As mentioned in issue sixteen, the next few editions of this “Portraits” section of Orangeandmagenta.com will be devoted to some excerpts from the interviews I conducted over the years talking to people around the country about their lives in the not-too-distant past. Taken together, these snippets form themselves into an eclectic scrapbook of what today seems like an American version of Downton Abbey. Indeed it is a world which might inspire daydreams—an insulated world before gluten-free diets and ubiquitous tattoos and one where the word “escort” did not mean either a car or a prostitute.
Now it’s a few ladies who look back at our last century. These women—gone now—were all spoken to well past their eightieth birthdays.
“It took us so long to get anywhere. Let’s start there,” began Nini Tobin Martin, a vivacious and personable California grande dame (and sometime chanteuse) who loved to talk. Born in 1914, she was reminiscing about travel.
“From San Francisco you went on the Overland Limited, which was the train that went to Chicago. It took four days. And then you had your car put onto the Twentieth Century Limited to go to New York. That took another day. Then, in New York, we’d stay a couple of days at the Ritz. (I remember my mother saying, ‘Now don’t order asparagus. It costs $9. Eat all the asparagus you want before you leave home.’)
“When we left New York it took us seven days on the boat. My mother particularly liked Cunard or the White Star Line. It took two weeks to get to Europe and another two weeks to get back. That was a long time, and when you went you took trunks—you didn’t take two suitcases like you do today on a plane. Then, you had to have your clothes for the summer, and you had to have your clothes for the winter and you dressed much more formally all the time. But it was all fun. We had a good time.”
The formidable New Yorker Anna Glen Vietor (whose recollections about her coming out at the Court of St. James were recorded in issue six) had some interesting recollections of travel as well. Born in 1917, she also loved to talk.
“My father decided that it would be nice to go to Egypt. This was in 1935—before most of the Sphinx was cut out. The sand was right up to the bosom in 1935.
“We had to wear white gloves all the time because frightful diseases were said to be around—leprosy was supposedly everywhere—and my family was hideously careful about everything.
“We took a train from Cairo to Jerusalem during a sandstorm and on the cowcatcher part of the engine were people who swept the tracks. These tracks were covered with sand and it all had to be removed so that the train could get through. You can imagine how much time it took!
“These were the days of romantic Arabs—Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman, The Desert Song, ‘The Sheik of Araby,’ etc. etc. I pictured being in Saladin’s tent with all the Arabs looking like some Omar Sharif of the day. Friends who had married into the Arab world were greatly envied.”
Geraldine Grace Benoist, another prominent San Francisco lady I interviewed, was born in 1901. Less chatty than either Mrs. Tobin or Mrs. Vietor, nonetheless she was also clearly enraptured with the Arab world.
“On my first trip abroad, we decided to get off the ship, the White Star Line’s Olympic, and spend some time in Egypt. We went on one of those wonderful Thomas Cook boats that ran up and down the Nile. You would travel by night and then, in the daytime, you went ashore to sightsee. We got as far as Aswan and mother and father went ashore to have dinner with some friends and they went to look at the Temple of Karnak in the moonlight. It was so wonderful that they said, ‘Geraldine has to see this.’ So my dear father got himself a carriage and came all the way back to the ship and got me out of bed to go and see the moonlight and the Temple of Karnak. And I still can see it.”
Typical of older people everywhere, another topic these ladies enjoyed talking about was how things had changed in their lifetime.
A third generation Atlanta native, Marian Hillyer Wolff Young was born in 1907 and in the mid-nineties we chatted about what the role of women had been when she was growing up in the South.
“The moral code was still very rigid,” she began. “There were chaperones at all the dances and house parties. Some of my girlfriends took up smoking, but to my knowledge, none of them drank. The twenties were Prohibition time, but many college boys drank foul-smelling bootleg whiskey. However, only a few ‘wild girls’ would take a sip from a flask, and they were frowned upon.
“And then, of course, every Southern girl in my day, I don’t know whether it was countrywide or not, but every Southern girl just instinctively knew that when you grew up you were supposed to get married and keep house and have children. That was your role in life. You were not ever allowed to marry until your husband-to-be could support you, because when you married you were his responsibility. And your responsibility was to make him happy; your job was just to make a pleasant home for your children and your husband.”
One lady who would have disagreed with this attitude was Philadelphia native Ellen Taussig. Although born into an old-line family, like the Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday, she defied her family’s expectations by becoming a newspaper reporter in what a colleague referred to as “those profane, cigar-smoking, Ben Hecht days when newsrooms were virtually all-male preserves.” Miss Taussig, however, was just as willing to chat about the past as the other ladies and offered an explanation of visiting cards.
“The year I was born, 1906, was during the era of visiting cards. People came to the house,” she recalled, “with visiting cards in cases of leather, silver, or even ivory, like the one my grandmother brought from the Orient. Big cards were for women and smaller, narrower ones were for men.
“These cards were received by the servant on duty—butler, houseman, or maid—on a small silver tray that stood on the hall table. If the lady of the house was at home, the visitor was seated in the living room and the card borne aloft to her. If she was not in, however, the visitor laid a card of her own and one of her daughter’s for each lady in the house on the tray, and her husband’s and sons for each lady and gentleman. Then the visitor departed. There was a limit, however, no matter how large the household. Three was the greatest number ever left of any one card. After the visit was completed, the cards were placed in a large bowl where they lingered with others until one day the mistress of the house came along and said: ‘My, those cards! We must get rid of them!’ and they were thrown out to make room for new ones.”
Miss Taussig did not mourn their demise.
Another independent lady with whom I spoke extensively (and indeed with whom I developed a close friendship) was Jane Rane Perkins, born in 1894. The widow of stage actor Osgood Perkins and mother of Anthony Perkins, the movie star, she had endless fascinating stories about the likes of Isadora Duncan, Lillian Gish, and Jed Harris.
In the 1970s, comfortably sipping iced tea on the shady porch of her son’s cottage in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, I listened to her with fascination. Physically, Jane was reminiscent of Joan Hickson in her role as Miss Marple. Her perfect Wellesley College diction, coiffed white hair, pale blue linen dress, and even the cardigan resting on her shoulders announced loudly and clearly that she was a well-brought-up lady of the old school. Indeed, Jane Perkins exuded propriety. Had they ever met, no doubt even Atlanta’s Marian Young would have taken her for a New England version of her Southern lady template.
But Jane was no template. Authentically sophisticated, she had a way of bridging the generations. That summer afternoon in Wellfleet, she was discussing her correspondence and burgeoning friendship with a young woman, a fan of her son’s. The girl had started writing to her for advice and Jane, ever the understanding grandmother, was happy to offer it.
“But you know, dear,” she said, speaking to me, “it’s very difficult. She means so well but she doesn’t always make the best impression. In her letters every other word is ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ or something like that and you know, those words lose their effectiveness if one uses them too much.”
I nearly dropped my iced tea. Certainly Jane’s use of the words was most effective.
More snippets next time.