An American Childhood

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Childsplay was published in 1961. It was Eda Lord’s first novel, though now it would probably be called a memoir, and is an account of her childhood (the first-person narrator is unnamed), starting in 1911 when she was 4 and ending in 1917. The first and last chapters are set in Evanston, Illinois, where Eda’s formidable, regal grandmother lived; the rest takes place in the wilds of Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Eda was born in Durango, Mexico, where her father owned silver mines, and they – Eda, her father, her stepbrother Jimmy and her part-Cherokee stepmother Motheranne – were constantly on the move from one mining venture to another. ‘Moving every year made it natural for me to reckon not by when but where,’ she wrote. ‘My past was a geography and happened in places like layers in a cake . . .’

I was 11 when I first read Childsplay. Its urbane, spare style and the atmosphere it created – even the typeface in our Simon and Schuster edition was exotically American and the title had a lower-case c – were irresistible, so different from my sheltered London life in the 1950s and ’60s. (A reviewer said, ‘Here is a writer who uses language as if it had just been invented . . . no self-pity, no sentimentality, no vulgarity.’) Eda and her partner Sybille Bedford were regular visitors to my parents’ flat in Marylebone, for Eda and my father had known each other in Paris and Berlin in the 1930s.

Sybille was less appealing to me. She was preoccupied with import- ant things and spoke fast and nervily. She was very fair with weak eyes and wore a green sun visor and dull men’s clothes. Reading Childsplay, however, added layers to my fondness for elegant Eda, who was more fun. She had a soft face, deeply lined, and a husky American voice, and she smoked a lot. In an armchair in our sitting- room, her long legs in dark stockings, she drank black Nescafé from a thermos provided by my mother. Later I fo

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Childsplay was published in 1961. It was Eda Lord’s first novel, though now it would probably be called a memoir, and is an account of her childhood (the first-person narrator is unnamed), starting in 1911 when she was 4 and ending in 1917. The first and last chapters are set in Evanston, Illinois, where Eda’s formidable, regal grandmother lived; the rest takes place in the wilds of Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Eda was born in Durango, Mexico, where her father owned silver mines, and they – Eda, her father, her stepbrother Jimmy and her part-Cherokee stepmother Motheranne – were constantly on the move from one mining venture to another. ‘Moving every year made it natural for me to reckon not by when but where,’ she wrote. ‘My past was a geography and happened in places like layers in a cake . . .’

I was 11 when I first read Childsplay. Its urbane, spare style and the atmosphere it created – even the typeface in our Simon and Schuster edition was exotically American and the title had a lower-case c – were irresistible, so different from my sheltered London life in the 1950s and ’60s. (A reviewer said, ‘Here is a writer who uses language as if it had just been invented . . . no self-pity, no sentimentality, no vulgarity.’) Eda and her partner Sybille Bedford were regular visitors to my parents’ flat in Marylebone, for Eda and my father had known each other in Paris and Berlin in the 1930s.

Sybille was less appealing to me. She was preoccupied with import- ant things and spoke fast and nervily. She was very fair with weak eyes and wore a green sun visor and dull men’s clothes. Reading Childsplay, however, added layers to my fondness for elegant Eda, who was more fun. She had a soft face, deeply lined, and a husky American voice, and she smoked a lot. In an armchair in our sitting- room, her long legs in dark stockings, she drank black Nescafé from a thermos provided by my mother. Later I found out she was an alcoholic and needed coffee permanently on hand. In her fifties, she had an understated glamour. Her obituary in 1976 remarked that ‘her high spirits and daring courage were matched by striking good looks and a magnificent physique’.

One of Childsplay’s strengths is the contrast between Eda’s two lives: the cold, well-ordered one with her grandmother, whose hobby is designing houses and whose attention to detail in running her own is ‘as persistent as a dentist’s drill. Cooks and housemaids never lasted the month,’ and the freedom of life with her pioneering father, Jimmy and Motheranne.

Jimmy, a year older than Eda, is more of a friend than a brother, something that as an only child I found fascinating, and both of them are good at fighting – never more than was strictly necessary, ‘but we had quite a steady grind of it. Each time we changed schools, we would have to re-establish ourselves all over again.’ They invent a sophisticated naval warfare game with a poker-based scoring method that obsesses them both and that alleviates the boredom of first grade for Eda, who’s already well ahead of the others in her class thanks to a tutor she had in Evanston. None of the other children at school have any idea about poker, and the boys are only interested in foot- ball. But Jimmy and Eda are coolly self-sufficient: they go to the circus and movies together and travel alone on trains, sometimes getting lost.

Life can be harsh. Their father often spanks them, ‘quickly and efficiently’, as does an unpleasant housekeeper known as Wigwam. And when Lilly-Mae, the maid, smothers her crying baby (Eda, looking through the keyhole, witnesses this), Motheranne explains that as the baby girl didn’t have a father, Lilly-Mae felt she couldn’t afford to keep her because girls ‘gave no promise of a return’ – they couldn’t earn money as easily as boys. Eda decides that keeping up with Jimmy, with his Morse Code, dry batteries and copper coils, is of prime importance for her future. Perhaps she can be a wireless operator on a ship.

At the age of 8 or so, Eda embarks on a series of excursions in Joplin, Missouri, crisscrossing the city by herself, having stolen Motheranne’s streetcar tickets and lied about where she’s going after school. I identified strongly with her deviousness and independence, although my mother or nanny came with me on the No. 74 bus from Baker Street to and from school in South Kensington. I tried coming home alone once when I was about 10, but I missed the appointed bus and my mother, waiting at the bus stop, became hysterical. Eda’s parents were often away and then Wigwam looked after the children, taking them to a morgue as a punishment when they’re in the Wild West mining-town of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where battles rage at school between American Indians and whites. ‘With the coming of spring, the air became filled with stones.’ Eda is knocked out and gets a goose-egg sized bump, but no one takes much notice.

In Embreeville, Tennessee, where some of the backwoods people think the Civil War is still on, her father teaches them to fire a Colt .45 and Eda gets the hang of it quicker than Jimmy because she cuts corners on shooting style. ‘Could it be that which made the awful difference between boys and girls? That boys stick to rules?’ Reading about that prompted me to go to the toyshop with my nanny and spend my pocket money on a cap gun. My parents didn’t say much, but their disapproval was so evident that I gave it to a boy up the road a day or so later.

In Embreeville Eda’s father discovers surface coal in abundance and plans to shoot the mountainside with water cannon to extract it. Waiting for the cannon to arrive, they live a life of luxury in a country club, where East Coast mining experts and their wives stroll over the lawns. The wives, thinks Eda, are like birds of paradise, but although they chatter all the time and take her to their bedrooms to show her their cloud-like dresses and face-creams, they’re tough and reckless underneath. ‘If I must be a woman when I grow up, I thought I’d rather be a bird than anything . . . I would live in a club like this and swim all day long.’

When America enters the war in 1917 everything changes. Her beloved father dies suddenly when working in shipbuilding out east and 10-year-old Eda is forced to make a terrible choice. If she decides to go with Jimmy and Motheranne, says her grandmother, she’ll never see her, or any of her father’s family, again. As Jimmy will be sent away to school and she knows Motheranne’s opinion of father- less children, she plumps for her grandmother. She might be cold, ‘but at least you knew where you stood with her’. The cruelty of this stunned me – I couldn’t imagine her life without Jimmy.

Eda’s next novel, A Matter of Choosing (1963), takes up her story as a young woman in California; the third, Extenuating Circumstances (1971), is loosely based on her experiences of living through the Second World War in the south of France (she was interned by the Germans for a time as an enemy alien).

In 2006, years after my father died, I found piles of confiding letters from Eda to him. In 1934 she was living in Paris, having left the USA in 1931 after a short, disastrous marriage. My father was then in Berlin, where they’d met, both of them part of a circle that included Christopher Isherwood. In Paris, Eda was living with another mutual friend, the physical therapist Tania Kurella, a Polish-German refugee who’d left Berlin in 1933.

Once again Eda was being forced to choose, this time between two lovers – Tania and Joan Black, a wealthy socialite and friend of Nancy Cunard, who sounds like one of those birds of paradise. ‘It’s hell, you know,’ Eda wrote. ‘I still don’t know how I can leave Tania . . . Memories of our lives together are so sweet it’s like thrusting knives into myself.’ But falling for Joan was ‘like a crack of lightning open- ing an abyss’. After being given an ultimatum by both women and agonizing for months, she chose Joan. Tania married the writer Jimmy Stern.

Just after the war, Tania wrote to my father from Fire Island, New York, ‘the queerest place I have ever known’. She and Jimmy had spent the war in the USA, and were close friends of W. H. Auden; in fact they’d bought a tiny Fire Island cottage with him. She’d managed to keep in touch with Eda who, she said, had given up drink, ‘a terrific achievement’ (it didn’t last). She is longing to see Eda again, but not Joan Black, a ‘limited and domineering character’ who, she says, forced Eda to stay in France during the war against her will. But, thinks Tania, ‘Eda might one day write a good book about it all.’ She wrote three, each one a wonderful picture of an era. But Childsplay is her masterpiece.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Markie Robson-Scott 2021


About the contributor

Markie Robson-Scott is a freelance writer who has worked on many magazines and newspapers including Harpers & Queen, Vogue and the Guardian. She finds that the letters written to her father by his friends in the 1930s are a continuing source of surprise and fascination.

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