Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking

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Overview

A New York Times Notable Book

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Editorial Reviews

Sam Sifton

"Worst idea I ever heard of," was what Irma Rombauer's family had to say when she set out in 1930, after her husband's suicide, to write a cookbook. "Irma's a TERRIBLE cook." But the resulting work, The Joy of Cooking, which Rombauer self-published the following year, went on to sell more than 14 million hardcover and paperback copies over six decades; it stands today as the most influential cookbook in American history.

In Stand Facing the Stove, Anne Mendelson, a food writer and culinary historian, has set out to chronicle the unlikely story behind the success of The Joy of Cooking. The result is a dual biography of Rombauer and her daughter, eventual co-author and successor, Marion Rombauer Becker, as well as a publishing history of the book itself and a richly detailed examination of the evolution of American cooking from the mid-19th century to the 1970s. The latter's the most interesting. In two separate chapters - the book's best - Mendelson traces the cultural history of American home cooking, and in the process helps to explain the reasons for the classic cookbook's endurance: Rombauer's status as "a culinary amateur ... frankly bored with a lot of the solemn stuff that the competition expounded under the guise of culinary education." Rombauer was, Mendelson successfully argues, "the first cookbook writer who had been able to give the disorderly spectacle of modern American cooking some coherence through sheer force of personality."

That force of personality is sadly absent from the biographical portions of Stand Facing the Stove, however. The family history - cultured middle-class Germans from St. Louis, loving battles between mother and daughter, etc. - is tangled and contradictory. After her husband blows his head off his motive is unclear, Rombauer needs cash and decides - that simply, it would appear - to write a cookbook. "It was not a terribly practical plan," Mendelson tells us, "but it matched her view of her position in society."

Dry publishing history follows. Joy did well as a vanity project, and Rombauer took it to a commercial publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, with which the family had a difficult relationship. Becker initially helped out only with the page design; later she was liaison to the publisher and in 1951 became the book's steward - redefining it, rewriting it, ensuring its legacy.

Which is, it's worth pointing out, rich and important: students of the cultural history of American cuisine will find that Stand Facing the Stove offers a top-notch examination of the evolution of American home-cooking. Other readers should stick with the primary text - which is far more joyful, and far more revealing. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When St. Louis housewife Irma von Starkloff Rombauer 1877-1962 self-published The Joy of Cooking in 1931, she was, at age 54, a total amateur in the kitchen. Indianapolis publisher Bobbs-Merrill helped make her cookbook a huge bestseller in its subsequent editions. Whereas Rombauer brought a homespun, spontaneous style to her recipes, her daughter, Maron Rombauer Becker 1903-1976, who collaborated on Joy starting with the 1948 revision, transformed it into an all-purpose learning tool and also imbued it with health-food consciousness. By following Joy's successive incarnations as well as rival manuals, Mendelson, a culinary historian and freelance writer, serves up a delightful social history of Americans' changing cooking and eating habits. She sets Rombauer's German-American roots in the context of a thriving Midwestern immigrant community and also unravels both her and her daughter's tangled, acrimonious relationship with Bobbs-Merrill. Mendelson's narrative is enlivened by numerous personal stories: the suicide in 1930 of Rombauer's manic-depressive husband, Edgar, a civil rights lawyer; Becker's championing of modernist art and her crusading for affordable housing in Cincinnati; her often tense relationship with her mother, who criticized her plain looks; and her steadfast, loving care for her mother, who suffered repeated strokes, even as she herself fought the cancer to which she eventually succumbed. Photos. Nov.
Library Journal
This is an entertaining, insightful biography of the mother-daughter collaborators who gave America the great standby for cooking, The Joy of Cooking first self-published in 1931. Given access to extensive papers and memorabilia of Irma Rombauer and daughter Marion Becker, Mendelson, a journalist and culinary historian, chronicles their lives and work, which brought eight major editions of The Joy of Cooking into being. She also presents a publishing story, detailing the cookbook as a commercial publication from acquisition by publisher Bobbs-Merrill to its marketing strategy. Mendelson shows how successive editions were a mirror of their time, exhibiting the shifting culinary tastes of the nation. The book also reflects on Rombauer's desire for fame and daughter Becker's preference for privacy. Mendelson's book is a wonderful account of one of the most popular American cookbooks and the women who wrote it. Recommended for biography and cookery collections.Michael A. Lutes, Univ. of Notre Dame Lib., South Bend, Ind.
Booknews
This hybrid of biography, history, and publishing yarns provides an American culinary and social history from the mid-19th century through the 1970s, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at a slice of publishing history. Mendelson, a freelance journalist and culinary historian, uses correspondence, family papers, and publishing documents to recreate the story of the American classic, which began as a self-published collection of recipes in 1931 when Irma Rombauer needed some extra Depression-era income after her husband's tragic suicide. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805029048
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/15/1996
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


1

The Golden Age of St. Louis

Throughout his life T. S. Eliot recalled the city of St. Louis as having "affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done" and counted himself "fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London."(1) St. Louis did indeed—at least in a brief and glorious interval after the Civil War—seem one of the finest spots on earth to dwell on special blessings: the happy accident that had put the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers where they were, the divine wisdom of the Louisiana Purchase, the continent-spanning genius of railroad builders past and present, the thrilling sense of the Wild West still (as the small Tom Eliot felt) just beyond Forest Park. It was also, more enduringly, a splendid city in which to be a high-minded civic reformer like Eliot's grandfather and mother, or a thoroughgoing political graft artist like any one of a succession of mayors, or a Lebenskunstler like Dr. Hugo Maximilian von Starkloff.

Lebenskunstler is as untranslatable as any word in the German language, which is saying a good deal. It implies a civilized command of living as an art form like singing or painting. German-English dictionaries lamely offer explanations like "one who appreciates the finer things of life." "Life artist" is the baldly literal rendering, and perhaps as good as any. "Life artist," replied the old and very ill Marion Rombauer Becker in 1974, when an attorney taking a deposition asked her occupation.(2) She wasundoubtedly thinking of a family story about her mother, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, as an uncommonly imposing five-year-old making the acquaintance of an aunt newly arrived from Germany. "Ach, du bist eine treue Lebenskunstlerin!" ("Oh, you are a staunch life artist!") exclaimed the visitor.(3) For Irma Rombauer herself, the word was essentially the property of her father, a genially self-important man who had arrived in the environs of St. Louis around 1860 to set up a medical practice in a community that seemed well suited to the life art.

At the time of his arrival from northern Illinois, St. Louis and Carondelet, the large adjacent southern suburb where he settled, were a crazy quilt of elements still bearing some trace of the first French and Spanish presence in the Louisiana territories. Settlers from Virginia and Kentucky were the most visible American-born group, cautiously coexisting with a large contingent of Northerners, particularly transplanted liberal New Englanders like William Greenleaf Eliot, the poet's grandfather. Thousands of poor Irish had also come to the region, especially after the potato famine of 1845-46. They competed for work as laborers, artisans, and servants with large numbers of Germans fleeing comparable poverty. Dr. von Starkloff belonged to a very different community brought by the abortive stirrings of liberal German nationalism after 1830 and more markedly 1848. They were articulate professionals, or sometimes minor nobility, who rejoiced in a peculiarly German marriage of cultural ideals, consciously enlightened convictions, and creature comforts. The young Swabian-born physician almost summed up the type.

He was the second son of a military family that is first heard of in sixteenth-century Courland, a small Baltic state now incorporated into Latvia and Lithuania. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars the soldiering Starkloffs had added a "von" to their name, wandered through various allegiances, and settled down in the employ of the electors (later kings) of Wurttemberg. Max, born in Ulm in 1832, was nine at the death of his father, Baron Karl von Starkloff, who had married Sophie von Rapp-Frauenfeldt, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the imperial Austrian army. He must have had a considerable streak of independence, for in his mid-teens he insisted on leaving the infantry regiment to which he had been attached as a cadet and completing the classical course at a nearby Gymnasium in preparation for medical school; he attended first the University of Tubingen, later Heidelberg and Prague.

He was only twenty when he embarked for New York. He had survived the troubles of 1848 with, it appears, no ruinous political attachments—though some were later invented for him in admiring histories of the "Forty-eighters," the crew of energetic political refugees with which he soon linked himself. Irma wrote that she was sure her father's only real motive in leaving "his beloved Schwabenland" (Swabia, the site of the Black Forest and the rise of the Danube) was "his yen for adventure."(4) Max set out a few months after receiving his degree in 1852; apparently he planned to work his way from New York to the Wild West. He almost didn't make it. At Buffalo he signed on as a deckhand on the steamer Griffith, which caught fire halfway across Lake Erie and burned to the water, happily not before Max had been rescued by a passing ship. The survivors were set down in Cleveland, from which the greenhorn doctor eventually managed to make his way to California as surgeon to the American Fur Company, the sprawling empire founded by John Jacob Astor.

His family never learned much of his next few years except for stories of dashing adventure. Just why and when he wandered back to the Mississippi Valley is a mystery. He is first heard of in northern Missouri and Illinois, trying to set up practice in Hannibal and nearby Palmyra, as well as Quincy and Galesburg on the other side of the river. It was in Hannibal that his first child, Johann Alexander von Starkloff, was born in November of 1855. Irma knew nothing of the little boy's mother, Hermine Auguste Reinhardt, except that she was "a beautiful widow" whom Max had married on coming east.(5) No date is given for the marriage in the genealogy that Max had drawn up in later years. Johann died in the spring of 1857, a month before the birth of another son, Emil Arthur. Hermine and Max's last child, Maximilian Carl, was born at the end of 1858.

Max's frequent moves during this period (Emil was born in Palmyra, the little Max Carl in Quincy) suggest that he was not having an easy time establishing a practice. The St. Louis-Carondelet area was the largest urban center of the then Far West. Altogether the neighborhood offered a more encouraging start for a young professional than the smaller towns to the north. There is no record of exactly when Max arrived in Carondelet, but he was in the thick of important German doings there by 1861. He had found the ideal venue for his talents.

The chief fact about greater St. Louis was, of course, the Mississippi River, still unbridged and usually unpredictable in this silt-laden stretch just below the entry of the Missouri. It made St. Louis the great conduit of goods reaching the West and the central river valley from the East and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as eastward-bound furs from the Pacific Coast and ore from the new mines of southeast Missouri and New Mexico. Arriving and departing river traffic was the backbone of the city's routine. The traveler reaching St. Louis by steamer saw first the broad man-made plateau of the city levees, swarming with teamsters' wagons and lined with warehouses. The land rose to a modified grid of streets, orderly enough on paper but at most seasons of the year fed by an inexhaustible supply of mud reputed not to differ greatly from the St. Louis drinking water. The region was visited with harsh Midwestern winters, while in summer the incredibly suffocating air of the Gulf Coast surged up the river valley, often with an introductory fanfare of spring tornadoes. But the hardy trading post considered itself a city of some substance by 1860. It had a population of nearly 161,000, and supported a small handful of theaters and a large handful of music societies (well populated with Germans), a library, the new St. Louis Academy of Sciences, Washington University, several foundries, the Pacific Railroad (stretching a magnificent 176 miles westward), a noisy range of political opinions, and sundry German-and English-language newspapers. The Sunday supplement of the Westliche Post, surveying the ungainly metropolis in 1859, decided that the descriptive talents of "someone like old Homer" would be required to capture the riches of Broadway a few blocks west of the levee—"a colorful mixture of everything for sale that human imagination or mood is capable of conceiving" and only one instance of why St. Louis "is the most interesting city there is for one who is wont to watch people living and striving."(6)

The observer did not, however, mention another sort of activity that added its own flavor to the civic bustle and that greatly troubled the liberal German refugees: the thousands of black slaves funneled each year through the thriving St. Louis auction. The city was in the strange position of being both a major slave trading post (another result of its location as the "Gateway to the West") and a hotbed of antislavery sentiment chiefly (though not exclusively) fueled by the German Forty-eighters.

Even in the decades before this influx of zealots, the newly arrived Germans had not much liked the spectacle of people being bought and sold on the St. Louis courthouse steps. One of those who could not reconcile such things with America was Gustave Koerner, a young radicalwho had been wounded in the Frankfurt student uprisings of 1833 and had fled to the New World. Finding a free black from another state about to be sold under Missouri law, he himself purchased the man's freedom and—along with many like-minded immigrants—put the Mississippi River between himself and the institution of slavery by settling in nearby St. Clair County, Illinois.(7)

Here, in the rolling country near the county seat of Belleville, a large number of German intellectuals popularly known as the "Latin Farmers" (presumably for knowing more about books than turnips) formed a sort of free-state auxiliary of St. Louis, lending moral support to their antislavery neighbors in the increasingly embattled city. Koerner promptly applied himself to learn enough English to pass the bar examination, and exchanged German reformist causes for the travails of the Democratic Party and the Free Soil issue. By 1860 he had held a number of offices in Illinois and was a political confidant of Abraham Lincoln. The influence of such men was a considerable drawing card for later German arrivals like Dr. Starkloff (at this period he rarely used the "von"). So was the intellectual elan of the city's German community, as evidenced in a large range of cultural activities and a press that considered itself at the forefront of enlightenment.

Forty-eighter-led editorial writers and vigilante organizers, many of whom had followed Gustave Koerner's defection to the new Republican Party in 1856, spearheaded a struggle to detach Missouri from the Confederacy as it became clear that the threat of Southern secession would erupt into reality. Dr. Starkloff was in Carondelet in time to see the Missouri Unionists' great adventure of the war, the Camp Jackson affair.(8)

This episode would subsequently be related to St. Louis schoolchildren as a major turning point of the Civil War, though a certain comic-opera-gone-wrong quality also catches the eye. It occurred shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861. The secessionist governor of Missouri, Claiborne Jackson, had dispatched several state militia companies to the vicinity of a Federal arsenal. While they were covertly bringing up guns and cannons to an encampment christened for the governor, Missouri's first contribution to the other side was also hastening to the spot. This was a group that had been drilling for some time in the headquarters of the Tenth Street Turnverein (German physical culture society) as the "St. Louis Home Guard" before having itself sworn into the new Union Army as several regiments of "Missouri Volunteers." Among Max Starkloff's fellowrecruits in this grand force—in fact, among the fomenters of the whole idea—were the fighting Rombauer brothers from Hungary: Robert, Roderick, Roland, and Raphael. (A fifth, Richard, had died in the service of Kossuth's army.) Like him, they would ever after relate the ensuing deed with immense pride.

On May 10 the Missouri Volunteers marched out and surrounded the Missouri militia, which surrendered without firing a shot. The victorious troops were marching their prisoners to the arsenal when a large crowd of St. Louisans appeared, mostly armed with picnic lunches and ready to watch history being made. Some, however, carried brickbats and guns. It was never clear how the shooting started, but as the crowd grew uglier the new Union soldiers fired into it, wounding many and killing fifteen people on the spot. There was a storm of outrage throughout the city for the next few weeks, but by the time the war was over Camp Jackson was firmly fixed in the pantheon of Union triumphs, particularly German triumphs. (Of course the Home Guard had not been exclusively German, but German-speakers had formed a highly energetic core.) The St. Louis Forty-eighters always spoke of it as a decisive engagement, and in truth it must have helped to blunt early secessionist impetus in a state that could have contributed significantly to the Confederacy.

Most of Max Starkloff's subsequent Civil War service was as an army surgeon rather than a combatant. Like many Missourians in the administrative chaos of the state, he eventually signed on with the Forty-third Illinois Volunteer Regiment, which had been organized by Gustave Koerner in the wake of the first Southern secessions. As a child, Irma listened to horror stories of the Union doctors running out of medical supplies at the battle of Shiloh in April of 1862. But on the whole, Max seems to have thrived, enjoying his involvement in a branch of the family metier that he had so obstinately left in his teens. He emerged from the war as medical director of the First Division of the Seventh Army Corps, with the rank of major.

The end of the war signaled the beginning of a happy era for the likes of Dr. Starkloff. It was the grand age of the St. Louis Deutschtum—another untranslatable term that means something like "German community" but contains other nuances, like "German character," "German mores," or "patriotic German identity." It may be slangily but aptly rendered as "the whole German thing." The educated, ambitious Forty-eighters who had fought in the war were not the whole of this world within the city, but they were its most prestigious symbol. In the postwar prosperity of a burgeoning metropolis that liked to call itself "the Future Great City of the World"—popularly just "Future Great"—men of Max Starkloff's stripe devoted themselves to a civilized German-American existence surrounded by bibelots, music, and congenial conversation made more congenial by good food and wine—the very image of the Lebenskunst.

Max was a joiner by nature, and a man with a taste for public eminence that stopped short of any hunger for substantial elective office. He became active in St. Louis Republican politics and eventually in various German-American groups with some political cast, from the local freethinkers' organization and the "Schiller Union"—dedicated to the memory of the liberty-loving poet—to the German-American National Alliance and the Turnerbund, the national federation of clubs dedicated to a curious German version of mens sana in corpore sano, whose local branch had provided drilling quarters for the Home Guard. But for many years his chief public concern was the St. Louis School Board.

Carondelet was incorporated into St. Louis in 1870, and Max—who had helped found the smaller town's school board four years before—became a member of the central St. Louis board just as the city school system was beginning to be regarded as one of the most extraordinarily innovative in the country. Of course, this renown was of little use to the rapidly multiplying black children of St. Louis, who were entitled to attend only segregated schools—and not even those beyond the elementary grades until 1875, when Roderick Rombauer as attorney to the School Board pointed out that the state constitution required the system to provide a high school education for all pupils.(9) For the whites, all sorts of lofty goals were proposed by high-powered educational talent. One of the most celebrated experiments approved by the School Board ushered in the first public school kindergarten in the United States, to be modeled on much-admired German originals. In one way or another, it was apparently the St. Louis kindergarten program that brought to America a young woman named Emma Kuhlmann.

Later family accounts had Miss Kuhlmann coming to St. Louis as one of the founders of the pioneering city kindergarten, a claim that no student of the school system's history has been able to document. What is certain is that a young St. Louis educational philanthropist, Susan Blow, was sent by the School Board on a study-and-recruiting mission to Germany in 1872 and returned a year later with the makings of a kindergarten faculty and curriculum.(10) Probably Emma Kuhlmann came with her. It is not known whether Emma was a kindergarten teacher—something that then implied strict and very specific training in the theories of the kindergarten movement's founder, Friedrich Froebel—or simply a German-recruited governess in the Blow family who helped in some informal prototype of the eventual St. Louis public kindergarten. But the sequel is beyond doubt: not long after arriving from Germany Emma Kuhlmann met the newly widowed School Board member Max Starkloff, and married him on January 23, 1876.

Hermine Starkloff had died the year before, of a sudden illness described in the St. Louis Daily Globe obituary only as "inflammation of the brain."(11) She left two grown sons. It appears that School Board or no School Board, Dr. Starkloff had given them both expensive private educations after the elementary grades. Max Carl, the younger, was an industrious, earnest, rather stubborn young man who had attended Chester Military Academy in Pennsylvania before deciding, like his father, that he wanted to study medicine. Emil had still other ideas. He had been sent to school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Max had a sister. Later events suggest that this grand gesture may have been meant to put some distance between Emil and an early misdeed. In the year of his father's remarriage he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, departing very prematurely amid rumors of a cheating ring. Emil returned to St. Louis and took a job as a postal clerk—the prelude to his life's work, mail fraud.(12)

Max Carl and Emil's stepmother was only a few years older than they. Emma Clara Christiana Kuhlmann came from a well-to-do north German family. Her mother, Wilhelmine Minlos, belonged to a long line of Lubeck merchants who had rubbed elbows with Thomas Mann's forebears in the city senate. Her father, Carl Bernhard Kuhlmann, was a lawyer and Oberamtmann (something like "First Selectman") in the pretty lakeside town of Eutin in Holstein.(13) There were no noble titles to match that of Max's mother, the Austrian-born Countess Sophie von Rapp-Frauenfeldt, but the north German merchant and professional families considered themselves more than the equals of anyone. Why (and exactly how) Emma came to America is not certain; Irma wrote of "an unhappy love affair."(14) She was twenty-six at the time of her marriage, eighteen years Max's junior. Photographs show a tall, fair, mild-featured woman with a look of dignified reticence, a pretty foil to the dark, bearded Max with his important stare at the camera. In his house she was majordomo and nurse-receptionist. She ran his accounts (he had a grand imprecision in matters of money), ordered his dinner fromthe housemaid-cook, supervised the office boy and Dave, the hired man, and coped with a stream of patients during office hours and emergencies at other hours. The house-cum-office on Main Street in Carondelet was a six-mile trip from downtown St. Louis by buggy or the Iron Mountain Railroad, and her husband's absences in the course of myriad activities—school matters, Republican strategy, Turner meetings, the music societies that thrived in St. Louis like tomatoes in August—were many and long. He was at a School Board meeting on the night of October 11, 1876, when Emma gave birth to her first child, Elsa Sophie Wilhelmine.

Her first year of motherhood coincided with uneasy times in the Future Great. St. Louis was now a center of heavy industry and a major (if not the major) rail nexus of the Midwest, linked to the East by a massive bridge. Some branches of local opinion held that the national capital should be moved there from Washington, D.C. Growth had come, however, at the price of increasing grime and crime. The Carondelet skyline near the Starkloff home was lit up at night with the unearthly glow of the Vulcan Iron Works and a cluster of other metal smelters, even as other areas were being transformed into leisured, amiable reaches of greenery and fine sandstone houses. In an act of shortsighted hubris, the city seceded from St. Louis County in 1876 to become the only major free city in the United States, touching off a rancorous election-fraud dispute over the ratification of the home-rule charter and cutting itself off from sources of revenue soon to be needed to shore up shaky infrastructures for a burgeoning population that did not see itself sharing in Future Greatness. There had been a huge influx of poor Southern blacks—the reason for the debate over a right to postelementary schooling—following the shambles of Reconstruction. A large white labor population began to take a line terrifying to the staider St. Louis citizenry. Many festering discontents came to a head in July of 1877, when a general strike paralyzed St. Louis for four days. Carondelet metal workers seized several plants—though without violence; the threat of citywide insurrection did not materialize. The strikers disbanded without accomplishing any of their goals, and the city had been calm for several months when Emma gave birth to her second and last child, Irma Louise, on October 30, 1877. It was another School Board night.

St. Louis would be Irma's universe all her life. She never lived elsewhere except for a few years in her teens, and always readily defined herself within circles not far removed from her upbringing in the Deutschtum. The world she knew as a child was one of soundly insulating comfort and predictability, light-years from strikes or controversies. But Irma herself, as she emerges from her own words and the memories of those close to her, was neither comfortable nor predictable. It is fitting that the very earliest thing she could remember being conscious of—a "first hurtling into reality" that mysteriously seemed to trigger a bewildering awareness of everything around her—was being suddenly awakened one late winter night by the violent crash of the ice breaking up on the river a few city blocks from her bed: "A sense of security and comfort shattered by a terrific detonation—that was my first impression in life." She thought she must have been two or three.(15)

Her early surroundings ministered well to Irma's sense of self-importance. She was quicker than Elsa to seize opportunities for adventure. It was she who almost from babyhood got to accompany their father on his horse-and-buggy rounds in the fine rolling countryside around Carondelet. She was agreeably fussed over by the staff of the army post at Jefferson Barracks, the nuns at a local Catholic convent, and the wealthy old French families in their river-bluff mansions. Dr. Starkloff delighted in her startling likeness to him: stocky, round-faced, with a short, turned-up nose, a well-marked brow above deep-set brown eyes, and a forceful set of mouth. It was one of those almost comic resemblances that most men find irresistible. She was just as obviously his daughter in temperament, fearless and forward, apt, rather boastful, a glutton for attention. Elsa, ladylike and fastidious even as a toddler, worshiped him with silent tenacity but left the long jolting rides over dusty roads to her sister.

Emma taught them both at home in the first years. The little girls soon showed themselves to be creatures of very different orders. Irma rushed upon everything with a passion to be seen excelling, though without great ceremony. She quarried for mudpie ore, tended to smell of the stables, and hung around the kitchen hoping to find a diamond in a chicken gizzard. She mastered simple tasks and lessons with the pride of a born show-off, and would be bursting with answers while Elsa set her back to the wall with a determined "Aber, Mama, ich kann es nicht." ("But, Mama, I can't.") The elder sister had little stomach for contests and loathed anything that involved mussing one's clothes. A photograph of the two at about six and seven shows the dreamy-faced Elsa cuddling a doll with an air of gentle maternal competence while Irma, her own doll braced uncomfortably upright in a toy washtub, stares at her sister with the self-possessed, noticing gaze that marks nearly every picture of her from infancy to old age.

In her quietness and inwardness, Elsa was very much the child of Emma Kuhlmann. All of Max's vanity and bustle were lavishly expressed in Irma. But while Elsa developed a jealous devotion to their father, Irma curiously enough responded to a sense of something remarkable in their mother as one of those cool, unsung, practical, but unexpectedly radiant people without whom life could not go on for the more flamboyant. Emma had a streak of mildly debunking irony that must have been well exercised in her marriage. The fragmentary autobiography left by Irma indicates that without much fanfare, Emma remained an alert and well-informed mind who "flirted with the Zeitgeist"—i.e., suffragette opinion—while keeping aloof from the "Mary Wollstonecraft or Susan B. Anthony" category of active feminists.(16)

Max's medical practice flourished in Carondelet to a point that called for a partnership. After a brief rift with his son Max Carl—who had been so foolish as to marry a penniless Irish girl in 1879—he had patched things up sufficiently to establish a joint practice at the address on Main Street (the name was later changed to Broadway). By 1882 Irma and Elsa, at respectively four and five, had become the aunts of Max Carl and Molly's daughter, Adele. The elder Max was already meditating on grander things. In 1883 he moved on to larger quarters, leaving his son to occupy their shared office at the old address. His new hilltop house above the river at the corner of Loughborough and Michigan Avenues in Carondelet occasioned not only a notice of the move in the Post-Dispatch but, three days later, a further item stating, "Dr. Starkloff will have his office on Broadway connected by telephone with his residence on Michigan avenue."(17)

During the general upset of the move, Emma was advised to escape temporarily from the dreadful St. Louis summer—part of the reason the British Foreign Service classified the city as hardship duty—to the merciful air of the Great Lakes states, which were already a standard seasonal refuge for affluent Mississippi Valley residents. She had been so ill following a miscarriage that the Kuhlmanns in Germany had dispatched extra nursing care in the form of her younger sister "Dada" (Louise), the aunt who at once recognized Irma as a "life artist." She was an elegant young woman with a bracing air of knowing what she thought and a French wardrobe that fascinated her small nieces. Accompanying Emma and the little girls to the reviving coolness of Oconomowoc in eastern Wisconsin, Dada met a vacationing matron from Indiana who quickly bethought herself of a newly bereaved brother with small children. Dada's rapid engagement and marriage to the young widower, Louis Hollweg, presented Emma's girls with three instant cousins.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Irma's young life was the frequent family visits to Indianapolis (another city with a solid German stratum), where the Hollwegs' rambling curio-filled house on North Meridian Street always appeared to her a magical place of holidays and joyous companionship. She made a lifelong friend in the youngest of Dada's stepchildren, the clever and troublesome Julia. Irma and Elsa never would be confidantes—to the end of her sister's life, Irma found her a mystery, "a person barricaded against all others" and imbued with "a streak of melancholy frustration and defeat"(18)—but Julia was a ready ally and soul mate at a time when Irma did not have much companionship of her own age.

From the new house on Michigan Avenue the Starkloff girls were now sent to a nearby public school, where a frustration already half sensed became plainer to Irma: she was not an "American." That term, in quotation marks, was the best she could do to identify the transplanted Eastern, irreproachably Anglo-Saxon stock representing a norm toward which everyone else aspired, notwithstanding that second-generation German children now made up more than 46 percent of the St. Louis public school enrollment. Though Irma had somehow learned English by the time she was five, she stood outside a charmed circle observing with envy:

Our "American" neighbors were a constant source of interest and curiosity to me. They did not sew on Sundays, nor sing nor play. [The German idea of a good Sunday—listening to music at one of the city's glorious beer gardens—horrified Sabbath-observing "Americans."] They made and consumed quantities of Catsup, lounged on beds, had hot cakes with sirup for breakfast, popped corn, made candy and sang sentimental songs.... The older girls sat on the porch and had callers. These gay blades drove buckboards with frisky horses and were incredibly romantic as was the whole plan of "American" living to me.(19)

Emma filled the newly perceived lack by hiring an indubitably "American" governess, the Massachusetts-born Mattie Parker, whointroduced Elsa and Irma to English-language children's magazines and her own enthusiasm for natural history. But the sense of a baffling gap between cultures was not something that could have faded easily from Irma's young memory. Other elements of St. Louis had come to resent or mock the arrogance and (as they thought) privilege of the Deutschtum, while Max Starkloff was always traveling to meetings of German-oriented pressure groups opposing movements that were seen as anti-German-prohibition, for example. It was a matter of increasingly defensive pride to the old guard to have the finest German taught to their children in the city schools and to keep commemorating their own binational patriotism as something that had helped save the Union. On Camp Jackson Day and other public occasions, Irma's father or some other worthy in resplendent Civil War uniform was sure to wind up a noble convolution of German syntax with the lines from Goethe's Faust known to every schoolchild:

Was du ererbt von deinen Vatern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen! —Part I, 682-683

[Or in the rendering Irma would later quote in The Joy of Cooking, "That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it."]

After a couple of years on Michigan Avenue, Max began dreaming of new professional vistas—in central St. Louis, if possible. Carondelet was now something of a backwater, while a splendid burst of residential construction was taking place in the area just to its north (the new "South St. Louis") and in various downtown fringes. Taking his cue from the dawning vogue of medical clinics and research facilities inspired by Pasteur and Robert Koch, he talked of starting an orthopedic institute in a fairly central location, preferably in a building large enough to provide living quarters as well. Emma was opposed to this further uprooting. But in 1887, while she was firmly holding her ground, an epidemic of diphtheria began in the city. Both children were stricken, Irma the more seriously. It was uncertain at first that she would live, and later that she would recover. She remained disoriented, cross-eyed, and partly paralyzed for weeks, while the exhausted Emma spelled round-the-clock nursing with a younger medical colleague and Republican ally of Max's, Dr. Carl Barck.

At the end of this ordeal Emma decided that the cause of medical research deserved to carry the day. She told Max that she was prepared to go along with the plan. Accordingly, he and a partner leased a mansion on Chouteau Avenue on the southern fringe of center city, in a somewhat declining pocket of erstwhile grandeur now subject to the din and dirt of the Mill Creek Valley railroad.

Irma was nearly ten now, and had seen downtown St. Louis only on occasional train trips from Carondelet. Her most vivid memories had been of the two prosperous downtown coffeehouses, Speck's and Leonhard's, where the children would be taken to marvel at the glories of the German pastrycook's art: Bienenstich (a flat coffee cake topped with a honey or syrup glaze and nuts), Mohrenkopfe ("Moors' heads," balls of sponge cake filled with whipped cream and covered with a dark chocolate coating), "sausages" of quince paste filled into casings, chocolate mice. The two years she spent at the Chouteau Avenue house were her first experience of a city neighborhood with a street life she could follow for herself—the noisy playground the local children had made for themselves on an isolated block of La Salle Street behind the Starkloffs', grown-up comings and goings at the nearby Germania Club, the traffic of the "free lunch" saloons that were starting to replace the grand houses. The Starkloff girls promptly became acquainted with a pair of slightly older sisters, Fanny and Nellie Hoblitzelle, the orphaned granddaughters of George Knapp, the publisher of the St. Louis Republic, the major Democratic paper in the city. (The Globe-Democrat, naturally, was Republican.) This friendship echoed Irma's still unquenched yearning to belong to something higher than the Deutschtum. "To me they and their family personified all I then admired most in Americans—a high standard of social life and an inborn grace of manner," she wrote. To her admiring envy, it was the elusive Elsa who seemed to have the right qualities for belonging: an air of having been "born a worldling, " a social gift consisting in intuitive "correctness, good manners, a poised bearing, and above all an awareness of the reactions of others."(20) These endowments were not Irma's by nature, though she would eventually master them.

The girls, who had duly progressed in the three Rs at the Blow School in Carondelet, continued through the middle grades at the Clinton School near their new home. For all her obvious cleverness, none of it made much of a dent on Irma. It does not appear that Max and Emma ever envisioned any sort of rigorous intellectual attainments for their daughters, much less any need to make a living. "I wasbrought up to be a 'young lady,' heaven save the mark!" Irma told an interviewer many years later.(21) Much of what she knew came not from school—no serious branch of study ever became a real part of her mental equipment—but from the Starkloff version of the Lebenskunst. Emma had inculcated good doses of "Bible stories, myths, legends, fairy tales, poems, fables, and songs,"(22) later supplemented by Mattie Parker and St. Nicholas Magazine; there was always some musical project going on in Max's life; national politics were discussed with gusto and often with raised voices. Irma drank in these things with energetic intelligence if no special application. She shone at what would now be termed "creative" activities, then minor feminine graces. She had a talent for drawing, quite likely a gift that might have gone beyond desultory graces with some serious encouragement. She was an apt musician, though again it does not appear that she was encouraged to work at it with real fervor. She read greedily, with a special fondness for the American humorists of the age, and could quote swatches of Mark Twain and Josh Billings by heart.

She was emerging as an impetuous and ever-impatient, gregarious, rather stormy spirit with a strong appetite for admiration, especially male admiration. At six she had been able to boast of having a "beau," to the intense envy of her cousin Norma Hollweg; by eleven or twelve "my life was never lacking in masculine companionship."(23)

In 1889, the year after Benjamin Harrison's election, Max decided to seek some of the rewards of nearly twenty-five years' service to Republican tickets. Newspaper accounts suggest that he had been very strongly angling for a consulship as a piece of patronage owed to the German interests in the party and had a special eye on Hamburg. But that summer he was informed that he had been selected for the less well paid post in Bremen. (The St. Louis Republic was still moved to complain about preferential treatment as "a sop to the German element.")(24) The news of his appointment was anything but welcome to Emma and the girls, who were vacationing in Wisconsin with Dada and the Hollweg cousins. The prospect of a sudden uprooting was all the more dismaying as Max promptly disappeared from all the moving preparations with the explanation that he had to talk to the President at once in Washington. "Das hat der Prasident so notig wie der Elephant Ohrringe," remarked Emma ("The President needs that as much as an elephant needs earrings"), and got everything ready to leave St. Louis in about ten days, soon enough to cram in a last few days with the Hollwegs in western Maryland.(25) The family sailed from Hoboken on August 10, on the North German Lloyd's steamer Elbe. They expected to return in about a year, but one thing seems to have led to another until well into the next Presidential administration.

Irma was not quite twelve when her father took up his post and not quite seventeen when the von Starkloffs came back to St. Louis in the summer of 1894. (They seem to have adopted the "von" among the Bremers and to have used it regularly, though not invariably, after their return.) Five years spent close to her German roots, among trappings of some official importance, must have been a decisive epoch for the adolescent would-be "American." In adult life she would cling mightily to family pride and a deep sense of German identity.

Bremen, the oldest of the German Hanseatic ports, was in its own right only about a third the size of St. Louis, which was getting on for 452,000 souls in 1890. But hordes of emigrants on their way from eastern Europe to the great ship terminals now crowded its staid confines. An immensely dignified merchant aristocracy, corresponding precisely to Emma's antecedents in Lubeck only a day's journey away, dominated the circles in which the von Starkloffs moved. "Years later I saw in the Boston of The Late George Apley a miniature Bremen," Irma recalled.(26) The family did not find the town so fascinating, or the consular duties so pressing, as to claim their constant presence. They seem to have traveled more or less at will about Europe, even returning to the United States for one visit of several months early in 1891.

The children were introduced to flocks of relatives on both sides, but it was their mother's connections whom they saw oftenest and who seem to have made the strongest impression on Irma. There is no sign of her having kept up close ties with the German Starkloffs, though quite possibly some evidence has disappeared. By contrast, it is clear that she and later Marion went to some lengths to stay loyally in touch with the surviving Kuhlmanns for years after World War II, and made a point of keeping their letters. She developed a firm belief in a distinction between the northern and southern temperaments, as applicable to Germany, she insisted, as to "Maine and Louisiana."(27) In American terms, one might say that she came to admire an equivalent of the New England character—upright, domestic, capable, the very model of the Kuhlmanns.

The von Starkloff children were taken to visit Emma's older brother Willi Kuhlmann, a musician at the grand ducal court of Oldenburg some thirty miles from Bremen, and her older sister "Mally" (Amalie) Schroeder, a Lutheran pastor's wife in the village of Spieka on thecoastal headland of Wursten. These regions were a far cry from the fine and rolling but landlocked terrain of eastern Missouri. The flat ditchcrossed Wursten landscape with its quasi-Dutch tidiness and austere vistas of sky and sea made a tremendous impression on Irma, as did the unpretentious but civilized Gemutlichkeit of the Spieka parsonage. She always remembered family evenings in the rural isolation of the Schroeder home listening to her uncle Georg read aloud "in his splendid ringing voice" from Fritz Reuter (Mark Twain's great north German contemporary), while lamplight "fell upon a red plush table-covering, a large bowl of apples and one of walnuts, and on a circle of family faces frequently convulsed with laughter."(28) She would retain a great fondness for the "dour peasants" of Wursten and Oldenburg: "It always pleased me that they [the Oldenburgers] held out for years against Hitler and gave him lots of trouble."(29)

South Germans were another matter to Irma: "less rigid," "warmer," "more emotionally unstable"—in a word, more like her father, the Schwabenlander. She loved Max devotedly but with reservations. She eventually developed a skepticism about his sublime accounts of his own deeds and always associated him with the braggart Tartarin in Daudet's Tartarin de Tarascon. The moments she most cherished in their relationship were those in which he played the genial Lebenskunstler by his own fireside, something he had far more time to do in Europe than in St. Louis. When at home, he took to filling his abundant leisure evenings with hours of reading aloud to the family. "That was the best part of the day and the best part of our years abroad," Irma wrote.(30) It was also probably the best-absorbed part of her education—hours of anything from Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare to the much-loved nineteenth-century German verse humorist Wilhelm Busch. Mark Twain, another of the evening favorites, crossed the von Starkloffs' path in person during one of his later European visits. (Marion records a family story that he "made a particular friend of 'Irm'" and "presented her with an autographed edition of his work.")(31)

Irma's formal education was fairly desultory. She and Elsa were placed (sometimes together, sometimes separately) with various girls' schools and governesses, and both spent some time in Lausanne, probably at a school run there by Max's sister Emma Rambert. But the European years were generally filled with the "young lady's" upbringing that Irma later found so preposterous. The entertainment at the formal afternoon teas to which she and Elsa would be asked by Bremen contemporaries usually consisted of the girls' playing the piano or reading plays aloud in parts (probably the classic French and German dramatists and Shakespeare, a national German passion). It was a life well suited to confer what she later called "an intellectual patina" but no great capacity for intellectual exertion.(32) "Ill taught, vaguely informed, moderately gifted," the scrawled notes accompanying her fragmentary autobiography coolly sum up her Bremen self.(33) In an age to come she would keenly feel the paucity of her academic training, for degrees from the Eastern women's colleges would be widely recognized new badges of social standing by the time Irma was a competitive young matron. But the leisurely, higgledy-piggledy education she did receive was the sort that an agile mind can make much of in lateryears.

The uneventful official life of the consul's family was interrupted in August of 1892, when a great panic broke out following reports of cholera in several parts of Russia and then in the nearby port city of Hamburg (linked with Bremen by frequent trains). Actual cases were soon diagnosed on steamers carrying passengers from Cherbourg and Hamburg to England and the United States. An intense panic swept over New York, the main emigrant destination; meanwhile, several cases turned up in Bremen itself. For the first time in his consulship, Dr. von Starkloff was called upon to deal with a medical emergency.(34)

While the city hastily drew up sanitary measures, Dr. von Starkloff and the management of the North German Lloyd's shipping line, which largely controlled the emigrant traffic from Bremen, undertook the screening of the American-bound passengers. The great Robert Koch, who had been called in from Berlin to consult with the Bremen authorities, met with Max at the instigation of North German Lloyd's and lent his approval to the suggested measures of the American doctor. These, according to Max's report to the U.S. State Department, included daily monitoring of the emigrant hotels and boardinghouses, detention of all arriving emigrants for at least two days' observation, and strict examination and disinfection of all steerage passengers and their luggage before they were allowed to embark. The threatened outbreak was completely contained in the city within a matter of weeks, with not a single emigrant carrying the disease from Bremen. Max was widely credited with having done a good deal to prevent a multinational epidemic. Many decades later, one of the Hollweg cousins mentioned another family memory of the episode in a letter to Marion: that he had also "made a lot of money at that time" vaccinating would-be emigrants.(35)

Dr. von Starkloff's efforts during the cholera emergency were probably the reason he was asked to stay on in Bremen, in an unusual gesture of bipartisan goodwill, when the Democrats and Grover Cleveland returned to the White House in 1892. But that winter he was in poor health himself, requiring an operation on his larynx and some respite from the dank, English-style Bremen climate. At some point during the next year he asked to be relieved of his duties, citing his affected health. On July 31, 1894, he was replaced as consul by George Keenan, and the von Starkloffs were back in St. Louis less than a month later.

Max was now prepared to live in the grand style in St. Louis. His next venue would be the newly fashionable enclave of Compton Heights, a particularly magnificent corner of "South St. Louis" (the affluent German-dominated realm between center city and the old Carondelet), where the cream of German society was now settling. Here, at Compton Avenue and Longfellow Boulevard, Max built one of the most striking and luxurious mansions in a neighborhood of palatial houses. He had installed his family and his practice in the new home by the summer of 1895, and settled down to a comfortable elder statesmanship—he was now sixty-four—in the German community and the Republican Party.

It was an agreeable time in the family fortunes, though the doings of Emil {no longer living regularly in St. Louis) sometimes would come to embarrassing notice. There are family stories of stints as a riverboat gambler and a pimp; eventually he would be working several Eastern and Midwestern cities with phony get-rich schemes involving gold bricks and fictitious mines. In the meanwhile, Max Carl Starkloff—who always eschewed the "von"—was well on his way to an eminence that would eventually eclipse his father's. He was by now in his late thirties, a staunchly industrious man with a strong medical-crusader streak and the family devotion to Republican causes. He had spent several years as president of the St. Louis area board of Federal pension examiners—another token of the Harrison administration's local debts to the elder Max—when Mayor Cyrus Walbridge appointed him City Health Commissioner. It was an office that would be his own nearly for life.(36)

Aside from his work, his twin passions were yachting—he loved treating his young half-sisters to river outings—and hunting. In the fall season he kept the tables of various family members well supplied with game, and he had a knowledge of fine guns. He was a man of deep, not to say stubborn, loyalties, unable to be talked out of a "boundless admiration" for the disgraced Emil, whom, according to Irma, "he assisted repeatedly, always deploring that such gifts, so much intelligence and power should have been misapplied."(37)

Max C. Starkloff had not been long installed in the Health Commissioner's office, or the elder Max's family in the Longfellow Boulevard mansion, when the greatest natural disaster in the history of St. Louis reduced large stretches of the city to rubble. The young lawyer Edgar Rombauer, who was working at the time in downtown chambers, later described the event as having followed a spring of unusual winds and storms. On the hot, sunny afternoon of May 27, 1896, he looked out the office window to see "incessant flashes of lightning in the southwest," shortly followed by answering flickers in the northwest, while the sky in between remained perfectly clear. He was about to start for home and had in fact reached the street when a friend with experience of similar things in Kansas pointed to the sky:

Moving to meet the clouds coming from the northwest and southwest was a tremendous white cloud coming from the east. It did not move steadily westward, but seemed to move forward with a bound, and then make a stop before bounding forward again, much as a swan swims; and the front of the cloud was curled up and over like the rollers on certain kinds of ice skates, and as it bounded forward it emitted a hissing sound, much as a boat being propelled through waves against a strong headwind. Pretty soon it began to grow dark and the wind blew at a tremendous speed in all directions. I waited near the front entrance of the building until I saw a horse and buggy being blown up the street like a piece of newspaper and then I retreated into the rotunda of the building.(38)

It was an hour before the terrible wind and rain subsided enough for him to venture home through tangles of live wires, finding his parents' house on Geyer Avenue (a few blocks from the von Starkloffs') still standing despite the hundreds of uprooted trees and wall-less buildings that marked the storm's path.

At Longfellow Boulevard, the tornado had swallowed up massive chunks of Max's new mansion within a few minutes. There is a family story that Irma had gone to sketch in Forest Park behind the present St. Louis Art Museum, some three miles away, and could not be founduntil four days after the storm, when she turned up in a state of amnesia. Edgar Rombauer's account, however, mentions no such episode. He wrote simply that Irma and the von Starkloffs "escaped only because they took refuge in the cellar."(39) The younger Max Starkloff emerged from the disaster a hero. He was at the Health Commissioner's office at City Hall when the storm broke, and bravely or rashly set out on foot in the direction of his chief responsibility, City Hospital, more than a mile and a half to the south. His right arm was at once broken by a falling flagstaff. He promptly improvised a sling, hailed a horse-drawn ambulance, and arrived at the hospital to find it in ruins. He worked through the night and the next day to bring patients out of the wrecked building into hastily commandeered quarters, and personally escorted seventeen prisoners from the hospital prison ward to the safety of the jail. It was an accurate indication of the qualities he would bring to the Health Commissioner's duties for some thirty years.

When the dust had settled, it was gradually estimated that about 140 people had died in the May 27 tornado, with 1,000 injured and some 8,000 buildings completely destroyed.(40) Max von Starkloff, like many thousands more, had to rebuild a great deal of his house. Present descendants relate that some months after the storm Emma was sitting in a friend's drawing room when her eye fell on an oddly familiar chair. "Where did you get that?" she inquired. It turned out to have appeared, undamaged, from the belly of the whirlwind moments after having flown out of the Longfellow Boulevard premises.(41)

Irma and Elsa had now reached the age at which, as little as ten years later, a family like the von Starkloffs would surely have been sending their daughters to college. Irma had been much among clever people, and her later accounts make it evident that she wanted to do clever things herself. But just what she had the power to do cannot have seemed very clear, beyond the power to excite admiration. She was small and neatly made, with a great flair for wearing clothes and in general making herself interesting to others, especially men. Her looks and bearing might in another age have evoked terms like "cute little brunette," and would have been called "dainty" in her own. (Elsa was tall and blond, with finely drawn features and a dignified air bordering on melancholy.) Irma had—there is no getting around the phrase—a sparkling gaze. She met people with a lovely, rather capricious sprightliness of manner that masked some sort of dimly felt ambition or discontent.

On coming back from Bremen she had enrolled in art classes at Washington University, though apparently without any thought of matriculating for a degree. For the next few years she seems to have worked at painting and sketching with some consistency, while performing an unadventurous round of maidenly activities like playing the piano at afternoon musicales and acting in amateur theatricals. Her chief confidante was her cousin Julia, just Irma's age and now an Indianapolis debutante. Norma, the oldest of the Hollwegs, had married and moved from home, and her brother Ferdinand was also grown. Ina, Louis Hollweg's only surviving child by his marriage to Dada, was nine years younger than Julia, and her eagerness for Irma's company is understandable. The two girls paid frequent visits back and forth during the Longfellow Boulevard era, and Irma spent several summers in Indianapolis. On one of her stays with Julia, in the last weeks of 1897, she was introduced to the unemployed and determinedly bohemian twenty-eight-year-old son of an otherwise respectable family living two blocks from the Hollwegs.

Newton Booth Tarkington, who since graduating from Princeton had done nothing to earn a living except bombard publishers with manuscripts (mostly rejected by return post), did not stand high in the then opinion of Indianapolis society. He in turn nourished much disdain for the common rout of Indianapolis. Not surprisingly, their sudden mutual attraction aroused prompt suppressive measures from Irma's relatives. The affair apparently had been buried for many decades when in 1953 the scholar James Woodress, a St. Louisan with a good memory for names, spotted some letters from "Irma von Starkloff" among the Tarkington papers at Princeton and sent an inquiry to the esteemed author of The Joy of Cooking.

Today the only records of the ill-starred romance are the few details that Irma provided, by letter and by interview, for Woodress's biography of Tarkington; the three brief letters of hers that the researcher had already found at Princeton; and an impassioned sixteen-page letter from Tarkington written just after he had seen her for the last time. She did not mention this last—the only one of Tarkington's letters that she kept, and the only surviving love-letter that she received from anyone—to Woodress, and it is not clear whether even Marion knew of its existence.

"We met at a spelling bee," Mrs. Rombauer wrote in answer to the biographer's inquiries. "I misspelled a word—I still do—and found him by my side, ready to defend my 'logical' interpretation as against theconventional one." The relationship was "brief, turbulent, and intense."(42) Tarkington was at once taken with, as he thought, her rarefied perceptions. He also found her inordinately charming in a tricky, half-perverse way. He took every occasion to monopolize her at their few meetings, talking and talking like a frustrated lecturer unleashed and deluging her with lofty counsel fit for a chosen spirit. Irma had been used to attracting male admirers almost since she was out of apron strings, but this high-minded ardor struck her with a new sort of confused fascination.

There were according to Tarkington only "four times we were together a little," which may mean when they met at all or (more probably) when they were able to talk intimately.(43) This was enough to bring up heavy artillery in the form of the "rigid and disapproving relatives" by whom "we were torn asunder," as Irma told James Woodress.(44) She was packed off to St. Louis by a Monday morning train on December 20, after impulsively asking him to come by one last time the previous evening. They sat through an embarrassing visit at the watchful Hollwegs', with Tarkington at his most urgently prolix and the dainty Miss von Starkloff at her most capricious.

By the end of this awkward farewell she had nonetheless managed to ask him to write her in St. Louis, a familiarity not then taken for granted by well-bred young people. In response to her "pretty challenge," Tarkington at once went home and poured out a torrent of impassioned admiration and reproach:

My mind is entirely full of you,—to indulge the flat, outright truth,—and also I follow my will to write before you have forgotten me, Lady-Who-Forgets-No-One!...Why did you ask me to write? Won't you try the experiment I am trying—of being utterly and completely frank? You see, it puzzles me. You declared me a great bore, you know. You must have known I shouldn't have dared to ask permission, of course. It was splendidly generous and kind to give me the privelege [sic]-and to promise to answer; and you cannot realize how thoroughly grateful I am. It was so tantalizing to catch these few glimpses of you and then to lose you completely by that brute of a train tomorrow.... But what made you ask me? I want to think it was because you wished, a little, to keep in touch with me, but I find large doubts in my heart.(45)

Irma replied with hesitant encouragement. She had, she assured him, been sincere in asking him to write. She had been struck by the difference between the wayward figure of Indianapolis gossip and the reality of "what I admire above all things, a broad mind.... Living as I do, among many narrow people (for nowhere do they seem as narrow as in a large city), hearing from you would be a delight and I did not feel the indifference I feigned before you answered my question."

Clearly unsure of what tack to take, she protested that she did not have the brains or depth to have held his interest more than momentarily had they had more time together, but also hinted that he had touched some vital nerve:

I want to be truthful and will. If I were to fib you would find me out. To be honest I am a little afraid of you. To most people I am a riddle not worth solving. No one has ever understood me as you seem to. I can't write you exactly what I think and how I feel—and have a horror of being misunderstood. The thought that you may be criticising my "style," even my spelling—that unfortunate word of Buffon's, "Le style c'est l'homme"—all help to make me feel stupid and awkward when addressing you.(46)

How long they continued to write is not clear, since the surviving letters are obviously an incomplete record. But distance soon had exactly the effect desired by Irma's family—whose disapproval, though she did not mention it in her letters to Tarkington, remained a vivid memory in her account to James Woodress. Within a few months she had taken a very different tack, telling him with brusque flippancy that their December encounter had been "so long ago, and you are right, I have lost interest." She coolly turned aside any question of revisiting Indianapolis for several years. But she could not forbear some sort of ambiguous encouragement, hinting that she would like to see him—"Do you ever visit this smoky place?" She thanked him for his interest in her mind and asked him to suggest good books, while neatly contriving to put him in the wrong for having got under her skin:

I resent your knowledge of my character. You saw me so little and know me so well—at least you know my faults, and kindly attribute a number of good qualities I do not possess—it makes me feel uneasy, unnatural, when I write you, and that makes writing unpleasant.(47)

In truth, their initial flash of mutual attraction was not the stuff of an attachment durable enough to bridge the difference in background. St. Louis Germans of the von Starkloff girls' backgrounds were still generally marrying within the Deutschtum; any "American" suitors had better be of irreproachable solidity, not misunderstood genius. There is no evidence that Irma seriously tried to overcome her family's objections to the Indianapolis ne'er-do-well. Within a short while she was receiving attentions from a far more eligible admirer. In all probability she never saw Booth Tarkington again.

But their brief acquaintance must have made a considerable mark on the unquiet mixture of elements that was the mature Irma, if for no other reason than that Booth Tarkington shortly confounded every Indianapolis naysayer by publishing a highly successful novel. His great breakthrough came in 1899 with The Gentleman from Indiana. If his heroine, Helen Fisbee, had such un-Irmalike qualities as gray eyes and the ability to tak e over a small-town newspaper from an ailing editor, he also made her—like the young lady who became Mrs. Edgar Rombauer a few months after the book's publication—"a dainty little figure about five feet high," with "light brown hair" and "a short upper lip like a curled rose-leaf."(48) Within a decade he would be a household name throughout the United States. That in itself would have been sufficient to keep green in Irma's memory a glimpse of an existence and a potential self quite unlike any future that her own circles had held out to her as she emerged into young womanhood. It was a challenge that in the end she had not pursued. She would remain in her own proper St. Louis world, tugging and worrying at its borders with a competitive discontent plain to all who knew her closely.

THE RETURN OF THE WOLF TO YELLOWSTONE


By THOMAS MCNAMEE

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1997 Thomas McNamee.All rights reserved.
TAILER

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Acknowledgments xv
Introduction 1
1 The Golden Age of St. Louis 9
2 Beginnings and Endings 34
3 The Rombauers After the War 65
4 The Birth of Joy 85
5 Chronicles of Cookery 1 103
7 Family Regroupings 183
8 War Maneuvers 202
9 Chronicles of Cookery 2 229
10 Indian Summer Interrupted 284
11 The Last Battle 299
12 Little Acorn and Wild Wealth 347
13 Marion's Last Years 371
Epilogue 413
Notes 417
Selected Bibliography 453
Suggested Reading 457
Index 459
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