Our of the Old World of India forty years ago came a young, courageous, and handsome man in whose face shone the light of triumph over self. He came to the New World of America uninvited, unheralded, unknown ….
How Vivekananda proceeded serenely on his hazardous pilgrimage — though more than once lacking food and change of raiment; how he was admitted as a delegate at the final session of the Congress of Religions; how he electrified the assemblage with the simplicity and beauty of his message: how on the following morning the metropolitan press of three continents exhausted their powers in proclaiming his spiritual stature among the great teachers of the world — all of this is still remembered by generations now living.
My personal story of Vivekananda — hitherto unpublished — seems to stand alone. When I met him he was twenty-seven years old.* I thought him as handsome as a god of classic sculpture. He was dark of skin. of course, and had large eyes which gave one the impression of “midnight blue”. He seemed larger than most of his race. who often to us appear slight of frame, because they are small-boned. He had a head heaped with short black curls. At our first meeting I was struck by the emphasis of our colour contrast. I was twenty-four, fair, tall. and slender, with golden hair and grey-blue eyes. Probably there could have been no greater contrast.
Our meeting was rather unusual. After his triumph at Chicago he was, of course, showered with invitations to come to New York, where the great of all the world are entertained. Here lived at that time a very famous physician. Dr. Egbert Guernsey, genial, literary, and ideally hospitable, with a spacious and very handsome house on Fifth Avenue at Forty-fourth Street. It was Dr. Guernsey’s pleasure, heartily endorsed by his charming wife and daughter, to introduce celebrated visitors from abroad to New York society. It was to be expected that he would pay special honour to the great Swami, whose ideal of closer relations between the East and the West in the interest of religion and world peace so strongly appealed to him.
Dr. Guernsey accordingly arranged to give a Sunday afternoon dinner party at which every guest should represent a different religious creed, he himself holding the view-point of Robert Ingersoll, who was absent from the city. His Grace the Cardinal was interested but declined to dine or to appoint a substitute from among his clergy. So it happened that I, being a Catholic and trained by the noted Jesuit Priest, William O’Brien Pardow, S.J., had the privilege of being a guest at that famous Sunday dinner. Dr. Guernsey, who was my physician, sent for me to uphold Catholicism. Dr. Parkhurst was there, and Minnie Maddern Fiske, the famous American actress, who was staying with the Guernseys at the time. I remember that there were fourteen at table.
There was, of course, a tacit understanding that everyone should he polite about his or her religious differences with the Swami and his so-called non-Christian (“Pagan” is a hard word!) attitude. Alas! as the dinner progressed, the most heated dispute was not with the Swami at all. All of the differences were confined to the Evangelical brethren!
I was seated beside the Swami. We looked on in amused silence at the almost comical intolerance of the Creeds. Now and again our host would adroitly make some wise or humorous remark that kept the conversation on a plane not actually injurious to the function of digestion. The Swami would make from time to time a little speech apparently in explanation of his native land and the customs of its people, so different from our own, but always to gain his point in philosophy and religion. A more broad-minded and tolerant man surely could not have been found anywhere in India to carry out the mission of founding Vedanta Centres in America.
He wore on that occasion his orange cassock, a tincture of deep rose-red silk, and his turban of white shot with threads of gold. His feet, otherwise bare, were covered by sandals of soft brown leather.
It was at this dinner that our friendship began. Afterwards. in the drawing-room, he said to me, “Miss Gibbons, your philosophy and mine are one; and the heart of our faiths is the same.”
I then lived with my mother at the Beresford Apartments at 1 East Eighty-first Street, overlooking Central Park. My mother was Southern, of the royal French blood, from Charleston, South Carolina, and a famous beauty, dark of eyes and hair. She was a witty woman and delighted in the social pleasures centering about the Church of England, to which, she maintained, all the aristocratic world belonged. Thus the Swami and I were outside the fold. I told my mother of him on my return home from Dr. Guernsey’s dinner party, and what a splendid mind he had. I dwelt on the great force which had come to us. To which she replied. “What a terrible dinner party, with all those Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, and one black Pagan in orange cloths!” But she grew to like Vivekananda, to respect his view-point, and afterwards joined one of the Vedanta Centres. She was awfully amusing to him, and I can sec him now, after all these years, laughing so gaily at her remarks about him.
On one occasion there was an all-star cast in “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera, on a Monday night when all society appeared to sit in their boxes and show their anatomy covered with jewels: to gossip, to visit, to come in late and be observed of all observers, and to do everything but listen to the opera. There was Melba in her prime, and de Reszkes, and Bauermeister. The Swami had never been to the opera, and our subscription seats were in a conspicuous part of the orchestra. I had suggested that the Swami be invited to accompany us. Mama said to him, “But you are black. What will the world say?” To which he laughed and said. “I will sit beside my sister. She does not mind. I know.” He never looked more handsome. Everyone about us was so wrapped up in him that I am sure they did not listen to the opera at all that night.
I tried to explain the story of “Faust” to Vivekananda. Mama, hearing me. said, “Heavens! you, a young girl, should not tell this awful story to a man,”
“Then why do you make her come herself, if it is not good?” said the Swami.
“Well,” replied Mama, “it is the thing to do to go to the opera. All the plots are bad; but one need not discussthe plot.”
Alas for poor, vapid humanity and its foolishness! Later on during the performance the Swami said, “My sister, the gentleman who is making love to the beautiful lady in song, is he really in love with her?”
“Oh, yes, Swami.”
“But he has wronged her, and makes her sad.”
“Yes,” I said humbly.
“Oh, now I see,” said the Swami. “He is not in love with the handsome lady, he is in love with the handsome gentleman in red with the tail — what do you call him? — the Devil.” Thus that pure mind reasoned out, weighed and found wanting both, the opera and the audience.
One of society’s pets, a very young girl, came down between the acts to Mama and said, “Mama is consumed with curiosity lo know who the elegant man is in the yellow dressing gown.”
Ours was a great friendship, and I fancy the only one that remains unpublished to the world. It was purely of the spirit, absolutely apart from the material loves and hates. He spoke always of when and what and where our souls would be ultimately, where in that other realm. He never spoke of me to anyone, nor mentioned my name. It was a friendship of Spirit. It still is. He taught me much of the philosophy he preached and wrote about, how to meditate, and what a power it would he against the hurts of life; what force of purpose it would attain for the preservation of the body, for logical thought, for self-control, for ecstasy, for the attraction of others; its power tor good, its knowing how to read others and their needs; not to dull the edge of your sword, to be moderate in one’s consumption of food, to know what one’s own body needs to make it live well; of chastity, tolerance, purity of thought, and love for the world — not of one person but of everyone and of all created things.
And now, forty years later, he has released me from the long silence and has demanded and commanded certain things he wishes done….
How liberal he was, how understanding of others’ points of view! He went to Mass with me at St. Leo’s Church, the little one on Twenty-eighth Street, where all was beauty, and the old priest, Father Ducey, such an artist. There he knelt at high noon at the canon of the Mass. A ray of light falling from the stained-glass window — blue, red, and gold — lit his white turban and outlined his beautiful profile against the marble walls. A great, gorgeous spot of living fire his orange robe made on the marble pavement, and the dear face was rapt in prayer. As the bell rang at the consecration and all heads were bowed in adoration of the presence of Christ on the altar, his hand touched mine, and he whispered, “It is the same God and Lord we both worship.”
(Prabuddha Bharata, January 1934)