It was the halcyon spring of 1946. (Increase your word-power! Look up “halcyon” in the dictionary then, while you’re at it, look up “avatar” because, if you are a well-paid journalist, you have been misusing both words for years.) In wintry March of ‘46 I was released from the army. O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh opened on Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize for biography was awarded to—yes! The Son of Wilderness by Linnie Marsh Wolfe—even so, America’s postwar golden age was suddenly upon us and lasted all of five years, ending with our undeclared war to bring freedom and democracy to Korea, a nation hitherto unknown to most Americans but whose loss to freedom would have put in question our Credibility and so, incredibly, we have been at war ever since unless sly Wolf Blitzer is telling us fibs on CNN.
That spring my first novel was published as was the memoir, More Was Lost, of a handsome emerald-eyed young woman called Eleanor Perenyi. Paradoxically, glossy fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked, published only “quality-lit” fiction, as Terry Southern would say, as well as poets like Auden whom The New York Times refused to take on as a columnist in its Sunday book section on the ground that he was sexually degenerate. To be absolutely honest, our golden age was somewhat less than 24-carat.
On a workday, Eleanor wore white gloves and a chic hat, the uniform of the high-fashion magazine ladies when they lunched at the Colony restaurant, now gone along with hat, gloves. But there was nothing uniform about her personality. She was—is—a wit, a learned bluestocking who would eventually write the classic Green Thoughts on gardens as well as a study of Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero, the Hungarian artist as Romantic, a Perenyi theme.
Actually, it was Eleanor’s “Mamma” (or Mother, when Eleanor was in full voice) that I first knew about and came to know. Grace Zaring Stone was a successful writer of best sellers that were often made into movies, starting with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Frank Capra’s one interesting movie (1933).
Eleanor’s naval officer father was military attaché to the American embassy at Paris when Hitler arrived in 1940, the year that Grace’s latest novel became the movie Escape that so awed one schoolboy by its worldly look at Mitteleuropa with its unreal castles and very real Nazis, all topped by that Byzantine crown of Saint Stephen and its bent cross. In 1937, the very young Eleanor Stone had married a Hungarian nobleman and they lived in a castle that kept moving back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, two of Hitler’s possessions whose boundaries he liked to redraw. Because Grace felt that her prematurely anti-Nazi book might put Eleanor at risk, she used the pseudonym Ethel Vance.
Eventually, Grace established herself in an old house in Stonington, Connecticut; she also had something of a …