With the Rich
George F. Kennan
February 25, 1950After the meeting with the president, C____________ and I left by car for Cuernavaca, where we were to spend the night, by arrangement, in the private home of a kind and hospitable American resident, whom we had never met, and who was, at the time of our arrival, himself absent.
The road wound up the sides of one of the mountain ridges which rim the high basin containing Mexico City. At the pass, about 9,000 feet in elevation, we came suddenly upon a village which appeared to consist exclusively of gin shops --- their fronts entirely open, like the tents in a county fair at home --- inside: colored lights, juke boxes, and walls lined solidly with bottled liquor. From there, we descended steadily, over miles and miles of serpentines, to the outskirts of Cuernavaca, at about 3,000 feet.
I cannot pretend to describe our host's estate. The house, only one or two years old, was not unlovely. It was in the style of a Moorish palace, and successfully conceived: with patio, cloisters, and terraced gardens. It was decorated with magnificent and unbelievable antiques from the Hearst collection, of which my host had purchased roughly one-half for this purpose. ("When we got done," he later told us, "we had seven carloads left over, and you can't imagine what trouble we had getting them back home.")
The dining-room set was composed of ceiling, panelling, murals, and furniture allegedly from the Doge's council chamber in Venice. The ceilings of the cloisters were from old Spanish and French monasteries. An Elizabethan trestle table of enormous length, the board cut from a single gigantic piece of oak, graced the side of one of the cloisters. In my host's bedroom hung original Breughels and Gainsboroughs. All the beds were the great four-posted canopied affairs of kings and grands seigneurs.
It was all too much for me. I lay sleepless, through the long night, under the huge crimson draperies that had once served a prince of the Church and still bore his insignia --- while mosquitoes buzzed around my pillow. Outside, the fountain tinkled softly in the patio, and a fitful night breeze searched aimlessly back and forth among the cloisters, like a ghost, murmuring, as it seemed to me, "Lost, lost, lost." By this it referred, I was sure, to all of us: to my restless hosts, who had come to live so far from their native soil; to myself, the guest, who had wandered where he did not belong; to the unhappy antiques, crowded together, like creatures in a zoo, in such incongruous diversity; finally, to itself, the wind, imprisoned in such beautiful walls and failing to find the concomitant of all this beauty.
And it finally occurred to me, in the wee hours of a sleepless night, that this was the same wind that could always be found moving through the places of the lost people. It was the wind that blew through the Riviera and the Bahamas and the Sierra de Sintra: the wind of exiled royalty, of the hopelessly rich, of the tortured intellectuals; the wind of King Carol and the Windsors --- the wind that gave its name to the Palace of the Seven Sighs. It was the wind of the last refuge, which turned out to be no refuge at all --- the companion-wind of human pretense and despair, accompanying its charges, like an earnest, faithful animal, in the quest of that which was never there --- troubling their dreams at night with its frantic, naive searching for that which would never be found.--- From Sketches from a Life
©1989, Pantheon Books