I have often thought that I enjoy the perfect employer. For two years I have taught math and computer science at Merritt Country Day School in Palm Beach, Florida—a small, private institution for academically talented students. The headmaster, Charles Long, could be called the ultimate personification of charisma. As a prospective female parent said, “I don’t know if this school will work for my son, but the interview I had with the headmaster was one of the best hours of my life.” Conceptually, he could portray an ethereal vision of John Harvard in a dedicated teacher’s dream. Practically, he has given me both full reign over rigorous curriculum and total support for high standards. So, I was stunned when Charlotte Merritt, young, beautiful, second, and current wife of the founder and board chairman of the school, warned, “Molly, don’t trust Charles. Some day he will betray you.”
I had heard the story of how Charles had betrayed Charlotte during the summer. In fact, the bizarre tale was the buzz at most establishments frequented by South Ocean Boulevard residents. She was away visiting family when her husband, handsomely gray and richly green Parke Merritt, dined one night with Charles Long—something the two men had done frequently for the past several years. Parke apparently felt that treating Charles to fine food, in a man-to-man situation, was a more subtle way to wield influence than making demands in Charles’s office. Because Charles lacked cooking concepts but relished gourmet fare and because Mrs. Long’s best creation would lose in a contest to a sandwich of orange, plastic-wrapped sliced cheese with iceberg lettuce and yellow mustard on packaged white bread, Parke thought he had the right approach. Still, the private settings purported by many Worth Avenue bistros were more image than substance, making the Merritt-Long tête-à-têtes commonly known.
Conversation at that fateful dinner, rather than focusing on academics, revolved around a particular annoyance of private school education—fundraising. And the more difficult the prospects became, the more alcohol Parke Merritt consumed. The evening, however, was not the typical board-chairman-has-too-much-wine-and-complains-about-his-volunteering type of event. No, the situation was much worse and considerably more dramatic. The nightcap occurred at the Merritt Trump Tower penthouse where Charles had to haul Parke home. After reaching into Parke’s pocket for the keys and opening the impressive door, Charles used all his strength to drag his boss into the bedroom and onto the bed. There, Mr. Merritt passed out.
Relieved of Parke’s weight, Charles noticed the extreme clutter. He proceeded to the kitchen for water but stopped, eyes popping, when he saw a similar state of disarray throughout the apartment. Numerous household items, a wide range of clothes, and goods still possessing the original tickets abounded, covering furniture, floors, and shelves—stacked over, under, and around. Drunk Mr. Merritt could not protect his dear wife from embarrassment. Needing to sleep off his state, he was unaware of Charles’s detailed inspection of Charlotte’s belongings.
The misfortune was compounded because Charles did not keep this horrific evening a secret. In fact, I later learned, he had told almost everyone he saw over the summer. I had been teaching at Johns Hopkins University in its gifted education program—Center for Talented Youth—as well as visiting my sister Grace in D.C. When I returned to school for some preliminary work, Charles recounted the story to me with considerable zest.
“Ticketed dresses were strewn across the sofa in size four. Similar dresses lay over a chair in size eight. And again in size twelve on a table,” Charles described.
“Well, at least she bought multiples of four and not two,” I offered.
“The apartment was a mammoth mess, and you are making math jokes, Molly,” Charles protested.
“I’m sorry,” I stated quietly, reflecting that Charles represented Charlotte not merely as one who engaged in excessive shopping. More significantly and tragically, Charles’s words suggested a spoiled, manic woman. Yet, this depiction was definitely not the stylish, dynamic, intelligent, sensitive Charlotte Merritt I knew. Was the discrepancy an example of a man misunderstanding a woman or an intruder misrepresenting a scene?
“And one apartment wall was covered with framed photographs of the three of them—Charlotte, Parke, and Stephanie. Pictures in front of their building. Pictures at the pool. Pictures on Wor