Marguerite Martyn was an experienced reporter, but one interviewee lit her up in a way that many others did not.
She had tracked down Theophile Papin and insisted that he share with her some of Society’s Secrets.
Papin was in some way associated with his father in buying and selling real estate, and he was regarded as an eminently educated man, a linguist, a lover of rare books, and a collector of valuable paintings. Most of all, though, Papin was known as the "squire of debutantes" because of all the society mamas and their 18-or 19-year-old daughters who called on him for advice on how best to manage the "coming out" that St. Louis society demanded of marriageable females.
WHAT IS SOCIETY? TOTO PAPIN EXPLAINS By Marguerite Martyn Sunday, December 18, 1910. This is one of my big days.
For it is now that I am permitted to draw aside the heavy velvet hangings that curtain “society” and let you see what lies behind.
For Theophile Papin (whom you may call “Toto” when you know him as well as I do) has spoken. He has broken his long silence, and you may find hereafter divulged some account of things as they actually are within The Charmed Circle. (You will see Martyn’s version of The Charmed — and Very Exclusive — Circle later on.)
I had to deduce from the social calendar when I might find Mr. Papin either at his home address, 3765 Lindell Place, or in one of the off hours when he is at his Chestnut Street office, where it was that I eventually found him.
His first words when I asked him about society? “What society wants most of all is to be let alone.” (Next image.)
I was actually prepared for this remark, but his personality was more encouraging than his words.
Long ago, his life might have been consecrated to the priesthood, with his combination of social talent andmissionary spirit. And he has never lost the paternal attitude which society has been charmed to find in him.
Apprehensive dueñas and dowagers heave a sigh of relief when they are able to enlist his services as a cavalier when their young hopefuls are to be presented to society.
The perfectly natural way each season’s debutantes inherit him from their elder sisters has become a tradition, and beautiful to behold. Cheerfully, he assumes the responsibility, and the buds (what young women were sometimes called in a botanical sort of way) are assured of a safe and proper and auspicious introduction.
I appealed to Mr. Papin’s missionary instinct so that you dwellers in the outer darkness can learn something of what society is, and who it consists of, what society stands for,as well as its aims, purposes, faults, progresses, and failures.
Eventually, he agreed to answer my questions. He may have been fuming inwardly, but at last we were seated tête-à-tête at a table in the center of the room. Outwardly his teeth were firmly gritted, but he went into the interview nobly, obligingly. He became master of the situation, as you shall see.
“I am not arguing with you; I am telling you” was the attitude he maintained, not forcefully, but so gracefully. If I broached any interruption or protestation, it was effaced by his honey-coated manner of speaking. I am bewildered as I recall that, notwithstanding the violence that was done to my own notions of society, I never had a interview more pleasant that this one.
The Leaders of St. Louis Society
“Who are the leaders of society in St. Louis?” was my first question.
“Oh, that, really. A delicate question. Difficult to decide. Society is complex; there are many Mrs. Astors in St. Louis. Let me rephrase the question: ‘What qualities go to make for social success and preeminence?’ I should say, ‘Knowledge and interest.’
“Knowledge would include taste, culture, tact, understanding of the social usages, laws, and complexities. One must know who’s who, who’s what, and who’s where.
“First of all, there must be intelligence. The sin against society is stupidity, nonconversation. And conversation doesn’t mean that one must talk a great deal. It consists of making others talk.The facility with which you can catch and toss an idea and keep the ball of conversation going is the essential.
“Interest in society involves sympathetic understanding of people, real kindliness, and friendliness in the abstract sense. There must be no petty views or jealousies, and the fewer personal feelings the better.
“Interest involves an exertion to please, appreciation, reciprocity: One must have something to give as well as something to take from society.”
“And birth and breeding? Aren’t they social requirements, especially in St. Louis?”
“No,” replied this bearer of the name of Papin, a name old when our Old French Set was young. “Society should be catholic — which means wide. In these days of unlimited opportunity, I would not bar a man because his father had no opportunities.
“Society should amount to thesurvival of the fittest. Still, let it go. Give it as my personal opinion that an aspiration to society is in itself commendable and worthy of consideration.”
I almost hesitated to ask if money is an essential to the social leader. Looking about the office, which is the oldest and grayest in all Real Estate Row — no glittering advertisements, no noise or commotion, I sensed a desire to subdue the necessary sordidness of its commercial purpose. Certainly there was an absence of the vulgar display of wealth. Yet Mr. Papin replied:
“Money, I should say, is one of the first essentials in an equipment for society. It is foolish to try to keep up if one cannot afford it. On the other hand, poverty stimulates the effort to improve one’s self and one’s opportunities.
“You must know that yourself. (Is he taking a dig or just being uncommonly gauche?) You may, therefore, overcome the shortcoming in the matter of money if you have the equalizing provision of the other qualities that go to make social talent and fitness. In this way, there are many impecunious persons who are very desirable to society.”
Comparison With Other Cities
He moved on to another topic.
“I should say that St. Louis is quite normally constituted, socially. It compares favorably with Rome, with Vienna — I do not know Paris. I do not know London. It compares favorably with New York, Baltimore, New Orleans.
“Of course we cannot be compared to a capital such as Washington, where society centers on political affairs, nor to seaport cities, where the population is migratory; nor to a metropolis in the sense of New York. We have no Newport and no café life. But we can well dispense with these extraneous factors.
“At the center of things social in Europe --and in the American cities where society is representative — you will find that the men are expected to do things, and the women to be interestedand take the highest notice of facts, deeds, achievements.
“Thus in St. Louis, I would say that the fundamental elements of our society are such men as Mr. Frederick Lehmann (U.S. solicitor-general), Governor (David R.) Francis, Archbishop Glennon, Dr. (Rabbi Leon) Harrison, Dr. (Baptist minister William J.) Williamson, and Mr. John Lee. (Who he?)
“Then there are the men who contribute to the energizing and upholding of certain standards — Pat Short of the Olympic Theater, Mr. Lewis of the Southern Hotel, and dozens of others I could mention, not necessarily of the Blue Book, nor of any particular neighborhood.
“Of course, we get more and more complex. Society is inclined to specialize in interests which are called coteries. Some seek purely relaxation and amusement. Others go in for culture and intellectual intercourse. And some make a slavery of society."
“And which faction is in the ascendancy — the intellectually inclined, those purely bent on pleasure, or those earnestly seeking social betterment?” I asked guardedly.
“Oh, none of them. We have a normal range of society here.” He paused. Then --
“There is a tendency now to get away from false conventions. Also, the new order of things brought about by college education, the interest in sports and outdoor life, they seem to permit of greater freedom.
“Education has likewise the effect of sobering the most frivolously inclined. Before the war (before 1861), the idleness and lack of education, the results of slavery — these engendered laziness, intemperance, and lax morality that would not be tolerated now. The moral standard demanded at the center of society is higher than ever before: We still deprecate divorce. It is only as you get away from the center that lapses occur. And, of course, the further away from the center, the greater the relaxation.”
“What is society’s prevailing form of relaxation?” I asked.
“Dining,” he responded. “Last night, to my knowledge, there were seven dinner parties in Vandeventer Place. And Lenox, Portland, Westmoreland, and other neighborhoods, I’ve no doubt, were the scenes of an equal number of this sort of entertainment.”
An Evening to Be Emulated
He became more animated, if that were possible.
“The dinner I have in mind is one given in a house which is at the very heart of things socially, and always has been. It is in conservative old Vandeventer Place. There were twelve of us — three married pairs, three young women a year or so past the debutante stage, and three bachelors.
“The women were beautifully gowned. One wore a Liberty, long-trained velvet effect. Another a frock just brought from Paris. The men were served with cocktails in the palm room. The women drank nothing.
“At the table the conversations began with the new city charter. There were expressions of regret that Mr. Lehmann could not remain to be the first mayor to execute it. We talked of the system of city government in Chicago. We talked of the anti-smoke crusade (against pollution by railroad engines and factory smokestacks).
“Discussed the opera and debated whether we would attend ‘Salome.' (Richard Strauss's one-act opera was being boycotted by many society women all over the country because of its sensuous "Dance of the Seven Veils.") We had just heard the news of the engagement of Miss Vivien Gould to Lord Decies. One of the women had met him abroad, and all seemed of the opinion that he is quite desiccated.
“After dinner one of the men accompanied on the piano a girl who sang some German and some Italian songs. There was some indulgence in conversation of only personal interest. But the whole tone was stimulating, uplifting. A very good phase of society."
He again turned a corner.
“The element I most miss in society is reverence. Why, when I was a young man, there was a code of honor amongst us that no girl should have a bad time at a ball. The ‘stickers’ were sought out first. (Maybe slang for “stick-in-the-mud”? I don’t know.) Often, indeed, it is the girl who needs to be drawn out who proves afterward to be of the most lasting charm.
“But popularity seems to involve being a bit aggressive nowadays. I was at a ball recently when to my certain knowledge only one of the younger women made a point of speaking to the older women, the chaperones. And I am sorry to say she was not one of the most popular girls.
“But do not quote me as criticizing the young women. They are charming, charming! They come out usually the first of the year,” he meditated fondly. The prospect of his busy season was not an unpleasant prospect, evidently.
“All are recognized when they first appear — some survive. But in any case they are lovely. Youth in itself is alway attractive.”
“And is that really all there is about society?” I asked.
He looked at me quizzically, almost suspiciously. Then he replied: “Yes, that is all. I fear I have painted a rather gray picture of society and that you are disappointed. But, really, that is all.”
Not a bit. Not at all. For Martyn went back to the office and produced these sketches, which she combined into a single layout that encompassed all she had heard and some that she imagined, quite reminiscent of the Renaissance images of Heaven and Hell that she must have remembered from art school. At the left, there’s a clutch of social climbers who will certainly not be allowed to get within viewing distance of the rarefied “society”circle or be invited to a dinner in Vandeventer Place. One floozy’s right hand is suspiciously close to a wine bottle as she cradles her aching head with the other one. Behind her a guy in a tux is anguished because of a “Warrant Arrest for Speeding.” There is a “Divorce Decree,” a “Taxicab Bill” and an “Opera Ticket Salome” floating among all these losers.
Let’s forget them, and move on. Next we have a kneeling woman who has succeeded in getting a little closer to the charmed circle, but she won’t be taken into Society, even as a guest, because she wears a headdress with “Stupidity” written on one of the feathers. The jaded couple in the center won’t get in either, butthey don’t care because they are having a good time smoking, eating, and drinking. Those sad people on the right?They seem to be in the wrong cartoon, with their luggage marked “Sioux Falls” and “Reno.”
Finally, next image, one man thinks he has arrived on the Society podium; he holds what he thinks is a Pass labeled “Aspiration”! He has one foot on the dais and is just ready to mount, but no! The Head Matron holds up her palm in frosty denial. Too bad, chump.
Meanwhile,those saintly few who have already Made It (or were born that way) are standing around conversing about Subjects Worth Conversing About:
• “Salome? Oh, never.” (Not that she ever sat through an entire opera anyway.)
• “The Anti-Smoke Crusade.” (No cravat; he must be a preacher.)
• “Mr. Lehmann for Mayor.”(She can’t even vote; it’s Missouri in 1910.)
• “A lovely city charter." (That fellow on the far right looks a good deal like Theophile Papin.) You will notice there is litter all over the place.