Saturday, August 25, 2012

Two Gentlemen

This portrait stunned me at Newport’s Rosecliff Mansion.  The hypnotic blue eyes looked deep into mine as if casting a spell.  I felt I knew him.  There was no identification on the wall next to the gentleman, so I did a little research later at home. His name was Richard Thornton Wilson and he made his fortune in finance.  His promising beginnings were in Georgia but he later lived among the moneyed elite in Gilded Age New York City. It was a bit of a mystery to me how he ended up on a Newport wall so I dug deeper and discovered that his children were called "The Marrying Wilsons" having all "married up" into Newport society (think Vanderbilt’s and Astor’s).  By all accounts, he was a gentleman, kind, and very generous.

Indeed a handsome man, Margaret Mitchell is rumored to have used Mr. Wilson as the model for Rhett Butler in her novel Gone With the Wind.  I can see why but I realized that this portrait really reminded me of a tall, handsome, polite but very shy boy I went to school with.  My classmate was so silent and mysterious that I cannot recall ever hearing him speak although we shared an English class.  I wondered about him, as I secretly watched his long lanky steps, his reserved politeness. Always unobtrusive, yet one of the few boys who held doors for the girls and teachers. He never made any trouble.

Almost three years ago, I received an email from my classmate out of the blue.  He said hello and then asked, "Did you go to the principal’s office the day I was struck in the face?"  Slowly, the memory came back to me in rolling waves.  Our high school was infamously overcrowded and traversing the hallways was almost impossible with wall to wall bodies, clumsily lumbering together, trying to reach a myriad of locations at once.  One afternoon sophomore year, as I struggled to reach my class, I heard punches being thrown over my shoulder and saw the handsome classmate fall to the floor.  The school’s arrogant bully, a hockey player, for no reason that was apparent made a flash decision to attack with three fierce punches.  I hesitated but soon my righteous indignation overtook me and I ran to the school office.  Breathlessly, I reported what I saw and was made to sit in a wooden chair by the door.  In a few minutes, the gentle classmate and the bully were brought in together and told to shake hands.  I shot up from the chair like a rocket, "You don't understand!  He wasn't doing anything!  It was unprovoked!".  But the principal thought I was impeding progress and ordered me to class.  The next day when I saw my even more subdued classmate, his wounds were evident, inside and out.  I spoke to him but don't recall what I said.  I'm sure I tried to convey that I felt sorry about the act of violence put upon him.  He nodded, turned away from me, and we never spoke again. I could see that he just wanted to be left alone.  Two years later on graduation day, a picture was taken of our class in caps and gowns.  My classmate and I were photographed just feet apart, our young faces forever recorded on a grainy picture for the yearbook.  Over time, I forgot the terrible incident and the sweet Gentle Ben classmate, until the email.  I answered, "Yes, it was me".  Soon a reply, "Thank you - I knew you were there and I knew why.  Thank you." 

And so, when I came face to face with Mr. Richard Thornton Wilson, my amazement was profound.  I called my gentleman friend, the aforementioned classmate, to my side.  "Look!  It’s you!  The beard but especially the eyes – they’re yours!"  Astonished, we both stared at the portrait...but it was my own gaze that Mr. Wilson seemed to knowingly hold in his.


  1. This love story is simply wonderful. You are to be congratulated, early and late, on seeing the importance of a quiet roommate and recognizing the beauty of a romance delayed. My best to you both, beau and belle.
    Love, Kay

  2. This is a fantastic story. I never saw this painting before, he does remind me of Rhett's spirit.