John Philips Marquand died in his sleep at the age of 67(1893 -1960) and after having read Marquand: An American Life by Millicent Bell I think he also lived in his sleep. He suffered from a folie de grandeur which afflicted his choice of wives, both of them from the leisured rich class. Perhaps Bell’s tag, An American Life refers to the elusive Second Act. Everything he did seemed to be aimed at recovery of his early fall into genteel struggle after the loss of his father’s wealth. You get the rich girl, not the same rich girl, that earlier spurned you, you get to join clubs that wouldn’t have you for a member, it rankled that you were unclubbable at Harvard where you studied Chemistry, you make pots of money writing inscrutable Inspector Moto detective stories and in an extraordinary reversal of genre become a respected author of middlebrow fiction. And yet, and yet. Snobbery in the novels of Jane Austen can be amusing, but is somehow in an American inappropriate. The Kent’s Island Estate folly, the ancestral property of Curzon’s Mill which he went to law over with his wayward relatives who owned some 32 seconds of it, is all part of his squire manqué capers. Wickford Point is an account of the menage that he wanted to evict and his most autobiographical novel. It’s brilliant of course, the man may have been unpleasant in many ways but he could write. It has that ambivalent tone of jocose complaint which was his standard way of amusing the rapt company. Behind it was real irritation at the infringing of his writing time, the undue fame of others, water that couldn’t be found at Kent’s Island, a wife’s demand that he summer in Aspen and any current contremps. He indulged in that costly brand of narcissism, psychoanalysis. In Bell’s biography there is no mention of an eureka moment, the uncovering of early trauma, the liberating vista - so that’s why I’m so unhappy. Money is a superb insulator. It must be asked though why a man with his reserves of irony lived in the resorts of the wealthy, playing golf. An answer might be - to avoid his two families. However much he kept his families and wives at a distance, his family plate he kept close to him finally leaving a silver tray made by Paul Revere as a gift to his Alma Mater, Harvard.
Millicent Bell’s long and detailed book is a through account of Marquand’s life and writing career, his lucrative connection with the Saturday Evening Post and Little, Brown the publishers. Due to his massive earning with the latter his money was doled out to him to avoid punitive tax which meant that he was a major creditor of the company for which he got ‘not one red cent’. They have allowed his books to remain out of print, an indication of fickle fame and business values.
A good read and excellent background to an understanding of an unjustly neglected writer.