12 February 2021

John Black Journals - A Weekend With the Dirlams Part 1 of 2

I’ve written extensively about my cousin, John Baxter Black, who was a good friend and who influenced my interest in researching my family history. John was born in Mansfield, OH in 1924 and he died there in 2014 at the age of 90. From 1936, at the age of 12, to the week he died, John wrote a journal chronicling his daily activities and thoughts. 

John Black circa 1954
John left his journals to the New York Public Library, where I’ve reviewed a very small sampling. The collection is extensive and the process of transcribing pages from photos taken with my phone (the only method allowed) is daunting, but rewarding. I’m glad to have access to them. His diaries are dense, crowded with his tight, unique handwriting. I can read most of John’s entries quickly and easily, but it could be a challenge for others. He and I carried on written correspondence for 18 years, many of his letters being handwritten, so I have evolved into an expert at interpreting his scrawl! He wrote to me using a fountain pen in black ink, which matches these entries. 

John comes alive for me in these entries. I read his words and I can hear him speak. I picture him as he chronicles his observations and personality studies, along with his own insecurities and worries. 

Peter Black circa 1954
This short three-day excerpt from John’s diaries describes a weekend visit that John and his brother Peter made to my grandparents’ house in North Stonington, Connecticut. Over the weekend he encounters my mother, age 12, and her younger sisters, but they are not named in the entry other than collectively. They were “all good.” 

In 1954, at the time of these entries, John was 30 years old and lived in an apartment at on East 67th Street in New York City, just a few steps from Central Park. He was in the process of editing his one and only novel, The Night the Americans Came, which was published eight years later in London. 

At this moment in time, he was reading two books that he had purchased earlier in the month: The Diaries of Virginia Woolf and Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece (Raverat, a wood engraver in England who died a few years later, was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter). 

One note: when John reached the end of a page, he would continue at the top of the same page and sometimes on to other pages in the diary. With this bit of context, the entries for those three days: 

Friday, January 15, 1954

A bit of editing (less fantastically unreal today & more simply easy), a bit of Gwen Ravarat, a few diary entries, a nice letter from Fred, a good lunch at noon at Nancy Lord’s at a table next to a fascinating & scholarly conversation between 2 Rockerfeller [sic] Foundation men on the development of the tropics (which will be done ultimately not by the whites but by the negroes), & some shopping (in & above 55th St.). I walked abt the cold streets jauntily, feeling happy & bright. And everything, as the aft. drew on, was so external, so easy, & so pleasant that really – since Marion isn’t going along – I just didn’t much want to leave for the Dirlams’. But at any rate, the weekend won’t be interrupting anything. To Tudor City at 6 to a little apartment-hotel-looking flatlet which Helen Stevens has sublet for a month & where she gave martinis & then sliced ham & potato salad to Peter, Dickie, & me. Ah, poor Helen is so nice, & she tries so hard - & w/all of this she is so very attractive – that one does feels sorry for her. Then Peter & I left & ran almost the entire way to Grand Central to get an 8 o’clock train which was steamy & hot, w/cold vestibules, & full of more or less drunken soldiers. We spent abt the 1st half of the trip recuperating from all our running, & after that ate sandwiches & drank milk & (I) stood on one of the cold vestibules as snow sifted in. And Joel met us at Westerly at 10.45. Their house is far more furnished & proper than it was the last time I was there; Barbara sat w/us over (very small glasses of) milk for ½ hour before we went to bed; she was very tired & we were conventional. The head of my bed slopes down hill – Peter & I are in the “apartment”, that group of rooms in the middle of the house upstairs w/only one door connecting it w/the rest - & I didn’t go to sleep for hours & lay there not being able to breathe & being certain that the whole weekend was going to be “empty & forced” & thinking w/horror abt having to go through w/it.

People mentioned on Friday, January 15, 1954:
(save Joel and Barbara Dirlam – their detail will follow at the end of part 2) 

Marion Coughlin circa 1954
Freddy English: “letter from Fred,” a long-term friend of John’s to whom John gave his New York apartment when John took a flat in London in the late 1960s. Today, February 2021, Freddy is still in the New York apartment more than 50 years later (see my blog entry about Edward Gorey for more context of Freddy’s multiple and surprising connections with my family). 

Marion Coughlin: “Marion,” a good friend who appears regularly in John’s diaries. She had originally intended to visit the Dirlams with John and Peter that weekend, but she got caught up in work at the Ford Foundation and had to remain in New York.

Helen Stevens: Née Helen Thomas, she was from an old Greenwich, CT family and was related to John and Peter through their Uncle Roger, who married Helen’s sister Elizabeth. Helen was living in Greenwich at the time, so it’s interesting that she was subletting an apartment in New York too.

Richard Stolley, age 25: “Peter, Dickie, and me,” were served drinks at Helen Stevens’ on Friday. Dickie is Dick Stolley, whom John had encountered on January 4 on the train from Mansfield to New York on his return from the Christmas and New Year holidays. His January 4 entry about the encounter: “… Dick Stolly [sic] (Anne Shawber’s fiancé) turned out to be on the train, & I talked Life & magazine reporting & state laws w/him until New York... A fresh-faced, pleasantly enthusiastic, nice boy.” Dick had joined Life magazine the previous year, 1953, and had a long and illustrious career there, including as the first managing editor of the new People magazine on its launch. He retired in 2014, after 61 years with Life and its successors. Born in 1928, he is currently 92 years old.

Saturday, January 16, 1954

The “empty & forced” business was (of course) entirely wrong. Peter spent the morning (after 10.30, when we got up) playing the piano in the front parlor, & I spent it leaning on the kitchen sink, drying dishes & talking w/Barbara abt her analysis (once a week at a clinic in New Haven), which is certainly being good for her – making her firmer, surer, less hyper-sensitive, more efficient & able to cope w/a) the children & b) Aunt Reba. We chattered along – as I am so good at doing w/young married women. Until 1, when Joel came back from errands in Westerly w/the just-divorced wife of a former Lincoln (Pa.) professor & the only other houseguest besides Peter & me, one Jane. Tall, young, blonde, & New Yorky; she dances semi-professionally & has a baby face - & is a most unusual sort of friend for the Dirlams to produce. However, every time that you begin to think that she was getting just too New Yorky – bleached-insipid, her basic intelligence & her good set of values would come through & (more or less) save the day. The aft. was pleasant enough; we all helped to straighten up & organize a big upstairs corner room, some of the junk, old pictures & letters, & cracked dishes & general minutiae in which was fun. The children were all good & at least reasonably attractive, & the house really is charming. The dark old boards walling in the back stairway (& reminiscent of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s inn at Calais); the wide, vertical boards at the end of the living room; the cream paint on the huge stone kitchen chimney; the beautiful paneling on the fireplace wall of the upstairs “apartment” (which, oh! I should love to have to furnish). The sense of the 18th C - & a not wholly rustic 18th C – prevailing there! We all drove in to New London this eve. to see the movie “Jeux Interdits” (more weird & pathetic than I had remembered) at the fine great auditorium of Conn. College (where J. now teaches); & then to a small & very pleasant party – of exclusively faculty members – in the low well-built Swedish-modern new house of one of them. The men tended to be effeminate & the women old maids, but neither in an objectionable way, & they all were lively & intelligent. I pitched right in w/a history teacher, Miss New, & covered New London history, Miss New’s dormitory duties, & the passivity of Conn. College girls (because, as opposed to Radcliffe, Wellesley, & Smith ones, they come from finishing schools); & Peter talked to a considerably nicer, easier, & less neurotic woman abt. Ireland. The place of Psychology in the curriculum was discussed generally (& adversely), & on the way back to Joel’s in the station wagon we discussed, of course, the party.


People mentioned on Saturday, January 16, 1954:

Jane Adele Mabbott: “…just-divorced wife of a former Lincoln (Pa.) professor, … Jane.” My mother Hilary remembers her. Jane was the recent ex-wife of Bernie Barrow, who taught acting and was later a star of the Ryan’s Hope soap opera, playing the patriarch of the Ryan family. According to Wikipedia, he taught drama at Brooklyn College for three decades, so it’s likely that he was earlier at Lincoln University (a Historically Black College, which was the location of Joel’s first academic posting), and that Joel and Barbara had met Jane there.

Miss New: a professor of History at Connecticut College and, it seems, a dormitory head.

To be continued….


Journal excerpts and photographs:

John Baxter Black diaries and family papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. http://archives.nypl.org/mss/23785

Bernie Barrow background: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bernard_Barrow&oldid=941360582

Richard Stolley background: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Richard_Stolley&oldid=907972863

John and Peter Black photographs: in my possession, received from their estate.

Marion Coughlin photograph: From John Black's personal photo album, scanned with permission October 14, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment