It was by accident that I was confronted with an opportunity to change my life. As a volunteer on the events committee of the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival, I was invited to attend the gala for the festival at Peter Beard’s house in Montauk, at which I found myself in conversation with the legendary literary agent, Samson Rothbard, who had agented numerous best sellers and whose client list was a veritable Who’s Who of American authors.
The summer sun was declining while Rothbard, standing alone, drink in hand, short, with a majestic mane of white hair, gazed out beyond the dramatic cliffs to the azure ocean.
“You could fall off and kill yourself,” he joked, noticing me as I, too, absorbed the spectacular view. “Samson Rothbard,” he extended his hand.
“Roger Westerfield,” I replied.
“And you are…?
He was dressed in a seersucker jacket and khaki trousers, his crisp blue shirt open at the collar. His nose looked not unlike a beet someone had stuck on his face, while his brown eyes twinkled mischievously.
I explained that I was on the events committee and that I had loved Shakespeare since college.
I started to explain to him that I was a lawyer, but that I had always wanted to be a writer and had won a literary prize while at college but took the practical route and applied to law school.
“Another one,” he sighed. “My own lawyer keeps giving me manuscripts and I tell him to rewrite them. It’s a game we play. He pretends I’m encouraging him and I don’t deny it, but he never gives me back any of them.”
With that, Celeste, my English trophy wife, found me. We had met at a book signing in London when I was still politically engaged and she was rebelling against her posh family by becoming a Trotskyite. Times changed and so do we. I introduced her to Rothbard, who undressed her with his eyes. In spite of his bizarre looks, women found him fascinating. He was reported to have had numerous affairs, including one with Elizabeth Taylor, who famously had said, “It’s better to talk to Samson than to fuck him.”
Celeste, tall, thin and blonde, was wearing a smart short, light blue number revealing her long, shapely, deeply tanned legs. She was holding a glass of champagne, I a glass of red.
“Your husband has been telling me he wants to write. “Are you willing to let him try?”
“Roger is a grown man. He can do what he wants, just as long as it doesn’t cost us money.”
“I’ll make Roger this deal. If you let him go somewhere secluded with no distractions for a couple of weeks to do nothing but write, I’ll show it around. Roger seems a decent sort and I have nothing to lose. I’m so famous, nobody can touch me, and besides, he might have some talent. If it doesn’t work, it was a bad joke. If it’s any good, I’m a genius. That’s my offer for today.”
“Roger goes off somewhere and becomes Ernest Hemingway? “ she laughed. “Well, your birthday is coming up. I’ll give you a present of a couple of weeks somewhere. Tell your firm you’re taking a vacation. You haven’t had one in ages. They owe it to you.”
Rothbard handed me his card with his address, phone number and email address.
“You can email me what you’ve done.”
We shook hands and he walked away to converse with Edward Albee.
On the drive back to Bridgehampton after the party, Celeste seemed amused.
“Well, where will it be? Timbuktu, Tazmania? Maybe the Orkney Islands,” she joshed. “Don’t worry. I’ll find someplace. We’ll have a nice birthday dinner and you’ll take off.”’
Before Celeste went to bed, she checked her emails, as was her habit. Sure enough, there was a random one from Bill Squires Properties in St. Simons Island, Georgia. “Rent or buy,” it said, with a link to a website.
“Look at this,” Celeste called to me while I was washing up.
She quickly googled St. Simons. It was off the southeast coast of Georgia and had once been home to cotton plantations. “They say it’s haunted,” she laughed, “That should inspire you.” I think she really needed a vacation from me as much as I needed one from her. Our relationship had been growing tense as her business flourished and I spent more and more time at my office in New York. Without waiting to hear if my firm would approve, she booked me for a two week stay in a condo managed by Bill Squires. My law firm allowed me to do this with some reluctance, but as the senior partner was engaged in writing a Civil War history and was often away, they could hardly tell me no. Besides, I was something of a rainmaker, bringing in clients through social connections.
It was March when I set out by car for the long drive down from my home in Bridgehampton, charging up the gas on my firm credit card. St. Simon sounded idyllic, so it was with considerable anticipation that I looked forward to the peace and tranquility. It was my last shot at the liberty to which every human is entitled but prevented from achieving buy a guilty sense that is somehow selfish and egotistical.
The drive down was fatiguing, the motels horrific. It was getting late when I reached Brunswick, a once fashionable city that had gone into decline but was in the midst of something of a revival. The stretches of marshland, glistening in the last spare rays of sunlight, spread out before me as I crossed the bridge to St. Simons. I phoned the agent who gave me directions to his office on the second floor of an ancient and creaky building, where he gave me the keys, leading the way to the condo complex several blocks down the street. He bowed in a courtly southern manner and said goodnight, wishing me a good stay, “You write that novel, now,” he smiled as he left.
My routine, which I settled into quickly, was to get up at seven, go into the village for a buffet breakfast of unhealthy but delicious southern specialties, including grits, sausage, bacon and eggs, with plenty of coffee, and a piece of cornbread. After reading the paper, I would start writing by hand before transcribing onto my laptop. It was a thriller I called “Appointment in Riyadh,” with no literary pretensions. A terrorist attempt to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia is thwarted by a daring female C.I.A. intelligence officer. I had bought several volumes on Saudi Arabia and the royal family and its corruption and had done extensive research before coming down. After writing all morning, I stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant. At two, I took a long walk on the beach, ending with a dip in the shallow, calm water, swimming far out until I could not touch. After drying off in the sun, I went back to the condo to write until five. Then, it was time for drinks and dinner, some television or reading and bed. I became enchanted with the island, with its beaches, its moss-hanging oak trees; like Key West without the hysteria.
It was towards the end of the two weeks that the broker, Bill Squires appeared at my door to ask me if I would like to drive around the island to look at properties. I had heard from two women I had chatted up at the bar of a somewhat upscale restaurant that the last property going for less than a million on Sea Island had just been sold, and that real estate on St. Simons was following the same pattern. “Why not me?” I thought. “Why can’t I buy a place, fix it up, and turn it over?” I had never entertained such a thought before, but it struck me that this might be a good possibility. So I agreed, and Squires and I set out in pursuit of gold in the form of real property.
Squires had the demeanor of a relaxed Georgian with a gracious manner. Pale white and gangly, he dressed casually and chatted amiably as we drove. “That’s the mansion of a guy who made a fortune on Medicare,” he said, pointing to a garish version of Tara on a large, well-kept property. “He’s in jail now, but his family keeps the place up real nice.”
When we came to North Harrington Street, a predominantly black enclave, he showed me a small cottage painted yellow on a medium sized lot with an enclosed, screened front porch, living room, two bedrooms, a comfortable kitchen and one bath. A carport virtually abutted the property next-door. The cottage, until recently inhabited by an elderly black lady from an old family, had a sloping, neatly manicured lawn “I’ll buy it,” I said impulsively, when I heard the price was $68,000. I would have to put $5,000 down. Squires said he knew a mortgage broker who would get me a mortgage on excellent terms and a lawyer who did business with him, to handle the closing.
Ned Grafton, it appeared, handled everybody’s closing. He had a large house on Sea Island, played a lot of golf, and drove a Rolls Royce. He was in his early forties, dressed in a preppy style, and intended to retire in the very near future. When I met him at his office, he was very smooth. He had pale skin and flattened down light brown hair parted on the right. His southern accent was soft and subdued. Sitting at a desk that was covered with legal documents, he offered me a seat facing the him.
“These people on North Harrington Street are descendents of slaves,” he explained. “There used to be plantations on the island, but when Sherman ended his march at the sea, he ordered that the plantations be carved up and land given to the now freed slaves. On the rest of the island most sold their property to white folks and left, but the people on North Harrington remained.”
I noticed that he avoided any reference to the race or color of the North Harrington residents. Perhaps because I was a northerner, he sensed I might detect a note of condescension. I had overheard someone in a bar comment that people said things about blacks on the island that no one would dare say in Atlanta. People on St. Simons stayed away from Brunswick on the mainland, where there was a sizeable population of blacks living in a housing project where drugs and AIDS were rampant. Gay couples from Atlanta, however, had started moving in and fixing up ante-bellum houses, giving what became known at the “historic district” a certain cachet. But, then again, because the slaves were black, a reference to their race would have been a redundancy.
“None of these former slaves filed deeds. Well, they didn’t have lawyers, did they? They only had a piece of paper from the Union Army that they were supposed to present to get a deed. Well, a few did it, but most didn’t. This has given rise, I might say, to a considerable amount of fighting within and between families over title. In the case of this property, on which you have made an offer, there will be trouble with the title, proving ownership, getting title insurance, that sort of stuff. Mae Ramsey has been living in the house for thirty some odd years. It was moved there by her family to the lot they considered theirs. She is ninety-three years old and wants to live with her niece in Brunswick. The Ramseys trace their ownership to their slave ancestors. I think the County Clerk will probably accept affidavits from Mrs. Ramsey and members of her family. That’s why it’s good to have me as your lawyer. The Clerk trusts me and if I show him the documents, he won’t give me any trouble. It will just take time to get Mrs. Ramsey to sign the thing. She knows she’s selling, but she really can’t get herself to do it. She lived there with her late husband and children, and moving out will be a kind of surrender. She doesn’t cotton to the idea of selling to, well, you understand.”
“Maybe if I met her, it might help.”
“Probably not, but we could give it a shot. She’s with her niece now, over in Brunswick. I’ll arrange it. But let me be frank. They just don’t like people like us.”
“You mean white people?”
“Exactly. And they call us the racists.”
I held my tongue, saying to myself, “Maybe that’s because of what the white people did to them.” But there was no point. I had to win her over. It interested me that Grafton could say “white” but not “black.” They were always “those folks,” “the people on North Harrington Street,” and so forth. He knew they existed, but he tried as best he could to blot that out of his mind. I couldn’t be smug about race because I was a northerner. It was really no better there. I had actually handled a couple of civil rights cases. In Southampton, I had won an open housing case for a black man with an Italian wife, who owned a pizza parlor. The Polish farmer who owned the house had refused to rent it to him, but I had prevailed in the New York Human Rights Commission. That was my ace in the hole, I decided, even though I had long ago abandoned any interest in justice. “Justice, justice thou shall pursue,” it says in the book of Isaiah. But someone once said that if you’ve got something inside you and you don’t let it out, it will kill you. Also, I once read in the Bhagavad-Gita, in a translation by Christopher Isherwood (maybe he made it up and snuck it in) that it was better to do your own work badly than someone else’s well. Exactly right, I had thought. I was in a race against death to write and couldn’t stand being a lawyer any longer. The profession had driven me to drink and popping pills, as it had many others, to the point that the New York Bar had hotlines for help for alcohol and drug abuse problems. No, I won’t turn it over. This was the house I would do it in, I convinced myself. I would name it “The Writer’s Retreat” and rent it out when I wasn’t there.
We drove over to Brunswick the next morning. Grafton parked his Rolls Royce in front of a tiny house on a street lined with tiny houses, most of them in shoddy condition. In an instant, some twenty black children raced to it in wonderment. They offered to guard it for him if he would pay them. At that, a tall, very thin young black man with dreadlocks and pronounced cheekbones eased over and assured Grafton in a soft voice that he didn’t have to pay anybody. The car would be safe. Grafton knew it would be. The man got rid of the children with a wave of his hand, as though he were brushing away flies. We got out into the oppressive heart and Grafton rang the bell.