In Havana before the revolution, I sat one afternoon on a hotel terrace, playing chess with an elderly gentleman who had struck up my acquaintance. Something about him was familiar. He was the type of American who seems almost British: leisured, with a patrician voice and perfect manners. A cravat, red as blood, burgeoned at his neck; his suit was crisp, immaculately white, and he studied the board with eyes blue and gleaming as the tropical sea. He said he had lived in the hotel for ten years. He called himself an exile. Fondly, he spoke of New York City and asked me what had changed. Imagining some sorrow of the heart had compelled him to leave, I hoped to hear his story, but he would not be drawn. Only later did I realize he was a financier, known in his glory days as the Emperor of Wall Street, who had perpetrated a fraud that had ruined thousands of investors. I wondered if he really thought he could never go home. He had served his sentence, paid his debts: The face that had sold a million newspapers would be anonymous now. Only a species of vanity kept him in his Cuban fastness, dreaming of Carnegie Hall and the Palm Court at the Plaza.
Some years ago in San Francisco I attended a production of Puccini’s Tartarin. The opera, you will recall, is based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet. In the figure of Tartarin, the provincial braggart who is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza united in a single man, there is an allegory of the clash between fantasy and reality and the comedy that results from their irreconcilable claims. In a neighboring box sat a divorcée (long neck nobly poised) who had been notorious not so long before. She caused no sensation; those around her were blithe, as was she, while the young man who accompanied her might never have known that her name had been a byword for womanly corruption.
Scandal seldom endures. In the days when I still took on journalism, I covered a trial in Hong Kong. A Chinese houseboy had murdered his lover, but this was no commonplace affair, given that the lover had been male, English, a nephew of the assistant colonial secretary, and betrothed to the governor’s daughter. Inevitably, the boy was condemned to hang. Flashbulbs blazed; the judge’s gavel pounded; the governor’s daughter broke into hysterical execration; but even this crime of passion, I reflected, would soon mean little to the world at large. Ours is an age of amnesia. This is a mercy. Yet certain scandals refuse to vanish.
For a time I believed that the Pinkerton affair would be forgotten. Its day had been dazzling: I had illumined it myself. Perhaps in used bookstores you may still turn up Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton: A Life by Woodley A. Sharpless (New York: Harper & Row, 1947). It is not a good book. That my first essay in the biographer’s art should have been so rushed and dishonest a production has been a source of regret to me, although, of course, in those days the full story could never have been told. Whitewash was wanted, and whitewash I provided: I was too good a publicist to be a good writer.
Unfortunately, my distortions found their way into subsequent accounts. With Pinkerton: Enigma and Truth by Marius Brander (London: Gollancz, 1953), we need not concern ourselves. Promising much and delivering little, the book is a cut-and-paste from contemporary press reports, not to mention the work of a certain Woodley A. Sharpless.
Miriam Riley Vetch’s biography of Kate Pinkerton, Senator’s Wife (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), caused outrage in Democrat circles. That Kate Pinkerton encouraged the suicide of her husband’s Japanese lover seems unlikely to me, nor can I believe that she acted as procuress for her admittedly promiscuous husband. The case against Mrs. Vetch may be stated succinctly if I declare that she would never have been permitted to set foot in Kate Pinkerton’s drawing room. Mrs. Vetch, however, was fortunate in her publicists. For a year she lectured coast to coast on the woman she insisted on calling, appallingly, “Kate”; there was talk of a movie (Yardley Urban was to play the lead), but the danger was averted, the public lost interest, and Mrs. Vetch moved on to her next project, a life of Julia Ward Howe that promised startling revelations.
No threat came from Webster M. Cullen’s Pinkerton, Japan, and the War in the Pacific (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968). Cullen is the college professor par excellence, substituting theory for fact, copiousness for judgment, and jargon for good English. His readers were few.
When I checked the school history books, I was relieved to see that the Pinkerton affair rated a cryptic mention, if any: hardly a story for the eyes of youth. By now I thought of it as my story and was by no means keen for it to be sniffed at and snickered over by those who could never understand it as I did. The whole business seemed buried as deep as the Teapot Dome scandal (that catastrophic blight on the reputation of President Harding), the Kellogg-Briand Pact, or the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.
Then came Burl Blakey’s novel The Senator (New York: Viking, 1974). Of a piece with Mr. Blakey’s other productions, this roman-à-clef of sex and corruption among America’s ruling classes was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and New York Times number-one bestseller. There is little point in castigating Mr. Blakey. He is a force of nature: One is only surprised that in his several careers as gambler, deep-sea fisherman, and lover of starlets and models, he should find time to produce his eight-hundred-page epics. The movie, starring Hayden Granger, Rosalind Magenta, and a floppy-haired Curtis Kincaid, Jr. (complete with purplish contact lenses) as the half-Japanese B. F. Pinkerton II, became the decade’s biggest box-office draw.
Today, there can be no hope that the Pinkerton affair will be forgotten. Perhaps there never was. When a man in high office dies, we are always a little alarmed, as if we had expected death to tread lightly around those elevated above the common fray. When his death is violent and trailing skeins of scandal, our alarm becomes excitement and can hardly be held in check. Had Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton been an obscure figure, his fate would have been shocking enough, but that so bleak a destiny should envelop a man so eminent lifted it to proportions of classical tragedy. What was the senator but the Great Man, brought low by his fatal flaw? A textbook case, out of A. C. Bradley!
He could have been president. Three times he put himself forward for the Democratic nomination: in 1920, when he lost, by a whisker, to James M. Cox; in 1928, when he lost (to the party’s later regret) to Alfred E. Smith; in 1932, when he lost, decisively this time, to Franklin D. Roosevelt. There were those who said that the senator never fulfilled his potential, and yet, while failing to attain the highest office, still he became a significant architect of national affairs. In the Wilson years it was Senator Pinkerton who laid the foundations for American policy in the Philippines; during the Republican hegemony of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, he remained a prominent figure; but it was under Roosevelt that he came into his own, playing a key role in foreign policy as America moved toward the Second World War. Many remember Senator Pinkerton advocating internment of Japanese Americans. The part he played in the Manhattan Project has been documented extensively. By the end he was one of President Truman’s closest advisers, and in the view of many it was the senator, more than any other man, who swayed Truman toward dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Pinkerton affair could be considered from many angles. The Manville connection was a story in itself. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, son of a hotelier from Atlantic City, hardly seemed cut out for his exalted station. That he owed it to a fortunate marriage was never in doubt. The world might never have heard of B. F. Pinkerton had it not been for his father-in-law, the long-serving Senator Cassius Cornelius Manville (Democrat, New York), who saw in the handsome naval officer a substitute for the son he had lost in the Cuban campaign of 1898. The Manvilles, that great East Coast political family, hardly knew what a viper they took to their breasts in the young lieutenant from the USS Abraham Lincoln. Later, many would ask what sort of woman Kate Pinkerton (née Manville) must have been: a woman not only apprised from the first of her husband’s dubious past but one who connived for so long to conceal it, even taking the child of his previous union as her own. Later, she must have wondered if the boy’s Japanese mother achieved in death the victory she had been denied in life.
But I fear I slip into the tones of Mrs. Vetch.
Naturally, much coverage was devoted to the provenance and peculiar history of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton II. “Trouble,” as he was known, was a figure shocking enough, considering only his crimes; when, added to these, came the truth about his birth, the mixture was explosive. Condemnation, like buckshot, spluttered in all directions. Some directed their greatest outrage at B. F. Pinkerton; others, at B. F. Pinkerton II. Conservatives declared that a traitor was a traitor—what more was there to be said? Liberals asked: What was the son but the victim of the father? What chance had the boy? With his blond American looks, Trouble could hardly have known he was half Japanese, the son of a geisha girl who had killed herself for love of his faithless father. The truth might have devastated him at any time; in the event, it was kept from him for so long that, when he learned it, he could hardly help going a little mad.
To others, the victim was neither Pinkerton II nor the hapless Japanese girl; the one to be pitied was the young Lieutenant Pinkerton, drawn into the seductive lure of the Orient. The Pinkerton affair, in this view, was a sort of moral Pearl Harbor: Yellow Peril striking again, with Pinkerton II a fitting symbol that East is East, West is West, and never the twain should meet.
* * *
Next year, to my astonishment, marks an anniversary: forty years since my story’s end. It is time to begin. I am an old man, and tired; sometimes I wish I could surge free of the past, like a Saturn V rocket, shedding stages on its way out of the atmosphere. Perhaps, in setting down my story, I will achieve some freedom from it. For years I refused to talk about the Pinkertons. But history cannot be left to Mr. Burl Blakey. This book will appear only after my death. I shall paint no monsters. I shall level no blame. My purpose is simply to tell the story: not the definitive story (for where is that to be found?) but the story as it appeared to me, from my first meeting with Trouble to the end of my association with his family, many years later. Perhaps the story is not mine to tell. In the lives of the Pinkertons, I was, I suppose, a bystander, but one well placed on more than one occasion to witness the unfolding of their story.
It is the saddest story I know. The ending is so out of proportion with the beginning. Yet for me that ending is implicit in every step that precedes it: that eternal moment when the atomic cloud, one summer’s morning, bloomed above the port of Nagasaki, where, many years before, a young man had dallied with a girl known as Butterfly.
Copyright © 2012 by David Rain