A Family-Sized Passport

One advantage of writing about the 1920s, as opposed to say the 1320s, is the availability of contemporary photographs and sometimes even videos like this silent short including the mob at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral.

While researching my current story on Harry Wills, the best boxer of the 1920s who never got a shot at the World Heavyweight Title, I uncovered Harry’s passport photo.

Handsome Harry’s good looks aside, what set me back on my twenty-first century heels was that Harry shared his passport photo with his wife, Sarah. Seems that in the 1920s, women weren’t expected to travel abroad unless escorted by their husbands.

More poking around the Internet located a wealth of husband/wife, mother/child, and even family passports like when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald took little Frances across the pond. Note that the details of Zelda’s appearance and even her signature were deemed unnecessary. Good thing she had Scott to take care of her…

Fitzgeralds' Passport

Old Faithful – The Rum Running Dog

Gertrude Lythgoe and Old FaithfulBill McCoy’s Newfoundland dog, Old Faithful, sailed with the rumrunner in the early 1920s as Bill’s companion and banker.

As you can imagine, rum running was a cash-and-carry business. When wads of dollars filled Bill’s pockets, he dumped the dough on the double bunk he shared with his dog. Faithful guarded the stash with bared teeth and a guttural growl. Bill said that anyone dumb enough to reach for the cash would have to kill or be killed. He literally bet his money on his dog.

Black LabradorNewfieThe only picture I could find of Faithful is in the tight hug of Gertrude Lythgoe, the Queen of Rum Running. From what little I can see, Faithful looks more like a Black Labrador than the Newfoundland dogs I’ve been honored to pet.

After a little web searching, I found a picture of a Newfoundland dog from the 1920s. I’ll be darned if this pup isn’t the spitting image of a Lab or even a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

I’d let this tough guy guard my cash any day.


Not Just Any Name

I relish a good character name, something more than a moniker. Here are two from my long list of favorite character names, both from A. S. Byatt’s novel, Possession.

  • The protagonist, Roland, believed his boss, James Blackadder, editor of Ash’s Complete Works, undermined his career by sending poor references for the academic posts Roland craved. Blackadder’s name suggests a venomous snake, and a black one to boot.
  • Mortimer P. Cropper, a wealthy American professor, bought or stole the poet Ash’s memorabilia to the disgust and dismay of the British scholars. In the end, Mortimer “comes a cropper,” as the Brits say, when caught grave robbing, still holding purloined letters encrusted with graveyard dirt.

For my latest story on Bill McCoy, the (in)famous rum runner, I needed a name for the Captain of the Coast Guard cutter Manhattan who breaks every seafaring rule to capture his nemesis. Trolling thesaurus, dictionaries, and images for inspiration, I found the etymology of “scofflaw” perfectly in sync with my story.  Here’s the reference from one of my favorite sites, The Online Etymology Dictionary.

scofflaw (n.) 1924, from scoff (v.) + law (n.). The winning entry in a national contest during Prohibition to coin a word to characterize a person who drinks illegally, chosen from more than 25,000 entries; the $200 winning prize was split between two contestants who sent in the word separately: Henry Irving Dale and Miss Kate L. Butler.

 I’m thrilled that “scofflaw” was created in response to the failed experiment that was prohibition and can’t wait to introduce you to the dastardly Captain Scoffer.

A ham of rye, please.

I’ve decided to retire my blogs on Lady Ada, Programmer, and The Extraordinary People of New York in the 1920s, consolidating my research outtakes here.

From the title of this post, you may think that I’ve a deli story to tell, and that I misspelled “ham on rye.” Nope. Today’s story is about the art, and sometimes the science, of rumrunning from Nassau, Bahamas to the coasts of New York and New Jersey.

Every inch of hold and surface space on a rumrunner was precious, think of the overhead compartment on an airplane. But instead of cramming roller boards into every cranny, skippers loaded gin, bourbon, and the very popular rye whiskey under and over their ships’ decks. Unfortunately, cases of booze, like the other guy’s carry-on, are awkward to store. Bring on the hams.

Let’s allow the Founding Father of Rum RowBill McCoy, to share the first time he saw a ham production line in Nassau: “At the packing tables were scores of [workers,] sheathing each bottle in corrugated paper, stacking them into pyramids of six each, packing straw around them, wrapping them in burlap, sewing the cloth fast with double sail twine—preparing more emissaries of the Demon Rum to corrupt further the morals of America.” (The Real McCoy, Frederic F. Van de Water, 1931)

Hams also sank faster than wooden cases, a benefit when Treasury cutters were bearing down. Fortunately, when Bill’s favorite ship, the Arethusa, couldn’t outrun the Treasury agents, he outthought them and seldom had to dump his cargo overboard to the quench the thirst of the phantom sailors in Davy Jones’ locker.





Got yer books here!

Twenty times a semester I analyze novels and short stories for insights into literacy craft. Given my hundreds of hours and thousands of words, you’d think that when friends ask me to recommend a book I’d flip through my mental card catalog and suggest a title that fits like a glove. Not so much. Remember the last time you asked your partner to suggest a place for dinner?  They offered Italian and you suddenly craved Chinese.

I’m a writer. I get enough rejection without seeking it from friends. But, I will highlight four books for your consideration.  If none of them appeals, I understand. Sometimes ya just gotta have sushi.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories, Etgar Keret.

If you’ve never read flash fiction, start here. In one hundred and thirty pages, Israeli born Keret offers twenty stories and a twenty-six-chapter novella, Kneller’s Happy Campers, whose characters “live” in the hereafter.
On Canaan’s Side: A Novel by Sebastian Barry won the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. In her eighty-ninth year, Lilly Bere remembers her loves and losses in Ireland and America. A poet and playwright before he became a novelist, Barry’s prose is among the best. If you choose this book, let’s share a cup of tea over the lyric but ambiguous ending.

In Brooklyn: A Novel, Colm Toibin sees through Eilis Lacey eyes as she moves from Ireland to New York in the 1950s. Through vivid descriptions and rich internal dialogue, we share Eilis’ indecision as she chooses between countries, careers, and husbands.

I can’t forget my faculty mentor’s work, The Turk and My Mother: A Novel. Mary Helen Stefaniak tells George’s family story across four generations and two continents from Croatia to Milwaukee. George, his grandmother and former girlfriend offer family stories including what really happened between George’s mother and the Turk.

Do drop me a line with your reactions, good or bad, to any of these books.  I’m eager to hear what you think. On to the next twenty!