Betty Lou's Memoirs - New York City 1941

Note: This excerpt details life with Rarey from when she joined him in New York City to his induction into the US Army.

Now what were Rarey and I up to during these happy, productive months? So very, very much. We literally were together every possible moment - we didn't miss a free gallery on the Island of Manhattan, and few galleries charged admission in those days. Occasionally, we would hit an opening by chance and would take advantage of all of the delicious food and drink. We saw a zillion movies - lots of Jean Gabin French films and great English ones, too. I remember Rex Harrison in "Night Train," a real thriller. Movies were so cheap! A double feature, newsreel, cartoon, travelogue, and half a dozen coming attractions for a quarter! When we were too broke for a movie, Rarey read aloud to me while I ironed or mended - can you believe The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens? It's true and it took all winter!

Rarey's "penthouse" was straight across town from my room on Irving Place, and the poor darling had many a bone-chilling midnight walk from my quarters to his - until something quite creepy happened having to do with bedbugs! I had been doing nicely in my little fourth floor quarters until the couple who had the room adjoining mine moved out. That night, lights out, I felt something crawling on my arm and then on my leg. I switched on the light and discovered to my skin-crawling horror that my bed was literally alive with bedbugs. I assume they had traveled through the walls looking for fresh meat. At any rate, I spent the rest of that night sitting on a chair and the next morning - providentially a Saturday - fled to Rarey's. What to do? Luckily, a studio apartment was available on the first floor of his building - the rent was a fraction higher than I had been paying on Irving Place but that was a minor matter. With a pocketful of change I headed for the hall phone and called my mother. In those days, my dears, a young lady did not move into the same apartment building as her fiancee without parental permission. Needless to say, dear Emily came through in great style.

Rarey rounded up some volunteers, and we headed for Irving Place to pack up my stuff. I was installed at 201 W. 18th Street by afternoon. Okay, here I go and somehow I've got to do justice to 201. Once before, I think possibly as an English class assignment, I wrote a full description of this wacky place but I can't locate it in my files so will just have to try again. Luckily, insofar as 201 is concerned, my memory has not faded a whit!

The entire building was rented by a 65-year-old pint-sized gal we called "Lady" because we frankly couldn't keep track of her several aliases (Karen Power/Howell/Dowell? - we were never quite sure). Lady was not a smidgen above 4'9" although she tried to increase her height by tottering around on three-inch heels (of which she had a closetful bought at the local Goodwill). When she originally rented the space, 201 had been two buildings with approximately twelve rooms on three floors. Upper floors were reached by two staircases, one spiral. With her own two tiny hands, Lady knocked down walls and turned the two buildings into one and then set to work with hammer, saw, wrench, spit, and vinegar and built: two "penthouses" on top of the building, one for herself, one for tenants (ultimately Paul and Vincent and Rarey); twelve studios (one-room apartments each with its own fireplace, corner kitchen, closet, and bath). Did she bother with permits for all of this? Of course not! She knocked into existing chimneys for her fireplaces and existing pipes for her plumbing - and somehow it all worked - most of the time.

The building was filled with young people - Bambi, an aspiring actress; Whiting, a budding novelist; Abe Knox, who was trying to follow in John Garfield's shoes. (Who was John Garfield, you ask? The Al Pacino of the 1930's is as close as I can come.) There were lots of parties, generally in Rarey' s penthouse), the refreshments usually consisting of a jug of very cheap red wine. We were constantly in and out of one another's rooms while Lady happily kept an eye on people and plumbing and often invited us up to her place for canned apricots and cream and tea.

You do understand, don't you, that there was nothing remotely resembling central heating? But always outside at the bottom of the inside steps was a pile of orange crates. I would usually grab a crate on my way in, stomp it into pieces, throw it into the fireplace, and presto! in about five minutes my stone cold room was toasty. (I always brought in an extra crate for the early A.M. fire when it was exceedingly difficult to crawl out of the warm blankets.) We did have a few logs from Lady's cabin at Bear Mountain to add to the orange crates but there was never what I would call a plentiful supply.

I have really tried to be accurate in describing 201. However, before I relate one of my favorite anecdotes about the place, I want to be very sure you understand just how ramshackle it was. Oh, it had a certain charm, to be sure, especially if one were young and hardy, and we all had done our best to gussy up our individual living quarters. But the place was truly tacky, let there be no mistake.

Only one married couple lived at 201 at that time - June and Farrar Burns. Farrar was brother to Bob Burns, the "Arkansas Traveler," who was a regular on national radio, had made a couple of movies, and, I think, could quite accurately be called "famous." Farrar and June had a son, North, a bright kid who was one of perhaps 75-100 high school seniors throughout the country who were invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to spend a portion of their summer at her summer home - Campobello. I have no idea where North hung out during the school year, certainly not with his parents at 201, and, in fact, I never met him. After his vacation at Campobello, North returned to his winter base, and June sat herself down and wrote Mrs. Roosevelt a thank you letter. In it she said something to the effect that she would like to return Mrs. R's abundant hospitality and invited her to tea! Lo and behold, the lady accepted for a week hence.

Let me tell you there was considerable scurrying around that week. Lady painted everything that didn't move, and for the first time in memory outside windows were actually washed. To be honest, I don't think our efforts did much to improve the place but we tried. June borrowed three cups and saucers that matched although that imperturbable lady would have been undismayed, I am sure, had she been compelled to serve tea in soup bowls. The great day arrived, and so did Eleanor. Everything was going splendidly during the tea party, I am told, when a knock was heard, the door opened, and in marched Whiting Thornton. Picture if you will a kind of emaciated Don Knotts wearing only Fruit of the Loom underpants, not an unusual costume for our Whiting. Understand that it was a toss-up during the introductions that followed just who remained the most unruffled - possibly Mrs. R by a whisker!

Then there was the night when one of Lady's pipes burst and flooded the 18th Street subway station directly below us. (I have neglected to mention that it is altogether possible, when one is young, to become totally unaware, awake or asleep, of subway trains rumbling underneath one's floor.) We held our breaths on that one. If a city inspector had ever decided to investigate the plumbing in 201, the whole place would surely have been condemned. But no one came near us, the trains eventually began to run again, and we had a party to celebrate.

We had occasional visitors from home. Mother came (she and Rarey and I saw the newly-released "Fantasia" and were enthralled). My brother came, too, and so did Rarey's mom, sister Nell and son Chip. Mary Dick, Betty Stubbs, and Leo Stoutsenberger each spent a few days with us. There was never a problem about overnight guests - Lady always had at least one vacant studio apartment which she was happy to lend, so it became just a matter of wrestling up fresh sheets and towels. (We did have to stash all signs of liquor and cigarettes when Mother Rarey came to visit and were happy to do so for that lovely lady.) We usually encouraged people to visit us during mild seasons - it seemed unfair to subject them to the rigors of 201 in winter.

These were lovely months. We were so young and so light of heart (and so poor) and so in love, a tight little world belonged to us. I loved my courses at Columbia, and I loved my job. The fates, however, could not allow such pure happiness to continue, and the first shadow fell when we were notified of Rarey's low draft number. The second shadow came on December 7, 1941, when this country suddenly found itself in a shooting war. Incidentally, Rarey and I had spent that Sunday with Sarah and Wayne Sanders, his older sister and brother-in-law, and their two children, Mary Louise and Richard. We often visited them for Sunday dinner, and I remember what a deft hand Sarah had with a pot roast. It had been a quiet day minus radio but plus good conversation, and we hadn't a glimmer of the awful events that had taken place until we got back to 201 where everyone was gathered round a radio. The following day, Monday, a work day, we all trooped to Sarnia 's apartment during our lunch hour to listen to President Roosevelt address Congress and formally declare war. My blood still runs cold when I think of it.

The final telling blow came when Rarey was notified that he was to report to a Greenwich Village induction center at 6:00 A.M. on a bleak day in mid January (I have blocked the actual date). And report he did, carrying his toothbrush and shaving gear in a shabby little brown bag, a sketchbook under his arm, his pockets bulging with several pipes, tobacco, and pencils. Would you believe that that very afternoon I received a postcard mailed that morning in front of the induction center - a quick and telling cartoon of a bewildered disheveled little civilian saying adieu to the world as he had known and loved it.

Then silence for three interminable days until one afternoon when I was taking dictation from Mr. Solow, I got a call from upstate New York. (You should know that a long distance call was a matter of some consequence in those days.) It was a very puzzled Rarey, and his story went something like this: For three days he had been subjected to a battery of tests - physical psychological, intelligence, etc.) at the end of which time he was informed that the U.S. military felt he had all of the attributes needed to fly one of its very expensive planes - a real shocker because at that point he had never even learned to drive a car. Of course, he was flabbergasted, and so was I (and so was the rest of the family when they heard). He was being sent to preflight training at Maxwell Field in Montgomery Alabama and would have a short stop in Penn Station to change trains that evening. Could I meet him at the station? You betcha! We had only about half an hour that night but were able to reach the opinion that fighting the war in the wild blue yonder probably was a cut above sloshing around in acres of mud. Of course, he looked very odd - he had been subjected to his first G.I. haircut, and Rarey in an ill-fitting uniform was a sight not to be believed. Nevertheless, he looked mighty good to ME!