The Late George Apley by John Marquand

John P. Marquand   

John Phillips Marquand, leading American writer of the twentieth century, was born on November 10, 1893, to Philip and Margaret Fuller Marquand, both descendants of old New England families. Although he was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and lived in Rye, New York, until he was fourteen, Marquand considered himself a New Englander. He was educated at the Newburyport (Massachusetts) High School and at Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1915. From 1915 to 1917, he was assistant magazine editor of the Boston Transcript. After a brief period as advertising copywriter in 1920 and 1921, he became a novelist and published The Unspeakable Gentleman (1922). Marquand was a frequent contributor of short stories to several popular magazines of the day, most notably The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, and Good Housekeeping. Many of his novels were also serialized in shortened form in these magazines. 

A recurring theme in many of Marquand’s works concerns the life and times of the middle and upper classes in twentieth-century New England–particularly Boston—as illustrated in The Late George Apley (1937), Wickford Point (1939), and H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941). Marquand also wrote several mysteries featuring the Oriental detective Mr. Moto. Film versions of the Mr. Moto mysteries enjoyed great popularity. Marquand’s writings were widely received and sold well. In addition, many of his works were successfully adapted for stage and screen. 

In 1922, Marquand married Christina Sedgwick. From this marriage, which lasted thirteen years, a son and a daughter were born. In 1936, Marquand married Adelaide Hooker. Two sons and a daughter were born of this union, which also ended in divorce in 1958. 

John P. Marquand died in his sleep of a heart attack on July 16, 1960 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Boston Brahmins

The term “Boston Brahmins” refers to a class of wealthy, educated, elite members of Boston society in the nineteenth century. Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the term in a novel in 1861, calling Boston’s elite families “the Brahmin Caste of New England.” The Boston Brahmins have long held the interest of casual and professional historians because of their unique place in nineteenth-century American culture. They were mostly the descendants of Puritans, having made their fortunes as American merchants, and they could not be described as egalitarian. Rather, they were the closest thing the United States has ever had to a true aristocracy.

At Odds with Democracy

In her book Elite Families, Betty G. Farrell writes, “Visiting Boston for the first time in the 1830s, Harriet Martineau noted that it was ‘perhaps as aristocratic, vain, and vulgar a city, as described by its own “first people,” as any in the world.’ What particularly distressed Martineau was the evidence of an aristocracy of wealth amid a new republic, a group whose cultural pretensions and social exclusivity she saw as particularly at odds with the democratic ideals of egalitarianism and inclusive citizenship.”

Several factors, besides wealth, made Boston’s Brahmins stand out as an aristocracy even from the wealthy of other cities. With waves of immigration to America’s cities in the middle of the nineteenth century, the position of the wealthy and elite in every city was threatened. But in New York and Chicago, despite prejudice, the influence of immigrants quickly took root. In Boston, the Brahmins fought fiercely to close immigrants out. While they may have prided themselves on being the champions of abolitionism, they did not actually want black Americans, or any other non-Brahmin group, encroaching on their power or society.

Peninsula City

It was not difficult for upper class Bostonians to shut out their poorer counterparts. The unique geography of Boston, a peninsula city, made expansion possible only by landfill. All of Boston’s new neighborhoods in the mid-nineteenth century were created by leveling off hills and using the dirt to fill areas of water to create new land. These new landfill areas were generally small and largely bordered by water, so it was easy to keep them exclusive. When immigrants did move in to the newly fashionable Old South End, the Brahmins moved out.

Athens of America

Besides money and the right real estate, a self-conscious set of shared values defined Boston’s aristocracy. Boston Brahmins prized culture and education. Boston’s elite liked to think of their city as the “Athens of America.” For Boston Brahmins, Harvard College helped define this atmosphere. The Brahmins who didn’t live in the prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston lived in Cambridge, near the college. By the 1830s, an elite corporation governed Harvard, and students of elite families filled its halls. Through Harvard, these families were able to teach the next generation the educational and the moral values they held dear.

From: The Brahmin Caste Of New England by Oliver Wendell Holmes

There is nothing in New England corresponding at all to the feudal aristocracies of the Old World. Whether it be owing to the stock from which we were derived, or to the practical working of our institutions, or to the abrogation of the technical “law of honor,” which draws a sharp line between the personally responsible class of “gentlemen” and the unnamed multitude of those who are not expected to risk their lives for an abstraction,—whatever be the cause, we have no such aristocracy here as that which grew up out of the military systems of the Middle Ages.

What we mean by “aristocracy” is merely the richer part of the community, that live in the tallest houses, drive real carriages, (not “kerridges,”) kidglove their hands, and French-bonnet their ladies’ heads, give parties where the persons who call them by the above title are not invited, and have a provokingly easy way of dressing, walking, talking, and nodding to people, as if they felt entirely at home, and would not be embarrassed in the least, if they met the Governor, or even the President of the United States, face to face. Some of these great folks are really well-bred, some of them are only purse-proud and assuming,—but they form a class, and are named as above in the common speech.

It is in the nature of large fortunes to diminish rapidly, when subdivided and distributed. A million is the unit of wealth, now and here in America. It splits into four handsome properties; each of these into four good inheritances; these, again, into scanty competences for four ancient maidens,—with whom it is best the family should die out, unless it can begin again as its great-grandfather did. Now a million is a kind of golden cheese, which represents in a compendious form the summer’s growth of a fat meadow of craft or commerce; and as this kind of meadow rarely bears more than one crop, it is pretty certain that sons and grandsons will not get another golden cheese out of it, whether they milk the same cows or turn in new ones. In other words, the millionocracy, considered in a large way, is not at all an affair of persons and families, but a perpetual fact of money with a variable human element, which a philosopher might leave out of consideration without falling into serious error. Of course, this trivial and, fugitive fact of personal wealth does not create a permanent class, unless some special means are taken to arrest the process of disintegration in the third generation. This is so rarely done, at least successfully, that one need not live a very long life to see most of the rich families he knew in childhood more or less reduced, and the millions shifted into the hands of the country-boys who were sweeping stores and carrying parcels when the now decayed gentry were driving their chariots, eating their venison over silver chafing-dishes, drinking Madeira chilled in embossed coolers, wearing their hair in powder, and casing their legs in long boots with silken tassels.

There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a far greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste,—not in any odious sense;—but, by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation, it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy, which not to recognize is mere stupidity, and not to be willing to describe would show a distrust of the good-nature and intelligence of our readers, who like to have us see all we can and tell all we see.

If you will look carefully at any class of students in one of our colleges, you will have no difficulty in selecting specimens of two different aspects of youthful manhood. Of course I shall choose extreme cases to illustrate the contrast between them. In the first, the figure is perhaps robust, but often otherwise,—inelegant, partly from careless attitudes, partly from ill-dressing,—the face is uncouth in feature, or at least common,—the mouth coarse and unformed,—the eye unsympathetic, even if bright,—the movements of the face are clumsy, like those of the limbs,—the voice is unmusical,—and the enunciation as if the words were coarse castings, instead of fine carvings. The youth of the other aspect is commonly slender, his face is smooth, and apt to be pallid,—his features are regular and of a certain delicacy,—his eye is bright and quick,—his lips play over the thought he utters as a pianist’s fingers dance over their music, and his whole air, though it may be timid, and even awkward, has nothing clownish. If you are a teacher, you know what to expect from each of these young men. With equal willingness, the first will be slow at learning; the second will take to his books as a pointer or a setter to his field-work.

The first youth is the common country-boy, whose race has been bred to bodily labor. Nature has adapted the family organization to the kind of life it has lived. The hands and feet by constant use have got more than their share of development,—the organs of thought and expression less than their share. The finer instincts are latent and must be developed. A youth of this kind is raw material in its first stage of elaboration. You must not expect too much of any such. Many of them have force of will and character, and become distinguished in practical life; but very few of them ever become great scholars. A scholar is, in a large proportion of cases, the son of scholars or scholarly persons.

That is exactly what the other young man is. He comes of the Brahmin caste of New England. This is the harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy referred to, and which many readers will at once acknowledge. There are races of scholars among us, in which aptitude for learning, and all these marks of it I have spoken of, are congenital and hereditary. Their names are always on some college catalogue or other. They break out every generation or two in some learned labor which calls them up after they seem to have died out. At last some newer name takes their place, it maybe,—but you inquire a little and you find it is the blood of the Edwardses or the Chauncys or the Ellerys or some of the old historic scholars, disguised under the altered name of a female descendant.

There probably is not an experienced instructor anywhere in our Northern States who will not recognize at once the truth of this general distinction. But the reader who has never been a teacher will very probably object, that some of our most illustrious public men have come direct from the homespun-clad class of the people,—and he may, perhaps, even find a noted scholar or two whose parents were masters of the English alphabet, but of no other.

It is not fair to pit a few chosen families against the great multitude of those who are continually working their way up into the intellectual classes. The results which are habitually reached by hereditary training are occasionally brought about without it. There are natural filters as well as artificial ones; and though the great rivers are commonly more or less turbid, if you will look long enough, you may find a spring that sparkles as no water does which drips through your apparatus of sands and sponges. So there are families which refine themselves into intellectual aptitude without having had much opportunity for intellectual acquirements. A series of felicitous crosses develops an improved strain of blood, and reaches its maximum perfection at last in the large uncombed youth who goes to college and startles the hereditary class-leaders by striding past them all. That is Nature’s republicanism; thank God for it, but do not let it make you illogical. The race of the hereditary scholar has exchanged a certain portion of its animal vigor for its new instincts, and it is hard to lead men without a good deal of animal vigor. The scholar who comes by Nature’s special grace from an unworn stock of broad-chested sires and deep-bosomed mothers must always overmatch an equal intelligence with a compromised and lowered vitality. A man’s breathing and digestive apparatus (one is tempted to add muscular) are just as important to him on the floor of the Senate as his thinking organs. You broke down in your great speech, did you? Yes, your grandfather had an attack of dyspepsia in ’82, after working too hard on his famous Election Sermon. All this does not touch the main fact: our scholars come chiefly from a privileged order, just as our best fruits come from well-known grafts, though now and then a seedling apple, like the Northern Spy, or a seedling pear, like the Seckel, springs from a nameless ancestry and grows to be the pride of all the gardens in the land.

(from)   A Grandson’s Story

An address, “Fathers, Sons, and Grandsons: John P. Marquand,” by Richard E. Welch III, delivered in the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society (Unitarian Universalist), Newburyport, Massachusetts, February 17, 2002.

One of my early memories rests in this very church. I am eight years old, sitting in one of the front pews, very unsettled because my mother is beside me crying. The casket is highly polished mahogany and seems very large. I vaguely realize that the death of my grandfather is a big deal but I am primarily concerned about my mother’s tears, the sudden tension around the house, and the swirl of activity that has disrupted my summer. Being a typical egocentric young boy, my thoughts are not on the man who, somewhat out of character, had gone out of his way to tell his grandson animated stories of Egyptian thieves, the Serengeti Plains, and Chinese warlords. This was the rather intimidating grandfather, who—even in my youthful ignorance—I vaguely realized was a somewhat famous person. The man who only days before had insisted that just the two of us soon have lunch—one of those intimidating formal lunches served by some housekeeper and replete with watered down wine and finger bowls—and discuss tales of old Newburyport. But, as I say, I was not reflecting on him. No, I am sure my thoughts were more focused on fishing that afternoon in the Artichoke River or considering some appropriate torture for my older sister.

The grandfather was John Phillips Marquand and his childhood was not as idyllic as mine.

Imagine the following. A young boy, age 13, learns that his father has lost almost all of the family’s money. The family will have to move from their extremely comfortable home in the wealthy suburb of Rye, New York. This boy will have to leave his private school classmates and attend a public high school. Even more startling, the mother and father will be leaving their son for an extended and indefinite period. The boy’s father, a failed stock broker with an engineering degree, has found a job working on the new project called the Panama Canal and will be departing for that distant location with the boy’s mother. The boy is to be shipped off to a small town in Massachusetts named Newburyport. And, he is to be raised by three elderly woman in an isolated country house.


This boy was, of course, John Philips Marquand. While born and initially raised elsewhere, he spent by far his most formative years in Newburyport. The sudden dissolving of John Marquand’s immediate family and the resulting upbringing by his three aunts were the defining events in his life.

In 1949, John P. Marquand had reached the peak of both his craft and his fame. He had just published yet another best selling novel, this one went by the title of Point of No Return. The novel was receiving good reviews even from some of his more reluctant literary critics. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his novel The Late George Apley. Every novel he wrote after Apley almost instantly became a best seller. In 1949, his face was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines with long feature articles that stressed the fact that this talented novelist of manners had become America’s most successful writer of that era. Even the higher brow New Yorker magazine carried a long, glowing and clever profile of the author. John Marquand must have read these complimentary pieces at either his Beekman Place address in New York City or at his country home on Kent’s Island in Newbury, Massachusetts. At either address he would have been surrounded by antiques and art work that would later be displayed in various museums. He was a wealthy and successful man. Given his introspective nature, it is almost certain that he recognized the irony of this fame. Here he was, a famous novelist, who was, at heart, still that young, insecure boy living in that charming but run down house with three spinster aunts, attending Newburyport High School and Sunday services in this church.

It does not take a child psychiatrist to understand that being abandoned as a child in the first year of adolescence by your parents and left with elderly women in a remote location would constitute a dramatic, even a shattering, event in one’s life. But, as with many a Marquand character, the story is not that simple. When John Marquand was left with his three aunts at Curzon’s Mill in Newburyport in his thirteenth year, his feelings were an ambivalent stew of loss, embarrassment and excitement.

He understood, even at the confusing and tender age of thirteen—an age more tender than thirteen is now—that his father was a financial failure. The stock market panic of 1907 had wiped out Philip Marquand’s considerable inheritance. More than the reversal of financial fortune was the fact that the son had come to the realization that his father was an embarrassment. Phillip, his investment banker father having been given a comfortable nest egg, together with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, tried his hand as a stock broker and had failed miserably. Indeed, he seemed to fail at most every professional venture. His father would never be a role model and John Marquand had little positive to say about him throughout his father’s long life.  ……………….

John Phillips Marquand, the man for who he was named. His grandfather was a very successful investment banker in New York who had married Margaret Curzon of Newburyport. As a result, he summered with the extended family at Curzon’s Mill. The author would later recall that his grandfather obviously enjoyed the place but was not above complaining that everyone seemed to be living off him as it was only his money that kept the buildings painted and the gardens planted. His grandfather told young John how he first met his wife Margaret Curzon: “They were sitting under an apple tree, Margaret was painting a picture and they asked me to stay to supper and then they found there wasn’t any supper. I took Margaret down in the carriage and bought some. That was forty years ago. I’ve been buying everybody’s supper ever since. The whole damn family’s supper.” Later in his life, the author—who took pleasure and comfort in thinking that he (like his grandfather for who he was named) had inherited the Marquand trait of achieving success from humble beginnings—found that history was repeating itself only now it was his bank account that seemed to be buying the whole damn family’s supper.

Likewise, Marquand was fascinated by his maiden aunts. His grandmother’s sister, his great aunt Mary Russell Curzon, lived year round at the Yellow House, next to the Mill, and provided John Marquand with a unique glimpse into the past. Mary Russell Curzon was a well educated woman who had been courted by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who would row across the Merrimac to visit the Curzon sisters and write truly boring sonnets about these women, the river, and Curzon’s “bowery mill.” Another poet—William Ellery Channing—and the artist William Morris Hunt both proposed marriage to Mary. But, displaying an early feminist streak and good sense, she turned them all down, preferring her own company. [An ardent abolitionist, she offered her house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Once, a very large male slave was delivered hidden in a wooden crate to her remote home. Upon unpacking the crate she made the tragic discovery that the man had been shipped upside down from Boston and was now definitively dead. With little hesitation, this temptress of poets and artists dragged the quickly stiffening body back to the orchard, buried the slave and planted a pear tree over the unmarked grave, a tree that flourishes still.]

This was a woman who read the classics each morning as she arose early, who taught young John Marquand how to build a fire, how to stitch up one’s own wounds with sewing thread, and who lived only by candle light and kerosene lamps, lighting both with a flint and steel (as she distrusted matches). As he later wrote, after having traveled extensively in every continent except Antarctica and having made the acquaintance of the powerful, the rich, and the famous, this elderly woman impressed him far more than anyone else that he ever had encountered.

During most of the year, John Marquand lived alone with the three elderly women. All were serious Unitarians and accompanied young John to weekly services in this very church. Here he developed a faith—or at least one was drilled into him—that, while not necessarily a comfort, did hold him throughout a rather tumultuous life.

The Mill and Yellow House were at the end of a long, unpopulated road. There were no neighbors. In many ways, it was a life tinged with antiquity, closely resembling the Federalist era, while the rest of America was hurrying towards the jazz age. But, for this brief interval—and perhaps for the first and last time—he felt truly a part of a place and, thus, in the truest sense, secure.

In the summers things changed when his wealthy and more sophisticated New York cousins would take over one of the buildings. Marquand was fond, yet envious, of these cousins who had retained their money, their family, and their casual confidence. These experiences, when mixed with a acute observation and substantial literary talent, laid the groundwork for Marquand’s later gentle yet pointed social satires.

Marquand was hardly the first author to use the pains and embarrassments of youth as artistic fodder. Had his immediate family not been shattered and its wealth lost, the author instead might have become a basically happy, if quietly desperate, member of the upper middle class like many of his fictional characters. And he might never have felt compelled to leave the contentment he found at Curzon’s Mill and Newburyport to seek a life that never provided an equivalent sense of comfort and belonging—no matter how much fame and fortune he garnered. Again, this theme of lost security and happiness and the unsuccessful attempt to recapture it in the rush and mobility of contemporary America runs through Marquand’s novels, and it often is as much an issue today as it was 50 years ago.

One would hope that the author also learned from the weaknesses and selfishness of his father and that he would make it a priority to raise a family that was not subjected to the same sense of abandonment as he had suffered. But that was not always to be. And, given the demands of writing and the psychic scars he may have carried, maybe it was too much to ask.

John Marquand married twice. He first courted and won Christina Sedgwick from a faded aristocratic family in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two children were produced, John, Jr. and my mother, Christina Marquand. The marriage, however, failed and, as is often the case, both were a bit at fault. Christina Sedgwick, while charming and delightful, was far from practical and could not create the stable, peaceful home for which Marquand yearned. Marquand, wrapped up in beginning his literary career and feeling inferior to the Sedgwick family, was far from the model husband. Perhaps both were too young to appreciate what they had before it was ruined. But, Marquand did remain close to his first two children throughout his life.

Marquand’s second marriage was to a wealthy Connecticut heiress, Adelaide Hooker. While this marriage lasted longer, and produced three children, it was frequently rocked by arguments, affairs, and separations. The result was a chaotic—albeit privileged—upbringing for his last three children. The now famous author’s relationship with these three children was little better than his relationship with his own father……..




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