Her first reaction was stunned disbelief. It was too awful to accept. This must be some fantasy of the press -- reporters were fascinated by Bill and the other men of high adventure, but in their hunger for sensational stories, they were always getting things wrong. It had to be one of those false bulletins. Surely, over the course of the afternoon, that would become clear.
So she waited, as the winter darkness descended and lamps inside the apartment were snapped on. But hours later a telegram from Secretary of State Cordell Hull made it official. The love of her life was gone.
The devastation of that loss would consume her for weeks, and haunt her always. "Do you have that tremendous necessity of needing one person," Ruth Harkness would ask a friend in the bruised aftermath of Bill's death, "some person who understands you and trusts you completely in everything you do and you are -- and ever can or will be? Someone with whom you can let down all barriers? All pretense of any kind and still be liked or loved? . . . That is what Bill meant to me and in return I gave him what he needed."
Through their ten years together, few understood the singular nature of their bond. To the outside world, Ruth and Bill were opposites. But they were also as perfect a fit.
Both had arrived in Manhattan in their early twenties. It was the Jazz Age, when under the cover of darkness, whites began slipping into Harlem for the music. People spoke openly of birth control, and women were enticed by the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes to "blow some my way." Josephine Baker had her own nightclub in Paris. Films turned talkie. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. D. H. Lawrence imagined a scandalous dalliance in Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Margaret Mead was discussing sex among young Samoans. It was the birth of Time magazine, The New Yorker, and the Milky Way bar. For young party-minded Manhattanites during Prohibition, speakeasies were all the rage. It was no surprise, then, that the worlds of two hell-raisers would eventually collide.
Handsome, short, and slender, with slicked-back straw-colored hair and light blue eyes, William Harvest Harkness, Jr., was born to privilege. The sound of his name alone declared it. He was not a member of the famous Standard Oil Harknesses. But Bill had graduated from Harvard, class of 1924; he was a rich boy whose name showed up in the society pages, the son of a successful New York City attorney, and the scion of a wealthy New York family, as the press described him. The Harknesses were powerfully connected and accustomed to doors being opened for them.
But those points alone certainly would not have been enough to attract Ruth. Bill Harkness also had grit, and smarts, and a wry take on the world. Never arrogant, he was nonetheless sure of himself, and unconcerned with proving anything to others. His singular nature defied easy definition. As one friend pointed out, Bill had "inherited the wiry toughness of his Scotch-Irish ancestry along with a lot of mysticism, anomalously mixed with hard-headed Yankee shrewdness."
Both bookish and athletic, cynical and sensitive, Bill Harkness was a man of appealing contradictions. His complicatedness was something that Ruth would love.