Read Girl Sleuth Online

Authors: Melanie Rehak

Girl Sleuth (6 page)

BOOK: Girl Sleuth
13.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

father's wise scheme, by the time Harriet was fifteen, the young, well-to-do Stratemeyer clan had moved to a large, stylish three-story Queen Anne house on North Seventh Street in Roseville. In addition to three bedrooms, the house had a fireplace in the parlor, a small balcony off the second floor, and a laundry room in the basement where their hired help did the wash. The Stratemeyers also employed a cook and a chaffeur for Lenna. The third floor contained Edward's flower-papered private study, where he dreamed up his characters and committed them to the page first by hand, and then by typewriter. His debut as an operator of this technological marvel was thrilling enough to merit mention in his literary account book. In the same way that he reveled in keeping up to the moment with his car purchases and enthusiastically embraced all the newfangled timesaving devices America had to offer, he adapted, with marvelous aplomb, to his new luxury. “Did you ever use a typewriter?” he wrote to a friend. “It took me just a week to get used to it and now I would not work in any other way for the world.”

While Edward wrote, his girls were constantly being reminded to keep quiet lest they should disturb their father's great imaginings upstairs. Harriet recalled her father's private aerie as “a sunshiny room, book-lined, attractive and warm,” and it had the lure of the forbidden for the children, who were not allowed in very often. Far above the street, wearing a three-piece suit even for writing at home, Edward would put in two chapters' worth of work on his typewriter in the morning, come down for lunch with his family, and return for a third chapter in the afternoon. As if to repay them for their indulgence of his mental process—for he was a generous father, if a strict one—Edward never worked in the evenings or on weekends and took his family on long summer vacations to the Jersey Shore, Martha's Vineyard, or other pleasant locales.

When she was not on such a leisure trip, Harriet attended the prestigious public Barringer High School. She had long passed the age at which she could climb trees, and social activities around the turn of the century were restricted mostly to groups. Dating was unheard of unless a boy had serious intentions—and even then he had to work up to seeing his girl unchaperoned—so, like most girls of her social standing, the structure of Harriet's teenage life was built upon school, family, and church. Adolescence was just starting to emerge as a period of life that was set off from what came before and what came after, and as high school enrollment increased dramatically in the early years of the century, school became the organizing principle behind adolescence in a way it had never been before. Teenage girls were not yet in thrall to fashion, consumerism, or pop culture of the kind that would become synonymous with the very idea of adolescence by the twenties, and so Harriet led a fairly quiet life. Thanks to her family's money, she, unlike the majority of teenagers at that time, did not have to work after school either at home or outside of it. Instead, she spent her spare hours with her family and friends and concentrated on her schoolwork.

She did not always study as hard as she could have, though. A pop quiz about Sir Walter Scott's “The Lady of the Lake” near the end of her secondary schooling ended in an episode similar to her elementary school gaffe about the donkey. The story, which opens with a famous scene of a stag hunt in a forest and evolves into an epic tale of love and clan rivalry, intertwines James Douglas, the outlawed uncle of the royal family, his daughter Ellen, and several other characters, two of whom are suitors to Ellen. Amazingly enough, considering her father's line of work and her own interest in books, Harriet had never been taught what a heroine was. The books of her childhood tended to feature rather weak, weepy little girls whose main function was to overcome adversity with good Christian values. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, star of the eponymous book published in 1903, when Harriet was eleven, joined earlier counterparts like the melodramatic Elsie Dinsmore, a deeply pious poor little rich girl who longs for love from her father and has to contend with a mean schoolteacher. True heroines were few and far between, and girls were barely aware that there was any alternative. Even the ones who sought adventure by turning to boys' books did not venture very far. As one reading study noted, “The exciting stories mentioned by the girls are very quiet compared to those mentioned by the boys.” Harriet had few examples, and her father, for one, was certainly not in the habit of encouraging his daughter to be an adventuress, lest it should spoil her for what he considered to be the true calling of all women. “He thought I should stay home and keep house,” she remembered later. As a result, she believed that the hero was the most important character in the story, and the heroine the second most important. When asked to fill in the pop quiz blanks for who occupied each of these roles in “The Lady of the Lake,” she wrote, without hesitation, that the hero was James Douglas and the heroine was the stag. Poor Ellen was nowhere to be found.

But this overconfident streak also made Harriet determined from a young age to seek out an education when the majority of teenage girls did not even consider it. At the turn of the century, 40 percent of college students were women, but that was still less than 4 percent of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. Though it was girls of Harriet's class who made up most of the student bodies at elite eastern colleges—tuition and fees even at public schools were expensive for a middle-class family, and scholarships were rare—the majority of wealthy girls took the more traditional path of simply finishing high school and living at home until they were married. It never took long; the average marriage age for women in 1910 was twenty-one. Not Harriet, however. Fully supported by her parents, who, while they were not exactly progressive, placed great stock in intelligence and rigorous education and believed that their daughters would be better wives if they had the ability to help their husbands in their professions, Harriet began to ponder her future. So it was that in the winter of 1909, Edward Stratemeyer contacted a select group of colleges on his daughter's behalf. Among them was Wellesley, already at that time a venerable institution with a reputation for having, in the words of one observer, “a strong religious undercurrent and a subtle something, one might call it an upper current, of idealism.”

Certainly there was no question that whatever college Harriet attended, it would not be coed, nor would it be too far from home to preclude frequent visits in both directions. In addition to Wel-lesley, Edward's letter requesting information went out to a group of well-established women's colleges up and down the East Coast: Vassar (founded in 1861), Barnard (1889), Smith (1871), and Bryn Mawr (1885). By the end of 1909, Harriet had settled on Welles-ley, saying later that she preferred it because it was more conservative than the other options she reviewed. As was the custom, Harriet's high school diploma and her father's ability to cover her bill were enough to reserve a spot for her in the class of 1914. Edward had offered financial references to prove he could pay the $175 annual tuition, plus the cost of his daughter's room, board, and extra music lessons. Included among these references were not only his bank in New Jersey but also the publishing house of Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, which he no doubt chose for its location in Boston, very close to Wellesley. He often used business meetings with the company as an excuse to go up to the college, beginning with a trip in April of 1910, with Harriet along to inspect the campus.

The visit was a great success. Though Harriet would be required to take entrance exams in everything from Shakespeare to Chaucer, algebra, Latin, and modern languages to determine her course of study, both she and her father were confident that she would demonstrate enough learning to enter the college without serious handicaps. In addition to making a flurry of arrangements concerning clothes and furnishings for her new rooms, Harriet was taking extra French lessons in preparation for college language courses and, like any teenager about to leave home for the first time, anxious about who her roommate would be. By all accounts, she was looking forward to the new challenge as she attended to various last-minute items, including the mailing of her “Chemical Laboratory Notebook” to Wellesley to prove she had achieved the necessary standards in that subject.

While Harriet was busy dreaming of college, Edward and Lenna had enrolled her sister, Edna, then fifteen, in a private girls' boarding school called the Centenary Collegiate Institute in Hackettstown, New Jersey, about forty-five miles away. She had been taking violin lessons for several years already and was signed up to study “a ‘combination' course of violin instruction, art (painting) and literature and languages.” No doubt the Stratemeyers had it in mind to ease their younger daughter's path to college—with a private school education, there would be no need for extra language lessons and fretting over the chemistry course as Harriet had. After less than a month at her new school, however, it became clear that Edna was not adjusting. She went home for a visit, and Edward wrote to the headmaster to say that she “appears to like the school so far as the teachers, pupils and studies go, but does not seem to be able to get used to being away from home and her folks.” Still, he was optimistic and believed that with his and Lenna's encouragement, their daughter would come to see the value of the kind of independence and intellectual curiosity her sister so cherished.

The episode was a harbinger not only of Edna's future in general, which would be marked by a nervous disposition and poor health, but her relationship to Harriet, whom she eventually came to feel had been given everything in comparison to her paltry share. In late October Edward wrote again to the headmaster, describing the family's fruitless efforts to impress upon Edna the benefits and pleasures of going back to school: “Yesterday Mrs. S and myself tried again to induce her to return but she collapsed so completely that I knew it would be folly to attempt it, that she would be in no condition to study . . . as soon as I can possibly get away I will be up with her to help her in packing.”

The Stratemeyers eventually sent Edna to a local private school called Miss Townsend's, and from then on she stayed at home, content there even as Edward loaded his elder daughter and all her belongings into his new Cadillac in September of 1910 and drove her up to Wellesley in style. Harriet was about to enter into the years she would claim as the most formative of her life in terms of her will to succeed as a wife, mother, and businesswoman. The Wellesley motto, “Non Ministrari Sed Ministrare”—“Not to be ministered unto but to minister to”—became Harriet's motto in all things, and she intoned it on numerous occasions. Eventually, she claimed it for Nancy Drew, too, saying: “Why is Nancy Drew so good? Because of the Wellesley College motto,” and telling reporters that she was sure that had Nancy ever gone to college, she would have been a Wellesley girl.



of 1905, just a few months after Edward Stratemeyer launched his newly formed literary syndicate into the world, Mrs. Lillian Matteson Augustine, resident of the tiny prairie town of Ladora, Iowa, gave birth to a baby girl. Her name was Mildred. She was delivered at home on July 10, in the scorching heat of summer on the Great Plains, by the town doctor and surgeon—who also happened to be her father, Dr. J. L. Augustine.

Jasper Augustine, like Edward Stratemeyer the son of a forty-niner, was an Iowa native. He had grown up on a farm in the town of Agency, then gone to medical school at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City. Upon graduating in 1893, he moved immediately to Ladora, where he established “a most extensive and successful practice.” Not only was Augustine the local medical authority, known for his devotion to keeping his knowledge of procedures and treatments up to date and for his diagnostic “touch,”
but he was an officer of the town bank and the president of the Ladora Lumber and Grain company. His stature was such that he merited a profile in the magisterial 1915 tome
History of Iowa County and Its People,
which chronicled the beginnings of the region and its most prominent citizens.

While Augustine was an exceptional man and doctor with, perhaps, more than the average amount of civic pride in his blossoming town, there was another, simpler reason for his high standing in so many institutions: In a settlement of fewer than three hundred people, there were not enough men to fill the official positions created as it expanded. Located in Iowa County, roughly eighty miles from the state capital of Des Moines, Ladora had been founded in 1867 and officially incorporated in 1880. It was a prototypical homesteader town, forged from the open prairie by pioneers in search of a better life. Originally the province of the Sac and Fox Indians, the land had been sowed with cornfields for decades by the time Mildred was born. Ladora was an up-and-coming place, with its own mill, post office, railroad depot, school, churches, and saloons. It even had a town song of sorts, with a refrain that listed the various amenities and institutions that bigger places counted as their own, and then proclaimed, with characteristically stubborn local pride, “The little town of Ladora is good enough for me.”

Though some mistook it for being of French origin—La Dora—the town's quirky name was actually the inspiration of a music teacher by the name of Mrs. General Scofield, who suggested using three syllables from the musical scale—“la,” “do” and “ra,” or “ray”—as the town name. Perhaps for lack of a better one, the idea was met with virtually unanimous approval. It seemed, in any case, wholly appropriate for a town that had its own opera house, its own band, and a thriving cultural life.

Jasper and Lillian Augustine were passionate participants in this life, believing, like many of their fellow Ladorans, that dwelling in a small town should be no obstacle to a refined existence. Lillian, in addition to being her husband's assistant in his practice and running the household—which also included Mildred's older brother, Melville—was an accomplished painter and musician. She played the piano and organ frequently at social gatherings and official town functions, as well as at the Presbyterian church, to which she was devoted. (Her daughter did not share this piety, recalling much later: “My mother was quite a church goer and she tormented me to death going to church. I went as long as I had to and then I never went to church again.”) Of the Augustines, she was the more conservative parent—Mildred remembered her mother always encouraging her but also trying to make her “into a traditional person. But I resisted that. I just was born wanting to be myself.” The daughter of one of the area's original Vermont pioneer settlers, Lillian Augustine was a stern, loving woman, not much given to shows of affection, who held herself and those around her to high standards. Mildred's salvation came in the form of her more liberal father, who took her on house calls with him along the dusty back roads, first by horse and buggy and later by car. Though he was not musical like his wife, Jasper Augustine had a literary streak, as evidenced by his eager participation in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, a group modeled on the legendary program started in 1874 by the Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent on Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York.

BOOK: Girl Sleuth
13.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Temperate Warrior by Renee Vincent
Shameless Playboy by Caitlin Crews
Half a Crown by Walton, Jo
Face by Brighton, Bridget
Blind Faith by Christiane Heggan
Skylark by Sara Cassidy
The Red Gloves Collection by Karen Kingsbury