In Claremont Library in California, I went through the business files of Alber & Wickes Inc, US agents for the Abbey tours. Although they may seem useless, business files in archives repeatedly throw up fascinating and vital articles.
In this case, the solid, squat lettering of an old fashioned American typewriter stacks up into the columns of an office inventory. It’s November 1938 and a full inventory of the contents of the rooms (307 – 311) at 729 Boylston Street in Boston is required for a legal case. The paper is thin as tissue, but the underlined headings give it a frame and the careful numbering and dating provide ballast. It all builds up into something Frolie Mulhern can walk right into.
As the lawyers sit in the walnut chairs of the reception, they can flick through the photo album on display. In sumptuous purple with gold lettering, it’s full of souvenir photographs from the Abbey production of The Plough and The Stars. If they tire of admiring the young ladies of the cast, they can peruse the window cards advertising Eleanor Holme and the Water Frolies, Fritz Leiber or even the Abbey Theatre Players, of whom they have probably heard.
In Wickes’s private office, he sits behind a walnut roll top desk in a mahogany swivel desk chair. He tips his cigarettes into a walnut ash stand and talks into a leather-covered Dictaphone on the desk. A Steiffel & Freeman iron safe with a combination lock stands sentry in a corner and the smaller mahogany tables display a range of bric-a-brac: bronze bookends, a brass Chinese opium pipe, a paperweight shaped like a dinosaur from the American Museum of Natural History, a glass paperweight, a pipe rack with three pipes and a silver Cup that was a prize in a golf championship. In the heap of items behind the door are an umbrella, a cane, a raincoat, an office coat, a briefcase and one piece of Aeroplane luggage (weekend size). There are more framed photographs (41) than books (35) but only one of the framed photographs is standing on the desk. It’s not possible from their perspective to see if this photograph is of his wife and his two young sons or of the attractive young Irish actress he is very much in love with.
So much I know about Elbert Wickes – so many objects to constitute his life. But standing in that office, or sitting on the edge of a chair in reception, clutching her handbag, what does Frolie Mulhern treasure?
Frolie is uncomfortable in the office, so it may be easier to see the relaxed chaos of her hotel room: clothes, make-up, magazines and newspapers. The open pages of her scrapbook on the desk fluttering in the breeze from the open eleventh floor window. And there’s a half-packed trunk abandoned on the bed …
1 – I know for a fact that Frolie was an aunt who packed her bags with American candy and matchbox toys for her nieces and nephews, but that feels like cheating – they are not her own objects.
2 – There is a plaid shawl and a long string of beads right at the bottom of the case. On the few rare occasions when Ria Mooney was sick or missing, it was Frolie Mulhern that replaced her as Rosie Redmond. Although it’s over ten years since the riots, Mrs Mulhern still disapproves strongly of the role and Frolie adores it.
3 – For luck, Frolie carries with her a photograph of her father at the gate of their original home in Monaghan. It was some kind of publicity shot for their bottling business but the colour came out strange and he was allowed to keep it. He is a stranger to her now, nothing but a mossy grave stone.
4 – There’s a book on Mormonism that Aideen bought to tease her: Elbert was brought up in the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
5 – There’s a scarlet paper hat from the Christmas party in New York – Elbert wore it, and left it on his seat when they were going dancing.
6 – There’s a letter from her mother on Ailesbury Road, with a carefully folded prospectus from University College Dublin. Frolie’s brothers and sisters were dentists and doctors and solicitors … It wasn’t too late for her to return to study.
7 – There’s a glass bottle of something strong-smelling that is a medicinal tonic for her chest.
8 – There’s a note from Gertrude, Wickes’s secretary, with the details of a US agent who has a part Frolie Mulhern would be perfect for ….