1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published September 1947

This department's annual tour of inspection of the champagne circuit of the United States began, unforeseeably enough, in Boston this year. Family business reared itself, and we tossed our luggage aboard the New Haven's Yankee Clipper at one o'clock, the celebrated departure hour of the still-remembered Knickerbocker. Limited in the old days, and rolled tranquilly east along the Connecticut shore, much of the ride in view of the Sound, incredibly blue and piling up with summer cumulus clouds on the Long Island horizon.

The Yankee Clipper is not, let it be said at the outset, the train the Knickerbocker was, or the Merchants' Limited at five o'clock still is. It is no longer an extra-fare, all-Pullman luxury run with two formal diners and two spacious club cars, but carries coaches and is powered by one of the lamentable Diesel-electric cement mixers which are robbing train travel everywhere of its charm and which are bankrupting the railroads so shortsighted as to purchase them in quantity. Quite aside from its aesthetic offensiveness, every Diesel locomotive ever delivered has been obsolete the day it went into service by reason of the continual change to which its design is subject, and most astute railroaders believe its day will be over when a truly nonreciprocating type of motive power is satisfactorily perfected. Nor is the New Haven's dining-car service all it once was. Formerly a gratifying roll call of fat chops and generous steaks, the menu now offers two or three readymade, steam-table meals featuring fish, eggs, entrails, and other anatomical animal oddments better suited to the shortages of wartime than to the spacious tradition of the New Haven Railroad.

In Boston, however, as we dressed for dinner, the view from our apartment at the Ritz-Carlton, the gem of all the Ritzes of the world, was enchantingly cool and reassuringly tranquil. It was mid-July and below us the Public Gardens were superbly green spaced with a color photographer's dream of formal flower beds, and on the distant escarpment of Beacon Hill it was, again reassuringly, apparent that the dome of the Statehouse was being regilded after its covering of wartime black, a gesture of preservation indulged in by the Commonwealth every time a musket has exploded since the time of the Spanish War. The incomparable serenity of Boston is never so satisfyingly tangible as on a cool evening in early summer when the trees are almost chemically green in Commonwealth Avenue and the bar of the Ritz is peopled with Marie Laurencin women in pastel dresses and gentlemen in Harvard 1905 moustaches and white linen waistcoats.

Locke-Ober's Winter Place Wine Rooms, immemorially mellow and fragrant with memories of more than sixty years of lobster Savannah and double bottles of incomparable Bollinger, for which S. S. Pierce is agent, was agog at having that day been photographed, and consequently once again glamorized, for Ted Patrick's Holiday magazine. The sales of the fabled Ward Eight, which had its origin in these archetypally Bostonian premises, have fallen off to practically nothing with the change of public taste, the management informed us, but that was the merest incident in the long chronicle of glories that stem from Winter Place. Only the week before, Jimmy Melton, an inveterate collector of Americana and atmospheric antiquities, had attempted to buy the solid-silver, counterbalanced free-lunch dishes from the solid mahogany bar, imported with civic rejoicing from San Domingo in 1886, and had been politely told the crown jewels of Locke's were not for sale. All was well in Winter Place, and the filet with béarnaise sauce was, inevitably, superb.

Three days out from the Public Gardens and the Statehouse dome, lunch on the terrace overlooking the Embarcadero at the Telegraph Hill home of Paul Smith, publisher of San Francisco's Chronicle, was also filled with mature satisfactions and, of course, the fantastic and ever-changing melodrama of San Francisco harbor, but was characterized by somewhat less tranquility than Boston. San Francisco itself is full of phrenetic urgencies, and nobody has ever yet described Paul Smith as anything but a major West Coast excitement. Between the crabs' legs in cold mustard sauce and California champagne and chocolate soufflé, Smith mentioned the atom bomb, a matter which on no other terms would find mention in this department. “The explosion of the thing is the merest incidental and trivial consideration,” he said. “It is the terrible danger of human irritability and bad temper which may act as its detonator that is frightening. Better manners everywhere on the part of everyone from prime ministers to garage attendants with the inevitably resultant better feeling in the world would make everybody a damnsite safer in his bed.”

Smith, who is generally regarded as San Francisco's most eligible bachelor,lives in simple masculine state in a modest mansion staffed by beautifully mannered butlers and houseboys and designed, internally, that is, with sea-going fittings so that Smith sleeps in a nautical bunk and looks out over the Golden Gate through weather-tight, brassbound portholes. Next to the Palace, Smith's home is the stopping-off place of the world's great when passing through San Francisco, and anybody from Admiral Halsey and ex-President Hoover to J. Edgar Hoover and Eve Curie may turn up there among the foiled bottles and cut flowers, the auto- graphed photographs and junior executives of the Chronicle, at noontime.

The seagoing sleeping arrangements mentioned above invariably bring to mind the time when the late DeWolf Hopper put up for the night at Saratoga Springs at the United States Hotel of fragrant memory. His room was at the rear of one of the hotel's illimitable wings, right over the yards of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, where a switch engine spent the night panting and hooting among the carloads of dairy products of the region, clattering over the switch points, and sending a gentle soot through the actor's windows. At length Hopper climbed from a restless bed, tottered to the wall telephone, and demanded of the night clerk on duty: “Young man, can you tell me what time this hotel gets to Chicago?”

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