What The Rich Sons Did
The air simmers over Nice like a hot stove and the streets wind up into nowhere. Everything burns vermillion, white and blue, the men clasping at the ends of cigarettes between withered fingertips as they holler at you in broken French. Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, they say above the gulls. Un baiser, s’il vous plaît, un baiser pour moi. But no kiss ever comes, except from the women with painted faces that haunt the street lamps along the Rue de France. This is a place where the men are lonely among men, and women are to be bought for a few moments away from lady solitude.
This was a place for artists, once. Men who lay under that impossible blue and dreamt of a world without the acrid taste of gunpowder that never quite left the scars that lined their minds in the trenches. A place for white thick bodies with dark hair that tasted of olive oil at the tongue, stretched over the chaise longue in mockery of decorum and the illusion of art. A place of faceless love, a love lost without heartache when the time came to return to commissioning uncles in Madrid and wives in Paris. A place for long nights spent dancing with the green fairy and trying to remember the word for agape. For a short time, Nice was that place between the wars, just a horizon of nothingness and of little consequence beyond dreaming, love and bohemian frivolity. After the war, all that was gone, the youth long dead, the lovers long forgotten.
By the summer of 1953, Nice swelled with the borgeousie craning their necks to the Baie de Anges to the white yachts that sailed like angels to the left of the horizon of nothing, crowded around the canopies of rocks that reared up from the seabed. The land made up of the decks and sails of the rich, the last of the free. A world too euphoric in reverie to ever be glimpsed at by the young women who clung to crumbling hotel balconies and dreamed of what could never be. Which is where, I suppose, this story begins.
There were four of them, back then, not including myself and Natalia. The press called them the Les Fils Américains Riches. We, being girls, still in our teens, were politely ignored as the maidens of circumstance. They were not afforded the same privilege, each story and column more salacious than the last. Over and over, from Brussels to Toronto, their names and ages rang out in a death knell of spitting public rage.
David Van Beenhouwer, 21, Albion Macellaio, 20, Jean Siellose, 22
and of course, as the papers were all too eager to report, Peter Sjaellos-Bilterveck, also 22.
For all but those who knew them before it happened, they were nothing more to history than a selection of black and white dots in the darkest imaginations of a long-ago newspaper. Four boys who played too close to the devil and never quite escaped the darkness of what did, or didn’t happen that night, late on August 12, 1953. But they were more than that, at the risk of sounding callous or dismissive. A beast is not born a beast, any more than a saint is born a saint.
I met David Van Beenhouwer on the tennis courts at his father’s estate by Bridgehampton, late 1951. The fall leaves creased their way along the wires and cascaded down into the beach below. He barely noticed me, hitting his shots hard across the court to a faceless woman I recall was a mistress of his father’s. So I had picked up a tennis ball, and, with a superb accuracy, hit him hard above the temple. He had turned, and grinned, white teeth too large for his face and ice cold eyes that could be either cruel or kind, depending on who was looking. “You the Matessen girl?”
I was, the daughter of a friend of his father’s, namely my mother. His father was the friend of every fading beauty down on her luck in Suffolk County, well-to-do widows of lost heroes and separated wives from the drunkards with dry oil wells. My mother, a gaunt blonde with an anxious tremor, was one of his latest friends. More out of lust than charity, I was to stay on the Van Beenhouwer estate until college began later that fall, my board and meals well paid for while he paraded his latest trophy around the Riviera. I wondered how she tolerated his sweating palms and turgid grasp. Whether it was a mercy undertaken for me. Whatever the nature of their relationship, I was now the Matessen girl, David’s cruel playmate to make scathing remarks about the servants with and discuss our plans over long lazy evenings at his father’s beach.
“You should meet my friends,” he said at last, as October crept up on us with sharp, biting winds. “You’d like them. You’ll probably end up marrying one, I know you worry about ending up as a stenographer.” I pouted, and shoved him into the sea, and he laughed, in a way I didn’t quite understand. “Come to Nice with us in the summer, after the hols.” He must have seen my face fall. “Don’t worry, Dad will pay.”
Dad will pay.
Dad paid for everything it seemed, without so much as a shrug when David ordered bottle after bottle of champagne, smashed hotel cut glass for a quick laugh and cut holes in the paintings for the amusement of his friends. I was the last among a sea of tan faces who seemed to know what money was, what it meant, and what the sour, broken faces of waiters and footmen would go home to at the end of the day. “Oh don’t worry, Mattessen,” he’d say, seeing that I was silent. “It’s not like they have to pay for it.”
I wish I could say I was more moralistic than the boys, but in truth, I was not. I enjoyed the taste of wine I could never afford, nights in hotels that would have refused to let me work there, and food that would have cost my mother a week’s wages. We were free, bright young things with a taste for living, warm under the glow of a foreign sun and a better future. The war was over! Albion would holler over the table. The war is over and we did it. We won. We won! We hadn’t won anything, of course. We hadn’t lost anyone, sacrificed anything. Around us the wounded, the blind and the insane limped to serve us saccharine liquors and fetch us fresh bathing towels, their faces lined with a darkness we had never had to endure.
Natalia Poutine, the only other girl in our group, was cold, beautiful, and distant, tastefully looking the other way to the ugliness of poverty, crude behaviour and suffering. Young girls flickered in and out of our lives, moths caught under a glass until the boys grew tired of their declarations of love and hopes of marriage. Cecily Bancock was one of them, although I never knew her well: a wide eyed English girl unused to money and high living, gap toothed and sweet faced in a way that promised virginity and ruin. Of all of those among us, Jean was perhaps the cruelest, I thought, until it happened. The son of a New York banker, he burnt fifty francs up with a lighter when he offered them as tips, roaring with laughter as the waiter’s face crumpled in shame. It seemed like a ridiculous caricature, something the communists wrote about in their manifestos, too cruel for anyone to perform. And yet, here at a table by Rue Paganini, Jean roared with laughter as a grown men cried at his side.
“Why did you do that, Jean?” I asked sombrely, when the man had gone.
“Money,” he spat back. “They always want our money. Parasites. Every day of my life, that’s what they see. My money.” The press, of course, even after writing up that rather unpleasant incident, thought the real monster was Peter.
Peter Sjaellos-Bilterveck was a tall, handsome boy of 22, top of his class although the rumors always suggested his father had paid for that. Half Dutch with a beautiful mother who had killed herself at 36, allegedly after being disfigured by an injection of wax into her forehead to stop her growing old, he was impossibly rich. His father owned half of South Africa, or so the Ivy debutante rumor went, and had black men flayed at his feet if they so much as coughed in his presence. Peter himself was a quiet young man, not the monstrous villain his heritage sought to make of him. He read his books, drew the horizon from the yacht, and slept with shy young women who slipped back to shore before day break. Yet something unnerved us about him, although it was never spoken about aloud. Not until that night, of course.
If you’ve ever stood by the shores of Nice where the Riviera is stained with the glint of a thousand silver fish in the moonlight, you’ll know that the local women call to the students as they stand calf deep in the stones. Stop. Don’t go in after dark, they warn in broken English, pale faces lost in the gloom. There’s no one here who can save you if anything should happen. Sometimes we’d listen, and traipse on up to the college, tuxedos and hostess gowns stained with sea salt and spilt negronis.
Sometimes, we’d stay on that bay until the dawn grazed the yachts on the horizon. But that night, for whatever reason, we never looked back to the shoreline where Cecily Bancock lay, still, wine bottle in hand, staring up with closed eyes at that cold blue moon. We’d drunk too much to know that her sunburnt body was now cold, that the waters rose fast while the heatstroke laced with liquor left her in a stupor, until they say she had drowned in six inches of water. Callous, they called us in the newspaper flashes and courtroom hushes that spent out our summer in that ’53. Peter was blamed. It wasn’t an accident, the press insisted. He’d wanted to see a woman drown, a person die, just like his mother had done twenty years before. He’d written about it in his diary, the prosecution remarked. But, as with some many things, dad paid for it. He slunk out of town, unseen in a crown of passengers to New York, leaving the Riviera to hiss and roar over the unforgiving cruelty of the Rich American Sons.
They left her to drown on the shore by the stars, old money monsters that lurked in the dark for the glittering youth. It haunts me now, her face. Perhaps I did turn back, that last time, to see Cecily asleep in the tide under that unforgiving moon. And I can only hope that I will never remember who stood by her side, watching.