I sometimes think it may be easier for a Westerner to write about Chinese than for a Northerner to write about Virginians. My wife of 45 years, and the source of this story and its mysteries, is Virginia born and bred. I myself have lived in the Commonwealth a dozen years. Nonetheless, I approach my narrative with some hesitation. I cannot deny it; forever and a day I’ll be a transplanted Northerner, never a true Virginian, and I fear there are those who will believe that because of my lack of authentic origins I also lack the credentials to chronicle the history of certain native Virginians I have come to know about.
What encourages me to plunge ahead anyway is that the most important defining character in this tale was a foreigner like myself, indeed an actual foreigner, a European, when she arrived in the Old Dominion 61 years ago on the arm of her Virginia lover, the novelist Robert Burwell.
“That woman,” as Fontaine’s mother referred to her at the outset.
“She has a name, Charlotte,” Doctor Wilton chided his wife to acknowledge.
“Bianca and I. . .” Robert Burwell had written from Lisbon, where they had been living for a year, announcing their pending arrival in Norfolk by ship. They had gotten out of Paris only weeks before the fall of France.
Mary Fontaine Wilton, called Fontaine, was 14 that summer, 1941. The Wiltons of Charlottesville spent the month of August every year at the home of her maternal grandparents, the Marshalls, in the village of Burwellville halfway to Richmond. William and Eugenia Marshall were related to Burwells by marriage. Eugenia’s sister Louisa and Samuel Burwell, both deceased, had been the parents of Robert Burwell. From them Robert Burwell had inherited the house and long inactive 18th-century grain mill the novelist now proposed to occupy after more than 20 years abroad.
He had written not to the Marshalls but to a Burwell uncle, but the Marshalls had seen the letter.
“Is Bianca his wife?” Fontaine asked, directing her question to anyone who might have the answer.
Five of them, the Marshalls, Doctor Wilton and his wife, and Fontaine, sat on the screened back porch sipping iced tea in the hot afternoon. Fontaine’s older brother Todd was off somewhere with boy cousins. At the foot of a long, steep meadow below the house, below a grazing horse in the middle distance, the James River flowed gently eastward toward the Bay and the sea.
“Well?” Fontaine asked again.
Her grandmother put on reading glasses and picked up a magazine. Her grandfather’s expression was impassive. Her mother took a drag on her cigarette and exhaled. Her father cleared his throat.
“Bianca was, still is, legally no doubt, the wife of an Italian diplomat,” Doctor Wilton said evenly. “This much we know from Burwells in Richmond who visited Robert in Paris in 1936. Being an Italian, the diplomat, by definition, is a Fascist representing Mussolini, an ally of Hitler. You’ve heard me express my profound condemnation of these dictators. Having left such a man as this diplomat, Bianca has my unstinting admiration.”
“That, of course, is only half the story, Richard,” Fontaine’s mother said. “Now I think we can change the subject.”
Like Richard Wilton, Robert Burwell had served in World War I in the AEF, Wilton in the artillery, Burwell as a combat pilot. Richard Wilton returned to America. Robert Burwell stayed in Europe as a reporter for the Paris Herald Tribune. Until 1941 Burwell had returned to the States only once, for the funeral of his mother who had died of cancer in 1928. When his father shot himself in 1931 he did not return. “I haven’t the money to travel all that way again” he had written. “And I am not needed. One goes to funerals to console the living and there is no one left who needs my consolation.”
His contention was disputed. There were brothers. There were sisters. Those few who took his side—Richard Wilton was one— maintained his siblings simply resented his independence. They also resented his “unconscionable” spilling of family secrets, idiosyncrasies, foibles, scandals and tragedies in his first, autobiographical, novel set in Virginia.
“Sheer hypocrisy,” Doctor Wilton had commented. “At least half of them bask in the fame, or notoriety—call it what you will—of being the inspiration for some of his characters. Let him win the Pulitzer or the Nobel and then listen to them crow.”
It seemed unlikely, however, that Robert Burwell would ever be a winning candidate for either prize. A nominee for a Pulitzer, possibly. His books were respectfully reviewed but he was not a literary icon. On the other hand, though his novels sold well, or well enough, even during the Depression, they were not best sellers. Great popularity had eluded him too.
But for Fontaine Wilton who excelled in English composition at St. Anne’s school in Charlottesville, her first-cousin-once-removed was a glamorous figure. She had read his Virginia novel, his two war novels; the second based on Robert Burwell’s experiences as a correspondent in Spain in 1937 and ‘38. Now, even more glamorous in her mind was the mysterious, romantic Bianca who had run away from her Fascist husband to live with Robert Burwell, to flee with him to Portugal and then to America, to escape only at the last minute the terrible Nazis who had overrun Europe.
Along a twisting course of 340 miles, the James River runs from the mountains to the sea. Its lower length from the Atlantic westward was the first water highway in America. A canal was built alongside to transport cargoes around shallows and rapids. From 1840 to 1880 packet boats, horse and mule drawn on towpaths, transported goods and passengers on a three-day voyage to and from Richmond and Lynchburg. Traffic was heavy. Passengers dined and slept on board. Men sipped juleps and smoked on deck while their wives played cards. It was a prosperous era for farmers and mill owners like the Burwells, Marshalls, and other first families, an era that dwindled away when railroads made canal traffic obsolete.
The abandoned Burwell mill, architecturally unique with its double rows of five dormer windows in a pitched slate roof, sits in the silence of an August afternoon. The road from Burwellville is winding and hilly. Only one car or so an hour drives past the mill. Forests of hickory, maple, tulip poplar open here and there into wavy, tree-edged meadows. Though Burwellville is near the confluence of the James and a spur of the James called the Rivanna which climbs slightly northwest to Charlottesville, the small rolling farms and larger forests hardly flatten out at all even in these river valleys. Underpopulated and somewhat remote, the undulating landscape foreshadows the mountains to the west. But blessed with its rivers, this countryside retains a mysterious back-of-beyond quality even in the 21st century, a distinctive character and beauty of its own. Many of the farm and village houses, often dating back up to 200 years or more, have stately English proportions and workmanship, and there are short, European distances between villages and crossroads. One might imagine oneself to be in a very small principality in the heart of an Old World.
Like the mill, the house dated from 1770. A well-built brick and clapboard tin-roofed structure with harmonious lines, it was, nonetheless, a relatively small, unpretentious mill owner’s house, a farmhouse type duplicated often throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in this area of the earliest American settlement. It had been empty since 1931 but a black caretaker who lived nearby had painted it once during those years, made repairs, and inspected it regularly. He had found no vandalism nor any sign of hoboes or squatters.
The Wiltons would spend the Thanksgiving weekend at the Marshall’s house in Burwellville and Fontaine was determined to find some way to meet Bianca and Robert Burwell, even if they were living in sin!
Actually, as Fontaine acknowledged to herself after calmer reflection, no one so far had used those words. But they were in the air, in silences, in overheard obliqueness: Eugenia Marshall to her daughter with William Marshall in a posture of assent: “I suppose it’s a pity but I don’t see how we can call on them. . . .”
With a look, Fontaine told the mirror in her room, And you know every one of them, every Marshall and Burwell in the county down there is dying to know what she’s like!
But Fontaine adored her grandparents, their good humor and mild eccentricities, absent-mindedness mostly. They never criticized her, at least they hadn’t in years, and spoiled her often. She didn’t judge them. She didn’t expect them to share her intellectual priorities and doubts. Most of the time they were on another plane, centered in the little world of their farm, their village, and Richmond society. Charlottesville, the university town, was somewhat outside their ken. Eugenia Marshall considered it “fast.”
The Friday following Thanksgiving, Nov. 21, 1941, Todd Wilton was given the use of the family car “to visit some friends in Scottsville,” he said as Fontaine listened to this request and the granting of it with a beating heart. “Fontaine, you want to come along?”
“It won’t be a lie,” Todd said as he drove the Dodge down the road toward the Burwell mill. “We’ll go to Scottsville afterward.”
The winding, hilly road tunneled through late autumn foliage. Todd turned into the driveway of the house only about six minutes later but to Fontaine the trip seemed to take three times that long.
The oaks were thick around the house, still shedding piles of leaves, and the afternoon was dark under an overcast sky. There were lights on in the house and another burned in one of the high dormer windows of the mill.
Fontaine knew what Robert Burwell looked like from the photographs on the jackets of his books. But though the photos suggested his leanness, they did not show his rangy height now standing there in the doorway, over six feet in workman’s boots, corduroy pants, and a cable-knit turtleneck sweater.
Fontaine spoke right up.
“I’m Fontaine Wilton. We’re first cousins-once-removed and I’d very much like to meet you and Bianca. This is my brother, Todd.”
“Indeed! And what about you, Todd?” Burwell said in a big, pleasant voice. “Would you like to meet us too?”
“Sure. I mean, yes sir.”
“Do your mother and father know you’re here?”
“No, sir,” Fontaine said.
“Ah, independent souls!” Robert Burwell said. “Well enter, independent souls! Would you like some hot chocolate? I’m about to bring some to Bianca in her studio. Great minds think alike. You’ve arrived at exactly the right moment. You can help me carry it.”
He stuck out a big, warm hand for Fontaine and Todd to shake in turn, and they entered the parlor after him. A fire was roaring and drawing well. A parlor and dining room beyond were as fully furnished as the Marshall’s house in Burwellville.
“Now Fontaine, if you would take down a good-sized plate from that cupboard above your head and put some cookies on it from that big jar under your nose, I think we’ll be about ready.”
Burwell carried the pot of chocolate, cups and saucers on a tray. Fontaine carried the plate of cookies. Todd opened the heavy door to the mill.
As Burwell later explained, local carpenters recruited by the caretaker, had built the wooden platform they could see laid across the north end of the 75 foot-long mill and on it was laid out the beginnings of an artist’s studio. Eventually, carpenters and other artisans would install a skylight in the 50-foot end wall to let in the north light.
Now, late afternoon natural light from three of the five dormer windows was augmented by tall standing spot lights directed at a large wooden easel and the woman in paint-stained pants and sweater standing before it scraping a layer of oil paint with long, sure, diagonal strokes from impasto that covered the top three-quarters of a 6-foot by 3-foot canvas. Already Fontaine could see the abstract landscape of woods, meadows, and hills Bianca was creating with rich, assertive colors.
She heard them enter and turned, frowning speculatively, She put down her palate knife and folded her arms as Burwell approached with Fontaine and Todd a step behind him.
“But I know you!” she cried, opening her arms. “You are the doctor’s children!”
One by one she embraced and kissed them.
It would be several years before Fontaine would learn enough French to come across the contradiction in terms but entirely logical description Jolie-laide which might be translated as asymmetrical, even ugly, but striking and appealing, even sexy, in spite of it and say to herself, that’s it! That’s Bianca. No beauty, Bianca gave the impression of never having been aware of that for a single instant. What she radiated was total awareness of self-worth. Her nose and mouth were disproportionately large yet they drew you to her and to her big wonderful lemur eyes, dark luxuriant hair and to her harshly melodious voice. In a memoir Fontaine published years later she called Bianca “a Mediterranean goddess.”
She was not tall, yet she dominated every space she occupied, and Fontaine couldn’t imagine anyone with any sense or imagination denying her the privilege. She was 37 that year, 11 years younger than Robert Burwell.
“Do you like living here?” Fontaine asked.
“You know it remind me—
“Reminds,” Burwell interjected.
“It reminds me of a house we rented in Bourgogne on the river Yonne where barges go up and down river to and from the Seine and Paris. Long ago it must have looked like that on the James. Yes, it is beautiful here but so quiet! And there is so much more to see! I have never been to New York! Can you believe it? Soon we will go. I must find a dealer, a gallery to show my work. Someone who will know me from Paris. I had a reputation there. Torn away from us! But we can work anywhere, Robert and I.”
“You speak such good English,” Fontaine said.
Bianca laughed and hugged Fontaine. “You think so? Well, like you I went to school to learn it. And Robert won’t let me forget what I learned.”
“I’m studying French but I wish I could learn Italian too,” Fontaine said. “I feel so stupid because you know my language but I don’t know yours.”
“I will teach you!”
“May I look at your paintings,” Fontaine said. “There’s so much to see.”
Fontaine found herself in a garden of delights that caught her by the throat and set her trembling with the excitement of discovery. Lush, color-blazing still-life of fruit and flowers in majolica bowls and vases; haunting portraits; mysterious and beckoning interiors in far off cities and countrysides where one would always be happy. Write or paint, which did she want to do more? She couldn’t decide but for the moment she was captured by the tactile, plastic, painterly world of “Bianca,” which is how the Italian woman signed her work boldly, without benefit of any other name.
And though it seemed to Fontaine that time stood still amidst these riches, it passed all too quickly.
“Fontaine, we have to go,” Todd whispered in her ear. “It’s after five.”
They had left Burwellville at two.
“Come back, dear children!” Bianca called, and Fontaine didn’t mind at all being one of them; it was the kind of endearment Europeans used. Chers enfants. It even made her feel a bit more sophisticated.
“When will you come back?” Bianca called.
“We spend Christmas with our other grandparents,” Fontaine said. “Next summer I guess.”
“So long a time!”
Drunk on art and chocolate, Fontaine called, “I’ll write you a letter Bianca! Thank you for everything, for letting me see your paintings. I love them. Thank you Robert.”
“Till we meet again!” said Robert Burwell.
Already it was dark on the road. There was no time at all to drive to Scottsville.
But no one asked about Scottsville nor about Todd’s friends there so they did not have to lie. As they came into the house, Doctor Wilton looked at his wristwatch but said nothing, didn’t even frown. No one reprimanded them for not getting home before dark.
Todd washed up for dinner in the downstairs bathroom. Fontaine used the one upstairs and then went to her room to comb her hair. She hadn’t closed the door. Her mother just strolled in without having to knock, sat on the edge of the bed, crossed her knees, lit a cigarette and looked at Fontaine with a wry smile Fontaine could see in her mirror.
“Well? What was she like?” asked Charlotte Wilton.
Twenty days later, four days after Pearl Harbor, the United States was at war with all the Axis Powers. Japan. Germany. Italy. Still carrying an Italian passport, still officially the wife of an Italian diplomat, Bianca Sorrentino automatically became an “enemy alien,” subject to deportation or internment.
Could she be allowed to remain in the United States as a political refugee? American immigration laws were coldly stringent. Her financial support would have to be guaranteed by an American citizen, which of course Robert Burwell could provide. But even then the would-be immigrant would have to wait to be included in a quota which could take many months, even years. She was on a visitors’ visa issued in Lisbon. America was at war. If a diligent immigration inspector at the port of Norfolk checked his records, another INS inspector, possibly accompanied by an FBI agent and a Commonwealth police officer, might arrive at the Burwell mill any day. At the very least there might be something legally binding in the mail.
On December 12th, Robert and Bianca packed two suitcases, locked the house and mill and drove to the Wilton residence in Charlottesville where Bianca asked for, and received, temporary asylum.
“You see,” Bianca said. “I am not only Italian, I am a Jew.”
Her father, an industrialist, had joined the Fascists in the 1920’s, to be as patriotic an Italian as anyone else. He was a member until the late 30’s when anti-Jewish laws were promulgated, and he was dropped from the party. But in 1930, Bianca Caro, rich, not beautiful but charismatic and passionate, was eminently marriageable to a handsome gentile, a rising star in the party and the diplomatic service who would be assigned to Paris in 1932. A year later Hitler cast his long shadow across the Alps, and Bianca began to learn what manner of man she had married. She met Robert Burwell and went her own way. Her father died. She was able to bring her mother to Paris and in 1940 to Portugal, where her mother decided to stay.
The Jews the Wiltons knew were such socially prominent people as the Oppenhimers, the Mordecais, and Cardozos of Richmond, members of families almost as old and equally as distinguished as the Marshalls and Wiltons and Burwells. But it was not necessary to seek help in Richmond. One of Doctor Wilton’s patients was a long-time host to Franklin Roosevelt. The president spent get-away-from-it-all weekends on this crony’s estate outside Charlottesville. Robert Burwell and Bianca, Fontaine and now her mother and brother spent anxious nights looking at the snow fall and up at the cold winter stars, but Doctor Wilton who had set the wheels in motion knew how the world worked and was given reason to be confident. In mid January, Bianca received her immigrant visa, and she and Robert returned to their home and mill. Just long enough to get organized for a new life.
Now they could do something for their country. Their country.
“Yes, their country, but not so much for as with,” Doctor Wilton said. “It’s not Americans who need help now. We’re safe, as long as we stay where we are.”
But American men wouldn’t stay where they were, at home, and Doctor Wilton joined a medical unit to support our troops in action overseas formed at the University of Virginia in mid-1942. Charlotte’s brother Leland, a VMI graduate like his father, was commissioned in the army, and Todd Wilton enlisted as a Marine.
Nor would Robert Burwell stay at home. He went up to Washington and was accepted by the new Office of Strategic Services which welcomed his intimate knowledge of France, his linguistic skill, his mature strength and intelligence, and his daring record in World War I.
Bianca with her languages and verve and knowledge of Italy and the Fascist state went to work for the Office of War Information.
Robert Burwell was in some undisclosed location overseas. By train and car Bianca came back to the house and mill a few times a year from May to September, bringing a cornucopia of wine and rare ingredients she had managed to procure in ethnic neighborhoods of New York and Washington. These delicacies were only to supplement local Virginia products—the turkey and chicken, the butter, the ham from William Marshall’s farm—in order to prepare splendid Italian lunches and dinners for the Wiltons, food they had rarely or never eaten before in their lives. In that part of Virginia, garlic, olive oil, and spaghetti were considered exotic and things like dried wild mushrooms, saffron and preserved white truffles unheard of. Charlotte Wilton brought her parents to these feasts. Not having to call on them, not being able to, with Robert away, Eugenia and William Marshall felt free to call on her, on Bianca alone. And were won over completely. Other Marshalls and Burwells too turned up often to eat outdoors at long tables alongside tomato vines and bushes of basil, sage, and rosemary Bianca had planted and her black caretaker and his wife cultivated,
Bianca was a marvelous hostess. She was a kind of diva, a prima donna assoluta of her own domaine. Her luncheons were theater, her every word and gesture elements of a great performance. She seemed to feel it her born duty to please, to charm, to judge no one harshly by word or gesture, and she had the talent to succeed.
Her food was superb, and she would reveal the ingredient of every dish, every meltingly heavenly mouthful: innumerable pasta dishes with luscious fillings and sauces . . . fritatas . . . semolina gnocchi. . .chickens marinated in olive oil, lemon and pepper and with onions, sweet peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and mushrooms grilled over charcoal fires.
“Take more, carissima!” she would cry. Then would kiss a cluster of her own fingertips and throw the kiss into the air. “One could then die happily, don’t you agree?” And ripples of contented laughter would pass down the long trestle tables above the laden majolica platters Bianca had found in New York, the vases of flowers, the half-filled bottles and glasses of wine.
Indelibly implanted in her mind, Fontaine remembered these eternal summer scenes years later lunching alfresco in Tuscany and Provence.
In Italy, the American 5th Army was fighting its way north and in his traveling field hospital Doctor Wilton was working round the clock, patching up the wounded and comforting the dying. Todd was somewhere in the Pacific.
One by one Doctor Wilton, Todd, Leland Marshall—and Robert Burwell—returned from the war, the doctor to resume his practice, Todd to enter the University of Virginia at 21, Marshall to return to his farm, Burwell to join Bianca at the house and Mill.
The OSS had been deactivated by the executive order of Harry S. Truman in September 1945. By the end of the year, Robert Burwell had managed to get air transport from London, and Bianca was waiting for him in Washington. They spent their first Christmas together at The Mill, and the Wiltons drove down from Charlottesville to help them celebrate.
Fontaine was in her second year at Sweetbriar. With a secondhand coupé of her own she could drive to Charlottesville or directly to Burwellville in an hour and a half and did so once and sometimes twice a month during the academic year. She dated boys at the University but wasn’t serious about any of them. Even those who had served overseas and were more mature as a result of their experiences simply were light years less interesting than Robert and Bianca, who were more glamorous than ever that postwar year of 1946, Robert working on a new novel, Bianca painting furiously. More on her own, Fontaine could spend a Saturday day and night with them after visiting her grandparents over Friday, then drop by to see her parents on her way back to the college on Sunday.
It wasn’t until the sumer of 1947 that Fontaine began to notice a strain in the Burwell-Bianca relationship. Bianca seemed to have found a home in this beautiful but rather isolated and sleepy corner of Virginia. As long as she could get into Charlottesville occasionally, into Richmond, where a leading gallery displayed her work, to Washington and New York, where her paintings were even more importantly on view and selling well, she was, or seemed to be, supremely content and joyously unrestrained as always. But to Fontaine, Robert was clearly restless. She could see Bianca’s work going well; Robert’s work was invisible behind notebook covers until it could be published, and perhaps it was not going well. Fontaine did not feel she should ask. But more and more his expression was often brooding, and his silences grew longer. During Fontaine’s visits even Bianca uncharacteristically lapsed into stretches of quiet that lengthened beyond the comfort level. Robert and Bianca still embraced Fontaine warmly, effusively when she arrived and left, and Robert still asked what she was reading and what, in detail, she thought of this or that classic or new work of fiction. But acutely sensitive to nuances of behavior and atmosphere, Fontaine began to feel at times somewhat in the way, uncomfortable, and visited less often.
When Robert did talk, he most often talked about Europe, France, Paris, and Fontaine who was dying to sail to Europe for the first time as soon as she could manage it after graduation from college, loved to hear him reminisce. In the late 1920’s and in the early 30’s Robert and Bianca had become members of one of the three American literary-artistic salons, not Gertrude Stein’s or Natalie Barney’s, but that of Edith Wharton and not in Paris itself but at Mrs. Wharton’s country house, the Pavilion Colombe, a 40-minute drive from the city. Several times a year Robert had mingled with Sinclair Lewis, Bernard Berenson, Huxley, Gide, Paul Valery, and other French writers and intellectuals. When Bianca came on the scene in 1934, she too was invited, charmed, and was accepted into the inner circle. She and Mrs. Wharton and Berenson often gamboled along in the Italian Mrs. Wharton had learned during long childhood visits to the Continent. In Paris, Robert and Bianca’s haunts were the Brasserie Lipp, a newspaperman’s hangout, and La Palette, both near their studio apartment and near the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Where they were noticed. Robert said the French poet and cafe historian Leon-Paul Fargue had called Bianca “a Vesuvius of passionate opinions.” Robert had albums of black and white photographs, and Fontaine had three or four questions for every one of them. She had achieved a respectable level of fluency in French and had a good accent and Robert, after switching to French, helped her practice, taught her new idioms and a little slang. Only after a time did Fontaine became aware that Bianca was not joining in these conversations.
Bianca saw Fontaine’s grandparents. She called on them. She called on other Marshalls, other Burwells. She had become an accepted member of the community, albeit an exotic one. In June when the weather was warm enough and before there were too many bugs she gave another of her fabulous alfresco lunches. The day was sweetly summery and beautiful. Everyone invited came. Only Robert was not there. Bianca said he had to go to New York to confer with his agent and publisher, which might have been true. But his absence was noted and commented on.
The war was over. Western Europe at least, though still physically and economically crippled and now menaced by communism, especially in France and Italy, and by the Soviet giant to the east, was free of war and the Nazi terror and Robert Burwell expressed his conviction that the Allies and their occupation forces would never allow it to go down the drain.
In August, staying with her Marshall grandparents as in the past, but for only a week now, not a month—she had been invited to spend two weeks with a classmate in Colorado—Fontaine visited the mill every other day.
“Robert could teach at the university, don’t you think, Fontaine?” Bianca asked one early evening as seven of them sipped aperitifs before dinner; the Marshalls and Doctor Wilton and Charlotte had been invited too. Marvelous enticing aromas wafted in from the kitchen of the house. “A Virginia novelist so distinguished!” Bianca continued. “What could be more appropriate? But listen to him! He says he is not a teacher! Believe me, he could bind them with his spell, his students! I have heard him at Madame Whartons discussing French and English literature—in French—with André Gide! Can you believe he would be tongue-tied with graduate students? In English he conversed at great length with Huxley! What can one do with this man?”
On her feet as Robert was, she planted a noisy kiss on Robert’s cheek.
“Now I must stir the pots,” she said, and strode into the kitchen, followed by Charlotte Wilton asking, “Bianca, what can I do to help?”
Fontaine, who would help serve and who earlier had sliced and chopped and rolled out pasta dough, stayed in the parlor to watch and hear Robert Burwell’s reaction to Bianca’s revealing performance.
From the moment of his guests’ arrival, Robert had risen to this social occasion and was at his genial best. Now Fontaine saw a flash of impatient anger in his eyes and a slight stiffening of his lips as Bianca delivered her no doubt calculated appeal in front of the Wiltons and Marshalls, but the flash was over as quickly as it appeared and nothing in his expression that was sullen or embarrassed replaced it.
Smoothly, apparently relaxed, he said firmly, “What Bianca has described is simply all the more reason why we need to go back to Paris. To find a new salon!”
So there it all was, out in the open in two brief statements—the conflict, which Fontaine feared but accepted as a great challenge.
“But you can saw the baby in half!” she said to Bianca “You could divide the year into two parts and live in both places! Why not?”
“Fontaine, cara,” Bianca said. “Until her death in 1944, my mother found a European haven in Portugal, but I do not want to live in Portugal the rest of my life nor could Robert. But Portugal at least was a neutral country. The rest of Europe, even “neutral” Switzerland, decreed that I had no right to live there, no right to live at all. I will never return to such a place, not even to visit.”
“England!” Fontaine said.
“So near and yet so far, and not, by choice, for either of us. If England, why not Virginia? If London, why not New York? No, darling. You are so lovely to try to solve our problem. But there is no solution.”
“Would it be wrong for me to go to Europe too, Bianca? No, I can’t believe it. And there’ll be new generations of Europeans to keep the terrible things from happening again. They should be encouraged. You could be an inspiration.”
Bianca was stubbornly silent as she picked up her palate knife again and resumed sculpting the thick horizontal and vertical bands of color on the painting before her. Then she spoke.
“Yes, you should go to Europe, Fontaine. To find out what good there is to find. But my home is here.”
Was there some faint, new qualification in what she had said? Fontaine seemed to hear it, perhaps only because she wanted to hear it. In any case she did not give up hope.
“I am going to France to look for a place for Bianca and me to live,” Robert told the Wiltons and the Marshalls, and in October 1947 when the leaves began to yellow and redden, he left for France alone, aboard the De Grasse, the only French liner yet back in service after the war.
He wrote a brief Christmas letter to the Wiltons, thanking them again for their haven and hospitality before and after the war years. He wrote a charming separate greeting to Fontaine in French.
Bianca mentioned no letters, but the Wiltons were certain Robert had written to her.
In the early spring of ‘48 Robert wrote again, enclosing clippings of feature stories from the Paris Herald Tribune. They were under his byline and the datelines were Paris and regional cities and towns across France, a France picking up the pieces and slowly, in some ways quickly, recovering from the long Nazi occupation. The Marshall Plan had begun to operate. Paris shops were filling up with goods but so far only a minority of citizens had the money to pay for what was inside them. Conditions were better in the provinces. There was more to eat. Robert wrote little about himself. The flat he lived in was less than satisfactory and he was looking for another. He did not mention Bianca.
Fontaine and her parents read “Genêt’s”—Janet Flanner’s— letters from Paris in The New Yorker and learned about the muddled, even chaotic French political situation. That with the arrival of Coleman Hawkins and Slam Stewart, American jazz was back. Some 100,000 American tourists were expected that summer of ‘48, and they and their infusion of dollars would be welcomed with open arms.
Fontaine talked to Bianca about what else she’d learned. She was reading Camus and Malraux and called them “the conscience of France.” Camus had been editor of the courageous Resistance newspaper Combat. He and Malraux had been brave and effective anti-Nazis, were great writers widely read and enormously influential now.
Fontaine started to say “should,” then changed that at the last second to “You could be part of their world, Bianca.
“Thousands of non-Jewish French men and women were prisoners of the Nazis in Germany, slave laborers, victims, not criminals or collaborators.
“Besides De Gaulle, Leon Blum, who is Jewish, is the most popular man in France!
“Bianca, Robert needs you! The Mill was a haven for only a few months, then less than two years. But just imagine. He’s spent twenty-eight years in France, more than half his life. France is where he wrote his books. France is at least half of his spiritual home.”
And as a coda to her original argument, and a reminder of it: “Not everyone is guilty!”
“What do you know? Nothing! You are a naïve American child!”
“I know what I know, Bianca. What I’ve just told you. Facts.”
Shaking, Fontaine turned and walked toward the door of the mill. Before she could open it Bianca had hurried after her.
Eyes filled with tears, Bianca cried, “Fontaine, come back! Forgive me!” And Fontaine faced her again
“Go to him, Bianca,” she said in a low voice. “He’d come here if he thought you’d meet him half way. I feel that in my heart. Work it out together somewhere. Here or there.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. I must think!”
Bianca paced uncertainly, hand to her head.
“The show in Chicago. I must be there for that. The buyers expect it. This is how I live.”
“When is it?”
“Not quite three months. Not so far away.”
Fontaine hugged her and went out.
Fontaine got a list of ship sailings from a Charlottesville travel agent and simply left it on a table at The Mill. To Fontaine’s joy, Bianca announced that she would go to France in September, right after the fall showing in New York. She booked passage on the Cunard liner Mauretania. A month later she cancelled it. She gave no reason, only “It is not the time.” Whether some correspondence, or the lack of it, between The Mill and Paris had caused the cancellation Fontaine didn’t know nor did anyone else. Fontaine clutched her head and crossed her fingers.
In October 1948 Robert had been gone a year, and his new novel was published, a short novel about the French Resistance; a story of bravery and cowardice, faith and betrayal. Its ending was ambiguous, a realistic question mark. Reviews in the U.S. and Great Britain were favorable.
Dr. Wilton had taken out a subscription to the New York Herald Tribune which reprinted Robert’s reportage and mailed it on to Fontaine at Sweetbrier when he and Charlotte had finished with it.
At the end of April 1949, Robert described Josephine Baker’s spectacular return to the Folies-Bergère.
In May, Bianca had far more spectacular news. Shattering news.
Robert Burwell had married a Frenchwoman.
Who abandoned whom? Perhaps it was not a valid question to begin with. In any case no Wilton was prepared to answer it, though certain Marshalls and Burwells had opinions. Bianca was popular, even adored.
Fontaine was beside herself with tangled emotions. Anger at Bianca’s stubbornness and delay, at the end of Robert’s patience, at what didn’t have to be! At the sundering of what had been great and glamorous and creative. At the waste! The loss! At the savage, barbarous Germans and the cruel and cowardly Europeans who had abetted them. Sorrow for both Bianca and Robert, and for herself. Grief.
Looking back more than half a century from that decisive moment in 1947 when Bianca and Robert Burwell went their separate ways in opposite directions, one can quite effortlessly flip forward eight years as though they are cards in a deck; to 1954. Fontaine is 27, a graduate of Sweetbriar, working in Paris for the Free Europe Committee and traveling in France, Germany, Austria, Italy.
Robert Burwell had left Paris; perhaps if he’d found that new salon, it no longer sustained him or at 61 he simply preferred a quieter, warmer life where the dollar and the franc went further, and was living and writing in the south of France, in Provence. Fontaine took a train to visit him. That long weekend Fontaine and Robert’s French wife never achieved real rapport though they both made an effort, or so Fontaine believed. Perhaps the Frenchwoman sensed Fontaine’s underlying sentiment, which Fontaine could not suppress, that she was being compared to someone else and found wanting.
Bianca had bought a Victorian house on Park Street in Charlottes-ville, big enough to be able to install a two-story studio with a skylight. She kept The Mill and country house as a late spring and early autumn retreat, something at least, something rather splendid in fact, that Robert Burwell had left her.
In the summers she traveled to Asia, Africa, Latin America but never back to the Europe which had once driven her out and which Robert Burwell had chosen over life with her in the America she had adopted and which had adopted her.
From a long trip to South Asia in 1950 at the age of 46, she returned still Bianca to everyone, but now also calling herself Mrs. D., the wife of a widower of 60, a retired American professor of Indian languages, art and culture, a New Englander happy to settle further south. Since 1946, Bianca had been an American citizen. Now she could not be more established
Then for 25 years Fontaine lived in the Far East as a news correspondent’s wife, raised two children, came back to America every five years on paid home leave, and exchanged letters once or twice a year with Bianca and Robert, especially to congratulate Robert for the Pulitzer nomination honoring his second World War II novel, though someone else’s book won the actual prize. But she never saw him again. He died in 1972 at the age of 79.
Bianca and her husband visited Fontaine one year. There is a photograph of Bianca standing on the Great Wall of China. She was 56 that year, 61 when Fontaine returned to Charlottesville on home leave, 76 when Fontaine came home for good. And Bianca was still painting every day of her life.
All the others have long been gone. There was really no one left in Burwellville to visit. But at The Mill, yes, until 1992, the year Bianca, turning out canvases to the very end and surrounded as always by friends, calling all of them “Cara” or “Carissima” died at 88.
After that, the country house was sold to a retired couple, but The Mill, no longer an artist’s studio, reverted inevitably to an historic relic that no individual would want to buy. Once again it stands empty and silent, two and a third centuries old, an hour’s drive from where Fontaine and I live now, in Charlottesville, in the year 2002. Before or after our annual holiday fortnight in France it is our custom on a fine fall day to drive down there and picnic in the shade of a brick and pinewood wall, and its elegance, its beauty, as sweet a sight as any riverside mill, ancient stone barn, dovecote or half-timbered house in Burgundy or the Dordogne, always surprises, always catches the heart.