Early in 1956, Simon Cooper Frost found himself hounded by virtue of being a husband. Like a hail of gunfire came the interview requests from McCall’s—all because he was husband to a woman whom tens of thousands of readers believed not much different from themselves.
“When I met your dainty wife at the Macy’s Flower Show,” said the Woman in Green, “she told the most amusing story about you and the French president during the war.” Everything she wore was green—dress with jacket, hat with plumage, gloves with frills, alligator handbag, emerald necklace.
“My wife wasn’t there,” he snapped. “I met her afterward, in the States.”
“Of course,” she replied with a show of discomfort that seemed to Simon rehearsed. “But later you must have delighted her with that story, about the French president.”
“Just say De Gaulle,” he demanded. “The man needs no explanatory pronoun.”
“Indeed,” she declared, tugging at the back of the feathers to further the illusion that she had no hair. “So why not go back and tell me about the encounter?”
Why not go back? his mind mocked. Why not go back, Daddy, to the big bad war?
She made to pucker her lips and pout at the same time. “You will tell me, won’t you?”
His mind seemed to be mocking not the ridiculous green but himself for having fallen into its clutches. Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
“The free world at that time was peculiarly small,” he announced after delayed consideration—“contained so to speak. You could know everyone in London worth knowing.”
His arrival that spring of the Blitz was tagged to an invite from a British counterpart. The besieged nation needed projections for wartime ag output, and SCF was up for a decent challenge. He was a pacifist, true, but a pacifist who couldn’t resist the opportunity to project, even if it was at the London School of Economics, headed up by a man whose work he considered rubbish.
To preserve the crown’s number-crunchers from annihilation, the LEH had been relocated to Cambridge. Simon, however, did much of his work in a London flat, occasionally in the company of graduate fellows—an assortment of boys unfit for soldiering because of disproportionately large brains. The following spring he was asked home by the National Defense Advisory Committee as it prepared America for war. He was a pacifist, so he said no. By June, however, when he’d moved on to Churchill’s S-Branch, he was working for the OSS.
In the peculiarly small free world, Simon quickly gained a reputation of yank-about-town, nicknamed “the lady-killer of Peterhouse” by the lady-killer of Pembroke. He slept with any halfway pretty woman whose flat contained an upright. He could play in the dark, and would do so during raids as long as he had enough cigarettes. Some of the women who’d taken themselves to shelters sportily called him plucky and brave back there in the flat; others suggested a latent death wish. Still others berated him for the ruckus, thinking the bombers might hear “Honeysuckle Rose” from 30,000 feet.
When not killing ladies he’d close up shop at the Savoy, often taking the keyboard from a heartbroken Pole whose bleary eyes could no longer read the numerals on his wristwatch. Simon tapped his knuckle twice on the fall board before playing. “For luck,” he’d say. But he knew it was in reality out of self-importance. He was known for at least attempting the requests called out by intoxicated women intermittently sobbing at the prospect of all men eventually becoming “the few.” Passing waiters might set an unlit Russian cigarette on the ledge near the higher octaves.
When Hitler turned his bombers to Russia in the spring of 1941, the strikes became less frequent, but Simon still played for women in the dark and at the Savoy, the American Bar that found itself unexpectedly atwitter one June night: Edwina Petersham was wearing a gown she’d purchased in Havana. But more importantly, she was back in London, now seated in a circle of men, much like Christian milestones were said to occur in a circle of fire. The initiated were well aware that a landmine explosion in Jarama had taken the hearing in her right ear—and that it was important to always be on her good side.
This June evening found Eddie reading aloud her previous dispatches from a newly printed book:
I had lunched with the Aga Kahn in Paris, at the Hotel Napoleon, to write a story about how he was fattening himself up for when he returned to India to get his weight in gold from the poor. I had gone off to touch up my face and managed to overhear one waiter ask another, “With what planes would we do that? Show me this vast squadron that will protect La France?” Every English schoolboy knows that the French are more frightened of aviation than anything. The waiter was spot on—their planes were barely worth their weight in scrap metal. Paris was Pompeii.
Simon had just survived a long dinner with a morose couple, Canadian nationals desiring absolution for their intention to quit the stoic carrying-on and return to Ottawa. He’d been too tired to get up from the dinner table and was now too tired to leave the one at the bar. “Who the hell’s that?” he asked his waiter.
The man was embarrassed by the American’s pointing with the glass in his hand. He bent down to whisper, “The lady is Edwina Petersham, sir, the Reuters correspondent who’s written from the frontlines in Spain.”
“Send her a glass of tequila,” he said, placing heavy coins on the man’s delicate tray.
“Tequila, sir? I doubt that possibility.”
“Have the barman check his stash.”
Meanwhile, Eddie had more to say about 1938: “Not far from Tortosa I was out on the road and watched for three-quarters of an hour twelve identical German planes flying in regiment, diving and machine-gunning soldiers conspicuously lacking anti-aircraft matériel to protect them. The partisans held up the advance on foot, in a terribly noble effort to reject barbarity.”
She’d been opening the book at random points and reciting, but the expression on her pretty face said that this was now a bore. “Who sent me this vile concoction?” She stood and clipped her heel on the rung of her chair to lift herself above the oiled domes of her consort.
Simon blew a whistle—the one he’d been enthusiastically presented with just that morning. It had immediately gone in his pocket, this gift from his landlady’s brother, a man who probably had no reason to exist before the Observer Corps.
“Merrily we roll along,” said Eddie, saluting him with the glass.
Somehow her circle knew to disperse itself as she simultaneously cut through to arrive at Simon’s lonesome table.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
“Someone clever seems to have submerged a worm in peppermint schnapps.”
“Worse things have happened.”
Her sitting in the strapless, plunging, shimmering Havana dress caused SCF to lose all traces of fatigue. He was highly alert to the fact that it took three clicks of his lighter to ignite the tip of her cigarette.
“Simon Cooper Frost. Really. Three constituent parts. Could it be that three-part names are suddenly all the rage, like the boogie-woogie-woogie?”
“Not boogie-woogie-woogie,” he corrected. “Boogie-woogie.”
“Yes, that’s right. You said you were an economist. You can count.”
“I counted nine men over there slobbering.”
“Rich married dullards.”
“Why are you here then, kicking up a dust storm?”
“Why, the Savoy has the smartest shelters in town.”
“The drinks cost too much to spend your time in a cellar.”
She leaned back and smiled. “I must say I am taken by your looks, SCF—like the Shakespearean actor, that Laurence Olivier.”
“You mean Hollywood actor. The man’s making money hand over fist.”
“We all have our price.”
“You still haven’t told me why you’re drinking with these rich married dullards. Shouldn’t you be home by the hearth fire?”
“Do you have a dullard husband waiting in bed for you?”
She laughed and took a drag from her cigarette.
“Do you have a flat here,” he pressed, “or are you just passing through between wars?”
“Yes, I have a flat—minus the husband in bed. At least one of my own.”
He felt powerful asking questions so directly—daring not consider that this was merely collateral voltage from the sparks flying off of her. She had a tropical tint, the glow of health, streaks of blond in her auburn waves. The spectacle ought to have constituted a civilian threat, something the fire brigade would smother in dusty blankets. “Where do you come from?” he asked.
“Dorset.” She blew the word at him with smoke. “Dreadful place.” She feigned an American accent: “Ever hee’r of it?”
“Only from those Hardy tales I was made to read. Too much emotional carrying on atop one heath or another. The women seem to die.”
She laughed. “The county motto is ‘Who’s Afear’d.’ Certainly gives a clue as to why the women die.”
“And you of course are fearless.”
She laughed again. “This whole island is fearless.”
“Churchill’s a megalomaniac.”
She tilted her head to the side. “He answered an advert in the Times: Megalomaniac wanted to prevent entire nation from diving off cliff. Previous experience saving races not required.”
“Churchill’s wanted to go to war since he was wetting his pants.”
“It’s the going to war that makes him wet his pants,” she protested. “With excitement.”
“The extremes in politics here are astounding.”
She threw her head back with laughter. “And you think your great republic should cast the first stone?”
He took on the glum look of an awkward confession. “I was raised a Quaker.”
She smiled. “Ah, yes. Spiritual equality for the fairer sex. We had them here once.”
“Until you started burning them.”
“You’re telling me you’re a pacifist?”
“I’m telling you I’m averse to jumping into war the way some people like jumping in the sack.”
She smiled. “But you do like jumping in the sack.”
“Not with a Browning.”
She stiffened before flicking ashes into the silver tray indicating the halfway point between them. “Listen, my dear SCF, I hope you’re not one of these types. You think Sir Neville didn’t make a mess of his own knickers fretting about a tank-à-tank in Deutchland? The man’s being a weasel has wrought so much suffering on the Continent.”
He shook his head in professorial frustration. “If only the Weimar economy—”
“Oh, do stop with all that! If only. If only the Fuhrer had stayed a housepainter we’d all have sun-burnt noses and splendid gardens.”
He sighed to let the frustration flutter up to the rafters; then he smiled. “You’ll never get over Hastings, will you?”
She gave him back a stealthy grin. “Revenge is sweet, darling.”
The lore of Eddie Petersham derived from a simple graft: documented fact onto lascivious gossip. The world loved a pretty aristocrat; one who placed herself in danger—and publicly so—was off the charts. That it was her right ear she couldn’t hear from had become a favored joke among the smart set. “Darling, I’m deaf in my right ear.” “But this is your left.” “So why not come round to speak into the other? Be a good boy now.”
She’d had lovers of all nationalities, colors, and occasionally genders. The Cuban fellow everyone thought engaged in espionage for some big payer. “Latin lovers make the best spies,” she jested. “They know when to release intelligence.” The RAF pilot from New Zealand had made for the most beautiful photographs. One entry from her book that she did not randomly recite at the American Bar went “Married men of a certain class here have selected the following means of propositioning married women of said class: They completely ignore her during the course of the dinner party but somehow manage to slip a message into her open handbag—‘I desire you’ or some other such rubbish with the signature ‘Bunnie’ or ‘Wup-Wup’ or ‘Pug.’ ”
The weeks of silver Spitfires, magnesium ribbons, the smell of sulfur and cinder, yet another orange inferno still blazing on the docks in the East End went on and on. There always seemed to be some nice lady at American Express or the BBC who said “Air Raid, please,” indicating for the boys to smash together shutters and funereal draperies on rings.
Unfazed by rumor and innuendo, Simon kept an eye out for Eddie since that first encounter but didn’t find her again until August, when Churchill’s people began assessing the damage—the numbers and costs of things lost in the Blitz. The reunion occurred at a cocktail party that Simon had found dispiriting to the point of pain. Too many only children had discovered euphemistic ways of being deceased in just the first twenty-five minutes. Since the war began, every spot on the calendar had accrued enough significance to always be told in day-month-year format. The French government left Paris on 10 June 1940. The Battle of Britain ended on 15 September 1940. And on three hundred and sixty-three other days, only sons went missing over the Ruhr.
“The carnage is being reduced to numbers in columns,” Simon told Eddie when she asked what he was working on. “Give me two months and I’ll be able to tell you how much more or less dangerous it was to have been making tea in Kensington than elsewhere in the city on any given date.”
She had an ice cube in her mouth, moving it from side to side with her tongue. “Thirty shells a minute standing on the streets of Madrid. How did I know? I counted.”
“Better put a muzzle on that talent. Your fearless leader will try to sneak you into Cologne with a lampshade on your head.”
She stared at him admiringly. She wore a boxy tweed suit like all woman of a certain class. If you weren’t of that class you’d have on a cotton dress with bare, vein-crackled legs and shoes literally down at the heels. Simon was often startled by these persevering women’s shades of blondish-red hair, like late-day sunshine after a hailstorm—the swaths of freckles, bone-white arm-flesh accented by blue veins. In the States you never saw so much skin unbothered by sun. He felt pity for these too-young matrons pushing prams as if to some unheard funeral processional, but mostly his contact was with the tweed class, who felt themselves barely making do with so much more. One jeweled brooch positioned on the lapel just so, to show a sensitivity to sacrifice and yet unvarnished hope for the return of restrained opulence and subdued ostentation.
“What?” he asked. “What are you thinking?”
“My mind was busy writing the stage directions for the script of this Brief Encounter.”
“Can I hear it?”
“You think you’re ready?”
“They drink, they laugh, they fall into the sack.”
Which they did—in some strangers’ unmade bed in a Hyde Park Gate house to which she had the key. He felt excited and frightened to be lying next to her at that normally sweaty, sticky moment when each stranger pretended to be falling asleep while debating whether this was worth doing again. She behaved like she was the one who ought to be happy and grateful. “That was marvelous, darling.” He should have remained suave and restrained, but the frightened part of him pressed its weight against the gate. “Who else are you seeing, Eddie?”
She had a lovely expression of posed demurral, like Myrna Loy selling you a bottle of vermouth.
“Not the newsreel financier,” he pressed, “with his hand tucked into his vest pocket.”
“Him? God, no. I’d happily make hash of him though.”
They were face to face. “Confess to me.”
“Do you know that Swiss physicist at the party?”
“The cripple with the limp?”
It was dark but not too dark for a reproachful smile. “I wish you could see yourself when you say things so unkind.”
His means of deflecting shame was to pursue the same line of questioning. “What do you see in him?”
“He’s a technological genius and needs it for the war effort. Poor chap.”
“So you’re Clara Barton of the snatch?”
She shook her head. “I worry that his biological line will be lost. Terrible pity if that should happen.”
“Aren’t you worried about my biological line?”
“If you could walk into a laboratory and come up with some tremendous munitions to kill Nazis from far away—yes. Yes, I would fret over your biological line.”
The next day she was off to Portugal to interview Vichy escapees. It wasn’t until the start of October that Simon found her again, on Shaftesbury Avenue.
“I was going to see that play with Coral Browne,” she told him when they nearly collided.
“I didn’t know you two were friends.”
“Being droll will not get you a ticket to the hot box.”
“So what will?”
“Buying me a lovely dry martini.”
“I will if you can find a place with decent enough gin to make one.”
All things being equal, they replicated the prelude to the previous Brief Encounter, only this time they went to his flat—it being less than a kilometer away from the solider-packed pub they’d been swept into after giving up on the good gin.
That she found his second-floor place a depressing hash of manhood soothed his virility. But then she posed a question. “Why are there so many mirrors?”
No one had asked him that before, and he hadn’t noticed since the flat came furnished. He looked around at their many reflections.
“Have you taken a count?” she prodded with a teasing smile.
“None of them are mine.”
“But as an economist, don’t you want to know?”
“Not as many as Versailles if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“We have a death wish,” she said looking around, “all of us who don’t line up for the Tube every night with our dirty mattresses and sad little sandwiches.”
“Some of those people have sad little kids that they can’t afford to send off to the country. They need them working here, the East Enders. The least they can do is prevent their offspring from being blown to bits.”
Between the mirrors and the death wish and the memory of her saying “I wish you could see yourself when you say things so unkind,” things did not go as planned. In frustration he got up from the bed, sweating and naked, to play in the dark. Someone from upstairs took a broom handle to the floor.
“You are pounding the keys,” she said slowly, with perfect elocution. “That’s not the way.”
He stopped playing. “This has never happened to me.”
She was busy grabbing and releasing what lie amid the clutter of the bedside table, feeling for a lighter. “Then you haven’t been making enough whoopee, darling, because it happens to all men.”
“Women love to say things like that.”
“You need to listen to me,” she said, stopping to light the cigarette quivering between her lips. “I’m more broadly traveled than you.”
“In every way superior is what you mean.”
“I don’t see why you’re bothered.” Now she was sitting up. “Men are terrified of being humiliated in front of other men. They are perfectly fine with humiliating themselves in front of a woman.”
“Only with you,” he objected, “you’ll write a book about traveling with Bedouins and somehow my incapacity will find its way in there.”
She smashed the pillows into the headboard and fell backwards. “Bedouins want goats and rifles, darling, not women, so you should be safe.”
He dropped his decommissioned body on a floral upholstered chair that faced the bed. “What am I good for?” he asked, kicking away the matching flowers on the ottoman. “The Man Who Came to Dinner and not afterward.”
He made jokes but nonetheless felt that the failure of consummation echoed his failure to think like a belligerent. How could Karl Tobel not become his adversary? Here he had a clubfoot and the whole to do with that one leg—nothing Byronic about it—and perhaps even this man had been pleasing Eddie. Simon’s theory that the aborted maneuver owed to the locale—being too close to home for comfort—was short-lived, as attempts at her Kensington flat were similarly dismal.
What made their enduring relationship enduring, however, was the unexpected bliss of domestic life—specifically the breakfast ritual. Though the bulk of her possessions appeared to be in boxes shoved into corners, there was a comfortable table with two chairs near a large pair of windows overlooking a garden. She liberated some bone china from their brown paper wrapping—ornate Staffordshire cup after cup. “There are enough of these dreadful things to feed the two-hundred-forty-ninth squadron. They were given to me by my filthy-rich aunt.”
“I don’t want to hear about any Dame Blah-Blah. You people and your titles. Living here makes me feel like I’m in a boys’-school play about Julius Cesar.”
“Well you can always go home to your girls’-school play about Nathan Hale.”
She could cook an egg; he made coffee like the Italians. There was a maid who knocked gently at half past eleven and was usually sent away. They would sit for hours at their breakfast table, greedily reading whatever piece of months-old reportage his or her station rank had gained access to. Anything smuggled out from behind enemy lines could trigger arousal—like comic books to American schoolboys.
“This French chap Camus,” she said one crisp autumn morning, the sun streaming directly onto the crumbs and congealed lard of their plates. “The diarist for Paris-Soir. I want to write like him.”
“I don’t read French.”
She was up to her elbows in papers from Wehrmacht France. “Well you should learn because he’s a pacifist like yourself. Though it won’t last long, mark my words.”
He stopped reading and looked at her. “I know that one. He’s the good-looking fellow. You’d like to take him for a ride, wouldn’t you?”
She shook her head. “Did I tell you I’m being pursued by the wife of a renowned poet? Married to that Hungarian chap. That Italian in the green dress you ogled at the Bayswater party, the bisexual novelist.”
“Is that what the batting lashes were for—you?”
“Pretty, yes, but she gives you the feeling she wants to take something and not give it back.”
“I don’t see why she’s chosen you and not me.”
“You are callow and arrogant, my dear.”
“I need to be. Otherwise you’ll happily make hash of me.”
She made a pout. “Oh, why can’t we happily make hash of each other, darling?”
He closed the book in his hands and dropped it on the table. “Woman, you torment me! Last I counted I was failing four times a day!”
She gave serious consideration to what he said. “Today let’s try five.”
He grew impatient and distressed, though not at the war. Every third round of skirmish would occur at his flat, so that when things got botched he could go to the piano and play in pitch blackness while she lie in her skin atop his bumpy mattress.
“You do fancy that song, don’t you? Who is your Honeysuckle Rose?”
No question ever caused him to stop playing. “It’s from a show called Load of Coal that opened in Harlem in ’29. Were you there?”
She laughed. “I was a bit of a girl then, darling.”
“I was a bit of a girl then too,” he replied, smiling at the keys he couldn’t see moving. “But I was there at Carnegie Hall in ’38—first time jazz was played at such a hallowed venue. Hallelujah—validation for the Negro race! We will now steal your music while behaving like you’re still only fit to shine our shoes.”
“Yes,” she said snidely, “the Great White Way.”
“You’ll be peeved to know there were pro-Franco picketers outside on Seventh Avenue,” he went on. “I paid two seventy-five for a ticket. People from Ellington, Basie, and Goodman played an improvised version of the song for more than fifteen minutes by my watch.”
“Absolutely wonderful except for the Franco,” she said, before taking a long drag on her cigarette. “Oh, how I wish all the lovely things in life would last for a full, thrashing fifteen minutes.”
The more times he failed, the more affectionate she became. He feared she was taking pity on him as she did Karl the Swiss cripple. He feared she saw no great tragedy in the loss of his biological line. After every uneventful attempt he could not sit still; to make matters worse, she didn’t have a piano to absorb his shame. She’d hide her head under a pillow when he smoked and paced.
“Anyone can see the conflict between us,” he told her. “You see me as cowering from brute action and you can’t resist brute action.”
“That simply isn’t true.”
“You have an avid compulsion to place yourself amid danger.”
“Simon, what I have an avid compulsion for is to place myself amid you. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.”
“You live here—with your maids at half-past eleven.”
“Well then you wouldn’t be here.”
“You have my permission.”
“Permission for what?”
“Although why did I say that? Who am I to grant any woman permission, least of all you?”
She turned onto her stomach sideways on the bed, the pillow under her chin. “I’m not that much of a rabbit, darling. It’s only been three weeks in the ring, and I’m finding I do love the Scenes from Domestic Life. Never would have thought as much. Don’t you love them, these Scenes from Domestic Life, darling?”
He wasn’t listening. “If Karl needs it for the war effort and you need it for your hot box, I think you should run ahead without me.”
“Are you joking? Run ahead?”
He looked at her skeptically. “Although why did I say that? You’re probably already running ahead.”
She groaned in an aristocratic key. “You need to rise above your looks, SCF. Any chap ever tell you that? And maybe even your condescension for the many non-SCFs of the world. That’s my advice there on the table. For you to take or leave.”
At that moment the Woman in Green might have been a woman in anything—Parliament, quicksand, cement. The red eraser on her yellow pencil made a series of rapid, deliberate taps on the narrow green stenographer’s tablet. Simon stared with that notorious nasty aggression—the unreasonableness that had marked his adult life and gave no signs of relenting. It served him in times of terror; it was his friend. Who sent this woman to make him go back to being a failure all over again?