Thursday Jan. 14, 2016

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When I was Conceived

It was 1945, and it was May.
White crocus bloomed in St. Louis.
The Germans gave in but the war shoved on,
and my father came home from work that evening
tired and washed his hands
not picturing the black-goggled men
with code names fashioning an atomic bomb.
Maybe he loved his wife that evening.
Maybe after eating she smoothed his jawline
with her palm as he stretched out
on the couch with his head in her lap
while Bob Hope spoofed Hirohito on the radio
and they both laughed. My father sold used cars
at the time, and didn’t like it,
so if he complained maybe she held him
an extra moment in her arms,
the heat in the air pressing between them,
so they turned upstairs early that evening,
arm in arm, without saying anything.

“When I was Conceived” by Michael Ryan from New and Selected Poems. © Hougton Mifflin, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the woman The New Yorker called “a forgotten American literary treasure.” That’s Emily Hahn (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1905), known to family and friends as “Mickey.”

In her autobiography, China to Me (1944), she wrote, “I have deliberately chosen the uncertain path whenever I had the choice.” In college, she changed her major to engineering after an advisor told her that a woman’s brain was “incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics.” The male students and faculty discouraged her, but in 1926, she became one of the first women to get an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She went to work for a mining company in St. Louis, but they would only let her do menial office tasks, so she left after a year.

Hahn was always on the move — one of her catchphrases was “Nobody said not to go.” After college, she and a friend dressed as men and drove across the United States in a Model-T Ford. She wrote letters home to her brother-in-law, which were later published in The New Yorker. That began a career with the magazine that would last almost 70 years. She was also a tour guide in New Mexico, worked for the Red Cross in the Belgian Congo, lived with a tribe of Pygmies for two years, and crossed Africa on foot.

At 30, Hahn moved to Shanghai, where she lived in a red-light district and worked as the China correspondent for The New Yorker. She had an affair with the poet Sinmay Zau, and took up smoking opium. She once said: “I always wanted to be an opium addict,” and eventually she became one. It took two years of regular smoking, but she persisted. And then she kicked the habit through hypnosis.

In 1941, she gave birth to a daughter, the result of her affair with Charles Boxer, who was the head of British army intelligence in Hong Kong. Hahn and Boxer were married four years later and had another daughter together. The family settled in England, but after five years of domesticity, Hahn was on the move again. She got a place in New York City and made frequent visits to her husband and children back in Dorset.

And through all of this, she wrote — 54 books and more than 200 articles for The New Yorker. Her books all got good reviews, but she was hard to pigeonhole, because her style flowed from genre to genre. Her very first book, Seductio ad Absurdum (1930), was a comic look at men’s wooing techniques. She wrote about her travels throughout Asia, including her wartime romance with Boxer, in China to Me (1944). She wrote many biographies and a few novels. She wrote books about diamonds, and the Philippines, and apes. And just a couple of months before her death, she published her first poem in The New Yorker. It was called “Wind Blowing.”

When Emily Hahn died in 1997, at the age of 92, her granddaughter Alfia Vecchio Wallace gave her eulogy. In it, Wallace said: “Chances are, your grandmother didn’t smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment. Chances are that she didn’t teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn’t start whooping passionately at the top her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you, your grandmother was not Emily Hahn.”

It’s the birthday of novelist John Dos Passos (books by this author), born in Chicago (1896) to a wealthy family that sent him to Harvard University. He became one of the émigré writers in Paris, part of the circle that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E.E. Cummings. He made his reputation with his novel Manhattan Transfer (1925), followed by The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936).

On this date in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt completed the first airplane journey by a sitting president. He needed to get to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco to discuss strategy with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. German U-boats were making sea travel too perilous, so his advisors agreed — somewhat reluctantly — that air travel was the best option. Roosevelt left Florida in a Boeing 314 Flying Boat. Nicknamed the Dixie Clipper, the 314 was a commercial, rather than a military, seaplane, and it was fitted out comfortably with beds and a lounge area.

They departed from Florida, and the journey took four days, due to frequent refueling stops. They flew from Trinidad to Brazil, then across the Atlantic to Gambia, and then on to Morocco. Roosevelt, 60 years old and somewhat frail, suffered some from the high altitude, and had to be given oxygen, but he was in good spirits. He celebrated his 61st birthday on the return journey, enjoying a birthday luncheon over Haiti.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®