The Last Man in the Water
The smell of the sea pulled him east. The Atlantic spread before him like a pool of diamonds, liquefied, tossing gently in gleaming tips and shards of changeable, fading bronze light. The sun climbed down toward dusk behind mountains of clouds swollen with moisture. The young man couldn't wait to get in the water.
The sandy beach stretched for miles. Behind him were seagrass-covered dunes, bleached fragments of shipwrecks, the shadows of Victorian turrets facing the sea. The warm wind carried the bark of a retriever, the faint perfume, so close, of the young women watching from the sands in their hourglass Gibson Girl dresses, their hair swept up high like the clouds captured in silk bow-tie ribbons. He was a handsome young man with slicked-back dark hair, a strong profile, a man who drew notice. He moved with the slight elbows-out jauntiness of a rebel, for ocean swimming was a new and godless pursuit, a worship of the cult of the body. The startling vision of a young man at the edge of the sea, Thomas Mann had recently written, "conjured up mythologies, was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the Gods. "
As the young man paused to survey the beach, the dog came beside him and lapped his hand. The man put his toes in the water, then strode quickly into the shallows, the sandy muck sucking at his feet, for there could be no hesitation, no sign of timidity. Timidity was something he was determined to leave far behind, once and forever. The temperature of the water was sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, but he walked out thigh-deep, giving the impression it was a stroll in the afternoon air. As the water reached for his torso, he jackknifed his body and dove in. The lifesavers' rowboat, an old shore-whalers model, lay up on dry sand, beyond the seaweed line.
There were a few other swimmers, splashing and floundering near shore. Quickly, he was beyond them. He was strong and practiced, with a lean, muscular body, and he moved swiftly into deeper water. In the far distance, merchant steamers crawled northward on the warm, onrushing torrents of the Gulf Stream. He could hear splashing behind him, the dog playfully following. All eyes, he knew, were on him now.
He had tried out for the swim team at the university and failed to make it, but he was in his early twenties, at the cusp of manhood, and his endurance did not wane. Soon he had the water to himself, it was his ocean, he was without doubt the strongest swimmer of the hour, and he stopped, exhaled, and floated on his back, a signal to shore that he had done what he had set out to do. He couldn't have known precisely how deep the water was beneath him, but, considering his distance from shore, he was certainly in far over his head.
It is impossible to know what the young man was thinking as he floated, and the moments passed lazily into twilight. Perhaps he was thinking that he had come to a place of greatest ease, safety, and comfort. The whole summer stretched before him on the beach, with family and friends, not a care in the world but the European war "across the pond," which touched him not. His father had removed him from the mysterious and deadly plagues afflicting the lower classes in Philadelphia. He was engaged to be married in the fall. Perhaps he was pining over his absent love, his first and forever love, as a young man does under a summer sky with all of life ahead. The wedding was arranged. His whole future had been wonderfully arranged.
After a time, he realized he no longer heard the splashing of the dog. He turned over on his stomach and looked toward land: the beach was a distant, shimmering strip exhaling the day's radiant heat; the shadows had deepened in front of the turrets; ladies' parasols on the boardwalk bobbed like puffs of yellow cream against the darkening sky. He was the last man in the water. He heard the dog barking from somewhere, across the wind and waves, and was amused. He heard voices, as if from far away. He kicked vigorously, and began his crawl toward shore. He felt an exhilarating jolt of adrenaline lifting him onward and over the waves. Perhaps he mistook it for the thrill of being noticed, or a simple joy in his youth and strength–"He is a Mercury, a brown Mercury, his heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea," Jack London, one of his favorite authors, had written.
His form was perfect, arms arcing through the sea.
AN ERRATIC ERA
On an island off the southern coast of New Jersey, at the edge of the vast and desolate pinelands, stood an old, proud wooden hotel. The graceful spire could be seen far over land and sea and stole the flat horizon from the famous bygone lighthouse that was crumbling into the tides. Carved around the crown of the spire was a bas-relief of ocean waves rolling in endless and regal procession. The overall effect was of a Greek temple left to preside over a land of mosquitoes and greenhead flies. The Engleside Hotel was the grandest lodge on the deserted stretch north of Atlantic City, a world apart from the glamour of Asbury Park, where President Woodrow Wilson stayed that summer of 1916, running for reelection on the promise "He kept us out of the war." In Asbury Park, notable and fashionable people set the modish style, but the Engleside moved to the cadence of elegant and simpler days. With its somber turrets and long, low porches, the hotel had a noble and slightly melancholy air, like the last member of an old line.
The Engleside tower struck toward the heavens with peculiar immodesty for a structure built by Quakers. It rose in a series of four deep balconies, where guests in wicker rocking chairs watched white-sailed wooden craft play with the wind. On the beach were potato-in-spoon races, skits with parasols, violins, and leaping dogs–entertainments that diverted their guests from rumors that the kaiser's U-boats were trolling offshore. The hotel was a temperance house, but guests enjoyed the pleasures of reading, dining, dancing in the starlit evening, rowing on the moonlit bay, writing long, intimate letters, and waiting for the return mail. There was little else to do. On the porches by the sea there was Edith Wharton's popular Ethan Frome to read, and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. The children were in a tizzy over Kenneth Grahame's storybook The Wind in the Willows. The distant views were of twisted sea pine among the dunes, lonely golden eagles floating over the back country, and the water, thick with bluefish and striped bass, oyster and hard clam, which New Englanders called by the Indian name quahog and Philadelphians called Venus. Most of the guests of the Engleside, born to the Philadelphia aristocracy, read Latin and Greek. On clear days, the ocean appeared infinite before them. Long, gentle waves curled languorously onto miles of virgin beach and returned endlessly back to sea, but if the surf held the song of a Siren, it had long been resisted. For many years the Engleside's Victorian guests were too modest to disrobe to bathe. Philadelphians, changeless as their old and distinguished city, were reluctant or afraid to enter the water, for ocean bathing had not been done, and so for many years was not.
But late on the last night of June of that year, the deskman at the Engleside heard gentle splashing and frolicking in the water in front of the hotel. The young were challenging their Victorian parents with rebellious behaviors, and the latest fad was moonlight swimming. Perhaps the older generation was growing sentimental, aware of the looming shadows of the European mess. But many a deaf ear was turned that summer to the midnight air; the young were allowed to get away with it. The clerk that night heard nothing. The first cool air of the day blew through the hotel's open windows as the faint strains of hits such as "Don't Take My Darling Boy Away" spilled out over the water from the popular new portable camp and seashore Victrolas. The hotel's first five hundred electric lights glimmered and swam in the darkened sea. Deeper into the night, after the hotel was quiet and dark, the splashing and laughter in front of the Engleside lulled, and finally ceased.
Only yesterday, in the ancient life of the ocean fishes, had Leni-Lenape Indian kings led their warriors to the virgin beach to feast upon mountains of clams in preparation for autumn's wars; colonial sportsmen rumbled seaward on the carriage roads; Pennsylvania farmers rattled eastward by wagon, leaving crops behind for the annual "sea day." Never in the three human centuries at the shore, the eye blink that was the forty years of the Engleside, had so many people enjoyed the pastime of ocean bathing.
The tide surged in, free of human presence once again. The skates and rays and other fishes swarmed in their timeless feeding ways of the night sea, making subtle and unknowable adjustments.
At dawn on Saturday, July 1, the hotel and the ocean were united by the bright gold band of beach. Breakfast was served in the Engleside dining room by young Irish immigrant women from Boston, while the men read the Philadelphia Public Ledger and smoked Turkish cigarettes on the porches, and discussed the German march to Paris and the fall of the Philadelphia A's to last place. That was the summer the great Connie Mack affixed to the American language the axiom "You can't win 'em all." That weekend Mrs. Hetty Green, the world's richest and stingiest woman, would die, leaving $80 million and the notorious legacy of having refused to pay for an operation for her son, costing him his leg. By late morning, the sands were crowded with young men and women in the startling new swimming costumes, the women revealing inches of leg never before seen in public. In playful teams, men and women built sand castles, a new art in America and Europe that year. The shouting and flirting rose and fell like a nervous and reluctant tide, for this was all new, this lush and languid meeting of mankind and the sea, this joyful display of flesh.
In his office under the great spire, hotelier Robert Fry Engle reviewed the booking columns for the Independence Day weekend with great satisfaction. Engle, an artist and a gentleman given to tapered suits, Arrow collars, and the polished grooming of the new century (which included the new style of a cleanshaven face), shared his father's level-eyed Quaker pursuit of profit. For the second consecutive year, all one hundred and fifty rooms, rooms for three hundred people, were sold out from July Fourth straight through Labor Day. Engle, like his late father, born of old New Jersey stock, disapproved of the immoral and noisome behavior of some of his more modern guests, particularly those who tippled the stronger waters. But there was no denying the wonderful impact of the new horseless carriage and the railroads ferrying middle-class tourists en masse to the seashore, whatever their nouveau morality. The Engleside had never experienced such a boom. The great new century heralded a bright dawn for the hotel.
Other than their father-son business–an American tradition that was disappearing as the first generation of men dedicated their work lives to corporations–Robert Fry Engle seemed to have little in common with his father. Robert Barclay Engle, the Engleside's founder, was an immense, great-bellied Civil War veteran with a Whitmanesque Grand Army of the Republic beard. He was also a highly personable and witty innkeeper, a prosperous farmer, a shrewd and combative New Jersey state senator, and a dead-eye gunner. He was legendary for helping the leading men of his time, such as Jay Cooke, the great Philadelphia financier who bailed the nation out of the panic of 1873, shoot hundreds of wildfowl in a single day.
It was Robert Barclay Engle who possessed the pride, unseemly for a Quaker, to build a spire that thrust skyward; he who cleverly named the hotel by mixing the family surname with the ancient Gaelic word "aiengle," which his wealthy and literate guests knew meant "fireside" in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It was Engle who had the guile to open his massive, remote hostelry in June 1876, less than a month before the centennial of the United States in Philadelphia, his primary market, as if daring the world to ignore him. (It didn't; wealthy sportsmen hired boats and knowledgeable guides to ply through the bays and marshes to his isolated lodge.) Engle, one of many Union veterans who made good after the war, sold Jack London fantasies to wealthy Philadelphia and New York businessmen in the Railroad Age already pining for the lost wilderness and rough fireside camaraderie of the war. But he had been born too soon. It was his son, born in the age of Rockefeller, who was poised to indulge in the big dreams and abundant capital of the twentieth century.
Yet, as a young man with artistic sensibilities, Robert Fry Engle was an unlikely candidate for the family business, and thus something of a disappointment to his father. Educated at elite Quaker private schools, he showed a rare feeling for the beauty of the ocean and dunes. Although he enjoyed hunting, he preferred aiming a camera instead of a Winchester at the wilderness. In the 1890s, graduating from the Kodak Brownie and its slogan "You push the button, we do the rest," Engle became one of America's first art photographers, imitating the evocative landscapes of the French Impressionist school of painters. In 1896, at the age of twenty-eight, Engle's photograph of a sunset over the bays of Long Beach Island west of the Engleside was included in the first art photography salon in Washington, D.C., which was praised by Alfred Stieglitz as the first American exhibit "worthy of international attention." Engle's photograph titled "The Summer Was Sinking Low" was subsequently chosen among the first fifty art photographs for the permanent photography collection at the Smithsonian Institution. The collection–sheep grazing in sun-hazed midwest pastures, idyllic mid-Atlantic hills and valleys, the innocence of Victorian mothers and children in portraiture with nature–captured an American nostalgia for the wild places lost to the Industrial Revolution.
The celebrated young pictorialist traveled across America and into Mexico and Europe. He became a protégé of photographer Burton Holmes, the most famous travel photographer and lecturer of his day, and seemed likely to achieve Holmes's fame. But the ocean at Beach Haven, his father, the family business kept calling him back. At the height of his artistic promise, he returned to the Engleside and never left, content to shoot portraits of his guests, the skits on the beach, the great spire looming over the sea. If there were two men in him, the artist and the bourgeois merchant, it was clear which one society valued most. The object of his career became business. It was the tenor of the times.