- Historic Sites
The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy
The lady author modelled her famous fictional creation after her own wonder boy —and condemned a generation of “manly little chaps” to velvet pants and curls
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Dearest died on October 29, 1924, but her influence never ended for Vivian. As she had wished, he thoroughly enjoyed himself, even in the depths of the Depression, with his Dutch-built yawl, Delight III , and his off-shore cruising sloop, Lief , prototype of the Viking Class, which he had helped to design. But he also remembered her rebuke to a spendthrift tendency at Harvard, when she had sharply reminded him, in a reference to the lean months of her early years in Tennessee, ”… we never owed any one a farthing. We went without —food, clothes, fire. It is not what a gentleman or a lady can do—to trust to luck to pay bills.” When the larger craft, the yawl, was laid down, Vivian gave careful instructions that its over-all length must measure exactly thirty-nine feet, eleven inches, because boats forty feet long and over were subject to a tax.
Even the hard-drinking “Corinthians,” ex-yacht owners beached by the Depression, were willing to crew on his boats, although his religious convictions prohibited alcohol on board. A ruddy-faced, balding, friendly man with a bouncy stride, he wore a yachting costume that invited comment as he draped his wellproportioned five-foot, seven-inch frame in the loosecut duck trousers and matching overblouse of a Breton fisherman. It was understood, of course, that some unorthodoxy had to be allowed to a fellow who composed music and belonged to the Beethoven Association, particularly since he was “regular” enough to serve on the Manhasset Board of Trade and lively enough for inclusion in the Players and the Dutch Treat Club in New York.
The latter organization was responsible for Vivian’s final public confrontation with the Fauntleroy legend, when he was over sixty years of age. Mary Pickford was the club’s guest of honor, and as part of the reception to which such guests were subjected the toastmaster twitted her for her not too successful handling of the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Then, with the “anything-for-a-laugh technique” that is the hallmark of American luncheonclub humor, he suddenly called for a few words from a fellow member, “the original Little Lord Fauntleroy.” It was an old, tired story for Vivian, “caught between dismay and wry amusement,” as his wife later recalled the incident. He arose dutifully to face the grinning clubmen, mustered a smile, and ceremoniously saluted his own bald head. “Mary,” he said with a nod to the guest of honor, “this time the curls are on you.” As he sat down he was rewarded with a roar of male laughter, but the scars of such episodes remained with the young woman who had been his wife for more than two decades. With anger and pride she would speak of “ridicule, that arch destroyer of even the best things,” which has “not yet put Fauntleroy out of circulation.”
The last act of the Fauntleroy story began on July 25, 1937, when Vivian brought Delight III out of its club mooring at midafternoon for a Sunday sail. A few old friends were aboard to serve as crew, along with his wife, herself a skilled sailor, and their daughter Dorinda. Although he had not been feeling well in recent weeks, the freshening wind and bright sunlight on the choppy waters of the Sound cheered Vivian with the promise of a good day.
Three sails, the usual complement, had been set, and Vivian was at the helm when the staysail was broken out. Moments later he saw, a mile ahead, a ten-foot knockabout capsize, dumping its occupants into the Sound. Instantly he veered off course for the rescue.
While a friend took the helm, Vivian laboriously hand-cranked the boat’s balky engine to life for the close maneuvering needed to avoid disaster for the two couples floundering in the water. Delight III was first at the scene, and while Vivian held the craft into the wind, a dinghy was dispatched to complete the rescue.
Only after the bedraggled couples had been hauled aboard and he had brought his boat around on the home course did Vivian’s fingers relax their grip on the helm. His craft was sweeping toward the harbor when suddenly he pitched forward, dead of a heart attack.
“Dearest says that is the best kind of goodness; not to think about yourself, but to think about other people,” Vivian’s mother had made Fauntleroy say many years before. And indeed, in many ways he had been Fauntleroy to his final breath, the obedient and trusting son of Dearest, who wanted him to be “one of those who help.”