Although Hortense Calisher’s fiction often draws on autobiographical elements, Herself is a disciplined documentation of the award-winning author’s life and work. She surveys the various decades and landscapes she has inhabited, mining her family’s Jewish lineage, discussing her children, exploring her greatest artistic influences, and describing her work process in a brave and bold work of autobiography. Herself is a rich collage of essays, reviews, recollections, and observations that unite the writer and the person.
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About the Author
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An Autobiographical Work
By Hortense Calisher
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Hortense Calisher
All rights reserved.
PART I: THE BIG APPLE
Apples. that's what new Yorkers of the 1930s remember. Apples of the Hesperides, neatly stalled on corner after corner, sold on the last trembling line of decency by men who were unwilling to beg. Sometimes a man had only two. We bought them, our Cézannes-to-be, with the nickel carfare home, and didn't know it was our education we were bringing back. "You walked again!" said our middle-class mothers. "Forty blocks! My God, what am I going to do about those shoes?" And, for the first time, they might mean it.
Depression settled on us younger ones slow as the really big snowflakes. My father came home from a business trip, his face ashen, though still for others. "Decent family men stop you. They say nothing. When I took out my wallet—one wept." 1929 had brought his business to the wall, but he still had it. We would always eat. And did. It never occurred to me that he and my mother were frantic, within their scale. Then it developed that college was no longer assumed for me. I mightn't go.... I wasn't to. "Go and be a secretary!" said my mother. "Like Mary. Work!" Mary!—my friend from the "wrong" neighborhood—two blocks away. My father said nothing; maybe he knew there were almost no secretaries any more.
But I had to go to college. All the books I still hadn't read were there. And, in the way of the young, my methods were rough—and clean. Pride of my dancing school, I went and got the chorus job guaranteed to blow my mother's cool—and me, of course, to sexual ruin. "I start on Monday," I said. So, to college I went. The $400 for the first term was found, somewhere. I even had a short, frilled red crepe I could wear right now, and never wore out, for boom—that fall, skirts fell. And oh, yes, isn't it all tender and charming and somehow gayer than now—as retrospect always is. But there was still to come the incredible gift the '30s gave some of us. For I still didn't know how rich we were.
At Barnard, where I took no sociology or economics (which wouldn't have helped), I thought I was learning—how poor. I'd had to ask for a scholarship. But when the banks closed, many around me mourned for what their papas still had there. Another's father had jumped from his skyscraper office into a large bloody pool of insurance. Meanwhile, I had one new dress per year, and almost no pocket money. So I worked. Summers and Saturdays. And a few more snowflakes fell.
Am I telling you about the decline of the middle class, or the rise of liberalism among the well fed? Indeed not, I still think sociology is for the simple-minded. I'm telling you how a "society" girl was prepared for her debut.
First job—hostess in a Happiness restaurant (later Schrafft's), hours 11:00-3:00, wages $11 per week and lunch. There she learned: (a) waitresses whose pinched cheeks testify to one meal a day eat different from a girl to whom it's just by-the-way; (b) professionals, who've worked up to what they are, hate those who get the job because of what they are; (c) to hate customers. And most important of all, in later life: never take the first table a hostess offers you. Saturdays, she worked as sales-clerk in a department store, where she learned to hate employers—particularly, among the buyers, a Miss Siff, whom she saw snarl to a manufacturer waiting outside the buying office—hat humbly in hand, a Homburg like her own father's—"Get out."
And outside, "society" waited, for him and for me. Not a matter of the "400," any more. Some of this I saw, of course, though with a strictly visual eye.... Southward of those Hudson River sunsets behind the college, along the flats below Riverside Drive, a squatter town had risen, tar-paper shacks that to us flapped carefree, Romany Rom in the breeze.... At the Savoy night club in Harlem, where a boyfriend was announcer (radio), I stomped almost as good as them, until replaced by a black girl supple as the two-foot bird of paradise on her head.... In the newspapers, certain farmers in the West were raging toward revolution—but when is a farmer ever real to New York? Or the Okies?—even then trickling toward Steinbeck, and to a clever, arty still in Bonnie and Clyde.... Politics was happening to many, for the first time. At school, the editor of the paper was pulled off it for writing sympathetically of Russia; we figured she'd met one, somewhere, at the parties of those parlor pinks ten years too old for us....
Meanwhile, at home, we moved from ten rooms to four; my mother, "on the advice of her doctor," now did her own housework; and the family business, on which so many relatives depended; went bankrupt. But we went on managing—my father, aged 70, got a job. How remarkable this now was for a man of any age, he never said. Soon, I would know.
And so would my boyfriends—a word deeded to me from the '20s, along with some of its gaiety, of which we still had our own frolicsome kit bagful. (For a decade never knows for sure when it is one, or when it is over. We didn't know we were "the '30s" yet.) Among my male classmates, the architects worried the most, having been taught early that they depended on the promises an economy makes to itself. "Bodies will still need help," the grinning medics said. "I'll open a grocery store," said the business types, laughing. "People always need food." And that, of course, was to be—very true. Why, we were all of us brimming with expectation—of the world, the flesh, and maybe the devil, too. No one had explained to us that imagination wasn't the same as "looking ahead." Why should it be? But I'm no one to talk.
For—see now our society girl, poised on the brink of it, her shoes almost as pointed as they will be again in 1960, under what she doesn't know is a maxi-skirt. She often wears her leotard for a blouse, belts her waist wherever, sometimes wears her grandmother's jabots to fine effect, and under floppy hats, chandeliers her ears—whose lobes are unpierced, however, for that's still only for immigrants. The Smith-Corona she writes her poems on is still partly owed for. Art is long. And time does fleet—already June, and the daisy chains breaking. Her greatest shock is that she must pay $20—four Saturdays—for her sheepskin. And when it comes, it isn't sheep. So college has, after all, prepared her as her parents couldn't; she's a cynic now.... And so, full of Shelley in the head, chicken patties in the gut, and chicken feed in the pocket—I came out.
And the snow had fallen all around us. And "the world" had stopped. Or the money had. The world we were being presented to—was closed. Shut-up shop, most of it. No one wanted to let us in. But we were all still expected to remain alive. That, to me, is the surreal feel of the '30s, and why we understood at once, with our wordless pulses, the inscapes of de Chirico and Magritte, and Tanguy.... Somewhere back of a landscape jammed to stillness, a machinery has stopped, leaving these dreams and artifacts to stare. We wander, half-dream and half-artifact among them, but moving, plasms that must feed, must breathe. We cannot stop our hearts. But no one lifts a finger to help us keep them going....
In the face of nature, one can sometimes scrabble, and seed. But in a city, the metal and the electric, and the money, must move also—and the circulation of money is different from the circulation of the blood. Some eras obscure that; now it was nakedly appearing. I began to understand why the banker had jumped. A circulatory failure. He'd made his connection between money and life. We were all being asked to. While outside—or inside the fringe where people like me were—millions were being refused a chance to make any connection at all.
Job, job, job. A larky word now, a grace note, sweet or sour, to life's general song. Then, it was like the tocsin start of the Beethoven Fifth: we-want-a-job; who'll-give-us-one? Later, those notes were the victory theme of a war, reminding me. Guns or butter?—the '30s was a war for beans. Outside the employment offices, hundreds rioted for a single opening. Beggars were not come-to-our-town but from it, dropping in our tracks. The poor were with us from dawn to dusk now. And in the end, they got me a job.
In the DPW—Department of Public Welfare—where I went to work, in the former Bank of America on 116th and Madison, we sat on orange crates, posting our disbursements and costs: the dole was the great industry now. Our office was a "precinct," police style, and I was "the investigator." When we went out, it was called "going into the field." There. "How has client managed up to now?" was the query every case record had to answer, in dollars and cents, and in rent and Con Ed bills to show residence-a clear history of starvation in a face was not enough.
Each of us had 175 families per month to visit—all of them, it seemed, on the top fifth floor. I saw hall toilets for the first time—and all polyglot disease. One of my blocks had the highest TB rate in the U.S.A.: another was solidly prostitute. "Family?" a girl said to me. "There ain' no families here." In a dark cell, a 300-pound woman lay, her gangrenous leg glowing like radium: I had found her by a man's answer down below—"Follow the smell." I discovered the slum fear of city hospitals; 30 years later we are authenticating it.
"When the city marshal evicted a family, we were required to "cover it"; it was a common sight to see furniture and effects piled at the curb, remaining under snow and rain. Once, I "covered" an eviction on Sutton Place, rent $400, where the maid knew nothing, and the master, appearing over her shoulder, let loose obscenities I've never met since—not even in print. Daily, I was learning the language, and the country—mine. When a man was "away," he was in prison: when a girl got pregnant, she "fell in." The clean, up-tight workers in Yorkville showed me their canceled bankbooks with mute pride; a gangster's family down on Rutgers Street paraded its royalty to me-Dutch Schultz. And we "workers" had our own jokes, some inadvertent, jotted on the emergency tickets we were always trying to give: "Woman in bed with doctor. Pay rent." Or: "Nothing to eat in the house except a loaf of bread and a pot of caviar." Or how, when I asked one kid the result of her Wassermann, she said in skat-rhythm, and with a finger snap, "Positive, hunnah. PossitTIVE!"
I was married now, to the only engineering grad of his class to get a job within the year; against my $27.50 per week, he earned $25. In the late '30s, if you had that much, you could rent anywhere; after teasing 20 hopeful landlords, we settled in a beaut just off Fifth, north of the Museum: top floor of a former mayor's mansion, fireplace, park view if you stretched, and roof garden—for which we paid $65 per month with concession, which brought it to $55. I bought a white sofa for it—years later, after all the child battering, it was still called that—and I know exactly why I did.
Maybe it was partly those movies you love now, for their fizzy blondes and musical staircases, down which trip the dimplies, singing, eyes right, "It payzz to be good—";eyes left and a time step. "Ye-ah, but not much!" Maybe I did see them, those chocolate-soda fantasies of the end-of-the-week, already-borrowed-on paycheck. I can't remember. Hollywood twinkled in our slang, anyway; some men were "Come into my log cabin" letches, and an employer went after you with a "penthouse ploy." But, although the "precinct" was union organizing, and labor was shouting "Joe Hill" to every sky, I never saw until much later those other documentary signs of the times, like the I.L.G.W.U'.s revue Pins and Needles, or Pare Lorentz' film The Plough That Broke the Plains. (Often the '30s never saw its own movies, you see. They didn't know enough to be with it. Or they didn't have the dough.) The real reason for my sofa was simpler—I knew it was the '30s, now.
I came home of a night, soaked from the urinal a man had thrown at me for not bringing him a relief ticket, or maddened with the sight of two children their insane mother kept starving no matter how much I brought, or wondering what I should do about a former longshoreman who slept with all his daughters as they reached puberty—now that his youngest, weeping it to me in the hallway, had. Or how to counsel the Italian mother of eight who, denied a diaphragm by priest and thrift, had secretly crocheted one. We were supposed to "refer" all "problems" to a "private agency." What was a private problem, as compared to a public one, I could no longer say. But I knew I was in society, now. Only barely in my '20s, I was already so rich with its realities that I almost couldn't stand it. The sofa? That was a dream, from decades past. So every night, after peeling off clothes later to be inspected for the bedbugs the desks that had replaced the orange crates were swarming with, and after a wash in my inside bathroom, I tiptoed guiltily over to my past—and sat down on it.
Then, in a burst of glory-works—Roosevelt, the Dust Bowl, WPA, TVA, NRA, pick your alphabet—the decade ended. Or slipped quietly through the psyche's mousehole. There's a war on now, a real high-class war. Some of the same unity is visible, and gaiety—the bonhomie of a terrible mess that everybody's in. We're in the Army Ordnance now, traveling with a baby, on half the salary, which doesn't always come through on time.
Once, in a new town, we go to the store with $5 to cover the ten days to the end of the month and, after setting aside the baby's milk money, buy beans, flour, lard, a bacon slab, two cans tomatoes, and eggs. Sugar and spices we carry with us; no coffee, a little tea. We could telegraph "home," but we are gourmets now, weighers of experience. At night, for health, we carefully lick the baby's cod-liver spoon, each to a side. I make muffins with a water recipe I know, lard cookies with lemon extract, beans with Bell's seasoning, and bacon with beans. We have a roof, a fireplace, a sink, wood in the yard, toilet in the house, all needed beds and tables, and a musical instrument.
On the last night, I play a flourish on it, and set forth our dinner—a triumph. For each of us, one half of the last of everything—of a muffin crowned with a poached egg, crossed with bacon, sunk in "cream" sauce, and, on top, from some Christmas box, a bubbling rind of cheese. We're not perky or grand; we're temporarily cozy, and fearful. We are ordinary, for our time. The decade I came out to was over. But that night, and often after, I could feel it inside me, reassuring me of what was real.
Every decade sooner or later gets authenticated in every detail, maybe by a later one that falls in love with it. For years, the '20s have been our belle époque, congealed by us into a mélange of Riviera tennis matches with Gertrude Stein leading Gatsby, and diamondsare-girl's-best, dusty answer, to death-by-toreador—in the revolutionary afternoon. That's the easy, highlighting way. Now it's the turn of the '30s, and we can all see that film-fashion image coming, in the berets and the bell-bottoms, and Humphrey Bogart's revisited nonsmile.
Nice, all of it, but it's not the straight story. What is? No decade is ever all economics, either, any more than it is only what it wears, or sings. And a decade is never itself only. For some people, the '30s will always be the time they first heard the Bach passacaglia as well as "Those Little White Lies." All the sex in the world is in every decade, and all the subjects of literature. So, the mountain of what I haven't mentioned, from Mae West to dance marathons to the rise of John Dewey to the decline of Jack Dempsey, doesn't oppress me. I've my own dream, or artifact.
I pick-an apple. My nickel Cézanne, it now holds an era, polished by the decent, trembling fingers of the past. In it I see us, then and now. Some men never got over that time; they lost their confidence there, sitting at idle windows, in vague West Virginias of the soul. Others, like me, have merely an odd way with money, call it healthy or ambivalent. At times we can't spend money, at times we can't save it—depending. We're often not good at getting jobs, but are beavers when we do. And many a woman among us, no matter her stock list, and sables, feels safest with an egg in the house. No wonder some of the young, in search of the pure, are nostalgic for our bitter-bright youth. No wonder we are. In any decade, men and women have to settle for themselves the connection between money and life. The '30s showed us—the difference.
Excerpted from Herself by Hortense Calisher. Copyright © 1972 Hortense Calisher. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- PART I: The Big Apple
- PART II: On the Midway
- PART III: Seizures of Love and Work
- PART IV: Pushing Around the Pantheon
- PART V: The End of the Past
- About the Author