Sunrise Highway opened up in front of the green MG roadster, and with her hands gripping the steering wheel perforated with tiny supple leather dots, Everleigh hollered to Roland, “Is this thing a car—or a rocket?”
He didn’t hear over the roar of the roadway, and she zipped the convertible forward, racing by dry, dusty potato farms, charging for Southampton, that exclusive enclave of old money, a charmer of a town on the Atlantic Ocean that sat about thirty-three miles from the eastern tip of Long Island. She couldn’t believe how the car could catch the horizon on these wide-open roads.
She glanced at Roland in the passenger seat, who was pretending to play guitar to the notes of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“Should I go faster?” she hollered, this time louder. Roland nodded her on with a mischievous grin, and she felt a jolt, some kind of electric shock in her reflexes, and she pushed down on the accelerator. The speedometer read eighty miles an hour.
Wisps of her dark hair blew out of the gingham headscarf she’d tied about her neck, and she gripped the steering wheel tighter, cursing her parents for forbidding her from learning how to drive, how they said it wasn’t a proper pastime for well-bred Manhattan girls. Which was why, in a rare act of rebellion, Everleigh paid their Upper East Side building’s doorman five dollars in secret to teach her anyway. They went out together once a week, and then she’d borrow his car sometimes, for an extra five. Later, after she’d been driving for a few years, she’d begged her father for one of those new two-toned pink-and-white Dodge La Femme models that came with a pink jacquard-printed shoulder bag and umbrella to match the car’s interiors. But all two-hundred pounds of him shooed her out of his law office on the tenth floor of Thirty-First and Madison, exasperated that the family had a private car service and she didn’t want to use it.
Well, now she had a fiancé’s car to drive.
As the slick two-seater raced over the Shinnecock Canal, the water’s color mimicking the blue of her favorite sapphire ring, the farms turned to forests then back to farms, and Roland began yelling at her to slow down. She had to turn right—“Right now,” he yelled—and she managed the sudden angle, the car emitting a resounding screech, catching air and bouncing down on the shiny blacktop. All six feet of her fiancé slammed down alongside her in the passenger seat.
“Take it easy, Lee—I actually need this car. You know, to get around in.” He stretched out his tanned arm and rubbed the back of her neck where her garnet necklace clasped. She imagined that as a boy his hands gripped the gear shifts of the cars at his parents’ Detroit automotive factories as child’s play and, later, when he was a teenager, how he must have stared out at the assembly line and dreamed of building a speedster of his own. Curious that he lost all interest in the family business at the age of twenty. He liked to tell people that he might be a Whittaker, but he was not a Sovereign, the company’s fanciest sedan, which Everleigh had seen Princess Grace step out of in Life magazine.
“Roland Whittaker, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do in this life of mine, from earning straight As and running the high school charity ball to landing one of Manhattan’s most eligible bachelors. Now please, let me have my fun.” She noted his aviator sunglasses, how his slick of light hair was blowing up off his baby face. He wore a simple white T-shirt, sleeves rolled over his modest biceps. Just then, the speeding car hit a pothole, and it felt like one of their tires was swallowed whole.
“Your father will kill me if he finds out you’ve been driving my car without a license.” He smirked, but she was forced to brake hard rather than return the gesture. A horse trailer pulled in front of them, the smell of manure so strong that Everleigh pinched her nose. They were truly in the country.
“Well, Daddy doesn’t have to know.” She wished they were back on the highway, where she didn’t have to think much about details, surviving on instinct and adrenaline alone. “When are you going to tell me what we’re doing out here?”
His mouth turned up, showing off his fresh shave—Roland was always meticulously groomed—and his whole face glowed like stars, the way it did whenever he had some big idea he wanted to spring on her. Already that afternoon, a week after their June engagement party, a year after they met, he’d surprised her with a telephone call, telling her to pack her bathing suit and several changes of clothes for the weekend. They’d pulled out of her parents’ Upper East Side garage to the bleating horns of yellow cabs for a weekend in Southampton. “Souse-hampton,” as Roland liked to joke, since residents at the fabled summer colony were known for their spirited parties. Everleigh loved Roland’s impulses, the ones where they got in the car and just went, figuring out the details later. They gave her a sense of freedom she’d rarely felt as a debutante.
Roland scratched at his temple, acting perplexed. “Wasn’t this drive all your idea?”
“Roland!” She glanced in the rearview mirror, relieved her lips were still the color of fire engines, and, out of the corner of her eye, saw him smiling. “We promised each other no secrets, and this is starting to feel like a secret.” Everleigh always thought it a silly promise though; of course she had secrets. After a childhood dressed in stiff formal dresses and elephantine bows, her parents parading her through the Plaza’s marble-and-crystal lobby to reach their three-bedroom suite (the apartment her parents snatched up two years after the war), Everleigh savored any night that she and Whitney changed into trousers and talked over martinis at a no-frills bar in the Village. A place where no one knew their names or their parents’ names or where they attended school or what their addresses were. It was exhilarating to experience the city anonymously; she sometimes attended free photography lectures or slipped into the Paris Theater across from her apartment, eating a bucket of popcorn alone. These outings were her secrets to keep, and anyway, she knew Roland and her parents would judge them as unconventional, if not entirely improper.
The car began driving rough, like it was trudging through mud, and she and Roland met eyes with concern. He leaned his torso out the window to get a look. “We have a flat, Lee. Let’s go as far as we can.”
“I thought we didn’t have a destination,” she toyed.
She steered the car on to Southampton Village’s Main Street. It was dusk, and fashionable couples strolled the bricked, tree-lined sidewalks, some eating outdoors at the Buttery, the biggest crowd at a place called Bowden Square. “The owner, Herb McCarthy, is a hoot, a former Brooklyn Law grad turned restaurateur,” Roland told her. “You won’t get a better steak or a better joke than at Herb’s. I’ll take you there.” He kissed her cheek, and she blew him a kiss in return, her eyes wide with wonder at the sight of a clerk in a suit and pumps locking fancy Saks Fifth Avenue’s double doors. Roland caught her surprise and chuckled. “It’s not really the country out here.”
Air hissed from the tire, and the car began to pull to one side. She drove slowly through a lovely neighborhood of imposing houses and parked where Roland told her to, in front of a shingled manse with a large portico out front.
“We can walk from here,” he said. “I’ll deal with the tire later.”
“Walk where?” Everleigh unstuck the cotton of her white collared dress from the backs of her knees. She let Roland grab their suitcases, one leather handle in each of his hands.
“Come on. I want to show you something,” Roland said.
A Ford Thunderbird with wood paneling on the side slowed to a stop, and inside, a gentleman about their age, wearing a stethoscope and a shine of dark hair, leaned toward the passenger window, unrolling it.
“Hi, buddy,” the young man said, as if he knew them. “You need some help?” On the breast pocket of his white coat, embroidered in red thread, was his name: “Dr. Brightwell.” Everleigh immediately blamed his friendliness (or was it nosiness?) on small-town life; as if anyone in the city would care if someone was stuck on the street.
Roland leaned into the open window. “Just a flat, Doc. We’ll come back for it.”
“You sure? I got a jack in the trunk.” The doctor’s car idled, puffing gray smoke from the tailpipe.
“It’s okay—we live right around the corner.”
Everleigh took a step back. “We do?”
The young doctor smiled. “It’s going to be hard to get a mechanic out to the summer colony tonight. Unless you have one on staff…”
Roland put his hands on his hips, flipping his hair off his face. “Maybe I can borrow one from Mr. Ford. He’s on Gin Lane, isn’t he?”
“Well, his son is here, Henry Ford II,” the doctor said. “A lovely man.”
“The Fords live near here?” Everleigh had heard about Halcyon Lodge and its modernist cube-like addition, a glass box designed by Phillip Johnson, but she’d only seen a photo in the Post. Roland shushed her, and when the stranger drove off, Roland offered Everleigh his arm, hooking hers inside.
“Shall we,” he said.
There was a long row of elm trees on either side of the gracious street, several driveways leading to several more summer “cottages,” although it was a hoot to call them that when they probably had six or seven bedrooms, maybe more. She untied her headscarf, setting free her shoulder-length hair and tying the cravat into a fashionable knot at her neck. Her cherry-red flats clicked against the pavement.
Roland pointed to a pair of sparrows jumping branches in a bush. “All the other kids at grammar school went to Lake Michigan, but my mother insisted on Southampton—it’s where she summered. There was barely a town then.”
Everleigh remembered him mentioning this, but she’d only been here once or twice, to visit Whitney. “Did your family have a house here?” she said.
“Yes, just down the road. They let it go over the years, but I visited last August, and no one had been here in a decade, since Mom died. It was a mess, really. But I remembered how much I loved it. There’s something about it. Something that keeps you coming back. It’s the light, I think, how it reflects off the potato fields and all that ocean.”
The sun shot through the trees, dappling the lush, tended lawns with bright speckles. It was a lovely time of day for a walk, the sun no longer beating directly overhead, and the air was cooler than even thirty minutes before.
“You came out to Southampton without me?” She didn’t actually expect him to have secrets.
It was as though they’d landed in one exceptionally large and lush park, extravagant mansions tucked amid the flowering shrubs and tall privacy hedges, some with gray shingles and black shutters, others sporting green awnings over white-trimmed windows.
Roland set down the suitcases on the road, kissing her softly. “I was getting things ready for you.”
A front door opened, and out of a grand, columned house came a uniformed maid shaking out a rug.
“Ready for me? What on earth are you talking about… Is that the ocean?” They walked on; the road ended at a dune, a hill of sand sloping down to the water. White caps crested on blue, like a painter was taking a brush and dotting the landscape with foamy waves. She could hear the surf colliding with the sand, the slow roll of the sea slipping back into the current—how the water could simply disappear, start over, emerge anew, and how appealing that was to her. To think that the very essence of life could begin again.
“See that hotel over there? That’s where we’re going.” Roland was so handsome you wanted to dress him in the latest fashions, like a dashing young actor, and simply admire him. “Welcome to Gin Lane.”
She paused in front of the dollhouse of a child’s dreams, only it was life-size. “That’s your beach house?”
“Not exactly.” He started to run toward the expansive hotel in his white Keds despite their heavy suitcases, and Everleigh ran after him, both of them suddenly giddy. She wasn’t entirely sure why, other than that they were on holiday. They paused at the hotel, which mimicked a New England–style colonial mansion with a grand porch and white-gravel circular driveway, staring up at its white shingles, emerald-green shutters, and matching double doors. It was only three stories high, but the building extended sideways from the wraparound front porch, with nearly a dozen windows on either side. Those must be the guest rooms, she thought.
Roland pointed at a long white sign nestled amid the rose bushes, like he’d built the best paper airplane of his life and needed her to watch him fly it. Everleigh was already reading the sign: “The Everleigh Beach Club Hotel.” She said it aloud, taking in Roland’s mile-long smile, then looked back at the words emblazoned before her. She noticed then that the shutters had cutouts of seahorses, and there was a large seahorse brass knocker to the side of the hotel’s front doors; truly, it was her favorite animal, a fantasy of a creature that had always sparked her imagination in drawings and stories as a child. Had she told him that? Inside she could see a staff busily moving about—the women wearing crisp white pinafores, the men in khakis and white collared shirts with white ties.
Roland put his arm around the curve of her back. “I can’t believe no one told you, pet. I was certain you’d find out. I had to hide the paper one day last week because they mentioned that ‘this season’s most anticipated hotel, the Everleigh,’ was opening in Southampton this weekend.”
Everleigh didn’t fully understand what he meant. “Tell me what, Rolly?”
“That I built this hotel for you. The Everleigh Beach Club Hotel. For my lovely Lee. Happy early wedding present, pet.”
Sometimes on the grass in Central Park, Roland’s architectural degree inspired daydreams about building a skyscraper, designing a theater, opening a hotel. In return, she’d say she couldn’t wait to live in the house her parents had purchased for them in Bronxville, a four-bedroom colonial with a fenced yard, and how soon, they’d hear the pitter-patter of little feet running about. How she’d catalogue their growth with her camera, giving them stacks of photographs to frame and hang through the house, a house where you didn’t have to share an elevator with relative strangers to get to the front door.
“This hotel is for me?” She stared up at a large oval window with panes in it, a robin resting its delicate feet on the gingerbread trim.
“Didn’t you wonder who I was talking to all those times when I took my calls in the lobby of my apartment building?” He had a look about him, smug and content, like a guy who took a risk on the trading floor and came out on top.
She had mentioned these secretive phone calls to Whitney, but her friend had reassured her that Roland was probably planning their honeymoon; Whitney had seen him visiting the Park Avenue Travel Agency just last week. “You said it was business.”
“And when I went away those two weekends?” His eyebrows knitted with amusement.
Everleigh smiled at how obvious it was now and fingered the pearl buttons on her sleeve. “You said you were meeting with the carpenters, on the house in Bronxville.”
“I was here!” He grinned. “My father signed the deed to the land over to me, Lee, and I built this. Now we can spend the summer and throw lavish parties at night, then nurse our hangovers the next morning in the waves.”
Her heart fell. She supposed that was what they did in the city, but recently, she’d grown tired of all the socializing. Sometimes she just wanted to stay in and read beside him or take her camera out and fiddle with the dials while he played guitar. Maybe put an album on the turntable, listen to their favorite song, and write out the lyrics together. Since she and Roland were engaged in December, it was like they were perpetually getting off a roller coaster, a whirlwind of excitement with people greeting them and congratulating them about their nuptials.
“Spend the summer here? Roland, I couldn’t possibly. My parents would never allow it.”
“Your parents trust me, Lee, and besides, aren’t you dying to escape them? You can go back and forth to the city whenever you need to. Your driver will fetch you, or you can ride the Long Island Railroad. It smells of sour pickles, but it’s an easy ride all the same.”
Her head kicked back with laughter. “Spending time with you at your apartment is one thing, Rolly, but living with you in a hotel all summer? Never. It’s a miracle Daddy agreed to this weekend away.”
“Will you trust that I’ve taken care of it?” he snapped playfully, pointing to the garden. To get to the hotel’s double front doors, you traveled a herringbone-patterned brick walkway that curved along another garden with thick tangles of purple, blue, and white flowers on either side. “Now look. One hundred rose bushes planted because they’re your favorite. The air in the lobby spritzed with honeysuckle since that’s what you wore the day we met.”
He tugged her softly backward. “And see that widow’s walk? That’s our private terrace. I’m having them put two chairs up there. I’ll mix you a Paloma every night at sunset. Or heck, we’ll drink champagne with strawberries floating in the glass. You can see everything from up there.”
“It’s incredibly romantic,” she said. “You’re incredibly romantic. But…” Everleigh willed the wrinkles in her forehead to smooth. Most women—every woman she knew actually—would have jumped into his arms by now, over the moon that this was happening. She was happy, but she couldn’t live here. She vowed she’d never live in a hotel again.
Roland waited for her response, but she could only stare at the crisp white trim around the windows, the neat lines of the wood siding wrapping the looming building, dwarfing the two of them standing there.
“Oh, Rolly, how did you convince Daddy?”
He took her hand, twirling her into his arms. “I promised that you’d stay in your own hotel room.”
Her mouth fell open. “Can you talk a snail out of its shell, too?” She’d seen Roland’s silver tongue finagle them the best restaurant reservations, but her father? That meant that when she left for Long Island that second Friday in June, her father had known she was leaving for the summer. He’d barely said goodbye. Mother wasn’t even home, playing cards with the bridge ladies. She supposed that they were so blinded by the Whittaker name, by this society wedding, that they were willing to allow Everleigh freedoms they wouldn’t have normally.
They’d had to keep pace, too, since Roland’s and her relationship had moved swiftly. After their all-day walk in Central Park last May, he’d called her the next day to join him for a picnic. Two nights later, they were dancing at El Morocco, and two weeks after that, they were snuggled up on his living room couch. Everleigh had cradled his head in her lap, stroking his hair, as he explained that he had a girlfriend, someone he wanted to break it off with.
Well, that was a problem she could understand. After that, it was easy to fall into each other, Everleigh secure in the fact that he had left someone for her.
A dish broke inside the hotel, and they looked toward the open front doors.
There was so much she wanted to say: how being raised in a hotel residence mostly by her nanny was the loneliest time in her life. That she’d learned to ride a bike in the endless hallways at the Plaza and had hung around the hotel lobby listening to strangers’ conversations when her mother and father left her alone. She did her homework at the reception desk, sometimes asking the rotating staff to quiz her on her times tables, and for her reading and writing assignments, she’d employed the help of one of the aging (and rather legendary) widows who occupied the upper floors of the hotel but spent their days reading in the overstuffed armchairs in the lobby. And there were other things that happened in those years at the Plaza. Things no child should have to see.
He rested his chin at the top of her head. “Imagine us, Lee: Sand in our hair, sun on our face. We’ll come down only when we feel like seeing people. And skinny-dip by moonlight. We’ll kick everyone out some nights so we have the place to ourselves.”
“You have it all planned,” she said, charmed by how fabulous he made everything sound. She lowered her eyes to the ground. “I just wish you would have asked me—if I wanted to live here, that is.”
He twirled her into his arms. “Oh, Lee, you’re missing the point. It was a surprise. You’re not so set in your ways that you can’t appreciate a surprise, right?” He pivoted his arm like one of those girls from the game shows gesturing to a prize. “For my Everleigh, my outrageously entertaining, always tenderhearted, beautiful young wife.”
“Not yet,” she teased, wrapping her arms around his neck. She kissed him softly on the mouth. “Five months until the wedding.”
“Listen, pet,” Roland turned her around, pulling her backward against his chest, and they stared up at the glowing windows. “It’s not just the people at the summer colony that want to be out East anymore. It’s every clock puncher from Thirty-Third to Seventy-Second Street, and there’s nowhere to put them. So I built a hotel for some of them, and maybe this hotel is just my first. Maybe I can grow an empire, just like my father did with his cars. I had this coveted parcel of land just waiting, prime real estate in a prime resort town, with a dilapidated cottage on it. I could have renovated it for us, but I thought to myself, There are no zoning laws here. I can do anything! Do you know how amazing that is, Lee? You can build anything out here if you can buy the land.” He kissed the back of her head. “I can make a mark.”
“And the house my father bought us in Bronxville? The one I’ve been furnishing with that interior decorator who has me swimming in swatch fabrics?”
“I told you, just tell her we’ll take chintz everything.” He laughed, and she did, too, but then his voice turned tender. “The house will be waiting for us the other nine months of the year.” Everleigh thought of last night, how they’d seen a movie and then gone back to her parents’ apartment, sneaking kisses in the hallway after the elevator doors closed. How happy her parents were when they met Roland. How everyone stopped looking at her with pity.
Everleigh turned around, her eyes crinkling. She had to support him in this, even if she hadn’t chosen any of it. “Rolly, I thought you were only good at organizing our Saturday nights, but it turns out, you’re more than a pretty face.”
He touched a finger to her nose. “And no longer new to the Manhattan social order either. You gave me entrée. The hotel will seal my place.”
She felt heat rise in her cheeks at the brazenness of his status seeking. Everleigh had been taught to fight for her place in the pecking order, and yet, she’d always been the woman who felt relieved rather than slighted if she didn’t get a gala invitation.
“You have nothing to prove to anyone,” she said, even though she knew that New York society judged newcomers with a critical eye. He’d reminded her of the same several months ago when she’d confessed what happened with George, addressing the cruel rumors about her mental state. Roland had shrugged it off. “Everyone makes at least one big mistake in their life,” he’d consoled. “George was yours.” Roland, who often remarked that Everleigh, who was five foot seven, looked like the young Joan Collins (because she, too, was long legged with wide-set eyes), had accepted her just as she was.
Everleigh hadn’t told him the entire truth of what transpired with George, and only Whitney knew the whole story. That she and George had dinner while his parents were out, and after clearing their plates of chicken divan, they’d watched Jackie Gleason, and then he’d drunkenly forced himself upon her on the crushed-velvet sofa in the sitting room. It started innocently with kissing, but then he wanted more, and he’d pinned her, ignored her pleas to stop, and pushed himself between her legs. She wasn’t against relations before marriage, but she’d rather her first time be memorable. Luckily, the front door clicked open. The housekeeper had returned to get the sweater she’d left behind, and Everleigh immediately gathered her belongings and raced away. Confusion rattled her as she walked Park Avenue toward the Plaza. They were engaged, so thrusting himself upon her wasn’t entirely wrong, but she’d said no, and he’d done it anyway.
Whitney encouraged her to talk with him, and two nights later, they’d met at the Landmark Club. But when the main course arrived, Everleigh began to cry. “George, you were drunk, and this is sacred to me. I want it to feel right.” He’d tossed his fork on his medium-rare steak, growling, and they went back and forth a bit, him accusing her of being a prude. She accused him of forcing himself on her. “If you think that there’s anything wrong with what I did. If a man can’t love his fiancée… then, well, then you’re crazier than even your mother is,” he’d said. When she tried to explain, to say she merely wanted him to move slower next time, he’d pushed out of his chair, rattling the glasses, his voice low and sharp. “I don’t want this. It was all my father’s slick idea for a family merger. But you’re not even attracted to me, or I you.”
Everleigh had raced to the wallpapered bathroom, crying in the gilded mirror, thinking that he was mistaken and not mistaken in his accusation, while the elderly attendant kept handing her tissues, and then breath perfume, those awful Sen-Sen candy squares that smelled of licorice. The next morning, their mothers tried to smooth things over, but a week later, George announced he was boarding a plane to study viticulture in southern France, leaving his parents furious, and Everleigh’s future uncertain.
A year later, when Everleigh told her mother that Roland had proposed, she’d clasped her hands at her chest. “Heavens to Betsy. I declare he’s going to save our family name.”
Indeed, Roland had rescued Everleigh the moment they met on the sidewalk in front of Madame’s brownstone, and best of all, everyone loved him. Well, everyone except her best friend, Whitney, who thought his ego rivaled a Pan Am pilot’s. On the outside maybe, Everleigh thought, but Roland let his guard down with Everleigh enough that she knew he needed her for the comfort he could no longer get from his mother.
And now. Now they were here at the ocean, amid farms and wide-open roads. It was summer. Of course she would live in this beautiful place for three months. She would do it for him.
Everleigh felt the fullness of Roland’s lips on hers, but then she pulled back and whispered, “The Everleigh Beach Club Hotel.” She let the weight of it fill her up inside, the way those Tiffany boxes were supposed to when you popped one open to find a pendant. “Oh, my goodness, Rolly. You named a hotel for me. A hotel!”
She danced her fingers up his T-shirt, giddy and dreamy, like she had been missing the point until now. Because he’d whisked her away to this beautiful place, and in an instant, she had a new life. “Roland James Whittaker, did we just run away together?”
The gravel of the driveway crunched underfoot as Roland arranged his newsboy cap on her head, his eyes crinkling. “Let’s run away together for the rest of our lives.”