Posts made in May 15th, 2011

Love Letters, Chapter 9

The final chapter…

I apologize… it’s been a long time since my last post about the set of love letters I purchased on ebay. (New here? Start from the beginning.) Today, I plan to wrap up all the loose ends so I can start the first installment of my own “White Charley and Over-the-Wall-Fred” saga. I decided after all the time I’ve spent digging into other people’s family histories, it was probably time to share a little of my own. I think you’ll enjoy it.

But first… a few final words about my ebay love letters. In Chapter 8, I introduced you to the Leavenworth Mansion of Syracuse, New York. This is where Dr. John Van Duyn and his first wife, Janet, lived with John’s parents (Dr. Edward and Lucy Van Duyn), and his younger sister, Constance. It was also where they raised their three children.

Back in February, I managed to track down John and Janet’s youngest daughter, Barbara. I emailed her and told her about the love letters that had been addressed to her father, and asked if she would mind answering some questions so I could wrap up my story. She very graciously agreed.

First of all, I told Barbara how much I enjoyed her mother’s book, I Married Them. It’s a fictional account of the very funny and eccentric Maclean (Van Duyn) family, as told by the newest member of the fold, John’s wife Janet (the author herself). The men were second and third-generation physicians who were brilliant surgeons, but had little time for bedside manner. Carrie (Lucy) was the matriarch of the household and my favorite of all the characters. She reminded me a lot of my own mother, and I can easily picture her with a snow brush in her hand, fending off would-be parking lot hooligans (see my previous post, “Happy Mother’s Day.”)

In Janet Dunning’s book, I Married Them, the entire cast of characters enjoyed gathering for cocktails each evening in Doctor Mac and Carrie’s (Dr. Edward and Lucy’s) boudoir. It was here where the story really started to come to life.

“The Boudoir was the most lived-in room of the Maclean mansion. It occupied the sunniest corner of the house, across the hall from the bedroom of Carrie and Mac, who used it as a combination dressing room and living room. Nobody ever sat around in any of the downstairs rooms, which were cold and forbidding, definitely unsuited to the Maclean way of life. Visitors were always brought immediately to the Boudoir, and refreshments were served here daily at five. Those refreshments might range anywhere from tea and sandwiches on a silver tray, to lukewarm highballs made from another bottle of Bourbon hidden behind Doctor Mac’s dresser, tap water from an adjoining bathroom, and mixed in a bathroom glass which was cloudy and tasted of toothpaste. No one ever complained about the highballs though, except when they were not available.”

The Boudoir also contained the most unique and important piece of furniture in the house… a chaise lounge that the Van Duyn’s lovingly referred to as their “shay-ZEE.”

“The Shazey, as a matter of fact, was so comfortable it was always in demand. Aunt Grace who was technically an outsider [she was the family’s resident artist and semi-permanent boarder], and therefore had a certain perspective on the life of the family, said that if you drew a diagonal line across the Boudoir, all the people in the house would be found in the Shazey corner, like cattle keeping each other warm in a blizzard. With careful arranging, the Shazey had been known to accommodate five people, the best seats awarded to the first comers. Late arrivals had to content themselves with drawing up chairs and getting as close to it as possible.

After finishing her mother’s book, I was curious whether Barbara Van Duyn had grown up in the mansion, and if so, what it had been like to live there.

Q. Did you grow up in the Leavenworth Mansion?

A. Yes, I lived there until I was seven. After that, we moved to Westport, Connecticut to live with my mother. She wrote the book to make money after my parents divorced. Nana was a lot of fun. She got bored easily and was the type to swing from the chandelier at every Christmas party. Often times, because we lived close to the railroad track, bums would show up on our doorstop asking for food. Once, a bum showed up during a party and shoved his way into the house, begging for a cup of coffee and something to eat. It turns out it was Nana, dressed up like a bum! Another thing I remember is the story of “old man Harold.” He was there at the house every morning by 5am. We all thought it was so wonderful that he would arrive so early every day to stoke the fire so everyone would have warm showers and heat by the time we woke up. As it turns out, he had found a little place to live within the mansion… a hole in the wall with his own little cot. No one even knew he was there! I also remember the lions along the front walk. I used to play on the left lion and would put food in a crack in its base, just in case he came alive.

Q. Why was your father, John Van Duyn, living and practicing in Duluth, Minnesota in 1949? How did he end up here?

A. My father was trying to find a situation to pay alimony to my mother. He had a practice in Syracuse with his father, but after the divorce, he needed to make more money, rather than trying to build up a practice. So, by 1949 he had decided to switch to plastic surgery, and was working for a clinic in Duluth.

Q. Did you know Ruth Ives? Did she and your father ever end up getting married?

A. We loved Ruthie Ives, and we wanted our father to marry her. She was so sweet! As it turns out, my father ended up marrying another woman he met while living in Duluth. They had another child together… a girl named Patti. She was in my life long ago, but we lived so far apart and our lives were so different that we never stayed connected.

Q. I noticed that Paramount bought the rights to your mother’s book, I Married Them. Was it ever made into a movie?

A. No. Paramount paid $500 for the movie rights, but it never went anywhere. Apparently the Irish servants in the community didn’t like how the character Cleary was depicted in the book, so my mother was disappointed and didn’t write anything more until the 1970s. Then, she wrote a series of books for young people about the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

Q. Are your parents still alive?

A. No. My father died in 1986, and my mother died in 2003.

After a bit more research, I was able to determine that Ruth Ives died at the age of 57, while living in Maine. I’m not sure that she ever married, because she’s listed under her maiden name in the Social Security Death Index. At any rate, I do know that she had a loving brother named Edward (“Sandy”) Ives who lived in Bangor, Maine. Like Ruth, he was a talented musician and a college instructor. He especially loved the folklore and songs of Maine’s north woods, and eventually this became his lifelong work. In 1971, Sandy founded the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History (now known as the Maine Folklife Center) where he served as its director for 22 years.

At the beginning of this story, my goal was to track down the people mentioned in these ebay love letters and return them to their rightful owners. I have now done that, and the letters have been mailed to John Van Duyn’s daughter, Barbara. My secondary goal was to find a mystery that would result in a happy ending. Unfortunately this story doesn’t have the happy ending I had originally hoped for, but you may be interested to hear that I have since tracked down Barbara’s half-sister, Patti, who still lives in Minnesota, and perhaps they can get together and make their own happy ending.

Here’s hoping.

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