Book review: “Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America” by Althea McDowell Altemus, edited and annotated by Robin F. Bachin

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Book review: “Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America” by Althea McDowell Altemus, edited and annotated by Robin F. Bachin

In 1922, after working more than four years in Florida as an executive secretary, Althea McDowell Altemus took her eight-year-old son Robert and headed for home territory: Chicago.

For a carefree two months, the 35-year-old widow and Tidbits, as she called her son, made Chicago their playground, as she explains in the newly published Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America (University of Chicago Press):

We had given the once over to every toy in Field’s playroom – we could tell you about every animal in the Lincoln Park Zoo – we knew every kid at Clarendon Beach – we had sported joy rides on the top of every bus line approaching the Loop – we had even been out in the country and helped milk the cows and bring in the eggs…

It was nearly a century ago, but the Chicago playground that Altemus describes in Big Bosses won’t be unfamiliar to many present-day residents of the city and suburbs.

True, Marshall Field’s is now Macy’s, but the department store retains more than a bit of its aura as a fixture on the city’s business and cultural landscape. The Lincoln Park Zoo and the lake beaches and the joy of rubbernecking at the towering skyline while nearing the Loop — all of these are core Chicago experiences.

Even going out to the country for a touch of the rural is something that’s still done today although you have to cover many more miles to get to somewhere you can chop your own Christmas tree or pick your own apples.

altemus-bigbosses

“A quiet little town”

For Altemus, it only required a train ride to Elgin where she grew up and where her family still lived:

Forty miles northwest of the Windy City on the banks of the beautiful Fox River lies the quiet little town of Elgin, sometimes called Bluff City due to the steep banks on both sides of the stream…a charming place where one can forget the clamorous staccato voice of the city, the bark of auto horns, blurred musical intonations of newsboys, saxophones and radios.

Altemus had been born in 1885 in Woodstock (population: about 1,500), some 25 miles to the north. So, for her, Elgin, the home to about 28,000 people, wasn’t exactly a “little town.” (And it certainly isn’t today with an estimated population of about 112,000.)

Nonetheless, compared to Chicago with its 2.7 million people, Elgin was a “quaint community with its friendly hills and sunny valleys.”

 

“Far-reaching relevance”

Altemus wrote Big Bosses around 1932 when she was 46. She had no training as a writer, no mentor, and never found a publisher so her typewritten manuscript stayed in her family until it was donated by her grandsons to the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

The museum was more than happy to get the manuscript. Altemus had been the private secretary of James Deering, the former vice-president of International Harvester Company, from about 1918 through 1922. Those were the years Deering was putting the finishing on Vizcaya, his mansion and estate on Biscayne Bay in Miami that later became the museum.

Two images of Althea McDowell Altemus from "Big Bosses"

Two images of Althea McDowell Altemus from “Big Bosses”

Also happy was Robin F. Bachin, a historian at the University of Miami, who was recruited by the museum to edit and annotate the manuscript and prepare it for publication.

In a foreword, Joel Hoffman, the museum’s executive director writes:

Notwithstanding the Vizcaya connections, it was also immediately evident to us that “Big Bosses” had far-reaching socio-historical relevance as the first-person account of a single working mother in early twentieth-century America. Althea reveals in a very personal way the discriminatory hiring practices that women, especially mothers, face. And she recounts the increasing freedom and independence that wage-earning women experienced by the 1920s.

We recognized that “Big Bosses” could enlighten and entertain general audiences as well as those interested in gender, labor, business, and urban history…

 

Self-deception and stupidity

There are many joys to Big Bosses, but the greatest is the lively, observant and very human authorial voice that Altemus brings to her writing. Hoffman makes a big deal of her lack of training as a writer, but it’s clear she was a born storyteller. And that probably says a lot about her success as a working mother in the business world.

From her words and from the illustrations by her friend architect Phineas Paist, it’s clear that Altemus was attractive and stylish. Even more, though, she seems the sort of honest, whimsical, open-hearted, curious person whom everyone likes to have as a co-worker or a friend.

Big Bosses follows Altemus through her four years at Vizcaya and then three years as a secretary in positions in New York and Chicago. She worked for and had dealings with a panoply of major figures of her era, including Thomas A. Edison, Lillian Gish, Marion Davies (the actress-mistress  of William Randolph Hearst), William Jennings Bryan, Glenn Curtiss, John Singer Sargent and Samuel Insull (as well as their spouses and paramours).

Yet, Altemus comes across as anything but subservient. Indeed, there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to calling her book Big Bosses, as if she’s saying, Yeah, they’re wealthy but they’re human, too — and prone, like any of us, to self-deception, stupidity and false steps.

 

“A freak in a sideshow”

Consider her first Big Boss, Deering, whom she calls Beau in her text. (Altemus gives pseudonyms to most of the people she writes about, but Bachin had apparently little trouble figuring out who was who.)

Although Beau gives great parties at Vizcaya and has many visitors, he leads what Altemus describes as a lonely life, “in perpetual fear of being kidnapped” although also finding bodyguards abhorrent.

In one conversation that Altemus records, Beau talks with her about her joy to leave work and rush home to spend the evening with Tidbits. And he says:

Isn’t life queer – here I am wretchedly alone – must eat my dinner alone – spend my evening alone – can’t go into town and walk around looking in the shop windows, as I have so often wished to do, because someone will spot me out and stare as though I’m a freak in a sideshow – can’t do anything for always eyes are watching. I wish I could trade places with you for a day.

James Deering

James Deering

It’s a familiar enough story — poor little rich boy. Yet, Altemus invests it with a poignancy that’s tangible. She feels for Beau, it’s clear. She asks him then and there to come home that night with her for the simple pleasures of a meal with her young son. But, no, Beau says.

Its terribly nice of you to ask me, but can’t you see that I cannot even do that. I cannot leave this room without at least three servants knowing it; to go out the main entrance without the butler’s knowledge is impossible; to leave the grounds without the eyes of the watchman at the gates noticing is inconceivable; to drive to your place for an hour while Joseph waits in the car outside means that before I return here at least two hundred people will know where I’ve been, how long I stayed, just what I did and just what I didn’t do. No, I’m cursed with wealth and must suffer the consequences.

 

Three “pejorative” words

Part of the charm of Big Bosses is that Bachin and the publisher have worked to mirror Altemus’ manuscript in many ways, such as using the same Courier font as her typewriter in reproducing chapter titles and conversations, including the one above.

As part of this, some corrections have been made to the text, but Bachin writes that “misspelled words, grammatical irregularities, and formatting inconsistencies have all been retained to reflect the challenges Altemus faced in writing a manuscript of this length, sophistication, and complexity on a typewriter, as well as her limited education and training.” (Note, for example, “Its” in last quoted paragraph above.)

I’m not sure I agree with that decision. If Altemus had found a publisher before her death in 1965, those mistakes would have been fixed by an editor. I’d prefer those fixes to have been done here.

Bachin also notes, “Three words now viewed as pejorative have been eliminated.” I think that was even more of a mistake.

Big Bosses is a fun read, but it’s also a historical document. It gives insight into the thinking and attitudes of a woman of the early 20th century and, through her, of the general public of that time. If she uses a word that today is deemed offensive, it is because she does not think of it as offensive, and does not think her readers will either. That’s important for readers now and in the future to know.

Right now, in the book, Bachin doesn’t indicate which words have been used in place of the three pejorative ones. I’m fine with substituting more acceptable words, as long as, in a footnote or an endnote, the actual words are provided for anyone interested in learning them.

Patrick T. Reardon

11.28.16

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