The Choice

Given the nation’s economic crisis, Dodd’s invitation was not one to be accepted frivolously. Martha and Bill were lucky to have jobs—Martha’s as assistant literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, Bill’s as a teacher of history and a scholar in training—though thus far Bill had pursued his career in a lackluster manner that dismayed and worried his father. In a series of letters to his wife in April 1933, Dodd poured out his worries about Bill. “William is a fine teacher, but he dreads hard work of all kinds.” He was too distractible, Dodd wrote, especially if an automobile was anywhere near. “It would never do for us to have a car in Chicago if we wish to help him forward his studies,” Dodd wrote. “The existence of a car with wheels is too great a temptation.”

Martha had fared much better in her work, to Dodd’s delight, but he worried about the tumult in her personal life. Though he loved both his children deeply, Martha was his great pride. (Her very first word, according to family papers, was “Daddy.”) She was five feet three inches tall, blonde, with blue eyes and a large smile. She had a romantic imagination and a flirtatious manner, and these had inflamed the passions of many men, both young and not so young.

In April 1930, when she was only twenty-one years old, she became engaged to an English professor at Ohio State University named Royall Henderson Snow. By June the engagement had been canceled. She had a brief affair with a novelist, W. L. River, whose Death of a Young Man had been published several years earlier. He called her Motsie and pledged himself to her in letters composed of stupendously long run-on sentences, in one case seventy-four lines of single-spaced typewriting. At the time this passed for experimental prose. “I want nothing from life except you,” he wrote. “I want to be with you forever, to work and write for you, to live wherever you want to live, to love nothing, nobody but you, to love you with the passion of earth but also with the above earthly elements of more eternal, spiritual love.…”

He did not, however, get his wish. Martha fell in love with a different man, a Chicagoan named James Burnham, who wrote of “kisses soft, light like a petal brushing.” They became engaged. Martha seemed ready this time to go through with it, until one evening every assumption she had made as to her impending marriage became upended. Her parents had invited a number of guests to a gathering at the family house on Blackstone Avenue, among them George Bassett Roberts, a veteran of the Great War and now vice president of a bank in New York City. His friends called him simply Bassett. He lived in Larchmont, a suburb north of the city, with his parents. He was tall, full lipped, and handsome. An admiring newspaper columnist, writing about his promotion, observed, “His face is smooth-shaven. His voice is soft. His speech inclined to slowness.… There is nothing about him to suggest the old-fashioned hard-shell banker or the dry-as-dust statistician.”

At first, as he stood among the other guests, Martha did not think him terribly compelling, but later in the evening she came across him standing apart and alone. She was “stricken,” she wrote. “It was pain and sweetness like an arrow in flight, as I saw you anew and away from the rest, in the hallway of our home. This sounds perfectly ridiculous, but truly it was like that, the only time I knew love at first sight.”

Bassett was similarly moved, and they launched a long-distance romance full of energy and passion. In a letter on September 19, 1931, he wrote, “What fun it was in the swimming pool that afternoon, and how cute you were with me after I had taken my bathing suit off!” And a few lines later, “Ye gods, what a woman, what a woman!” As Martha put it, he “deflowered” her. He called her “honey-bunch” and “honeybuncha mia.”

But he confounded her. He did not behave in the manner she had grown to expect from men. “Never before or since have I loved and been loved so much and not had proposals of marriage within a short time!” she wrote to him years later. “So I was deeply wounded and I think there was wormwood embittering my tree of love!” She was the first to want marriage, but he was uncertain. She maneuvered. She maintained her engagement to Burnham, which of course made Bassett jealous. “Either you love me, or you don’t love me,” he wrote from Larchmont, “and if you do, and are in your senses, you cannot marry another.”

At length they wore each other down and did marry, in March 1932, but it was a measure of their lingering uncertainty that they resolved to keep the marriage a secret even from their friends. “I desperately loved and tried to ‘get’ you for a long time, but afterwards, maybe with the exhaustion of the effort, the love itself became exhausted,” Martha wrote. And then, the day after their wedding, Bassett made a fatal mistake. It was bad enough that he had to leave for New York and his job at the bank, but worse was his failure that day to send her flowers—a “trivial” error, as she later assessed it, but emblematic of something deeper. Soon afterward Bassett traveled to Geneva to attend an international conference on gold, and in so doing committed another such error, failing to call her before his departure to “show some nervousness about our marriage and impending geographical separation.”

They spent the first year of their marriage apart, with periodic come-togethers in New York and Chicago, but this physical separation amplified the pressures on their relationship. She acknowledged later that she should have gone to live with him in New York and turned the Geneva trip into a honeymoon, as Bassett had suggested. But even then Bassett had seemed uncertain. In one telephone call he wondered aloud whether their marriage might have been a mistake. “That was IT for me,” Martha wrote. By then she had begun “flirting”—her word—with other men and had begun an affair with Carl Sandburg, a longtime friend of her parents whom she had known since she was fifteen years old. He sent her drafts of poems on tiny, odd-shaped slips of thin paper and two locks of his blond hair, tied with black coat-button thread. In one note he proclaimed, “I love you past telling I love you with Shenandoah shouts and dim blue rain whispers.” Martha dropped just enough hints to torment Bassett. As she told him later, “I was busy healing my wounds and hurting you with Sandburg and others.”

All these forces coalesced one day on the lawn of the Dodd house on Blackstone Avenue. “Do you know really why our marriage didn’t turn out?” she wrote. “Because I was too immature and young, even at 23, to want to leave my family! My heart broke when my father said to me, while fussing with something on our front lawn, shortly after you married me, ‘So my dear little girl wants to leave her old father.’ ”

And now, in the midst of all this personal turmoil, her father came to her with an invitation to join him in Berlin, and suddenly she confronted a choice: Bassett and the bank and ultimately, inevitably, a house in Larchmont, kids, a lawn—or her father and Berlin and who knew what?

Her father’s invitation was irresistible. She told Bassett later, “I had to choose between him and ‘adventure,’ and you. I couldn’t help making the choice I did.”

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