She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.
Like the monkey, I wish to make a dramatic entrance.
But what constitutes a great dramatic entrance? Is it some thing or some act that rises above ordinary by its very existence or action? Or is it an invitation for one’s imagination to go someplace it hasn’t been lately — or someplace it has never been?
The great dramatic entrance — whether it’s an opening sentence, an architectural feature or a theatrical introduction — has a come-hither quality, I think. It startles one pleasurably with certain unspoken possibilities.
Some people’s flair for the dramatic goes way back. Take the du Pont family, for instance. They fled the French Revolution, it is said, and landed on these shores on New Year’s Day 1800 — kissing the still-new world on the first day of a new century.
I call that a dramatic entrance, and I raise it here because we live in a big old house with a history. It sits on a rise above the Brandywine River. And, although you mostly can’t see the river because of intervening woods, the water below, slowly gouging the valley, lends a mystical quality to our environs.
The presence of the river is not incidental. In 1802, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont settled on the side opposite our house, on the site of an old cotton mill. While the original mill had burned, the millrace remained intact, enabling du Pont to get a jump on his project. He soon constructed the first high-quality gunpowder mills in America and thereby founded one of the oldest and most successful American enterprises in the history of capitalism. The mansion he built on a hill above his mills stands today. If not for the trees, in fact, my family would look daily upon it.
And — here’s the crucial thing — were it not for the trees, du Pont’s house would also look upon us.
E.I. du Pont had an older brother named Victor, who built our house between 1807 and 1811. On his side of the river, Victor constructed woolen mills to manufacture cotton cloth. His company — known, after Victor’s partner, as Du Pont, Bauday & Co. — functioned for decades into the Nineteenth Century. Nice little business, I suppose, but his brother bet on a better future. Du Pont de Nemours & Company diversified and went public and made many members of an old family very rich.
But before that there were two well-connected brothers living at a time when shopkeepers resided over the store and manufacturers lived next to their mills. The brothers had social stature. There’s reason to believe, for example, that the boots of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette trod the old floorboards that we often now walk in bare feet.
Over time, however, the house known as Louviers apparently passed into abandonment and disrepair, sitting vacant for some time and serving as a temporary hospital during World War I. Then, in the 1930s, one du Pont descendent took up residence, renovating the house, raising his family, and eventually living out his days there.
The place hasn’t changed much since, and when we study the renovations we often wonder what the old man and his wife may have been thinking. In the master bath, for instance, the sinks don’t match, one being six inches shorter than the other. It seems obvious that she was short in stature, but the lack of symmetry is startling in a house that is so well balanced in other ways.
Also, they added a kitchen far away from the living quarters. This stood to reason, because — as the relics of a paging system attest — wealthy folks had servants in those days. The kitchen needn’t be close to things when family members ventured there neither for dinner nor cleanup.
There were other changes, too numerous to mention here, the reasons for which we attempt to infer now and then — an old walk-in basement safe (for silver?), janitorial closets in the halls (to keep the bathrooms pristine?), built-in fire hoses by the bedrooms (because the du Ponts historically feared fire?).
Curious, but I promised an essay about entrances, didn’t I?
Here’s a funny thing about the house that matters to the subject. There is a small paneled library with built-ins from the Thirties. It’s barely ten by ten, yet in addition to bookshelves it features a fireplace, a large window, and three doors. Three. One of those doors comes in from the hall and another goes out to the back porch. It’s the third door that presents the puzzle.
This door, much to my daughter’s delight, is a secret door. Sandwiched between the fireplace and an outside wall and hidden behind rolling bookcases, it leads to the living room.
What’s odd about that is the following. If you’re going to the dining room or the entry foyer on the way from the library, you pass right by the main door to the living room anyway. You needn’t pass through servant’s quarters or walk out of your way. It’s right there. So the hidden door is not at all required.
Furthermore, it’s only hidden on the library side. On the living room side it’s plainly a door, albeit one without a proper knob. So this unnecessary secret door readily gives up its secret to the close observer. What’s going on here?
I think I know. I think the man who installed it understood something about old-fashioned dramatic entrances.
Picture Scarlett O’Hara descending the grand stairs of Tara.
Picture Mary Poppins floating down on her umbrella.
Picture an injured Willis Reed, not expected to play Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers, jogging onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 1970 to an electrified crowd. The game is won before the first shot is taken.
Now think of the man who built that secret library door. The maid ushers his guests into the living room and offers them cocktails. Sipping their drinks, they peer expectantly through the open doorway into the front hall, awaiting their host.
Instead, a door opens behind, where they least expected, and there he is among them — suddenly, dramatically.
If he were a modern author, he might have written: “She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.” If he were a sports legend at game time, he may have been the last one out of the locker room and into the arena.
Beginning journalists learn that a lead paragraph must include the Who, What and When of the story. Yet many seasoned journalists will tell you that the best newspaper lead paragraph ever is simply this:
Bang bang bang.
Why? Because its draw is irresistible. Plus: in the beginning is the end. In other words, great story beginnings often also contain the ending.
Therefore, maybe my beginning — the thing and the monkey — is not so great. It intrigues, perhaps, but doesn’t complete.
But picture those once grand stairs of Tara, falling into ruins.
Picture the magical nanny, for the last time lifted by umbrella over the rooftops of London.
Finally, once more, picture the man who built that hidden door. The party is concluding. He could walk down the hall and use the main door to his library. But he doesn’t. He waits until no one’s looking. And then he disappears.