Sunday, June 23, 2013

66. Jim Fisk, part 3: Blue Fire in His Veins

           Here resumes the saga of Jim Fisk, robber baron, impresario, pseudo admiral, and Prince of Flash, who with his partner Jay Gould ran the debt-ridden Erie Railway, whose stock he watered generously, while just as generously raining money and diamonds on Miss Josephine Mansfield, his inamorata.                        

            Colonel Charles H. Braine of the Ninth Regiment of the New York State National Guard, though dressed in civilian clothes, was an erect, slim man of fifty, crisp in his gestures, with a martial air about him and a neatly trimmed mustache.  Calling on Jim Fisk, the Colonel explained that he had come on an urgent mission.  He had served in the Ninth Regiment during the war, when it fought valiantly, and he took great pride in it.  But patriotism wanes in peacetime.  Morale was low, the regiment's numbers were depleted.  The elite youth of the city flocked to the Seventh Regiment, to which the Ninth had always been a poor cousin, looked down upon and even scorned.  The officers had talked of disbanding, but the Colonel had a solution: Jim Fisk.  Not just Prince Erie's cash -- though that would be welcome -- but Jim Fisk himself.  The Colonel would take a voluntary demotion to lieutenant colonel and second-in-command, if Fisk consented to be colonel; his election was assured.

Before his transformation into colonel.
            Jim Fisk brightened.  Though he had graced the battlefields of the recent war by his substantial absence, the thought of himself as a regimental commander sparked the blue fire in his veins.  He confessed to having no military experience whatsoever, but the Colonel assured him that he, as second in command, would be on hand to prompt him with the appropriate commands.  And if the future colonel was rather amply proportioned, Braine assured him that his proportions hardly mattered, since it was his spirit that they wanted.  So Jim Fisk, eager to embrace yet another persona, agreed.

            Elected almost unanimously (a few members were Erie shareholders), the new commander addressed the regiment at its armory on West Twenty-seventh Street and  announced that they were going to be the snappiest, flashiest, most top-dog regiment in the city and have fandangos of fun.  He was wildly cheered.  After that he  urged all able-bodied Erie and Opera House employees to rally to the flag -- his flag -- which they did, and had his tailor design a splendid blue uniform rich in gold epaulets, buttons, and braid, with a cap surmounted by a plume; squeezing into it proved a bit of a tussle. 

            Prince Erie’s meteoric rise to colonelcy occasioned much comment in the city.  Some scoffed, others fretted.  Was this comic opera, or would he use his legion to conquer other railroads or even – a disquieted few claimed to be serious -- stage a coup d’état?  Wags hailed him as the first person in history to be simultaneously an admiral and a colonel and debated the proper form of address.  Colonel-admiral?  Admiral-colonel?  Neither?  Both?  The colonel/admiral relished the fuss.

            The first drills under the command of the new colonel were a bit of a fiasco, but gradually, thanks to Braine's whispered help, order emerged out of chaos.  A moonlight parade up the Fifth Avenue, a bastion of quiet elegance, followed, though the genteel residents shuttered their parlors against the bray of the band.  Colonel Fisk then ordered new dress uniforms for the regiment and enticed some of the best Opera House musicians into the regimental band.  This done, he invited the regiment to a special performance of The Twelve Temptations at the Opera House, where they reveled in free champagne, gawked at the onstage waterfall, and cheered the Demon Cancan.  Who would have thought that soldiering could be such fun?  They adored their free-spending colonel.

            Next, the colonel stunned the city yet again by announcing that the Ninth Regiment would set up its summer encampment – traditionally, an occasion for intensive drill – at the breezy coastal resort of Long Branch, for years a stomping ground of his own, and now the preferred vacation spot of the President, his cabinet, and a host of celebrity watchers and lobbyists.  The spit-and-polish Seventh Regiment sneered, predicting a week-long debauch.  But to the surprise of all, Fisk kept a fairly tight rein on skylarkers, drilled the regiment with only a few gaffes of his own, then invited Governor Hoffman of New York to a formal review that proved impressive.  And when the Ninth returned to New York, the colonel led the regiment once again up the Fifth Avenue, this time marching smartly in spiffy new uniforms with a well-tuned, vibrant band, to the cheers of bystanders.  Warned the Herald, “Let the Seventh look to its laurels.”  The colonel beamed.

            For two years Jim Fisk had capered with ebullience and flash, competing with the President to be the most reported-on man in the nation.  His daily jokes in the Erie offices kept the staff in titters.  Flanked by chorus girls and attended by two white footmen in black and two black footmen in white, he drove six-in-hand in the Park.  And at Long Branch, nursing sour feelings since Black Friday, in full martial regalia before a host of witnesses (so a Tribune scribe insisted), he had thumbed his nose at the Presidential carriage. 

            But while Napoleon was out to conquer gold and strut before his newfound legion, his Josephine had grown restless.  Yes, she enjoyed her status as the best-kept woman in the city, and liked hostessing at her Jimjim’s dinners and receptions, but she was tired of his long absences when business or his regiment claimed him, tired of his abrupt cancellations of rendezvous, his tardy arrivals, or failure to arrive at all.  She lived optimally, but how much time could she spend parading about in her carriage, or looking at her wardrobe and jewels, or giving fresh instructions to the cook?  Afflicted with a want of commitment, she was bored.


            Then into the barren vistas of her life stepped Edward S. Stokes, known as Ned.  While Fisk bounced off into multiple ventures, Mr. Stokes called on her daily, murmured enticingly, pierced her with his soft, probing eyes.  Suddenly her existence was charged with intensity, seasoned with adventure.  In rare quiet moments she pondered: Jim was pudgy, Ned was elegantly thin; Jim whooped, Ned purred; Jim’s mustache scratched, Ned’s tickled.  Her soul stirred, her bottom tingled.        

            Miss Mansfield's new admirer was a fancy dresser,  lithe and slender, who favored satin vests under a frock coat faced with silk, black satin cravats, kid-topped shoes or glossy patent leathers, moss agate sleeve buttons, diamond rings, a spotless gray topper, lilac or lavender kid gloves, and an ivory-headed walking stick.  His curly jet-black hair was always perfectly in place, while over his upper lip curled a dream of a mustache that women found irresistible, its tickle exquisite, enhanced further by aromas of scented soap imported from England and lemony aftershave arising from his taut, smooth skin.  These effects were carefully achieved by his two hours of grooming daily at the Hoffman House, the elegant white marble hotel on Broadway at Twenty-fifth Street where he resided amid sumptuous furnishings.

            Fortune had smiled on Mr. Stokes: unsmirched by toil of battle, he had thrived mightily at the Produce Exchange during the war, and then built a refinery in the outer wilds of Brooklyn and reaped another bonanza in oil, until the oil bubble burst and the refinery’s profits grievously collapsed.  From this mischance he labored to redeem it, his heroic efforts compromised by an addiction to betting on losers at the racetrack, and a tendency to spend money that he didn’t quite have.  Fortune had smiled on him again when he met Mr. James Fisk, Jr., who, seeing its potential, put the prostrate refinery back on its feet.  Thanks to its new alliance with the Erie Railway, with Fisk as president and Stokes as treasurer, the refinery prospered again, and the treasurer would have likewise prospered, had his appetite for debt not proved insatiable, and his thoughts wandered freely from business.  They wandered to his partner’s inamorata, whose green lustrous eyes, fragrant bosom, and abundance of purple-black hair were revealed to him on a number of social occasions.  To discover a nymph so buxom, blithe, and debonair in the glades of Erie astonished him; he was instantly, irrevocably smitten.

            Miss Mansfield warmed to her new admirer’s advances, being weary of Mr. James Fisk, Jr., though not of his money, which came to her in driblets, two hundred today, a hundred the day after that.  Her seasoned eye having discerned in Neddy a fervent but impecunious lover, she was in no rush to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.  Instead, she importuned Prince Erie for a lump sum that would let her have a bank account of her own.  To which he replied with a flat no, since she would blow it all on diamonds and sables.  If she brought up his parading around in Central Park with Mlle Irma and that Montaland woman, he insisted these were business acquaintances and nothing more.  (True, or almost, since his dalliances, if any, must have been fleeting and rare.)  And always she sensed in him a deep, hidden loyalty to his wife, that starched little goody-goody lodged at a safe remove in Boston, untouched and willfully ignorant, whom he idolized, and to whom she knew she must not refer.  Clearly, vast tracts of Jimjim escaped her.  Their relationship grew turbulent with strife.

            Jim Fisk usually resided with his Dumpling at 359 West Twenty-third Street, where he hosted friends for suppers and cards.  Josie’s blond cousin Marietta Williams also lived there, providing a veneer of respectability while keeping much of the time discreetly apart.  When Fisk and Josie’s quarrels waxed vivid, he and his valet retreated to Prince Erie’s own brownstone at no. 313, a mere four minutes away, where canaries in every room lightened his exile with their singing.  From there he besieged her with numerous epistles insisting that only with the keenest regret had he folded his tent like the Arabs and stolen away, that all their differences could be settled with a kiss.  Soon enough these assurances, and the lady’s pressing need of pocket money, brought him and his valet back to no. 359.
            Fisk's partner Jay Gould had watched all this with misgivings.  To his own mind, a citadel of clean, dry thought, Fisk panting for Josie wallowed in the wet and wormy.  For Gould, Josie was a germ of scandal, a flaw in his crystalline schemes.  When he blurted out to Fisk what others had long been hinting at – that in his absence Ned Stokes was seen far too often at Josie’s – Fisk felt it like a knife in his gut.  That a ladies’ man like Stokes should be drawn to his Dolly he could understand, but that she should prefer this debt-tainted fashion plate – this fancy pants, this idler – to him, he simply could not fathom.  Infatuation; surely it would pass.  Confronted, she didn’t trouble to deny the attachment.  What did he expect, being so stingy, so busy with business, or off sleeping with his imported French whores?

            Keenly aware now that the same four-poster that had felt the imprint of his revels with Josie had borne the svelte grace of Edward S. Stokes, he folded his tent once again and withdrew to no. 313, and canceled the verbal agreement whereby that rival’s oil refinery got special low rates from Erie and supplied Erie with oil; at one swoop, Stokes’s income was wiped out.  He expected ravings and lawsuits, but instead got a message suggesting a drink at Delmonico’s.

            “Ned,” he said on arrival, “I thought I could cut nearer a man’s heart than anyone in this city, but you go plump through it.”

            Unruffled, Stokes proposed quite civilly that the two of them go to Josie and ask her to choose between them.  Fisk agreed and they went.  But Josie with dulcet cajolery proposed a solution of her own.  Why should two grown men fight like little boys?  She liked them both.  Why couldn't all three just be friends?  “No go, Josie,” said Fisk.  “You can’t run two engines on the same track in opposite directions at the same time.  You’ve got to choose between us.”  The three of them palavered into the wee hours, but no agreement was reached. 

            Over the weeks, then months, that followed, letters passed between Prince Erie and his Dumpling.  Thanks to help from his secretary, Fisk’s letters were orthographically sound and scaled at least the foothills of eloquence: “I have shown you nothing but kindness.  I have laid at your feet a soul, a heart, a reputation that cost me twenty-five years of struggle to build, and that now, but for the black blot of having in an evil hour linked myself with you, would shine brighter today than any ever seen on earth.”

            Soon after, he sent back a ring she had given him, announcing, "There is no further need of any discourse between us.”  She answered: “Your letter is cruel and unwarranted.  You have often told me that you hold in your keeping some twenty-five thousand dollars that are mine.  If you will pay me that sum, I shall never have to appeal to you for aught.  This will make possible the break between us that you, not I, so ardently desire.”  Her style too had a certain minimal polish; he suspected Stokes’s complicity.

            The proposed lump sum to be settled on her had now become a debt to be paid.  Learning from informants that Stokes had pawned his jewels, he wrote her yet again:  “How you must be saying to your paramour, ‘Man, how beautiful you are to look at, but nothing to lean upon!’"

            Josie appealed to Judge Barnard, then to Boss Tweed himself, to act as arbiter; neither could help.  Then, when another attempt at reconciliation failed, she seized his galoshes – the last vestige of him in her brownstone – and hurled them into the street.

            On New Year’s Day 1871, to efface memories of the reception at Josie’s just one year before, Prince Erie dashed off in a shiny equipage drawn by four high-stepping horses, attended by four footmen in livery, to pay his New Year’s calls.  At each stop the footmen unrolled a purple-and-gold carpet from carriage to door, then stood at attention, two on each side, as James Fisk, Jr., ablaze with diamonds, strode forth to pay his respects.  Bluebloods winced, but the rest of the city laughed, and the caller himself scantly masked the most piquant of grins.

            On a Saturday soon after New Year's Fisk had Stokes arrested, charging embezzlement of oil refinery funds.  Protesting, Stokes was hustled off to Ludlow Street Jail.  Lodged and fed like a common criminal, deprived of clean linen, scented English soap, and the Florida water in which he customarily bathed, the young man fumed with rage.  Released on bail Monday morning, he hired a lawyer and got the embezzlement charge thrown out, then sent eighteen men to seize the refinery and remove its oil to be sold.  Fisk at once countered with fifty who expelled the intruders and gained possession of the premises. 

            Soon afterward a ditty was printed in the press: 

                                    The heart that once on Erie’s walls
                                       The soul of greatness shed,
                                    Now sits as sad in Erie’s halls
                                       As if that soul were fled.

                                    So sleeps the pride of former days;
                                       So glory’s thrill is o’er
                                    When Josie, in her altered ways,
                                       Throws gum shoes out the door.

Beside the verses appeared a cartoon showing Fatty Fisk bedewing his galoshes with tears.  Gotham roared.

            Jim Fisk had always coasted on waves of mirth, often at his own expense, while evincing an engaging charm.  But this was different.  For the first time in his life, people were laughing not with him but at him.  He felt weak, foolish, exposed.  Stokes’s revenge; it hurt.  But worse followed when the scandal-hungry Herald printed an interview with Stokes that blazoned Fisk’s affair with Josie to the world.  “Fisk has never faced a good, square stand-up fight till now,” Stokes was quoted as saying.  “I’ll push him to the wall for sure.”

            Hurrying to Josie’s brownstone, the same reporter described its luxurious appointments and then the lady herself, in white silk, “tall and shaped like a duchess.”  “There has been a great deal said of me that is false,” she announced.  “I blame myself for nothing but my intimacy with Mr. Fisk.  He used me wrong.  If he provokes me, I can defend myself.  I know Mr. Stokes very slightly.”  She then said of  Fisk’s spoils in the Erie war, “I know all about that matter, but don’t care to betray any confidences, unless Mr. Fisk provokes me.  I have his letters.”

            Drawing on dubious classical scholarship, the Herald spared no one in its article, ridiculing "Menelaus" Fisk, "Belle Helene" Mansfield, and "Achilles" Stokes, while announcing "war to the knife all round."

            Reading the interviews, Fisk was stricken.  Not only was his affair with Josie trumpeted to the world, but she herself was sounding the trumpet, discarding any pretense of virtue and brandishing his letters as a threat.  Quickly he wrote his wife in Boston, urging her to take a long-deferred European tour, thus hoping to shield her from the scandal.  As for Josie, any faint hope of a reconciliation had been shredded; from now on it was indeed war to the knife.

            But war of another kind loomed.  To the colonel’s astonishment, the Ninth Regiment had been issued a call to arms.

            Future attractions:  Because I have an overload of posts waiting to be published, I will speed things up by publishing part 4 of Jim Fisk next Wednesday, and part 5, the finale, on the following Wednesday, July 3.  Next Sunday:  Farewells (coffins, kiss-offs, liquidators, and a mother's rage).  In the works: Trees; Secrets of New York (Browder version); Go Ahead: The Mania and Disease of Progress; Me and the Seven Deadly Sins.  Latest inspiration: Liars, Cheats, and Manipulators (no, not our elected officials or corporate CEOs, but people that I've known).

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

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