Beryl Clutterbuck was born in 1902, three years after Irene Lowe. Both women made perilous choices that could have resulted in Atlantic Ocean related deaths-Beryl by crashing her Vega Gull during her solo flight from England to North America, and Irene by a bad entry into the Atlantic after having been shot from the human cannonball cannon off the Atlantic City Steel Pier in New Jersey.
Beryl has a book written as if by her but actually by her third husband, writer and journalist Raoul Schumacher. West With The Night was published in 1942. This, by Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Max Perkins, is found on the back cover: “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”
Irene has no book. And unlike Ernest Hemingway, I have never been there-not in the “time” of the writing, nor the place. Oh, I have been to the Steel Pier Museum at the north end of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but the Steel Pier itself is no more than a few black marks rising from the ocean in crooked ways. The only connection to the “absolutely true” of Irene’s life story that I can vouch for are the photos and write ups in newspaper clippings and the recollections of an aging cousin who, in the end, identified Irene’s lifeless body for detectives in 1930’s New York City.
And unlike Beryl Markham (or her third husband) I am not setting out to write a biography of a life, but rather something of a biography of a “Time”–those first thirty or so years of the twentieth century. Irene Lowe is my inspiration for the telling of a woman’s “Time” in those years, those circumstances. I give my fictional Irene the further names of Parilee and Johns. “Parilee,” because this was the name of an aunt I never knew. Parilee was born to my grandmother, Elsie May Susan Gray Ivy. Parilee lived three years and died of the influenza that took millions of lives worldwide near the end of WWI. She was an aunt who was grieved some seventy years later, even as Elsie lay dying. They are all gone, my mother and my grandmothers, but I want to remember them through other women I never knew. Thus the name Parilee is added to Irene. And “Johns” is added for simpler reasons — I like the roll of it off the ear and the tongue.
I hope to write of how factors in gender and race influence choices we make as humans: the choices we make as individuals regarding how we move through life; the choices others are left with in their lives once gender, race, religion, etc. are factored into play. Or perhaps what I should say is What we are allowed to play.