Robert’s ’55 Bentley: A love story

 

 

IN 1954, ROBERT SHAW made it big when his album Christmas Hymns and Carols went gold. “Gold” meant it sold at least a million copies—it was the first classical record to ever do so—and this was about 10 years into Robert’s solo career as a conductor. Robert had grown up poor, and although he’d enjoyed early success on the radio with the Robert Shaw Chorale, Arturo Toscanini, and the NBC Symphony, it wasn’t ‘til that gold record the he felt he’d truly hit the big time.

 

At 38, Robert sold his Buick and marched in to Inskip Motors on Park Avenue to order himself a 1955 Bentley: a gorgeous, drop-head, two-tone, all-aluminum body by Park Ward, left-hand drive convertible. With only 13 of them made that year, it cost six times what the poshest ’55 Caddy did. The Bentley order books list some other customers for the car: Gianni Agnelli, Cary Grant, and the Aga Khan. The garage? Robert bought an eight-bedroom house on Nantucket that’s now owned by Tommy Hilfiger, for about twice what he paid for his Bentley.

 

In December 1973 Robert marries my mother, Caroline. She was an Atlanta girl, 20 years his junior, who’d been educated in Europe, and their fiery courtship began when both of them were married to other people. Life with Robert was an exciting whirlwind: jet planes, trips to Europe, and concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and medieval cathedrals. Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, and Bobby Short came for lunch at our Atlanta house, where Robert’s Bentley would be parked in our driveway.

 

I learned to drive in that car, sitting on Robert’s lap, starting at age five. He was an incredible taskmaster—the hands-held-at-10-and-2, no-slouching, car-is-not-a-toy kind of school. One drives a car; one doesn’t merely point it. The brakes were sketchy, and the steering from the huge wheel wasn’t power. The convertible top was leather, its inner lining dove-gray cashmere, and its dashboard gleaming-burl walnut. The horn was something that might have been heard on the ocean instead of the street, and the turn indicator was timed to turn off after only 15 seconds, instead of when the turn was completed, leaving us to constantly restart it. There was no air conditioning or radio but—my, oh my—nothing made a statement like the arrival of that car. In a sea of the banal beige Vista Cruisers of the day, it was impossible not to admire Robert’s silver and black Bentley.

 

Thirty-six Grammy’s and too many gold records to mention later, the Bentley was still in our driveway. As Jaguars, BMW’s, Rolls-Royces, and the very first Mustang came and went, Robert still cherished the Bentley, his earliest trophy. But age is cruel, and times change. The Bentley fell into disrepair. When Robert’s 75th birthday came around—the banner year he won both the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts—Caroline hatched a perfect plan: she’d send the car back to Rolls-Royce in Leeds, England, where it was made, and have it restored. Just like new.

 

It was an incredible feat to be able to give Robert a present that he actually liked, and after a humongous hue and cry of the gift’s extravagance and his undeservingness, he sheepishly accepted. We knew he was thrilled when he giddily reminded us the car was 38 years old, the same age he’d been when he bought it. Plans were made and the Bentley was dispatched; the promise of the car’s golden return gave Robert, whom The New York Times coined “The Grand Old Man of Classical Music,” another youth to look forward to.

 

Three and a half years, four trips to check in on it, and a zillion dollars later, the car was back: with 80 coats of paint, new leather, new chrome—new everything—it was a frame-off, stem-to-stem restoration. I couldn’t believe how fantastic it was even though I’d made two trips across the pond myself to see it in process.

 

The years the car had been gone were hard ones. Robert’s beloved Caroline was diagnosed with cancer and died, leaving Robert shocked and devastated. He reluctantly went to the front door to watch his car being delivered—its pristine beauty a harsh reminder of late Caroline’s birthday wish for him—and banished it. “No more Bentley, Alex. It’s yours. I never want to see it again.”

 

I was 24. I drove it around for a few months, maybe a year, and loved it—but, truth be told, it just wasn’t for this world: no valet parking, no popping about for errands…hardly an inconspicuous ride. It was a museum car now, a showpiece, a ceremony. When the key broke in the ignition and the entire car had to be re-keyed by a couture locksmith in the middle of the night, I made the decision to sell.

 

Robert died four years later on the same day that Caroline had. For those years, he was nearly inconsolable, listless, unable to truly enjoy anything ever again. He conducted, a bit, and studied his scores—his only solace—but mostly he just missed Caroline. Before he died, I asked his permission to sell the Bentley. He looked up from his reading glasses, plaintively, and replied: “You have my blessing. It’s yours. Just please don’t ever mention that car to me again.”

 

The author’s mother, Caroline, and stepfather Robert, in the Bentley on their wedding day, 1973; the 1991 Kennedy Center Honorees at the White House (from left: Robert Shaw, Betty Comden, Barbara Bush, Adolph Green, George H. W. Bush, Harold Nicholas, Gregory Peck, and Roy Acuff).

 

- Alex Hitz

 

 

 

 

 

 

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