from A Union Like Ours
The morning of September 24, 1924, each man made his way through the tough, industrial precincts of Manhattan’s West Side to Pier 55 on the Hudson River, at the foot of West 15th Street. Cheney would have arrived in New York a day or two earlier from the KD house and stayed with his sister Ellen Lambert and her husband, Alex,on the East Side. Cheney frequently stayed with the Lamberts when he was exhibiting his paintings in New York. Matthiessen had come to Manhattan a few weeks earlier himself and was in good spirits, because he had served as best man in the wedding of his Skull and Bones brother Louis Hyde, who married Penelope Overton on September 9. It’s possible that Matthiessen even specifically booked passage aboard the Paris to accommodate his friend’s wedding. The Paris set sail at ten o’clock in the morning, as the Woolworth Building—the tallest skyscraper in the world—disappeared into the overcast sky. Had either Matthiessen or Cheney flipped through that day’s New York Times, he would have been greeted by advertisements heralding the opening of Saks Fifth Avenue.
The Paris was the three-year-old flagship of the French fleet with room for roughly two thousand passengers and abundant touches of luxe—such as square windows in the first-class cabins instead of portholes—of which the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique was capable. Aboard the Paris that trip, Matthiessen and Cheney traveled with an elite crowd including the writer Ring Lardner; tennis player René Lacoste; and railroad heir and horseman Reginald C. Vanderbilt, Gloria Vanderbilt’s father. Matthiessen probably spotted Cheney at meals in the first-class dining room; everyone always noticed Cheney with his hazel eyes and dark hair. The two men also may have already been acquainted through Yale or Skull and Bones. But now, they “fell into easy intimacy,” as Matthiessen talked freely about his family and religion. And Cheney showed the younger man his most treasured possession: a small leather case containing a photograph of his mother.
On the fourth day of the voyage, Matthiessen decided to speak more candidly about sex. Presumably, Matthiessen felt a spark of attraction to Cheney, and their shared Skull and Bones membership made it easier to reveal such confidences. Matthiessen brought up Havelock Ellis, whose writing on homosexuality he had read the previous spring, but then backed away. Later, after an evening of stargazing on deck, Matthiessen brought Cheney into his cabin to give him a good-night snack of a pear. Then he summoned all of his courage and jumped in: “I know it won’t make any difference to our friendship, but there’s one thing I’ve got to tell you,” he said by way of awkward preface. Referring to his days at the Hackley School, Matthiessen declared: “I was sexually inverted. Of course, I’ve controlled it since.”
Matthiessen described the miraculous moment that followed: “The munching of the pear died away. There was perhaps half a minute of the most heavily freighted silence I have ever felt. Then in a faraway voice I had never heard came the answer: ‘My God, feller, you’ve turned me upside down. I’m that way too.’”
Matthiessen and Cheney sat for several minutes in stunned silence: They were no longer alone. Each man had found another—someone whom he viewed as an equal and a peer. Until then, both Matthiessen and Cheney had largely cordoned off their lives with friendships on one side and chance, clandestine sexual encounters on the other side. But that night aboard the Paris in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a different world in which love and sex could come together suddenly blossomed. This moment of emotional communion, however, did not lead to sex. Instead, Matthiessen and Cheney stayed up until four o’clock in the morning, talking about their respective sexual histories and experiences, as each man had done as part of his induction into Skull and Bones. When Cheney said good-night before returning to his own cabin, he affectionately tousled Matthiessen’s hair and thanked him for his courage in speaking so candidly.
The remainder of the voyage passed quickly, as Cheney and Matthiessen talked and talked. On the last night, they rested on the couch in Cheney’s cabin, with Cheney’s head in Matthiessen’s lap. Later, they changed positions, with both men simply lying next to the other, fully dressed. Their shoulders and knees occasionally touched. Words ebbed, as each man savored the presence of the other. And then Cheney turned and kissed Matthiessen squarely on the lips, and Matthiessen ran his fingers through Cheney’s wondrously thick hair. In a more contemporary era, this might have been prelude to sex. But not for Matthiessen and Cheney. As Matthiessen later wrote about the experience: “That was all. The next morning we shook hands and I got off the boat at Plymouth. I knew I had a new, unbelievably rich friendship.”He and Cheney made plans to meet in Italy over Matthiessen’s Christmas holiday and pledged to write often.