From our Classic Archives, originally published September/October 2003 issue
Stationed at San Francisco’s Presidio in 1918, Captain William Clarke had just returned from the WWI fighting front. A tall young man with a natural command of his surroundings, he had joined the army while still underage, although this was not a problem for someone who had run away to sea at the even younger age of 12, learning his math while on ship’s watch from the crow’s nest. Now 24, with strong blue eyes and brown hair, this was a man who understood the world and his presence in it.
Clarke and other Presidio officers were expected to attend a cotillion that evening at the Fairmont Hotel, to which members of San Francisco society were also invited.
The evening breeze was cool after the fog lifted its finger-like touch and stars had appeared. This was a beautiful city at night, with hills of dotted lights rising from the water-dark background of the bay. It should only follow that the memorable events of the evening would match the crisp clarity of the climate itself, and this was duly the case.
At this juncture of her life in 1918, young Miss Genevieve Cox was engaged to a San Francisco surgeon. The couple had selected a lovely home overlooking San Francisco Bay. The wedding was well-planned for the daughter of a family whose comings and goings were noted in the local society pages. As a toddler, Genevieve had been bounced on the knee of Jimmy Fair, the man whose wealth had built the Fairmont Hotel. Genevieve was a beauty by all accounts, with a voice noted by a newspaper columnist as having that quality of soprano which might be called palpable, for no other term quite suffices to describe the sensation one receives as of a caress by soft, magnetic fingers which send delicious thrills scurrying over the human topography. Miss Cox was invited to, and expected to attend, the Fairmont cotillion. She would be attending without her fiancé.
Members of society were accustomed to organized outings in opulent surroundings. But for young army officers, as one well knows with these types of affairs, efforts are occasionally made to bypass the event itself in favor of a night on the town, with the caveat that the expected appearance at the event be long enough in duration to satisfy the powers that be, in this case, the commanding officer and the society dowagers.
Captain Clarke and his friend, Don Sheridan “Sherry” to all but the most formal audience, had concocted a plan. Executing this plan, the two young officers arrived at the Fairmont Hotel, greeted the commanding officer with a crisp salute, and then proceeded into the lobby, where they would wait until such a time as a surreptitious exit might be made. The Fairmont Hotel lobby was an impressive space, with alabaster columns towering to a second-storey-high ceiling, the figures of hotel guests appearing as mere footnotes to this backdrop of grandness.
Clarke and Sherry chatted quietly about their plans for the rest of the evening. They stood just to the side of the reception doorway leading into the cotillion.
Moments like the one to follow have been recorded throughout time. And yet who is to say when the recognition of love occurs? That spark of understanding that comes when he first sees her beauty, takes in her elegant presence, follows her graceful walk, when he remembers all of who he is as a man. And when she notices him, his commanding strength, her gaze brought to his face without conscious intention, and everything about him speaks to her as a woman. The gaze of eyes whose souls have met before.
Miss Genevieve Cox glided through the lobby toward the reception doorway and the two officers standing there. Without taking his eyes off her, Clarke said to Sherry, “There is the woman I am going to marry.”
The two officers did not leave the Fairmont Hotel that night. No bohemian evening on-the-town was had. They attended the cotillion. Clarke asked to be introduced to Miss Cox, and upon introduction, asked her if he might be allowed to whisper sweet nothings in her ear, to which she responded that he would have to dance with her first. And so he danced, no doubt also using the opportunity to engage in the whispering of sweet nothings. By the end of the evening, a proposal had been made. A hasty telegram was prepared by Miss Cox’s mother to her husband, Charles, who was overseeing a lumber operation in Truckee, stating: “Lovey, come home. Things have changed.”
The diamond ring that Captain William Clarke bestowed upon Miss Genevieve Cox in 1918 to celebrate their love had six mine-cut diamonds in an oval Art Nouveau setting, with 32 smaller diamonds surrounding the oval. Worn continuously now for 85 years, it currently graces the hand of their granddaughter, the author of this recounting. And although those who lived the love may now be gone, their cherished family memory lives on, with crystal clarity, in the ring, and now with you.
–Anne Wilson Mehaffey