Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
Well, I think maybe so…
I last wrote about my sense of outrage that, during the Victorian era, men could have mistresses, they could divorce, they could remarry–but women were “the source of wickedness in the earth”–at least according to Biblical text, Oscar Wilde’s scandalous revision of it (but who was he to point fingers?) and late 19th century New York State divorce law which stipulated that the only grounds for divorce was adultery. Adele de Lance Murphy’s wretched husband divorced her in 1899 and poor Adele was apparently miserable for the remaining eighteen years of her life.
Then I remembered: my grandmother Emma divorced her first husband, an alcoholic dentist, in Michigan, about 1910. But she was the one who instigated the divorce. She married my grandfather John Robert Bailey, a childless widower, in 1914.
My grandfather’s sister, Edith Bailey Vissering, divorced her husband between 1910 and 1917. She did not re-marry, but was active and independent, involved with a close circle of friends in Chicago until her death, of cancer, in 1922, age 53.
More similar to Adele, perhaps, Emma’s sister Nell–whose photo I do not have– was divorced by her husband between 1915 and 1920. She lived with her brother and his wife and whispers persisted even when I was a teenager: “Aunt Nell was divorced, you know.”
Then I remembered women–on both sides of the family–who were widowed. John and Edith’s mother, Frances Whitlow Bailey, lived another quarter-century after her husband died after falling from his locomotive in 1900.
Adele’s eldest son Charles married Jeannette Hutchinson Murphy in 1909. Charles and Jeannette were very close to my grandfather Ned and his younger brother Gordon, sons of Adele’s 10-years-younger baby sister Marguerite and her husband Edgar W. Gregory. Marguerite died in 1904, so Jeannette became something of a surrogate mother to young Ned, who married my grandmother Carol Phillippi the day he graduated from West Point in June 1919.
Despite their age difference, Jeannette and Carol were close friends. Charles was a lawyer and New York State Senator. Politics had risks: on June 17, 1934, Charles was struck by a car while walking near their weekend retreat. It was a mob hit job and he died three days later, age 59.
Separated by vast distance–Ned was stationed at Ft. Shafter, Hawaii when Charles was killed–Carol could only express her sorrow and sympathy in letters. Jeannette moved from Brooklyn to Scarsdale and opened an antique shop.
I know this is complicated, but remember Emma? Her son John graduated from West Point in 1938. He was then stationed at Ft. Totten, NY and Ft. Randolph, Panama Canal Zone, under command of Capt. Ned Gregory, Carol’s husband. Carol and Ned had a daughter, Shirley. After a courtship conducted mostly through letters–which adds another variation to the theme of separation–Shirley and John were married three weeks after Pearl Harbor: Dec. 28, 1941.
Emma’s husband Maj. John R. Bailey–brought back from retirement to work at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot because the US entered WWII–died in late 1942, age 70, of a heart attack. Emma moved to a smaller apartment in Philadelphia.
Ned died of lung cancer at an Army hospital in San Antonio, TX in March 1943, age 47. Not long afterward, Carol rented an apartment in Scarsdale because she wanted to be near her dear friend Jeannette.
John was sent to Guam in January 1945, when Shirley was pregnant with my sister Barbara. Shirley and Diana went to live with Carol in Scarsdale. Emma came frequently to visit, so she, too, became friendly with Jeanette.
So, you see, although Jeannette grew up in Brooklyn, Emma grew up in Jackson, MI and Carol grew up in Newark, NJ, the three of them were there with my mother and sister and me for Thanksgiving in 1945.
The stories twine together and I think I have the license to see what I can do with them: variations on separations–divorce, death, and distance.