1. First Betrayal
I have often thought that I enjoy the perfect employer. For two years I have taught math and computer science at Merritt Country Day School in Palm Beach, Florida—a small, private institution for academically talented students. The headmaster, Charles Long, could be called the ultimate personification of charisma. As a prospective female parent said, “I don’t know if this school will work for my son, but the interview I had with the headmaster was one of the best hours of my life.” Conceptually, he could portray an ethereal vision of John Harvard in a dedicated teacher’s dream. Practically, he has given me both full reign over rigorous curriculum and total support for high standards. So, I was stunned when Charlotte Merritt, young, beautiful, second, and current wife of the founder and board chairman of the school, warned, “Molly, don’t trust Charles. Some day he will betray you.”
I had heard the story of how Charles had betrayed Charlotte during the summer. In fact, the bizarre tale was the buzz at most establishments frequented by South Ocean Boulevard residents. She was away visiting family when her husband, handsomely gray and richly green Parke Merritt, dined one night with Charles Long—something the two men had done frequently for the past several years. Parke apparently felt that treating Charles to fine food, in a man-to-man situation, was a more subtle way to wield influence than making demands in Charles’s office. Because Charles lacked cooking concepts but relished gourmet fare and because Mrs. Long’s best creation would lose in a contest to a sandwich of orange, plastic-wrapped sliced cheese with iceberg lettuce and yellow mustard on packaged white bread, Parke thought he had the right approach. Still, the private settings purported by many Worth Avenue bistros were more image than substance, making the Merritt-Long tête-à-têtes commonly known.
Conversation at that fateful dinner, rather than focusing on academics, revolved around a particular annoyance of private school education—fundraising. And the more difficult the prospects became, the more alcohol Parke Merritt consumed. The evening, however, was not the typical board-chairman-has-too-much-wine-and-complains-about-his-volunteering type of event. No, the situation was much worse and considerably more dramatic. The nightcap occurred at the Merritt Trump Tower penthouse where Charles had to haul Parke home. After reaching into Parke’s pocket for the keys and opening the impressive door, Charles used all his strength to drag his boss into the bedroom and onto the bed. There, Mr. Merritt passed out.
Relieved of Parke’s weight, Charles noticed the extreme clutter. He proceeded to the kitchen for water but stopped, eyes popping, when he saw a similar state of disarray throughout the apartment. Numerous household items, a wide range of clothes, and goods still possessing the original tickets abounded, covering furniture, floors, and shelves—stacked over, under, and around. Drunk Mr. Merritt could not protect his dear wife from embarrassment. Needing to sleep off his state, he was unaware of Charles’s detailed inspection of Charlotte’s belongings.
The misfortune was compounded because Charles did not keep this horrific evening a secret. In fact, I later learned, he had told almost everyone he saw over the summer. I had been teaching at Johns Hopkins University in its gifted education program—Center for Talented Youth—as well as visiting my sister Grace in D.C. When I returned to school for some preliminary work, Charles recounted the story to me with considerable zest.
“Ticketed dresses were strewn across the sofa in size four. Similar dresses lay over a chair in size eight. And again in size twelve on a table,” Charles described.
“Well, at least she bought multiples of four and not two,” I offered.
“The apartment was a mammoth mess, and you are making math jokes, Molly,” Charles protested.
“I’m sorry,” I stated quietly, reflecting that Charles represented Charlotte not merely as one who engaged in excessive shopping. More significantly and tragically, Charles’s words suggested a spoiled, manic woman. Yet, this depiction was definitely not the stylish, dynamic, intelligent, sensitive Charlotte Merritt I knew. Was the discrepancy an example of a man misunderstanding a woman or an intruder misrepresenting a scene?
“And one apartment wall was covered with framed photographs of the three of them—Charlotte, Parke, and Stephanie. Pictures in front of their building. Pictures at the pool. Pictures on Worth Avenue. Pictures on vacation. Pictures in formal attire. . . .”
“Well, they are a family.” Tired of hearing the word pictures, I cut Charles off. Was Charles perhaps envious of Charlotte?
At that moment, I thought I was among a few exclusive recipients of this scandalous news because Charles often confided to me the school’s most intimate tales. Indeed, Charles fancied pronouncing scandal with the second syllable having both an open letter a and the accent as if the word were French and incorrectly spelled scandalle. However, not long after, I received a call from the victim herself, telling me of her humiliation and assessment that, based on all the meddlesome calls and suspicious looks she had received, Charles had told many in the school community. From them, the tale spread to the golf, tennis, dining, and yachting club crowds.
Why does gossip attract even the most professional of people? In the case of Charles’s tattling on this couple, regardless of their generosity of time and money in founding the school, they had pushed Charles too frequently with their advice and demands couched in gifts and dinners. Charles had told me confidentially that despite the appearance of great friendship, Mr. and Mrs. Merritt were actually often an annoyance to him.
I was certainly moved by Charlotte’s story. Though my mind whirled with worries, especially over a strained Merritt-Long relationship, Charlotte had a credible explanation. Many of the possessions, she said, were an accumulation of Christmas gifts over the years from her very large family. She neither wanted the items nor knew what to do with them. As she said, “How do you incorporate fifty new things into an already full household each year?” Her traditional relatives were not willing to adopt a planned, single-gift exchange policy. She was also of the mindset that being prepared by having the right dress or gift at home ahead of time for future occasions was far superior to the pressure of last minute shopping. As a working mother, I certainly engaged in the same efficiency. And, finally, the variety of clothing sizes resulted from frustrating but common female weight gain and purchases to motivate successful diets. She could hardly be ruled guilty on that charge without incriminating thousands of other women. In sum, due to the combination of her bestowals, inclinations, and aspirations, she had amassed an overwhelming quantity of belongings—not, however, singly or collectively beyond the scope of her wealth. Unfortunately, while cleaning and organizing these countless items, including bundling many for charity, she was suddenly called away to a family emergency, leaving the staggering disarray in full sight—unpredictably for Charles Long to discover.
Clearly, Charles had betrayed her, but the matter was unrelated to me. This contretemps should have been a private incident for the Merritts. Thus, I was totally unprepared for Charlotte’s frightening, unassociated admonition that Charles would betray me also.
My thoughts immediately shifted to contemplating her caution. Surely, Charlotte had known Charles for more years than I had. Was she aware of something in his character that I had missed? She was definitely insightful. If she were correct, then how would he betray me? An academic betrayal was out of the question—Charles shared my passion for excellence in education, my vision for the school, and my determination for success.
Sexual harassment was the only plausible option, I concluded. In the 1970s at Harvard I acquired almost equal education in that particular political predicament as in mathematics. Male professors were empowered by an abundance of desire while female graduate students were engulfed by an absence of recourse. I could prevent a major incident with Charles Long, I judged, by being alert. I certainly knew the warning signs of sexual harassment well. On the other hand, maybe Charlotte Merritt was wrong.
Charles not only was my employer but also in many ways had become my best friend. I talked to him daily or weekly more than I did any other person except for my husband and children. School was intense, and conversations with him were vitally important for confirming the management of situations and advancing the delivery of knowledge. I thought that our friendship based on professional respect, personal integrity, and prolific effort was solid.
So, somewhat nervous and watchful, I began my third year at the school trying to repress the warning attached to Charles’s first betrayal. But then I recalled how I had met Charles.