Polyphoto International


While composing “River of January,” I spent much of my time searching and analyzing family papers. These letters, pictures, and news clippings, along with other souvenirs, make up an enormous archive which spans over seventy years of the twentieth century. Along with Chum and Helen, many secondary individuals are mentioned in the papers, and when I stumbled upon those names, curiosity sent me on the hunt for more information. One of the characters who rose from the stacks was a proper young Belgian named Elie Gelaki.

Elie made quite an entrance into Helen’s life, and subsequently into the pages of “River of January.” His romantic introduction into the story is reminiscent of a 1930’s Hollywood musical. While taking in the premier of “Voila Paris,” at the Palace Theater in Brussels, Elie spotted the girl of his dreams gracing the stage in a solo act. Apparently the smitten young gent quickly scanned the playbill and decided that the girl must be the dancer named Lillian. In an impulse of ardent infatuation Elie sends a note back stage to Lillian inviting her to meet him after the show. Alas, Lillian doesn’t respond and fails to appear at Elie’s appointed location.

The following night the resilient young man again attends the production. Again he watches, thoroughly enchanted, by the vision that is, he thinks, Lillian, Insistent in his attentions, Elie, this night sends flowers and a typed letter composed earlier that day. Again he implores the dancer to rendezvous at a preselected spot. And happily for Elie, this time she materializes out of the dark snowy night.

The girl seems, Elie notices, amused somehow by his attentions. Then he finds out why. The dancer he believed was Lillian in fact was Helen, and that Lillian had a boyfriend back home, in New York. He is embarrassed by the mix up, but more than that, Elie is charmed by the American girl. After drinks at a late night cafe, he asks to see Helen the following day. And so began the courtship of Elie Gelaki with the breathtaking blonde from New York.

Bringing light to this man, lost to anonymity was an true pleasure. Searching through the volumes of primary sources and the internet, I discovered Elie was born in 1906 in Palestine. Further research, this time reading his avalanche of correspondence (to Helen) revealed that he supported two sisters and a mother in Brussels. Elie proudly shared with Helen his deepest ambition as a businessman, founding a company he intended to expand around the world. He had named the firm, “Polyphoto International,” and confidently assured her that the unique processes he developed would change professional photography forever.

I have thought a lot about this enamored young man, (he was only 28 when they met) and I have ransacked the archive many, many times looking for any picture that might be this steadfast suitor. I’ve never found one. His letters were so loving, so personal, that I had to ask myself why Helen, who kept every other slip of paper had no picture of Elie.

He actually complained about this scarcity as well.

In 1936, four years after they met in Europe, Elie writes Helen in New York begging her for an updated photo. He laments, “If it weren’t for the one (picture) you gave me Brussels, I would have forgotten what you looked like.” Apparently the shortage went both ways.

I had to ask myself why? Why would Helen go out of her way to omit “Elie pictures” from her vast collection of mementos? Then I chanced upon a letter Helen sent to her mother in the middle of her 1932-33, European tour. She goes out of her way to assure her mother that she would never marry a Jew. Now this might sound harsh to modern ears, but I think that Helen felt torn by her denial and his Jewish heritage. From current family members who knew Helen, she once admitted she had a “thing” for Elie, using the word “heartthrob.”

At the time she met the young man, antisemitism was on the up tick, and not only in Europe–but in America as well. What I believe pressured Helen to write such things, was placating her mother. Any single girl worth her salt knows what to say to mother when it comes to “boys.” For Helen, at that time and that place, a rejection was much easier than the truth. And her words belie her actions. She must have given the young man reason enough to continue his amorous pursuit for four long years. He pursued Helen across the world . . .  and by the end of the book, across two oceans.

This continental gentleman, this Elie Gelaki, carefully, and thoughtfully laid out his future. He aimed to achieve financial success in the business world, and he aimed to make the American girl his wife. He wrote her constantly and sailed over the Atlantic to see her when he could. In “River of January” the last readers hear from Elie is in a letter from Kobe, Japan, dated 1936. He explains to Helen that “I hope to conduct Polyphoto business in this city, (Kobe).” And that is it, he is gone. Elie just vanishes.

I know, and readers understand, that all of his plans and dreams and hopes and ambitions mattered not a bit. A war is coming. A war of explosive magnitude, fueled by hate and violence and war crimes. A war against the Jews. Elie’s individualism, his personal ambitions, his entire world was devastated in the massive cataclysm of World War Two.

Uncovering this young man left me troubled. I felt as if Helen had been compromised, as were so many others, to sacrifice her natural regard for the young man in order to conform to conventional thought. Though only an episode in the bigger picture of “River,” this ardent suitor, this diligent businessman, deserves the dignity of recognition and remembrance.

What If?


My students loved to play “what if,” following lessons on monumental events in my history classes. For example; what if Washington had been captured–or worse–by the British Army during the Revolution? What if the Senate had ratified the “Treaty of Versailles” at the end of World War One? Would there have been a World War Two? Or what if FDR hadn’t contracted polio? Would a walking FDR been as affective? And so on. Following these bird walks into conjecture they would look to me for some definitive answer on alternate outcomes. But I wasn’t much help. Teaching what actually happened was tough enough for this history instructor,

Still, on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, “what if’s” might have a place . . . might provide some insight into what might have been.

We all know the story. President Lincoln, in an especially festive mood, joined his wife at Ford’s Theater for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The nightmare of Civil War had essentially been settled with General Lee’s surrender, a week before, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Union had been preserved, and the President had much to celebrate. Plus as many “Lincolnistas” know, our 16th president loved the theater. Stage productions became a place where a troubled Lincoln became so absorbed in performances, others couldn’t catch his attention. (As a Lincoln-lover myself, I hope “Our American Cousin” so captivated the President that he never felt a thing in his final hours).

Wilkes Booth, the pea-brained zealot who murdered Lincoln had no idea he had also killed the South’s best defender against a vengeful Congress. Had this lunatic-actor paid attention to anything besides the insanity in his head, Booth would have recognized the President as a moderate–a leader who yearned for true national unity with “Charity for all, Malice toward none.”

So, what if Lincoln, this moderate, had survived, or better yet, never been harmed? What would post-bellum America have looked like with President Lincoln at the helm? Tough to judge, but a closer look at the political situation on April 14, 1865, could provide some direction.

First of all, America would have been spared the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency. Bum luck for the nation to say the least. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because he was a Southerner from Tennessee  who had remained loyal to the Union. Essentially a small minded, white-trash bigot, Johnson despised both the rebellious planter-elite but also newly freed slaves. On the one hand, he wanted former masters to grovel at his feet for presidential pardons, and simultaneously opposed any law that provided aid to former slaves. Where most Americans had come to trust Lincoln in varying degrees, informed Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, freed slaves, and reluctantly, the Republican leadership in Congress, Andrew Johnson in short order alienated the whole lot.

To be fair, Lincoln was in trouble himself, with his party by 1865. But he did have some momentum going his way after General Grant’s success in Virginia. And though he pocket-vetoed a bill backed by vindictive Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Lincoln recognized he had some compromises ahead, to settle down his critics. But, of course Lincoln died at the hands of a Southerner, unleashing zealotry on all sides.

Had Lincoln lived, harsh avenging laws aimed at punishing the South, may have taken a lighter tone. The Military Reconstruction Act, that established a military occupation of the South, the 14th and 15th Amendments may have been less forceful and strident. As an astute politician, Lincoln certainly would have avoided the ordeal of impeachment endured by Johnson at the hands of the Radicals.

Yet, there is still  much to say about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the “what if’s” of history. He died on Good Friday, as had Jesus, a point that wasn’t lost on the American public in 1865. Lincoln died for the cause of freedom. He died for the virtuous notion that “All Men are Created Equal.” Lincoln was crucified for the goodness in all of us, his “Better Angels of our Nature.” However, without Lincoln’s martyrdom later legislation may not have found a place in Constitutional law. The Radicals ran roughshod over Andrew Johnson’s stubborn resistance, overriding presidential vetoes that resulted in the 14th Amendment and it’s definition of citizenship with equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of male suffrage.

Unfortunately, these amendments and other less enduring pieces of legislation were often ignored by unrepentant rebels who exacted their own punishment on freedmen. Still the body of law existed and found enforcement one hundred years later. And this same body of law came into existence because Lincoln died on Good Friday, 1865.

So perhaps the “what if” game ought to be left alone. The course of events that actually transpired built an articulate foundation of freedom, premised on human rights, that could have been otherwise absent from our nation’s history. Much as President Garfield’s murder in 1881 brought about Civil Service Reform, and JFK’s murder brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Mr. Lincoln’s death truly gave America a “New Birth of Freedom.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January available at www.river-of-january.com

This is no Fluke

Heading north to see the folks tomorrow. Thought this piece was worth a repeat.

Gail Chumbley


I spent a couple of days with my folks in Washington State, where I grew up.  It’s always good to go, and even more imperative as they age.  However, the part I seem to forget when I visit, is that time portal called their front door.  When I step through, the world suddenly changes, and I have traveled back in time.  The atmosphere inside, at the latest, is around 1970.  That’s the truth–you can ask any of my childhood friends.  Nixon unfortunately is still in the White House, and they still speak of John F. Kennedy with reverence.

Two of my brothers came over and we settled into the family room to answer questions on Jeopardy.  My dad has his evening viewing schedule locked up.  After Final Jeopardy, he flips over to MeTV for an old rerun of MASH.  It isn’t a very humorous episode.  Hawkeye and company are…

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La marchande de frites

la marchande de fritesThe time was August, 1932. The place was Monte Carlo. This little gem is a menu from an eatery patronized by Helen and her fellow ballerinas, the “American Beauties.” Though the cover is a print, the interior meal selections were meticulously   penned in an ultraviolet flourish.

Helen collected a dozen or so such menus on her year-long excursion; pocketed from bistro’s, pubs, and cafe’s across Europe.  It is hard to say if management frowned upon this custom, or offered menus willingly for advertising purposes. Regardless, the simple beauty of the artwork and flowing cursive recalls a commitment to elegance and style long since abandoned.


la marchand menu

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a non-fiction memoir.