pal Joey, which was adapted into a Broadway musical as well as a film starring Frank Sinatra; and Ten North Frederick, which won the National Book Award. He has had more stories published in The New Yorker than anyone else in the history of the magazine. Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, he lived for many years in New York and in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died.
Jonathan Dee (introducer) is the author of several novels, including The Privileges, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, a National Magazine Award–nominated literary critic for Harper’s Magazine, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives in New York.
Edith Chapin was alone in her sewing room on the third floor of the house at Number 10 in Frederick Street. The room was warm, the day was cold and unbrightened by the sun. The shutters in the bay-window were closed, but the slats in the shutters were open, and Edith Chapin could, when it pleased her, go to the bay-window and look down on her yard and the two-story garage that had been a stable, and above and beyond the gilded figure of a trotting horse on the weather vane she could see roof upon roof upon third story upon third story of the houses on the rising hill. She would know the names of nearly all of the people who lived in them, she knew the names of the owners. She had spent her lifetime in the town, and it was easy to know who everyone was and where everyone lived. It was especially easy for Edith because she had always had a reputation for shyness, and it was not expected of her to make a fuss over people. She could notice them and study them, if it pleased her, without any further social effort on her part than simple politeness called for. It had always been that way.
At a gentle knock on her sewing-room door—two knocks, not an unnecessary third—Edith Chapin cleared her throat and said, gently, “Who is it?” Her enunciation was slow and precise.
“It’s me, ma’am. Mary.”
“Come in,” said Edith Chapin.
Mary was an Irishwoman from Glasgow with a clear skin and brown eyes full of self-respect behind her tortoise-shell spectacles. Her bust was abundant and her waist not thick.
“What is it, Mary?”
“It’s Mr. Hooker, the newspaper editor, wants to see you, ma’am.”
“To see me? Is he here?”
“Yes, ma’am. I put him in the sitting room.”
“Alone, or is Mrs. Hooker with him?”
“Nobody with him, just himself,” said Mary.
“Are there a lot of other people down there?”
“There’s quite a crush, ma’am, sitting and talking. There isn’t chairs for all.”
“I know. Did anyone offer Mr. Hooker a chair?” said Edith Chapin.
“Not by the time I left. I come right up. Maybe somebody did offer him one since.”
“Mm-hmm.” Edith Chapin nodded. “This is what I’d like you to do, Mary.”
“Go downstairs, and if Mr. Hooker isn’t sitting with someone, if he’s just standing with the others, you go up to him and ask him if you can speak to him for a moment. Then when you get him out in the hall, tell him I’ll see him. But if he’s sitting down with some people—You see, I don’t want to make an exception for anybody. I haven’t seen anybody, as you know. But I think I ought to see Mr. Hooker. Such a good friend of Mr. Chapin’s.”
“A great admirer of Mr. Chapin’s. Great. The article yesterday, it made you realize if you didn’t already.”
“Yes, that’s why I would like to make an exception in his case.”
“Will I bring you a cup of tea, ma’am?”
“No, no thanks. I don’t want him to stay that long. Remember now, if he’s sitting down with the others, don’t single him out. But if he’s standing, it’ll look as though he had an appointment with me.”
“I understand perfectly, ma’am,” said Mary.
“You can bring me a cup of tea after he’s gone. I’d like a cup of tea and two soft-boiled eggs. Some toast and some of that grape jelly, if there’s any left.”
“There’s a whole new jar I opened.”
“Oh, then there was some more. I was sure we had some left. Where did you find it?”
“It was in with the currant, on that shelf. It didn’t have the label on it.”
“Oh, that’s where it was. And some cigarettes when you bring the tea. It might be a good idea if you put the cigarettes under a napkin. Some of the older ladies . . .”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Mary, and left.
Edith Chapin composed herself in the ladderback rocking chair, and was so arranged a few minutes later when Mary’s knock came again. She knocked twice, and waited, then knocked twice again.
“Yes?” Edith Chapin called out.
“It’s me, ma’am, with Mr. Hooker,” said Mary.
“Come in, please,” said Edith Chapin.
Mary swung the door open, making way for the man. “Mr. Hooker, ma’am.”
“Good morning, Robert,” said Edith Chapin.
“Good morning, Edith.”
Mary closed the door behind her.
Robert Hooker went to Edith Chapin and took her extended hand in his two. “Edith, I call myself a dealer in words, but today I have none to offer.”
“Today, but not yesterday.”
“Oh, you saw my editorial?”
“If I hadn’t seen it on my own—you have no idea how many people called up about it. Joe would have been—well, pleased is hardly the word. I consider it one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and not only because it was about Joe.”
“It was from the heart, Edith.”
“Oh, yes. Yes,” said Edith Chapin.
“The Bar Association is having it reprinted, I thought you’d like to know. Henry Laubach called up this morning and ordered a thousand cards, about the size of a postcard, with my small tribute to Joe printed on them. I feel signally honored, but it’s a pretty empty honor, when I think of—well, I wish the occasion hadn’t arose. Arisen.”
“Joe was very fond of you, Robert.”
“Well, I always hoped so. We didn’t see nearly enough of each other. In this crazy old newspaper business, I work in my shirt-sleeves, you know. Joe, the soul of dignity. Not what they call a stuffed shirt, by any means. But as I said in my editorial, the very presence of Joseph B. Chapin in a courtroom provided the room with the dignity one associates with the court of law, but so often lacking in these days of spectacular circus tactics.”
“Joe would have liked that, every word of it. The dignity of the law was precious to him,” said Edith Chapin.
“How are you, Edith? That’s a foolish question, of course. What must be going on inside, but I don’t think there’s a man or woman in town that expected you to behave any differently than you are. It’s a rare sight to see such courage in these days.”
“Courage?” said Edith Chapin. “I have no courage, Robert. I am so used to living the kind of life I’ve led that now, at a time like this, it’s one advantage of having a naturally retiring disposition. I’ve always lived for my husband and my family, nothing else. No outside interests, no hobbies, really. So that now, if I were to make some display of how I am feeling, it wouldn’t be at all typical of me, would it?”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
“Even my friendships, they had to come through my husband. If they were friends of his, they could be friends of mine, but I was thinking this very morning how few women friends I have. Oh, I like women, I have nice relationships with the members of my sex. I suppose I’m as womanly a woman as the word could mean. But when you have reached my age—and you know how old I am, Robert. But as I was saying, if you’ve lived in a town all your life, except for boarding school, you would think I might have formed some close friendships with women of my age and so on. But the truth is, so many men came to this house, clients and friends and associates and men in the political world, that I neglected my contacts with my women friends. Do you know that outside the family, I haven’t received a single woman acquaintance in the past three days?”
“A great symbol of your devotion to your husband, Edith.”
“Well, I hope it will be taken for that, and not as an indication that I don’t like the members of my own sex, and don’t interest myself in their problems, because I do. When things settle down here I’m going to have to find something to do with my time. I have no idea what sort of thing I’ll do, but I imagine anything I do will involve working with other women, and I don’t want to start with any more handicaps than I have already.”
“You have no handicap in whatever you do,” said Hooker. “Whatever you decide to do.”
“Oh, that’s nice of you, but you forget my—shyness,” said Edith Chapin. “Whenever I had to go to any public function with Joe, oh, it was sheer torture. I was always afraid. Not afraid I’d do the wrong thing, or say the wrong thing. I think one’s natural instincts or upbringing carry one through. But my—reserve—that’s what I was afraid might be misunderstood. Has it been, Robert?”
“Not one bit. Not one bit. I know the people of this town. I know what they think. I know how they feel. It’s my business to know. And I can reassure you on that point. Your what you call shyness and reserve, that’s one of the things that has endeared you to them.”
“Joe was so good with people. He could mix with them and be friendly, to the exact degree that he wanted to be. He really could handle people, couldn’t he?”
“One of his greatest gifts.”
“It was hard for him, too, you know,” said Edith Chapin.
“It was, Edith?”
“Yes. Joe was not naturally gregarious. When we were first married, I think it was before you moved here, Joe confined himself to the people he grew up with. Two or three friends that we saw a great deal of, and as a matter of fact, Joe actually used to seem to prefer the company of older men. Judge Larkin. Old Mr. English, Doctor English’s father, that is. And they seemed to enjoy his company, too. It was a great change when he decided to enter public life. He had to force himself to be patient and tolerant of other people. But I remember his saying to me later on, how he’d been missing a lot of fun out of life by not getting about more in his young manhood.”
“I never knew that, Edith. I never knew that. I would have said that Joe Chapin was one of the greatest mixers I ever saw.”
“And he was, but he had to learn it. It wasn’t the natural thing for him to do, the way it is with some men. He practically made a study of it. But of course Joe had one thing I never have had. Confidence. Complete confidence in himself.”
“The aristocrat, in the better sense,” said Hooker.
“Well, of course he didn’t like that word, but I’m inclined to agree with you.”
“You have it too, Edith.”
“Oh, no. Not a bit.”
“I think so. I think you have. You may be shy, but I’ve watched you, I’ve studied you. You may not be the outgoing type, the extrovert, but people know that underneath that shyness is a woman of great courage and principle. Look at you now. If they could see you now they’d know they were right. It’s a great honor for me, you letting me have these few moments to pay my respects.”
“I wonder why I let myself prattle on this way. I’ve talked with you more than any other person. In fact, I haven’t really talked to anyone else at all.”
“It’s a great honor for me. I suppose we newspaper men, we’re told so many things in confidence, there must be something about us that makes people trust us.”
Edith Chapin hesitated. “It must be more than that, too,” she said. “Thank you for coming to see me. It was very kind of you. And later, when things—settle down—I’m going to ask you for some advice.”
“I am at your service.”
“And remember me to Kitty.”
“She wanted to come with me, but I was sure there’d be too many people. By the way, I had a very pleasant visit with Joe Junior downstairs. Amazing, how much like his father.”
“Yes, at least in appearance. They’re really quite different.”
“That’s what I meant. This is a grand old house, isn’t it?”
“Full of memories, happy ones and sad ones.”
“The way a house should be,” said Hooker.
“Frederick Street isn’t fashionable any more, but it’s much more convenient than Lantenengo Street. We’ve always had the noise and the smoke from the trains, and some of the neighbors on William Street leave a lot to be desired, but we’re used to it.”
“A speaking tube. I guess there aren’t many houses left with a speaking tube.”
“Oh, it has all those things. I suppose you noticed the dumbwaiter. And on the second floor, the busybody.”
“I had a story about busybodies last year. I sent one of my reporters out and he counted I think eighty-seven left in the whole town.”
“When I was a girl I don’t suppose there were eighty-seven houses that didn’t have one,” said Edith Chapin. She smiled her sad smile and Robert Hooker went to her and shook her hand in both of his.
“You are very brave, Edith Chapin.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“And call me for anything, anything at all.”
“Thank you again, Robert,” she said.
He braced his shoulders like the National Guard lieutenant he once had been, and marched out of the sewing room. She waited until she heard his step on the second-floor landing, then went to the speaking tube and blew the whistle.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Mary.
“I’m ready, Mary,” said Edith Chapin.
· · ·
The will of Joseph B. Chapin contained no surprises. It was an orderly document, meant to be read in public. Certain sums were to be paid to servants and charities, and those sums were specified in dollars, but the bulk of the estate was in stocks, bonds, and mortgages, identified by name or location.
The sum of $100,000 was to be paid to the son, Joseph Benjamin Chapin Junior, and a like sum to the daughter, Ann Chapin. The remainder was to be used to create a trust fund for the widow, Edith Chapin. Upon her death the fund was to be divided equally between the son and the daughter. Personal items such as cuff links, cigarette cases, pearl studs, watches, watch chains were to be the property of the widow, but it was suggested that they might be distributed among friends: Chapin’s law partner, his physician, the steward of the Gibbsville Club and the first, as yet unborn, grandson.
Edith Chapin, as she always had been, was a woman in comfortable circumstances. Now, in fact, in 1945, she was in more than comfortable circumstances. She was rich. But it would not be known that she was rich. The details of her wealth were known to only a few persons, who were not likely to discuss those details with others not privileged to have the information. The directors of her bank would know, her husband’s law partner would know, the county Register of Wills would know. But there was no gossip value in the size of Joe Chapin’s estate or the terms of his will. He had left more money than anyone had expected him to leave, but not so much more that the amount was sensational. If he had died poor, or enormously wealthy, the public, the public curiosity would have had to be satisfied. He had not died poor, and only a little richer (and that was to be expected of a man like Joe Chapin); consequently there would be no dislocation of the Chapin family status, and the status had always been described as in comfortable circumstances. There was a butcher on the West Side of town who had less money than Edith Chapin, who lived on the East Side of town. The butcher had a Cadillac, and so had Edith Chapin, but the butcher’s was newer. The butcher’s son was studying for the priesthood and was no great drain on his father’s income; but Joe Chapin Junior was not studying for the priesthood, and he would be no great drain on his mother’s income. The 18th Street butcher was said to be getting rich; the Frederick Street widow was said to be in comfortable circumstances.
The butcher was not in attendance at the funeral of Joseph Benjamin Chapin, which took place in Trinity Church. The butcher and Joe Chapin never had spoken a...
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