God Almighty, how Providence can smile! After leaving Canford a year early, I was free to accompany Mother to New York in the summer of 1961. 1961-’2 would be my gap year, thirty years before such things became fashionable. Money was tight, but Dad no longer had to find school fees.
In New York, Mother’s sister, Lucy Mitton, had managed the Willard Gallery since the end of the war. One of the gallery’s artists, Dorothy Dehner, held a dinner party for Lucy and Mother. I was invited. Here were three women in their fifties, and our hostess anticipated that I would have no one to talk to. Then she recalled that her friend Cipe Pineles, who had remarried that year, to Will Burtin, had suddenly acquired an eighteen year-old daughter, Will’s daughter, Carol. So Dorothy found Carol Burtin’s telephone number in Manhattan and invited her to dinner, too, to keep me company.
This was inconvenient for Carol. On Fridays she took the bus home to Rockland County for the weekend. But, as a favour to Dorothy, she accepted. What happened that evening? Precision is lost, meaning I am still too clobbered to remember. Impressions remain. But, thinking back more than fifty years I realize how close I came to losing Carol then and there through apparent indifference or downright fear. I had gone through Royal Marine combat courses with less trepidation.
The venue for our blind date, Dorothy’s apartment, was a few steps up Fifth Avenue, half a block north of Washington Square Arch.
The New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon by George Booth (August 27, 1973) in which a gormless young man and two frazzled women watch a young beauty walk past the steps of their New York brownstone. One of the women is prompting the bug-eyed boy, “Whistle, you dumb bastard!”
That was me, sitting across the table from Carol Burtin, dumbstruck at Dorothy Dehner’s dinner for five. In my defence I stress that I had just been sprung from nine years confinement in all-male boarding schools and some summer cadet camps. Here I was, barely removed from monastic environments, military drills and the bucolic wilds of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, sitting across the table from this vision of urbane, female sophistication.
In the course of the evening we discovered that Carol had had to learn Italian in two weeks to work for the U.S. Commerce Department that summer. Commerce had put her to work as a guide to her father’s “Brain” exhibition at Italia ’61 in Turin. Then she explained the suit she was wearing: she had bought the brown corduroy at Liberty’s of London and taken it to Turin in anticipation of having her suit cut by a tailor in Cologne. (Much later I discovered that the tailor, Herr Reiling, was a good friend and neighbour of Will Burtin’s family on Geißelstrasse in Köln-Ehrenfeld, a fine bier mit schnapps connoisseur). The cut of Carol’s suit that evening—a wide round neck sans collar, three-quarter sleeves over an A-line skirt hemmed above the knee—was exactly the style in which couturier Oleg Cassini was wrapping First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Jesus!
I managed to collect my wits by the time we left, having already walked down the single flight from Dotty’s apartment to Fifth Avenue, where we hailed a cab. That was the end of the evening, and I might never see Carol again. Mother and Lucy were already in the cab when some phrase along the lines of “Whistle, you dumb bastard!” put its boots to my brain, which in turn shrieked urgently, “Say something. You could lose her right now!” I was holding the door for Carol who was bending to get in when I found myself touching her elbow and heard my voice suggest, “Let’s walk a few blocks.” She agreed.
We’re still walking. Four years after that evening we married. Our Fiftieth Anniversary came, and went, in October 2015.
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RF / Opportunity! Friday, 6th October, 1961