Sunday, March 16, 2003

[3/16/2011] Wolcott Gibbs Tonight: Part 2 of "One with Nineveh," in which Gibbs has his 25-years-later reencounter with Lucius Beebe (continued)


Charles Clegg and Lucius Beebe, longtime business and life partners, are waited on by their steward in the "dining saloon" of their 93-foot-long private railroad car, the Virginia City, named for the Nevada metropolis in which they had resettled, assuming the roles of publisher (Beebe) and editor (Clegg) of the weekly newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. (Taking in the interior of Virginia City the railroad car, Elinor Gibbs, "though a registered Democrat, was nearly beside herself with rapture and stated that she'd like to live there all her life.")

In [Beebe's] fond imagination, everyone in that part of Nevada greets the rising sun with two ounces of bourbon and ends the day prostrate on a barroom floor, and gamblers, prostitutes, and quaint survivals of the roaring past disport themselves with terrible enthusiasm. The paper reports this gaiety conscientiously.
--Gibbs, in "One with Nineveh"

Last night we left Gibbs on the ferry crossing the Hudson River from Manhattan to Weehawken, accompanied by his wife and 16-year-old daughter, to meet Beebe in his private railroad car. Gibbs found himself puzzling over the "astounding amount of effort that had gone into producing" the persona Beebe had created for himself back in the years when he first knew him, setting up the observation that concluded our Part 1: "The object of the whole charade, however, was almost completely inscrutable to me."

One with Nineveh
Part 2

The riddle still persisted twenty-five years later as our ship put in at Weehawken and I led the ladies, twittering like birds, out into the terminal. The car was not hard to find. Red as blood and yellow as scrambled eggs, it lay some fifty yards due west. Its name, Virginia City, was painted on its side, but even without that it would have been unmistakable in that blasted landscape. A pretty toy, a jewel box, a dream on wheels. Mr. Beebe himself greeted us from the observation platform, and I was gratified to note that his culture was still intact. "Welcome to Walden Pond!" he cried.

It is one of the melancholy facts of human experience that memory is a sorry cheat. The mansions of our childhood, revisited, are only houses after all; the mountains, hills; the rivers, little trickling brooks. The great personalities are especially diminished by this unpleasant chemistry, and the arrogant giants we knew are too apt to turn into small and querulous men. My only excuse for introducing this tritest of all reflections is that it was so emphatically not true of Mr. Beebe. He was precisely as vast and stylish as he had ever been, and the years, if anything, had added something senatorial to his aspect. The fact that he had grown a trifle deaf only conferred a special awful distance on him. I shuddered to remember that it was sometimes our drunken custom, late at night, in the lost and dissolute past, to address this monument disrespectfully as Lou or Beeb. "It's nice to see you again, Lucius," I said, and entered never-never land.


The magic elegance of the interior of the Virginia City is beyond the descriptive powers of any journalist today, and Mr. Beebe, who has suffered too often from the kind of reporting that attempts to conceal ignorance with levity, has met this problem squarely. As I write, I have beside me a chaste pamphlet, presumably of his own composition, entitled "Vital Statistics of the Private Car 'Virginia City.'" The simple physical facts are easy to compress. The car is ninety-three feet long, weighs a hundred and eighty-five thousand pounds, and consists of a twenty-three-foot observation-drawing room [pictured here; for Beebe's own guided tour, see below -- Ed.], three master staterooms (each with its own toilet facilities), a small Turkish bath, a dining room seating eight, a galley with a fifty-bottle wine cellar, an extra seven-hundred-pound refrigerator on the forward platform, and crew quarters for two. Each room is wired for music, which comes from a mechanism that plays eight hours of uninterrupted tape recordings; there are three conventional telephones to the outside world, and a radio telephone for use when the proprietors are in motion. The car can be carried at the end of any passenger train in the United States at a cost per trip of eighteen first-class fares. When it is on a siding, the daily storage charge is forty cents a running foot. It is capable of generating its own electricity, heating its own water, and disposing of its own waste. Nothing is said about what Mr. Beebe and Mr. Clegg have spent on the Virginia City, but some estimates have set the original purchase cost at two hundred thousand dollars and the remodelling at a hundred and twenty-five thousand more.

These data, though impressive, suggest little of the real splendor of the carriage, and for this I am obliged to turn to the actual phrasing of the script:
The decor is Venetian Renaissance evolved by the Doges of Venice when that country became the richest cultural nation in the world, a decor which was copied in the following centuries by the leading crowned heads of Europe for their palaces, a fine example being the hall of mirrors in the Palace at Versailles [pictured here].

Mr. [Robert] Hanley made a trip to Europe to secure authentic period furniture and fixtures for the car. The crystal chandeliers in the observation-drawing room were purchased in Venice as was the baroque gold cherub mirror over the fireplace. The dining saloon's gold vein diamond paned mirrors were manufactured especially for the car in Italy.

Throughout the car all mouldings and decorative reliefs are of 14K gold leaf, the gold plated lighting fixtures are from France, and the rugs were especially designed for each individual room in the car, hand woven and shot with gold thread.

The ceiling murals were copied from those in the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the paintings on the upper berths in the three master staterooms are scenes of the famed Virginia and Truckee Railway which once ran to Virginia City, Nevada, after which the car is named.

I can think of nothing to add to this except that the artificial logs in the fireplace, fed with propane gas, really burn, though decorously, and that the apparel of the proprietors is worthy of its surroundings. It is not Venetian, but it is the work of patient hands and also liberally shot with gold, Mr. Clegg's watch chain, composed of matching nuggets, being especially rich and strange. In addition to Mr. Beebe and Mr. Clegg, the premises are occupied by a chef, a steward, and an enormous St. Bernard, weighing a hundred and eighty-five pounds. The total weight of all the inmates (Mr. Beebe, two hundred and ten; Mr. Clegg, a hundred and eighty; their two employees, perhaps a hundred and seventy-five apiece; and the dog, as noted) is thus in the neighborhood of half a ton. Unaccustomed to such splendors, my daughter, still barely poised on the threshold of womanhood, could only murmur, "Wow!" My wife, however, though a registered Democrat, was nearly beside herself with rapture and stated that she'd like to live there all her life.

The talk that afternoon, I'm afraid, was hardly up to its jewelled setting. Our hosts were on vacation from Nevada, where they conduct a weekly newspaper, and the conversation dwelt largely on that. This was entertaining in a way, because, just as he did so long ago in New York, Mr. Beebe is intent on imposing an older and more jovial system of manners on a community not always quite sure what is expected of it, and even occasionally hostile. In his fond imagination, everyone in that part of Nevada greets the rising sun with two ounces of bourbon and ends the day prostrate on a barroom floor, and gamblers, prostitutes, and quaint survivals of the roaring past disport themselves with terrible enthusiasm. The paper reports this gaiety conscientiously, and some measure of its success may be gathered from the fact that it has picked up the largest weekly circulation west of the Mississippi and about five hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars' worth of impending lawsuits of one kind and another.

My own tales of the society our hosts had abandoned were in a melancholy minor key. Many of our common acquaintances had died, some picturesquely but more just sorrowfully withering away, unwanted strangers in a new and vulgar world. Others were visibly ailing and could hardly hope to see another spring; still others, like me, had married and produced hostages and lived lives hard to contemplate without a kind of wry hilarity. One of the brightest spirits we had ever known was in jail, having written too many facetious checks.

Mr. Beebe listened sombrely to all this intelligence. "Change and decay," he said. "What are you drinking?"

"Ginger ale," I said with embarrassment, because I had hoped to conceal this humiliating circumstance.

"My God!" he said. "You sick?"

Breeding, however, overcame his horror, and in the end I got the ginger ale. Mr. Beebe himself was drinking Martinis. To my astonishment, they came out of a bottle -- a trade preparation, already mixed. "You like that stuff?'* I asked as he was poured another.

"Not particularly," he said. It developed that gin struck him as faintly disgusting, however served, and he saw no point in making a witches' brew of his own when industry was prepared to do it for him. He was drinking it now, I gathered, as a concession to barbaric Eastern tastes. My wife is still innocently convinced that there are degrees of merit in Martinis, and I could see that she was not favorably impressed with this ultimate sophistication.

Conversationally, as I've said, the gathering never really got off the ground. Mr. Beebe and I were, I think, glad to see each other again, but our paths had been too far apart. I had a feeling that we were characters in two wildly differing comic strips -- his infinitely more colorful and venturesome, mine perhaps a shade more closely related to usual mortal experience. There could be little real communication between a man who clearly regarded his presence in a golden coach on a private siding as a lull between adventures and one who had undertaken a short ride on a ferry only with the deepest misgivings.

We were diverted momentarily by the entrance of the dog, whose name is T-Bone Towser. He is the biggest dog I have ever seen, and, like everything else about the Virginia City, he is somewhat top-heavy with publicity, being, among other things, equipped with a special brandy cask obtainable only at Abercrombie & Fitch. The ladies professed themselves enchanted with him, and in a measure I was, too, though I was not entirely convinced by Mr. Beebe's assurances that he was as gentle as a lamb. His gaze, when it rested on me, was hooded and speculative, and it occurred to me that he was simply biding his time. I was vaguely relieved when Mr. Clegg took him out for a walk.

So our visit wore away. There was a strange peace about it. Enclosed in the golden box, warmed by propane and lulled by Ampex, surrounded by the treasures of older civilizations, we were wonderfully insulated from time and the nagging circumstances of daily life. Once, three proletarian noses were flattened against the window of the door leading out onto the observation platform, and Mr. Beebe rose and snapped down the shade. "They think we're with a circus," he observed genially. "The freaks, probably. It happens everywhere we go."


We left shortly after that. Aboard the Utica again, with the lights of Weehawken diminishing behind, I found that my thoughts were rather tedious and ornate, having to do with Mr. Beebe and his symbolic presence on a siding -- and with the presence, by extension, of all my contemporaries on sidings of one kind and another. My companions, however, were troubled by no such immensities. They had had a wonderful time. They had been cheered by the vision of an almost incredibly jaunty past, and they had also, I could see, placed me firmly in the middle of it, a battered survivor of God knows what bygone revelries. Altogether, it had been a singularly rewarding trip and one they were unlikely to forget. They only regretted that nobody had had the presence of mind to swipe a 14K Renaissance ashtray.




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