- Historic Sites
The author recalls two generations of “Cliffie” life—hers and her mother’s—in the years when male and female education took place on opposite sides of the Cambridge Common and women were expected to wear hats in Harvard Square
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
A for parietal rules in my Radcliffe handbook, today they read like strictures laid upon novices in a nunnery. In fact, such concern about sexuality has a piquancy now that I’m sure the original authors of the pamphlet never dreamed of.
Going into Boston was a big adventure. But when ennui overcame us and the double features at the “Unie” palled (even though a heavy date might pay the extra fee and take you to sit in the over-stuffed seats in the balcony), we would get on the “Mass-Ave” streetcar and go into town to the Fine Arts Theater around the corner from the old Loew’s State Theater. There we would sit entranced by René Glair’s Sous Les Toits de Paris and Le Million or Congress Dances , a charming old chestnut about the Congress of Vienna, replete with waltzes and romantic intrigue, which for some reason or other we used to pride ourselves on having seen at least a dozen times. For years the Fine Arts was the only theater showing foreign films in Boston.
The favorite hangouts of the students population ranged from the all-night eateries like the Waldorf Cafeteria on Massachusetts Avenue to Gusties in Brattle Square, where one could get a square meal for thirty-five cents and be waited on by a busty proprietress who was apt to dictate what one ate. Up the street, at the Brattle Inn, presided over by two maiden sisters, bright law students such as Jim Rowe and Ed Rhetts (who went on to distinguished careers in the Roosevelt administration) and David Riesman, winding up their third year at the Harvard Law School under the tutelage of Felix Frankfurter, would argue cases over lunch in the ladylike atmosphere of the inn’s dining room. David Riesman, whom I remember as the intellectual pet and buzzing gadfly of his more worldly classmates, would have a hundred ideas in one lunchtime, a good many falling flat but a few brilliant and penetrating.
My mother was forever pressing me to have “some of your nice classmates” around so that “we can have a good talk,” a prospect that always seemed to me a bit embarrassing, and, even worse, boring. However, I would from time to time gather some of them together for dinner, where she would challenge them with such topics as “Has Moral Indignation Gone Out?” and serious conversation would ensue, with apparent total participation by those present. The atmosphere was always informal, and any fool remark was accepted with respect.
My mother encouraged the students to talk about what they looked forward to as careers, pointing out that they must remember that the breadth of possibilities for them was the product of pioneer women like Lucy Stone and the heroic suffragettes and that they must not be ungrateful. She was doing her best to break them out of their habitual patterns of thinking and apparently succeeded to an extent, for I was startled years later by some of my classmates who remembered those evenings given over to “great thoughts” as being some of the most stimulating and vivid memories of their college years.
In spite of my mother’s noble sentiments and possible influence, only a handful went on to graduate school, and most of my classmates got married upon graduation, usually to worthy graduate students whom they would dutifully put through law or medical school by working as researchers or secretaries. The height of their career aspirations, if they had any, was to be a researcher for Time . A job at Macy’s was considered rather glamorous too and also gave one a chance to live in New York, an experience considered de rigeur among certain of my classmates. It all seems a millennium ago, and the Radcliffe of my day was in many ways a quaint and dated institution. But I still look back on those years with nostalgia and a certain amount of pride. We knew a good thing when we saw it and seized the moment.