Not long ago, I was telling a loved one how difficult I find it to make new friends as an adult. I was told quickly, and emphatically, that I was being ridiculous–that I make new friends all the time–it’s just that almost all of them are dead. Instantly, I was filled, absolutely filled, with what A.S. Byatt beautifully describes as “pale gold goodwill.” Because this is true–I do make new friends all the time and, because I am an archivist, most of these new friends are, indeed, dead! But this does not make them any less dear to me, and in fact, I often spend more waking hours in the company of my dead friends than I do with my living friends!
2016 has been a very good dead-friend-year for me. I was lucky enough to become acquainted with Burton Rascoe and his snarky humor–I chuckled over his letters as if he was sitting beside me; I admired the smooth flow of his language; and I nostalgically and wistfully enjoyed his 1920s parties. I also experienced the gentle kindness of James DePreist, a renowned conductor and the nephew of Marian Anderson. I read the prayers he penned on post-it notes and hotel stationery before his performances and felt that I better understood him as a man and as a musician. And then, I met Corneille, who I desperately wish was still alive (she would be about 116 years old today) because I really, really want to hang out with her.
Corneille McCarn Rucker (check out her papers) was a young woman living in Hawaii and Tennessee in the early 20th century and attending Vanderbilt at the start of the 1920s. She and her family lived in Hawaii for her father’s job as US District Attorney from 1914 to 1915 and it is in Hawaii that we begin to see Corneille’s personality shine. She kept two diaries in Hawaii, and I must say, her teenage years appear to have been much more fun than my own. She, for example, wrote a diary entry entitled “In which I go to Marion’s moonlight swimming party and wear a loud bathing suit.” She was quite the story teller and this and other similar entries paint a lively picture of her life.
In 1915, the McCarn family returned to Nashville and Corneille attended Vanderbilt where she studied poetry (she was the first woman to publish in The Fugitive) … and boys. And for all of you reading this and suddenly having less respect for my lovely friend, Corneille, let me assure you that she is the most charming boy-crazy lass you have ever met. Her letters are full of boys, her diary entries are full of boys, and her scrapbook is full of boys. Not only that, she filled an entire little book, My Him Book, with photos of BOYS! Every once in a while a copy of My Him Book by Elisa E. Edwards shows up on ebay, and I am always tempted!
My favorite boy story from Corneille comes from her scrapbook, “My Memory Book,” and tells the sad tale of Bill. Bill was her beau for about three weeks before he was accused of passing bad checks for fancy neckware and was hauled off to jail. Her scrapbook entry on Bill includes a description of their brief and clearly dramatic relationship. She begins: “I can’t put the tears I have shed over Bill in my memory book. It is well that I can’t probably, for it might wash away all my souvenirs.” She then goes on to describe why she saved the cigarette butt and match (yes, they are attached to a scrapbook page) and the newspaper articles about his arrest; and how much his phone calls (made “just as soon as he came out of jail”) meant to her. They must have because she included word-for-word transcripts of these phone calls in the scrapbook. She also mentions that her father will not allow her to have another date with him! Clearly, an unreasonable man! She ends this description with appropriately dramatic underlining: “He thinks that I don’t want to see him and will never call again probably.” There is a place and caption for Bill in Corneille’s My Him Book, but no photograph. Perhaps he never called again–poor Corneille!
I am happy to say that Corneille did eventually get over Bill. She married a doctor named Anthony Warren Rucker and they appear to have had a lovely life together and were married for more than fifty years before he died in 1979. Corneille continued to write poetry and in 1987, published Christmas is Love, a compilation of fifty years’ worth of Christmas poems which she had sent annually to her friends. See … who wouldn’t want her as their friend?