Project Description

Charles Macomb Flandrau


THE echoed sob of history. Coming to the final paragraph of Viva Mexico! one reader – a commuter from Pittsburgh – was stung to his own tears. “It was just so good that I had to have a good cry about it.” He was crying for pleasure, but the life of the author can also provoke a lachrymose response.

For most of it he sought the same obscurity that his reputation has received since. If there was anything foppish about him, it was located in his fear of failure. “America’s most reprehensible loafer,” was the verdict of the New York Times when contemplating the modesty of Flandrau’s output. “His greatest book was the one he never wrote,” was the judgement of the Saint Paul Daily News. Flandrau’s view of himself was as stringent. “I always think that everything I have written is rotten.” Once, at New York’s Harvard Club – named after the university which had so unfit him for life – he was accosted by a tipsy alumni.

“Are you the Flandrau who wrote a lousy book?”

“I am a Flandrau who wrote five lousy books.”

About one of them, Viva Mexico!, he was wrong. Over eighty years on, despite numerous challenges, it remains where the critic Alexander Woollcott placed it when he applied the words “the best travel book written by an American”.

Charles Macomb Flandrau was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1871, in a house which became the bar of the Metropolitan Hotel. His father was a wealthy lawyer whose happiest eleven years had been spent as an Indian agent. In New Ulm’s Main Street, Colonel Flandrau situated a barrel of whisky laced with strychnine. He had marked it poison in several languages – except Dakotan. He meant the barrel for the Indians, but worrying that illiterate soldiers might get there first, he dumped it. He didn’t get on with his son.

Flandrau’s bookish mother did, to the point of embarrassment. “Dearie,” Charles wrote to her from Harvard – sometimes it might be Dearest Dearie, or Muz – “I never had or have a sane idea that I cannot directly trace to you.” In such letters he sketched the undergraduate world that later found shape in Harvard Episodes: the lectures of Barrett-Wendell, whose English was “so piaw” no one understood a word; the 82 year-old Boston lady who studied Hebrew so that at her imminent meeting with the Lord “she would be able to converse with him in his own language”; the riotous living that, on more than one occasion, led to Flaundrau pawning the ancestral watch and heirloom of General Macomb, hero of the battle of Plattsburg.

He was only twenty, but already his character with its particular mixture of physical reticence and close visual scrutiny was setting in its ways. According to his biographer, Lawrence Haeg, “he was touchy, proud, temperamental, fastidious to the point of effeminence. His hair was a bright, somewhat curly, orange-red. He had a slender build, fair complexion and brown eyes and a ‘kind of luminousness about his appearance’.” The same quality penetrated his writing. It seemed pellucid and effortless, but he had bled sweat to create its effects.

Harvard Episodes was published between scarlet and gold covers in 1897. At one stroke Flandrau debagged the perception of university as a place where the only things that mattered were the lecture room and the athletics track. Instead, he laid bare a life of drunkenness and mysogyny. “A book about prigs, by a prig and for prigs,” said the New York Evening Sun. But Henry James considered the result clever and promising, and Scott Fitzgerald – a fellow Harvard boy from Minnesota, to whom it was only left to add the sex – loved it.

“I have written about a very little corner of a very great place,” explained Flandrau in the dedication to Harvard Episodes. The same could be said of Viva Mexico!, which was the fruit of three winters spent on his brother’s estate in Mexico, “sixty miles from anywhere in particular.” In 1903 the irresponsible Blair Flandrau, a seductor of the governor of Minnesota’s daughter, decided that an easy fortune could be made out of a coffee plantation north of Jalapa. In 1904, Charles Flandrau and his mother, attended by an ex-bullfighter, made the journey through the mud.

As he demonstrates in the previous pages, Flandrau loved Mexico and the vaudeville verité of Mexican life. His eyes strayed through the teagardens, through the Trawnbeigh’s dingle-dangle, to life in that “open-air drawing room”, the plaza. He empathised not with the expatriate community, for whom he expressed elegant contempt, but with the Mexicans themselves, in the throes of whatever civic or intestinal disorder. Throughout Viva Mexico! – as throughout his sixty-seven years – Flandrau sits in a deck chair on the balcony, focussing binoculars on the world circulating below, and recording what he sees in prose that has the casual and graceful lilt of the hammock swing. Not that he needed to write; in a sense his whole life expanded into one long Mexican fiesta without fixed rules. He wrote because he had nothing much else to do, despatching his essays to the editor of The Bellman in Minneapolis. But from his balcony, he is the tolerant, whimsical Lord of All, “the only one really intelligent foreigner in the republic.” Just as his brother is able to wrest the secret of drinking-coffee from the little berries, so Flandrau peels the tough red outer skin from this fascinating, mysterious country and serves us with something that has retained its flavour ever since.

Flandrau also loved Mexico for tending his solitude. He was not a man to enter the Paseo. The only person he loved with any degree of passion was his mother. She died on December 5, 1911, one day before his birthday.

“Mother, do you love me?” he asked as she passed away.

“Sweetheart, so much.”

He was so attached to her that in his contact with the rest of humanity he betrayed a certain epicenity – although he was whispered to sleep with his English chauffeur, Clerk, and, according to his physician Dr Warren Ogden, to parade about the house on Pleasant Street in lavender bathrobes. He heard the whispers. “The strange part of it is that I don’t give a hoot.”

After his mother’s death, he gave few hoots for anything. He slept in her bed. He drank. He rarely went out. When he did it was to the Minnesota Club (a place shuffling with dislocated men, like the member who informed Flandrau that he had just hitched a ride on Halley’s comet); or to walk his dogs, one of them aptly called Booze.

Drink and solitude transformed him into a petulant, neurotic snob. “Mr Lindsay,” he told the pianist at a neighbour’s soirée, “if you play any more Bach, I’ll put poison in your coffee.” A weakness for raw onions contributed to stomach cramps. As for literature, his later books were still companionable, but unfocussed, watery stuff compared to what had gone before. At the age of forty he was a totter away from the parody of himself in Thomas Boyd’s In Time of Peace. “Where can one go that isn’t obscene? Now this winter I shall try Stockholm again, and then … It’s the hoards of nouveaux riche, of bedraggled artists, of Americans, Americans, Ámericans wherever one goes.”

Only as a theatre critic, which in 1915 he became for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press – his one and only job – did Flandrau reveal anything of his former epigrammatic intelligence. It was flavoured with the bitterness of his onions. Of Irene Bordoni, he complained that she employed a fake French accent to utter “a series of strange sounds which the program called songs.” Of another singer, he estimated her entire repertoire consisted of three chords “and it must be confessed that they do not invariably meet such musical emergencies as from time to time happen to arise.”

The end came on 28 March 1938. “I’m sorry I drank all that port wine,” he told Dr Ogden through the oxygen tent. He had spent the last years in his mother’s footsteps, travelling through Europe, to the countries she had taken him as an eight-year-old, watching the light fade over the belfries, scribbling plots for stories that never came, and settling for half the year in the French town of Bizy, the original home of his Huguenot ancestors.

It was a sad finale, a warning of what can happen to a writer who loses his vocation, who chooses to be a spectator of mankind rather than one of its species. He had long ago forgotten Mexico and his brother’s finca, empty except for bandits who came to sit in his chair on the windy sala, listening to phonographs.

Nicholas Shakespeare © 1990