Peppered through the vast family archive used in the writing of River of January, exist three special sets of letters. Though largely filled with conventional chatter and sentimental superlatives, these documents also provide a fascinating peek into another time and place–of a nation suffering through economic free fall, and perched on the threshold of war.
The letters frequently mention the turbulent state of international affairs, from fascist Italy, to the Spanish Civil War; episodes that eventually and inevitably led to the Second World War. Even more ink is expended discussing the difficult economic situation stemming from the fallout of the Stock Market Crash–securing theater bookings, closing business contracts, and aviation training in a downsized Navy. Still, aside from the monumental, most of the content reported simple day to day life, shared with humor and concise observations. From their correspondence these men clearly promoted themselves, vibrantly rising from the faded and yellowing paper.
The first are a series of letters mailed from a Hollywood address, composed by comedy writer, Grant Garrett. (See above). The second collection, posted almost exclusively from Europe, came from the hand of a 28-year-old Belgian entrepreneur, Elie Gelaki. Serious and painfully formal, Elie’s letter reveal a methodical mind, clearly continental in manner with a determined nature. Finally, the last, and largest collection came from Mont Chumbley, Virginia farm boy turned aviator, who looms largest in the memoir. His writing reveals a practical, warm, and straightforward young man who expressed himself in plain language.
Despite definite differences in style, these three writers did share many qualities. All were deeply ambitious, establishing successful careers in the particularly difficult years of the Great Depression. They were clearly literate and educated, in a time when many (at least in America) did not regularly attend nor graduate from secondary school. These letters rise from the ordinary, written with distinctive originality, candor, and technical accuracy.
The link that tied this portion of the archive together was the beautiful New York dancer who received each letter, and preserved them all, Helen Thompson.
Grant Garrett became Helen’s first heartthrob. A native of Los Angeles, Garrett was a regular script contributor to radio shows and vaudeville acts. A talented singer and dancer in his own right, he interviewed Helen to partner with him for an upcoming tour across the country in 1931. After their junket ended, she returned to New York, and he returned to Hollywood. Now in love, the couple exchanged a series of clandestine letters, (her mother forbade Helen to see him again) with only Grant’s compositions still surviving today.
For a nineteen-year-old girl, Grant was hard to resist. Moody, smart, and funny . . . he was the essence of the tortured poet, a perfect combination of beauty, pain and passion. Of her suitors, Grant was the only one who shared her profession, and their time together forged a strong, and influential bond. Helen’s association with Grant provided something of a professional finishing school for her. From Grant she learned to laugh through tough times, and push through adversity because “the show must go on.”
Grant’s whimsical map of a planned Garrett & Thompson reunion tour.
Next time, Belgian, Elie Gelaki.
Read more about Grant Garrett, Elie, and Mont Chumbley in River of January, available in hard copy and on Kindle.