A Frank Conversation with Emma Cross
(Previously posted at Fresh Fiction)
1. How would you describe your family or your childhood?
It’s complicated! My father is an artist, so years before people like the Vanderbilts and the Astors made Newport their summer enclave, my parents were very much a part of city’s intelligentsia set. They frequently entertained artists, writers and poets at our modest home on the Point, ensuring that I was surrounded by ideas and creativity as I grew up. For that, I’m grateful. But . . . I always felt, even at a young age, that I didn’t have my parents’ full attention, that I was competing with an exciting part of their lives that I witnessed, but never quite shared in. But to balance that, I had Nanny, my nurse/governess, who became a surrogate grandmother to me. It was usually Nanny who bandaged my scraped knees, dried my tears, listened to my childish secrets, and did her best to assure me I was very much at the center of someone’s world. I don’t blame my parents. They are who they are and we’ve since come to terms. I also had my half-brother, Brady, who taught me how to have adventures, even if they entailed occasionally being a little sneaky, along with a tightly-knit, harborside neighborhood where everyone knew each other and fiercely looked out for one another. And then there was Great Aunt Sadie, my mentor and inspiration, an independent spirit who remained single by choice, and who not only bequeathed to me the means to make the same choices she had, but showed me, by example, that I had the strength to be as self-reliant as I wished to be. So, all in all, I’d say I had a pretty wonderful childhood and family life.
2. What was your greatest talent?
My greatest talent is the ability to empathize with others and feel compassion for them, no matter the painful choices they’ve had to make. This is especially true when it comes to my fellow women. Not all of us have a Nanny or Aunt Sadie to show us the way, and many of my sisters find themselves lost in a world that can be exceptionally cruel. Aunt Sadie’s front door was always open to a woman in need, and I’ve continued her legacy. I ask few questions and make few demands—only that whoever enters my home be honest with herself and remains open to her own potential. The rest usually falls into place after that.
3. Significant other?
There have been two significant men in my life, Detective Jesse Whyte and New England newspaper heir Derrick Andrews. Jesse is the choice that makes sense. We have similar backgrounds, have known each other forever, and have very much the same values and outlook on life. Derrick, on the other hand, hails from a wholly different world, and many would say I wasn’t good enough for him—including his parents. One man offers comfort, stability, easy companionship; the other, passion, excitement, challenge. If you’ve read Murder at Beacon Rock or Murder at The Elms, you know who I chose.
4. Biggest challenge in relationships?
Ah, this would be my hesitation to compromise the independence I’ve worked so hard to establish. It has been a sticking point with me, leading me to bury my feelings out of fear a relationship will mean losing a vital part of myself. That typically happens when a woman of my time enters into marriage. Her needs and desires take a back seat to her husband’s, while her possessions and her very identity become his. This is something I could never tolerate, even if it meant never marrying and having a family of my own.
5. Where do you live?
Beautiful Newport, RI.
6. Do you have any enemies?
Generally, no, except when I’m following the trail of a killer. Then that individual becomes my enemy, not only because he or she would like to do away with my meddling self, but because this person has destroyed the harmony of life in Newport and put the people I care about at risk, and that’s something I cannot forgive.
7. How do you feel about the place where you are now? Is there something you are particularly attached to, or particularly repelled by, in this place?
I love where I live. I’m a Newporter born and raised, and although I spent a year in New York hoping to further my career, I discovered the tides and eddies of island life are part of me, while the bedrock and craggy landscapes are where I find my strength. Newport has played a fundamental role in our country’s history from its earliest days, and that history forms the framework of my very identity, just as it does the identities of every other Newporter. Whether I’m strolling the narrow lanes of my childhood neighborhood on the harbor, the wind and sea-swept terrain of Ocean Avenue, the gilded elegance of Bellevue Avenue, or even the rough and tumble wharves, I feel equally at home.
8. Do you have children, pets, both, or neither?
I have a dog, a scruffy spaniel mix who needed a home. Found wandering along the docks by my brother Brady, when Patch came to us he was all awkward limbs, too-large feet, and a tail he couldn’t control, with a tendency to knock over anything in his path, but also with an eagerness to love and be loved. He’s proved an astute judge of character as well as a sleuth in his own right. It didn’t take long for him to become part of the family, and I can’t imagine my home without him.
9. What do you do for a living?
I’m a reporter -- Newport’s only “lady news reporter.” True, I began as a society columnist detailing the parties, balls, picnics, sporting events of the Four Hundred. But I’d chafed at being relegated to topics deemed suitable for a woman. I longed to dig deeper and report on stories that mattered. But in gathering the particulars about who became engaged to whom, who wore the most glittering gems at the Astors’ ball, and which cottage held the most outlandish garden party of the season, I became privy to closely-guarded secrets, thinly-veiled resentments, and the kinds of double-dealing that sometimes led to murder. More and more, I found myself in the middle of an investigation, and because I happen to be a distant Vanderbilt cousin, people would speak to me that wouldn’t speak with the police, and I could go places where a detective would not be welcome. In short, I discovered in myself a talent for sleuthing and deduction which made me better suited to being a news reporter than a society columnist. When a unique opportunity came to do just that, I seized it and never looked back.
10. Greatest disappointment?
My greatest disappointment came a few years ago when I headed to New York to work for James Gordon Bennett at the New York Herald. I went believing he had offered me a job as a hard news reporter, but it turned out all he really wanted from me were my connections to society. I spent a year in the city, staying with my Vanderbilt relatives, Cornelius and Alice, in their spectacular mansion which took up an entire block between 57th and 58th Streets along 5th Avenue. While living in the greatest of luxury might sound enviable, I felt trapped and curtailed by my well-meaning relatives, as well as vastly disappointed that my new position was merely a glorified version of the one I’d held in Newport. Not to mention I missed my home with an ache that went bone deep. I realized no career would ever be worth leaving the place I loved so dearly.
11. Greatest source of joy?
My family, of course. Bear in mind my family is a makeshift one, rather than one bound by blood ties. Even Brady is my half-brother, the two of us having the same mother. Then there’s Nanny, of course, who lives with me and, despite her advancing age, still takes good care of me. Katie is our maid-of-all work. She originally came from Ireland, leaving her own family behind and sending money to them whenever she can. Katie worked as a maid for my relatives at The Breakers, and through no fault of her own found herself in the family way and cast out. Like others before her, she was drawn to Gull Manor, my home, because of its legacy, and has remained with us ever since, much more a sister to me than a servant.
12. What do you do to entertain yourself or have fun?
Have I mentioned that I’m a news reporter? What could be more fun than that? Or more fulfilling?
13. What is your greatest personal failing, in your view?
I wish I could have been more help when my cousin Cornelius IV, who we call Neily, had a falling out with his parents. They objected to the woman he wished to marry, and as a result they disinherited and disowned him. The strain caused my Uncle Cornelius to suffer the first of several fits of apoplexy, which led to his death a couple of years later. At the time, I sympathized with Neily but hadn’t wanted to actively take sides. Perhaps if I had intervened, I might have been able to help smooth things over, and Uncle Cornelius might still be alive.
14. What keeps you awake at night?
Thoughts of the inequalities that exist in my world. I believe in working hard and earning what one has, but far too often the very people whose hard work makes untold riches possible for a few struggle to feed their families and keep a roof over their head. As if they exist solely for the financial benefit of people like my relatives, the Vanderbilts, and for no other reason. When I see the opulence of the homes owned by families like the Astors, Morgans, and Berwinds, veritable palaces, compared to the squalor of the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for example, I wonder how on earth this came to be and what, if anything, can be done about it.
15. What is the most pressing problem you have at the moment?
In Murder at The Elms, my most pressing concern is discovering the truth of a young woman’s death. Having gone to the newly opened house to cover a looming servants’ strike, I met Ines, a chambermaid from Portugal, who didn’t wish to follow the other servants in their defiance of their employers, the Berwinds. You see, despite The Elms having the nicest servants’ quarters and working conditions of any other house in Newport, the staff is never granted free time. They work long hours seven days a week. When the strike happens, every servant except Ines is fired. A week later, Ines lay dead, her body found in the coal delivery tunnel beneath the house. At the same time, a priceless necklace owned by one of the Berwinds’ houseguests goes missing. Was Ines a hapless victim of an enraged fellow servant, or part of a larger scheme involving international jewel theft? With Ines a low priority for the police due to her background, it’s up to me to make sure justice is served in her name. And I WILL make sure of it, you can bet your best hat on that!