Imust properly set the stage before relating a humiliation that makes my first day at Tabor Academy pale by comparison. Shakespeare said, “Entertain conjecture of a time.” Well, the time was the winter of 1941, just a few years after the annual debutante balls became a bit of a competitive event. Every season, one of the young lovelies would be anointed “Debutante of the Year.” The names Brenda Diana Duff and Kelly Frazier spring to mind. Kelly was a magnificent brunette, whose picture graced the cover of every magazine.
Being number-one debutante of the year was a big thing in those days. It was at the height of the popularity of Life magazine. Therefore, it was inevitable that Life would use their platform to publicize the glittering social events of the time. One of their most popular sections was called “Life Goes to a Party,” and it was just what it sounds like. They’d feature various exotic parties and were always looking for an original twist.
Well, at that time, my brother Whit was living and working in New York. He and his former college roommate stayed in the roommate’s family home, a residence large enough that they had extra rooms that were occupied by other young people seeking fame in the big city. My brother later married his roommate’s sister, so the house hummed with a bit of romantic potential.
The resident who most captured my imagination, romantic or otherwise, was none other than the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, America’s foremost playwright. The whole Debutante of the Year business was in its third year of operation, and Oona O’Neill had recently been crowned with that honor. Since her father was married to an actress, I think she found the burden of living in a very tumultuous household sufficiently disruptive that she chose to take a room in the brownstone also occupied by my brother. And there she was, living between Madison and Park, at 52 East 66th Street, in a house I could visit at will.
I got the big bright idea that I would invite Oona to the junior prom at Tabor. I just knew the editors at Life would be unable to resist covering the story of the Debutante of the Year attending a prep school dance on the arm of one of its more enterprising students: me. Talk about Life Goes to a Party! I was certain I’d come up with an irresistible storyline. Why, it sounded perfect. But first, of course, I had to arrange to meet Oona and get her acquiescence in the plan.
I had recently started smoking, and intended to rely on this sign of my worldliness to dazzle and impress my prospective date. After an exchange of introductions in the drawing room, the staff retreated to the basement and my brother’s roommate and his family disappeared upstairs. I’m certain all were listening intently to see how the encounter was going.
Oona was lovely, just unbelievably lovely, and I made certain I displayed my most brilliant, most fascinating self. I was terribly debonair, terribly international. Pulling out my tobacco pouch, I tamped the leaf into the bowl of the pipe with a marvelous little silver implement. Regaling Oona first with one story and then another, I paced back and forth in front of where she was seated on the sofa. I was showing off like crazy. After about five minutes of tamping down the leaf and gesturing to make my points, I finally took out the matches to light the pipe.
As luck would have it, the very force with which I struck the match sent this flaming torch arching over Oona’s shoulder and down behind the cushion on the sofa. My God, in only a second or two, the sofa and the pillows were on fire. All hell broke loose! New York brownstones had no running water on the first floor. No bathrooms. No kitchen. So those who’d been listening so intently suddenly rushed onto the scene carrying pitchers of water up from the kitchen on the ground floor and glasses of water down from the bathrooms upstairs. Fire, water, pandemonium! This was absolutely the most humiliating moment of my life. Fortunately, I’ve never had another come even close to approaching it.
Well, of course, even before this happened, Oona was already a bit incredulous. She must have been thinking, “Who is this rube? Who is this ridiculous character posturing in front of me with all his histrionics?” Of course, once I’d set fire to the place, my attempts to woo her with my savoir-faire went up in smoke. Things had hardly calmed down before some greasy creature appeared at the front door to spirit Oona away to the Stork Club, and that was the last of my grandiose plan of taking Oona O’Neill to the junior prom.
About thirty years later, I saw Oona again. I was by now married to Chris, and we were in London visiting my parents. Following a night at the theater, my stepfather Henry and mother Helen had arranged for us all to have supper at the Savoy Grill. Seated at the table next to us were none other than Oona and her husband, Charlie Chaplin. She was still absolutely lovely, and seemed radiantly happy, despite the fact that Chaplin was old enough to be her grandfather.
God knows, they must have been happy. They had six children or something. Just seeing Oona again reminded everyone in our crowd of my notorious attempt to persuade her to attend Tabor Academy’s junior prom. Everyone was egging me to go over and reintroduce myself. “Oona, do you remember me from that famous afternoon on East 66th Street in New York when I set the sofa on fire?” Given that we’d been drinking, just one more martini might have inspired the necessary courage.
However, Charlie Chaplin was known for his mercurial moods. Caution, inspired in part by two very burly bodyguards seated alongside the other guests at his table, kept me from acting on this particular dare. I admit to being scared. I welched out. I was afraid that Chaplin would sic his gangsters, goons, or whatever they were, on me, and that would be the end. But I did, at least, get to see Oona again.