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April 15, 2024

The Man Who Invented Polka Dots

By Jonathan D. Scott

April 17, 1894

Eleanor and I checked into the Hôtel Merveilleuxe in Paris this afternoon. When the clerk noticed my name on the guest register, he threw his arms into the air so vigorously the postiche covering his bald pate nearly loosened from its mooring. "Sacrebleu!" he exclaimed. "Ees it really vous?"

I assured him that I, indeed, was myself. He began exclaiming, "Le petit pois! Le petit pois!" This burst of enthusiasm attracted the attention not only of the proletariat behind the counter, but of the bourgeoisie nibbling Camembert le Rustique and sipping Pessac-Léognan in le Grande Foyer.

A silver-haired woman who couldn't have been more than five feet tall grabbed my sleeve. "Dear Monsieur," she squeaked, "I met you when we were in New York last automne. Do you remember?"

"I could never forget such a lovely lady," I said with a gallant bow. Disingenuousness has become de rigeur for us galant celebrities. "It is wonderful to see you again, Madame."

"Did you hear that, Pierre?" she said to her husband, who was cupping his hand to his ear to catch our conversation. "I told you we were friends."

"Oui!" the deaf buzzard replied. "I know we are in France!"

The crowd did not allow us to continue this entrancing repartee, as an apparently unending river of bereted Frenchmen flooded in, begging for my autograph on whatever scrap of paper, cloth, or crêpe they could find.

So much for our hope of escaping the limelight on the Continent.

May 25, 1894

We crossed the Channel incognito yesterday, I in the guise of a bespectacled Mandarin laundryman and Eleanor a pregnant Scandinavian wet nurse. After disembarking, we took the train to Paddington Station and where I was struck by the sight of what appeared to be a royal retinue. "Ah so, Svetna," I called to Eleanor, speaking through my false buckteeth. "It appears as if some of the alistocracy are travering by lail."

We tried to skirt the crowd, hoping to catch a lorry to our hotel, when who should emerge from the throng but Albert, Prince of Wales. I recognized him at once from his likeness on the tinned tobacco. "Hoy!" he cried. "Thought you could use the old bespectacled Mandarin laundryman wheeze to give us the slip, old bean?"

"Your Royal Highness," I said, lowering slightly on one knee, "I should have known that no mere fancy dress could fool a true Englishman. You have me by rights."

"Mum wanted to tag along," he said, by way of reference to Her Royal Highness, "but she's sitting on the head of the Prime Minister over some sort of trouble in the Falklands. But no matter. Look here, there's something that I must show you."

And with that, he took me by the arm and carried me across the station to the public loo. Waving away his entourage of dukes, marquises, barts, and M.B.E.s, he pushed me through the small door marked GENTLEMEN. I was quite taken aback when he slipped off the Royal Belt and dropped the Royal Trousers. "What do you think?" he asked, doubtlessly pleased with himself beyond Punch.

"Quite fetching, my dear Prince," I stammered, for the Royal Silk Drawers displayed a stunning gold on blue pattern. One of my very best, I thought, and I told him so.

"I knew it had to be. They were a gift from the little woman," he said. "Got it last Guy Fawkes Day. Had a matching tie, but I spilled roly-poly pudding on it." He cast me a sympathetic glance. "Quite sorry, old chap. Couldn't be avoided."

I was about to assure him these things happen when the door swung open and a stringy fellow in a visor brandishing a notepad thrust himself into the cubicle. "Meeks," he said by way of a hoarse cockney introduction. "The Times. Could we getyer to pose fer a pictyer, Yer 'Ighness?"

Before Prince Albert could answer, in strode, in this order, a three-legged wooden stand, a black hooded contraption the size of a small potting shed, and what was indubitably the photographer, a gaunt midget with an overgrowth of side-whiskers. "Make yerselves comf'able, blokes," he said, brandishing a flash disk the size of gladiator's shield. "Won't take more than five or ten."

By this morning, my likeness was on the front page.

June 24, 1894

How sweet the smell of good old American air! We've spent the past five days aboard the Pride of Columbia, I as a paraplegic Portuguese toreador, Eleanor as a fair-haired Ethiopian soothsayer. I literally leapt from my wheelchair upon descending the plank and kissed the very soil of the land of the free. To ease the astonishment of my fellow passengers, I attributed the apparent miracle to the primitive but efficacious magic of my dark-skinned traveling companion.

We were met at the door of the apartment by Mrs. Apple. What a red, white, and blue Yankee Doodle daughter! Born of sturdy New Jersey stock, she is ever faithful in her service to her employers, whether they be traveling in some exotic land or within arm's reach, pestering her to accommodate their most picayune American desires.

"Howdee, Boss," she said, greeting me with a crushing handshake at the threshold. "Sure got a haystack of mail while you were gallivantin' around the world." True to her word, she produced a pitchfork and began nicking away at pile of envelopes the size of a generous haystack. All of them opened, I noticed.

"Bless you, Mrs. Apple," I said while Eleanor went off to the powder room to remove five days worth of boot black from her face. "Once again you've proved the faithful family retainer. What does my public have to say?"

"Mostly the usual, Boss." I didn't need to inquire further. Indecent proposals from women of all ages, solicitations to endorse ineffective products, politicians vying to be seen with me to salvage flagging careers. It was all quite touching.

"But here are a couple you might want to take a gander at," she said, handing me an elegant embossed robin's egg blue envelope and a tattered, barely legible scrap, apparently hand folded from used packing material. I pulled out the former.

"Bully, bully!" I exclaimed. "Tell Eleanor not to unpack. We've been invited to the Vanderbilts' along the Hudson for a soirée. Vandy says plenty of other swells will be there whooping it up."

The other envelope bore a foreign postmark. "Whatcher think?" asked Mrs. Apple.

"Nothing to be concerned about," I reassured her after giving it the once-over. "This sort of crank claim happens invariably to an inventor." The missive was from a man in Slovenia who claimed to have preceded my famous invention by twelve years. "Improvable assertions abound. Any Tom, Dick, or Ljubljana can say they invented the steamboat, but only Fulton brought it to fruition. That's why we have patent offices. Dismiss any concern from your mind, Mrs. Apple. As soon as Eleanor is a Caucasian once more, we shall depart for upstate."

June 28, 1894

What a day this has been! After a rousing game of polo with Vanderbilt and an afternoon jaunt grouse hunting with Rockefeller, Eleanor and I sipped pleasant beverages with the complement of the company on the veranda. We were enjoying the magnificent vista and the warmth of the evening when Alexander Bell and Tom Edison clustered 'round, eager to press me for advice. "In my book, old man," said Bell, strapping an arm around my shoulder, "you're nothing shy of an inspired genius."

"I believe," Edison interrupted, "that inspiration is only one percent genius."

I couldn't help but notice the tiny beads of sweat on his broad forehead. "The other ninety-nine percent must then be perspiration," I said.

The entire crowd laughed heartily, but I noticed Edison jotting down my remark on his cocktail napkin.

Then the letter arrived.

It was brought to me on a gold salver by one of Vanderbilt's footservants. In a large brown envelope was a telegram that had been forwarded by Mrs. Apple. Reading it, I began to totter.

"Are you quite all right?" asked Edison.

"Fine, fine," I lied. "Please excuse me, dear friends. I must depart your company and douse my temples with rose water." I made my way to an inconspicuous corner behind a thirty-foot Bianco Trani Ionic column and wept like an infant.

August 4, 1894

It has been over three weeks since the news surfaced that the daughter of the Slovenian had registered his invention with patent offices in Austria, Prussia, Spain, the United Kingdom, as well as several East European principalities with unpronounceable names. Documents have been produced that not only prove that his invention predated mine by a dozen years, but also suggest I filched his design from a menu in a Croatian beanery on 43rd street.

A week ago Monday I took a cab downtown to see my boyhood chum and personal attorney, Fitzhugh McPatrick, hoping to bring legal action against those parties attempting to besmirch my good name. He looked me up and down and tugged at his beard. "Faith and begorrah!" he muttered, the potato in his mouth muffling his brogue. "I've stack of lawsuits agin ye as tall as the Blarney Stone. Copyright violations from sixteen countries. Attemptin' to fraud the US patent office. Crossin' state lines with an equivocal fabric pattern. I have only two pieces of advice for ye, laddie. First, is to settle 'em all out of court. Second is to find yerself a new lawyer. I quit!"

Tuesday my trusted business associate, Hymie Rabinowitz of Rabinowitz, Rabinowitz, Rabinowitz, and Lipshutz Clothiers, dropped by unexpectedly while I was in the midst of my mid-morning bath. "You shlemiel!" he shouted, entering the bathroom and yanking the drain plug. "You've botched the whole shmeer! Your contract is a shmatteh!" He told me that, under the circumstances, he and his brothers had chosen to go with solids and stripes only for their fall line. Monies owed to me, including all royalties and residuals, would be diverted to compensate them for losses and retooling expenses.

Wednesday we received word from our realtor that our offers for the house in the Hamptons, the seaside resort in Florida, and the investment property in Atlantic City had been rejected due to my "insufficient resources and scurrilous reputation."

Thursday our landlord informed us that our lease on our Upper East Side apartment had been suddenly and irrevocably terminated. Eleanor and I were required to evacuate the premises by the end of the month. We were spared the inconvenience of having to move our furniture by a group of burly Armenians, hired by my banker brother-in-law to help offset our debits by seizing our personal property.

When the final tabulations were made on Friday, our liabilities exceeded our assets by fourteen dollars and seventeen cents. Even the sandwich that had been given my name by a famous Philadelphia delicatessen was changed to simply "the hamburger."

Thanks to the generosity of the ever-faithful Mrs. Apple, we are now sharing a third-floor tenement in Hoboken with her sickly aunt and fourteen obese cousins. Eleanor, the dear soul, has taken work with a Catholic orphanage, inspecting heads of indigent children for lice. I awaken every morning to a day of cleansing pigeon droppings from the sidewalks of Hoboken.

Hope, however, springs eternal. Yesterday while in the park I stopped to observe a pair of octogenarians playing a game of chess. Staring at the board, I began to envision a new kind of design -- based on the red and black playing board, but utilizing white and red alternating squares. I can see it now gracing tablecloths in Italian restaurants. I have already begun to work on some preliminary sketches. I think I may call it "paisley."

-- Jonathan Scott

Article © Jonathan D. Scott. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-04-25
Image(s) © Jonathan D. Scott. All rights reserved.
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