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Thursday, May 1, 2003 02:20 pm

The Lost City

The diary of Lucy C. Williams describes a Springfield of grand theaters, great poets, and high expectations

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A lot happened in 1935: Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean; Bruno Hauptmann was sentenced to die for killing the Lindbergh baby; and, here in the Illinois state capital, people witnessed the dedication of Lake Springfield and the Vachel Lindsay Bridge, the planning of Lincoln Memorial Garden, and the latest films at a handful of opulent movie palaces. There were cultural events throughout the city.

Interesting in its own right as an account of an educated, single, working woman's life, Living Lucy: Lucy C. Williams' Diary (Diary and Letter Press of California) also provides a fascinating glimpse into the Springfield of 70 years ago.

Even Springfield's newest residents will recognize the names of Maldaner's and Lincoln Memorial Garden; those who know anything about our city's history will enjoy hearing about the once-grand Orpheum Theater or the Leland Hotel. Everyone should come away wanting to read and learn more about the people and places Lucy mentions.

Editors Ginger Harmon and Joseph Sorrentino have added lengthy explanations, as well as quotes from Springfield newspapers, to enhance Lucy's often sketchy entries, covering two periods (part I, 1935-'36; part II, 1937-'39). The editors' comments provide background information about her friends and fill in details about her life in Springfield. But while the diary is of some interest for what it tells of Lucy's life, maybe more importantly it reveals much about a compelling period in Springfield history.

Lucy spent her days as a career woman, working as a secretary for the law firm of Brown, Hay and Stephens, a position she held for over 50 years. She never seemed to tire of an active social life, rushing out after work to meet friends for dinner at the St. Nicholas Hotel or Maldaner's Restaurant, or to catch the latest movie at the Orpheum, the Roxy, or the Strand.

Some nights she delivered book reviews at meetings of the American Association of University of Women (AAUW). On January 10, 1935, for instance, she notes her reading group met "at Verda Hill's and I reviewed The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens," the story of the U.S. journalist and political radical and his eventual disillusionment with communism. An avid reader, Lucy constantly notes when she begins to read a book and when she completes it. For 1935, she read such Book of the Month Club selections as Veins of Iron by Ellen Glasgow, Heavens My Destiny by Thornton Wilder, and Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck.

Other nights Lucy was in the audience for a play at Springfield High School or at the newly built Repertory Theater. Maybe she'd attend a reception at the Governor's Mansion or the Washington Park Pavilion. Sometimes she'd note that she was a "guest."

Lucy lived at Logan Place, an 18-room mansion that was owned by her cousin, Mary Coleman Morrison. The house stood on the corner of First and Miller--the current site of Memorial Medical Center. Ginger Harmon explains, "For most working women in Springfield, Illinois, after the depression and before the war, buying property and living there wasn't really possible." Lucy couldn't buy her own house; she relied on her family. Mary Coleman Morrison inherited the home from her grandfather, Judge Stephen T. Logan. Mary lived in the main part of the house with her husband Dr. Hugh T. Morrison, whom everyone called Doctor, while Lucy had her own bedroom and adjoining suite.

Lucy mentions that 1935 started out unusually warm. On January 2: "Temperature today went up to 50." But within a week she remarks about the extreme cold, with days of minus zero temperatures. Such are the mundane details jotted down as if they mattered, the "large flakes of snow" (January 8) and every "cold, slippery walk home" (January 22). A former employee of Brown, Hay and Stephens told me that Lucy's diary actually lists events by date not by year. Under January 1, for example, she had filled in several years' worth of New Year's Days. The editors broke the passages into separate years.

Lucy wasn't religious about her diary keeping. Some dates are missing, but generally we get the sense that she liked to always be on the go. She wanted to keep up on the latest movies. In just three months--from January through March, 1935--she mentions seeing The Little Minister with Katherine Hepburn, David Copperfield, The Affairs of Cellini, The Little Colonel with Shirley Temple, and Mutiny on the Bounty. If the evening found her at home, she was often entertaining and inviting friends over for dinner; occasionally, she stayed in and read. On some weekends, she would call herself "lazy" for staying "in bed" or "hanging around the house," though she was usually hopping the train for Bloomington to visit her family. She maintained a very close relationship with her parents, receiving frequent letters from her mother throughout the week.

In the winter of 1935, Lucy's activities had to be curtailed as her cousin Mary had contracted spinal meningitis. Lucy's entries give a glimpse of health care in that era. Today Mary would have gone to the hospital. Back then, it was a home affair, as Lucy provides a poignant look at a deadly disease that lingered for months and affected an entire family who had to be quarantined. On February 5, 1935: "Mary moans so--it is hard to hear her." On February 7: "It is after 12:00 and I'm just up for bed. I will not take all my clothes off as may be up in night" tending to Mary, whose temperature often rose to 105 degrees. On February 22: "Mary had shingles come out this p.m." And on February 26: "a bevy of doctors--Patton, Herndon, Strieker, and the Chicago Drs. think Mary has a chance to recover all her faculties." In March, "a boil on her back is a terrible thing," and a week later "her back is draining nicely." It was not until May that Mary was actually up and feeling normal.

Lucy graduated from Springfield High School and then moved to Kansas, where she received a teaching certificate in 1907. There, she taught second grade for a few years. But by 1912, she was back in Springfield and employed at Brown, Hay and Stephens. She attended the University of Chicago in 1926, and became active in the AAUW, serving as the Springfield President from 1920-'21 and as the State AAUW President from 1934-'35. During the time documented in her diary, she traveled around Illinois for AAUW meetings and to Milwaukee for the National AAUW convention. She describes her first plane ride on July 13, 1935, when she went to New York, flying out of Springfield. "Was I ever thrilled to get on the giant fourteen-passenger plane TWA and on up-up 12,000 feet into the air--at a rate of 145 miles per hr! The clouds as we sailed above them were marvelously beautiful!"

When the Illinois State Fair opened in August of 1935, Lucy surprisingly didn't go. She writes on August 23, "This is 'Fair' week but I have been too hot and lazy to attempt to go out any evening for the horse show. Just as well, I guess, for the crowds have been large this year." Even though the week was hot, Lucy hosted guests on August 27, as her diary reads, "Had our tea this p.m. . . . Some forty or fifty people came to tea and we had a happy time. I left the office about 3:00 and got home in time to change my dress before company came."

Lucy was friends with Springfield High School teachers Elizabeth Graham, Susan Wilcox, and Louise Welch, who shared a home at 502 S. State. All three distinguished themselves with long tenures in teaching, and Elizabeth and Susan often talked with Lucy about their former, beloved student, Vachel Lindsay. They hoped someday to establish the Vachel Lindsay Association and open his home to the public. Before Lindsay's death in 1931, Lucy had often hosted Lindsay and his wife, Elizabeth, at Logan Place for dinner after Sunday church.

Although Lindsay's death was attributed to natural causes, it was later revealed to have been a suicide. His memory was still fresh in the minds of Lucy and her friends when Edgar Lee Master's biography of Lindsay reopened the wounds in September 1935. The biography also revealed details of Lindsay's private life and caused the poet's wife and sisters many moments of discomfort from questions and gossip. Lucy writes in her diary on September 30, "An article in the Register about Master's biography of Vachel--a story of his suicide. I'm sorry it has been given out so sensationally." (The editors note that the article mentioned by Lucy was one they could not locate.) The next day she continues, "E. Graham came out tonight and we talked until 10:30 about Vachel and the new biography. She had some most intimate side lights on the Lindsay affair (the suicide) through Dr. Mc--. It is a heart-breaking mess." These discussions certainly appear to be the beginning ideas for the founding of the Vachel Lindsay Association, in which Elizabeth served as president and Lucy as its first treasurer; Lucy kept the association's books until her death in 1962.

Elizabeth Graham, Susan Wilcox, and Louise Welch would accompany Lucy to movies, or they would get together for dinner at their home or hers. Elizabeth Graham was sure to read Lindsay's poems aloud at one of these gatherings. On August 20, 1935, Lucy "went to E. Graham's after work for 'high' tea. Stayed until about 8:30 p.m. or so and had a fine visit, winding up with poems of Vachel Lindsay."

Lucy was named Springfield's outstanding career woman in 1954 and remained a career woman until she died at the age of 73. Her diary recreates a lifestyle that shows a dynamic woman whose eclectic interests kept her involved in Springfield's many cultural activities. While reading Lucy's account, one is moved by the unusual life she led--after all, not many women fit in both the working world and the aristocratic world so smoothly. And yet, as a woman, she often remained powerless. When her cousin Mary decided to sell Logan Place in 1939, she didn't even tell Lucy until the deal was done. Lucy ends the second part of her diary emotionally, but she forever remains a proper lady: "Words fail to say how I feel on the subject!!!"

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