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The Last American Aristocrat
The Biography of David K.E. Bruce, 1898-1977
By Nelson D. Lankford

Chapter One: Under the Shadow of Washington's Hand

The past is never dead. It's not even past. -- William Faulkner

The story of his family, and of the perspective on life that David Bruce inherited, begins with the ancestral mansion that overlooks wooded hills and red clay tobacco fields in Charlotte County, Virginia. In 1847 his grandfather began planning a grand estate to signify the heights his family had scaled in that part of the state called Southside. Like the broad-acred English gentry he emulated, Charles Bruce built for the generations to come in serene confidence that his family's social standing, and the economic system that undergirded it, would endure. In one sense he succeeded, for the house he built continued to provide a reference point, an abiding sense of place, for his grandson long after the plantation economy vanished.

Like many sons of the planter elite, Charles Bruce went north for schooling, in his case to Harvard. In a painting of the young Virginian, the artist Thomas Sully captured Charles's outlook, giving his unlinedface the look of smooth, vacuous elegance radiating optimism born of self-assurance. His half brother once admonished him for being a "sybarite" with "rather an expensive taste. With the easy confidence of his class, after returning from college, Charles planned his grand house, was betrothed to Sarah Seddon of Fredericksburg, and sailed off to Europe to complete the cultural education of a rich young southern gentleman.

Before he left, he chose as his architect a man ominously described as having "more taste than prudence. When it came to spending other people's money, John Evans Johnson lacked none of his profession's talent for guiltless extravagance. When Charles returned from his extended Grand Tour, he found that Johnson had spent double the specified sum, and the house was still unfinished. He did not protest, however, because Johnson had fashioned on a remote bluff high above the Staunton River a dramatic creation that fulfilled his dream.

With its crenellated facade, corner turrets, and mullioned windows, Staunton Hill flaunted the current vogue for Gothic Revival. Its striking feature was an octagonal vestibule opening onto a sinuous, double flying staircase rising to the upper floors. Johnson spared nothing on the details: he ordered ten slender, fluted columns of soft gray Italian marble, and the portico they supported, at a cost nearly equal to that of all the masonry in the rest of the house combined.

The means that enabled Charles to build Staunton Hill, and to accept calmly his builder's excesses, came to him through inheritance. Charles's father, James, had bought tobacco at depressed prices during the War of 1812 and sold high, hardly the labor of a virtuous Jeffersonian farmer. James married well--the widow of Patrick Henry's son--and increased the value of his estate many times over. He made his fortune as a commodities speculator, but like other men of substance in Virginia, he invested in agriculture, which is to say, in tobacco, which is to say, in slaves.

On reaching his majority in 1847, Charles became by some accounts the richest grandee of the state. His northern education and affinity for the trappings of European culture reinforced his self-confidence as a leader of his region. And he betrayed no regret that his fortune, and the future prospects of his family, rested on the backs of three hundred slaves who sweltered in the brutal, shimmering heat of Charlotte County's tobacco fields.

When the crisis triggered by secessionist fire-eaters in Charleston overtook Charles's way of life, white Virginians agonized over what to do. Unlike South Carolina -- dismissed by a unionist as "too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum" -- Virginia voted first to oppose secession and then, after Fort Sumter, to embrace it. Charles outfitted a battery at his own expense and called it the Staunton Hill Altillery. His wife Sarah's brother, James A. Seddon, became the Confederate secretary of war.

After years of struggle, the Bruces took no comfort from the injunction of Charles's half brother to "put your wife and children on the smallest amount of food, kill dogs, and old negroes if necessary to keep our army alive." In April 1865 the Bruce children looked up from their games on the sloping lawn at Staunton Hill to listen to gunfire from the last skirmishes in the neighboring county -- Appomattox.

Like planters across the South, Bruce saw his wealth consumed by Confederate bonds and freedom for the long-suffering slaves. "Dewhite folks was all sad en er cryin'," recalled one of them, Levi Pollard, as he contrasted the jubilation in the slave quarters with sentiment in the big house on the day Bruce told them they were free at last.

Charles retained his cheerful outlook even as he saw his world order swept away. Sarah was differently disposed. She complained bitterly that their architect had not been even more extravagant, because Staunton Hill at least survived the war intact. "She had little humor," her son discreetly recalled. Unlike her sanguine husband, who personified the convivial, horse-racing, Episcopalian gentry, she was a dour Presbyterian overflowing with the unforgiving Calvinist piety of that other overworked southern stereotype.

In its fall from antebellum splendor, the family was in good company and even kept 5,000 acres besides the house. If the Bruces had little ready cash, they did maintain better than most of their class the veneer of the past. Surrounded by deferential servants and sustained by an undiminished sense of noblesse oblige, they lived to instill in their children the highborn pride of Virginia Bruces. This, at any rate, was the recollection of their devoted son William Cabell Bruce, sixth of eight surviving children. In recalling his youth, Cabell cited his parents, preoccupation with debt as a testimony to their character. Their privation cannot have been onerous, though: his mother haughtily swore that "good servants are three-fourths of the happiness of life."

After the biblical span of three score and ten years, Charles Bruce died in the mansion he had built as a youth. His death in 1896 prompted reverent comments about the passing of the last grand seigneur of the county. His simple funeral was a sublime tableau to votaries of Old Virginia. His body was carried in its coffin from the master's bedroom to the library, where the service was held, and then borne high on the shoulders of eight former slaves to the private graveyard on the grounds nearby. Sad though this interment was, it would not be the most tragic witnessed at the Bruce family plot.

Encumbered by deft, the estate nearly slipped out of the family's hands. Proud Sarah Bruce spurned the charity of her husband's college classmates, who did not allow civil war and the passage of time to dim their happy memories of Harvard's Porcellian Club. Undaunted, these aging Yankees made their way to Staunton Hill and satisfied the widow's sense of honor by purchasing at inflated prices enough ancient, vinegary Madeira from Charles's cellar to keep the creditors at bay.

William Cabell Bruce knew there was no future in Southside for him. When he left home for college, though, he took with him an unreconstructed, moonlight-and-magnolias image of antebellum Virginia that he would cherish over the years. At the University of Virginia what engaged him most were the debating societies, where he matched wits with Woodrow Wilson. A long-standing feud between them climaxed when Cabell won an award the future president coveted. Irritated when reminded of the incident after Wilson entered the White House, Bruce feigned chagrin and compared himself to another Virginian "whose only claim to fame was knocking down young George Washington in a scuffle." Wilson did not forget either, and their undergraduate clash poisoned their later relations.

Cabell moved to Baltimore in 1880 to study law and lived at a boardinghouse with an older brother, Philip. Philip Alexander Bruce's own law practice soured, but he did make astute social contacts that his younger brother employed to make his way in a strange place. Thanks to Philip's connections and his own diligence, within five years ofpassing the bar Cabell became a partner in the leading firm of William A. Fisher. Cabell's engagement to his boss's daughter showed anyone paying attention how quickly the talented young Virginian was establishing himself in his adopted city.

Cabell was not content merely to marry well and make money at the bar. Like professional men and women throughout urban America at the turn of the century, he embraced the Progressive goals of civil service reform and efficient government. He joined the Baltimore Reform League. He won a seat in the state senate. Two years later he captured Maryland's attention when, as a reform Democrat in a legislature divided by one vote, he threatened to support the Republicans unless the unreformed Democrats elected him serrate president. They did. He had modest success improving local government but felt that corruption blocked his advancement. This sounded like sour grapes, but Maryland politics, then and long after, stank worse than the fetid mounds of blue crab and oyster shells that piled up beside the canneries of Baltimore harbor.

Although a reformer, William Cabell Bruce was nobody's radical. His stolid personality, social aspirations, and pride in his Virginia gentry roots un-suited trim to the role of zealot. Progressivism for him meant clean, honest government by the better sort of people in place of the squalid machine politics that catered to the lower classes. As a successful lawyer who knew how to conceal ambition beneath a genteel mien, he was also an ideal son-in-law to a family highly placed in Baltimore society.

Louise Este Fisher--Loulie to her friends--did not know the sense of loss that Cabell's family felt when they contemplated the past glory of Staunton Hill. It is true that bitterness lingered in Baltimore from the divided sentiments of the war years, but the city had not known the devastation of the Bruces, world. Her father, Judge William A. Fisher, married to wealthy Louise Este, came from a prosperous banking and legal family and retired from the bench to take up private practice. He was a modern man of the law, less given to the florid oratory of the preceding generation and more concerned with "sober reasoning," his son-in-law said, than emotional appeals to the jury. In short, he was a hopelessly dull speaker.

Louise's parents had promised to send her to boarding school in Farmington, Connecticut, but when the time came were reluctant to lose her. So they offered her a choice of Farmington or a horse, and she cheerfully took the bribe. The judge's daughter crackled with an extraordinary level of energy that everyone remarked upon, energy she applied to those good works deemed suitable for genteel women. Short in stature like all the Fishers, she compensated for her size with vigor.

Louise Fisher and William Cabell Bruce were engaged in 1886 and married the next year. Their first child died in infancy from scarlet fever. Two years later a second son was born, and they named him James, for Cabell's grandfather with the Midas touch. The third son carried his father's name. The fourth and youngest was freighted with three Christian names in honor of Louise's brother, who was Cabell's junior law partner.

David Kirkpatrick Este Bruce was born at a quarter to five in the morning on Lincoln's birthday, Saturday, February 12, 1898. He was baptized at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. In Washington, William McKinley sat in the White House. Abroad, Queen Victoria reigned overthe quarter of the globe shaded in British imperial red. The status derived from such colonies began to tempt America's leaders who hankered for an invitation to the high table of the great powers. Opportunity knocked three days after David's birth when the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, and the nation plunged headlong into Secretary of State John Hay's "splendid little war" with Spain.

David did not arrive to a settled household. About this time Judge Fisher asked his daughter to move into his new house and help care for her rich grandmother Este, who lived with the judge and his wife and in fact had purchased the house herself. Louise Bruce received the summons from the parental bench with dismay and confessed later that she resented it. Because she dutifully complied, however, the William Cabell Bruces moved to 8 West Mount Vernon Place with its four generations, numerous servants, and three libraries-one for the judge, one for the Bruces, and one for the boys. "Nothing in that house was in the singular," James would recall, remembering the multiple parlors and dining rooms.

Without question the most fashionable address in Baltimore -- critic Brendan Gill has called it "the finest city square in the country" -- Mount Vernon Place at the turn of the century exuded a dignified air of repose, indeed, of arrival. The classical proportions of the houses lining the square imparted a Parisian accent, or so said an enthusiastic partisan. In the damp evenings of summer, platoons of gas street lamps cast their diffused light, like a Stieglitz photogravure print, over the tree-lined green filled with manicured flower beds. The focal point of the square was the monument, a tall stone column topped by a statue of George Washington, hand outstretched. Like Cockneys born within earshot of the bells of Bow Church, Baltimore natives are said to be born "under the shadow of Washington's hand." For the Bruce boys the metaphor had daily resonance.

Baltimore at the turn of the century was a thrusting, growing Place, a town on the make with all of the excitement and prejudices suggested by its brash civic boosterism. Its distinguishing trait was its location at the head of that "immense protein factory," the Chesapeake Bay, which provided an endless wealth of shellfish and seafood. Cities were arguably noisier then because of the clatter of iron-shod hoofs and wagon wheels on cobbled streets. They were certainly more redolent from relying on literal horse power. And Baltimore's sewers all flowed into Back Basin, with its weak tidal current rarely dispelling the aroma in high summer. "Baltimoreans of those days," sneered native son H. L. Mencken, "were complacent beyond the ordinary, and agreed with their envious visitors that life in their town was swell," even in the face of annual typhoid epidemics and the occasional outbreak of malaria and smallpox.

Louise Bruce applied her energy to the efficient running of the household and the family's social relations. This suited Cabell, who busied himself with law and politics. A benign patriarch who deferred to his wife's zeal, he once confessed stuffily that he had "no more to do with the government of my house than with the Government of Great Britain."

Like Sarah Seddon Bruce, Louise took seriously the role of transmitting religious values. For many southern families of that era, the day began with prayers. In the Bruce household they were held in Louise's bedroom, with readings from the Book of Common Prayer and homilies by Cabell recounting for the boys those things they ought tohave done and those they ought not to have done. The Sunday drill included hymn singing at home in the evening to supplement morning church service. In due course, at sixteen David was confirmed at the family's parish church.

For the boys, a house full of servants and older relatives--in David's words, "a perfect horde of family"--offered an ideal perch for observing the petty dramas of human society in microcosm, at least what could be gleaned of it in a wealthy household. The butler, to whom Cabell attributed the manners of a grand duke, and Gus, the head coachman who presided over the stables behind the house, were most popular with the children. The stables offered them a private version of the neighborhood livery, fondly recalled by Menchen as "the favorite bivouac and chapel-of-ease of all healthy males of tender years."

David's earliest memory was of being taken on his fourth birthday by his great-grandmother to see George M. Cohan's vaudeville act--and of being given his first taste of alcohol. Louise Este was the lasts of his most vivid childhood recollections in part because of her great age, then nearly a hundred, but even more because of her unconventiorral manner. Cabell recalled all of the women in his wife's family with polite Gone With the Wind gallantry but of Louise Este could bring himself only to say cryptically that she was "a most interesting woman."

In her day, Louise Miller Este had been a great hostess, schooled in European culture. "She cared nothing about money but took her pleasures seriously." Even as a centenarian she was "rather given to drink," David recalled, "and had the habit, which she said was excellent for her health . . . of imbibing a good deal of champagne both at lunch and at dinner." New Orleans was the city she really loved, and she detested Baltimore from the day she moved there after her husband died. She did not think much of her Baltimore relations either and often addressed them in French, knowing they did not understand a word of it. When she discovered that one of David's Este cousins in Cincinnati, Natalie Barney, could speak flawless French, she said to the girl, "You are someone after my own heart." To young people who knew her, especially Natalie and David, the old lady radiated a romantic love of everything French.

She took a shine to her great-grandson and left a lasting impression on him. During the great fire of 1904 she took David up on the roof, in the smoke and falling ashes, to sit in deck chairs and watch the business district burn. Sensible Louise Bruce sent the children to the country when flames threatened their house but not before her youngest enjoyed another memorable day with his great-grandmother.

Louise thought Virginia was too hot in the summers for small children, so she took the boys instead to Lake George, the Adirondacks, and Atlantic City while Cabell visited his mother at Staunton Hill. The oppressive heat of high summer in Charlotte County, where only the drone of cicadas broke the isolated quiet, was certainly off-putting. Strong-willed Louise more likely stayed away out of dread at being in the country under the same roof with her equally strong-willed mother-in-law. In any event, she did not take the boys for summer visits to Staunton Hill until after the senior Mrs. Bruce died in 1907.

By then, rapacious plowing had eroded the land. Chemical fertilizer, in Cabell's opinion, only kept the soil going "like a feeble heart reenforced by doses of digitalis." But David did not see the marginal fieldsreclaimed by broomstraw and scrub pine. He did not notice the dilapidated farms, or the poverty, or the ignorance. Rather, he was just old enough to begin imbibing the Old South mystique that the family's plantation evoked. The affectation was especially acute in the Old Dominion, for Virginians were steeped in an obsessive worship of their ancestors with a piety that would pUt a devout Shintoist to shame. It was also the era when white southerners fervently nurtured the myths of the Lost Cause. David and every other white southern boy constantly relived the Civil War. For them, William Faulkner said, it was always still not yet two o'clock on that afternoon in July 1863 when Pickett fidgeted awaiting Longstreet's order, and may be this time his charge would succeed.

For the Bruces, family circumstance powerfully reinforced nostalgia. The servants faithfully tending Staunton Hill gave credence to the picture that Cabell painted of gracious antebellum times. Within, in parlors choked with bric-a-brac, Gothic gilt-framed mirrors, high-backed Victorian rosewood sofas, and thick Brussels carpets, the hush itself exuded an aura of faded gentility. A marble bust of Sarah Bruce presided over the house as it had done since before the war. All these things created in David's imagination a sense of place, in location and in rank, of what it meant to be a Bruce of Virginia.

Among other things, it meant being related to the "best" families, whose genealogies, Cabell said, were "a tangle of fishhooks, so closely interlocked that it is impossible to pick up one without drawing three or four after it." He probably did not dwell on the strain of insanity that ran through his numerous den when he told David about his Virginia relations. According to malicious family tradition, more Bruces lived inside the lunatic asylum at Western State Hospital than outside it. Though David grew up in Baltimore in the house of his mother's family, it was the Virginia plantation that gave him a sense of identity with his forebears through his father's line rather than the Fishers. The only exception was an important one: it was great-grandmother Este who stimulated that sybaritic streak he shared with her as well as with his paternal grandfather.

Charlotte County was a remote, romantic place for a boy raised in town. Lighted only by candles and kerosene lamps, deep in the stillness of the countryside, Staunton Hill wove its distinctive spell on David. Besides summer visits there were shorter ones at Christmas, which the smell of wood smoke and country cooking and the rustle of leaves underfoot imprinted on his mind. Other visits at Easter etched in memory the intoxicating scents of woodland springtime and the blossoms of his grandfather's ornamental trees.

At Staunton Hill he learned to shoot. The guest book recorded a tally of quail, dove, and pheasant in the game bag as faithfully as it preserved the names of visiting friends. Tramping over the stubble of cornfields with his gun on crisp autumn mornings, he developed so finely both appetite and skill for the ritual slaughter of feathered innocents that it became his favorite sport.

The tobacco culture of Southside Virginia framed his earliest memories of Staunton Hill. He liked to recall how he watched with schoolboy amazement at a local inn as men expertly spat tobacco juice across the room into stained brass spittoons. He and his brothers pilfered leaves from tobacco curing barns for their corncob pipes. His mother caught and scolded him, to no effect, after he graduated to rolling his own cigarettes from hidden caches of Duke's Mixture and Bull Durham.From that point on, the air around his head was thick with smoke, the reflex of flicking tobacco ash as involuntary as breathing. He tried many times to quit but could not break his addiction to the noxious weed that had made his family's fortune.

David saw an uglier side of the South when he visited Charlotte County. Ambiguities in race relations gave way by the twentieth century to a rigid system defined by Jim Crow segregation laws. Staunton Hill's rural setting (Cabell called it ethnically "English with a deep Negro pigmentation") was far from the legal apartheid of town. Still, habit and prejudice placed barriers between blacks and whites and governed all contact between the races.

At Staunton Hill David learned instinctively where his family fit into the social hierarchy. The natives liked to say that three kinds of people inhabited Charlotte County--white folks, black folks, and Bruces. For David the unpremeditated arrogance that belonged by right to the owners of Staunton Hill came naturally. When young Master Bruce, all of fourteen years old, wrote his mother about going to the estate for Thanksgiving in 1912, his demands were not all tongue in cheek: "I will arrive Wednesday night, anal want the following preparations made for me. I want Mammy to bring all of my shooting clothes and a perfectly good pair of leggings to the house. . . . I want you to prepare dinner for Uncle Willie and myself to take with us Thursday shooting. Please have all these things in readiness under pain of my great displeasure! . . . Be sure to have that dinner ready. I am sorry to write such a sloppy letter, but my time is taken up with important business."

A contemporary described the best English public schools as "feeding sham pearls to real swine." Louise Bruce was determined that her sons, education not merit a similar indictment. At Staunton Hill and at home in Baltimore, she set a routine for her boys that stigmatized idleness. She filled their days with lessons--dancing, tennis, language, and, in David's case, violin lessons. David ignored the fraulein who brought German grammar to Mount Vernon Place but did retain some scraps from his French tutorials. Louise engaged a clergyman to come to their house and keep the boys, noses to the grindstone. Some of what they learned stuck, and they absorbed the value of discipline. The saving grace of her approach was in bombarding them with opportunities and then encouraging each boy to apply himself to whatever especially appealed to him.

When the time came, David went to Gilman, the local private academy that his mother had helped found. From an early age he loved to read. Louise often caught him with a book propped up on the bathroom shelf while he brushed his teeth or on the floor beside his foot as he laced his shoes. She said he read the Iliad when he was seven, though how much he comprehended is open to question. In one of his earliest letters, dated February 1906, he wrote when she was in Boston, "I wish I was there, I think I just would love it there. Look around and see if you can see any good books, so, when I have finished all the books I have now, I can send for them." This childish missive revealed more than love of reading. Here was evidence that at the tender age of eight he had taken to heart that ineffable assumption of the privileged that, whatever one wishes, one of course may have: "I can send for them."

With an overabundance of literary relatives, it is easy to see why David took naturally to reading and writing. After quitting law, his Uncle Philip made a name for himself as the premier historian ofcolonial Virginia. Another uncle taught university classes on Arthurian legends. His uncle by marriage, Thomas Nelson Page, was a best-selling author, whose ghost, another writer complained, haunted southern literature, "keening in Negro dialect over the Confederacy's fallen glory." His father too set an example. Although Cabell wrote more after David left home, his research for a life of Benjamin Franklin that won a Pulitzer showed his son the pleasures of writing books as well as reading them. None of this would have mattered if David had not shown a natural affinity. The "scholar" of the family was how his brother James remembered him as a boy. Without question he inherited the family gene to become, in his own phrase, "another scribbling Bruce."

In a slim red volume that he received one Christmas, he began to record on the gilt-edged pages the titles of the books he added to his personal library. They were largely but not-entirely American, English, and Continental classics. For Shakespeare, Dickens, Cervantes, and Dante rubbed shoulders with assorted guides on hunting and fishing among the more than three hundred titles he collected by the time he went to college. It is doubtful he read them all--many were gifts that reflected the taste of the giver. By the time he finished Gilman, though, the largest number were of his own choosing. The habit of buying them for himself and of reading widely was already deeply ingrained.

In adding books tO his library, David discovered the joys of collecting. He set himself the goal of buying first editions of modern authors. He amassed other objects too, from baseball cards, then sold in cigarette packs, to Indian artifacts gleaned from the fields of rural Virginia, to cigar-store figures and other bits of folk art. (His favorite, a picture of a nude Indian girl riding a white horse, displeased his masher, and she threw it out as soon as he left home. In collecting, as in hunting and smoking, the child was father of the man. From these modest collections grew an appetite, almost an obsession, that would fill his adult leisure in pursuit of much grander things than his schoolboy trinkets.

Sheltered from the rougher side of life outside his home, he enjoyed blissful early years. During the same months that Kenneth Grahame wrote about the adventures of Badger and Mole, David enjoyed a real-life Wind in the Willows childhood. To be sure, he suffered the normal bumps and shocks of boyhood. There were bouts with measles and chicken pox. When he was seven, his brother William Cabell Jr. gave the family a fright when a rabid dog bit him. There were also the deaths, not unexpected, of aged grandparents. In his twelfth year, however, a much sharper tragedy jolted his cozy universe. William Cabell Jr., the most athletic of the three boys and only a year older than David, sickened and died.

It was not a quick death. The family suffered through four months of alternating hope and despair. Specialists could do nothing about the streptococcal infection that gradually weakened his heart, and the boy died in June 1910. The family was devastated. For them, the portents of calamity that accompanied Halley's Comet that spring came true. Neither the return of her remarkable energy nor the success of her surviving sons could fill the void for Louise. She never spoke of William Cabell Jr. again without tears.

With a poignancy that broke his mother's heart, just before he died, William Cabell Jr. made plans to dispose of his personal effects. "He asked to have his baseball glove, his bat and his ball brought to him,he regarded these as his most precious possessions," Louise wrote. "Then he asked to see David, whom he loved dearly, and when David came to his bed side, he handed to him the things I have just mentioned, with perfect composure, told him that he wanted him to have them; telling him that he would never be able to use them again. That touching scene was almost more than my bleeding heart could stand." And so, at his family's parish church, David faced the coffin containing his brother's remains while he heard the minister intone the words from the Episcopal burial service, "in the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord?"

© 1996 Nelson D. Lankford

Little, Brown

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