All That May Become a Man
I have never dropped the junior from my name, Ambrose Vollard, even after my father’s death, because I always felt that the important thing about me was that I was his son. It was not that he was a distinguished historical figure—he wasn’t. He lived the life, as my mother once put it, of a “charming idler,” the adequately endowed New York gentleman of Knickerbocker forebears who had dedicated his existence to sport and adventure. But he was also a hero— that was the real point — to his non-heroic only son. As a Rough Rider he had charged up San Juan Hill after his beloved leader, the future President; he had slaughtered dozens of the most dangerous beasts of the globe; and he had attended expeditions to freezing and tropical uncharted lands for museums and zoos.
As a child I was obsessed with the notion that youth was only a preparation for the rigors of manhood. I was fourteen when the battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, and I could never forget the noisy reaction of Father and his two brothers at the family board in Washington Square or their enthusiastic welcome of the prospect of war. They actually hoped to see New York under fire from the Spanish fleet, and America awakened from its slothful torpor and materialism by the clarion call to arms! The Vollard brothers were all tall bony men, with fine knobbly aristocratic features, who spoke in decibels higher than anyone else’s, dominating every conversation with their loud mocking laughs, never guilty of any “business” but zestfully using the remnants of an old real estate fortune in pursuit of the fox, the grizzly bear or the lion, while not neglecting — for no Philistines they!— the reading of great books or the viewing of great pictures or even, if they could be silent long enough, the hearing of great music. I used to think of Father as a kind of amiable Cesare Borgia. I looked at him with an awe sandwiched between two dreads: the dread of never being able to emulate him and the dread of his finding this out.
Colonel Roosevelt, as he was always referred to in the family, even after he had received higher titles, was Father’s god as well as friend. This great man, for all his multiple interests, had time in his life for men like the Vollards, whose zeal and courage and love of violent action made up, to his mind anyway, for their social inutility. I was introduced early, not only to the Colonel but to his books, and was indoctrinated in the creed that bravery was the sovereign virtue in a man, that a “splendid little war” like the Spanish one had been a blessing in disguise to preserve our national virility and that a coward was not a man at all.
And women? What of them? Well, their role was simpler: to inspire men and to bear children. Why, I sometimes agonized, in the deep, dark, deluding safety of the night, had I not been born a woman? And I knew, I always knew, that the mere presence of this evil wish, even in the innermost recesses of my mind, damned me forever. At least with men. Was there any hope of redemption in the eyes of women? Did Mother suspect what I was going through? I sometimes wondered.
Leonie Vollard was as small and white and quiet as her husband was big and brown and noisy, but she was in no way subservient. Despite their obvious deep devotion to each other, they nonetheless preserved inviolate their respective and distinctly separate “spheres of interest.” She never protested against his long absences on hunting and exploratory expeditions, nor did he ever interfere with her exquisite housekeeping in the lovely red-brick early Federal house in Washington Square. She sat silently through the spirited, even raucous arguments of the Vollard clan at her dinner table, and he was a subdued guest at the readings of her poetry club. In his den he was allowed any number of animal trophies, but no claw, hoof, horn or antler was permitted in her chaste blue- and-yellow parlor. Similarly, the children were divided; my two younger sisters were left largely to their mother’s care and supervision, while my guidance and training were Father’s primary responsibilities. Yet Mother never conveyed any impression that she was unconcerned with my welfare. Quiet and reserved as she was, she managed to radiate the feeling that every unit of her family was equally important to her.
Certainly the thing that confused me most in my relationship with Father was that he was the most amiable, the most enchanting parent one could imagine. Of course, that had to be because he had no conception of what was going on inside me. His patient joviality in teaching me to ride, to jump, to shoot and to hunt, first the pheasant and tthen the fox, on our Long Island estate was never marred by reprehension of my ineptitudes, but loudly expressed by applause at my every successfulllll effort. And in due time I learned to conduct myself with some competence in riding and shooting, aided by my earnest desire to accomplish the seemingly hopeless task of becoming the youth Father cheerfully insisted on believing I was. To follow his graceful figure across the fields after the hounds was indeed a pleasure, but I never lost sight of what to me were the inevitable future tests of manhood that I believed awaited me as the real justification for my training: that war where I would have to fight an enemy, perhaps hand to hand, in mud and horror, or the African safari where I would be obliged to stand rigid before a charging rhino.
At Saint Jude’s, the boys’ boarding school in Massachusetts to which I was sent, I was slightly more relaxed, relieved as I was, except on parents’ weekends, of Father’s pushing-me-on presence, although the academy heartily endorsed his athletic enthusiasms, including football, a game I particularly detested. Father went so far as to say that he would be ashamed of any son or nephew who didn’t go in for the game. I was tall for my age but slender, and I got knocked about on the field quite painfully, yet I survived, and not too discreditably. Father, who came up to school frequently to view the Saturday afternoon games, was aware of my difficulty and did his best to reassure me. Walking back to the gymnasium after a match, he put an arm around my shoulders and said: “You mustn’t mind, dear boy, if you don’t make the school varsity team. A man can do just so much with the physique God has given him, and you’ve done everything that could be expected of a boy with your muscular equipment. I am very proud of you. In a couple of years you may become heftier, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll always do the best with what you’ve got, and that’s all that can be expected of any man.” Oh, yes, he made allowances; he always did for me. He was determined to squeeze me somehow into his male heaven. But in the fall of my next-to-last year at the school I came close, for the first time in my life, to something faintly resembling an outer protest against Saint Jude’s echo of Father’s principles. This new little spurt of defiance was no doubt fostered by Father’s absence, not only from the school but the country on an extended expedition to the Antarctic.
I began, at first surreptitiously, to skip the near compulsory attendance at the Saturday afternoon football matches between Saint Jude’s and visiting teams. This was considered a serious breach of the required “school spirit,” and when it became known that I had been caught in the library during our match with Chelton, the supreme athletic contest of the school year, I was shocked to find myself condemned to the...