The Idylls of the Queen

I am in trouble at home.
"Don't use that language with me, young lady. Come here and let me wash your mouth out with soap," my mother was saying to me. I was a high school freshman. I had told mother that our English and gym teacher Miss Fitzgerald had said to me, "Go to hell," when I told her that my mother made me wash out my gym suit after every class. This was a lie. I didn't want to wash the suit, and was, in fact, only using my mother's language as if everyone used it, to get out of washing it. Mother knew Miss Fitzgerald to be the perfect model of decorum who could never indulge in such language. "You're lying. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a liar. Come here." Mother made me stand over the kitchen sink, while she put the bar of soap into my mouth, washing my mouth out with soap, as she promised, to clean it out. My mother had caught me out, but I didn't give up. "Buddy can say 'Go to hell' and you don't say anything," I whined after my punishment was over. I was good at diverting her attention from me to others. I liked to get my brother in trouble, to point out to Mother that her spoiled darling was no model. "You're all hellions!" she muttered.
Mother picked on us, criticizing us, so we picked on and found fault with each other. I chiefly found fault with Joe (Buddy), who seemed idle, never having to work as we did, allowed to lie around on the sofa or sit at his desk drawing pictures of cars and planes. I frequently got into fights with him. I was glad when he showed any weakness that I could exploit and report to Mother. I was becoming as good at finding fault as my mother was. I couldn't find anything wrong with my sister Kathleen, who was my companion in many things, and more compliant, less critical, less inflamed by Mother. She responded by passivity, avoiding confrontation and not communicating anything to Mother, for fear that she would disapprove. Carol was still too young to be criticized.

To avoid further censure and win Mother's approval, I tried to be "in" thinking she would like me more if I were popular. I went through the freshman year at Bishop Hogan High School in Kansas City, unnoticed, studious, concentrating on my Latin, English, math, religion, history. I took it all seriously and wanted to excel in everything. I could write, I was good at languages, I loved math. I loved to read poetry and novels and plays. What didn't I like?

I looked with envy on the popular girls--cute girls with curly hair--cheerleaders like Pat O'Hara, Rita Fisher, Betty Jean Robinson, Arden Wood, Carole Ballard-most of whom were about 5'2". I was lost in a sea of girls--there were 77 girls and only 33 boys in our Hogan class of 1948. It seemed to me that many of the interesting boys had gone to Rockhurst, the Jesuit high school. I was stuck in an all-girl homeroom my sophomore year. I became envious of those who stood out from the pack. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be "in."

I was "in" with one crowd--the debate team and the literary group--outstanding, clever girls like Marie Schmid, Mary Cross, Esther Hart, Pat McIlvain, Barbara Rau, Mary Jo Gorman, Regina Hodes, Pat Maggard, who could write and speak well. We were all on the debate team and took part in oratory and debate contests around the city and even beyond.

In spite of my success with these, they were not "in" as far as I was concerned. I became a "wannabe." I wanted to be a cheerleader. A cheerleader was the height of "in." I wanted a letter. I would go out for cheerleader. That way I would be sure to know the popular athletes, cheerleaders, Rockhurst seniors. I would develop "pep." Pep would get me "in."

Oh, to be a cheerleader!
I worked on my cheers: "Hogan, Hogan, Rah, Rah Rah! Warriors, Warriors, Sis Boom, Bah!" I shouted and leaped about in the living room. Mother witheringly told me I didn't stand a chance; I was too tall and awkward. In school I sat in class and stared at the cheerleaders. How I wished that I had red curly hair and were five foot two like Pat O'Hara, instead of having straight brown hair and being five foot ten. Betty Jean Robinson and Arden Wood, "Mickey Corless," and Norma Savage all were chosen and received a letter "H" and got to know all the athletes. I failed to make the cheerleaders squad, so I did the next best thing. I joined the Pep Club my sophomore year and got to wear a maroon jacket with a letter "H" and sit in the pep section at all the games. I was somewhat "in." I was elected vice-president of the club my junior year, so I volunteered my mother to sew the letters on our new pep club jackets. At last she was the mother of someone who was "in."
The Pep Club was a big thing at Hogan. All the girls with pep were in it. We cheered at all the games, in our maroon wool jackets over white blouses and navy blue uniform skirts. I joined my junior year.

There were ninety-nine girls in the Pep club. I was lost in a sea of maroon and white ("Maroon and white--Fight! Fight!") How could I stand out???
"Pep" also meant knowing what was going on and spreading the news. I became a snoop, cultivating people who could tell me gossip. I was a tattle-tale, loving to have some bad words about someone that would interest my friends and perhaps shock my mother. I enjoyed shocking, being the first with the bad news. I told Mother what I thought she wanted to hear. Helen Schweiger was a good source, since she was older than I and knew the senior class gossip. "Anna Marie __________ is pregnant," I reported to Mother. I repeated rumors. "Mike ________ stole a pen from Martha." Mary Jo Gorman appealed to me because she had a snide sense of humor; she was ironic and sharp-tongued. Although I specialized in shocking news, I boasted, puffed myself and my exploits at school and puffed my friends up to my mother.


I tried to make myself seem interesting. "I'm taking classes at the Art Gallery on Satudays," or "Jimmy called me last night," I told my friends. My announcement that "Martha Van Zandt can trace her family back before the Revolution," impressed Mother but maybe it annoyed her a bit. Did she detect a criticism that we could not? This remark prompted her to reply mysteriously, "We are related to Aaron Burr." I tried this out at school but since I had no details, no one was impressed.

There were some remarkable girls in our class. Artists Helen Schorfheide and Virginia Lenge were among my best friends. Writers were Carolyn (Lindy) Flanigan who became editor of the yearbook; Marie Schmidt, who edited the school paper, the Hogan Citizen; Patsy Maggard who won all the apologetics and oratory contests and could give an extemporaneous speech on any topic with only a few minutes preparation. Esther Hart won all the drama contests. I still remember her as Regina Hubbard in The Little Foxes. She would go on to a drama career in Chicago where we became good friends until her death in 2009. Regina Hodes and Pat McIlvain were also debaters who knew all about current events and were in my circle of friends.

Debate
Physics

I sought for more opportunities to distinguish myself at school. I went out for things that interested me-speech and debate-I was Roger Rudd's debate partner. I was quite good at Latin and received a Magna cum Laude on one of the national Latin exams. Although achievements were noted in the newspaper and yearbook, it was hard to shine in those days when schools catered to the best students, not the worst. There were just too many other girls good or better at the same things.

Debate was big in my life--every weekend there seemed to be another debate tournament. Pat McIlvain was my partner my junior year, and Roger my senior year. One topic I remember debating was "national health insurance" --the Murray Wagner Dingell bill which had been introduced in 1943, but failed. It was a perennially popular topic. I was in favor of it then, and am still in favor (and now in 2010, the bill has finally passed).


Debate still didn't get me "in."

I unknowingly got my chance senior year. I had an elective, along with Latin IV and English IV and trigonometry, I needed a science class. A lot of girls took chemistry--in case they might want to be nurses some day---but none of them took physics. I wasn't interested in being a nurse. I liked challenging subjects, so I signed up for physics and was the only girl to do so. The class was full of the best and the brightest of the senior boys---athletes included. What could be more perfect! Suddenly I was noticed. Roger Rudd had been my debate partner and we decided to be physics partners as well. Jimmy Hense and Roger and I competed and called each other at night to talk about our homework, and a lot of silly things--the sillier the better.

Norman

Jimmy


I first met Norman Shetler in a classroom one afternoon during one of the first weeks at school my senior year, just as I was on the cusp of popularity. He came after school to a meeting of the newspaper staff, looking for someone to sign up with to write a column for the newspaper, a gossip column he intended to call "The Great White Also." He approached me. He would like to "apply for a job." At his first words I began laughing. He had arrived at our school just this year, transferring from Nebraska where his father was a sort of "music man," organizing town and school band. He was the same age as we but he was a year behind us because where he came from they had eight grades of grammar school, not seven, the way Kansas City did then.

He was unique There was magic between us. Everything he said or did made me laugh. Norman seemed to look up to me as someone who recognized his potential, so I immediately adopted him. I would be his "social sponsor," introducing him to the "right people."

"You have come to the right person," I assured him. "I will write you a letter of recommendation." Jim Hense was a reporter for The Citizen, the school paper. I could have just introduced him to my friend Mary Cross, the editor, but I wanted to play with him and flirt with Jimmy. Up until this year, I had been very studious and hadn't bothered about socializing with "the right people" myself, but I knew who they were. Jimmy, for example, was someone very witty and literary who I knew would appreciate Norman, so I wrote a solemn ( and flattering) letter to Jimmy, as if to someone very important and necessary to know socially for a newcomer to Hogan High School who wished to "get on with the right sort." In my letter, which I howled over as I typed it at home that night, I introduced Norman to Jimmy, "To whom it may concern: This is to introduce to you Norman Shetler." I said that he had come from the South and had a "checkered past," but that we should over look that. I apologized for the fact that he was only a junior, poor dear, but suggested that nevertheless, he was someone whom we should "cultivate." I had never used the word "cultivate" before. I have probably "cultivated" people since, but Norman was my first consciously cultivated friend. I knew that Norman and Jimmy would both relish the mock introduction.

Jimmy did indeed meet Norman and we three became fast friends. Norman brought out Jimmy's wit too. I couldn't stop laughing at Norman--and Jimmy when they together--and I felt like saying outrageous things in return. He had a sort of mock-snobbish attitude, a theatricality, a self-possessed mature wit, that struck a chord in me at once. He liberated me. The fact that he was, at sixteen, already a pianist, who debuted in the Schumann Concerto in A with the Kansas City Philharmonic that year, didn't mean as much to me as that he was my pet, my mascot. I had discovered him. We couldn't wait for each issue of the paper to see what delicacies he had written about us in his humor column, "The Great White Also." He immortalized my dog Robin by writing that he was one of those invited to a party at my house. Norman used to call me up during the week, when I was supposed to be doing homework, and play a wire-recording of the latest Henry Morgan show for a laugh. One Good Friday evening as we were on the phone laughing over Henry Morgan, my mother told me we should be quiet because it was Good Friday. I felt a momentary tinge of guilt, then went right on laughing.

Mother did not know what to think of Norman at first, because of the odd way he looked and dressed, and the fact that he crocheted and knitted. He was so likeable though, that he won her over. I went to the first sock-hop of my senior year with him, even before I became "le dernier cri," and he took my hand confidently. He exuded self-confidence, probably because he was so secure about being a child prodigy. He made me think "I can do that" --not be a pianist, I don't mean, but be outrageously full of myself. In a sense he was my inspiration; his star quality rubbed off on me that year. However, he was a junior and I was a senior. And he didn't have a car. Moreover, he wore glasses and had long sandy hair, with an unruly lock falling over his high brow that he was continually tossing back. And he didn't know about fashion as Jimmy did, for he wore funny bow ties under V-neck sweaters. His favorite pair of slacks were checkered. He was somewhat "gauche," as Jimmy would say, about his appearance. Norman became my favorite because he was so witty. Sybil Lillie, also in Kathleen's class, also a bit eccentric, also a witty amusing literary person, who wrote for the paper, joined our group.

I suddenly belonged to an "in crowd" of boys, all smart, who went around with each other and were all in the physics class-Jim Hense, Roger Rudd, Jerry Flanagan, John Stevenson, Bob Dreiling, Don Scheier, Jack Mahoney, Mickey Havey, Joe Hart, John Burke. As we were seniors, some even had the use of cars and would come over unexpectedly in the evening, to "work on physics problems." They seemed to have no parental regulations, no hours when they had to be home studying, so they did not know that we were supposed to study every night after dinner.

A group of them just dropped in after dinner one October night, surprising us. My sister and I assumed that our mother would send them home, but to our surprise she invited them in, and from then on they were allowed to come to our house even on school nights. My mother, who had been so strict, suddenly became very lax, allowing us to have company in joyously excessive numbers.

All rules about homework seemed to have been thrown over (abandoned) in favor of our social lives.

It was inevitable that I pair up with someone in the group, and it was between Roger and Jimmy, although I cherished a secret fondness for Norman, but he was, after all, only a junior. I was physically attracted to Jimmy. He thought Kansas City was provincial and wanted to go to New York, or better, to France. He loved to practice his French and peppered his conversation with French phrases. He was a good mimic and storyteller. He wanted to be a writer and major in English in college.

Jimmy told us stories of the popular girls and boys at private high schools like Pembroke Country Day School for Boys and Barstow Academy for Girls. (Hogan was a co-ed Catholic high school where the tuition was much less.) He impressed us with tales of parties he attended with them. He even knew how to find out how much such people were worth by calling Dunn and Bradstreet. He followed fashion and knew the latest, "le dernier cri," and he shopped only at Jack Henry's where he bought his grey flannel slacks, cashmere sweaters, french cuffs and cuff-links. He clued me in on what to wear, where to go, what music to listen to. He could sometimes get his father's car to take me on dates. At Paup's, the teenage hangout where we went Friday or Saturday night, we danced to the latest hit songs. "There's just one place for me--near you" or "Evening shadows make me blue, when each dreary day is through; how I long to be with you, My Happiness. " Jimmy was the first to hold my hand in a movie, and the first to kiss me. He was the sentimental favorite.
Roger had been my debate partner for several years. In our senior year he and I agreed to be physics partners as well. He always knew more about physics than I; he it was who understood and developed our generator paper, which I typed for the A we received. He knew about topics like "farm parity," "socialized medicine," "compulsory arbitration of labor disputes," "compulsory military training," and other debate topics I had really no interest in. He developed our cases and I wrote and memorized a speech. He led our rebuttals.

He awed me with his brilliant mind. He was definitely smarter than I, and by the time we were seniors, I knew he understood me in a far more mature way than the others.

Roger frequently went with us to Paups on the weekend. He was even better at fast dancing than Jimmy. He threw himself into dancing. I especially loved his melodious resonant voice. Listening to him talk was like listening to music. It wasn't just his voice, it was also what he said. He was thoughtful and deep, like a Bach suite. But I was on a silly level and didn't want to hear profound truths about life and love which Roger alone could deliver. I was a little fearful of him because his feelings and thoughts were so intense. He was too grown up for me. I was afraid he wanted to marry me, so I didn't encourage him. He played along with our jokes, for he had silliness in him too, and his banter was literary. He could pick up ideas and tease them better than any of us. He was our conversational giant. We all appreciated verbal wit, and no one could equal Roger.

Une soiree chez moi

 

One evening Norman was with us, sitting around at our house. Norman was already pursuing his career in music, studying at the Conservatory while we had no idea what we wanted to do with our lives. He went to the piano, leaned back grandly as if he were going to play Schumann, then opening a book of folk songs, launched into a tinkly saloon piano version of Foggy Foggy Dew: "When I was a bach'lor, I lived all alone, I worked at the weaver's trade; and the only, only thing that I did that was wrong, was to woo a fair young maid. I wooed her in the winter time, part of the summer, too; and the only, only thing that I did that was wrong, was to keep her from the foggy, foggy, dew." He played wrong notes for "maid" and "dew" to make us laugh. He loved musical jokes. When it was someone's birthday, he would play many wrong notes in "Happy Birthday" and quickly correct them, as if he had just learned the piece. We all laughed; Mother laughed till she cried. We joined Norman on the next verses, singing with abandon, raising our eyebrows at the implication of the last line about keeping her from the "foggy, foggy dew" and bursting out laughing.

Mother joined us, of course; to exclude her might remove our privileges. "I'll make some popcorn," she offered. We all loved popcorn. She went into the kitchen, and from the living room near the piano we could hear her furiously popping; then the pops grew fewer as the pot grew full. Our mouths were watering by the time she arrived with overflowing bowls for us.

I loved them all so much. I couldn't decide which one I loved most as I lay on the oriental before the fireplace with my two chevaliers by my side. Jimmy was funny and a leader, while Roger was clever and serious at the same time, really more like me. Roger was my Cyrano who spoke interestingly and knowledgably about a mature subject in words which I knew were declarations of love. Jimmy was my Christian in his Jack Henry flannel slacks and cashmere sweaters. I should have chosen Roger but I chose Jimmy, who didn't even have his own car, as Roger remarked . Kathleen was tending another admirer Norman over another bowl on the couch. Mother sat with her own smaller bowl in a chair near the fireplace.
Tennis, anyone?" Jimmy squealed. He loved to interrupt whatever we were doing. He had seen a it in a play--a rich boy came into a glamorous house party where bored young debutantes were sitting around in pretty dresses with nothing to do. The athletic rich boy carried a tennis racket and said brightly in a very upper-class accent, "Tennis anyone?" Jimmy could mimic that bright, supercilious tone and that upper-class accent perfectly. He loved to jump in when there was a pause in our hilarity or a moment of silence in our conversation and throw out his golden tennis ball, his one-liner "Tennis anyone?" We thought it was droll. He never failed to get a laugh. It was very "in" of him, for it implied so much about us: we were never bored; we weren't rich, but we knew people (who went to other high schools) who were, and we assumed they weren't having as much fun as we, so we could make fun of them, while we reveled in our cleverness and gloried in our solidarity. "Tennis anyone" was our rallying cry. Anyone of us could say it and get a laugh of appreciation. "Would you like to hear me play?" Mother offered? "Of course," we all murmured and "Yes, please!"

"I wanted to be a concert pianist too, Norman; I used to practise nine hours a day." I had heard of mother's musical aspirations often before. As if to prove that she could have been a concert pianist, she sat down and began playing the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G Minor (C# Minor?), dramatically pounding all the heavy octaves. Mother had a rapt expression on her face and was charging her playing with an excess of passion. Norman applauded as if he were at a concert. "Brava!" "I could play Traumerei or Clair de Lune or another Rachmininoff piece with a lot of sharps," she offered. She impressed the others, but I wanted her to leave us alone so that I could enjoy my romance. . Nevertheless, the balm of the music spread over the living room and we all grew quiet. I lay on the floor between Cyrano and Christian, in a dither of joy, infatuated with love and music.
"Tennis, anyone?" Jimmy broke the spell. We all laughed at the cue, including Mother, who had suddenly become one of the crowd. Her strictness was gone; she had thrown over her rules, laughed at their jokes, lured them with popcorn, shown off with her music, even provided us with romantic accompaniment.

My father, however, liked go to bed about 10, leaving us sitting or lying about the living room eating popcorn in front of the fireplace. About 11:30, when he thought the party should be over, he threw down a shoe. I was forced out of my romantic foolishness.

My relations with my mother improved as a result of my popularity, and she makes plans to expand our social life. "You need to broaden your circle of friends. Why don't we have a Christmas open house? You can invite some friends over for Christmas carols, punch and cookies. Ask someone besides those same few boys and girls you always go around with. "


Ra Ra, Norman, Jimmy


She had gotten this idea from the open houses that other young girls in Kansas City-though not from Hogan-had.

Kathleen and I tried to please her by showing her that we could invite friends from Sunset Hill, Barstow and St. Teresa's as well as from Hogan and Lillis. I summoned up all my nerve and asked boys I admired from afar, not just the boys I went around with at Hogan, but boys from Rockhurst-- Tom Masterson, my cousin Bill Garies, our cousins the Spellmans, and students like LF from the time of my Rockhurst obsession.

Still, I felt glamorous in the new brocade skirt she had made for me, and with Jimmy and Roger and Norman, John Burke and Don Scheier, Mickey Havey, and Ra Ra, I was comfortable and was having fun with them, laughing and joking.



"Tennis, anyone?" Jimmy bellowed. "Remember you have other guests." I remember crowds of people, lots of food, my mother working very hard for us, but I didn't have a good time at my own Christmas party. "Mother is trying to make us debutantes," I complained to Kathleen.

I fed Mother what I wanted her to know of my increasingly interesting life. To avoid being taken over by her, I developed strategems to be allowed to follow my own course. I kept most of my secrets from her, confiding in Kathleen or Mary Jo. Kathleen didn't talk to her about her friends that much, but I talked to her, all right, and told her of my friendships, my boyfriends, dances at Paup's, to make my life sound ideal, to make her allow me everything I wanted to do, to paint a rosy picture of my life, so that she would not alter it to suit herself (as she had done when I was in dancing class and she tried to get someone to dance with me). I showed her that I already had plenty of work and partners, thank you, and did not need her help. I was busy being "peppy" and popular. I was also well-employed as her gossip and tattler.



When Mother became more interested in my life, I needed to divert her from paying too much attention to me. I needed gossip; I needed projects and friends who were doing things I could boast about: "Virginia is such a good artist." "Mary Jo has such a good sense of humor." I wanted to shape her opinions. I needed to have both targets of ridicule and subjects of boasts. I belittled people that Mother disapproved of (to get her approval, if I shared her disdain) and praised people I liked to her, fending off her disapproval. My tongue was sharpened into what I thought was wit.

I pretended to be enthusiastic about projects and friends, to have a busy schedule, so that she wouldn't feel sorry for me or feel she had to do something for me or find something for me to do, impose on me her own ideal life of bridge and teas and shopping.

Kathleen accepted Mother's life, but I rejected it all. I made up my own life; I starred in my own show. I was the director, producer, star. I was in various activities in high school--the debate squad, the pep club, the yearbook staff. I learned to have a full schedule, a full agenda that Mother would approve of. I feared emptiness, not having a goal, because my mother might give me a boring job, might impose her idea of a life on me. I later transferred this feeling of fullness to friends, wanting to have my own full agenda, not to be drawn into theirs. I report to everyone what I am doing so they will not ask me to do something I might not like. I do not have any secrets, any restraint. I would puff my plans in advance, so that Mother (and others) would know not to disturb me.


At 16, wearing the New Look

The Senior Prom!

 

By the end of my senior year, I had become popular even beyond my wildest dreams. Being the only girl in the physics class made me known to about twenty-five senior boys across the spectrum of athletes and intellectuals. I dated widely -- Jimmy, Roger, Don Scheier, John Burke. I always had a date on Saturday night. I was a new face, although I had been behind the scenes--debating, decorating, writing, painting--for four years. When the senior boys came to select a prom queen, I was the only new face. Esther Hart, who also had been steadily growing in her fame, had already been chosen homecoming queen. When I learned that the boys had gotten together to discuss who they would vote for for prom queen and had chosen me--moi! I was amazed, especially when I I looked back at the pictures of those beautiful girls who had been queens before me.

My birthday came around during the time leading up to the prom and on April 28, I awoke to my 17th birthday feeling how wonderful it was to be loved.

 

In spite of my feelings for Jimmy and Roger and Norman, Mickey Havey, who had started dating me when I became popular, let it out that he wanted to be my escort. In the boys' social order, he was more "in," so no one else asked me. Jimmy took Esther, Norman took Kathleen, Roger took Pat Malloy. We were all mixed up. Mother made me my prom dress-- a flounced white organdy dress over pink taffeta sheath, with matching pink taffeta cummerbund. Kathleen wore a green gown that mother had made for her. My dance card was full, with all my favorite physics classmates asking for dances--even the football players. I was embarrassed that I felt more comfortable talking to them about physics than about dancing or whatever we were supposed to talk about. I was never good at small talk unless with bosom friends. The next morning we all met for an early morning picnic in Swope Park. The weather was freezing, but who cared? I was carried along in a whirl of joy.

That year, when I felt no longer an alien but accepted and loved by all, was the peak of my social life. I "came out," more than I had ever dreamed. I had it all and I was only sixteen and seventeen. What more could life offer? I wanted more, but I rationalized that I had already enjoyed more than many other young woman would enjoy in her entire life. Perhaps I should give up the world for love of God and receive a hundredfold in the next life?


Kathleen's date for the prom was Norman Shetler

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