Cabot Wright Begins: A Novel

BOOK: Cabot Wright Begins: A Novel
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A Division of W. W. Norton & Company

New York • London








Title Page


1 Bernie on the Promenade

2 Mrs. Gladhart Hears Mrs. Bickle

3 In the Cockroach Palace

4 First Encounter

5 Zoe Signs with Princeton

6 Second Encounter

7 Cabot Wright Begins

8 “You Could Coax It Out of Me”

9 The Young Executive

10 Two Catastrophes

11 Lunching with Gilda

12 The Beginning Room

13 From General Partner to God

14 Cabot Reads to Mrs. Bickle

15 The Young Philanthropist

16 One Flew East, One Flew West

17 Rejection by the Goethe of Publishers

18 “I Thought I’d Die but I Lived”

19 Mama’s Well Is Dry

20 “The Way I Feel Now”


Other Novels by James Purdy

Praise for Cabot Wright Begins




o one knows how the arteries and nerves of the man next to you make him see you and the world that surrounds you both.

Early Saturday night Bernie Gladhart paced the Promenade in Brooklyn and looked across the river at the skyline of Wall Street, now like a series of extinct craters, unlit and uninhabited, by reason of the weekend departure of charwomen and the thousands of other cleaners who keep the skyscrapers ablaze all the evenings of the working week. Bernie was the most downhearted of men, even though he was pacing with a purpose and had a wife and home waiting for him in Chicago.

It was Carrie Moore, Bernie’s wife, who had sent him to Brooklyn in the first place, with a mission to get the story of Cabot Wright from the convicted rapist’s own lips, and to write the truth like fiction. Bernie had been in New York a month looking for leads on Cabot Wright, and had had no luck. He had been everywhere, hunting… nothing. And now on Saturday night, a holy time in America when all men must find fun, Bernie’s discomfort and homesickness were acute.

Carrie, a semi-retired miniature painter, believed confidently that her husband Bernie had, as she always put it, a “great book inside of him,”if only for once he could start out with the right subject: his other books, unpublished, were all about himself and had been perhaps too personal to have wide appeal. Not only was Carrie certain that Bernie would write a great book, she was also convinced that it would reach the big public. Great books, if long enough and full of topical description and contemporary comment, were now coming into even wider public favor. The lengthier and fuller of comment, the better. But good subjects remained scarce, no matter how hard one hunted for them.

Carrie’s third husband (Bernie was the fourth), Harold Winternitz, a LaSalle Street broker, had given his former wife a lifetime subscription to two great New York newspapers, and Carrie continued to read them absentmindedly through force of habit. It was the papers which put her and Bernie onto Cabot Wright, for such a purely New York criminal as Cabot otherwise might have escaped their attention in Chicago. Carrie had always been an
of local crime, and was even a kind of authority on Illinois murder cases. The Cabot Wright affair, though far from murder, attracted her interest from the beginning and she cut out many of the writeups about the young Brooklyn rapist and pasted them in her clipping book. Despite Cabot’s being guilty of something, there remained in her mind a queer feminine doubt that he had been motivated to his deeds—more than 300 rapes in Brooklyn and Manhattan—by the overpowering lust attributed to him by the press. Yet nobody could deny that Cabot had been convicted in court by a jury; the world considered and wanted him to be motivated by the passion attributed to him by the most famous journalists of our time.

One winter evening, sitting in the basement of her South Side Chicago home (inherited from Harold Winternitz), Carrie pored over the New York newspapers. Suddenly her eyes fell on a small headline tucked away between the shipping news and the report that the nebula of Andromeda was possibly inhabited by humans:





A photo showed Cabot, without his handcuffs this time, staring away from the camera into the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers. You could not see in the photo that his hair was red, nor could you sense the warmth of his lips; only direct sunlight brought that out. He looked vague, if not ordinary, of medium height, with athletic shoulders, but with a somewhat pinched look of inattentiveness, perhaps caused by prison food, confinement and bad company.

“Here’s our subject for you,”Carrie handed the newspaper to Bernie.

She studied her husband’s face.

“You will have to dig some, of course,”she warmed to her plan, “but if you would, you’ve got it at last. All you need do, Bernie,”she gulped her toast soaked in coffee, “is present the truth as fiction.”

Bernie scanned the news story and the photograph, but his face told her nothing.

“Think of what this could mean to us in the future, if it all works out the way I think it can, and you write the story as I feel sure you will,”she talked on in the face of Bernie’s rigid immobility. Her tones were more than pleading, they had a hushed quality he could never remember hearing from her before, like what you hear in the voice after conversion. “And you can do it, Bernie, love. You can write this book because you’ve got a subject at last.”

Bernie smiled then briefly. There were two things he could never resist—encouragement and praise. He got both by the wagonload from Carrie, and it was the secret of their marriage’s success. Older than her husband by at least twelve years, counting only her “alimony”house among her possessions in the world, Carrie tried to make up for any lack that she feared her young husband might find in her, by an incessant campaign to build up his self-esteem, courage, hope, faith. She was a church open only for him, with services in full operation twenty-four hours a day.

From the beginning of their relationship, before their sudden marriage, when Bernie only “roomed”at Carrie’s house, she had given him not only praise and encouragement but the becalmed feeling of being supported at every level, even though, from the first, it had been Bernie’s cash that brought in the groceries, and kept the light, water and gas on. But the house—as she had a way of reminding one—was Carrie’s and it was from her that emanated the atmosphere of a home; the people who came to the house and who made “society”for them, were Carrie’s friends first and foremost before they were his. It was perhaps Carrie’s owning her house (none of his people had ever owned anything) that first communicated to Bernie the sense of being not only wanted but “at home”all the time. And finally he came to feel he was at home permanently, and this was important for a man like Bernie, who had been both an orphan and an inmate of a reformatory. Thus when he began his life with Carrie, he found more than he had ever dared hope for. Now suddenly, to Bernie’s uneasiness, Carrie had more in view for him than happiness—she promised him he could be a famous writer.

In one of the many unpublished books he had written on the subject of his own life, Bernie had traced his origins in tedious detail. Coburn Maxwell Gladhart, the “scion of a broken home” (a phrase, from the day he had stumbled on it, he had taken for his own), had had his first big trouble as a boy, the result of his inexplicable impulse to steal bicycles from a factory parking-lot. He spent a brief stretch in jail at the age of 16. Once out, he was immediately in trouble again. As a second offender, he was sent to a reformatory, and there through the good offices of a young evangelistic chaplain, he was set straight, became interested in religiously-oriented psychology and, when paroled, found his way. He sold cars part-time, working the rest of the day as a bus-boy in a large university cafeteria. Here, one cool fall day, Carrie Moore, attending a Women’s Art League tea in an adjoining building, had stepped to get some cigarettes, and spied him behind the coffee urn. Whether it was his prison pallor, his shy tough manner, or his look of need, she had fallen in love with him at sight, and hardly a month afterwards (they had begun seeing each other every night) she began divorce proceedings against Mr. Winternitz. Her marriage to Bernie took place two weeks after this divorce.

Only Bernie could have explained to anyone how holy it was to live in a
, after all his years of not being anywhere except on the outside. He was able to explain his feeling convincingly more by looks, gestures, and sounds than by words, for despite his passion to be a writer, he was limited in verbal facility. He loved the “at home”feeling above all also, and it was, as he saw later, perhaps the only thing he had ever loved. It was certainly the main thing that Carrie brought him.

That was why being sent suddenly to Brooklyn by Carrie was, as Bernie came to see every Saturday night (that holy handful of hours in America), a frightening mistake, and he was sure it would end in some permanent hurt, barring a miracle. If only, after all his wandering away from what he wanted, he could get back at last to the wedding-bower (Carrie’s pet name for their bedroom)! Then everything would be all right, even if no book or writer came out of the experiment.

always been an extremely plain woman, though she had a good figure before she got plump. Like many plain women, she demanded a great deal of her husband around the house. Friends agreed that Bernie was a martyr to Carrie’s sexual appetite, which had the reputation of being enormous. Curt Bickle, an obscure Chicago novelist and close acquaintance of Bernie, claimed that Bernie kept in training by consuming many boxes of raisins per week, plus canned frozen oysters, young onions, steak, protein pills, a thick molasses resembling car oil, and as many stalks of celery as he could masticate.

Every night in Chicago at 9:15 p.m., Bernie mounted the winding staircase, in his dressing-robe, to Carrie’s huge bedroom at the top of the landing, and for fifteen interminable minutes, man and wife thrashed vigorously together among the bedclothes. Roomers who had returned home early heard Carrie, at the end of the quarter of the hour, cry out, “I’m going! Dying! I’m going, you hear?”Bernie, battling to keep his virile member belligerent, fought out the quarter hour, until his wife’s cries signalled success; then he retired from the fray without having spilled a drop of himself, keeping what he had bottled up, as it were, for the exigencies of the next night. Sometimes, though, through feeling or lack of control, he lost command of himself, and then Carrie’s cries of “Dying! Going!”were even more anguished. She never insisted outright that he reach consummation with her, for vigor, not self-satisfaction, were the requisites she asked of a husband. While she rested after the encounter in the wedding-bower, Bernie would go down into the basement and resume reading the Chicago papers over some warmed-up instant Sanka. If Carrie felt sufficiently revived and wakeful, she sometimes joined him, and together they would work crossword puzzles or watch something furtively on their midget TV screen.

BOOK: Cabot Wright Begins: A Novel
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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