From the Improvement Era, January 1941 –
Sweet and Sophisticated
By John Sherman Walker
The story of a young man who learned to define his terms after discovering the contradiction of a girl who was both.
It should have been the quiet, grayish eyes of Miss Constance C—, confiding answer-woman of the Evening Call’s “Heartthrobs and Problems” column, that scanned the sheets of the letter, signed,”Mary McKean,” with the further identifying name, “Sweet and Sophisticated,” for the lines of that letter were as intimate as the throbbings of a maiden’s heart.
Not that Bruce Gordon, of The Call’s editorial staff, was violating the confidence of the “col-yum,”as he opened the faintly violet-scented envelope that had come in that afternoon’s mail. It just happened that The Call’s popular answer-lady, Constance C—, had taken a week-end trip. Her daily column feature had been made up for only a few days in advance, and did not allow for the snow-blizzard that caused delay on the return trip. It was a curious – and unprecedented–situation.
Bruce Gordon had written copy on all of the regular city runs – town and county building – night police – theatres – and sports, in his career with The Call. But never had he served in the capacity of “answer-man.”
Haig, The Call’s city editor, had called Gordon into the inner office of the “Heartthrobs and Problems”sanctuary one morning the week previous, and had simply handed him a telegram from an isolated little town upstate. It read: “Snow-bound STOP Can you carry on column until we come? Constance C—.”
Gordon, vaguely uneasy as he read, had looked up questioningly. Haig merely underlined with his pencil the last words of the telegram, “Can you carry on column until we come?”
Gordon had asked: “Is that an assignment?”
And Haig, with a mild smile about his Scotch lips, said, “An assignment.”
Closing the Heartthrobs door quietly as he went out – he had left Bruce Gordon to solve the problems within. And so, there was Bruce Gordon reading the revealing letter of this Mary McKean who stated her problem and signed herself “Sweet and Sophisticated.”
Twice, three times, Gordon read over the letter:
“Dear Constance C—
“You’re all I have left to appeal to – and I’m coming with a pent-up heart of gall, that must be drained of its bitterness – or else!–
“Constance, dear, have you ever scanned yourself in the mirror, knowing that you were very pretty – and perfect in your new party dress ensemble, as you drew the luxury of a silver cape about your shoulders – and twinkled off on silver slippers– to an all-promising party?
“And have you come home that night disillusioned and drooping – and cried yourself to sleep? Have you done that once and twice and thrice – and after that stayed home through evenings of loneliness and choked-up misery – rather than indulge in the promiscuous ‘petting,’ drinking, and smoking of the present-day parties?
“I’m not seeking pity or singing self-praise, but only making a sincere analysis of myself when I tell you I’m known to be a charming, more than ordinarily attractive young lady. I play the piano well, sing, and like dancing exceedingly. Can be a brilliant conversationalist, if the occasion calls for it – though I’m not a studious prude. I’m generous and can be warmly enthusiastic over a great many things.
“And so what do these enthusiasms and virtues get me – socially – in this day and age? Only – a big lonely chair at home by the telephone, that after a while doesn’t ring for me at all – any more. And I love parties, and people – the companionship of girls and fellows – and dancing so much!
“If sophistication means smartness and chic and having the savoir-faire of the world – I’m asking you, woman to woman, though I more than qualify in all those things – what’ll I do!
(sighed) Sweet and Sophisticated.”
The empty editorial rooms were silent now as a no-man’s land in lull of battle. The earlier muffled barrage from the battery of linotypes off toward the composing room was but an echo. And the thundering roll of the big artillery-press downstairs had long since ceased.
Gordon mused – groping toward his reply. Vaguely, phrases were forming in his mind. Frowning, he sauntered back to the typewriter and stood for a moment idly drumming his finger-tips on the desk-top. He snapped on a desk-lamp.
At once another unopened letter, that he had not previously noticed, near the typewriter, caught his eye. It was addressed to Constance C— and secretary. Mechanically Gordon slit the envelope with a paper-knife and drew out the enclosures: two miniature cardboard artist’s palettes – hand-marked invitations for two, to the annual Arts Masque, to be held that night in the new Art Lodge.
With the envelope and palettes still in hand he went again to the window and standing with feet wide apart, as though to balance his thoughts, he glowered down – straight upon the radiant sign across the street, Ye Olde Costume Shoppe.
It was too much. Something seemed forcing his thoughts into one channel. He blinked and thought swiftly. No time for costumes now. Tuxedo– and a domino–for him. A domino half-mask for her – and her own formal party dress.
Hmm-mm-m! That would be a test of one’s social graces and talents and apparel. To go formal to an Arts Masquerade – where persons would be informally critical.
Somehow, though, Bruce Gordon was inclined to the belief that “Sweet and Sophisticated” would enjoy herself immensely at that gay social event. He was certain that she could be her own sweet self – and also an entirely “sophisticated” personality there among the smartest of the smart.
It was a nice point to prove. And more and more Bruce desired to test his theory. Of his own ability to play the part of Mary McKean’s “perfect escort”– for the one night at least – Gordon was quite sure of himself.
Turning quickly, he was at the desk-phone, with Mary’s address before him, calling “Information.” The answer came back:
“Lakewood – The-r-ee – oh – oh – two – thr—”
Gordon cut short the last trilled “three” of the operator. He was thinking swiftly. He had an exciting plan. But there should be someone who knew them both, to introduce them– he and Mary McKean.
And there was Judge Landor. The very one, of course. It was an inspiration. Judge Landor, as a patron of the arts, would unquestionably be going that night.
The street had a familiar sound to it. The judge, an old acquaintance of Gordon’s, lived on that same street; and, by the house numbers, not far from the Stuart home, where Mary McKean stayed.
In an instant Gordon was calling his old friend, Judge Landor, explaining to him his plan for the evening, of his desire to meet Mary McKean and to take her that night to the Arts Masque Ball.
Judge Landor, laughing in his booming voice, after assuring Gordon that he knew the Stuarts and Mary McKean very well, at once agreed to go along with them to the Arts Masque and make the introductions at unmasking time. Then Gordon was putting through his other “Lakewood”call.
Mary McKean was curled in a chair, listening to low music over the radio when Bruce Gordon’s phone call came, startling her from her rather blue reverie; he greeted her like an old friend. “Lucky you’re home this evening, Mary. I’ve tickets for two to the Arts Masque – tonight. Will you come? It’s sudden to call you this way, I know; but it’ll be a surprise party for me, too. Say you’ll accept.”
Her perplexed voice demanded. “But, who – who is it that’s calling, please?”
Bruce Gordon chuckled and replied, “One who knows you rather well, Mary. But it’s masquerade, tonight, you know. Let’s make this an adventure – keep the surprise – until we unmask. We’ll not have time now for costumes. We’ll go formal.
“I’m sending a messenger with a domino mask – and violets. Can you be ready by nine?”
A trifle flurried, she hesitated, “We-l-l, I could. Yes, I can – be ready at night. But –” Gordon reassured her, “I have asked Judge Landor, whom we both know, I believe, to come with us – so really there is no reason why you shouldn’t accept.”
“With Judge Landor?” Her voice was gladly accepting then. “Oh, then I shall be happy to accompany you.”
“Good,” Gordon exclaimed.” At nine, then. Good-bye.”
Ten minutes later Gordon was hurrying from the costume shop across the street, then to a little flower-shop for a corsage of rose-buds and violets, and again entering the editorial offices of The Call, he sat once more before the typewriter.
Rubbing his fingers, still tingling with the cold, he first called a messenger, then, in an inspired mood, he typed out an answer to the letter of “Sweet and Sophisticated” – Mary McKean.
As the gorgon’s-head door-knocker sounded, the elderly lady of the house went to the door and from the doorway Judge Landor’s rumbling voice speaking:
“Good evening, Mrs. Stuart. Is Mary ready?”
The matron’s voice answered from the hallway,
“Come in, please. Mary will be down presently.”
Entering after the judge, Bruce Gordon, with a black domino mask covering his eyes, looked up the stairway and saw her – caught his breath at her modest matureness.
She was lovely in a Grecian drape, silver-metal gown, with matching silver slippers, twinkling down the oaken stairs. Gordon’s violets caught near her white throat, were the true deep color of her eyes – though Bruce Gordon could not determine them now, for she wore the silver half-mask that he had sent with the violets.
A small silver bracelet on her delicately rounded arm and the pearls at her ears were the only jewelry that she wore. Her hair, under the lights, was molded gold. Loosely over her arms he held silken gloves and a silver cape.
The judge introduced Gordon then, only as the “Mystery Man.” He might have been one of many tall, dark-haired young men whom Mary knew – but his voice held her unknowing.
Coming toward them she gave Bruce Gordon her hand, saying, with a smile, “Good evening, Mister – Mystery Man.”
Bruce Gordon laughingly answered,”And to you – Miss Mystery. May we hurry on, please. I’m afraid we’ve missed several of the skits already.”
Then he was placing the silver cape about her shoulders. At the curb a taxicab was waiting.
At the gay Arts Masque, well underway, when Bruce and Mary and the Judge arrived, the two were drawn into the laughing, turbulent, colorful maelstrom that slowly swirled around the ballroom of the new Art Lodge.
Tonight it was exotically aglow with the low lights of tasseled oriental lamps and swaying Chinese lanterns overhead. From a grove of papier-mache palms, the orchestra was playing softly, and a romantic tenor was singing the theme–
After the Masquerade’s o’er,
After the dance is done,
How many vows will be made there,
How many hearts beat as one?
After the dancers unmask, when
True lover’s pledges are asked,
How many romances will last, then,
After the Masquerade?
The music stilled to silence and at the drummer’s crash of cymbals, the dancing couples turned for the announcement from the master of ceremonies– a gay Bohemian in artist smock, beret, and pantaloons.
A contest dance– he was saying. The best pair of dancers – to be chosen – by the applause of the audience. His voice trailed off, “On with the dance –”
The orchestra struck up the theme waltz again – “After the Masquerade’s o’er – After the dance is done – ”
It was all grand fun. Oh, the thrill of sensing how perfectly you two were gliding among the throng, his masked eyes lowered attentively as he smiled as you floated on winged slippers – triumph!
Soon there were only a dozen, then four couples, besides Mary and Bruce, left on the floor. Mary recognized several of the dancers – girls and fellows whom she had known in school and college.
In costume, they were paired – a high-hatted Beau Brummel and beauteous Madame Pompadour. Dangerous dance rivals, indeed! None other, in fact, than the campus favorites of a year gone, who had once said that you had to “pet” to get a date.
Mary’s heart throbbed faster and faster as the critical handclappings of the audience honored them above the others. Oh! the ecstacy of this evening!
Deliberately, seeming unaware of their selection, Gordon danced with Mary to the farther end of the hall – and lost himself and his partner in a crowd of merry makers passing downstairs to the Trophy Room. From every side they were hailed with congratulations, and soon the master of ceremonies himself had sought them out for presentation as the winners of the contest dance.
In the ballroom again, with the group of other recent winners, near the orchestra, Bruce drew Mary into the seclusion of the paper-palms and handing her an envelope he said quietly,
“Before we unmask, Mary, I believe this letter will explain everything. You will have time to read it now.”
She opened it wonderingly. There was a notation that she read first:
“Dear Miss Mary McKean:
“I have presumed to answer your recent letter to the Heartthrob’s column – tonight, in person!
For a time, please understand, I am the authorized ‘answer-man’ for The Call, Miss Constance C— and her secretary having been unavoidably detained out of the city, while on a trip, by a snow-storm. Consequently I was the one assigned to ‘carry on’ for them until their return here.
“If I have overstepped my authorized bounds, please forgive my trespass.
“Believe me, your sincere, ‘answer-man.’
It was written on The Call’s “Heartthrobs and Problems” letterhead, and Mary caught her breath in a little gasp of surprise – and quickly looked up at Bruce Gordon. He was smiling, but his masked eyes told her nothing.
Even when, later, Mary looked into the steady, deep brown eyes of Bruce Gordon, as they unmasked, she was not more thrilled, or the moment when Judge Landor grasped a hand of each of them in congratulations, in the happy moments when surprised friends were crowding around them in warm praise. Or during the grand march when she strolled proudly around the room on the arm of Bruce Gordon. None of those events were dearer in her memory than when she first read Bruce Gordon’s letter.
Her eyes were misted with happy tears as she read:
“Words are deceitful things, sometimes – and very often we’re misled by them – until we discover their true meanings.
“If ‘sophistication’ did mean being smart and chic and very wise – then, my dear, I’m sure I might call you by that name. True, as you’ve written, persons so often mistake the word for expressing just those things.
“But my dictionary says sophistication is ‘(a) The use of, or deception by, sophistry; a leading, or going astray by or as by sophistic reasoning. (b) State of being involved, or subtle; state of being without directness, simplicity, or naturalness; artificiality.’
“So, you see, I must know you only by your own lovely name of Mary.
“It is truly unfortunate that you should have experienced only the ‘sophisticated’ kind of parties –though I know they are many times indulged in by the ‘very best’ of fellows and girls.
“But, Mary, I know, and you will too, that there are as many fine, gay, ‘good’ parties given – and by just as many fine young people of this day and age – as ever.
“You’ll protest, I know, and I admire you for your loyalty, that your closest girl chums and the fellows you think most of are indulgers in the things that you have shown you dislike. Even – you’d rather tolerate their failings than give up those dear friends you’ve been ‘pals’ with since earliest school days.
“Oh, you won’t have to give them up; show them up! Many of them you can win over to your side of the argument. So many of them do those things, anyway, merely because they think it smart – ‘sophisticated.’
“Dainty fingers toy with a long holder with its pungent burning cigarette. Overly lipsticked lips sip a wine or gulp a spoonful of whiskey – like a medicine – for that’s supposed to be the ‘swanky’ thing to do.
“That’s the start of true sophistication, in its ugliest definition. Stupid, silly gestures. Certainly nothing smart about it – deliberately drugging oneself.
“What is a fellow’s ideal of a girl? It is essentially the same now as in every other age. His desires are for a feminine companion. For home – family – and fireside friendships, first, for pursuits which he enjoys doing and which his wife will enthusiastically share with him, for pleasures that he can enjoy with her; out-of-doors sports – social entertainments – the arts – and religion.
“All of a fellow’s associations with a girl lead ultimately to a consideration of these things – or should. They are the untarnishable gold nuggets of life that he finds – and refines.
“The synthetic pleasures – the artificial sophistications that he indulges in are only the worthless lumps of fool’s gold.