Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Summer of 1927

Bill Bryson's recent book One Summer: America, 1927, is a very enjoyable treatment of what it must have been like to live through the excitement of Lindbergh's flight in May, the thrill of watching Babe Ruth make his record number of home runs throughout the baseball season, and the pain of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which took place on August 15 of that year.

Other events of the summer occasionally distracted the newspapers from their nearly incessant coverage of Lindbergh and his triumph and his trip through the US, which Bryson returns to throughout the narrative. I admired his broader treatment of aviation before and after Lindbergh, and the way that Lindbergh's flight inspired the rise of the American flying industry. Bryson also explains the continued development of the automobile, especially mentioning Henry and Edsel Ford, the end of the Model T, and the upcoming Model A.

Bryson presents the political scene as it developed that summer. President Calvin Coolidge announced while enjoying his summer vacation that he did not choose to run for a second term. Of great importance was the pervasive negative effect of prohibition. Also interesting: the rise of both J.Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover.

One Summer: America 1927 is a fascinating book, and I found it much more fascinating because my parents often remembered certain events that Bryson detailed.

My mother graduated from Soldan High School in St.Louis in June 1927. She often spoke of Lindbergh and how his great success dominated the last weeks of her high school experience. Lindbergh's flight had a variety of St.Louis connections. Her class motto was "Ad Astra" -- to the stars -- and her classmates' vision was of going to the stars in a plane like "The Spirit of St. Louis."

Less often, my father spoke of how devastated he felt when he heard of the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, whom he believed were innocent. My parents rarely mentioned the politicians of that era, and I seriously doubt that they ever mentioned or thought about baseball in that age -- though Bryson several times mentions the St.Louis Browns ball team in his descriptions of Babe Ruth and his team's success.

Here are some pages from my mother's scrap book and graduation memories that illustrate her experience of the year that Bryson wrote about. (I've used them in earlier blog posts a few years ago.)

Little souvenir plane on a place card from an
event celebrating my mother's graduating class.
Family photos from that time.
Class photo. My mother's photo (which also appears on the place card) is in row 5, column 5.
Somewhere on this photo is the most famous member of Soldan's 1927 graduating class. Her name at the time was Kitty Fink. Soon after graduation -- under the name Kay Thompson -- Kitty Fink became a Broadway and Hollywood character and author of the children's book series about little Eloise who lives at the Plaza in New York. My mother didn't really remember her, because at the time, Jewish students (like my mother) didn't mix with Christian students (like Kitty Fink). When my mother attended her 25th class reunion, Kay Thompson didn't show up. She was far too famous, and I think by that time her age had diminished too much to allow her to admit what year she had graduated.

I don't believe that my mother ever knew that Kitty Fink's paternal ancestors were Jewish but abandoned the religion. "Unfortunately, anti-Semitism existed on both sides of the Atlantic and so, like many others, the Finks submerged their Jewish heritage in order to assimilate into mainstream society," writes Kay Thompson's biographer.

Bryson deals with antisemitism in his discussion of Henry Ford and his trial that summer (where he officially rescinded his virulent attacks on Jews) and on the later support for Nazism of Charles Lindbergh. He mentions the fact that both of these paragons accepted and never repudiated medals from Hitler. I appreciated Bryson's treatment of this issue in the midst of all the excitement of the era.


Tracy Feldman, painter said...

I just checked, and confirmed that 1927 was the year of a big tornado that killed 78 people in St. Louis, including 5 at Central High School, which was subsequently relocated. There was a tornado that followed a similar path in 1959; I remember that one, and expect that it's why the year 1927 stuck in my head as a St. Louis tornado year, since our parents probably discussed that one in 1959. Arny

Mae Travels said...

Bryson described particularly awful weather that plagued much of the country in 1927, and he mentioned a St.Louis tornado. I thought that our mother was already studying at the WU Art School when the tornado hit -- she definitely talked about it and I thought she was there. Of course there could have been more than one tornado during all the storms that year.

Vagabonde said...

Mae, is the picture on the place card your mother? She was beautiful.

This book looks very interesting to me. Right now I am reading Paris Noir – African Americans in the City of Light by Tyler Stovall. I did not know that so many black Americans came to Paris after WWl to escape racism in the US – they could not believe how color-blind Paris was then.
I also saw your Mona Lisa piggy bank – she looks Rubenesque ….

Mae Travels said...

yes, that is my mother. Yuor book sounds interesting.

Jeanie said...

I was just talking with someone about this book over the past week. It sounded fascinating and Bill Bryson really is a wonderful writer.

I love the photos you used to illustrate this post. Your mother was so beautiful. And interesting (and sad) about Kay Thompson. Sad, really -- both that people didn't mix in those days and that she was too famous to return to her reunion. I have GOT to get this book!