Memories of Charles Olson

[Part 4]



he next few weeks are a blur in my memory. World War II had begun and it seemed inevitable during the autumn of 1941 that the United States would soon be involved. Mel and I were planning to be married in December. We knew that Connie had a successful abortion. She wrote the news to mother, but did not mention her emotions or the physical ordeal. She said that she and Charles were both job-hunting. Later, Connie would tell me with bitterness of Charless refusal to let her have children. She said he did not want to put down roots, and any suggestion of settling in one place to establish a home and family was anathema to him.

What income Charles had at the time I do not know. I can only guess that the Guggenheim award kept him going. He and Connie had settled in an attractive one-room-and-alcove apartment on Washington Place just off Washington Square in the Village. He was writing and actively communicating with contacts in Washington D.C., seeking work with the government. I do have a vague memory of his working for a publishing house in New York during this period.

Mel and I visited them in late December, just after we were married. Mother and Barbara also were there and suddenly it was as if we were all of a family again. Christmas and the reunion brought such happiness for a few days that we forgot about the war that had begun on December 7 with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mel expected to be called soon. He was classified 1-A. Charles was in a 4-F classification, deferred because of his extraordinary height, but Connie said he expected to be re-classified. He knew that when the need for more men became pressing his height would be no barrier to service. But for four days late in the year, we enjoyed life. Charles and Connie appeared as a happy newly-married couple although no ceremony had been performed. She delighted in cooking and he was at his best showing us around the city. As a tour guide he described New York characters, mimicking their accents. He picked up strangers all over the city, heard their stories and brought the tales home.

Mels number was called in February and he was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia. I visited him in April and stopped en route to see Connie and Charles in New York. Charles was then quite sure of a position in Washington and was awaiting word to pick up and move to the capital. However, the job was not to materialize until the end of the summer, and meanwhile money had run out in the Olson household. Charles asked Doris for a loan and was turned down. A bitter letter from Connie to me in August relates the tale of their financial difficulties. Referring to Doris, Connie wrote: Anyway, it shows Doris up for the shrewd Scotch bitch she is. She knew we were up against the wall and admitted it. A loan wouldnt dent her account. All the generosity which she capitalized on with Ed went with him — anyway we borrowed the money from David Riesman, whom we barely knew and who didnt blink an eye, but gave us a list of about ten people, including Felix Frankfurter, to go and see.

The Riesman that Connie referred to was the Harvard sociologist. In the summer of 1942 Charles had to give up the Washington Place apartment for lack of income. He and Connie then moved into the Riesman house — I think it was on 28th Street — as house-sitters while the Riesman family was away.

Another letter from Connie that summer states: Charles has been going around to various places lately, but nothing so far. Getting a job with the government is one of the god-damnedest, longest rigmaroles in the world. Charless job, his future, depends on one man in Washington, and he is very ill. So nothing can be done until he gets back. So thats the way it is. You have to use your pull where you find it. And even then it takes five or six weeks. We are both bearing up very well, though. I feel better than we have since he lost his job. Funny, we always feel best when we have just lost a job, or an overcoat, or when were down to five dollars and owe a months rent — as it stands right now. We are going to sell a couple of books tomorrow.

However, Charless luck picked up, and he not only landed a job in Washington with the Office of War Information but in short time became Chief of the Press section dealing with foreign language newspapers that were published in the United States. Connie wrote: Charles is doing very well and likes it very much. Thank God! If he didnt I dont think he would be here now. Its certainly the only reason for staying.

They had a difficult time getting to know the city and finding a place to live, but finally they located a small house with a studio attached that was part of a large complex that included a second and much larger studio where the Iwo Jima memorial was created. While Connie and Charles were living at 217 Randolph Place N.E. a contingent of U.S. marines were sent daily to pose for the sculptor who was commissioned for the work. Talking to mother on long-distance phone, Connie reported the good news that a house had been found.

Send Barbara down here, Charles shouted into the telephone. Weve got a bunch of marines. If we cant get her married we can at least get her ravished!

Charles delighted in teasing our somewhat shy young sister. Barbara remained a quiet person with apparently no interest in men. She was good at her work and thrifty with money.

When I left Boston to join Mel, who was then stationed in Oregon, Barbara and mother decided to try their luck with government employment. They had heard that jobs in Washington were plentiful. Soon Barbara was secretary with the Navy Department and mother was executive housekeeper for the Washington Y.M.C.A. They found a tiny apartment, also on Randolph Place.

When I came to visit Charles said his family was now complete. He called us his harem, with Connie his number one wife. For some time he had referred to our family as a matriarchy and would continue to do so. Although his remarks were on the surface humorous, I believe he resented the closeness of mother and daughters.

One evening after dinner when we were all gathered around the studio fireplace, Barbara surprised us with a little impromptu song. We had been listening to Olson expounding on some theme now forgotten, when Barbara smiled and began to sing in a small voice to the melody of Old Man River: Old Man Olson, that Old Man Olson, he dont do nothin, jess keeps talkin, he keeps on talkin all night. Charles received the performance with a grin and then frowned. The idea of Barbara poking fun at him was humorous enough, but then again I could sense that to him perhaps his harem was not sufficiently respectful.

Following that Washington visit I had word from Mel that he would be stationed in Oregon long enough to establish a residence, and I joined him. We were together there with our small daughter Paula, who had been born in 1942, until he was ordered overseas in October of 1943. With the rest of my family firmly established in Washington, I looked around for living quarters in the Boston area where I intended to wait out the rest of the war. I took an apartment in Nahant, right on the shore, and soon I had a letter from my old friend Doris Huffam. Dahlberg had left her and she was alone in New York, sick of the city and work. She asked if she could join me for the summer while she took stock of her life. She had two brothers in the service, one in England and the other in Italy. I knew by then that Mel was in England also. The two of us began each day listening to the morning radio news. We knew that the invasion of Europe was imminent.

Meanwhile, Charles was making himself well-known in Democratic Party circles. He supported Roosevelt and was a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. He became a member of the Democratic National Committee and handled much of the publicity for Roosevelts campaign for his fourth term as President. He went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Connie came to Nahant for a few days before joining Charles. I was surprised to see her hair in two braids, a style I had never seen her use. She looked about fifteen or sixteen years old. Despite her natural sophistication and the turmoil of her first couple of years with Charles, she remained very youthful and virginal in appearance.

When she told me she was to join Charles at the Convention I suggested the hair-do probably would not be appropriate for the wife of a politician involved with the reelection of a President. At first she was indignant, then she smiled and said, I suppose I will look strange sitting with Senator Peppers wife, but Charles likes this and calls me his little Svenkska. I brought her to the airport when it became time to leave and she boarded the plane happily, hair still in braids. I dont know when she changed the hair-do, but when I next saw her the hair was drawn up and pinned high on her head. She looked older and very chic.

In late 1944 Charles and Connie left Washington for Key West, where they lived in Ernest Hemingways house while caring for his two boys. I had no letters from Connie during this period but she sent many postcards. (The Randolph Place house was kept for their return by mother and Barbara, who gave up their tiny flat.)

Mother became very ill during the winter of 1944 and I gave up my Nahant place to care for her. Barbara had to go to her Navy Department job daily, and I took over as housekeeper. I remained it Washington until March of 1945. Coping with the huge furnace in the cellar of the Randolph Place house was a task in itself. It had been constructed to heat the adjacent cavernous studio and I never could manage a big enough fire to heat the place. We used wood and coal. I remember being desperate enough one cold December to hack up some old pieces of furniture in an effort to build up a fire.

Mels father (Pa), a short round and jolly man, came to Washington several times to solve furnace problems. He always managed to repair some part or other that would insure a few more weeks of almost satisfactory heat. When Charles met Pa on his return to Washington in 1945, the two became a hilarious pair. Charles enjoyed Pas sense of humor and egged him on to telling many jokes, most of them off-color.

For a week, while Pa was helping me get ready for the trip back to Boston, the little house rattled with people. Mother had regained her health and Connie and Charles were back from Florida. Barbara was happy to see her family together again and all were delighted with little Paula. Charles seemed to enjoy the confusion. He and Pa would go off to do such things as get my car out of storage, see to the registration and so on. But they made many detours going about the city and bending elbows in local bars, talking to workmen, particularly the blacks. They made a striking pair, one five feet five inches tall, almost as wide as he was high, and the other lean and towering more than a foot above.

I can still recall clearly my introduction of Pa to Charles. Charles just returned from Key West entered the living room, stooping to clear the door frame. Pa, standing beside me as I was about to make the introduction, immediately jumped up on a chair, held out his hand to Charles and said, How dye do? I was embarrassed, for we all avoided crude references to Charless height. But Charles laughed, grasped Pas hand and there was a quick and firm handshake. Pa jumped down and offered Charles a drink. The two became good friends and would share a bottle every time they met. Pa, native of Mt Desert Island off the coast of Maine, had a great love for the sea and things of the sea. Both men enjoyed swapping salty stories and eating the clams and lobsters we scrounged up wherever possible.

Paula and I, escorted by Pa, left Washington in March as scheduled. I began house-hunting again, settling finally in a small four-room duplex in Hingham. Mel returned in August after four years with the Army, and we were finally able to take up where we had left off when the war interrupted our marriage.

Charles lost his interest in politics with the death of Roosevelt. He also lost interest in government employment and seemed restless. He was interested in Black Mountain College and had told us about his commuting from Washington for monthly lectures. He later joined the faculty, but for a year or so he seemed to be free of job responsibility and spent much time visiting friends in Gloucester, Boston and New York. Mother and Barbara kept the Randolph Place house and Charles and Connie stayed with them when in town. During this period Connie worked for Best and Company as well as for a coal company and a school of nursing. I cant recall exact dates because Mel and I were busy with our own family, and letters between Washington and Hingham were infrequent.

There was a great family reunion during the winter of 1945-46. Guests included Mels father and Charless mother as well as mother, Barbara, Charles and Connie. The small duplex consisted of living room and kitchen downstairs, two bedrooms and bath up. Housing eight, plus a three year old, presented a problem, but we managed. We had expected all the guests for Christmas Day and night and hoped that mother would remain with us for a few more days. We felt we could tolerate cramped quarters for two nights, that the joy of reunion would make up for the inconvenience of sleeping arrangements. Our bedroom had an alcove. We put a convertible sofa there for Charles and Connie. Twin beds were moved from Paulas room to our room. We put mother and Mary Olson in the twin beds. A cot was added along one wall for Barbara. We moved our bed into Paulas room. She slept in a crib. Pa was bedded down on a cot in the kitchen, which fortunately was a large room.

Christmas was pleasant. With so many good cooks, the food was superb and Charles was in his glory. The cramped quarters were ignored. Mary was delighted to be with her son again, Pa was happy to have his soldier son home from the wars, and I was probably the happiest person of all to see everyone gathered under my roof.

Barbara and Pa were the first to leave. She had to be back at her job in Washington, Pa to his in Boston. Mother had a few days leave from her Washington job and she stayed on through the New Year. Charles left for visits to Boston and Gloucester, leaving his mother with us. Mary was content to stay, rocking away each day, recalling from time to time stories of Charless boyhood. She was proud of her sons intellectual achievements and his academic success, but lamented his unorthodox behavior that sometimes shocked her. She was a religious woman, a devout Catholic, and Charles had been reared as a Catholic. She showed us his Phi Beta Kappa key that she kept in her purse. She shook her head and said he could be doing many fine things instead of wandering around the country and talking of poetry. She would have been proud to see him an attorney, a professor or president of a corporation. She didnt like his drinking and what to her seemed blasphemy as he poked fun at the church.

Despite his seemingly blasphemous attitude, Charles had a certain respect for the church. Although he disliked its politics he seemed to retain a sentiment for the faith in which he was reared. He respected Marys need to attend mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and on the Christmas they spent with us he insisted that Mel get out the shovel and clear a path through a foot of snow so that Mary could get out to the car and be driven to mass. When, a few years later, Mel and I joined the Unitarian Church, Charles seemed almost outraged. What in hell did you do that for? he said. Thats not a religion, thats a forum.

But, to get back to Hingham and the family reunion: Mary left for Worcester where she spent the winter months, and mother returned to her job at the YMCA. Charles and Connie lingered on. Mel began to get a little touchy about the loss of his bedroom. We wished to move the furniture back, and he needed to get his business files in order in the alcove that he used for an office. It wasnt as if the Olsons had no home; after all, the Randolph Place house, although occupied by mother who paid the rent, was still home to them. Mel and I wondered what was going on with our guests. It was now nearing the middle of January and they had been with us for three weeks.

One day as I was coming down the stairs I heard Charles say to Connie (they were sitting in the kitchen): Look at that grove of pine trees, the sun on the snow, thats pretty nice, eh, Babe? Not a bad place for us to hole up for the winter. Were near the train to Boston. . . . My hand tightened on the railing. Oh, Lord! Wait till Mel hears this, I said to myself. I knew he was suppressing his outrage. I had to do something about the situation, but wanted to be tactful. I mentioned to Connie that Mel would really like to get back into his bedroom, that he also needed the alcove for his work. I suggested that she and Charles could move in with little Paula if they wanted to stay longer in New England.

That was all that was needed. Within two days Charles and Connie were saying goodbye at the South Station as we put them on board the train to Washington. I guess Charles could not abide the thought of sharing a room with a child.

Later that year, when we went to Washington for a visit, Charles surprised us by inviting Paula to the circus. He told us that the star of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus that year was a certain Lalage, a lady who could swing from on high, hanging on to a rope with her teeth. I was apprehensive about sending such a little tot off with Charles. Not only had he seemed not to like children, he was so tall I couldnt see how he could hold on to her hand. Charles said he would be very careful and would carry Paula through the crowds. Paula seemed to like the idea and off the two went. They returned in due time, much to my relief, both of them smiling and chattering away about Lalage and other circus attractions. Charles explained that as they walked through the sideshows he fastened one end of Paulas balloon stick to her wrist while he handled the other, and so they got through very well.

An interesting sideline to the circus story was Charless interest in Lalage. Perhaps he used Paula as an excuse to get to the circus and see the lady who swung by her teeth. Soon after the evening meal Charles announced he was going to return to the circus to see the aerial artist. He told us she was so marvelous he wanted to talk to her in person. He urged Connie to go along with him. Connie seemed skeptical. She said she didnt want to go to a circus, and suggested he forget the Lalage business. There were a few words. Charles insisted he had to meet Lalage, that he was fascinated by her act. Connie was just as firm in her opposition. Charles finally terminated the discussion by wheeling around and heading for the front door, saying goodbye to all as he left. He didnt return for several hours and then told us all about meeting Lalage and having a great conversation with her about circus life and the art of swinging by ones teeth. The next day things were very strained between the Olsons. It was the first time I had seen Connie jealous, but it was not to be the last. Although Charles was faithful during this period, he loved meeting and being with beautiful women. If they were interesting as well, so much the better.


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