In 1954, a group of local women started a book club. They still meet once a month, but their six decades of friendship has proven richer and more illuminating than the tens of thousands of pages they've read.
Eight old friends sit around a white oval table in a high-rise apartment overlooking the lake. They are women, all in their 80s and 90s. They munch on cucumber sandwiches, passing plates of cheese and sipping iced tea. Laughter rises from the table, giving way to familiar banter informed by many decades of conversation.
“You know, today’s the anniversary,” says Barbara Elsner, half-smiling and looking around the table as the room grows quiet. “Does anyone remember where they were on December 7, 1941?”
Outside, the day is cloudy and balmy, nearly 40 degrees. Through the picture windows of the 14th floor apartment, in a retirement home perched on a bluff, the Lake Michigan shoreline spreads below us: from the 19th century limestone water tower; south to the empty marina and Lincoln Memorial Drive directly below; along the Oak Leaf and Hank Aaron trails; on past the freeway bridge near the confluence of the Kinnickinnic and Milwaukee rivers; and into the faded glory of the industrial Midwest. The lake today is slate gray and rippled with whitecaps.
Barbara returns her gaze to her friends at the table. Most have known each other since they were young mothers in their 20s. Since then, for 60-plus years, they’ve met once a month in each other’s Milwaukee kitchens and living rooms. For 700 Mondays, they’ve had lunch and discussed literature. They’ve read Chekhov and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf. Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Isabel Allende. They’ve read Macbeth, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Lonesome Dove. Sophie’s Choice, The Fire Next Time, The Feminine Mystique. Cold Mountain, The Life of Pi, A Lesson Before Dying, The Warmth of Other Suns, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. And many more.
Seven hundred Mondays, seven hundred books.
Once, they were 19 women, most living within a few blocks of each other, on Milwaukee’s East Side. Today, gathered in the apartment of Nici Teweles, there are eight: Barbara, Nat Beckwith, Penny Egan, Martie Watts, Jill Heavenrich, Betty Bostrom, Nici (pronounced Nikki), and my mother, Sally Tolan. All are widows except Barbara; all but Martie live here at the retirement home, St. John’s on the Lake. They’re here because they can afford to be (St. John’s is not cheap), and because it keeps their friendships thriving.
Of the other women, two live outside Wisconsin; one is ill today; eight are gone.
“Time is a funny thing,” Martie says. “And it goes pretty fast as you get older.”
As my mother recalls it, the Milwaukee book club met for the first time in 1954, perhaps in the living room of our family home on elm-lined Frederick Avenue in Shorewood, where my parents and three older siblings lived. (This was two years before I came along.) At the beginning, the aspirations were humble, Mom recalls: One of the co-founders, the wife of our family pediatrician, “thought it would be a good chance to get our mending done.” But the tastes of the doctor’s wife ran toward romance novels and light mysteries. She wanted the group to read Black Beauty. Also, Mom recalls, “something about a Red October,” invoking the Tom Clancy novel of decades later, but capturing the spirit of the emerging intellectual split. Soon the book club factions went their separate ways, and “the reading got more difficult and challenging,” as my mother’s fellow Wellesley grad, Nancy Graham, remembered decades later. The core of the early group – which they soon would simply call “Book Club” – also included Julie Brickley, who would later move to Door County and teach literature at UW-Green Bay, and whose home on a dune above Lake Michigan contained more books than I had ever seen outside of a library or bookstore.
In some ways, though, it was less about the books than about intelligent, curious women spending time together. They discussed husbands, babies, work, teenagers, grandchildren, religion, marijuana, civil rights, moonshots, Watergate, riots, terrorism, imperialism, fascism and tragedy. These days, they often talk about mortality and the relentless passage of time.
“You could certainly say that we were very, very close and complained a lot about kitchens and husbands,” Nancy says. “More than we talked about books.”
For many American women, meetings like these were facilitated by post-war consumer technology – especially, Barbara believes, the clothes dryer, which helped increase women’s leisure hours, creating time for the moms of the Baby Boomers to start book clubs. Milwaukeean Brooks Stevens, a prominent American designer, helped facilitate this: He inserted a glass door into the previously opaque metal box, turning the dryer into an everyday household item.
Yet it wasn’t all about filling some newly freed-up time. This was the 1950s, after all, when glass ceilings hovered everywhere. Book clubs provided the rare chance for women to share their intellect and, often, their frustrations. Back then, women had to use the side entrance to the University Club, and some of the wives, at least, were not to call their husbands at the office: “You didn’t interfere with a man’s business hours,” Nici recalls. Her husband, Bill, a fourth-generation executive, ran the L. Teweles Seed Company, which annually sold millions of pounds of seed around the world. “That was sacred,” Nici recalls of the no-interruptions rule. “We were not considered on a par.” But for Nici, who as a child had fled Nazi persecution in Europe, this was not so troubling; she understood it as part of learning how to fit in as a new American.
Others were not so sanguine. “It was a double standard,” says Barbara Elsner, whose father held 72 manufacturing patents. With his own father in the George J. Meyer Manufacturing Company, he had mechanized the process for Milwaukee’s thriving breweries and dairies, which had previously filled their bottles by hand, one at a time. Barbara’s brothers were groomed to succeed the family patriarch; Barbara, despite her keen business sense, was never considered. Her brothers each had sailboats growing up. Barbara, the family’s only daughter, was required to make their beds, clean sinks and shine her father’s shoes. “I was aware of the double standard,” she tells me. “Big-time.”
For Nancy, the double standard took an absurd twist after she and her husband Dick “heard the Kennedy call” – “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but “what you can do for your country” – and moved the family to Washington, D.C., to work for the Peace Corps. Dick later accepted a job with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His assignment: oversee the employment rights of Hispanics and women. One night in the early 1960s, Dick invited famed feminist Betty Friedan for dinner. The two sat and talked intently; Friedan was establishing the National Organization for Women, and wanted Dick to be the group’s vice president. “I made the dinner, put the [five] children to bed, did their homework with them,” Nancy recalls with a wry smile. “And Betty and Dick went on talking and then she said to me, ‘Now get me a cab.'” When the taxi didn’t come immediately, Betty Friedan “was furious at me. It was very amusing” – though perhaps it didn’t feel that way at the time. Nancy would later go on to a career in the Peace Corps, and as a Cold War-era advocate for U.S.-Soviet dialogue.
Friedan’s manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, was published in 1963; soon it was a Book Club selection. By that time, my youngest brother Yam (then called Willy) was born, the youngest of six kids. Milwaukee TV personality Beulah Donohue invited Mom and a few other Milwaukee housewives to discuss The Feminine
Mystique on her talk show.
“This was about how women, if they were housewives, their lives weren’t very satisfying,” Mom tells me. “And I didn’t think my life was so bad! I was just sort of very cheerful. I felt perfectly fine about it. I really did.” Perhaps Mom felt as if she had opted into her role. In 1948, my dad, fresh out of Michigan law school and about to begin a clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court, said to my mom on their honeymoon train: “Sal, I’d like to have four to six kids.” Mom was game. “I said, ‘Okay!’ I was one of four, and I figured six wouldn’t be much harder,” she says with a laugh. By 1970, though, as Dad’s health began to fail, she went back to school, getting her master’s degree and teaching freshman English and literature courses at UWM. “I knew that Larry’s health was deteriorating and I didn’t want so much on his shoulders,” Mom told me, but added: “I taught because I wanted to.” She loved teaching.
In any case, the women of Book Club could hardly be called “just housewives.” Collectively they sat on the boards of dozens of community groups and agencies. Some had been débutantes in the 1940s, and originally did volunteer work through the affliated Junior League, which by the 1950s had established children’s music and art programs, and the Blood. Center of Wisconsin. By the 1970s, Book Club members sat on many of the same
boards. Barbara, who lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house on Terrace Avenue, became a neighborhood preservation activist, taking on the expansion of Columbia-St. Mary’s Hospital during decades of battles. Nici established the Breast Cancer Awareness Program, which included free screenings for low-income women. Jill Heavenrich helped start regional theaters in the city, taught French cooking classes and wrote a cookbook. Penny Egan worked as a volunteer for Milwaukee civil rights groups and as an advocate for battered women. Martie Watts, whose husband George owned the Watts Tea Shop and ran for governor and for mayor of Milwaukee, served on boards for jail literacy, child development and runaway children.
“We each tried to contribute to the commonweal,” or the public good, Martie says. “We all had that in common.”
Nat Beckwith, whose husband, Dave, like my dad, worked in a Downtown law firm, spent seven years helping to establish the Ice Age Trail, now a thousand mile footpath that loops through the length and breadth of Wisconsin. My mom was briefly director of the Milwaukee YWCA, and for years chaired the board of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit community justice agency. And Betty Bostrom, Book Club’s newcomer – she joined a mere four decades ago, give or take a few years – had a prosperous career in family construction and land development in Ozaukee County and Delafield. Betty spent two years in Germany after World War II as a social worker for the U.S. military. Later in life, she married the industrialist and philanthropist Harold Bostrom, supporting a range of causes, most prominently population control. In the 1960s, Reuben Harpole, sometimes called the “mayor of Black Milwaukee,” came to Betty to ask for her support for a small group of gifted African American high school students. Betty agreed to do it; one of those students, it turned out, was named Oprah Winfrey.
Much of this collaboration and community was built through relationships established in Book Club – further proof that it’s “not about the books,” as Jill Heavenrich says. Indeed, there is no definitive list of all 700-some Book Club books; the ones listed here come from collective memory, and from a few surviving lists going back to the early 1980s. From these, it’s clear that the literature the women chose over the decades often mirrored the times they were living through. As young mothers, they read Dr. Spock (Baby and Child Care) and Bruno Bettelheim (Dialogues with Mothers). In the 1960s, as the civil rights era took hold in Milwaukee, Book Club read Malcom X, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “It changed my whole view of people who were black,” says Martie Watts of Malcom X’s autobiography. Some in Book Club became advocates for open housing – the racial justice issue of the day. As a volunteer, Penny Egan worked with civil rights groups to document racial discrimination in housing rentals; her husband, Jim, as mayor of Mequon, insisted on fair housing access for blacks in the predominantly white suburb. At their downtown tea shop, the Wattses were among the first Downtown retail businesses to hire black employees. Their support of open housing led to a flood of hate calls at home and at the tea shop.
The birth of the environmental movement brought Book Club to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and A Sand County Almanac, by Wisconsin author Aldo Leopold. “Those books were especially important to me,” says my mom, who would later convert her front lawn on Menlo Boulevard in Shorewood into a slice of Wisconsin prairie. The books also helped inspire her to write a children’s book on John Muir, and to publish her first book of poems, Bloodroot, at age 80. The Carson and Leopold books spoke to Martie, too, who with George kept bees on their Town of Grafton farm, and who never used an ounce of pesticides “on this whole property, in 60 years.”
Watergate delivered Woodward and Bernstein to Book Club; Vietnam, The Things They Carried and A Rumor of War. For neighborhood preservation, they read the biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, and of Lake Park in Milwaukee, near which most of Book Club’s families lived. The Reagan era brought Bright Lights, Big City; Bonfire of the Vanities; and The Handmaid’s Tale. September 11 prompted Book Club to read Jihad vs. McWorld, Nine Parts of Desire, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. Throughout, they read the classics: Hamlet, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, The Good Earth, The Remains of the Day.
And so it has been, ever since that first meeting in 1954, seven years before the first American traveled to outer space: My mom and her friends have met on the first Monday of the month, to reconnect, and to read and discuss a new book.
This month’s book, on the balmy gray afternoon in December 2015, is All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s novel about a German soldier and a blind French girl in occupied France during the second world war.
Vivid memories of the war abound at the table. Barbara repeats her question: “Where were you when you learned about Pearl Harbor?” She is one of my mother’s oldest friends; they met in middle school 75 years ago. “Today is Pearl Harbor day, in case you didn’t know.”
Around the table, the women’s heads nod. “I remember,” someone says. “I remember,” someone else echoes.
Barbara recalls “a lovely Sunday afternoon” in Milwaukee. “We were in high school and we were walking along Lake Drive. And in those days, boys would beep” – to flirt; to get the girls’ attention.
“They don’t beep at us anymore!” my mom interjects.
Anyway, Barbara continues, “there was some boy that came along that we all knew, and we got in the car. And that’s how we heard about it. In the car, on the radio.” The attack would directly affect Barbara’s family’s manufacturing business: Soon her father would figure out how to put beer into millions of cans to send to American troops overseas. As the factory added wartime production lines, he also began working on anti-tank weapons.
My mother recalls the moment as if it just happened. “My family had driven down to watch the planes take off.” Mom, my grandparents, and my Aunt Mary and Uncle Vic had gone for a Sunday drive in the old Packard, ending up at the Milwaukee airport. “That was something to do with your children. At the north end of the airport, you could look down and there was a little church in the distance.” Propeller planes roared just overhead as the young family listened to the car radio. “And all of a sudden they just broke in with Pearl Harbor.”
The news flash arrived at 1:58 local time. On WTMJ, the AM station owned by The Milwaukee Journal, an announcer interrupted the popular broadcast of “University of Chicago Roundtable” with a bulletin. My grandfather, Irwin Maier, was then a senior publishing executive at The Journal. He looked at my Grandma Loraine. “I’ve got to go to work,” my mother remembers him saying. “You drive and drop me off at the paper.” Mom pauses, recalling the moment. “And of course, they did Extras in those days. Remember? ‘Extra, extra, read all about it!’”
Martie recalls being at a Washington Redskins game on December 7, 1941, when all of a sudden the public address system began calling the names of generals, admirals and FBI officials to “report to your office at once!” Betty invokes the days immediately following the attack through the lens of her first husband, a German who came to the U.S. after refusing to take a loyalty oath to Hitler, but who “was put immediately in an enemy alien camp” by U.S. authorities. “And he was there for about three years until the war ended. He told me there were so many Japanese in that camp, truck farmers from California. It really was a terrible business.”
Life was far more terrible in Europe, of course, and in Book Club, everyone knows Nici’s dramatic story nearly by heart. She was born in Frankfurt in 1927. When she was six, Hitler came to power, and after Nici’s attorney father was arrested several times, essentially for being a Jew, her family fled Germany for Holland. On the streets of Amsterdam, Nicole played marbles with neighborhood children between the stoops of red brick houses. One of her playmates was Anne Frank. “She came and played on the block quite often,” Nici remembers nearly 80 years later. “We shot marbles into holes and cracks in the sidewalk. Once I was playing with Anne and she cheated. With her foot I saw her push her marble to a more advantageous position. I was shocked that anybody would do that.”
Of Anne Frank, Nici adds: “Obviously, she had many talents that came out later. Poor Anne, she never had a chance to defend herself against me.”
Nici’s parents were carefully watching the Nazi march through Europe, and by 1939, they decided the family was no longer safe in Holland. And so, late one Friday afternoon in December 1939, Hugo and Lily Emmerich stood in line at the office of the Royal Netherland Steamship Company, waiting to sign papers for passage out of Europe. As they reached the front of the line, the clerk handed Hugo a pen. Nici’s father looked at his watch. Sundown had just passed. “I’m sorry, but it is now the Jewish Sabbath,” he said. “I cannot sign the papers.” Lily was furious. “Damn the religious laws!” she fumed.
Soon the family learned of a tragedy that would haunt them for decades. Shortly after leaving Amsterdam’s port, the steamship – the very boat the family was to have boarded – was torpedoed and sank. All souls were lost, Nici heard, save perhaps one or two.
A few weeks later, Nici’s parents were able to obtain a second passage out of Amsterdam. And so, on a frigid morning in December 1939, five months before Hitler’s invasion of Holland, Nici, her brother André and their parents left Europe. “It was chilly and cold and drizzly,” Nici recalls. “Typical North Sea climate.” The S.S. Van Rensselaer steamed carefully through hostile waters choked with floating mines and submarines armed for the kill. Crew and passengers sought the safety of the open sea, and of the lands beyond it.
Two months later, Nici recalls, she steamed into New York harbor on a brilliant, sunny day, “one of those blue-sky, whitecap February days.” It was Lincoln’s birthday. Fireboats shot their water cannons high into the air. “It was just a real celebration on the water.”
“You see,” Nici’s mother told her children, leaning down and smiling. “They knew we were coming.”
“Does anyone want to talk about the book?” Penny Egan asks, a trace of annoyance in her voice. This has become an informal ritual over the 700-plus meetings of Book Club. The conversation goes in a hundred directions, and finally, someone – often Penny – brings them back to the ostensible business at hand.
“It took him 10 years to write this book,” Nat Beckwith tells her friends as the lake froths below them. “A lot of it is about being sure you live before you die. And also, see what you need to do before you die.”
“Bucket list, that’s called,” my mom says.
In All the Light You Cannot See, the father of the blind girl, Marie-Laure, carves a precise model of the seaside town in southern France where they live with relatives after fleeing Paris – thus “making a place,” as Nici says, “for her to live and find her way.”
Despite the book’s many lyrical passages, not everyone loves it. “I wasn’t crazy about it,” says Nici. “I kept reading because it won the Pulitzer.”
“It’s almost like there were too many themes,” Barbara says. “And I agree there were segments that were just beautiful. But the whole didn’t work.” She adds: “A lot of it was really fictional – make believe.”
“It was a novel!” Penny responds. “And it worked in the context of the novel. To me it made all kinds of sense.”
Book Club’s quirks, differences and mild aggravations are well-grooved into relationships decades in the making.
But the rare shouting match – or, more rare, someone angrily pounding her fist, or, once or twice, her shoe, on the table – has never resulted in expulsion from Book Club. No one has ever even walked out of a meeting. “I don’t think anybody ever came close to leaving,” Jill says. On the contrary, she says of the occasional battles: “I remember thinking, ‘This is really fun!’”
On a dresser in my mother’s living room lies a ceramic trivet with 17 names listed. Every member has one. “Book Club 1997,” it reads. By that year, they had already lost two members, and now, as I stand with my mom on the carpeted fifth floor apartment at St. John’s, she points to the names of the others. Jane Eastham. Connie Squier. Margaret Rogers. Mary Franke. Claire Hopkins. Maggie Scheips. Priscilla Chester.
“What a beautiful time it was,” my mother wrote to Priscilla in 1999, after a Book Club retreat at the Chester compound in Quebec, a regular thing then. “Lovely, sunlit days, the woods, the moon on the water… We surely all reveled in the long friendships we’ve had with each other… Thank you again for everything.”
My mother sits at her dining room table with Barbara and Penny, both of whom she met around 1940, when they were barely teenagers. Now, they’re approaching 90.
“And I said to one of my kids the other day…” Barbara says, “They’re all worried about me. I said, ‘Listen; death is – that’s how it goes. It’s nothing. I’ve had a terrific life. Don’t worry about me.’”
“Yeah,” my mom agrees. “And Mary [her daughter, my sister] said something about, ‘Oh, it’d be such a tragedy to lose you,’ and I said, ‘No, it would be such a tragedy to lose you.’ We’re close to the end of our lives.”
Their memories form the cloth of personal history: a sea laced with floating mines; a stadium buzzing with worry; a news bulletin in a Packard at the edge of an airport; an elm-lined street where they gathered at the beginning, in 1954.
Now it’s June of this year, six months after the December meeting, with six more tomes finished and discussed. “OK, next book!” Nat calls above the din of scraping chairs and multiple conversations. She has hosted today’s meeting, in her apartment two floors above Nici’s. Alice McDermott’s Someone was the selection. “The next book is a biography of this man who grew up in Baltimore. I can’t pronounce his name. His last name is Coates. Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A lyrical call for consciousness in the face of racial discrimination in America. And Jill was the one that recommended the book. Both Martie and I are going to be out of town.”
“Say the title again?”
“Between the World and Me. Where are your hearing aids?”
“I took them out.”
“Let’s go, Sal,” Betty says to my mom as they stand up.
“We’ll meet July 11th,” Nat says, “because the first Monday is the 4th.”
“Thank you so much, Nat.”
They bid each other farewell, moving slowly toward the door and promising to meet again soon.
“I think we feel that we are so lucky to still have nine of us left,” Jill would say a short time later. “It’s incredible. We’re just amazed that we’re still going.”
Sandy Tolan is a print and radio journalist and a professor of journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles.