A Novel by Lucy Marx

The Room on the Second Floor Front: Letters from Jane

jane-leoHere I will be posting a selection of letters my mother, Jane Todd Pike Marx, wrote to my father, Leo Marx, from August 1943 to March 1945, while Leo was serving in the US Navy in the Pacific and Jane was living and working in Springfield, Massachusetts, then in San Pedro and San Francisco, California. “The Room on the Second Floor Front” refers to the boarding house at 2029 Vallejo Street, San Francisco—where Jane writes to Leo he should “just knock two long and one short” to signal his return.

 


Jane and Leo were married on August 14, 1943. Jane wrote this letter almost six months later from San Pedro, California to Leo who was by then serving on the sub-chaser, USS SC 752, stationed in the Pacific.

February 8 [1944]

Darling,

I should like to try a love letter for you. I have never written you one, which is odd, because the whole impulse, content and afterglow of such a letter can flash through my mind between a question and an answer, in the time it takes me to look up and see who came in a door, or in the moment before I can unfold a page taken from an envelope. Someone will say to me, “I didn’t know you were married. What is your husband like?” That whole simple and involved passage from fantastic Cambridge to this Pacific tanker port rockets through my thought tunnel. I say, “It’s easier to describe someone you have seen just twice. He’s a nice guy.”

It seems ridiculous to tell anyone who you are, or what makes you that way. It isn’t that I don’t think I know. It’s that I feel I know so immediately, with so little analysis, that my seeing an expression or brushing [an] idea of yours is almost a conditional reflex. It is not the result of probing your background or pigeon-holing chance remarks of others who know you to check against my own findings, this understanding. I have know people whom I could spin case histories around this way; but I never talked about you much with anyone who knows you well. What I know of you is contained in a vivid and direct series of incidents, the immediate scene and the immediate response. Not much reflection. For instance, you don’t say: One day I was at a convention in New York and he and another boy came and called for me, and we went to a cafeteria around the corner, and I had a sandwich and coffee, and he said, “Spain was unique in history, freedom or fascism. It will never be so clear with us.” That doesn’t amount to anything. Or: Once we were playing a word game, and I was Ferdinand the Bull and he was The Ballad of Jumping Jesus and jumped back against the door with his arms out. Or: Another time we were sitting in a field above a pond no one could swim in, and he said “It would be foolish to be married before the war is over”. A long silence. “Don’t you think so?” Pause. “Isn’t there a whole lot of detail to getting married?” No one is interested in following my emotional scale through a hundred flickers of this sort. “He’s a nice guy.”

I knew you for two years and was not in love with you. I was pretty well aware of you, perhaps because you paid small attention to me, and rather irrelev[a]ntly, I was perceptive about the girl you were with. The second time I saw you, for instance, the flotsam from a cocktail party was washed up in Gardiner Quarton’s little book-lined cellar. I was sitting on the floor, quite taken up with my own point of concentration. You were directly behind me on the couch, your head in Pat’s lap. I thought that was very comfortable and friendly. (Pat is the only girl I have ever been jealous of, and that twist of envy was sharp and unexpected, for I’d had all the conventional occasions offered me before and felt nothing of the sort. But this was after you told me that you loved me, and I knew that after that, what was important to one of us would matter for both. Then I remembered that I had never worked with you on anything that was close to you, and I thought suddenly of a casual remark of Pat’s about helping with the Progressive. I would have taken that time away from her if I could have.)

I recall, graphically, sitting on a couch on the “pavilion” of the Crimson building. Stange was holding my hand on one side, and Irving Ross was talking across my other shoulder. Over against a canvas flap you were wildly embracing a high-busted young thing in a white dress, and I thought idly, “I wonder if I’d like that”. The idea used to occur to me from time to time. Notably one time I knocked you flat onto Ipswich beach and leaned over to see if you were all right, and again, when you hand was inches from mine on the grass when we sat by the Charles and discussed the neurotic personalities of our acquaintance. I must have told you how you nearly startled me out of countenance, briefly. Someday I’ll talk to you about all this, I told you, feeling quite certain that we were going to be good friends, and that of all the entangled persons, we were the sturdy two who were likely to survive. You were intermittently silent and then you said you had a toothache, and my flesh twinged involuntarily, the way it does when you feel close to someone and something is wrong with them. I thought of picking up your hand, mostly curiosity, and felt sure you would disapprove and knew I wasn’t going to. But I was just conscious of the idea when suddenly you said “Love”, and I jumped and stared at you. You pointed across the river at two ducks lurching together and I laughed, but it made quite an impression on me.

From the time I was six, I was a confirmed worshiper at a distance. I went from one crush to another, and as soon as the distance closed it was time to get on. I was romantic and anaesthetic. The boys I liked to talk with I liked to talk with, and those I liked to kiss, I liked to kiss, but the coincidence rate was decidedly low and the curve didn’t rise perceptibly in the Cambridge circuit. So one day my tutor kissed me, and I liked to talk to him, and he told me, being no doubt a mild sort, that I was very quiet and womanly and that was good. So I let it go at that, come what may, and it did.

Our mutual GRS was determined, though he would deny it, to put a halter on whatever unbridled wit he saw in me, and it was the most spirited competition I had ever been in. I evaded, side-slipped and counterattacked and never was as absorbed in anything in my life. In order to win a decision, I had to take the longest risks I knew, and deliberately set out to knock over the romantic fences I recognized my foggy imagination had built, and once or twice I thought I was near success. It used to make Rufus mad, and he said to me in his Dutch Uncle tone, “You think you can think something first and then feel it afterward. I’m telling you it isn’t so. I’m telling you that you are a perfectly warm, normal girl, and you are going to get yourself into something that will make you miserable.” Then he predicted I would run away with someone’s gardener within five years. As it happened, it wasn’t necessary, and I don’t think it’s likely to be.

I liked you better than anyone I knew that Blairstown weekend, and simply because you’d never moved toward me, I wanted you to. Then Murray said you were a dear, but not the obvious sort to fall in love with, and I said quite promptly that you were, too. My emotional threshold must have been low at the time. Since I was 10, I suppose I wanted to love someone and know it, but I was getting a little cynical in my school-girlish way. Then there it was in the rain. I couldn’t believe it and began to cry. A very weepy girl, once started, you will recall. You gave me some bad times, after that, which served to cast things in final form. I held my breath to get you through Notre Dame, and then when you did turn up again, you filled me with wet sawdust on an awful afternoon we spent with Rufus, Murray, Bill Hedley and his wife. At least, it was awful to me, and I was in a stupor through sheer will-power until you got tight at the South Dakota party and ran up a $2.00 telephone bill for me, which you will admit I have had [the] tact not to mention until now. I haven’t been dead since.

This is a surface scratch, but you can see the sort of diary I keep. I have never [had] an impulse to turn away from you since I first knew I wanted you. It is generally conceded to be stupid to let a man know this, but unless you felt as I did, there was nothing. Everything I feel for you comes straight, of itself, and has more creative strength than my greatest diligence. When you want one person enough, you want to do something wonderful and difficult with time. People fail at it every day, but nothing else will do, so you get married.

I can’t imagine belonging to anyone else, but it could have happened. And I might be learning now to take smaller steps and mind my manners instead of feeling completely free. There is nothing that is natural and eager in me that is not quickened by you, whether it is the wish to fly kites, make love or improve the world. It is quite likely I shall be good-tempered and generous to my fellow-man, as well, because I would be terribly ashamed to have you find me mean. In short, I think we are healthy positives and are likely to be [w]onderful. So wonderful that we can arouse the envy of all model couples and stylish singles while publicly insulting each other. This may not have turned out to be a love letter after all, but it comes to the same thing, and I never tried one before.


 

Jane wrote this letter just before Leo’s return in April. In it, she tells him about seeing Paul Robeson in Othello; being “stood up” by her workmate for the ride out to the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond where she worked on the yard newspaper, Fore ‘n’ Aft; her potential job offer from the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (which she will take); and her first class with Muriel Rukeyser at the Labor School in San Francisco.

February 28 [1945]

Darling,

And here we have the end of February and, by your accounts, just March or so to go[1]. Stick with us.

The whole 2029 Vallejo tribe[2] marched off to Othello[3] last night and dispersed through the gallery and main floor. It was wonderful, with no qualifications. The contrast between Othello and Iago was masterful beyond my greatest hopes and the plot and lines utterly believable until those last deathbed pronouncements, which I defy anyone to bring to reality. I hope you may see this one day, just as it was last night. We had some difficulties getting home after all was over, since in our crew everyone is always right and there were several streetcars to choose from, and in the discussion, most of them got missed and we ended up going [the] long way home.

To start the day badly, it seems there was some sort of message that never got to me that said Jack, our driver[4], was not going over the bridge this morning. I waited on the corner dismally and without much hope way past the right time, and finally took the bus to discover Mac and Glyn resorting to the same thing, and they told me what has happened. Jack, it seems, changed rooms some time last week, and was awakened in his new quarters by vermin. He rushed back to his old room, but it had been rented out from under him. He didn’t tell me about the lice, or whatever they are—it is supposed to be a deep secret, I am warned. But anyway, he moved at once to Oakland, and it looks as if our days of luxury are over.

When I got to work, Louis Pinson of Marine Cooks and Stewards called me, and told me it is practically a cinch that I can have that job I told you about. I have to go down in the morning and see a few of the officers of the union, who have to pass the final word. But no trouble is anticipated, I’m told, and I guess if all is well after nine o’clock tomorrow I can go to work as soon as I can make it. I’m pretty pleased about the whole thing, and just hope nothing fouls up between here and there.

Tonight I went to Muriel Rukeyser’s[5] class at the Labor School and it was pretty exciting. She discussed the current barriers to poetry and why they must be overcome and the new channels of radio, movie, and even advertising that are being utilized. Glyn and Mac turned up in the class, and we all sat with no hitching for an hour and a half until her voice gave out and the discussion period began. That was funny and interesting. There were a number of teachers in the class, and they are usually the group most willing to express their views on a lecture. There was one teacher who said the trouble was that children lived in the city and had no way of appreciating poetry, because, after all, they never saw trees and grass and other poetic things. A member of the pastoral school[6], surely. Then there was a young man who said he had been talking with one of San Francisco’s best young poets yesterday, and he had said that our society is decadent, and therefore there is no hope for it, and none for poetry. In the wrong business, n’est-ce pas? Then there was a wispy little woman in a felt beret who said there wasn’t any resistance to poetry—at least she’d never felt it. On the contrary, she felt poetry and its impact so strongly that she had to overcome her feeling in order to adapt to real life. Tomorrow night there is a class for writing. I’d like to go, but I haven’t written any poetry since Freshmen days at Radcliffe, when it was possible to get out of writing an essay by doing a sonnet. So I don’t know—we’re supposed to submit five poems and a story or something, and I don’t have any. Maybe if they don’t have too many people they’ll take non-practicers who are interested. One never can tell when one might be living in Maine with a pad and pencil and a stray thought. God, maybe I’m the pastoral school, too, after all.

I’ll let you know what happens on my new job details—and you’re right, I do know you love me. But you’d better keep telling me about it, if you want us to meet on an even line. I love you very much, foolish.

J

 

[1] Leo has written to say he should be discharged in April.

[2] The residents in the rooming house at 2029 Vallejo Street where Jane was living.

[3] Paul Robeson, the radical African-American singer and actor, was playing the part of Othello in this production.

[4] A fellow worker at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, where Jane worked on the shipyard newspaper, Fore’n’Aft, He had been driving his workmates from San Francisco on the commute to and from Richmond.

[5] Left-wing poet and activist.

[6] An amusing coinage, in retrospect. Leo would become known for his work in the “pastoral school” of American cultural historians, with his seminal book, The Machine in the Garden.

Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper

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