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RETRO: The Time of Her Life

Photographs courtesy of Glynne Hiller

Let’s roll with the number 94. As in 94 years ago. That means the year 1924.

In fact, let’s put a cinematic spin on things. In 1924, a mere 94 years ago, Charlie Chaplin was in pre-production on his 1925 silent classic: The Gold Rush.

And two years after The Gold Rush gave Chaplin his biggest hit film (up to that time), Al Jolson’s movie The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” revolutionized not just cinema — but all communications: neither the movies nor the newsreels would ever be the same. Get the picture? Now, let’s put a presidential spin on all this.

As a 94-year-old woman, author Glynne Hiller (who is alive and well and living on Long Island), was able to be a toddler at the tail-end of the Silent Film Era and then she emerged in her elementary school years both seeing and hearing everyone and everything from President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chat” radio broadcasts to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s official D-Day announcement. And just as surely as silent films gave way to movies with sound and radio’s dominance was superseded by television conquering the culture in the 1950s, Glynne Hiller was living her life.

Author Glynne Hiller. 

In her new memoir, Passport to Paris, Glynne Hiller does not offer any rose-colored retrospectives or sentimental journeys. Instead, she reminds us that life has never been tidy, simple, or as easy as nostalgia addicts would like to suggest. What makes Hiller’s memoir particularly noteworthy is that she meticulously recounts (often in dialogue-driven passages that sting with authenticity) the frustrations, the tension, and the dissolution of her first marriage at a time when marriages like hers—by and large a safe, secure, solid union—were considered as good as it gets.

Domestic violence? Not an issue. Philandering husband. Not so. Economic ruin? Not a problem. To outside observers, the marriage of Glynne and Joe Nahem, who had a small girl named Cathy whom they both adored, was considered a success.

By everyone except Glynne, that is. More than a decade before Betty Friedan’s analysis of “housewife’s blight” and the other themes Friedan rocked in the early 1960s with The Feminine Mystique, Glynne Hiller was boldly acknowledging her own sense of marital stagnation. This riveting memoir wisely begins in medias res (“in the middle of things”) as the author confides to her sister over the phone, during a late-night call. Hiller’s recapitulation of that call launches the book:

Sally’s phone in Greenwich, Connecticut, rang five times before I heard her breathless voice. “Glynne?” she said. “I know it’s you. Who else would call after eleven at night?”
“Only me,” I agreed. I always turned to my sister Sally in times of travail. She was three years older than I and much more practical.
“Irving is asleep,” she said, “and I had to scramble from my cozy warm bed and run downstairs to stop the blasted thing from waking him. So, are you all right, darling?”
“So-so. No, I’m okay. Sal, I can’t talk for long. Joe will be home at any moment. I wasn’t going to let you in on this because I know you’ll groan, and I can just see the expression on your face. But you know I can’t keep secrets from you, and anyway, you might not react the way I think you will.”
“Oh, Glynne. What mad thing have you done now?”
“Nothing yet . . . possibly tonight.”
“Tonight what?”
“Sal! We’ve had so many heart-to-heart talks about our husbands, and you’ve heard me blow hot and cold about Joe. Well, I’m on the cusp of a decision. I’m going to suggest a temporary separation, to see—”

“No, no! I don’t want to hear.”
“Oh, Sal. Don’t just dismiss something because you don’t like hearing about it. Living without Joe may sound drastic, but I want to try it, perhaps just for a couple of months, to help me learn what my true feelings are. Cathy, of course, will come with me.”

That snippet of dialogue, from 1950, belongs in a Time Capsule. No answering machine, of course – nothing but a landline sounding off like a fire alarm. But even more telling is the author’s sister’s adamant remark: “I don’t want to hear.”

Remember, this was a time when the words “divorce” and “cancer” had one thing in common – they were whispered.

Nonetheless, despite being married with a child and a spouse already proven as a reliable provider, Hiller spoke openly to husband Joe:

I didn’t mean to, but I blurted, “Listen, Joe. You’re really such a dear; a good man, too, but with it all, the thing is . . . I’m not a hundred per cent sure I’m in love with you.”
He was silent at first. Then he said confidently, “Well, you are. So don’t be ridiculous.”
“Remember our sessions with Dr. Kandler last year?” I asked. There had been six of them.
“They were effective,” he said. “And we’ve had a pretty good marriage since then.”
“We have, mainly. Do you remember how strongly he felt against our separating?”
“You’re darn tootin’! Glynne, Kandler was on the ball.”
I plunged on. “So we never tried one. Joe, for me it would have been a chance to stand on my own feet for the first time in my life. First I lived with my parents, and then we got married and I lived with you.” I took a breath. “It’s very tempting to go on being taken care of, to have things arranged for me, to live with a wonderful man. And you are wonderful. Yet there are times when I question everything.”
“Everything?” His tone was sarcastic. “For example?”
“Well, okay. Politically, I’m left. But I’m not a Communist. I can’t forgive the Soviet Union’s nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. But you justify it.”
He reached for my hand. “We don’t have to see eye-to-eye on everything. And you know, you tend to exaggerate, saying things about us you don’t actually mean. Then something happens, and it’s like turning a page, and you’re my own Glynne again.”
He pulled out his pipe, tamped a clump of tobacco in the bowl, and struck a match. After throwing his head back and exhaling, he said, “We’re better off talking things out tomorrow, when we’re fresh.”
He paused. A pulse began twitching near his cheekbone. Abruptly, my eyes started to prickle. He said, “There’s just one question. Give me a yes or no answer. Is there another man?”
“No. Nobody else.”
“Then no sudden urgency?”
“No.” But I couldn’t stop myself. “I was seventeen when we got married—too young, I think. And then we were apart during the War. I’m twenty-five now. I’ve changed.”

“You think you’ve changed and I haven’t? Nonsense. The seeds of who we are stay with us.” He paused. “Wisdom from a philosophy major.” He winked, then started chewing his bottom lip.
Did this gesture mean he was deliberating, or was he concealing anger? Slowly I said, “Joe, I’m wondering if a short separation—”
“Not tonight,” he interrupted. “No lectures on what I should have done or, even worse, your current feelings about ‘us.’ Baby, I’m dropping. I’ll be home early tomorrow, before six. Everything will keep until then, right? Then, I promise, we’ll sort things out.

“But the thing is, I can’t go on as though everything is normal. There’s never a right time for certain discussions. They have to pop out on their own, and—”
“Glynne, c’mon, please. We can leave everything in abeyance until tomorrow. I’ll be home early. And we’ll do all the talking you want then, I promise.”
He placed an arm possessively around my shoulder. As we walked through the hall I glimpsed us in the mirror: a tired breadwinner leading his young wife to bed. Her hand, from habit, held onto his waist.

As always, between the lines and in varied forms of subtext, Hiller’s dialogue speaks volumes. And her memoir is rich with such conversational revelations. We see, time after time, how history’s dramatic backdrop defined the way some people saw themselves. We are reminded, again and again, that marrying at such a young age (which is still encouraged in parts of America as well as elsewhere in the world; and it’s heavily encouraged in all fundamentalist religious communities) is always fraught with risk. Most of all, we’re reminded of the risks of truth-telling.

Glynne and Joe in Paris. 

The heart of this memoir revolves around the 1950-1951 period, when Glynne and her husband and child made the most of his G.I. Bill benefits and moved to Paris, so he could study at the Sorbonne. For Joe, it was going to be a way to save the marriage. However, for Glynne, it ensured that she’d break away ultimately.

None of her choices were easy. And Hiller did not make any rash moves. But she also did not numb herself with tobacco, alcohol, or any other elements. And yet, no matter what was right or what seemed promising—not to mention the chance to get a fresh start in the City of Light—Glynne Hiller respected her own soul enough to acknowledge her continual sense of distress. Like so many millions of others, all over the globe, she had married very young and then simply outgrew her partner.

The narrative texture sustaining Passport to Paris is memoir at its best. Hiller’s ear for dialogue is finely tuned and her quiet compassion for her former husband (and herself) is never cloying. If one wanted to compare her memoir to the best fiction of that era, then the short stories of John Cheever might serve as a template.

PASSPORT TO PARIS is now available to purchase through Amazon.

_______

M.J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine‘s RETRO columnist – although we’re beginning to think he may be the spirit of J.D. Salinger in disguise. Though the mysterious wordsmith and nostalgia master has yet to be glimpsed in person by our team, he continues to flood us with encouragement, goodies – and of course, flowers. When not weaving tales of historical delight or ardent odes to his brilliant publisher, he can be found alternately sipping champagne on the Champs-Elysee and doing Marc Chagall impressions on the beach in Nice. He’s also been rumored to have the superpower of being able to quote Mario Puzo novels straight from memory.

(In all seriousness, his novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was recently published by Heliotrope Books.)

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