Hi, everyone! It’s been a while. For a few weeks I was working full-time and also taking this online course at MIT, which taxed my ability to maintain a basic level of sanitation, let alone write a blog. Now that I’ve switched to part-time I have quite a backlog,* but if a post sits around in my head for too long it starts to feel like homework, and it’s Fourth of July weekend and who wants to do homework?
Smart Set, July 1920 (modjourn.org)
Luckily, 1920 came through, in the form of an article by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in the July 1920 issue of Smart Set called “Répétition Générale.” There are often articles called “Répétition Générale” in Smart Set, consisting of Mencken and Nathan, the magazine’s co-editors (and literary critic and drama critic respectively), going on about whatever they feel like.**
This time, what they feel like going on about is The Ideal Women. Italics theirs, followed by a list of 57 qualities this paragon possesses.
“Yay!” I said. “Quiz time!”
Longtime readers might be thinking, well, she has some nerve, given that I wrote an entire blog post on how Mencken is not my romantic ideal, and another one rejecting Nathan as a possible suitor. But just because you don’t love someone doesn’t mean you don’t want them to love you. So I got out my pen to tally my score. You can follow along, marking your answers as true or false. Because one can only endure so much perfection, I pared the 57 questions down to 25. There’s a scoring chart at the end.
The Ideal Woman—
1. In writing a letter, she never adds an apostrophe to every word ending with S, and, when she makes a blot, never undertakes facetiously to comment on it.
TRUE. I never, ever get apostrophes wrong. Admittedly I don’t make many ink blots these days, but due to the ferocity with which I oppose misplaced apostrophes I will give myself full credit here.****
2. Upon deliberately touching a man’s foot under the table, she never makes a pretence of having believed it was the leg of the table and of ejaculating, “Oh, sorry.”
Norman Rockwell, May 1, 1920
TRUE. Side note: I think Mencken and Nathan are deluding themselves here.
3. After eating a particularly sticky piece of candy, she doesn’t place her hand on one’s shoulder under the guise of a sudden burst of affection.
Saturday Evening Post, May 22, 1920
TRUE. Because I’m not five years old.
4. If she desires to say “I love you,” she says it in English and doesn’t go in for “je t’aime.”
A Dance in the Country, Auguste Renoir, 1883
5. She can drink a lemonade or an orangeade, a gin daisy, a milk punch or a mint julep through a straw without making a noise like the last quart of water running out of the bath-tub when she gets to the bottom of the glass.
TRUE. See #3.
6. She never makes use of such phrases as “yes indeedy.”
TRUE. As far as I can recall I have never in my life said “Yes indeedy.”
7. She signs her name simply and doesn’t put a bow-knot with two dots underneath it below the signature.
8. Her handbag contains just and only such articles as she needs, and isn’t packed full of two month’s old streetcar transfers, tops of pill boxes, keys the identity of which she has long forgotten, addresses of dressmakers long since deceased, cigar bands with sentimental histories, and a number of archaeological fuzz-covered salted almonds.
FALSE. It’s only because Coronavirus has brought my handbag-carrying days to a temporary halt that you are not being subjected to an inventory or, worse, a photograph.
9. When tiffing with one over the telephone and at a loss for an appropriate retort, she never tries to gain time by resorting to the subterfuge of clicking the hook up and down and, blaming it on Central, exclaiming, “Isn’t that ma-ddening?”
C&P Telephone Exchange, Washington, D.C., ca. 1920 (Herbert E. French)
FALSE. I was going to give myself this one until I remembered the time back in the eighties when, desperate to shake off a cluelessly persistent admirer, I unplugged the phone in mid-sentence, and then blamed the phone company when he called back.
10. It is possible for her to pucker up her lips and whistle without imparting to her face the aspect of a dried-up lemon.
FALSE. I can’t whistle so am thankfully spared the dried-up lemon test.
11. She is able to find the telephone number of John Smith & Co. without first looking through all the B’s, M’s, and P’s.
New York Telephone directory listings, 1920 ( Bell Telephone News, Volume 9, Number 9, April 1920)
TRUE. (UPDATE 7/5/2020: Hey, I know one of these guys! The last person on the list, Walter C. Arensberg, was a would-be poet and noted modern art collector. I made fun of one of his poems here.)
12. Entertaining a male guest in her home, she is able imperturbably to observe a spark fall from the latter’s cigarette without following it with her eyes and making sure that it doesn’t burn the carpet.
H. L. Mencken caricature by McKee Barclay, 1920 (Digital Maryland)
FALSE. Okay, it’s their ideal, but “willingness to risk having your house catch on fire to accommodate my sloppy habits” is pushing it.
13. She is able to pass the windows of a man’s club-house without looking in.
Townsend House, now the Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C., 1915, Francis Benjamin Johnson (Library of Congress)
TRUE. Granted, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities lately, but I lived not far from the Cosmos Club in D.C. before it went coed in 1988, and I never tried to peek inside.
14. When in a theater, she doesn’t give birth to a look of annoyance when someone (who has paid for it and has a perfect right to it) comes and takes the seat next to her upon which she has placed her hat.
Plaza Theatre, Geelong, Victoria, Australia, ca. 1920 (Museums Victoria)
TRUE. But I’m lucky this is about theaters, not trains.
15. She is able to walk through one of the poor tenement districts and observe a small child without remarking that the child looks as if it didn’t get enough to eat.
Lower East Side, ca. 1915 (Library of Congress)
16. When, in an elevator, an operator calls out the sixth floor, at which she desires to get out, she gets out without asking the operator whether it is the sixth floor.
Still from “High and Dizzy,” 1920
FALSE. Although with me it’s more a case of the door opening, people starting to get out, and me saying, “Oh, wait, is this six?”
17. She is able to play a sentimental song on a piano without trying to sing it.
Sheet music, 1920 (indianahistory.org)
FALSE. First of all, there’s my inability to play a sentimental song on a piano, period. But there’s also my desire to sing along with whatever music is playing under whatever circumstance, which I often, but not often enough, manage to suppress.
18. She has the kind of lips that look permanently as if they had just said “if.”
FALSE. Although be careful what you wish for:
Me when I just said “if”
Me when I didn’t just say “if”
19. She never asks one to explain to her just what it is that causes the illumination on fireflies.
Erté, May 1918
TRUE. The master****** of my house in college was one of the world’s foremost experts on bioluminescence, and I never even asked him that. Although that’s a bad example, since I went through college with the extremely misguided policy of never asking anyone in a position of authority anything.
20. She never has her photograph taken showing her looking wistfully at a lily.
Calla Lilies, Irises and Mimosas, Henri Matisse, 1913
FALSE. When I lived in Cambodia, this was the default photographic pose for women.
21. She has never read Laurence Hope’s “India Love Lyrics.”
From “India’s Love Lyrics,” by Laurence Hope, 1902
TRUE. Although naturally I had to check it out, and if this passage is anything to go by, it’s pretty steamy by ca. 1900 standards.
22. When a phonograph starts playing a swinging fox-trot, she is able to sit still and behave herself instead of standing up and vouchsafing a movement or two symbolic of her gracefulness and irrepressible gypsy blood.
Leo Feist Inc., 1919 (National Museum of American History)
FALSE. See #17.
23. When lunching and shown the tray of French pastry, she is able to make her selection at once, without rolling her eye lingeringly around the platter three or four times.
The Book of Cakes, T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley, 1904
FALSE. I see no need whatsoever to justify myself here.
24. There is in her family no rich relative of whom she is very proud but to whom, by way of screening the pride, she is in the habit periodically of alluding in derogatory terms.
Publicity photo of Irene Ryan, 1930 (beverlyhillbillies.fandom.com)
TRUE. Irene Ryan, best known as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies, was my grandfather’s cousin’s wife. I have never in my life said a word against her.*******
25. She has at no time in her life evinced any curiosity to see Chinatown.
FALSE. I have, in fact, evinced so much curiosity about Asia as to move not only to Cambodia but also to Laos. Here I am at the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuong, Laos, in 2008.
That’s it! Time to tally up your scores.
21-25: You are silent film star LILLIAN GISH, with whom Nathan was desperately in love, but who turned down his many marriage proposals.********
Lillian Gish, ca. 1919
16-20: You are writer and college professor SARA HAARDT, whom Mencken married in 1930, when he was 49 and she was 32. She was in poor health at the time of their marriage and died five years later.
Sara Haardt Mencken, 1919
11-15: You are Mencken’s longtime lover MARION BLOOM, of whom he wrote in a letter to her sister (!), “Like all other right-thinking gals she wants a husband…For me to marry her would be sheer insanity. The first time she began her childish nonsense about Kant, Hegel, materialism, etc., I’d walk out of the house and never come back.”
Marion Bloom, date unknown
1-10. You are a PROVINCIAL SCHOOLMA’AM, a SUPERSTITIOUS BLUESTOCKING, a SUNDAY SCHOOL-TEACHING VIRGIN, or any of the other terms that Mencken hurled at women, real and imagined, who didn’t share his taste in literature. Although, given the wording of the questions, you’re more likely to be one of the less intellectual members of the Ziegfeld Follies chorus.
I got a 15, so I’m a Marion, one point away from being a Sara. That’s fine with me. They both seem like decent people, dubious taste in men aside. But don’t worry, whatever your score, there’s no chance whatsoever that Mencken or Nathan will call you up, forcing you to cut off the line and blame Central.
Have a safe and happy July 4 weekend, everyone!
*Including, as I tweeted, a post about the (arguably) first gay American novel, which I didn’t finish in time for LGBT Pride month but will get to sometime. (Except that, oops, I just invoked the promised post curse.) (UPDATE 5/24/2021: I actually did this! Curse averted.)
**Must be nice, I thought reflexively, until I remembered that I don’t exactly have a lot of editorial restrictions here.
***As always, men are welcome to play along! You’re at an unfair advantage, though.
****Apostrophized plurals are a particular scourge in South Africa, where I live most of the time, because in Afrikaans you put an apostrophe before the S when a word ends with a vowel (e.g. foto’s), and this spills over into English.
*****This isn’t my real handwriting–it’s a not completely successful effort at library hand. I don’t think signature forgery is much of a thing anymore, but best to be on the safe side.
******A title that was, amazingly, only retired four years ago. We used to actually call the person “Master So-and-So.”
*******I learned just now that she and her husband Tim Ryan were a well-known vaudeville duo, and that they divorced in 1942.
********And, according to some sources, dumped him when she found out he was Jewish.