One of mom’s best friends was a lady by the name of Maybell Stuart. When I read the book, “Auntie Mame” years after I first came to know Maybell I was sure that the title character had been modeled after her.
Maybell came from a conservative Scotch family but she was quite different from her somewhat stiff family members. She truly was a free spirit – living the life of a bohemian on New York’s upper east side. Yet she was well-accepted (perhaps as an anomaly) by the upper crust people among whom she mingled comfortably.
Maybell took me to see my first opera, “La Forza del Destino.” I had never been to the Met and was awed by the opulent evening wear in which the attendees had dressed and by the dazzling elegance of the opera house. (This was the old Met).
We found our seats just before the overture began and I didn’t have a chance to read the synopsis of the opera – so I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that the music was wonderful and Renata Tebaldi who sung the part of Leonora was outstanding. That evening began my life-long love affair with grand opera.
After the end of Act I we left our seats to stand outside for a few minutes while Maybell bought a glass of wine and sipped at it as we looked at our fellow opera-goers. I asked her what the story was all about.
She said, “Sweetheart – I have absolutely no idea. But isn’t it beautiful?”
That was Maybell at her finest.
Maybell was a parishioner at the Episcopal church of St. Bartholomew’s which was located on Park Avenue. Although I passed the church frequently on my way home from high school I had never been inside it. The church had been constructed in a Byzantine-style architecture. It was a very impressive structure.
One Sunday I accompanied her to services. St. Bart’s had designated that particular Sunday as “Red Cross Sunday” – a day that a second collection was taken up – the proceeds to be donated to that organization.
As Maybell and I (dressed in my Sunday best) entered the building, I was impressed with the beautiful stained glass windows and the resplendence of the sanctuary. It was a very large building that I estimated could hold four or five hundred worshipers quite easily.
All around the chancel, pennants had been displayed which bore red crosses on them in order to remind us what this special service was about. The choir and the organist filled the building with the most wonderful music and I was glad that I had been invited to attend.
As is customary with many churches, after the service concluded the church hosted a “coffee hour” for those who had come to the service. Maybell and I went to this. After she had gotten me a cheese danish from the tray of pastries and a small glass of milk she said she had to see some people and would return shortly. So she rushed off to see those whom she needed to see.
As I stood there enjoying my treat, three ladies began a conversation near me which I couldn’t help overhear. Two of these were obviously long time parishioners and the third was someone who had recently joined the parish. Apparently the old-timers were pointing out to the newcomer who was who among those who attended the coffee hour.
The newcomer, referring to Maybell who was busily moving among the crowd in her finest Auntie Mame way, asked who she was.
One of the two ladies replied, “Oh, that’s Maybell Stuart.” She then lowered her voice because the revelation she was about to unleash was too shocking to be heard out loud and said, “You know – she’s had a “relationship” with an older French gentleman for the last twenty years.”
The newcomer appropriately responded to this pronouncement with a small gasp.
At which point the other of the senior parishioners said, “Well, Hortense – that’s true. But after all – Maybell is the Chairwoman of the Red Cross Drive.”
And that’s “Justification by Works” raised far beyond the level that St. James ever contemplated when he wrote on the subject.