The Triumph of the Common Man
The Triumph of the Common Man (er, Person)
In the course of my post-retirement duties, doing my bit as Marryin' Sam for a generation of Junior Highs, I appeared this past weekend in a black robe and white stole in the banquet room of Harrison House Conference Center on Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove, on Long Island's northern Gold Coast. You can read and see all bout it in another section of this website, under Memorials and Celebrations, the Wedding of Joanne Oweis and Dominick Maglione.
Harrison House, according to the brochure pumping its advantages to prospective brides or conference attendees, was once considered the finest manor house on Long Island and among the best in the entire nation. Judge for yourself.
In the first half of the last century Harrison House was built and inhabited by the Pratt Family. Mr Pratt made his fortune as legal counsel for Standard Oil, which probably means he was on a first name basis and in daily contact with the oil barons in the Rockefeller Family. The Vanderbilts also maintained an estate in the same neighborhood. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized this social landscape in The Great Gatsby, although Little Egg and Big Egg probably refer to Little Neck and Great Neck, and not Glen Cove slightly to the east.
From scores of movies and with the help of a fertile imagination one can picture in the mind's eye this estate in 1925 with uniformed servants gliding across the expanse of the back lawn serving champagne to the Pratt's guests on a summer evening while Brad and Lesley play a genteel set of tennis on one of the adjacent courts. It was a time of Anglo-Saxon ascendancy on Wall Street, when the teeming masses had yet to begin to migrate to the South Shore and their children had yet to think to apply to Harvard and Yale. The Depression and World War II were up ahead, but who knew or cared?
Now the haunt of the rich and famous has become the play yard of the upward mobile. The place teems with paying guests. The servants may be uniformed and their skin may still be varying shades of darker hue, but their professionalism bespeaks college degrees in hotel management, maybe from nearby C W Post. The guests, however, are decidedly different from those once sipping champagne on the Pratt lawn. Like the new breed of servants, their skins too display varying shades of darker hues. Their families made their way to the promise of the New World from China, Pakistan, Ireland, the Philippines, and Croatia, not from Great Britain.
I noted in the corridors many women in silken saris and a few with veiled faces. A banner announced a meeting of the New York University Senate, which, judging from the age of the participants, was an undergraduate and faculty meeting. The woman across the table from us at the buffet breakfast spoke her English with a German accent. African-American breakfasters can be seen in the accompanying photo, taken, unfortunately, with a very feeble flash. At the table next to us the overheard conversation seemed to be concerned with a Jewish-Catholic wedding soon to take place in the banquet room. And, as we exited the House, a priest named Kelly was explaining to a guest just how it could be that he would be participating in a wedding service not in a church or a synagogue (the wedding service was really a "blessing" of an earlier marriage service conducted in accordance with diocesan rules).
The most certain sign of the changed world, however, was spotted by my trained eye: next to the tennis courts there is now installed an outdoor basketball court.
Ah, the brave new world the Pratts could never have imagined, and in their own backyard and living room!
In a message sent recently to a college classmate, thanking him for providing me with summer reading (a book by Ring Lardner, You Know Me Al, about a really dumb major league pitcher ca 1910; and another by Richard Abrams about the first World Series, a sociological study with baseball as its context), I wrote: "One does not have to be very quick to figure out where his (Abrams) sympathies lie: with what became the future, our very pluralistic society, where a child of a poor immigrant can become a suburban preacher." The Pratts decreased and the Howards increased, was my meaning, that a child like me, of an immigrant mother and a father with an eighth grade education, could become a professional and, if my knees allowed, play basketball on the Pratt's back lawn.
F. Scott Fitzgerald foresaw this development. So did Jesus. Long before Copeland composed a fanfare for the common man, the carpenter from Nazareth, become peripatetic preacher, claimed that the meek would inherit the earth. He might not have meant the dramatic conversion of the Pratt estate into the play yard of the proletariat. But please pardon me if I think He could have.