June had been sitting in the comfortable chair behind the big desk in front of the long rows of books in Harry Mueller’s office for two long days that had been among the most educational of her entire life. She had read through literally hundreds of letters, memos and reports — possibly thousands, she had lost count — over the course of many hours during which her view of the man she had long thought of as “that old bastard” had changed almost totally.
Rosemary had been entirely correct about Harry, and why after all shouldn’t she be? She had been an active part of what was, in effect, a secret cabal to make Harry Mueller out to be the son of a bitch that June had always thought him to be. Why they had done it was still not entirely clear to her, but the how and the who, when, and where were all laid out in the files she was currently immersed in. It was a carefully concealed and closely held effort to manipulate the public image of a very rich man who was also, in fact, extremely and altogether anonymously generous. The whole thing was quite amazing not only in its detail but also in the truly international extent of its scope.
The most amazing aspect of it all was the total separation of the anonymous philanthropies — which in some years consisted of upwards of 25 percent of his very considerable annual income, from his reputation as the anti-philanthropic cheapskate, curmudgeon and misanthrope that much of the world knew. One story that June had been aware of for a very long time that was in fact false, although she now had a completely different slant on it, was the widely circulated rumor that each morning at breakfast, Harry the cad would remind Rosemary that she wasn’t as beautiful as his first wife, Amy, who had died after a heroic battle with cancer two years before he met Rosemary. Rosemary had for many years vehemently denied this story, not only to June but to all of her other close friends, but June had assumed that these were merely the denials of a resolute and faithful wife. In her current research, June had also pieced together at least part of the strange story of Amy’s many infidelities, but there were still many unanswered questions about how she died. June was embarrassed by the realization that she had so wanted to believe the rumors that circulated for awhile; rumors that Harry had had Amy killed. But the secret story of the many philanthropies of Harry and his associates came now as a complete surprise.
The basic dynamics of the scheme were remarkably simple: Harry and his attorney Edward had apparently worked up the original scenario about the time that Amy left and Harry was becoming well known enough in the city that her disappearance began to cause comment and speculation. Not even Edward’s brother and law partner John was brought into it as the two together hatched the original plot. For years after, John approached Harry with a mixture of apprehension and fear. With their many contacts, it became easy for Edward and Harry to start rumors, plant gossip, and once this bizarre image management plan was underway, like a garden of very hardy plants it only took a little regular tending to keep it going. It was surprising how easy it was to get people to believe the worst about someone. Later, a somewhat larger but group, including Harry, Edward Graham, Madeline Klein’s mother Jean, and Rosemary when she entered the picture, conspired for years to manipulate Harry’s public image as a curmudgeonly misanthrope.
“I always felt that we were being quite dishonest with the public, but by the time I met Harry the mythology was already well established.” Rosemary told June the evening after the latter’s first full day of reading had revealed the scale of the conspiracy. “Edward and Harry set it all in motion, and it seemed to be working too well for its intended purpose, whatever that was. It was all really so easy. Most of the time I didn’t think about it at all. It was like we just lived our normal lives behind a screen.”
“But, why?” June asked. “What was the point of such an elaborate charade?”
“Well,” Rosemary said, “Harry was beginning to pile up a lot of money. Gobs of it, in fact. So much that we couldn’t possible spend it all. Harry had always been a very generous person, even as a child, but he was also quite modest and painfully shy and he knew that if people knew how generous he could be, he — or all of us, really — would be besieged with requests and demands for money from all quarters. There would also be an endless round of awards and recognitions; ‘rubber chicken dinners and cheap plaques’ Harry used to call them. Just as important, people would be constantly asking his opinions on things he knew nothing about, and asking him to make speeches and give awards to others. One man we knew used to get more than 200 letters a day from complete strangers asking for money. He had to spend a fortune over the years just to hire an office staff to keep up with answering the mail. And Harry and Edward both realized that if they didn’t answer such requests, people would think ill of him anyway, so this was just sort of what Edward always called ‘preventative maintenance.’ Harry used to say that all the money we didn’t have to spend on answering correspondence should go to better things.”
“I still feel bad that people had to think so poorly of Harry in order for this to work. That’s why I am doing this now. But it never seemed to bother Harry. ‘I know who I am,’ he would say, ‘and all of this doesn’t change that one bit.’”
“And, what, exactly, is ‘this’ that you are doing?” June asked, feeling rather impertinent even as she asked.
“It’s quit simple, really. I’m meeting with Edward and John tomorrow to instruct them to create a foundation in Harry’s name. It will keep on doing publicly what Harry did secretly all these years. It will include a provision providing me with a reasonable income for the rest of my life, of course, but I don’t need much. I forget what they call that. Lifetime something or other. Then, there’ll be a few gifts to friends and family.” She smiled as she said this. “And all of the rest of the money — all of it after I die — is to be spent on worthwhile projects. I am to have final say on all funded projects during my lifetime. John will, of course, try to get control of the whole thing. He’s very public spirited, but also incredibly selfish. He wants people to know he’s a ‘do-gooder’!”
“It’s unfortunate that this will set off exactly the kinds of nasty and intrusive things that Harry’s image kept at bay all these years, including all those request letters that are going to start coming in. But, I can’t stand it any longer.”
Then, after a long pause during which June sat quietly, Rosemary continued, “I want to be completely quit of the business. Justin will get a full partnership and 49% of the preferred stock will be divided among him and the staff. The foundation will retain the remainder.” After a brief dip the day after the announcement of Harry’s death, the stock price had recovered and even grown slightly.
“I’m hoping they can work it so that foundation earnings at least offset the expense of answering all those letters.” This was followed by another long pause, and then: “And that’s the second part of my little plan. Madeline has set up an interview for me on Tuesday with Jason Browning and I’m going to tell him the whole story. I’m hoping it will knock his socks off. Harry always disliked Jason even before he became editor. Used to call him an arrogant little. . . Oh, my, I don’t like to even say it.” Rosemary paused, gathering her thoughts and then continued.
“So, I’ll need the best examples you’ve come up with and lists of projects that Harry made possible over the years. I want to respect Harry’s wish for anonymity as much as possible, so I’d like it if the lists we give Jason would be stated generally with amounts but no names. ‘Two hundred thousand dollars for a scholarship fund at a private liberal arts college; One point three million for a community theater. That sort of thing. Will you do it?”
“I’ll try to have everything pulled together by Monday afternoon,” June replied.
“Oh, and there’s one other thing. I won’t be here on Monday. I have been called for jury duty in Dare County, West Virginia. Edward says it’s just a technicality. Harry owned property out there. Edward says they will almost certainly dismiss me, and I don’t even really have to go, but after that nun came to see me last month, I’ve found out some very strange things — or rather I haven’t found out much, which makes them seem strange.” She paused again. “I know that doesn’t make much sense. I really don’t know what I’m saying, but I just have a feeling I ought to go there and see the area.”
“I’ve been cooped up here ever since Harry died and it will be good to get out. Jerry said he will drive me over and we’ll be back in time for dinner Monday night. We’re leaving about eight in the morning. A long drive will do me good, and give me a chance to think about my interview with Jason on Tuesday as well.”
June could see that Rosemary had clearly spent a lot of time thinking about this and seemed to have everything worked out in her own mind so there was nothing further to say.
“Well, I think I’ll go work on those lists for you” she said as she got up to leave the room.