by Ruth Graf '37
I have been amused recently by the number of people who feel impelled to ask me how I intend to vote this fall. "You knew Dewey," they say, and look eagerly to me for any crumb of inside information I choose to dole out.
To say that I know-or knew-Dewey is an amiable exaggeration. It is true that in the summer of 1940, after two years of graduate study and a year of teaching in Massachusetts, I spent 72 days in Pawling, New York, as nursemaid/governess to Tommy and Johnny, the governor's sons, then aged 7 and 4.
It was an experience upon which I look back with amusement and-even now-some indignation. Given full 24-hour charge of the two boys and instructions never to let them out of my sight, I was a lonely guardian. Not that the days weren't sufficiently planned to keep me out of mischief: I had a minutely worked-out schedule that instructed me when the boys were to rise, brush their teeth, drink a glass of water, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom, drink tomato juice, lie in the yard, drink orange juice, wash for lunch, rest quietly in their rooms, drink a glass of water-after eight years I continue to be struck by the amount of liquid that schedule prescribed. Yet today I look at pictures of the boys, stalwart youths that they are, and note that they are surely thriving. Perhaps we should all try to drink more.
I didn't mind being with the boys, but I did mind being a cipher in an active family life. Where before I had been the center of attention, I was now but a negligible piece of furniture. The Dewey staff that summer consisted of Bill the handyman-carpenter, a prince among men; Nora the cook, and no princess; Mary, the upstairs girl and serving maid; and me. I should have been charmed to hobnob with the cook and the maid, kitchen gossip having a flavor all its own, but Nora set me right. It was not my place, she informed me, to eat in the kitchen. Even though it meant considerable extra bother for her and Mary, I was served in the dining room, alone, in correct splendor. The food was superb-I remember particularly the French salmon flown to Mr. Dewey from a Canadian admirer-but my natural talkative self longed for a companion. Bill, the gardener, my only friend, was kept much too busy for chitchat during working hours.
It was curious what an island my life was that summer: the serving girl addressed me formally because I was a college girl; the Deweys ignored me because I was a nursemaid; and the assorted Republicans who streamed through the house failed to see me at all-unless they had brought their children along, in which case I ran a kinderschule to accommodate the various ages and temperaments. No matter what mayhem the visiting tots committed, I was powerless to discipline them, for they were guests, a distinction Tom and Johnny found difficult to appreciate. My charges were naturally friendly enough, but so sheltered as sometimes to be unable to cope with the more sophisticated sons and daughters of their father's political friends. It got so that I longed for childless visitors.
Early in the summer, Lowell Thomas came over to ride with Mr. Dewey, and while he sat easily on his fine black horse, he engaged me in a conversation so natural and friendly that I was afraid I might cry. Pleased to hear that I was a college girl, he immediately invited me to his famous Barn that coming Saturday night so that I might meet some congenial young people. But that Saturday night it was the Deweys who went to the Barn, and I stayed home to play watchdog with Bounty, the handsome Newfoundland. Later, when Lowell Thomas asked the Deweys what arrangements they had made for my social life, they looked so blank that he dropped the subject-though once he sent his stationwagon and secretary over with instructions to give me a good time! As I remember it, we drove to Brewster, saw a Western thriller, and stopped for some ice cream: the high social point of my summer. Most evenings I spent in one of the guest bedrooms (I slept in Johnny's room in a twin bed) writing endless letters and reading The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, suitable reading, I felt, from Mr. Dewey's library.
Once, when the Deweys were on their way out for the evening, I thought to vary my diet with The New Yorker, which had arrived in that morning's mail. But Mrs. Dewey, passing the doorway en route to the car, noticed the magazine missing from the coffee table in the living room. Hurrying up to my room, she angrily retrieved my treasure and told me that I was not to touch the magazines until they had a chance to read them. That night I wondered whether my $80-a-month salary was worth it. To be sure, I was paid twice as much as the gardener, though many times I felt that I was only half as effective.
I loved to write letters to friends (who persisted in thinking that I was living in the midst of glamour) about the nights Mrs. Dewey suddenly decreed that the staff might be taken to a movie. (We had no regular days off, and there was no place to go, anyway.) About once a week, regardless of what was showing at the local movie house, the mistress would announce that as they expected to be home for the evening, Bill was to drive us into town. We presented a curious scene: Nora and Mary stolidly settled in the back seat; Bill and I a voluble duo in the front. At the box office we separated, Mary and Nora to go their way, and I to go mine. After the movie we met in the lobby, bowed coolly to each other, and waited to be called for. After three or four such debauches, I began not to resent them, for Bill, giving up his poker game at the Firehouse, not only went to the movies with us: he bought my ticket, sat with me, and shyly offered to hold my hand.
During the course of the summer the Deweys had many important Republican visitors, but the man I remember most vividly was disappointed candidate Robert Taft. The Senator was late in arriving, and I had a trying time in the interim, for my orders had been to get the boys ready for bed, but also to have them sweet and clean for greeting Mr. Taft, who would surely want to see them. Three sets of pajamas later, the honored visitor arrived, brushed by us briefly on the stairway (Taft seems not to be the head-patting type of politician), and our three-hour long vigil was suddenly and flatly over. Ignored and feeling cheated, the boys were pretty obstreperous when I was at last free to put them to bed, and I feared that their complaints would disturb the guests downstairs. I need not have worried, for everyone in the charming dining room below was completely absorbed in political gossip. I had intended frankly to eavesdrop from the top of the stairs (What would Taft and Dewey have to say to each other after the 1940 debacle?), but I could hear all the voices clearly from my guestroom location, and my honor was saved.
I knew all about the convention, having worried my way into the unfriendly cook's bedroom so that I might tabulate the roll call from her tiny radio. As the evening wore on, she had resented my presence a little less and begun to ask me how the master was doing. She didn't like him, but she felt that her prestige was at stake. I totaled up the returns (my father was an enthusiastic Wilkie supporter, and the convention was very exciting to me) and prepared Nora for the news that the master wasn't doing so well. In the sixth ballot, when he was overwhelmed by the Wilkie landslide, both Nora and Mary were baffled and sullen.
The dinner table conversation I overheard on the night of Taft's visit had but one subject: Wendel Wilkie. Neither Taft nor Dewey waited for the other to finish a sentence. Their mutual antipathy drowned in their common deploring of a country in the hands of a so-and-so like Wilkie, they interrupted each other to retail every dastardly detail of the chaos that was Philadelphia, 1940. As Dewey had said when phoning his mother from the convention hall after it was all over but for the shouting for Wilkie: "I feel sorry for America."
My 72 days drew gradually to a close. I left Pawling with no regrets. Tommy, a generous little chap, asked his mother whether I might return next summer. She smiled prettily and said she thought he'd be too big for a nursemaid next year. Johnny, whom I'd had to discipline a good deal more than his amiable older brother, did not add his plea to those of Tom for my return. Hence I was free the summer of 1941 to attend Harvard Summer School, where, as head proctor for a dormitory full of schoolteachers, I had little need to exercise my well-developed watchdog talents.
RUTH GRAF taught high school English at Webb School in Knoxville, Tennessee, for 21 years. She resides at Kendal at Oberlin. This memoir was written in 1940.