- Historic Sites
Meet Me In St. Lewis, Louie
A collection of little-known early-twentieth-century photographs of St. Louis recalls the author’s unfashionably happy childhood
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
What did we do for fun when dating time came around? Well, there were the movies—a nickelodeon set up in business just around the corner when they first became popular—and when we were in high school and cars were no longer a novelty, we drove out to the Merrimac River, to a clubhouse there where we had dances and, sometimes, carefully chaperoned weekend parties. From time to time touring companies brought plays to St. Louis. Always, during the season, we had concerts because of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In the summer—in Forest Park, of course—we had open-air entertainment: The Bohemian Girl, The Merry Widow, The Bells of Corneville , that sort of thing, and even grand opera. I heard my first opera, Thaïs, at the open-air theater in Forest Park. During the overture a boy came along the aisle shouting, “Peanuts? Popcorn? Soda pop?” and when somebody shushed him, he yelled even louder, “Oh, g’on, they ain’t out on the stage yet!”
How we scorned him! How snooty we were! And we used to talk scornfully of the politicians of the city. It was said, though I think it must have been apocryphal, that one of our mayors had announced in a speech, “Had I knowed conditions was as they is, I would not have did what I done.”
Oh well, perhaps he really did say it.
At any rate we were not too snooty to go to see the Veiled Prophet’s Parade. This was an annual event sponsored by the leading merchants of the town. Somehow it had got itself mixed up with society, too, because every year a debutante was chosen to be the Prophet’s bride at his Ball, which was held the same evening. Girls were “presented” to the Prophet, and the papers made a big fuss about it. The parade passed by our father’s business building on Washington Street, downtown, so that when we went upstairs to the second floor, we got a good look at all the floats. It was a crowded, jolly time. The fact that the Prophet took another bride every year never bothered me. That was the way it was, that’s all.
I too come from the Middle West,” said a lady novelist to me at a cocktail party in New York, “and not long ago I went back to my hometown to see my grandmother’s house, where I grew up. When I was a child it was a big, dark house, very gloomy. You know how they say that when you go back to a childhood place it always looks much smaller? Well, my grandmother’s house didn’t. It looked bigger and gloomier than ever.”
I remembered her when I went back to St. Louis after I had been away for years. I wondered what it would be like, of course. I had loved St. Louis, simply loved it. Why? Who knows? For one thing, I suppose, because I was unfashionably happy as a child, with only one tragedy to mar my days—the disappearance of my dog Dixie. That was a heartbreak, if you like, but one heartbreak in fifteen years is not too bad. For another thing, I was snatched away by the family’s wholesale move just before I really got into the mixed-up, miserable world of adolescence, for which I could not and did not blame St. Louis. Like the sundial, my hometown marked only the sunny hours, whereas Chicago and Madison and New York took all the blame.
Well, I went back, and I said to one of my cousins, “Let’s drive over to Fountain Avenue and get a look at the old house, shall we?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know if you’d enjoy it,” she said. “The whole neighborhood has Gone Black, you know. ”
She shrugged, and we drove over to Fountain Avenue.
It was not easy at first to recognize our house, because the porch had been removed and there was a new facade. But the old number was still tacked up on the door in metallic letters—4858. The 5 now hung upside down, dangling. The whole scene was oddly bare until I realized that the hedge around the park had been removed. Otherwise everything was as it had been before, neither smaller nor bigger, though there was less grass around. It was evidently a quiet time of day, with few people in the street. Leaving my cousin in the car, I went up the pavement to the front door and found three bells, each with a different name attached. I rang the top one and there was no reaction, but the middle one brought a young woman to the door. I said, “Please excuse me for bothering you, but I was born in this house and lived here all through my childhood. Could I have a look at it?”
“Well now.” She paused and considered this request, her expression pleasantly sympathetic. “The trouble is, it’s been cut up, separated into apartments, you see, and three families live here, and everybody’s away at work except me, and I’m only here to look after the kids in the apartment upstairs. On the middle floor. You’re welcome to come up and look around there and see what you can. Okay?”