1931 European Letter from an MIT Grad, Feb 27
Prologue: When J. G. C. received his masters degree in Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930 he was awarded a fellowship for a year of study and travel in Europe. He left in February, 1931 and remained there until June, 1932. He became a successful architect in New York City, as well as an excellent painter.
The writer is my grand-uncle, and our family has enjoyed sharing these letters for generations. I think they're interesting because they are a window into the everyday life, travelling style, and speech patterns of a different era, and because (more in later letters than this one) you can see the effects of the Great Depression and hints of European preparation for World War II.
Paris Feb. 27 1931
Dear dad, mother, Ginny, Christine, Robert, Lucille, the army, the navy, and all tax-payers (N.B. if anyone has been neglected refer the matter to the Dept. of State and they'll be included in the next roll call).
Well here we are in Paris - staying in at night to get a letter written. I'll bet that's something that no other American ever did his first three or four nights here.
Guess I might just as well start at the beginning and go right through last week and a half. To begin with mother - you save the letters somewhere so they can all be kept - in the chest or somewhere - not a writing desk drawer - 'cause these letters for the next year will probably be the only written record of my trip - I never could keep a diary and who wants to anyway. Wish I had my typewriter - I'd type them - then they'd be nicer to keep.
Will go back to Tues Feb. 17 at 11:45 - I surely hated to say good-bye to you dad and kiss you good-bye mother - gee a whole year is a long time - but my gol there are 52 weeks in it - and in a very few days - two of them will be gone already. You took it much better than I thought you would mother - gee I hope you didn't feel badly and cry afterwards. Did you? For a few minutes after you left the boat I thought I wouldn't see you again - I didn't know you could get out on the end of the pier and I was looking in all the openings for you. It surely was good to finally spot you and kept my eye on you all until we were way out in the harbor, where the boat starts to move - it wastes no time does it. Gee, I got a few shots of the thing moving out, but maybe they are cock-eyed. It's a big thrill going down the harbor - and seeing that huge mass of buildings - wonder if I'll ever build a pent house on top of one of them. Soon we came to the battery and I thought of last August when we all went over the same spot and saw the same buildings on the boat for Cony Island. Then we passed the Statue of Liberty and a few warehouses and then came lunch. After lunch we came up - and my gol we had lost sight of land so soon. Might as well handle one thing at a time and tell about the trip - the eats - people - activities, etc. The first day was O.K. but during the night it felt rough. I didn't do anything much that first day. I was awfully tired - so I slept most of the time - read a little had lunch - monkeyed around some - danced a little and went to bed. As I said it got rough during the night - and was very rough for two days. The next noon at lunch it struck me - yep I got seasick. Left the table, did the ancient and old customs and laid down - not to get up again very much for two days - just what I found you shouldn't do - but boy, it takes lots of willpower not to - 'cause there isn't another thing in this world you ant to do - except maybe find an island. Well, as I said two days I was sick - ate no meals except some orange juice and two apples each day - that I had in my cabin - didn't want them. When the boy would go over the ship pounding on that big brass plate announcing dinner or lunch I'd just roll over. The weather was very bad - at that time - water very rough - sometimes it seemed as if the boat would stand on end and sink - they had the pianos tied to the wall. The officer said that it was very rough so guess it was. Anyway - just to see if I was alone in my glory I asked if others were seasick - over half the ship was - and later men told me - who had crossed many times before that they were sick for the first time. So I should worry. It was raining hard and very foggy for three days - four in fact - through my birthday. On that day I decided I couldn't stay in bed all day and not eat and be able to get off the boat when it landed. At the same time I decided if ever again I was foolish enough to go on an ocean trip - I'd take an aeroplane across - but before the trip was over I decided I'd go by row boat - so the trip would last longer. It was swell - perfectly swell! On my birthday I got three radiograms - one from Ossie, one from Mary Lou and one from Mr. Nerney of Providence - you know the man, I gave you his address Robert. But on that day I went way up on the top deck and walked around for over an hour - it's called the sun deck - but that day all that was there was rain and fog and wind enough to hold out your shirt tail and stop the boat. But I felt much better and the next day, the sun came out - still very rough though - and I felt fine - and never felt better in my life from then on. We had more rough weather so hope I've had my one and only.
We didn't get much sunshine - only two days and then but two hours each one. Plenty of rain - and lots of fog - but gee - if we could have such a wonderful time in such weather - with a small boat load, etc., what kind of time could you have in wonderful weather and full season. It really was a marvelous trip all in all - and I'm all for you taking it. When you do go the way I did - cabin boat - cabin class - French Line - the officers do everything to give you a good time.
Having so much fog held us up a lot - so instead of eight days it was nine - we just got in Paris yesterday noon - Thursday.
The worse part of the whole trip was the last ten hours - after we had left so many friends at Plymouth and we were crossing the channel. Boy! It was a typical channel for fog - typical England. You couldn't see 100 yds ahead of the boat. It was terrible. They had taken down the deck tennis stuff, rolled up the golf green, put away all the stuff to play with - no movies - just sit around because it was so evident they were closing the place up. You began to realize what good friends you'd made and you were soon to say good-bye.
We arrived at Plymouth, England at noon in lots of fog and rain. But gee, it was pretty. It has no docks - a big bot comes out to get the passengers. We entered the harbor - oh first we took on the pilot. He came out in an old fishing smack - and then rowed up to the boat in a little row boat - they let down a rope ladder from the hatch by my state room and took him on - he nearly fell in, it was so rough. He slipped and grabbed the thing just in time. Well, we entered the harbor - and the land had lots of points and they rose quite rapidly to I suppose some high hills - but the fog stayed about a hundred feet above the water so they just rose right up and disappeared into the fog like so many bean stalks in Jack and the Bean Stalk you used to tell me about dad, out in the hammock between the cherry trees on Washington Ave. And gee, there was a little lighthouse station with the most powerful fog horn right on the farthest point - and it was bellowing out its defiance to us. And right behind all over the hills - and being hid every now and then by some over ambitious fog - ran the prettiest green strip you ever did see - gee it was a pretty green. That was all you could see - just this little bit - but somehow it was exactly as I expected England to look - and far different than France did only a few miles away. Oh yes - the waves were busting up on the rocks - very lazily - but pure white and of course everything else was dull - so the waves were beautiful - and then this green - and right down at the foot nestled a little British destroyer - it was prefect.
The boat came along side - they began yelling English - the first I'd heard boat people use in ages it seemed - and the luggage was changed, the passports looked at and good-byes said and the boat chugged away --soon we did. We were due to arrive at Havre in about 8 or 10 hours - but because of the fog we didn't get in sight of it till about mid-night. We docked about one a.m. Thursday. They took the Pilot on the same way - and boy was it pouring out - wow - terrible. One Frenchman said, "Ah, my dear sunny France - it's just as sunny as when I left it." - pouring both times. Gee the docking at Havre was interesting. Havre is a great seaport - much to my surprise - Cherbourg where other lines stop is just a place to get off - no docks - in small boats, but Havre - gee, rows and rows of the most modern docks with great cranes on railroad tracks - coaling stations - just commerce personified - and beautiful industrial docks. It was beautful - all the lights and everything. We were pushed broadside into the wharf at about one a.m. as I said. Now to change and go back about eight days on some other topic.
The food is wonderful on the French Line - naturally with French chefs. Oh yes, while I remember it - only about four hours out of N.Y. and we passed the "Paris" one of the largest and newest lines afloat - going to N.Y. Gee it was pretty - you get a big kick out of seeing that. We passed no other boat except one little freighter all the time - and that was right near England. Boy! were they tossing around - not much. Well, we're in the dining room. They bring you a menu that looks as long as an index of a Sears Roebuck catalogue. I have some for lunch and dinner if I can mail them to you some way. Anyway, there is just gobs and gobs of food - fruits, cakes - fish - meats - duck, chicken, squab - steak - soups - omlettes, fancy French cakes, ice cream, etc. - plenty. The coffee is lousy - order French - they bring it in a small cup - the only difference I could see in it was that it was the same coffee - only the American coffee was worse 'cause they bring it in a young bathtub, so you have more to suffer over.
Ginny, I'm sitting here eating away on your fudge - the last I'll get in a whole year - hate to finish up it - it's so good - and you were so good to make it. Thanks heaps and heaps - and just to show my appreciation I'll put in my order for lots more - right away to be delivered a year from now - and from then on - O.K.? And gee, thanks heaps Ginny for the nuts and the Ma Walkers Chocolates - you surely are a peach. And mother, while I remember it - you're probably anxious - yep, the cold disappeared somewhere in that fog - the tooth hurts no more - and I'm still sober. Don't worry any more about any of them - the cold won't be back - the tooth won't be back - either will its hurt - and I won't be sober any longer - in fact I've fully decided you won't mind if I get tight for the year of 1931.
Well, back to the dining room again. The captain was there only twice - so much fog - he's always on the bridge when there's fog. My table was just two away from his. Washington' Birthday they had a special dinner - as also the Captain's dinner the last night. Special menus and everything for Wash. Birthday. I didn't notice what special things they had on my birthday - I wasn't in the dining room. Would you like to see the menus? I'll get everything together and send it over one of these times, along with the newspaper printed on board every day - oh lots of brick things. Well, that's enough for telling about the eats.
Now for the day - the first three days as I said - are just left blank on the great ledger recording the happenings of our lives. From there on though things happened. My regular rising time was about 10:30 - seeing we never went to bed until about 3 or later. At midnight every night we'd set our watches ahead half an hour - we are now four hours ahead of you - noon in Batavia - four in the afternoon here. After I'd take a shower - read the papers - get dressed etc., we'd go up, play some ping pong or deck tennis and go to lunch. Several times I threatened to get down and write a letter but only two short letters were written the entire trip and I had the best intentions of writing everyone I ever knew and long ones at that - but - here I am - and thus I ever shall be, I'm afraid. After lunch we'd go play deck tennis again even if it did rain. At 2:30 they'd have a Punch and Judy show for the kids in the kids room - there were always lots of older people there. Punch & Judy seems to be a real institution in France, like gum chewing among American stenographers. At three o'clock there'd be boxing matches & fencing matches - and some afternoons horse racing - cardboard horses - moved by throwing dice. People would bet and bet plenty on them. But everyone seemed to get a big kick out of it. At 5:15 there'd be about 6 or 8 reels of movies - Harold Lloyd, etc. - silent - with both French and English. Then dress for dinner - then after dinner a concert by the orchestra - or people on the boat - and about 10:00 o'clock dancing. It's funny as the deuce to dance to that darn music French orchestras play - awfully funny time - and boy it's funny to dance with the floor pitching around. Well, by the time one or two o'clock rolled around we'd still be dancing and then talking and before you knew it it was time for breakfast or at least to go change your socks and start another day. So you see dad & mother - that I really had good intentions in letterwriting but they were all knocked for a loop. Next to the last night was the Costume Ball. Some of the girls dressed in costume - the fellows all in tuxes - on every night. A Spaniard on boat fixed up as a clown - and for 3/4 hour entertained everyone with pantomine - tricks, etc. He was darn good. That dance lasted till 4:00 as did the next night. Following the concert there was a Metropolitan Opera singer - and Phil. Opera singer aboard and they both sang.
Now for the people - the majority by far were French - and gee believe it or not I'm really beginning to struggle along with it - before I couldn't say one word - now I can say one word. But it was a lot of fun trying to talk. Most of them could speak a little English - we got along beautifully. There were the 5 European girls who won some kind of a Gloria Swanson contest and got a trip to the U.S. for looking the most like Gloria Swanson. They were good looking - but the typical type that go in beauty contests. There were three dancers who are going to dance in the Moulin Rouge here in Paris, and four Spaniards, 3 men (about 30 - 35) and their good looking sister, who are famous musicians and just finished up a tour of U.S. Played in a special concert before Pres. Hoover & Mrs. Hoover - the Agila brothers and their sister - they play the lute - an old Spanish instrument like a large guitar. They were darn good sports - and wonderful dancers. The sister couldn't speak any English - but I danced with her quite a bit and talked the best I could in French. At my table was a fellow from Tech - a Jr. who just got kicked out - F. Beattie from Rochester - never knew him before. And a girl from Vassar who with her aunt (also at the table) as chaperone was going to Oxford to study. She's a great big horse but a good sport - very wealthy from Hartford, Conn. There was a Frenchman & his American wife - a Vassar grad, who in the last 15 minutes of the entire nine days, just as we were coming into Paris, I found out are very good friends of Mr. Easley - the Guignet - pronounced - Gee - (like "key" only G instead of K) - Gee-nay (or neigh - like neighbor) from Jens ? France. There weren't a great many young people on the boat but for me. I found a girl from Uni. of Ill. who is going to study here for one year or more - from Rockford Ill. Her father is a lawyer - over all alone - but the kind of a girl, if I were her father I wouldn't worry either. Very level headed - a wonderful sport - wishes she had been a boy so she could do the things boys do - and darn good looking. She's a lot like T. Coombs - you've heard me speak of so often. I think we'll have a lot of fun travelling around Paris together. She wants to go places here - where she naturally can't go alone - and all Dutch treat - won't let anyone pay anything for her - except here and there little things - and is just a darn good sport - oh yes, she looks and is a lot - very, very much - like E. Woodward.
Gee, you know I've written steadily for 2 1/2 hours - as I'll just be marking time here in Paris for about a week - with no where's near as much to write about - I think you'd rather hear in another letter in a few days - than all now and then nothing for a couple of weeks. Anyway that's what's going to happen. I'll take you from the landing at Havre to where I am now next letter, real soon. I think lots of you - it doesn't seem possible there is 3000 miles between us - that I'm really in Europe, but guess I am - no once can understand me. Bye - and lots of love - wish you were here. Jimmie
P.S. what news of a job Robert. Here's hoping you get out - and darn soon. Here's a slip for gas dad - found it in my pocket.