The Harper’s digital archive is a small and unsung national treasure, at least as far as I’m concerned; I’ve spent countless hours sifting through old issues, scanning for early work from familiar names and tracking down forgotten gems from authors whose bylines have largely faded. One such writer is Margot Hentoff, whose short story “Where Do the Detectives Eat?” (paywalled PDF, February, 1968) caught me completely off-guard when I downloaded it on a whim. The writing is strikingly contemporary: its cynical humor, thematic threads, and first-person, present-tense prose style all feel fresh.
“Where Do the Detectives Eat?” is deceptive in its brevity; in only three pages, it contains sharp observations about the pains and rejections of motherhood, the disappointments of friendship and marriage, and aging’s small shocks. (“This morning, Sally, my friend of longest standing, called to tell me she had taken a lover. Twenty years old, she said… But I can see Sally at twenty, and tonight I am appalled that we age in our own skins.”)
The story opens with a gesture toward Hollywood glamour and romance, then swiftly delivers a jab to the chest:
A long time ago, when I was very young, Elizabeth Taylor and I got married – each for the first time and in the same summer. We traveled in Europe that July; she with Nicky Hilton, I with my then husband, both of us visiting essentially the same places, she usually leaving an area some days before I arrived. I knew where she was because the European press kept following her, and I read the stories with an interest born of identification. What the papers didn’t tell me was how she felt about being married, so I never knew what Elizabeth Taylor did; but all that summer, I cried and cried and cried.
I wept in Paris cafés, in English bookshops, and in Swiss trains going over the mountaintops. But most of all, I wept on my twentieth birthday in a room in the Golf Hotel in St. Jean-de-Luz. I sat, that day, at a window overlooking the Bay of Biscay and beyond that, the Pyrenees. The sky was blue, the trees green. There were flowering bushes in the gardens, and striped tents on the beach below. The more I looked, the lovelier it became, and the lovelier it was, the more I cried, knowing that not only was all Europe my jail, but that New York, where we lived, was not going to be any better because I was married now, and I was twenty years old, and everything had passed me by.