J.P. Marquand mastered two literary genres. As author of a 1930s detective series centering on the international crime-solving detective Mr. Moto, he crafted a hugely successful potboiler mystery series from 1937 to 1957. The books were adapted for films and made Marquand a wealthy man.
But he is more highly regarded as writer of literary satires, and his favorite targets were the Boston Brahmins. His books brim over with stories of unhappy blue-bloods trapped in their stifling lives while their bank accounts dwindle and their blood lines grow stultifyingly thin.
In an America growing ever more casual in the mid-1900s, Marquand’s characters still religiously dressed for dinner and knew how to eat bread. Yet they were unable to master some of life’s more basic tasks, such as living within one’s means.
Not born wealthy, Marquand was, nevertheless, surrounded by wealthy New Englanders all his life. He attended Harvard (on scholarship) and Harvard elites figure in many of his works. He was keenly aware of the differences between a public school boy who gratefully attended Harvard and the students from elite private schools who viewed a Harvard degree as their birthright.
The Literary Marquand
Marquand was such a popular literary figure, he made the cover of both Time and Newsweek in 1949. The pinnacle of Marquand’s success came in 1938 when The Late George Apley, published in 1937, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book is in the form of a memoir that is written so slyly the reader is never quite sure if Marquand’s overall intent is to mock or praise the values of Boston’s blue bloods.
In one passage, Apley offers an admonition to his son against frivolous spending of even the tiniest sums of money: “There is not much place in this world for personal gratification, nor is this particularly becoming to people of our position..” Apley the character was not ungenerous, however, encouraging support of charitable institutions.
Apley was adapted for the stage and film, but the story worked best as a novel. It is told as a memoir, pulled together by a writer who takes on the project after Apley has died and his family wants a better understanding of the man he was. On occasion, readers have stumbled on the work and taken it as fact rather than fiction. His editor reported there were instances when visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts asked at the information desk where they could see the fictional “Apley Bronzes.”
Marquand saved some of his sharpest wit for his home town of Newburyport, Mass. and his own family. Marquand moved to Newburyport as a teen. He was raised there by two aunts. He attended Newburyport High School. And he inherited a part interest in a country estate there, which was shared by a large group of cousins – the Hales.
J.P. Marquand Invents Wickford Point
In 1939, the estate became the setting for Marquand’s novel, Wickford Point. The book tells of the relationship between a writer, Jim Calder, and his extended, old New England family that has fallen on hard times – the Brills. The Brills live at their house at Wickford Point struggling to pay their bills and mooching off Jim. The book opens with Jim visiting Wickford Point. He awakens to discover that one of his cousins has siphoned the gasoline from Jim’s car and used it to drive to the beach. The picture doesn’t get any more flattering as the story progresses.
In one scene Jim returns to the house to find his cousin Sid boasting about his ability to twiddle his thumbs, which he has perfected after an evening of practice. The scene was most probably directed at Marquand’s cousin Robert Beverly Hale. Hale was an artist who mastered painting human anatomy, becoming an expert at drawing hands.
The whole Hale clan was part of the family that included patriot Nathan Hale and the writer Edward Everett Hale. Robert was hardly the only Hale cousin who had a doppelgänger in the fictional Brill family. In the book, Mary Brill pursued love, and she would inevitably lose out to her prettier sister Bella. The two daughters most likely were drawn from real life Laura Hale and her half sister Renee Oakman, who was a model. Married four times, Renee’s exploits and adventures entertained a generation of gossip fans.
One highlight came when she accused her young companion of stabbing her. The New York Times dutifully reported: “Mrs. Renee Oakman Bradbury, 41-year-old former model and a descendant of Nathan Hale, was in serious condition tonight in North Country Community Hospital after having been stabbed in the neck with a steak knife at her home, 14 Bay Avenue, Sea Cliff, by a 25-year-old male companion.”
Other members of the family made appearances in the book, but the most pointed roasting was probably directed at John Brill, the Wickford Sage. John Brill, deceased by the time of the action in the book, was a poet revered by the family as an authority on all things. The real-life Wickford Sage was Edward Everett Hale, Unitarian minister, author and orator. Later generations of Hale children would recount that when they misbehaved, their parents would take them to the statue of Hale in the Boston Public Garden to scare them.
Denials and Lawsuits
Marquand denied that the Hales were the model for the Brills. But no one particularly believed him. Renee Oakman Bradbury would glibly introduce herself to a reporter from Life magazine, saying, “Why, I’m Bella the bitch.”
The Hales contemplated suing Marquand, but decided against it. Despite the unflattering portrayal, “we still like John,” they declared. The bonds of friendship would be sorely tested, however, in 1947 Marquand filed a lawsuit to break up the partnership that owned the 48-acre estate that was the basis for Wickford Point.
Marquand wanted the property sold and the proceeds divided among all the owners. He said the action was taken so that his father, who held a share of the property, could retire comfortably. The Hales and Marquand fought it out in court. Marquand hired a lawyer with impeccable credentials from one of the prestigious white shoe firms. The Hales hired a street fighter.
Marquand should have guessed how a fight between a blue-blooded lawyer and a street fighter would end. The Hales won. The judge ordered the property divided between Hales and Marquands.
Thanks to: The Late John Marquand: A Biography, by Stephen Bingham.
If you enjoyed this story, you may enjoy this story about author John Updike, who also embarrassed some of his friends and neighbors with fictional treatments of them that were a little too exposing.