harry hits the road


Chapter 6: torn on the fourth of july

The rain in Maine continues all the way back down through Massachusetts and into Rhode Island, tormenting my odyssey like an incurable hangover. On day five, I’m staying with my wealthy cousin-in-law, Rolf, who has a fabulous house in Newport across the street from the country club. But to make matters either better or worse, Muse is coming up on a train to join me for the Fourth of July weekend.

En route to Kingston station, I see a huge yellow glow ball appear in the sky. It’s the sun breaking out for the first time since I’ve left Sag Harbor. Something tells me this may be a false positive.

Sure enough, Muse is already standing on the platform when I turn into the train station parking lot, which means that I’m late and she’s been kept waiting. She’s encased in snug fitting blue jeans and a pink top that accent her anatomical assets, and she’s sporting a tan, wide-brimmed Pucci hat, which she has dubbed, in malaprop but irresistibly charming Germ-English, “my most prized position.”

Muse smiles as I rush over and give her a hug and a peck on the cheek. I try to kiss her on the lips, but she pushes away, covering my mouth with her hands.

"Stop it now! We are in public!”

“But I missed you so much.”


“Ja,” I say, and can’t help adding, “That means yes auf Englisch.”

“Yes, I know yes,” Muse says.

I whisk her away in the Smart Car, gunning the engine and bypassing the automatic transmission to shift through the gears with the race car style paddles on the rim of the steering wheel.

“You drive this sticker-plastered turquoise wort like a Ferrari,” she says.

“Yeah? Ridden in a lot of Ferraris, have you?”

“Oh, ja. When I was in Milano.”

“Never knew you were into fast cars.”

“I’m not. They scare me.”

“Aw, come on,” I say, grinning a shit eating grin and revving the engine. “Let’s see what this baby’ll do.”

“Nein! Bitte! Slow down!”

“Don’t worry. Thing can only do 90 miles per hour.”

“This is much too fast. My stepfather, Maxmillian, was killed at 90 on the autobahn in Austria.”


“Ja, and my mother was with him. She barely survives. I play Nurse Muse in the hospital for two weeks, then at my mother’s house in Salzburg for two months.”

I slow down, losing the grin. “Sorry. You never told me that.”

“Also there was Georg.”

“Georg who?”

“My boyfriend from Prussia. He took me to Texas when I was 20.”

“What about him?”

“I don’t talk about him anymore. It’s not important.”

“Georg have a Ferrari, too?”

“Never mind. Already I tell you too much.”         


Muse’s cryptic references to Georg make me just jealous enough to commit a series of graceless errors under pressure during the remainder of the drive to Newport. Okay, she’s still pissed about my road trip. But maybe she’ll get onboard if I share my most recent experiences. I start by recounting my lobster trapping exploits on Captain Jack’s tour boat back in Rockland, Maine, which my CBS News cameraman friend Warren Serink and I filmed for a segment on “The Early Show.”

“You really catch the lobsters yourself this time?” Muse asks.

“Uh-huh. Three. We took them to a local supermarket to get steamed. Warren  shot Captain Jack and me eating two of them. Then he ate the other one.”

“So you again don’t bring me any lobsters. You don’t care that I don’t give you nooky?”

My cheeks flush and the microscopic little bastards with ice picks start chipping away at the back of my cranium. “Oh, bitte,” I say, grimacing. “I’ll buy you a damn lobster dinner this weekend. It wasn’t practical to haul them back in this little car.”

By now we’re approaching a soaring suspension bridge, and the rain clouds are rapidly vanishing. The windblown white caps bound across Narragansett Bay like a million miniature sailboats.

“Mein Gott!” Muse exclaims, smiling. “Das is sehr schoen!”

Statue of Henry D. Thoreau with Pure Sport cap

“Ja, almost as beautiful as meine Muse.”

“You and your Texan charm school,” she says, smiling.

I sense an opening, and go for it. “Be glad you missed Massachusetts. I went to Concord to revisit the Henry David Thoreau cabin on Walden Pond. Rained the whole time. Had to stay in a motel instead of camping out in the woods.”

Muse nods, interjecting, ”Thoreau is supposed to be a very important figure in your American history. And he goes to Harvard like you, no?”

“Yeah, he went to Harvard. But it turns out the whole thing about him being a rugged outdoorsman, a loner, and the father of the environmental movement is a big joke.  Thoreau’s shack was just a mile or so from Concord. According to this buddy of mine who’s a history professor, Thoreau was actually a sly satirist who was making fun of himself in subtle ways all along. His mother brought him a basket of food every weekend. And when he got his clothes dirty, he took them to mama’s house so she could wash them. How’s that grab you?”

I reach over and squeeze Muse’s knee.

“Ouch!” she screams. “Stop that! Every time you get fascinating, you have to do something ridiculous! You are already like Thoreau on this stupid road trip, but you don’t even camp out. He only was a backyard hippie.”

“Nein,” I return. “Thoreau had his serious side, too. He wrote an essay on civil disobedience that inspired Ghandi, Martin Luther King. He was also the 19th Century king of the sound bite.”

“Sound bitte? Was ist sound bitte?”

“Not sound bitte, like please. Sound bite, like something to chew on. A memorable quotation. For example -- ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’”

Muse stares out the passenger side window, shrugging her shoulders. Her no nonsense, cut to the chase reply is exactly what makes me love her so.

“Sounds like Monsieur Thoreau just needed to get laid.”


I’m on a similar wavelength when we arrive at cousin-in-law’s house in Newport. Circumstances, however, do not permit. We are greeted at the front door by cousin-in-law Rolf, the dark haired sportsman scion of a Pennsylvania industrialist clan; his white tennis clothed wife, Stacey; and their son, Rolfie Junior, a frizzy haired rugrat in a bathing suit. The staff offer us glasses of fine Bordeaux.

As all get acquainted in the living room, I slip away to the guest quarters to print out a few photographs from the first leg of my road trip. Wouldn’t you know? The goddamn printer won’t print out. I call the toll free number for technical support. They put me on hold for fifteen minutes. Finally, some geek in India comes on the line. We talk back and forth for another fifteen minutes. I perform a series of prescribed steps. Nothing works.

“It appears that your printer is defective,” says the geek. “Or perhaps the problem is that your computer is malfunctioning.”

Portrait of William Backhouse Astor

“No, shit, Sherlock!” I scream, hanging up.

I run back into the living room, and bust up the party like a berserko.

“Gotta go get a new printer! Right now!”

Rolf says there’s a Radio Shack next door to the Casino. Muse perks: there’s a casino in Newport? Yes, but it’s not a gambling parlor, cousin-in-law, explains; it houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame alongside some grass courts. I suggest that Muse stay put and relax, but she insists on coming with.

Roughly $200 and forty-five minutes later, we drive back from Radio Shack via Bellevue Avenue. On every other block, there are extravagant mansions once owned by turn of the 19th Century Robber Barons. Muse sees a sign in front of “Beechwood,” a former Astor family estate, advertising guided tours by actors in period costumes. Again,  she rises to the occasion with wit, intelligence, and a timely idea.

“We go there tomorrow?” she suggests. “Maybe they let you dress up and give the guided tour.”

We return to cousin-in-law’s house just in time for a sumptuous roast beef dinner with Rolf and Stacey. I politely decline dessert, and excuse myself to set up my new printer. It takes the better part of an hour, but I eventually get the sucker to work. When Muse rejoins me in the guest quarters, I’m printing out photos of Maine lobster boats and Walden Pond.

I breathe an exhausted sigh, and stretch out on the bed. Muse retreats to the bathroom to undress. By the time she reemerges, I’m already fast asleep, unkempt and unlaid like Henry David Thoreau amid what Muse calls my “man-o-pause.”


We arise on Independence Day to the sounds of turtles sloshing and clanging in their pan on the night table and cousin-in-law’s Labrador retrievers barking in the backyard. I throw on jeans and a white Pure Sport golf shirt, my sponsored work clothes. Muse dresses in white cotton slacks, a dark blue silk shirt, golden strapped sandals, and her prize position Pucci hat.

Smart Car in front of “Beechwood” Newport, RI

We hop in the Smart Car and make a bee-line for “Beechwood.” The 40-room manse has a tiled roof and slender arches that recall the Italian Renaissance. The waters of Newport Sound provide a shimmering backdrop. I hand Muse my Kodak still camera, and shoot stand ups in the driveway with my tripod and Flip camera. We are working together on something she suggested, and as the Germans say, alles ist ganz gemutlich, which, roughly translated means “everything is extremely copacetic.”

When Muse and I venture through the front door, we encounter Patrick Grimes, the director of the Beechwood Theater Company. I ask how one might apply for a job as a tour guide. He says they conduct nationwide auditions of roughly 2,000 actors in February and March, hiring only eight. Compensation is between $200 and $400 per week plus free housing for the summer in Newport.

“So it’s too late now?” I ask.

“It is, unfortunately,” Mr. Grimes confirms.

Instead of earning money, I shell out fifty bucks so Muse and I can take the actor-guided tour. Mr. Grimes ushers us into a museum-like reception room just off the main hall. The walls are adorned with oil paintings of the former owners, William Backhouse Astor, jr., who has a Napoleonic haircut and a waistcoat, and his wife Caroline Webster Schermmerhorn Astor, who flaunts a ball gown and an imperious gaze.

William Backhouse Astor, jr. was the grandson of the legendary patriarch John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who amassed his fortune in fur trading, real estate, and opium. As recently as 1999, John Jacob Astor still ranked as the fourth wealthiest American ever, one notch above Microsoft founder Bill Gates, according to the Beechwood Theater Company program.

Caroline Webster Schermmerhorn Astor insisted on being called “the Mrs. Astor” to distinguish herself from all the women who married other heirs to the family fortune.  She started the “list of 400,” her selection of the creme de la creme of American society. When her husband bought “Beechwood” in 1881, she spent $40 million in today’s dollars on renovations. For them, the house was merely a summer cottage where they resided during the eight weeks between the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Presently, a blonde woman in her early thirties enters the reception room. She’s wearing a blue floor length gown, and she introduces herself as Carey Astor Wilson, the daughter of the Mrs. Astor. In keeping with the theatrical conceit, she infers that it’s the summer of 1891, and that Muse and I have been invited to a dinner dance to be held the following evening.

Claiming that her mother is temporarily indisposed, Carey offers to show us around the house. She leads us into a parlor she calls “the French room.” It has blue paneled walls edged with gilt, reproduction Louis XIV furniture, and a ceiling encrusted with a rose pattern.

"When mother wishes to speak with someone in confidence, she closes all the doors to this room,” Carey confides. “Everything that is said is said sub rosa.”

We proceed to the ballroom. It features gilt-edged mirrored walls, an enormous hardwood floor, and breathtaking water views through French doors that open onto the rear terrace. Carey advises that we will be joining 398 other guests at a seated dinner.

“I suggest you find time for a nap tomorrow afternoon,” she says. “Mother never starts the dancing before midnight.”

We follow Carey upstairs to a bedroom furnished with more Louis XIV trappings. She announces that she has to take her leave to help her mother prepare seating arrangements. Preston, a second footman attired in black breeches, takes over our tour. He shows us a card catalogue of the Mrs. Astor’s 90 ball gowns.

The Mrs. Astor makes sure to make a note on the appropriate card as to where and when she last wore which dress, and who was present at the time,” he says. “She never wears the same gown in front of the same people twice.”

“Don’t blame her,” I mutter. “Hate it when that happens.”


Next thing I know, Muse is escorting me out of “Beechwood,” scolding me for my alleged rudeness. I tell her I can’t help it. Seeing all the Astor opulence reminds me that  the disparity between rich and poor in America has gotten bigger instead of smaller since the Gilded Age. According to the latest studies, the top ten percent of wage earners make almost 50 percent of the total income in the country.

“It’s like ten people ordered a pizza,” I say. “One guy keeps half the pie for himself and the other nine suckers have to fight over the other half. Meanwhile, the guy  with the half all to himself goes to a bank. We’ll just call the bank Goldman Sachs to pick a name at random. He borrows enough money to buy half of the half of the pizza he doesn’t already own. Then he sprinkles some stuff on the new bought slices, and sells them back to the people who used to own them for a higher price because he’s supposedly added value to the pizza.”

“I have to say I think pizza is inedible,” Muse interjects, holding up the Kodak camera with both hands.

“Yeah, well this pizza is going to get even harder to swallow. See, the guy that bought up all the pieces with borrowed money doesn’t really know if the stuff he sprinkled on the slices might be poison. He doesn’t really care since he only eats steak anyway. But he gets together with his banker buddies at Goldman Sachs and they start making trillions of dollars in side bets on whether the people who actually do buy and eat the pizza are going to get sick or not.”

“That does not seem very democratic,” Muse says.

HH3 in dog house Newport, RI

I notice that she’s fumbling fitfully with the Kodak. Annoyed by the distraction, I snatch the camera away from her, and start pushing buttons. The power light illuminates, but the lens won’t move to the ready position. The memory bank is blank.

“Goddamn it!” I scream. “You broke the damn thing!”

“I hate technology,” Muse moans.

“You hate technology? This ain’t play time! You gotta deal with it! I knew I should never have taken a chick on a road trip! God damn you! God damn you to hell!”

I whip a right out of the Beechwood driveway and speed down Bellevue Avenue to the local Radio Shack for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. Turns out the store is open even though it’s July Fourth. Muse waits in the Smart Car. The salesman on duty fiddles with the Kodak for a couple of minutes, sliding the memory card in and out. The booger starts working just fine again.

I come out of Radio Shack apologizing for my temper tantrum, feeling like a piece of shit. Muse completely shuts down. She won’t even let me kiss her on the cheek.

“Your anger is too much,” she says. “I can’t bear it.”

We return to the guest quarters at cousin-in-law’s house just before sunset. Rolf and Stacey have gone off to a previous engagement. The Labradors are howling for their supper. Muse immediately flees to the bathroom. I glance at the night table: the turtles have clouded their pan. I change the water, find a bottle of Champagne in the fridge, and pop it open.

Muse emerges from the bathroom, tear stains on her cheeks. I give her a glass of Champagne, and take her outdoors to see the sky turning from orange to indigo. I hand over the newly repaired Kodak, and slip inside the Labradors’ backyard pen, which  is framed by chain link fencing. I grip the chain links in self-mockery, glowering and growling, pretending to be a rabid hound. She forces a smile as she snaps my picture.

Es tut mir lied,” I say, coming out of the dog pen to embrace her. “My anger makes me sad.  I’m so, so, sorry.”

“Me, too,” she says, looking off from my embrace.

Come sundown, I buy Muse her long promised lobster dinner at the pre-Revolutionary War vintage White Horse Tavern. We take our after dinner drinks out on the porch, and watch the fireworks exploding over the harbor. I summon what she calls my Texan charm school, attempting reconciliation with a silly improvised line accompanied by a hug and a kiss on the lips.

“You make my Roman candle explode.”

“Ja,” she says, accepting the hug but rebuffing the kiss.

Improbably or not, Muse and I make more fireworks when we get back to our bed at cousin-in-law’s guest quarters. I smoke a cigar in the after glow. Muse drinks the rest of the Champagne, and conks out. Then the microscopic little bastards with ice picks start hacking at my frontal lobes like the minions of an Inquisition. I toss and turn the rest of the night, wrestling with the mad man I am.


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Statue of Henry D. Thoreau with Pure Sport cap (HH3) 2. Portrait of William Backhouse Astor (HH3) 3. Smart Car in front of “Beechwood” Newport, RI (HH3) 4. HH3 in dog house Newport, RI (Muse).