I have as Willis Wayde frequently says, thirty odd times to be imprecise, a ‘warm spot in my heart’ for the writing of John Phillips Marquand. He takes a risk in bringing before the reading public a character that might be considered radically unsympathetic, the successful businessman merging and liquidising his way to a fortune yet feeling that there is always something more; the unattainable vision of a way of life that he cannot buy. In a sly Proustian nod, the narrator tells us:
Willis Wayde, before he went to sleep, could shut his eyes and see every detail of the Harcourt place. He had never owned it and had never coveted it, but as his father might have said in engineering language, it did serve as a base of reference. In engineering when you set out to make a map, you started running your line and reading off from some fixed mark, and in life too everyone possessed some solid starting point. The Harcourt place and everything around it was like this for Willis, and whether he liked the idea or not, it meant more to him than any place he had ever owned or rented.
It’s a Platonic thing.
The father mentioned is Alf Wayde, an engineer, inventor and all round fixer. When Willis was young he came to the Harcourt belting factory to manage its mechanical section. The family are set up in a fine house on the grounds of the Harcourt residence built by the grandfather from plans by an English architect. The grounds are mature, and there’s a lake with swans and a retinue of servants, indoor and outdoor. It’s New England feudal but Old Harcourt is shrewd and knows that it is rude mechanicals such as Alf that keep an operation like his running smoothly and making money. In fact it is Alf’s insistence on buying the Klaus belting patents that sustains them through the depression. He is a restless individual who when everything is fixed and problems have been solved wants to move on to the next challenge. Cunning old Harcourt knows that and overseeing and sponsoring the education of Willis is part of his strategy to keep Alf there. In doing so he begins to see that the boy has real potential to be a future manager on the business side. This is all the more vital because his own son and grandson have no business instinct. The novel opens when Willis is 15 and the year 1922. His association with Harcourt belting lasts through his education at Boston University and Harvard Business School. All this time he is learning the business thoroughly working at the plant in every section of it during his holidays.
The granddaughter Bess Harcourt should have been the boy because she has the grandfather’s astuteness. She is of course beautiful. Willis and her have a romantic attachment but both know that the social gulf between them cannot be crossed. He still hopes but when she becomes engaged, to a Harvard man, naturally, he leaves and takes up a job with a New York firm of management consultants.
Marquand skillfully manages the authorial distance from his subject by adopting a cool detached tone that is simply descriptive. He won’t lead you or underline or strew exclamation marks about. It’s drawing by limning the negative space. This is how Willis appears to his father-in-law Professor Hodges.
“Dear me," Mr. Hodges said, "there have to be zeros somewhere. Four zeros in ten thousand dollars, and more in a million. That's the trouble with money, there must be a lot of zeros."
Willis wished he knew whether Mr. Hodges was being funny or serious, but it was a good remark and one Willis always remembered. Mr. Hodges had been right. You had to sacrifice a lot of things if you made money.
Marquand has fun with self-improvement, Carnegie Smiles strategies and Dr. Eliot’s 5 Foot Shelf and the 15 minutes of reading it a day that will make you a rounded person. This is not satire, just filling in the empty part of the zero. The life of Willis Wade as he makes his way to the presidency of a major corporation develops along a path of bland ruthlessness. He always keeps a photo of his mother,his wife and his children in the hotel suites where he entertains because a family man is trusted.
The author is a master of narrative and it’s uncanny how after being so successful in his day he has dropped into utter neglect. Can you imagine this happening to John Updike? Maybe. I will be reading this book again, as a matter of personal rounding. Excellent.