John Solensten: an Excerpt from The Gibson Boy, An American Hero



From the moment they began to anticipate her, to somehow believe in her, Charles Dana Gibson and Richard Harding Davis had agreed on her attributes, her future in the New World.

In the New World the Girl would be an American thoroughbred. She would appear magically, focusing out of all those moments when Romance was on the town.

And… (A very long and… it seemed)

One week she was suddenly there in the pages of Life–hair upswept in a soft pile, gray eyes gentle yet unflinching. Sometimes she wore a “rainy-daisy” skirt that cleared the ground by six inches, but that was for stormy weather. She was graceful on the tennis court, pursing her lovely mouth as she deftly returned the ball at the other. Quiet and demure she was, but unafraid. The Gibson Girl: American femininity–girl and woman. She looked at you shyly, but with clear steadiness and a bit of mischief in her eyes. A fine intelligence in her eyes, but nothing of the Amy Lowell bluestocking about her.

But in the wondrous matchmaking of romance who was to be the Gibson Boy–the inevitable He?

Davis presumed he would be, of course. Oh, they were good friends–he and Gibson. Davis sat in Gibson’s studio week after week and the Gibson Girl and Gibson Boy appeared together in life and Life–doing the Broadway theatres, dining at the Savoy, smiling happily at the admiring city from a quick carriage on the Avenue of Great Expectations.

Everywhere across the nation girls pinned Her image on their dressers and tried to be tall and maintain a certain hauteur that drove men to ambition and proposals of marriage.

Yes, Life showed them together–the paper Davis and the paper Gibson Girl.

“You know,” Davis told Gibson one day, “this whole city is full of them,” knowing damn well that Gibson would know which them he was talking about.

“I suppose it is,” Gibson said, sitting there in his studio, his hand not missing a single stroke of ink as he worked on another cover with HER at center.

“Well, where’s the one–the very one?” Davis asked. “I’ve had enough of pale imitations!”

“Don’t know. What about you. Are you the real one?”

“At least they’ve seen me as the original Gibson Boy,” Davis said.

“Yes, yes. And they’ve seen you, all right. Booth Tarkington, laying it on a bit I suppose, said, somewhere or other,’ When Richard Harding Davis came into the Palm Room in Delmonico’s, then, oh, then, our day was radiant.’ And then Stephen Crane said you walked in at an infantry mess in Cuba wearing the only dinner coat–tailored in a very Britishy way–within hundreds of miles.”

“It was a very good New York tailor,” Davis replied. He was getting a bit irritated with Gibson.

“Of course, Ziegfeld believes he is the supreme glorifier of the American girl,” Gibson said.

“That’s nonsense! His Anna Held has a dark past–Warsaw, London, et cetera. Too European or something. And then she’s a bit of a coquette singing “Won’t You Come and Play With Me” and flashing that handheld mirror about the boudoir don’t you think?”

“Of course,” Gibson said.

“Somewhere there’s the real one–the real American girl.”

“Of course,” Gibson replied.“Some magical evening she’ll appear in a miraculous reincarnation or, better yet–if she’s an original–an incarnation.”

“I hope so,” Davis said. “I’m getting damn tired of chasing paper phantoms.”

“Well, I’m wondering what you’d really do if she suddenly appeared.”

“You’ll see,” Davis said.

“Yes, I guess we’ll see all right.”

Davis was going to ask,”What do you mean–‘We’ll see?’” Of course, the girl, the GIRL would be his. It was all perfectly logical and inevitable at the time–yes, at the time.

But GIBSON Girl–Davis should’ve known better!

Davis and Gibson saw Her at the same time on a late summer day when Mrs. Hope Carlton was entertaining guests at her summer home in Newport, Rhode Island where the rich and famous summered in white pavilions opening on interminable expanses of green and perfect lawns.

The Girl stepped confidently down out of a shining black carriage and walked across an undulant thick expanse of lawn under the Newport cathedral elms. Something–a mere insect perhaps–spun by her face. The gray eyes flashed with lurking temper. How dare it!

She swept the silver-green satin gown across the marble portico with lithe vitality, golden hair splendidly parted in the middle and lifted high in buoyant curls.

“Heavenly God!” exclaimed Gibson. Davis smiled and drew himself erect and tall.

She was there, smiling and looking directly at them both while the black carriage squeaked away behind her. “I’m Irene,” she announced as if everyone should know her last name.

“I am Richard Harding Davis,” Davis said.

“And I’m Gibson,” said Gibson, before she went inside to disregard them both for the entire evening.

They met her again–both Davis and Gibson–at a lunch given for her at Delmonico’s. Nobody in Delmonico’s knew who was sponsoring the lunch. The maitre de told Davis that Miss Langhorne flitted constantly between Richmond and New York doing things.

“What things?” Davis asked.

“I would rather not try to ask her,” the matire de replied.

Davis to Gibson stood for long, silent moments looking at the back of her fine, long neck, smoking their cigars and holding them out from their bodies as if they might explode.

Her father, a Col. Jack Langhorne, said to some other gentlemen (out in the hall but close enough to Davis and Gibson so his strident voice could be heard), “By damn! I don’t want that Yankee dandy or that cartoonist hangin’ round my darlin’!”

“Alas!” Gibson exclaimed to Davis, “she has a dozen dates a week and papa is a Southerner! You could say we’re fighting against geography itself!”

“Sorry, Old Sport!” Davis said, “but I believe she’ll have just one date later this evening. She’ll be going with me to the Mikado. I called her on the phone. During our conversation I shared with her some details of my mother’s southern heritage.”

“Oh,” said Gibson, holding his cigar out from himself and scowling at it, “–a damned shame! I could’ve sung her “The Moon and I.”

“Later maybe,” said Davis. “You see, in spite of what the Colonel said, she–at least–is now aware my mother was a southerner…”

“From Wheeling, West Virginia? That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?”

“Before that Alabama,” Davis said, jamming out his cigar in a brass ashtray nearby.

“My bad luck,” said Gibson.

“Oh, come now. Can you blame me. She walks in beauty, she does. And, after all, YOU put us together in dozens of prints.”

“You know,” said Gibson, interrupting brusquely, “we’re doomed in a way.”

“How’s that?”

“In the popular imagination we both have to have the most beautiful woman. I do especially. Otherwise they’ll say all my work was all a kind of silly fantasy–like Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta.”

“A fantasy?” Davis was smiling the smile of the winner, but not pressing it with his friend.

“I’m afraid so,” said Gibson.

“But you created her for me, didn’t you–you and the magazines?”

“Not this one,” said Gibson glancing over at the attentive young men who were standing around Irene Langhorne, waiting for a word, a smile, a tiny ray of promising light from those eyes.

After a little commotion and a shuffling of people in the main dining room, Irene Langhorne walked toward Davis and came up and shook his hand vigorously. Yes, but he noted that she seemed to be looking past him as if she expected someone or something else. Her eyes were wide and clear–the eyes of a woman who knew what she wanted.

“Yes?” she said.

“I’m Richard Harding Davis; don’t you remember? We had a nice phone chat–about my mother Rebecca Harding Davis and her writing and her Southern family. And we have an engagement to see the Mikado…”

My God! Davis whispered deep inside his head–on the damned phone she told me she certainly knew who I was and now this–is it rudeness?

The rush of those thoughts again–over and under and with the dark shadow of fear after the failure at Lehigh–a litany of positive thoughts he always reviewed to keep his confidence up: I have covered and reported on every Great Event in the last decade–the coronation of Nicholas II in Moscow, kings and coronets in London, every war from hell to breakfast, including the Greco-Turk war with Stevie Crane and Guasimas with Teddy R. I’ve told Mr. Hearst to stuff his yellow journalism. On Broadway I AM Broadway…

“Forgive me. I’m just teasing a bit. Young men often get too serious with me.” She was blushing and embarrassed. She pressed a hand with long, finely-tapered fingers at her swan throat.

Gibson, who was standing somewhere behind Davis, stepped away and walked stiffly toward the punch bowl. Davis seized that opportunity to confirm some details about their going to the Mikado that evening, his heart hammering in his throat as he spoke.

The evening was a smashing failure. Davis sang some lines from Mikado on the way to the theatre but his voice sounded hoarse and rough to him as the carriage rattled along. She was dressed in satin summer green and seemed to be in good spirits, but she was also strangely fidgety and disappeared for a long time at intermission, explaining nothing when she came back. At a glance he saw she was restless, very restless.

Not like her or what he supposed he knew about her. Then she wanted to go home immediately afterward and seemed to be indifferent to the pleasure of his company. As they left the theatre she walked several feet ahead of him, her head down, her steps hard and quick.

Standing next to her on the corner as they waited for a carriage he said, “I would love to have you in my new novel, The Princess.”

“I’m afraid I’m already too much here in the flesh,” she said, stepping up into the leather interior of the hansom and sitting as far away from him as the seat allowed, one lovely hand hanging on the strap at her shoulder.

A smell–a subtly rank one. Hers. What? Dear God! So he was fated by cycles of the moon, a bit of awful luck. He could hardly discuss the matter: how in hell does one suggest to a woman that she–she doesn’t smell good?

Then they were sitting for just a moment in front of the Russell House, a looming Gothic mansion with windows that seemed to droop sadly in the gray drizzle. Miss Langhorne had her white parasol raised. She was a lovely bird perched and ready to fly into the night–the night of the fateful moon.

“It’s awfully wet, I’m afraid,” he said, staring out into the rain.

Not a word from her.

“I’m sorry I’m so distracted,” she said finally. “I’m just awfully uncomfortable or something. Perhaps we’re too much for each other. Perhaps they made too much of us–all those magazine people!”

She stepped out of the carriage; stood there a moment, her large eyes blinking rapidly as if the rain was stinging them under the parasol. “I’m sorry, but I’m just not feeling well this evening,” she said. Then she hurried up the sandstone steps toward the grand lobby where yellow lamps burned dimly through the drizzle.

She was tall so very TALL as she walked away through the rain.

He followed her as best he could and tossed off a hurt “Good night!” Then he walked back and sat in the carriage and watched her disappear forever from his dreams of the Girl. When he tried to call her later that week he was told that she had gone home.

Those “magazine people” she mentioned. Well, yes, but he grimly reminded himself of a cartoon Gibson did for Collier’s Weekly. It was called The Party Wall. Under that photo title Gibson had noted: “A cartoon by C.D. Gibson utilizing the Davis profile.” The Party Wall was a very thick wall. On one side the Gibson Girl, her chair leaned against the wall, her arms folded over one another in some kind of resignation, disappointment; on the other side of that THICK wall he–Davis–in the same posture but looking positively glum! glum! So, was he somehow doomed by his own publicity, his own public image? And then it was, after all, GIBSON’S print.

And then Gibson wooed and won her–quite swiftly as a matter of (sad) fact. No, don’t be a bad sport, he told himself but then he simply wondered why he had lost to “a damned cartoonist” as her father had put it.

Her wedding–the Gibson Girl’s wedding (HIS too, of course). The wedding party (except the bride and groom) traveled from New York to Richmond in a private Pullman car. The wedding party included the Stanford Whites, Ethel Barrymore and John Drew. Mrs.White was drunk most of the time and attempted several sobbing versions of “The Floradora Girl.” Davis adored Ethel Barrymore so he flirted with her for miles, nodding at her over his scotch and soda. When she smiled back at him it was like the smile of an older sister saying, “Silly boy!”

Davis was an usher at the wedding. Dozens of people tried to get into the church early, but Davis and a policeman held them back. The wedding was at St. Paul’s Church. The bride’s gown was a lovely ivory satin. Orange blossoms sprang from her shoulders and nightingales came out of the dark pines to sing to her. A little crescent of diamonds perched on an upsweep of soft hair to be let down when (dear God!) they were alone at last in the bridal chambers.

Davis couldn’t look at the bride or the groom as the wedding activities continued. In the photography, in the album of his sadness he tried to turn the page of their happiness over so he couldn’t quite see it anymore.

A futile gesture. A little choir sang “The Voice That Breathed Over Eden.” Davis laughed a dry, bitter laugh inside himself. Davis could not recall ever being so blue, but he kept up a hardy cheerfulness through thick and gin.

Just after the ceremony Gibson scampered around, presenting his large head and mouth to be kissed by everyone wearing skirts. Irene Langhorne Gibson stood in line and held out her lips to be kissed by Davis. He couldn’t and wouldn’t. She blushed and everybody made fun of Davis. “Oh, come on, now,” they cried, “–The Greatest Lover in New York won’t kiss the bride?”

“Sorry, but I’ve a cold,” he said, trying to not see a diamond glint of anger in Irene’s gray eyes. Gibson came over then and took Davis’ arm. “Wish me well, will you? It’s important to me,” Gibson said.

“Of course!” Davis said. “I wish you all the best. I’ll be chasing her doubles all over town–her triples too.”

Gibson laughed. “Oh, stop taking it all so damn seriously, will you! Won’t you be off to Japan and another war with Jack London or somebody!” he exclaimed, squeezing Davis’ arm so hard Davis thought about jabbing him in the stomach in return.

There was a huge dance under Chinese lanterns on the roof of the Richmond Country Club. Davis danced with everyone in skirts except the bride. He was a fine dancer. Ethel Barrymore said so, smiling benevolently up at him as she did with heroes in her romantic films. Propping him up–like a little sister does for a poor devil of a brother who’s having a bit of bad luck.

“You’re awfully obvious,” Ethel Barrymore told Davis, just before it was time to go.

“I know,” he told her. “I don’t suppose you’d marry me some day?”

“Not after all this,” she said, nodding toward the Gibsons dancing together.

In the bar downstairs he got very drunk and laughed another bitter laugh that startled Ethel who was sitting at a nearby table quietly reading a play script, nodding through the parts, her mouth working silently through the words. A lovely mouth indeed in that Barrymore profile!

At three o’clock or so he fell asleep in a huge, thick-padded leather chair. Its arms were like the great brown thighs of a dark woman. He dreamed a soft, warm dream of such a woman. It was a disturbing dream–erotic, equatorial. As he struggled groggily to awake and not wet his crotch he began to torment himself, cranking masochistic shadowy film footage of the wedding bed. He stood up finally and lingered there wondering what to do with himself.

Out on the veranda the moon was pale, its face comical and, it seemed to Davis, cruel and supercilious.

“One must walk into the night,” some French writer said. Davis had met him while visiting Paris and doing notes for his hasty travelogue About Paris. The writing was hasty–typically so.

Davis swore, stepped down from the veranda and began to walk dizzily down a little road that wound into the Virginia darkness.

On the road–Richard Harding Davis forever on the road. Well, he could not turn back.

He had told a helluva lot of people he was going to crowd the experiences of several lifetimes into one so it was expected of him. He wondered how far it was to–to the next someplace he had never traveled.

Adrift–between loops of sad remembrance and slipping-off states of willful amnesia. Behind him a light was perhaps going on in an upper bedroom of that house. Then going out, the darkness full of struggles of joy, the goddam moon blessing them with its moronic face.

He told himself that he would be damn sure to find a woman who was REAL next time around. No more longing of the moth for (oh, bitter words!) the star. What is it that was/is missing in me? he asked himself. Asked it only once before kicking the words away in a tough bit of copy editing.

On the road–forever on the road.

His mother had told him he was the knight-errant of American idealism. Had knighted him; nighted him.

Lightning flashes off south…

One must learn to walk into the night…

And then bravely into the wide world.


Read John’s Interview about The Gibson Boy, an American Hero, his novel in progress.