Posts made in February 14th, 2011

Love Letters, Chapter 8

I Married Them by Janet Dunning Van Duyn

New here? This is the eighth chapter of a story that began with a pair of love letters I purchased on ebay. Start from the beginning….

Happy Valentine’s Day! I have lots to report this week, including a phone call with Dr. John Van Duyn’s youngest daughter. I also have an update to my Villa Am Meer story, which I’ll (hopefully) post later this week.

But first! A book report on I Married Them, a humorous novel by Janet Dunning Van Duyn.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering how to pronounce the name Van Duyn. Is it Van-Doo-Win or Van-Doo-Ween? Well, the answer is neither. The actual pronunciation is Van-DINE.


A few things first… just to recap. Janet Dunning was the first wife of Dr. John Van Duyn (see Chapter 6 for full details). They were married December 21, 1935 in Syracuse, New York. After they were married, John and his new wife Janet moved into the Leavenworth Mansion at 607 James Street. They lived there with John’s parents, Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn and his wife Lucy (Leavenworth), as well as John’s younger sister, Constance. I Married Them is a fictional novel that depicts the real life of the prominent but eccentric Van Duyn family.

I first learned of this book’s existence when I found a biography of Janet Van Duyn in a 2002 book called Contemporary Authors (Publisher: Tom Gale). I did a search online and found a used copy for sale on ebay. I won the auction and paid $1.00 for the book, plus shipping.

I Married Them by Janet Van Duyn, ©1945

The book starts like this: “The train moved sluggishly across the New York Central trestle on East Hall Street, throwing up little puffs of smoke which hung depressingly in the morning sky.”

Aboard the train is Cleary, the eighty year old Irish seamstress for the MacLean (Van Duyn) family. She’d been the family seamstress for over sixty years, coming to work by horse car, cable car, “or whatever the current conveyance may be” to do the sewing (and whatever else had to be done) for the MacLean family.

“Most of East Hall Street is wide and beautiful, with great arching trees and venerable houses. The houses ranging along it in dignified rows from the trestle all the way up to the hill are solidly built painfully respectable, and appallingly homely.”

“The house on the corner of East Hall Street ad Sullivan Hill was no exception; there was plenty of smoke and soot with which to woo the Greek Temple that was the home of the Doctors MacLean.”

General Leavenworth Mansion as depicted in "I Married Them" by Janet Van Duyn

As Cleary arrives at work, she recalls how fearful she was of the bronze statues that guard the front walk.

“Cleary wasn’t the only one who had been frightened by these austere creatures. Many of Parthia’s small children had dashed tearfully into their parents’ arms at the sight of them. Older children were braver, of course, and sometimes downright impudent to these twin guardians of the MacLean family seat. They kicked them, rode them, used them as targets for sling-shots, and even went so far as to knock them from their pedestals regularly every Halloween.”

Leavenworth Mansion 1934 South Elevation Front

As Cleary arrives at work, she asks Binnie, the cook, for a cup of weak coffee. Binnie tells her they’re out of cream and asks Cleary to run over to Viglione’s to get some.

“Viglione’s was the Italian grocery on Sullivan Hill. It was used by the MacLeans as a kind of auxiliary ice box, for it seemed impossible to keep enough food in the house to satisfy the various appetites of all the family and their friends. The problem was neatly solved by never having much of anything on hand and letting people run over to Viglione’s when they wanted something to eat. The MacLeans lived off Viglione’s by a sort of symbiosis, a fundamental and easy arrangement. It was just a step across the hill from the side door, and what was the use of loading up pantry shelves when one had a grocery store practically in one’s own kitchen?”

By page 15, author Janet Van Duyn had set the scene so well, I felt I already had a strong sense of who this family was, even though none of the main characters had even been introduced yet.

Chapter one, “The Toast is Burning,” introduces the characters one-by-one in a chaotic breakfast setting, which appears to be just another “day in the life” of the eccentric MacLean family. Cleary begins the day by preparing a tray for “Doctor Mac,” the elder of the two doctors living in the mansion (the eldest, Dr. MacLean Sr., has already died at this point). As she climbs the stairs to his bedroom, the author gives this description of the historic Syracuse home:

“The hall was very dark, since it ran straight through the center of the house and was blocked off in the middle by a double door separating the front from the back. At the front were two parlors on each side of the hall, called the Red Room and the Green Room. They were high and spacious affairs, containing huge carved antiques which Colonel Davenport had had made to order. The Red Room had a red carpet and long red portieres; the Green Room had the same in faded green. In each room hung an elaborate crystal chandelier, and each had a marble fireplace over which gaped an enormous gilt mirror. These mirrors were so large they almost covered the side walls, making the rooms seem twice as spacious as they really were. When the doors were wide open the hall was flooded with light; when they were closed, as they were now, one groped his way through nubian blackness, hoping for the best.”

Click this link to see real photos of the mansion, including scans of the original blueprints

Leavenworth Mansion, first and second floors

Leavenworth Mansion, first and second floors

As the breakfast scene progresses, we learn that Doctor Mac often had his breakfast in bed because of a chronic cough he inherited from his service in World War I. On this particular day, however, he decides to join the rest of the family in the breakfast room, “the small bright cubicle behind the Green Room which the MacLeans used for all family meals because it seemed cozier and more convenient to the kitchen than the large state dining room across the hall.”

Here’s how Janet Van Duyn describes each of the characters, in order of appearance:

Dr. George MacLean – (Dr. John Van Duyn in real life, the recipient of my ebay love letters.) “There was a commotion on the stairs that sounded like the noise of several people descending rapidly. It also sounded like the special noise my husband, George, made whenever he had a tilt with stairs. He came bounding into the room looking like an Arrow collar model gone wrong. Like Doctor Mac, George was also a physician and was making impatient preparations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Someday he’d become one of Parthia’s leading surgeons.” (George is a high-energy, fiercely-competitive, absent-minded professor. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, especially with this line, “Aw, just leave me Dick Tracy, won’t you Binnie? I’ll take it up to him later.”)

Pim MacLean – (Constance Van Duyn in real life, John’s younger sister. She attended the same boarding school as the author and was the maid of honor in John and Janet’s wedding. She was also an actress, puppeteer, and fortune-teller in her day.) “The seductive Levantine Princess—at least that—paused in the doorway, fluttered a hand condescendingly in Binnie’s direction, then advanced into the room with a dignity which remained impressive despite the clack-clack of common flapping mules. She was arrayed in a brilliant Japanese kimona and the large orange poppies embellishing it flashed and danced as she swayed voluptuously over the table. Stately and perfectly poised, with slanting green eyes, and an aggressive chin gallantly supported by a firm jaw, she gave the general impression of being what a Levantine Princess loos like before breakfast—until you noticed that her neck was draped with what appeared to be a string of freshly caught fish—silver perch.” (Pim is easily bored, especially with her frequent male suitors.)

Doctor Mac – (Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn in real life. ) “He was a short, stocky man with thinning white hair. On his face was a perpetual scowl, but it denoted absorption in what he was doing, not ill-humor. When he walked he bent over slightly, as if he thought that by doing so he would arrive at his destination more quickly. At the moment his destination was obviously breakfast, and no more fuss. He stumped over to the table and began to cough. The toaster had started to smoke again. He flipped out a slice of blackish toast and burned his fingers as he did so.” (Doctor Mac is a curmudgeony old coot who plays a mean hand of bridge, but has very little patience and even less bedside manner.)

Carrie – (Lucy Leavenworth Van Duyn in real life.) “Carrie now came into the breakfast room. She’d taken the time to dress, a good three minutes at the outside. Her dress was on wrong side out, her hair was combed and arranged in front but hung in long, gray locks down her back. My mother-in-law was a handsome woman, with straight, prominent features and flowing light brown eyes. Her body was thin and wiry and she had the kind of slimness that makes clerks in specialty shops say enviously: “Madame does not need a corset; the Lord has given her one.” (Carrie is the tie that binds this family together, yet she’s as funny and eccentric as they come. She’s loves to entertain and jumps at any opportunity to swing from the chandeliers, even if she’s entertaining heads of state.)

Next time… a few more of my favorite excerpts from the book, as well as my conversation with Dr. John Van Duyn’s daughter.

Read next chapter…

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