Every time I find another treasure trove of archived letters I find myself wondering: what would the correspondents think to know this is where their letters rest? And what would they think of me reading them? Sometimes you cringe as you eavesdrop on their secrets, and sometimes you simply allow yourself to be swept up in their lives and be warmed by their love for each other.
This morning I got asked directions on the campus of Columbia University. My extended undercover operation to pretend I’m a student here finally paid off. Columbia University, and the little world around it on the Upper West Side, is a beautiful haven. When I arrived the snow was heaped high on the kerbsides and on the small patches of green, although steam still rose in clouds from the manholes. The Butler Library is all dark wood with glass doors; floors and floors of immaculately-kept reading rooms where students tap away on their laptops. There’s a serenity to archival work, and to working in such beautiful surroundings, that I’d completely forgotten, spending as much time as I do on the Go bus. Heading home in the early evenings, the only noise is the children from the local kindergarten pelting each other with the last of the slush. I’m staying a block from the office of Bill Clinton, who moved there in 2005 and there are NYPD everywhere. It lacks the honking horns, flashing lights and sheer aggression that you associate with downtown New York, but the UWS (as they say) is a place you could live in and quickly establish a home.
Kay Swift took off from New York in 1939 with her rodeo cowboy, not long before Aideen did the same. Aideen never settled here; Kay fled the city she’d called home. They’d both put in a few years of nothing but disappointments: career failures, broken relationships and money problems. Aideen left few (if any) records of her life that year. All I know about it has been put together from other sources. Kay was not one to linger on disappointments, so it seemed to me for a long time that I’d only ever be able to wonder and imagine about Kay’s friendship with Aideen, formed during their time in New York together … Except … Every girl needs somebody to confide in, and Kay Swift had Mary Lasker.
These women were so close that in 1934, they travelled together to Reno to secure their divorces (from two different men). They call each other ‘Lamb’ and ‘Darling’ and miss each other ‘like double-barrelled hell’. When Kay was married to a millionaire, she routinely gave Mary last year’s fur coat. By the 1940s, things had turned around. After endless fights with a married man they secretly called “The Fiend”, Mary married a millionaire philanthropist. There’s extended correspondence between Kay and Mary’s secretary over the insurance premium on Mary’s mink coat, which Kay was now wearing on the ranch they’d called “The Faye and Kay”. The ins and outs of their love affairs are suitably dramatic enough to make them The Sex and the City ladies of the 1940s. But Kay says of one man, with a maturing tone:
I made the mistake of being anxious to make ours the ultimate affair of all time, which it wasn’t. You and I always wanted the works, every minute.
Mary and Kay were women who always wanted the works – and I love how they always insisted on it.
Someone commented on my early pieces about Kay Swift that it was hard to believe her positivity and good humour were unassailable, given the numerous traumas of her life. In fact, she wrote to Mary in the early 1940s:
you know me, the old carthorse. Always feeling so well it’s hardly decent.
But those years in New York did leave their mark, and it took some time and distance before she recovered her spirit. Life on a ranch in Bend, Oregon (often without running water) gave her a space to reflect and heal her spirit. From there, she confided to Mary that despite her new-found serenity (Faye was ‘El Superbo’) there were times when the memories and regrets caught her off guard. As so many of us instinctively do, Kay built a home modeled on her old one. In the dilapidated ranch, while Faye was out shooting cougars, she set out her own zebra-skin rugs and screens and then decided:
I shall move my fireplace, my bedroom, (with a sweeping view of the snow-covered mountains) will take it well, and I’m going to use the same shrimp pink on wall and ceiling in my room, and a cute little dressing room next it, that I had in N.Y.
As only old friends can, they flit easily between current events and infamous parties from the past. And a few sheafs into the first folder I opened was a typed letter from Hollywood (where Kay was then) with a note on the bottom that began:
Aideen’s stepson has arrived from Ireland …
Over the page, she goes on to express her relief that things have turned around for Arthur Shields, that his ship had finally come in.
I felt it like a slap in the face – a sudden realisation that I had come here on no more than a hunch. A well-supported hunch, but a theory more than anything. But there it is, proof of their friendship. And it wasn’t the only mention … But I shall come back to that.
For although Aideen is always there, for the last few days, I’ve been entirely caught up in the friendship between Kay and Mary. And I can’t escape the idea that what I’m working with here is a trove of love letters … Not a bad way to spend Valentine’s day, in a city I’m rapidly falling in love with .
Happy Valentine’s Day!