'57 portrait of a society Philadelphian

The Philadelphian
By Richard Powell

Plexus. 323 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Frank Wilson

Inquirer Books Editor

Richard Powell's novel The Philadelphian has suffered a peculiarly Philadelphian fate: undeserved obscurity.

Consider a parallel example: Not many people nowadays remember N.W. Ayer & Son, America's first advertising agency, founded in 1869, and coiner of such immortal slogans as "When it rains it pours," "I'd walk a mile for a Camel," and "A diamond is forever." But they probably would if the agency's city of origin had been someplace besides Philadelphia.

Richard Powell, a seventh-generation Philadelphian who died in 1999 at the age of 91, was a vice president of N.W. Ayer. He was also a seasoned author of about 10 mystery novels by the time he got around to writing the book he had been thinking about for a quarter-century.

When first published in 1957, The Philadelphian spent several months on the best-seller list. Two years later it was made into the film The Young Philadelphians. The movie starred Paul Newman, but the Academy Award nomination went to a young actor named Robert Vaughan - who has contributed a brief foreword to this 50th anniversary edition of Powell's book.

The Philadelphian is an unusual novel. Carefully plotted and economical to the point of parsimony, it boasts no panoramic sweep, plumbs no very great depths. It keeps, as it were, a discreet - if ironic - distance, and precisely by so doing manages to encapsulate a good bit of the essence of what it means to be the sort of Philadelphian Anthony Judson Lawrence, the title character, becomes.

Which is to say not your ordinary Philadelphian. Not Ed Rendell, or John Street, or Frank Rizzo. Not your standard Iggles fan. The Eagles get no mention in these pages. Neither do the Phillies, for that matter. Nor the A's.

Football here means Ivy League football. And the college that matters is Princeton, not Penn. An incident that occurs on a trip Anthony takes as a child with his mother and grandmother to Washington - "where they had moved the national government after Philadelphia had started it going properly" - puts it all in focus for him. A woman comes up to them outside the Capitol and says, " 'Hello, folks. I'm from Ohio. I see by your license plate you folks are from Pennsylvania.' "

Young Anthony immediately sets the poor benighted dear straight: " 'Oh no, we're from Philadelphia.' " He knows perfectly well, of course, that "Philadelphia was in Pennsylvania, but you weren't from Pennsylvania. He guessed maybe out in Ohio there were no important places to be from, so you had to be from Ohio."

We meet Anthony Judson Lawrence in the very brief opening chapter, as he comes downstairs from the bedroom of his Main Line home on his way to his library, "with the pulse of blood hammering inside his skull like a rivet gun." We meet him again 105 pages later. In between, we meet his great-grandmother, Margaret O'Donnell, who came over from Ireland in 1857; Margaret's daughter Mary, and Mary's daughter Kate.

Margaret lands a job as a maid in the home of one of the city's first families, the Claytons, and proceeds to seduce the family scion. The Claytons do right by her, though, providing her with $2,000 to start a dress shop.

Margaret's daughter Mary steals Harry Judson, Latin master at Franklin Academy, from snooty and shallow Clarissa Gomery, and the Judsons' daughter Kate marries one William DeWitt Lawrence, another scion of another prominent clan. This marriage crashes and burns on takeoff. The groom storms out of their suite at the Bellevue Stratford and kills himself in a car crash. The scorned bride takes off and finds Mike Callahan, the up-and-coming Irishman she really ought to have married, and, well - the result is Anthony Judson Lawrence.

Anthony never knows that he is illegitimate, nor who his real father is, nor that Logan Clayton, the senior partner of his law firm, is his relative.

After a safe and successful tour of duty in World War II's Pacific theater, Anthony becomes a tax lawyer (having already discovered that "learning to become a lawyer was much like learning how to become a Philadelphian"). But he does a little pro bono criminal work, too. And that's how he comes to defend Chet Gwynne, classic black sheep, against a charge of murdering his uncle. This proves a dicey assignment. Gwynne's relatives are very connected to Tony's most lucrative client. They explain to him, ever so politely, that they want justice to be served, of course. But they would also like the family spared any unnecessary scandal. In other words, if necessary, let Chet fry.

All those years writing mysteries seems to have given Powell a skill for narrative that's as smooth as a ride in a luxury limo. In spots, The Philadelphian sounds a little dated, but Powell clearly wanted it that way, because that way it would sound so much more . . . Philadelphian.

For what The Philadelphian is really about is Philadelphia society, which "had a pattern of its own. . . . You needed more than money or power to win acceptance in Philadelphia. And if you enjoyed the neon glare of gossip columns you had better stay out of Philadelphia, which preferred candlelight."

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/frankwilson. Visit his blog at http://booksinq.blogspot.com/.