EAST ORANGE BY CHRISTMAS
My Father's Love Letters from London, 1933
Echo from a Secret Place
“You know about the secret place,” she said as she pasted the small round sticker marked $600 on my mother’s mahogany secretary. She seemed bemused, our genial, antique-savvy friend. Well, I thought I did: “yes, those shallow little drawers inside the desk.” “No, these.” With that, she pulled open one of the small, seemingly solid columns flanking the tiny door of the central cubbyhole. It was hollow, less than an inch wide and perhaps five inches deep. There was something in it, evidently placed there long ago by my mother.
The letter was small in size, written on soft-blue note paper, folded once in the middle, and bearing the heading, “Burnham Lodge Hotel, Farnham Common, Bucks.” I recognized immediately my father’s hand. The date, August 24, 1933, registered as well. John Samuel Kessell, age 34, and Dorothy Lottridge, 33, had been married the day before in England. Tucked inside was a formal wedding announcement, printed sometime afterward, revealing the place, Wesley’s Chapel, London, a fact I may never have known.
“Dear Mother and Father,” the letter began. “Something so wonderful has happened to your Dorothy and to me,” he wrote, revealing that John was addressing Dorothy’s parents. The care he took with his readable but not especially elegant penmanship and the way the space between the lines increased over the three pages betrayed his excitement. “We are in love & so very happy.”
They had met two and a half years earlier in New Jersey on a blind date neither had looked forward to. John, with his medical degree from the University of Adelaide in Australia, had booked passage in 1930 from Sydney to Victoria, British Columbia, taken the train across Canada, and from somewhere on the east coast apparently journeyed by coastal steamer to New York. He had contacts in America and hoped to get some practical hospital experience in urology, his specialty. Aboard ship, a pleasant couple, friends of Dorothy’s subsequently identified as the Adriances, chatted with the eligible young Australian doctor and foresaw a match. Dr. Dorothy Lottridge, a graduate of Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, had set up a private general practice on the first floor of her parents’ home at 43 South Maple Avenue in East Orange, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. Dorothy, too, was single.
But she was busy, and he wanted to see the sights of New York, not another hospital. Both, however, courteously agreed to their date and quite enjoyed each other's company. He met her parents; they may even have played bridge. “I quite liked her in the States,” he recalled later, “but thought of her as a doctor.” After some months, he sailed to the British Isles aboard the USS American Banker of the economical American Merchant Line, arriving in London on July 27, 1931, two days before his 33rd birthday. Traveling on to Scotland by train, he began almost at once an intensive course of study at the University of Edinburgh to earn a fellowship in the Royal College of Surgeons. He and Dorothy must have corresponded over the next two years, for when she took a vacation trip to London in the summer of 1933, she knew just where to find him. He, meantime, had gained his fellowship. (I remember well the “F.R.C.S. Ed.” on his stationery, although he chuckled to us that he had to sit for the exam a second time.)
Writing from London on April 2, 1933, to a favorite cousin in Australia, 21-year-old Bettina Kessell (who gave me his letter 56 years later), he chided amiably,
Betty, me thinks you misjudge me. Because I do write at length about skating, golf & outings of one kind or another you seem to imagine nothing else enters my existence . . . . Believe me, young lady, the things I write voluble about are the ‘high spots’ in an existence that was until recently overfilled with studying.
Yet he had managed to see, while still in Edinburgh on March 18, the scrappy international rugby match between Scotland and England, a defensive battle won 3-0 by the Scots. “Yesterday I saw part of the boat race. Unfortunately the incoming tide drove me from a carefully selected vantage point. Still it was interesting.” Into the envelope, he had tucked a memento from America, a thin brownish strip on which he wrote, “This is birch bark. It makes good writing material. It was birch bark the Indians made canoes from.”
Even with fellowship in hand, John’s medical future looked uncertain. The worsening global economy in the years after the Great War was stifling people’s hopes. He had secured a low-paying job in London, in essence a residency at “St. Paul’s Hospital for Diseases (Including Cancer) of the Genito-Urinary Organs and Skin,” Endell Street, Holborn. He expected to stay on about nine months. The fellowship, he hoped, might allow him to retain his specialty in urology, but he had his doubts. “In time of depression,” he mused in a note to Bettina’s father, “such select beings are apt to be overlooked & may even go hungry.” He thought he might have to become a general practitioner. “Still, having spent so much time & money on my specialty, I will stay in it if possible.” He resolved to keep alert to all possibilities.
Amid the pulsing eight million human souls of greater London, from the artful street urchins to the Duchess of Kent, provincials from every corner of the British Empire clustered in pockets of their fellows from Fiji, India, Canada, or South Africa who had come on pilgrimage or to study, find work, or carouse. Fresh arrivals almost always knew some friend or family member who had preceded them.
The Australian community was particularly tight. John had plenty of contacts, among them an Australian nurse by the name of Gwennie Oats. He and Gwennie had enjoyed time together on staff at the Broken Hill Hospital in the silver-mining outback of far western New South Wales. Just a fortnight after his marriage to Dorothy, Gwennie would ring him up from Cornwall.
Studies had kept him in Edinburgh the better part of two years. Now, by George, he would get to know London, explaining to Bettina that he was in the very heart of the city, living in the hospital complex. “True, the neighborhood is not salubrious & the quarters are cramped & somewhat grimy, yet one cannot have everything.” John especially lamented his paltry salary “with theatres around each corner, the opera house in the next street, strange restaurants aplenty & a London season about to commence.” But by no means, he lectured his young cousin, did he aspire to become a social butterfly. He would, however, “see a few of the events, Wimbledon, Henley, the Derby, the Royal Tournament & such like.”
John loved tennis best. And the Wimbledon championships of 1933, held at the All England Lawn Tennis Club between June 26 and July 8, proved memorable in the extreme. On the women’s side, the heavily favored Helen Wills Moody of the United States, dubbed by the British press “Miss Poker Face,” had won five of the six previous Wimbledon titles, never losing a set. This time, facing Britain’s Dorothy Round before a delirious crowd, she finally dropped a set, but still won the match 6-4, 6-8, 6-3.
Another American, Ellsworth “Elly” Vines, Jr., a veritable cornstalk at 6' 2" and 143 pounds, had won the 1932 championship, blasting Briton Bunny Austin off the court with a stunning 30 aces in only 12 service games. In 1933 Elly would face the unruffled, 25-year-old, hugely popular “Gentleman Jack” Crawford of Australia. Whether Crawford’s countryman Dr. Kessell secured a ticket to the final, heard it on the wireless, or read about it in the papers, my dad cheered. Crawford, losing the first set 4-6, saved break point after break point in the second to prevail 11-9. The players traded the third and fourth sets, 6-2, 2-6. Then, unhurried, “Gentleman Jack” closed out the championship match, 6-4.
The most reported event of that summer was the World Economic Conference held in the cavernous gray and green reception hall of London’s Geological Museum from June 12 until July 27. In his act of welcome, rigid, handsomely uniformed, 68-year-old King George V looked out over a nationalistically attired sea of nearly a thousand delegates seated at long desks and representing 66 countries arranged alphabetically in French. Their agenda—weighed down by staggering war debts, currency manipulation, vast unemployment, and trade barriers—was thrown off course from the start by the news from the United States. Recently inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared intent on going it alone, creating a unilateral planned economy. Failing to find common ground on anything but fear of the future, representatives to the London conference simply dispersed. The next domino fell in Geneva later that year when Germany walked out of the World Disarmament Conference. Rearmament put people back to work.
Meanwhile, on Monday, August 7, 1933, Dr. Dorothy Lottridge from America arrived in London on the USS American Farmer (sister ship to the American Banker), unexpectedly alone. A prior invoice saved in a scrapbook showed round-trip passage for her and another woman, together totaling $343, outbound from New York on July 28. As destiny would have it, Dorothy’s best friend and traveling companion Helen Goodell (whom my sister and I knew later as Aunt Helen) broke her leg and could not make the trip.
John knew Dorothy’s schedule. Although he failed to greet her at the foot of the gangplank, as he wanted to, he later proved a companionable guide. They saw the Russian ballet and attended services in Westminster Abbey. She met his friends. Then, on a trip together “to a cathedral town,” he discovered “the girl underneath.” Two mature professionals, they fell in love with childlike glee. He had always wanted, he confessed to Bettina in another letter, “to ‘go off the deep end’ and to have nothing else matter save ‘her.’” He proposed and she accepted. With less than a week of her vacation left, they threw themselves into plans for an immediate wedding: “a special license, a visit to the American Consulate to learn the welcome news that Dorothy would have a dual nationality, & then an irate minister to soothe.”
With the date set for two days hence, her lovestruck Australian husband-to-be posted a letter to “Dr. D. Lottridge, Dartmouth House, 37 Charles Street off Berkeley Square.” He could scarcely contain himself. He had found his “darling behind the Doctor.” Then, taking a phrase from the Irish poet Bartholomew Dowling without acknowledgment, he added, “What a high & haughty person is that Doctor, quite all right for other people but I have no ills for the Doctor to cure but I have lots of longings for you, dear one, to satisfy.” A life together, home, children, a medical practice, all seemed unbelievably and wonderfully at hand. “Thank God,” he exclaimed, “for cathedral cities, for matron’s sitting rooms & for London towns.” On Wednesday, August 23, “we were married,” he told Bettina, “very quietly in Wesley’s Chapel, City Rd. Strangely enough, the four of us at the altar were doctors.”
That same day, a hurricane surged up the east coast of the United States forcing a monstrous tidal bore in the Potomac River, drenching Washington, D.C., with more than six inches of rain, and causing widespread flooding that swept a train off its tracks. Eighteen people perished in the storm. In London that day, BBC technicians at Broadcast House put on the world’s first televised boxing match, an exhibition between British middleweights Archie Sexton and Laurie Raiteri. John and Dorothy took no notice.
After an excellent lunch at the Waldorf, “what it consisted of I know not,” the newlyweds repaired 24 miles to Burnham Lodge Hotel, a lovely former country estate on the borders of famed Burnham Beeches. There were few guests, the weather shone gloriously, and they vowed to continue a tradition of honeymoons no matter how brief. Thursday evening, after each had written to their new in-laws, they retired to be alone together for a few more short hours.
The following day, Friday, they lunched again in London, and that evening after he slipped her a final love note, Dorothy sailed for home on the American Merchant, carrying her new husband’s letter written on that idyllic Thursday to her unsuspecting parents in New Jersey. His exuberant lines just over a week later to Cousin Bettina supplied the details of their hasty nuptials. Swelling with pride, he even suggested that she write to his new wife, which she did.
They had put no postage stamp on the hotel envelope. She would hand his profession of love and caring to her parents in person. “I did like you both when I was in New York,” he had written,
but it is a “big” thing to have suddenly acquired you as parents. Dorothy has told me something of your love & care for her & of what grand pals you all are. Please will you accept me into your little circle. . . . At the moment I have merely myself, my love & my good name to give Dorothy, but I feel so confident that I can make good & Dorothy happy that I have no fears for the future.
She was an only child, he one of four, two boys and two girls. He hoped her father and mother would approve of “our apparent precipitate action.” The main purpose of his life would be to make their daughter happy. “Please accept me on trust as a son. Yours affectionately, John.”
In New York harbor, with the gangway lowered, Dorothy’s parents came aboard the American Merchant on Monday, September 4. Before she could present them with either the news or the letter, an awkward moment occurred. She was paged as Mrs. John Kessell: “Radiogram for Mrs. Kessell.” It read simply, “ALLS WELL DARLING LOVE JOHN.” In relating the incident, she never told us exactly how it played out. In London, meantime, her exultant husband was assuring Bettina that “the separation is hard, but just think of the future ahead of us.” Dorothy “is no ordinary girl—I can hear Uncle say, ‘They never are.’” Marriage had changed his whole life. “It has given me a purpose. No longer do I wish to travel alone. I want to set up a home & then have a family. Twins to start with. How does that sound?”
During the last few days of August, all of September and October, and most of November 1933, the Atlantic Ocean separated them. John, a romantic if ever there was, wrote to Dorothy every day, morning and night—not infrequently at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.—placing in a single envelope four or five letters at a time. Each little envelope (4 1/4" x 5 1/4") he addressed proudly to “Mrs. John S. Kessell, 43 South Maple Av., East Orange, New Jersey, U.S.A.,” pasting in the upper right-hand corner the appropriate George V three-halfpence stamp. And she saved them all.
In weaving together these excerpts, I have treated the letters as historical documents, nowhere altering my father’s wording and only correcting silently a rare misspelling or inserting a comma, hyphen, or question mark. Regrettably, my mother’s responses, which he so cherished on receipt, have gone missing. She saved his every letter in a speckled cardboard 4” x 5” file box. After my parents’ death, I transported that file box from place to place, remembering only that it contained some sort of documents relating to them or perhaps to my grandparents. Not until decades later, with the discovery of the especially treasured letter kept in the secret place of my mother’s desk—his eager reintroduction to her parents—did I finally open the small file box and read for the first time my father’s tenderhearted love letters from London.