Emily Ryerson's Chicago Adventure with Queen Marie
Among the throngs that wandered in and out of the Chateau d'Horizon, one might occasionally see the figure of a stoutish woman in late middle age, very simply dressed in black, reclining in a chair with one hand on an ebony cane and the other playing with a long string of pearls. She had no pretensions to great beauty; and yet, she stood out from the painted extravagant creatures by whom she was surrounded. And if you watched her, as the day went by, you would notice that somehow or other—and with certainly no effect on her part—she, and not Maxine, was the 'life and soul' of the party. If there was anybody particularly distinguished, he would gravitate towards that chair, find himself captivated, and remain till he was torn away by some power beyond his control. Young men deserted the most beautiful young ladies, and young ladies deserted the most beautiful young men, merely to sit with this—outwardly—quite ordinary person. For what? Not certainly for her 'chic'—(atrocious word!)—for though she bought most of her clothes at Lanvin, and though she had an admirable maid to look after them, she cared so little about dress that she was quite capable of wearing them inside out. (Once, when her maid was ill, she did, and sat with me in the front row of the Metropolitan proclaiming to all the world that she was a patron of the Galeries Lafayette.) Nor for her money, for though she had a very large income, and was the soul of generosity, she had also a very large collection of relations . . . and these details, on the Riviera, are very soon répandus among the spongers. Nor for any of those curious qualities which, for lack of a better phrase, I must call 'party manners'—for she did not play the piano, her bridge was atrocious, her backgammon non-existent and—worst of all—she never told malicious stories about her dearest friends.
So what was it that made the whole of that world—and of any other world in which she moved—gather round the chair of Emily Borie Sherfesee—whom Chicago will perhaps remember as Emily Ryerson?
I can only fall back on the old word—'life'. Emily bubbled with life. She was a brimming jug of it, red, neat, unadulterated. Certain women can be compared to certain wines—Eleanor Roosevelt is a nice clean cider, Garbo is a rare and exquisite hock (in danger of going sour), the Duchess of Windsor is Pommery 1935, well iced, Marian Anderson is rich old port. But to find the Bacchic equivalent of Emily you would have to go through the whole cellar.
She was also—and again I have to fall back on a tattered old warhorse of a word—a 'lady'. There have been thousands of definitions of a 'lady'—ethical, aesthetic, impudent. What is a lady? It is the sort of question they ask one at Brains Trusts, and one never has the answer ready. For the moment I will suggest that a lady is one who is sure of her position. Whatever doubts Emily may, from time to time, in common with the rest of us, have entertained about the universe, she never entertained any doubts about that. She was sure of her position because she never thought of it.
I really introduced the figure of Emily in order to tell my favourite story about her, which is linked with the visit to Chicago of the late Queen Marie of Roumania.
As one of the leaders of Chicago society, Emily was naturally very much to the fore in all the arrangements which were made for entertaining her Majesty. One day some witty dramatist will use the Queen's tour as the theme for a comedy; it abounded in ludicrous situations; and it would be difficult to say who behaved most strangely, the Queen, or the ladies who pursued her. The only person who really came well out of the business was Emily herself.
It happened like this. On the Queen's last night in Chicago there was a gala performance at the Opera, attended by Queen Marie, sitting in Emily's box. I forget what was performed, or who was singing; after all, these were matters of quite minor importance, for on this occasion the audience was the show. Never, even at the Diamond Horseshoe, had so many jewels blazed on American bosoms, so many orchids trembled on American shoulders.
High up above this glittering mob sat the Queen and Emily—the Queen looking more than ever like Hollywood's conception of Balkan regality, and Emily looking—well—just herself, except that she had dabbed a little powder on her nose, and stuck a tiara on her head. The performance rolled on to its dramatic conclusion, the final curtain fell, and the audience rose to stand in silence to the Roumanian national anthem. This concluded, the Queen turned with a gracious gesture to Emily . . . and . . .
'And,' said Emily, 'I could see that she was fishing in her bag to give me something—probably the Order of the Fifth Roumanian Eagle, with palms, or something like that, and really, I didn't want it at all.'
'You have been so very, very kind to me,' began the Queen, still fishing in her bag, 'and I have been wondering if there is any way in which I can possibly repay you . .. . '
'Yes, ma'am,' interrupted Emily. 'There is.'
The Queen looked somewhat startled by this abrupt declaration. 'Indeed?'
'There's one thing I really do want,' said Emily.
'What is that?' And the Queen, evidently deciding that this was not quite the moment for the Order of the Fifth Roumanian Eagle, with or without palms, shut her bag with a snap.
'All my life,' said Emily very earnestly, 'I have longed to drive full tilt round Chicago with all the speed cops whistling around, as though I were an ambulance or a gangster, or both. You have been doing it, ma'am, for days . . . .'
The Queen gasped.
'Could we possibly . . . could we possibly do it together—tonight?'
The Queen gasped again. For a moment Emily feared there was going to be an explosion. And then, slowly, the Queen began to smile, and then to laugh, and to go on laughing. 'I think,' she said, 'that this is the most enchanting thing that has happened to me since I came to America.'
'Then we really may do it?'
'We will go at once.'
And together the two ladies made their way through the milling crowds. As they entered the car there was a whispered consultation with the chauffeur. And then they set off, at such a pace and with such a roar of sirens that the peaceful inhabitants of Chicago must have shivered in their beds, convinced that a full-scale war had broken out among the gangsters. How long they continued their breathless progress up and down the city I do not know. Emily told me that it was only for about ten minutes; years later in Bucharest, Queen Marie, recalling the incident, told me that it seemed to her to go on for at least a couple of hours. Both ladies, however, agreed on one point—that it was the happiest lark they had ever enjoyed since they were kids at the circus.
Do you begin to see Emily's point, and why her chair was the centre of any gathering, however distinguished? Or have I given the impression that her attraction was merely a question of high spirits? It went very much deeper than that.
Hugh Walpole, who adored her, once said to me that if Aeschylus had known Emily he would have written a great tragedy around her. That was perhaps an exaggeration, but there had been a time in her life when fate dealt her a series of blows under which a lesser woman would have sunk exhausted. With her first husband and two young children she was motoring in France when a cable arrived from America bringing word of the sudden death in a motor accident of their eldest son—an undergraduate at Yale and a boy of exceptional promise. They drove through the night, back to Paris, to get cabins on the first boat home; and they got them—on the Titanic. As the ship went down, the last thing she saw was the glow of her husband's cigar, waving cheerfully through the darkness. She came home a widow, to the grave of her boy. And there was soon another grave. Her daughter Suzette was one of the rarest creatures God ever made. She too died. Suzette's husband—whom Emily adored, and to whom she clung in those dark days—found life insupportable, and disappeared without trace while on a boat bound for South America.
It was that sort of thing, again and again; a strange and ominous fatality seemed to dog the footsteps of those whom she loved. Only in the later years, in her villa at Cap Ferrat, with the ideal companionship of her second husband, Forsythe Sherfesee, did she know any peace.
It was Forsythe—scholarly, retiring Forsythe—who told me the story on which I should like to end this little memoir. They were motoring together in the North-West Frontier province of India, between Rawalpindi and Srinagar, on their way to the Vale of Kashmir—Emily, Forsythe, an Indian chauffeur and Gilberte, her French maid. Towards dusk, in high mountainous country, they reached a narrow, curving section where the road had been hewn out of a precipitous mountain-side; a deep perpendicular abyss on one side and an almost equally perpendicular cliff rising high up on the other, almost into the clouds. Somewhere, very high up above the road, there had been a land-slide, and earth and uprooted bushes and gigantic rocks came hurtling down almost without intermission, striking the road and bounding off into the ravine below. This had been going on for several hours, and there, stretching far into the distance, was a traffic block of altogether Asiatic proportions. Camels, bullock carts, lorries, caravans, all frozen into immobility. Emily, who could never bear to be kept waiting, leant out of the window and demanded the cause of the holdup. Even as she spoke, a loud roar supplied the answer; a large portion of the overhanging cliffs came hurtling down in a cascade of rocks and dust.
Emily got out, sized up the whole situation, re-entered the car, and told the chauffeur to go ahead. He protested, pointing to what was happening, and refused to budge. The road superintendent came up and refused to let them pass. Thereupon Emily, calmly but with a most determined manner, got out of the car. 'Nonsense,' she said. 'If you're all afraid of a little dirt I'll go by myself,' and started out on foot, followed, with a sigh, by a resigned but apprehensive Forsythe. Unhurriedly, with never a glance backwards, as though she were sauntering in her own garden, she calmly walked across the dangerous stretch, the rain of rocks and dirt dividing to permit her passage. The road-workers, the halted travellers, watched her silently, and when she was safely across—it seemed a very long time—the chauffeur, ashamed of his very excusable hesitation, threw the car into gear and sped across as quickly as he could, fortunately without mishap. When he caught up with them, Emily quietly took her seat, put up her parasol, and calmly resumed her interrupted conversation, an intricate discussion on the early letters of Henry James—who, needless to say, had been among her admirers. So they proceeded, past the huddled tribes of Asia, armed with a parasol, and the avalanches stayed their fury. They knew when they had met their match.
Yes, Emily was a great woman. She was more, she was a great soul.