Memoranda Of A Decade

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In those days when the snail was on the thorn and God was in his Heaven business men crowded into the White House until the luncheon guest-list looked sometimes like a chart of interlocking directorates of high finance. At a press conference a reporter, anxious for a story, quizzed the President:

“Why is it that your White House guests are limited to men of business? … Why don’t you have artists, musicians, actors, poets around the White House as Wilson and Roosevelt did, and sometimes Taft and Harding?”

The President pulled his solemn clown face and looked down his nose, as he drawled:

“I knew a poet once when I was in Amherst; class poet, name of Smith.” A cud-chewing pause, then: “Never have heard of him since!”

The New York Daily News considered the Hall-Mills case in 1922, which featured the Pig Woman, a “nice, clean crime.” But the trial in 1927 of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, for the murder of Mrs. Snyder’s husband was rated a more sordid—and therefore even more newsworthy—affair. One hundred and twenty reporters covered the trial, and Americans lapped up every stilted, curiously prim phrase of Ruth May Snyder’s confession: … In the darkness I could see Mr. Gray raise his arm, holding what I believed to be the weight [a sash weight] in his hand, and in the darkness the white paper around the weight stood out. I saw this weight in Mr. Gray’s hand start to travel and immediately heard a thud, and my husband groaned twice after I heard the thud. I saw Mr. Gray tie my husband’s hands behind his back. I was able to see in the dark because there is a street arc light on the opposite side of the street. …

When Mr. Gray struck my husband he was lying on his left side. He tied his hands behind his back and put the blue handkerchief and the waste with the chloroform on it on the pillow and then turned my husband’s face down on the pillow, so that the waste and blue handkerchief with the chloroform on it would cover his nose and mouth. He then covered his head with the blankets to make sure of suffocation. He then tied his feet.

I’m quite sure that Mr. Gray then came out of the room and said to me, “I guess that’s it.” He and I then went downstairs. Before he went downstairs he took off a pair of rubber gloves which he had purchased to use to avoid any finger prints, and he washed his hands in the bathroom.

While in the bathroom he discovered that he had quite a few blood stains on his shirt and I went back to my husband’s room and took one of my husband’s new blue shirts. It had a silk stripe in it, and he changed it in my mother’s room. …

But there was also, within the American character, a strong strand of idealism to which the exploit of a young man named Lindbergh appealed. On May 2i, 1927—with no map of the airport, with only a flashlight to light his instrument panel, and with absolutely no experience in landing his plane at night—Lindbergh brought the Spirit of St. Louis safely down at Le Bourget in Paris, ending his historic solo flight across the Atlantic: Is that a cloud on the northeastern horizon, or a strip of low fog—or— can it possibly be land ? It looks like land, but I don’t intend to be tricked by another mirage. …

I’m only sixteen hours out from Newfoundland. I allowed eighteen and a half hours to strike the Irish coast. If that’s Ireland, I’m two and a half hours ahead of schedule. …

I stare at it intently, not daring to believe my eyes, keeping hope in check to avoid another disappointment, watching the shades and contours unfold into a coast line——a coastline coming down from the north … bending toward the east … with rugged shores and rolling mountains. …

This must be Ireland. …

Four fifty-two on the clock. That’s 9:52, Paris time. Le Bourget isn’t shown on my map. No one I talked to back home had more than a general idea of its location. “It’s a big airport,” I was told. “You can’t miss it. Just fly northeast from the city.” So I penciled a circle on my map, about where Le Bourget ought to be; and now the Spirit of St. Louis is over the outskirts of Paris, pointed toward the center of that circle. …

I circle. Yes, it’s definitely an airport. I see part of a concrete apron in front of a large, half-open door. But is it Le Bourget? Well, at least it’s a Paris airport. That’s the important thing. It’s Paris I set out for. If I land on the wrong field, it won’t be too serious an error—as long as I land safely. …

From each changed angle, as I bank, new details emerge from night and shadow. I see the corners of big hangars, now outlined vaguely, near the floodlights—a line of them. And now, from the far side of the field, I see that all those smaller lights are automobiles, not factory windows. They seem to be blocked in traffic, on a road behind the hangars. It’s a huge airport. The floodlights show only a small corner. It must be Le Bourget.

I’ll drag the field from low altitude to make sure its surface is clear—that no hay-making machinery, cattle, sheep, or obstruction flags are in the way. After that, everyone down there will know I want to land. If they have any more lights, they’ll switch them on. I shift fuel valves to the center wingtank, sweep my flashlight over the instrument board in a final check, fasten my safety belt, and nose the Spirit of St. Louis down into a gradually descending spiral.