July 9, 2013

Gatsby Revisited

Cover illustration by "Skrenda"
Among the many thousands of newspaper clippings at the Archives, one caught our eye a few weeks ago—a book review from The New London News of November, 1933. The article said that Helen St. Bernard (1889–1970), author of Men Forget, had used New London as the central setting for her romance novel. It was first published as a serial but was soon issued as a book by Grosset & Dunlap of New York.

The review noted that "the library has received a copy for which the librarians have already received several requests." Curious, we looked for a copy. The timing was good, and we found one listed online in decent condition, signed by the author. (Apparently there is a market for first edition, Jazz- and Depression-era romances, but collectors often value the dust jacket artwork more than the text.)

The setting is undoubtedly based on the author's memories of the summer of 1930, when she stayed at the home of Mrs. Cressey. Some landmarks have been renamed; others have not. New London and Sutton are fictionalized as Powellville and Sutlow, but Kearsarge and Warner retain their names, perhaps because the author takes no license with them.

Powellville's fictional Valley Vista Farm advertised guest accommodations in the Boston papers, as did many of New London's hotels and inns at the time, and by chance Miss Jardine Emery selected it for her hasty country escape from city entanglements. The guest house seems to have been located on Main Street, not far from the old Post Office. In reality there were several. There was also an automobile repair shop, perhaps Little's or Kidder's. The town's nearby golf club may have been modeled after the Lake Sunapee Country Club, which opened in 1927. Sutlow, however, boasts the small hospital where Miss Emery finally choses between two keen suitors. The real New London Hospital, built on Main Street in 1923, would not serve the story because it was too close to Valley Vista Farm; automobiles figure prominently as conveyances of characters and plot—reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, published to little acclaim in 1925.

Title Page
Library patrons looking for themselves or neighbors may have been disappointed, as most of the story's characters are generic and unencumbered by description or backstory. One exception is Dr. Caleb Powell, who had served in France during World War I and returned to country doctoring—tending patients at home and in hospital. The character bears a resemblance to the real Dr. Bill Clough, Sr., who had served in France, doctored tirelessly by automobile, and had married a young woman from Boston.

In 1918, Helen St. Bernard of Detroit applied for a passport to join the Red Cross in France and England, so she may have tapped her own medical experience and imagination rather than anyone she had encountered in New London. On the 1920 Census she gave her occupation as "stenographer." Unwed at 30, she was living with her sister, Hildegarde, and widowed mother, Elvira. After her mother's death in 1926, Helen worked her way from Detroit through Richmond, Virginia, to St. Petersburg, Florida, by 1940. She died there in 1970.

Her writing was concentrated in the decade of her 40s, during which she produced at least nine published works—a mix of novels, serials, and short stories. The titles suggest she stuck with romance: Men Forget (1932), High Windows (1933), Mystery Girl (1935), Tomorrow Never Comes (1936), Wicked Woman (1937), Where the High Road Led (1938), 'Til We Meet Again (1939), After Tonight, What? (1939), and Heart Unafraid (1941).

A little known author, St. Bernard joins others of that era who found inspiration in the quiet presence of Mt. Kearsarge. Thornton Wilder studied the headstones of West Part Cemetery on his afternoon walks from Blodgett's Landing to Crockett's Dairy for ice cream. Harry Woods reportedly composed music for Kate Smith's "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain" by conjuring a view he knew from his year at New London's Colby Academy, where he was known as "Snooky." Those artists visited and left, but their characters remained among us.