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Oct/Nov 2010 Spotlight

Food, Feud, and Country Etiquette

by Julia Braun Kessler


Those were soaring times! As Features Editor for the flourishing Madison Avenue fashion magazine, Seventeen, there were no limits. The "teen" had become a trendy new concept, a glamorous designation meant to introduce a bunch of American kids just growing up into the fashion world, those post-war offspring who'd until then been virtually ignored by the hungry advertising media! They were newly pubescent girls, who, if they'd been seen before this at all, had been thought of only as "awkward-age" adolescents. Now, here they were, and headed for stardom!

Nobody savvy in the magazine industry ever doubted the purpose of the tag: to transform such maturing girls into fashion conscious females. Better still, turn them into a sleek and steady market of clothes-buying women!

Editors understood too that to do that job they needed cover, distractions, diversions! All of this could be accomplished by launching young girls upon the American dream.

Magazine people could really make the difference here. At our sleek fashion emporium, so amply financed and maintained by the now altogether respectable Triangle Publications (that same company, which had distinguished itself until the mid-50's only by ownership of the Philadelphia-backed-gangster Moe Annenberg's The Racing Forum) we magazine people could now prosper. It was easy enough to do since his son Walter had inherited and legitimized that business. His Triangle Publications had already acquired a popular newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, innovated the new TV Guide, as well as devising our own. Seventeen.

We could strut about at our posh Madison Avenue quarters innovating such editorial creations. Nor did it matter that the sample clothes we then launched originated in New York's grubby garment district downtown, in those unruly, peddler-filled streets on lower 7th Avenue. We alone could elevate the tone, change the game plan, provide American youngsters with inspiration for this quest.

By now, every American girl dreamt of her own brilliant future, touted her smashing artistic talents, or her remarkable skills in the laboratory. And why not? Was this not the U.S. of A., where the sky was still the limit? Our magazine had shown how Mary, Sally, or the next door neighbor could rise to success and celebrity.

So, in those years for me, it was gallivanting all over the country like a goddess, searching in every nook or cranny, to uncover such talent and snatch up stories of such budding enterprise. Our young readers ogled and gaped, but bought magazines and clothing!

Top of the world, as the movie gangster used to term it, that's what it felt like. And certainly, I could have gone on merrily in that job for years more. For my husband and me, New York City, in that late post-war flowering of the Metropolis, had become our own again. It was there for us once more, with its taxis at our beckoning, its theater and fine dining all around us. Our City had taken charge of our way of life.

How loathe we were to make a change! Yet, in those days long gone, not only did we marry earlier than today, but life's demands to produce our offspring came upon us far sooner. At least, while we were still in our twenties. Risking fate, some daring women pushed the process off, but with the waning of their thirties, it was over, done and altogether too chancy.

Andrew Marvell phrased it more elegantly for us ages ago when the poet cautioned, "Time's winged chariot is hurrying near." It sure hovered near us with a deafening sound that seemed to repeat, "What About it, girl? Get on with it!"

Even in my revved up persona as Madame Features Editor, I heard that call to reality, saw the need to act, despite every resistance. Nor was this to speak of the reminders coming regularly from parents and in-laws!

So—as always—the only way to go was forward, ever in confidence that we'd "work it out." This, with my as-yet-naive, deluded notion that I could have my children—take my leave—keep my job—and, resume my work when I was ready!

The process of my pregnancy was instantly undertaken. First came the long months of concealing that state from most of my colleagues. Then, necessarily abandoning that altogether, I would broadcast it to those around me. For that purpose, I wore the most elegant pregnancy clothes I'd ever seen before, chic designs made available to me by a generous, post-pregnant fashion-editor friend.

A first reaction from a few of my fellow editors, mostly unmarried as yet, or, already divorced women, together with some already struggling in single-parent-career roles, came as no surprise. With them, my news hardly improved my position in the workplace.

Even so, I managed well enough as usual, fighting my way through contentious battles. I kept doggedly to all my commitments, and when any of these challenged my condition, I delegated those stories to my always eager, ambitious assistant. All this, despite a fuming Managing Editor's rage and persistent demands. (For instance: in my current state, as a pregnant lady editor, I certainly had little intention of accompanying a teen-canoeing party down the Chesapeake River!)

Yet I did survive what began to seem an endless process. And, upon the birth my daughter, even celebrated the occasion with a triumphant champagne party thrown for those same editors and photographers, right inside my private room at an astonishingly fashionable" Manhattan hospital which actually permitted alcohol to be served on the premises!

Moreover, I remained altogether confident in my expectations for picking up at my job again after my short leave, quite determined to return to it! Soon enough, however, came the enlightening! I was to discover that the "sexist" notions so widespread then were not, as purported, exclusive to men! I became cognizant too that I now faced the impatient rage of my formerly supportive lady publisher, who all at once took a far sterner view of my future there.

Called to her office to discuss "the matter," I saw how her demeanor had notably altered. She was curt, businesslike; made her disapproval itself apparent:

"What is the meaning of all this talk of your nursing your child? My dear, no, I will hear nothing more about this! Such distractions will simply not be tolerated among us here! I trust you value your position, and the opportunities I have provided you. You will need make your intentions clear."

With this, her time and patience with me was expired. And she instantly rang for her assistant while gesturing me towards the exit. So was I summarily dismissed.

In a rage by then myself, I never hesitated. I resigned and stomped out! Indeed, so it went in those un-emancipated days: either reconcile yourself to the prevailing views that a woman could not nurse a child while managing at the same time to fulfill her obligations on a job, or leave! Common enough that was too for career woman in the '50s and '60s!

Yet, even today, the tale is worth the telling, given that ours was that recently-founded, much-touted magazine, the only one especially for emerging young women! All alone it championed teenage girls. Moreover, it was one staffed by career women almost exclusively. And were they not the very women actively pursuing those early battles in our long fight for such equality?

 

In effect, and from this late perch, all this has come to seem a mere blip! For there were far greater eye-openers in store, events more outlandish and grotesque to take place very soon after. My husband's own job hunting quest at scores of universities and colleges across the nation introduced its own set of indignities and outrage. Yet, land he—and we—did, safely once again and upon solid ground.

Still, what this meant for us was more dislocation as we set off to yet another setting into uncharted country! Only this time, we, those same, ever-resistant, big city snobs, had hit upon the very hicksville we'd always dreaded.

At this point, however, choice was hardly an option. Given my sudden lack of a salary, New York City no longer sparkled for us as it had until now, and certainly not on my husband's s academic pay check! Along with the arrival of our first child, we need follow our destiny.

So off we headed to the then remote Mohawk Valley, in what we sniffing metropolitans, came to call, "the dead-center of New York State." Clinton, New York, its seat, seemed hardly there at all! It was then a college town whose amenities numbered, a general store, a few gas stations, among other such delights. It seemed to us the kind of town we thought of as a bus stop station, good for ten minutes rest, and as quickly as possible it was on for the next town!

No question that Hamilton College's setting was an historic place, or, that the institution was part of the "Little Ivy League," an "elite" corner of learning founded way back in 1793, and whose initial plans were to educate the native population, among them Indian tribes of the area.

Indeed, named as it was, for one of our more distinguished 18th century statesman, Alexander Hamilton, and among our oldest campuses, it boasted a venerable history. And by the late 1950s, its reputation had become solid enough to be attracting a student body of the nation's potential leadership, exclusively male, which came from the best families among New York society. And ones who had been joined by similar young men from across the nation. Those, that is, who had qualified academically and were able to afford the College's steep tuition.

Its admirable little environment, with its fine old Chapel, its excellently preserved 18th Century structures, landmark buildings and exemplary structures, were evidence of our earliest American strivings for culture. Added to this, all of nature seemed exquisitely cultivated in that vicinity to surround the campus itself, the fields together with woods surrounding them.

The terrain was equally glorified by splendid oak trees dating back far earlier even than the college's founding, each of these tenderly preserved. Thus, our first exposure seem to offer a luxurious sense of opulence to accompany the elegant colors of the autumn season greeting us upon our arrival.

Built upon a hill, its situation overlooked a fine prospect, almost ideal milieu for any institution of learning. And these were promptly displayed for us in the still fine lines of their historic statesman's houses, Elihu Root's for example, who had himself been born in Clinton to a father who taught at the College back in the 19th Century, and who was to become our Secretary of State in the early 20th. Following that came President Ulysses S. Grant's former mansion on the Hill. Each of these grand establishments were still lived in and well-looked after by their distinguished descendants, themselves residents of the area.

And all around us were to be found various other people of consequence, or "squirearchy," as we soon came to refer to them, who gathered comfortably upon the neighboring estates and in the nearby hills. Inevitably, these good, "old family' gentlemen of class were former graduates, who'd preferred to return, buy land to settle in this elite community's society. Indeed, their company was much solicited as well throughout the region.

Alas, we were soon to discover that that about summed up its great virtues! In truth, living up there, while my young husband taught the incoming college boys, with year following year, we watched those seasons come and go and learned just how confined such a life could come to seem!

I well recollect my own introduction to it soon after our arrival, when I was shown about one bright afternoon by a cordial faculty lady who had volunteered her services. She chatted amiably enough as she drove me up College Hill, while pointing to the grandeur of those various old houses of their faculty families. Then, my perplexity grew as she went on to detail their various habits, their eccentricities, their tastes in food, even. To a city girl like me, how surprising that seemed! She not only knew every occupant in each house, but was more than intimate with their everyone's daily habits. And, it was then that she added yet more, and quite casually too!

"Evidently this afternoon, Betsy Nisbet is entertaining Carrie Lindley and Milly Guild. They are taking afternoon tea there."

And her patter continued so, to give the full particulars of each of the hostess's parties and their particular visitors that day, all the way up that long Hill! So it went until she had exhausted our tour.

I was certainly bewildered. How could she know just who was where at each moment? And, might I ask? When I ventured the question itself, the way she might have determined such accurate guest lists for each little celebration, she looked at me openly tickled, and even a touch condescendingly.

"My dear," she chastened, "wouldn't you think I'd know by now which cars they drive? Why, here on the Hill they pass us by every single day. Of course, we take notice."

I was entertained by that revelation, and chuckled along with her at my own lack of savvy. But then, and all too soon, I myself attended these repeated daily movements! A curious sensation to one so accustomed to indifferent strangers, crowded streets, and the virtual invisibility of a stroll down any Manhattan's street!

To suddenly sense that we too were constantly in view, and looked upon, that our movements were attended, even scrutinized along with everyone else's! Scary stuff; another story altogether! But that was just a beginning, since the upshot of such close-in observations often brought forth such whisperers, the tittle-tattlers, together with their busybody judgments of approval or disapproval.

Welcome to the world of small town college life! And together with such enclosed feelings, there arrived the distinct notion that faculty were our intimates now, and perhaps even the surrounding squirearchy, those special people we needed to know in the area! Townsmen, it seemed, went un-regarded. Yet, here we were now and to prosper in this new way of life expected to learn of country manners.

And today's recollections will stubbornly dwell upon those years we spent on College Hill, in those same scenes, and always seemingly beneath its snow-covered mounds. Early mornings, after a kind of stillness, which alerted us from our bedside that snow had covered the Hill, there came the shrieking skids along it. This, combined with an ever-lowering skyline and the darkness of winter days. Sunshine, it seemed, was virtually unseen month after month, hardly evens expected for most of each year.

Certainly, campus life flourished about us, proceeding as ever with schedules, exam periods and then extended breaks, along with those periodic house-parties at the Fraternities. The smoke-filled rooms, amply-stocked with quantities of alcohol, together with the visiting girlfriends imported from the neighboring women's colleges made the Campus hum with young life.

And for chaperones, the enterprising young students chose among the faculty any couple eager to have the weekend to themselves, and away from their own young toddlers. More important still, they sought out those willing to ignore the action around them. With all of the week-end accounted for, including their drinks, their baby-sitter paid for, along with private sleeping quarters within the Fraternity House, the prospect appealed.

Young faculty sought out any such sociability, given how little was available thereabouts. Even the closest movie theater in the vicinity was off in Utica, and it some nine miles away, a town then notably in a state of depression, and providing few cultural opportunities. Moreover, with the frequently snow-logged roads, and fears of a renewed blizzard, there was always the concern about getting home safely after an evening there.

Was it any wonder that the dinner party reigned as most popular of weekly entertainments? Diversion, more or less depended upon such invitations and faculty wives obliged. It seemed to be required of them, almost defined as part of their campus duty.

These evenings were governed by they own etiquette, and were, in truth, something of display of breeding and even refinement. The rules were the usual ones: as one was received at a Faculty house, one need reciprocate with an invitation of one's own within a given period. For the purpose, one assembled a group of six to eight guests to present for them an elegant dinner and fine drinks, while at the same time, bringing out one's best linens, silver and glassware. Yet at the College, since everybody already knew one another, and introductions were seldom in order, the problem became one of making the evening's hospitality congenial as well.

Our own ventures at entertaining came soon enough. Alas, not without some colossal bloopers. Having been entertained early by the Campus' chief officer, we felt obliged to return that favor, adding to our guest list for that evening an elderly member of our own Department, who had charmed us, by being especially friendly in welcoming our entire family, down to our young Standard Poodle, Harry. And this, despite the fact that his own poodle, Jallon, also a male but older, had been much menaced by the invasion upon the small Campus grounds of that vigorous newcomer. To that mix, we added yet another pair of enthusiastic incoming young faculty, likely to enliven the party with their talk.

Embarking with our usual confidence, we were sure the evening would progress and suit our guests and our new situation. Yet, little did we know the hazards of small town life! Almost from their moment of arrival, we saw something amiss. Before long, when we could no longer ignore the curt responses, which were followed by endless-seeming silences between the two senior gentleman at our table! And, deafening they became!

Our own patter, with anecdote following upon anecdote, together with our younger guest's valiant support to allay their own discomfort, conversational innovation seemed to no avail. All this, together with the early departure of our College president, and soon after him, the other gentleman. We knew we'd slipped up somewhere, blundered, goofed!

We didn't learn just exactly how, however, until the next day, when I chanced to go down the Hill into Clinton and run into our Chairman's wife at the general store. And when I expressed my perplexity over our disastrous first evening's hospitality, she responded with a hearty guffaw.

"Oh dear, you poor child," she chuckled, "those two, put together at your table to dine at your house? Why, they haven't spoken to one another in years! Good lord, no!" she continued merrily, "Feuding they are, and have been, some twenty years now. There is no love there, no indeed! And, to tell it true, I can't even recollect just now what their quarrel is all about."

So went our initiation into College sociability. We learned to walk softly, move gingerly, and especially to attend carefully to former tales of woe, those long histories of dispute surrounding us. At least, before stumbling into another such fracas.

Even so, we made our way, there on College Hill. At first I variously idled, strolling about in the outdoors, near home, together with my young daughter, for much of each day, at least, for that short spell while the autumn weather still held. We two soon got acquainted with our country surroundings, and the nearby Root Woods with their enchanting trails. We next sought out the several little farms close by, to stock up on their ample supplies of home-grown fruits and vegetables. We soon discovered too, their locally made apple-cider, and were busily devouring quantities of it daily.

Yet it was Motherhood itself that actually dominated my thoughts in those days. And, since, not much later, I was to become pregnant with my second child, this time with no magazine colleagues ogling me during the course of it, I certainly, spent little concern over college decorum or, its niceties.

Unlike my first pregnancy, I could now let that process overwhelm me with all its hormonal miracles! And quite possibly those, like me, whose youth had seemed solely dedicated to the management of the world outside, are actually the most susceptible to nature's total encirclement! I found myself left breathless in admiration for the wondrous efficiency of our species. whose procedures of birth and development were so perfected, they progressed without any conscious thought or special effort from the carrier herself!

My energies were thus fully engaged head and heart. House-holding took up whatever remained of those energies, days when sleeplessness and fatigue reigned completely over us. Any sense of insularity, encirclement or notions about mean-spirited small-town society hardly grazed us. Such fluff-ups for the "hormonal" creature I'd become, even became to seem more like a coddle or embrace!

There were a small number of other women with young children among the new faculty, and quite naturally we sought one another out quite regularly. Since all of us needed to provide amusement for our toddlers, we arranged play times and excursions together for our children. What that meant was such company was steady between the parents as well, together perhaps too often and with far too much idle talk! What resulted was a kind of familiarity, even intimacy with young women one might not exactly have chosen for such companionship.

So vexations came soon enough. These arose as our little darlings developed, and grew confident, when they inevitably displayed their will to battle for what they saw before them, fancied, and then simply grabbed! Such were the contests witnessed daily, as the little ones pushed and pulled at each other for toys, threw sand about, or knocked one another down. Ah, the chaos, the noise, the weeping and the bruising. And, all to be followed by the band-aids, the petting and make nice-mending processes!

Exhausting enough at that. Yet it was then that these monumental entanglements moved some of their parents, the various ladies attending such displays to their own form of ire. Ah, me, the whispers, and the talk. Who was it that always caused all the trouble? Who did all the pushing? and so on, ad infinitum. No question that these daily disputes made such meetings among the adults uncomfortable.

Telephones rang, and were kept occupied for hour upon hour. It did seem that each lady was more knowledgeable than the next, experts all in child psychology. Several could analyze, categorize and even determine which of the group was the most remiss. Terms like "hostility," and "aggression" "pugnacity" were bandied about while these parents took sides.

And though astonished to learn it at first arrival, I was well aware that our country life had not, even to that late day, advanced from the "party line" telephone to the private one! And now, much akin to my earlier perplexity over those smarts my sight-seeing colleague had displayed about which automobiles the College faculty drove daily, there I was, suddenly facing yet another disastrous gaffe: that of picking up my telephone to find these very conversations depicting our various children's misbehavior ever in progress, and this, within my own hearing! Only consider the temptation to listen in!

So went the daily preoccupations of our rustic countryside! Hardly bucolic in pacing. Ah, where were those pastoral idylls in this unspoiled Arcadia?

Time passed, however, and with the birth of my second child, a hearty, healthy boy, I was far too absorbed for chatter, and could easily evade the indignities of any developing donnybrook.

So the seasons came and went, and with them so too the initial onslaught accompanying the arrival of any new baby. My chores easing some, I could even find those few hours, once or twice a week, when I could leave my young children, with a sitter for short intervals. Enjoying my little escapes, I could try to regain my equilibrium.

Such short spells in afternoon included library visits, and further investigations of my surrounding, only this time in search of something more than walks in the woods. Yet unlike, my earlier experiences in the "boondocks"—my student days in Chicago, or my working stint in Detroit—I could unearth few hidden wonders. Clinton, New York persists in my memory as that mere bus stop station, on the way to the following village!

But rescue did come and right from among our own College folk on the Hill. It was just after I had made the acquaintance, among the residents, of a very special lady, one Lully Saunders. She was already elderly, very likely in her 70's by then, altogether delightful and learned. She had achieved the distinction, in the earliest years of the 20th Century, of being the first woman who had acquired her PhD from Bryn Mar College, an institution exclusively for women. Yet these days, she was mostly house-bound and, of course, welcoming every chance for sociability.

Her interest in poetry persisted over her long life, but with her eyes now failing her she could not enjoy it very often. I had thus offered to read to her when I visited during those little escape afternoons of mine. The marvel of it arrived instantly with my discovery of the lady's extraordinary comprehension in that art! With every line she heard, whatever poet or poem, came her interpretations, in a remarkable ability to comprehend and elucidate poetic nuance. Such intellectual achievement and clarity of mind enlightened and inspired me. I found myself hungry for just such a re-engagement.

Before long, with Mrs. Saunders' delighted assent, we were joined in such visits by some of my younger faculty friends, to whom I'd mentioned these afternoons. We were a regular little weekly group.

First off, we embarked upon a new translation of Dante's Inferno, moving after this to several of William Blake's prophetic and difficult works, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and more. And, as the afternoon waned, when a glass of sherry was offered by that gracious hostess, it was delightedly welcomed by us all.

Alas, this little venture soon came under scrutiny and it too was greeted with menacing comment from those "not asked!" They, along with others, described us as "those snobby, uppity ones who set themselves above everyone else." Once more, tut, tut, we'd become a cause célèbre, and the talk of the Hill, in a triumph of gossip.

And there was more still! Another scheme we were to dream up scandalized that little community! Not long after, a tiny group of us who enjoyed gourmet meals decided that with the lack of any restaurants providing such fare anywhere nearby, a remedy was in order!

For this undertaking, the young mothers devising it, promptly delegated the cooking of such feasts to our loving, inventive, ever academic husbands! The uproar that one caused! Men cooking! Word spread fast enough. So here we were again, right back in the gossip columns. A fresh little outrage to keep the phones busy!

Such diversions could help pass the time, diminish the boredom, even make less of the punishing isolation of those cruel seasons. But as the years progressed, and the chores of motherhood eased, battling the isolation of that minute cultural ambiance became more and more onerous. Gossip took too much of one's energy, or so it began to seem. Contemplations of who was intriguing with whom, which departments were in the most chaos, whose marriages were in state of collapse, or whose children were intolerable, hardly elevated the spirit. My urge was to get back to the real world.

And, as I reconsider such days, so many long years back inevitably, it is Dr. Johnson's own spirited remark that comes into my thoughts. Said he, "The noblest prospect for a Scotchman is the High Road to London." I have often taken the liberty of paraphrasing his advice to suit our own predicament.

For, to tell it true, the noblest prospect we were to see way up there in New York State was the road right out of it! And that for us, was the very long, but blessed Highroad to the West, and all the way to wild Southern California!"

 

Earlier excerpts from Julia Braun Kessler's memoirs have appeared in Eclectica: "High FashionóLow (ehmann's) Prices: A New York City Memoir," "My Only Charlie Brown: One Family's New York City of the '20s and '30s," "Our Own Mid-Century Mannahatta," "Venturing West: America Beckons," "Orgones, Jazz and General Motors: Young, free And Easy in Motor City," and "Back East And Glad Of It!"

 

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