The Whole Ruth, Part Two
New York City
Soon after May’s death, the family made the move to New York City. Their new home would be a four-story brownstone on West 118th St., less than a block from Morningside Park (designed by the famous American landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted). Ruth would live in New York City for the next twenty years.
That first year, before they were settled in socially, the family amused themselves at Sunday dinner by taking turns giving spontaneous speeches, or by reading aloud something they had written on a chosen topic. Some of these poems and essays were so entertaining they found publication in the local paper.
Ruth and her mother also attended spiritualist meetings. These were gatherings which operated around the belief that the dead could communicate with the living—i.e., séances—and were very popular from the 1840s through the 1920s with middle and upper class women, many who were supporters of women’s suffrage movement, and, earlier, the abolitionist movement. “Mother and I both became fascinated with spiritualist meetings,” wrote Stout. “ . . . in NYC in the days before TV and radio you either went to church or a spiritualist meeting if you were a stranger in town and not established yet.”
Ruth’s mother liked to keep an open mind about everything, proven or not, and during the New York years explored the subjects of psychoanalysis, hypnotism, chiropractic (which was then new), magnetic healing, and more. She never, as Ruth puts it, “went overboard” for any of these subjects, but had the philosophy that there was something good in everything and all study and experiences brought a wider understanding of life.
The family bought a player-piano for their sparsely-furnished though spacious home on the installment plan. One of the rooms on the 2nd floor was “immense” and so they installed the piano there and dubbed it “the ballroom.” Another second-story room was called the library. Ruth remembers those years of being full of young visitors, including brothers and sisters and their children, with lots of dances and parties.
Everyone at the townhouse had jobs except Donald, who was in high school. Donald would later be allowed to drop out of school to pursue his love, which was zoology. Ruth, who never attended college, later wrote: “Mother and Dad had both gone to college but their children had not been willing to waste time sitting around in a college classroom when Life was right there on the doorstep challenging us to come on out and see what we could do with it.” Later she would give a less boisterous opinion: “I believe that many young people graduate without having been changed in any way that is going to make a particle of difference in their lives. And I would like to bet that those who do get something real and lasting out of their studies would have got something just as worthwhile out of those four years if they had spent them another way. . .”
Indeed, all the Stout children seemed to have enjoyed interesting, productive lives and several achieved fame and/or financial success. Ruth’s brother Rex, the mystery writer (who was also a child prodigy in mathematics) and his brother Robert devised a school banking system in the early 1900s. It was a cooperative program between banks and schools that encouraged children to save and it made them enough money for Rex to move to Paris and write full-time. A few years down the road, Robert became a banker.
Ruth spent most of the New York years working in various offices and writing occasionally for publication. By the time she was in her late thirties she was making a living, “of sorts,” writing short stories, and decided to start her own business, a tearoom. She and a friend opened the “Will ‘O the Wisp,” but soon found out it didn’t provide enough of an income for the two of them. Ruth ventured out on her own, opening a tea room she named the Klicket. She described the venture as taking all of her capital, or about the equivalent of $1,000 today. The tearoom was located in a “gloomy” and “dilapidated” Greenwich Village building, but Ruth said it “reeked with atmosphere.” The neighborhood tearooms were the gathering place for artists and other interesting people of all sorts during that time after WWI, and Ruth made a lot of friends.
Perhaps Ruth’s greatest hardship during the New York years was when her brother Donald, the youngest of the Stout children, contracted tuberculosis. He died when he was only 19 years old. Ruth said her Mother handled this well, insisting to the distraught doctor who had cared for him, “I haven’t lost him.”
Later Ruth would share that she had a harder time in her 20s than any time in her life—more times of despair and even thoughts of suicide. Once she remarked on youth in general: “What is so wonderful about youth? Little chickens are cute, but they can’t lay eggs; kittens are adorable but they’re not wise like cats . . . flowers have to mature before they give you blossoms.”
Ruth the Rebel
Ruth’s work in New York City included bookkeeper at a department store, secretary, business manager, and factory worker. She confessed that she bluffed her way into the bookkeeping job, after her brother Rex told her she should apply because it was higher paying than work for “office girls.” He also said he’d help her out if she got “stumped.” Ruth was able to fake it until she made it, eventually being promoted to head of that department, and in charge of eleven “girls.” (Women workers at that time were commonly referred to as “girls.”)
Business was booming and they all worked very hard, especially in the busy season, putting in overtime hours for no additional pay. Because of this, Ruth thought it would be fair to allow the women to run the occasional personal errand when things were slow. Ruth almost lost her job over this until she asked her supervisor if he would prefer that they stick to regular hours (8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. year-round—regular hours were also longer in pre-union America) and not have the work finished during the busy season, and have the workers sitting idle when work was light. She won the argument and got to do things her way. After that, the office manager made a habit of coming in and standing and glaring at the women (which made them all nervous) until Ruth began asking him about raises every time he visited. Ruth described her office as an “independent kingdom” where they “got the work done on time, and correctly, but beyond that, we did exactly as we pleased.” This lasted for seven years.
Ruth wrote: “It wasn’t surprising that he, and the other bosses, didn’t interfere with us; they obviously sensed something that was a settled fact, although my staff and I never discussed it. It was just this: we stood together and we knew our power. What did surprise me was that although all of the other departments in the store were very envious of us, none of them made any attempt to emulate us.”
She said that this experience, among others, taught her that it was a mistake to submit to things you do not agree with (unless you had no choice), and, more importantly, it taught her the importance of thinking for oneself.
At a subsequent job, Ruth claimed she had a college degree so she could apply to head an office of twenty girls selling advertisements for a newspaper. She justified her lie, writing that she knew what the employer really wanted was to make sure that the applicants were literate, which she certainly was, even more so than many college graduates. The work load was “incredibly light,” so she began to write at her desk for other publications. This lasted until she was discovered and fired. Later she wrote a story about that experience, and one magazine she submitted it to rejected it on the basis that it was “too farfetched.”
Her autobiography mentions eccentricities, such as eating only raw foods for a while (to save time), and working in a monotonous and underpaid factory job for a year because she felt everyone should experience factory work if they used factory-made products. That year, in which she was “bored to tears on a daily basis,” Ruth’s job was to refill a pot of glue (the company made envelopes). She said for the rest of her life she had an aversion to using envelopes, preferring postcards for correspondence.
The Love of her Life From the written evidence (her own accounts), it seems that it was only when Ruth was in her late 30s that her teenage pledge to not kiss a man until she was married was put to the test. While she did have suitors, all were far from the “prince” she’d been waiting for. And when she did meet her prince, he came with a problem. Ruth met Alfred (Fred) Rossiter, when he first visited her tearoom with his wife. Fred claimed it was love at first sight for him and began visiting regularly and it wasn’t long before Ruth discovered she felt the same. Ruth wrote that Fred had been in an unhappy marriage for a long time and when he met Ruth he asked his wife for a divorce; “. . . she refused, and included some fainting spells and so on, and he and I saw each other a few times and then had a sad parting.” Ruth was heartbroken. The two did not see each other, or even correspond, for seven long years.
Only one year after they parted, in 1923, the still-lovesick Ruth was talking to her mother about her fondness of Dostoevsky and the Russian novelists and her mother suggested she visit Russia. The Quakers were there, doing famine-relief work, and she was sure that Ruth could go there as a volunteer. Ruth jumped at the suggestion and within a month she was on her way. She found she loved the Russian people, whom she described as kind, and helpful, and not “as restricted by rules of behavior as Americans are.” The poverty she witnessed, however, shocked her. Ruth worked at the Grachovka children’s home, which cared for about 200 orphans. All of the children had lost their parents to starvation (in most instances, the parents had sacrificed food to keep their children alive), and, as Ruth put it, were now being fed by the Quakers. What struck Ruth (at 91 she said she still felt emotional about it) was that these children, having no other pictures, would take the labels from American food cans to embellish their walls. Not because they were hungry, but because they had nothing else decorative.
This visit was one of the transformative events in Ruth Stout’s life. She would always have a special fondness for the Russian people and had little tolerance for those who criticized them during the Cold War. When the topic came up, Ruth would ask if the person had ever actually visited Russia. Without fail, they would say no. “My advice to anyone who is criticizing Russia,” she wrote, “would be don’t spend your time worrying about your neighbor’s dirty house; get out the broom and clean your own.”
When she returned from Russia, her brother Rex thought he could distract her from thoughts of Fred Rossiter (who was still very much under her skin) by getting her interested in the Socialist movement, which was then very popular in the United States. (As an aside, Rex Stout’s own left-wing interests, which included leadership in the Authors League of America, would earn him a file in J. Edgar Hoover’s collection from the 1930s on.) This scheme worked well, and Ruth spent a couple of weeks at a summer camp that year for socialist and trade union activists put on by the Rand School. At the camp, Ruth fell under the spell of the well-known Socialist speaker Scott Nearing, who lectured on Russia. The two connected over Russia, their shared vegetarianism, and soon became smitten with each other. Unfortunately, Nearing, like Rossiter, was married. Ruth writes in her last book, published when she was 91, and 15 years after her husband’s death, that they shared some kisses, but nothing else. During the camp visit, Ruth saw that the people running the socialist camp were hypocritical regarding class-consciousness. For example, they had a creed—“For each, according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” yet she observed that the elevator man (who had three kids and a sick wife) still received far less pay than the manager. Furthermore, when they had group meals, the “help” was served a different meal than the rest. She was disappointed in the movement, calling herself, at her age, too optimistic and naïve. “I thought I had finally found a group of people who actually followed their own rules.”
During this stage in her life, she also realized she liked “hours better than dollars,” so she got a half-time job, lived frugally, and discovered she was free to do what she pleased the rest of the day. What she pleased to do turned out to be working for Nearing and the Socialist magazine The New Masses as a full-time, unpaid secretary. Although she had feelings for Nearing, Ruth wrote that romance was not her motivation. She said, Nearing was “a great pleasure but the most interesting part of all was his lectures and debates.” Ruth had the same insight with “liberals” as she did with Socialists. She once went to The Liberal Club in NYC, observed a lot of name-dropping, and thought to herself, “They are no different from the common herd . . . My guess was that they scorned people who had to keep up with the Joneses, by buying a certain make of car and so on and on, but they were doing exactly the same thing—showing off their close relationship with the ‘right’ kind of human beings. I suppose I should have known that but I had overlooked it.” Seven years after they parted, Ruth contacted Fred by letter (she asserted in her autobiography that she had no ulterior motive, but simply wanted to see how he was doing) to learn he had left his wife. The two met, discovered that they were still in love, and got back together. It would take another three years and much difficulty before Fred was granted a divorce.
Ruth wrote that she stayed at Fred’s apartment most of the time after they got back together, even though she “officially” lived at home. Her parents knew about the arrangement (which could not have been easy in the 1920s), but her mother never spoke about it. One day Ruth could take it no longer and confronted her mother, saying: “I’m afraid you’re concerned about Fred and me, Mother, but isn’t it true that, through your life, if you were doing something which you believed was all right, you would keep on, even if the whole world thought you were wrong? Well, it’s your hard luck that you have a daughter exactly like you in that one respect.” After that, Mr. and Mrs. Stout visited the couple at Fred’s apartment. In fact, Fred and Lucetta Stout became great friends. Ruth and Fred married in June, 1929. Ruth was 45 years old.
Courtesy of GREENWOMAN BOOKS
Published by Greenwoman Publishing, LLC
Greenwoman Publishing, LLC, P. O. Box 6587, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80934-6587, U.S.A.
Copyright © Sandra Knauf, 2013
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First published in the United States of America