Oh to go back and be here.
The dean’s office at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts on a winter Saturday afternoon in 1928.
Tea and lots of it. All the caffeine in the world to stay up late. Old dorm dresses and overcoats over one’s evening dress and the Valentine’s Day Dance at Amherst College in two hours.
Another lecture but what can one do. An orchestra brought in from Boston and only a game of hearts otherwise. Not as fun as whoever Winifred’s cousin says is big in New York but almost.
No. Bad to tell lies Father says but needed. Impossible. Princeton last winter and all the boys to oneself but nothing now but New England and snow. Boys but all having to be shared. Shared in Greenwich Village, too, but so many more interesting ones to choose from. None here but dull ones to smoke in snowdrifts with though even that makes the dean mad.
But the dean looking tired and getting less cranky as she smells her dinner from down the hall. Almost freedom.
Out in the hall and flying back up for one’s evening coat as the woman goes through the last door towards her sitting room. A bribe to the maid and a little something extra in her beef stew to make her sleep.
Back one will be at three in the morning but no one to complain or here. Perhaps even a last turkey trot around the foyer and a kiss against the door before he leaves.
Maybe yes or maybe no. Depends on what he looks like. A cute one the last time who could Charleston but another this time perhaps.
But a new frock from Bonwit Teller in Manhattan and satin shoes to dazzle them all out. No one else as chic not even in Boston. With any luck a jazz club someplace better soon.
In memory of my grandmother Helen Mulford Washburn Harden who was eventually expelled by the dean of Smith College for smoking in snowbanks with Amherst boys and no doubt for drinking one hip flask of bootleg gin too many. Going back to Greenwich Village she attended what became F.I.T. and was fashion editor of McCalls in the 1920’s when it was the leading fashion magazine. Smith just wasn’t her kind of school.
Oh to go back and be here.
1925. Maiden voyage of the newest liner on the New York to Southampton run.
First class vestibule in those magic hours after shuffleboard on the back deck and a few chapters read over tea on a deck chair starboard by the ladies’ lounge after luncheon. Cocktails and then dinner but first a meandering through to see and be seen.
Gay chatter with the couples in the corner and then again with another group under the skylight with its pearly light above. Waves up to a friend on the first balcony up and then another on the second.
A European prince and a rush to his side. Very rich and out to find an American girl. New York, no doubt. They swarm there in season.
But perhaps here or at any rate, fun to try. Better a Princess of anything no matter how small than a plain Mrs.
But a chance. France and that boring young man Uncle William found. Three chateaux and who knows what else.
But not like anyone here. No. Gentlemen all in white tie from the best tailors anyone can find. The French not so much.
Their wine such a bore. No hip flasks filled with gin to take to the races either.
Uncle having tried to make Cousin Eustacia marry another one last year. No beaver coat, she had said. Funny. Every Princeton boy with one but none over there. Almost no one fit to Charleston with and not one with a bootlegger romantic or otherwise in the bunch.
Maybe yes or maybe no. Mother’s mind up and all those tiaras they say, a different one every New Year’s Eve for the rest of one’s life.
But a new green Vionnet cocktail frock and a pair of the highest heels in all of New York. Free till Paris and a flirtation for now at least.
Oh to go back and be here.
August 1923 and Saturday evening at the biggest hotel ballroom in Atlantic City. Jazz orchestra starting its first number just beyond the potted palms. A roof garden above for those with two left feet to hear every note.
A terrace just beyond with palms scattered around and never-ending gin as the beach sings its siren song just past the boardwalk.
Special trains laid on from New York City, Wilmington, and Philadelphia. Atlantic City the most wonderful place to be if you were young in all the world. Enough young people to fill a train every twenty minutes from just about anywhere if only their elders did not have to take up all those seats to get to big meetings at the stock exchange.
A charleston or two and then a turkey trot. A girl to kiss and a boy to chat with over a cigarette that looks to have a foot-long holder.
A feather sticking straight up from the headdress of all the tangoing girls like the ones in a picture book, the same color and only a wee bit longer than the fringe on the hems of their dancing frocks. The feathers long enough to scrape the floor with every dip.
Supper and then another dance. The wail of the saxophone meandering through the salt air into the wee hours till almost dawn.
This is dedicated to my grandfather, Charles Walker Perry, whose birthday was yesterday. During one of his University of Pennsylvania summers, he slogged away in an Atlantic City insurance agency owned by one of his father’s friends. He learned a lot but never forgot the dreariness of working all day while he listened to what must have felt like everyone else his age wandering up and down the boardwalk having a splendid time. We can only hope that he got to dance the night away with a pretty girl at least once.
Image: Ballroom. Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, Atlantic City, New Jersey. A historic resort hotel. Built in 1902-1906 and demolished in October of 1978. Image via historic-structures.com.