Thursday, May 10th, 2007
If New York City has a memory, it will likely never forget its summer of 1945. It was the summer of VJ Day in Times Square, of Stork Club celebrity sightings and tabloids splashed with Judy Garland’s wedding to Vincente Minnelli and Marlene Dietrich touring tirelessly with the USO. It was the summer when the crash of an army B-25 into the Empire State Building would eerily foretell of a bigger disaster to come decades later. But until now, little did we know that for two college debs from Iowa, the summer of ‘45 was the best of their lives—and their infectious enthusiasm is ours in the pages of Summer at Tiffany.
Marjorie Hart and Marty Garrett arrived by train to experience a summer of glamour in The Big City, their pert blond heads filled with Café society, Gershwin, handsome midshipmen and dream jobs in swank Fifth Avenue department stores. Turned away at first by Lord & Taylor and Saks, fate and a double-decker bus brought them to the door of Tiffany & Co., where they were hired as the first-ever female pages to brighten the jeweler’s sales floor.
At the age of 83, Marjorie Hart has finally chronicled her memories of that summer. Summer at Tiffany conveys a portrait of the times and a loving homage to New York, and introduces us to two lovable girls who’d make anyone excited to be alive. Read an excerpt here.
By Kim Brittingham
What was the catalyst that finally got you writing Summer at Tiffany at the age of 83?
The compelling reason to write my memoir was that extraordinary summer of 1945. Marty and I witnessed history: General Eisenhower’s Fifth Avenue Parade with 4 million cheering New Yorkers, the morning the Queen Mary steamed into NYC harbor with 14 thousand soldiers touching US soil, and the unforgettable celebration at Times Square on VJ Day. But it was that once-in-a lifetime job at Tiffany & Co which made me write and rewrite. Who could resist?
When you sat down to write about your summer in New York, where did you start?
I always began my story with our ride on the top deck of the Fifth Avenue bus. Our first glimpse of famous buildings, glamorous stores and the screeching sounds of city life still gives me goosebumps!
When you first arrived in New York, what are some of the very first things that struck you as novel, or gave you a sense of culture shock?
When Marty and I approached NYC from Iowa, the train plunged into a long dark tunnel underneath the city, then glided into Grand Central Station, a palace of bright-paned windows. That dramatic transition from the mysterious dark of the subway to the morning light was a phenomenal introduction to NYC.
You had a good sixty-something years of carrying with you the stories that would eventually become this book. Which stories from Summer at Tiffany were the ones you told the most over the years?
The stories I’ve repeated most frequently for my grandchildren are the scary ones by their request. The pearls, the gangster, or the police at Jones Beach!
Your friend Marty, with whom you worked at Tiffany, clearly had an extraordinary, “why not?” spirit. She was the first to suggest a summer in New York City. She bolted off the Fifth Avenue bus and walked brazenly into Tiffany’s on an otherwise discouraging and fruitless day of job hunting. She impressed you by revealing that her Vogue-like wardrobe was entirely self-made, right down to knitting her own sweaters. What did Marty teach you by example that stayed with you?
Marty’s “why not” spirit made a huge impact on my life. She was resourceful, confident and fearless, the ideal model for my timid self. I learned from her to take chances and seize opportunities I had never dared before!
In the book you describe the day a B-25 Army bomber accidentally flew into the Empire State Building. Some of your details of the accident, the reaction of New Yorkers to the news, even the unsettling acrid smell of the smoke were eerily reminiscent of 9/11. What elements of 9/11 felt most familiar to you?
When 9/11 happened, I immediately remembered the shock of the B-25 crash into the Empire State Building. Mayor LaGuardia, with his fire helmet, insisted on riding an elevator to rescue trapped people. He joined the firemen until the fire was under control. The bravery of LaGuardia reminded me of the courageous spirit of the firemen that tragic day of 9/11.
In more than one part of the book, you express what you learned from your family about being emotionally stoical. You wrote, “…my great-aunt Margretha warned us not to show our feelings––it’s a sign of weakness. We should not fall apart, complain, or envy others. I recited her words like a child.” How has the way you deal with your emotions evolved since you were that young impressionable girl?
Growing up in Story City, I felt there were a thousand eyes following me. “What will people say?” It regulated my life. Later when difficult choices were necessary, I tried to find my own path and to set aside ordinary conventions. I was no longer restricted by other people’s opinions.
During the summer of 1945 you grew fond of a young Navy man named Jim. I almost expected you to marry him, but you didn’t. I feel so invested in both you and Jim as characters, I can’t help but ask: how did that relationship end?
Jim was unusually kind and considerate. When we met again after he returned from the Navy in the Pacific, I had to be truthful. I had fallen in love with someone else. Breaking that relationship is still a painful memory.
There’s a scene in Summer in which you describe kissing Jim, “…in broad daylight. I was vaguely aware of people passing, horns honking, and someone bumping into us saying, Lucky guy. I didn’t care…” It put me in mind of the famous Life magazine cover photo of the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square on V-J Day, which you also wrote about as an eyewitness. By today’s standards, a woman kissing a man on a New York street is not notable enough to draw the kind of attention you and Jim received, or even to create much self-consciousness on the part of most women. So how were people’s sensibilities different in 1945 when it came to public displays of affection?
Public displays of affection are so different today and less inhibited. A good thing! In 1945, some flamboyant New Yorkers kissed and hugged in greeting each other — a shock to us! If I had done the same in Iowa, it would have been a town scandal. However, there were special occasions, like New Year’s Eve that were acceptable. Eisenstadt’s photograph epitomized the spontaneous passion of that moment. Everyone wanted to celebrate with abandon!
After returning to Iowa from your summer in the big city, what did you miss most about New York?
How I missed my New York friends after I returned. In fact, I returned between Christmas and New Years, to see Jim, but also the Shuttleworths and those memorable Tiffany salesmen.
In Summer at Tiffany you’re presented with an opportunity to study music at Yale, but ultimately you left it behind to return to Iowa. Have you ever entertained what your life might have looked like if you’d gone to Yale after all?
Returning to school at the University of Iowa, my cello teacher, Mr. Koelbel, surprised me with challenging musical opportunities: radio programs, solo performances and even a bit part in a movie! He generously helped me acquire a faculty position at DePauw University when I graduated. But meeting the handsome Navy dental student I later married was the most important part of my senior year. I never thought of Yale as a better choice.
Was there any part of the memoir that got “left on the cutting room floor,” so to speak, that you wish you could have kept in the book?
When I first began writing, I included early Story City days. However, discovering it would be published—no longer for just my family—the stories no longer fit.
59 years after your summer in New York, you finally returned to Manhattan. We missed you—what took you so long?
I did miss going back to NYC, but when I began teaching music history at USD, it meant traveling to Europe instead. I researched eighteenth century music (following Mozart’s footsteps around Europe) and studied at Stanford. That period of history became a passion and still is!
Photos of young women in the 1940s make everyone seem so flawlessly fresh and movie-star pretty. Everybody’s grandmother looked like Betty Grable or Rita Heyworth. Tell me—what was your secret?
Endless primping was our secret for looking “movie-star pretty.” It meant shampooing our hair in a vinegar rinse, brushing with a hundred strokes, sleeping with pin curls in our hair and cold cream slathered on our faces. Our purses held a compact to powder a shiny nose, lipstick in either red or orange (!) and combs, bandana, turban or a black-net snood to cover an imperfect hair-do. God forbid if you didn’t look perfect!
If you could take any one contemporary item back in time for the convenience of your 1945 self, what would it be, and why?
If I could borrow any of today’s creature comforts, it would be a laptop! Think of the ease of e-mailing family and friends, instant messaging a boyfriend, finding theater and bus schedules (when does the last bus leave Jones Beach?), Mapquest for exotic night spots, and know if it would rain that day!
Summer at Tiffany (William Morrow) is available now.