The Courtship of Eva Eldridge: A Story of Bigamy in the Marriage-Mad Fifties
University of Iowa Press, August 2016
Some of us are perpetually, desperately, in love with letters. We love writing them, getting them in the mail, and we may even still have a box or two of those silly notes people passed back and forth to each other in junior high and high school, folded in all kinds of intricate ways.
So when I saw the description for Diane Simmons’s new book—that she had relied on over 800 pieces of correspondence and ephemera to write her forthcoming book about a woman married to a bigamist in the 1950s—I was immediately hooked. But I worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my standards of letters. What would we learn from these 800 pieces of people’s long-ago lives?
Let me just stop you from worrying right now—yes, it met my admittedly voyeuristic expectations. We get all the lonely details of a woman who’s trying to piece together what might have happened to a marriage she thought was rock-solid, via more than just letters: scribbled notes, tickets, even. But The Courtship of Eva Eldridge goes further. It also delves into our collective history, reveals and educates its reader. We learn about the choice women had to make between marriage and career after having had a taste of what it was like to go to work under the aegis of the war effort, and we learn about the male-dominated atmosphere they had to live in.
In the end, although this is very much one woman’s story, what we get—without revealing too many spoilers—is the story of what it was like to be a woman in the 1950s. And Simmons does a masterful job of relating her thorough research without making us feel in the least like we’re sitting in a Sociology 101 lecture hall. She makes her case slyly, so that we don’t even notice we’re nodding along and going, “Ohhhh, yes, of course!”
It’s no secret that life was hard for women in the 1950s. But Simmons adds to our collective understanding, and more importantly, makes it clear that her understanding of life then is due to the work of so many others who both went before her and continue to work to collect and interpret ephemera from that period. She draws on so much—and we reap the benefits, and feel compelled to pass on what she’s taught us through the telling of one woman’s story.
Oh, politics. Some of us are not good with politics. But even those of us who hate politics, in general, probably like people, so it was with that in mind that I picked up Craig Tomashoff’s set of profiles about folks who exercise their constitutional right to run for the office of President of the United States, with no realistic chance of actually being elected.
This book’s premise is a great hook, but it was with real pleasure that I noted how much of a personal undertaking this book is for Tomashoff. Not only is he in it to write a book that will elucidate and educate, he’s also, as he notes early on, in it to prove something to both himself and his son. “I had to go on this trip to support these people, but also to give my son a graduation present that would hopefully last longer than a new baseball mitt or a video game,” he writes.
So with this significant burden on our shoulders, we go with Tomashoff on a road trip, from California to Massachusetts and back, rolling through Nevada, Chicago, Florida, Brooklyn on the way. We meet candidates who are better known, like a guy named Vermin Supreme, who’s running for president in an absurdist exercise, and more earnest Can’t-idates like Doris Walker, who almost cancels her interview with Tomashoff because she’s not sure she wants to be included in the same volume as the other Can’t-idates. Tomashoff also encouraged every Can’t-idate to record a short video, which he then posted on the book’s Facebook page, something you shouldn’t miss.
We meet some very interesting people along Tomashoff’s journey, but for me, the real pleasure of this book was in meeting Tomashoff himself. We know there’s a parallel thread running through his mind as he meets these people: What stories will I tell my son about this guy? About this woman? About Sydneys Voluptuous Buttocks, bona fide presidential candidate? Ultimately, it’s Tomashoff’s personal journey that interests me the most, and that keeps me turning pages.