NEW YORK — Earlier this month, when our friends Lenore and Robert invited us to visit them in Naples, Florida, where they recently acquired a new apartment, I decided to accept their offer. Naples is where Yukio Mishima (1925-70) spent a few days during his first visit to this country in January 1952, and I wanted to see the place.
Japan then was still under the American Occupation and any Japanese going overseas had to have the Supreme Commander’s signature. But once the permit was given, the arrangements made by the U.S. government seem to have been generous and diverse. Those made for Mishima even included a visit with Julius Fleischmann in his seaside villa in Naples.
Julius Fleischmann Jr. was the head of “an empire” built on yeast during the prewar decades and one of America’s wealthiest men at the time. So, his ready agreement to give his time to a young man from a defeated nation, however impressive his rising fame in his own country, is surprising enough. Even more surprising, he met his guest in Miami airport himself and drove him 195 km across the peninsula.
Fleischmann’s wealth left Mishima agape. One day he took the young man out fishing on “a luxurious boat that could accommodate 10 guests overnight.” He had three such boats. One moonlit night Mishima took a walk on the beach, what appeared to be an endless stretch of white sand. It was all Fleischmann’s personal property. Another day he was taken to a botanical garden, and it was also Fleischmann’s.
One of Fleischmann’s maids at the villa showed him her wardrobe. In variety and size, it could easily be an upper-class woman’s in Japan! At one point, obviously unable to contain himself, Mishima blurted out: Um, Mr. Fleischmann, how many cars do you have? Fleischmann thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know, son. I never counted them.”
So my burning question as we arrived at Fort Myers airport in the evening and our taxi drove on the dark highway toward Naples was whether the Fleischmann estate still existed. Our driver was not a chatty type, but he told us that he had moved out of Illinois a quarter century ago to Florida, was familiar with the area, including Pawleys Island, in South Carolina — where we used to vacation — and, yes, knew the winter houses of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, north of Naples. But the name Fleischmann, which I mentioned as we entered Naples, did not ring a bell.
That was a slight disappointment, but quite understandable. When Mishima came to the United States for the second time, in 1957, the Rockefellers were still at the apex of American wealth. But the reshuffling of the ranks of the super-wealthy in America since then, especially since the 1980s, has been nothing short of amazing, as is well known.
In fact, when I brought up the subject with Lenore and Robert as we ensconced ourselves in their spacious, airy apartment — compared with the expensive one they have in New York, that is — I was told the two hadn’t heard of Fleischmann in Naples, either. Instead, they told us that among the wealthy who maintain residences in Naples these days are Saudis and Germans, not just the American well-to-do. So the landscape of the wealthy in the city has changed, too.
This was obvious when I took a walk in the sparkling morning light the next day. Bay Forest, where our friends have their apartment, is a gated community that is extraordinarily well coifed, spacious, full of colorful plants and clean. I did not learn the demographics of the compound, but all the people I met during my morning excursion were middle-aged, just like me — but unlike me, apparently well-to-do. In addition to apartment buildings, Bay Forest contains attractive houses. The class of people the residents of this place represent probably did not exist when Julius Fleischmann maintained his villa here.
Later we took a walk on a sturdy boardwalk, which, through wild growths of plants, leads you to a bay. During my morning walk the next two days, I stood on the bridge at the end of the boardwalk, which terminates with a gazebo on the water, and watched a hoary warshiplike brown pelican fly in from time to time, suddenly catch himself in the air to plunge in the water, look stunned and, after a while, turn up his beak to gobble the fish he caught in his pouch. Lenore told us that many such communities in Naples are required to leave substantial portions of their development untouched.
Bay Forest — shall I dare mention this — also has a secret pond. A patch of water where dead trees and such are left uncleared by accident or design, it has a congregation of waterfowl of many kinds. There, for the first time, I saw a wood ibis and a small flock of Florida gallinules. For that matter, during my walk on the second day I saw, for the first time, a pileated woodpecker close to the top of a pine tree, right next to the building where our friends live. That’s the largest woodpecker surviving today.
As Fleischmann drove Mishima through the Everglades — an area he evidently explained as “all bird sanctuaries” — the young author was entranced by “the avian ecology that ceaselessly gladdened my heart”: herons, ducks, and an occasional flock of sandhill cranes. “A heron flying low with its wing spread is extremely beautiful,” he wrote. I can’t agree with him more. A great white heron, a great blue heron, or an American egret in unflappable flight can certainly be dreamlike.
The day Fleischmann took Mishima offshore fishing, Mishima was the only guest. So the large boat had only four aboard: Fleischmann, Mishima, an old skipper and his young assistant. It was the first time Mishima had fished, in Japan or anywhere, and he, with the help of the skipper’s assistant, caught five kingfish — “ferocious, silvery, giant animals” — and a sea robin. At the cocktail party afterward, Fleischmann did not forget to extol him for his “exploits.” That, of course, prompted an attending lady to teach Mishima “a valuable English expression”: “beginner’s luck.”
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