Women coming of age in the 1950s
They called us the “Silent Generation.”
Our men followed the Greatest Generation into another bloody war after only five years of peace: the Korean War. Remember it? Nearly as many of us died there as in Vietnam, the Baby Boomers’ war.
Our women bridged a culture our mothers had discovered—going to college, but returning home to hang a framed diploma in the family kitchen. We began life expecting to live the same lives until the world changed around us, and many of us chose to change with it.
Virgin Hall ($15 paper / $7.99 epub, Kindle & Nook) is a book about four women coming of age in the 1950s. The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces the reader not only to the characters, but to the times. Clothes, sorority rush, boys, and a great date were all priorities for “co-eds” of the day. Sheila, the heroine, a sheltered girl from Brooklyn, is lost at first in the flamboyant culture of the Southwest. As her three suitemates help her adjust, the women establish lifelong friendships.
The second part of the novel reveals the very real life situation Sheila faces. She is an incest victim and experiences a pregnancy from a rape, even as the pace of campus life goes on around her. Shelia is helped through her trauma by the other women and by the young man she considers her true love.
Part three takes place thirty years later, at an impromptu reunion of the four college suitemates. They have all undergone changes in the intervening years, and answers to many questions raised in the first two parts come to light as they catch up on one another’s lives. America and the three women changed profoundly in the intervening years—all of them know that for every gain they made, a price was paid.
Janet Taliaferro sensitively portrays the lives of four young college women, drawing the reader into a close circle of friendship with those characters. Taliaferro thoughtfully explores the social context that defines and constrains them and the oppositional discourse they develop within that framework as the author delves into the consequences of social policies that continue to occupy space in the political discourse of today. This book could not be more relevant to our time or more enjoyable to read.
—Laura Meyers, CEO of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington
Life in Different Times
At heart, Virgin Hall is a book about what the 1950s were like and all the rigid hypocrisy and misplaced priorities of the times. We were the last generation to reflect the mores, habits, attitudes, and cultural values that dominated American life over the previous century. Virgin Hall is also is the story of a kinder era, when the individual felt a duty to society at large, values that seemed to die off after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
The good went with the bad for those of us living through the profound social changes of the times. I was proud to be a part of the civil rights movement, proud to be active in politics trying to elect progressive leaders, and proud to follow John and Robert Kennedy into what we hoped would be a new era. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to and for many of us.
We had grown up in the days of lynchings, gentlemen’s agreements limiting what Jews could do, and suspicion of Roman Catholics that bordered on hatred. The only choice a woman had with an unwanted pregnancy was a coat hanger or a backroom, illegal abortion. No one mourned the passing of these societal defects.
Virgin Hall was inspired by my experiences and the women who lived on the third floor of the freshman dormitory Virginia Hall, at Southern Methodist University in the early 1950s. Naturally the boys called it Virgin Hall.
It is important to say this is not a roman à clef. None of these things happened to any of us. I have borrowed certain characteristics and details of background to create a pastiche of characters for the book. Purists of the time will recognize that I have taken liberties with the details of sorority rush and that Virginia Hall did not have suites like the other dorms. Other than that, I have stayed close to the truth of the time.
Virgin Hall, Chapter One
Monday, April 29, 1985
A fine rain turned First Avenue to patent leather. I leaned my forehead against the windowpane and watched yellow taxis streak the scene with slashes of white light, a contrast to the quiet spots of watery color produced by the few neon signs in the Sutton Place neighborhood.
I thought about the odor of wet pavement and the tang of cold, dusty glass close enough to stir memory but not enough to summon images. “What’s wrong with me?” Here I am in New York, which has always been home to me. I have a loving husband and an achieving daughter. “It must just be chemical,” I said to myself. “I’m so damned depressed. Maybe it was just a hangover from a long cold winter.”
The lights were off in the living room of the apartment. At last, I pushed away from the window with a thrust of my elbow and walked in darkness toward my daughter’s room.
The “elegant rabbit warren” was the way I secretly referred to the apartment I shared with my husband, Hugh Cauthron, and daughter Elise.
Elise’s fourteen-year-old presence was indicated in the April quiet by the faint but unmistakable sound of murmured conversation, Hugh’s by the scratch of the dot matrix printer in the study. I was irritated by both sounds. Elise’s telephone conversation with her friend Tiffany had long exceeded the parental time limit. It was time to assert authority.
In a way, I found the sound of the computer more disturbing than the telephone conversation. “Why couldn’t I marry some normal man who just watches television all the time?” But then, Hugh was far more attentive than the man who had taken up too much of my life.
My footsteps slowed almost imperceptibly as I passed the study door, but instead of interrupting Hugh’s concentration, I continued down the hall, aware that my irritation was mixed with the knowledge that I really wanted to be alone this evening.
“Elise,” I said softly but firmly against the jamb of my daughter’s closed door. No answer except for a “Yeah, uh-huh,” obviously uttered into the phone.
“Elise!” Still no response.
Usually the girl was afforded the privacy due an adult by her parents, but this time I opened the door without knocking. Indignant slate blue eyes looked at me. Elise took the receiver from her ear and rested it on her shoulder, her other hand covering the mouthpiece. The headset of a Sony Walkman sat atop her small head, ridiculously askew, occupying the ear not engaged by the telephone. The other earpiece bunched up her dark curls in an unkempt cockscomb.
Nevertheless, the voice and the manner were imperial. “Yes, mother?”
“Elise, it’s after ten. Tell Tiffany goodbye and get ready for bed.”
“In a minute, mother.” Elise was not pleased.
“Now, my dear,” I said and stood my ground while the girl said a hasty farewell, her disgust with her mother patent in her voice.
“Tiff, Mom’s hanging over me. Gotta run. Talk to you later. Yeah, bye.” Elise hung up the phone and placed it on the round table by her bed. “Was that satisfactory?” Elise asked with a prim smile that contradicted the fire in her eyes. She had changed her tone. The question was phrased in her best prep school voice.
Weary, I closed the door without response. I could hear my daughter’s feet hit the floor with a bad tempered slap. At least the process of getting to bed had begun.
I could hardly complain. Elise was an excellent student, a model of decorum at her expensive private school, and she seemed genuinely well liked by her friends and teachers.
It was just her mother she loathed, and I found the hate debilitating and bewildering even though friends assured me it was normal at her age.
I walked back to the living room through the length of the apartment, past the minute kitchen and formal dining room on my left opposite the master bedroom and bedroom cum Hugh’s office. Elise’s room had once been a servant’s quarters in an earlier, and if not more affluent, at least more gracious day. Both child and parents found the isolation and privacy appropriate.
I was sure-footed in the dark, avoiding by habit and instinct the exquisite pieces of seventeenth and eighteenth century furniture Hugh and I had lovingly collected in the early years of our marriage—early years, but not necessarily young years.
I sat down in the wing chair by the empty black maw of the fireplace, stark against the white of the Adams mantel. I sighed and willed my muscles to relax. My eyes had just closed when the phone rang.
If that’s Tiffany, I’ll kill her, I thought, moving quickly to the block front lowboy and picking up the phone, anxious not to have the ring disturb Hugh in the den. “Hello?” My voice was as firmly efficient as it always was at my office.
“Miz Caughron? Miz Roberts here. The voice from the past.” The unmistakable West Texas accent made the word come out something like “pay-ust.”
“Well, for God’s sake, E.A.! How are you and what brought about this unexpected pleasure?”
“Sort of a combination of nostalgia and pride, I guess,” Eleanor Ann said, and then continued with a rush of words I remembered so well. “Now what would you think about coming out here to Texas in about four weeks? You owe me a visit anyway. It’s been five years since Jim Ed and I were in the Big Apple and we had a visit.”
E.A. had dated one Big Man on Campus after another until her senior year, when the red haired Aggie and cattle rancher I met at her home that first Thanksgiving began to show up at the Pi Phi House. It wasn’t long before Jim Ed Roberts had cut her smoothly out of the herd without need for a horse.
“Oh, E.A., I couldn’t possibly,” I said, although I was aware that the thought of a trip to Texas had a strong, nostalgic pull for me, too.
“I’ll tell you what started all this. It’s my daughter, Edwina, named for Jim Ed, as you know, anyway, Sheila. You’ll never guess. She’s going to be valedictorian of the graduating class at SMU! Now, how’s that for a couple of C students like Jim Ed and I? Anyway, I’m just so proud of her, and I want to show her off. Also, I got to thinking about the four of us our freshman year there and I just suddenly got a real yen to see y’all. Miriam and I’ve gotten together over the years and I asked her and she thought it would be a great idea. Can you come?”
As Eleanor Ann talked, I felt the muscles of my face relax into a broad smile. I had always been in awe of Eleanor Ann’s ability to dominate a conversation without ever abandoning her drawl.
“God, E.A., you haven’t changed a bit. You must set the record for the number of diphthongs uttered in a lifetime!”
“Never mind. It’s wonderful to hear your voice. But about coming down, I really can’t say. I’m awfully busy. We’re just at the end of our annual fund drive at the office. I have zillions of things I’ve let slide in the meantime, but it would be great to see everybody. Have you talked to Paula?”
“She’s so hard to get ahold of. I’m letting Miriam do that. I said I’d call you and if you could come, we’d work on Paula.”
“What’s she doing? I completely lost track of her after that year.”
“She’s a nurse—in Calcutta somewhere.”
“I think she works with that Saint Teresa outfit …”
“Mother Teresa,” I corrected absently.
“Whatever; anyway, it’s some sort of missionary work. She’s been there for about ten years now, but Miriam and her husband managed to hook up with her when they were in Singapore and they made that trip at least seven or eight years ago. Paula came over on a vacation and met them at the Raffles.”
“Miriam would look Paula up, bless her. I still get a holiday card from her every year, even though I quit sending Christmas cards years ago, even to you, old dear. I apologize for being such a bad correspondent.”
“Forget it. Who has time? But I am going to be disappointed if you don’t come down. We’ve just got to have our own reunion. The four of us haven’t laid eyes on each other since 1952. You know that’s been thirty-three years? You suppose they would let us go to the class stuff even if we didn’t graduate?”
“I don’t know that I’d want to. What I really want is to see all of you.”
“Then you’ll come, right?”
“E.A., I can’t commit myself, but I really want to. Write me the details.” I gave Eleanor Ann my office address, and was aware that Hugh was standing at the door of the study. Light from the room made a bright rectangle on the parquet floor, his distorted shadow a freeform blot in it center.
Eleanor Ann was saying, “Now you come. Hear?”
“I’ll try. I’ll really try. And it’s so good to hear from you.” I could hear the vibrancy in my own voice. Eleanor Ann’s enthusiasm had struck a spark.
“Let me know soon. I’m countin’ on it.”
“I will, I promise.”
We said our good-byes and I turned toward my husband. His face was completely in shadow, but the light outlined his blue shirt in silver.
“What was that all about?” His voice was amused.
“That was my old college roommate at SMU. Do you remember me telling you about Eleanor Ann Cabel? I had lunch with her and her husband a few years ago when they were in New York.”
“The busty blonde?”
“Blonde, but I don’t remember ever saying busty.”
“I’ll bet she was, though,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“It just goes with the Kilgore Rangerette description you always gave of her.” Hugh moved toward me, pulling me lightly against him.
“She wants me to come down to a sort of reunion with the other two girls who were our suitemates.”
“Why don’t you go? You’ve earned it after a dynamite campaign.”
“Go where?” Elise stood in a long cotton nightgown. Fuzzy slippers muffled her step.
“Texas,” I said.
“What for?” the girl asked, a decided sneer in her voice.
“My old roommates from college are getting together.”
“I thought you went to Columbia?”
“I graduated from there, but I went to Southern Methodist University my first year, remember?”
Elise shrugged, dismissing the subject.
“I told your mother she ought to go. She’s earned a vacation, and getting together with old friends is always a treat,” Hugh said.
“I can’t imagine it would be very interesting,” Elise said. She hugged her father goodnight and gave me a cool peck on the cheek.
Hugh went back to the computer he alternately adored and swore at. I started for the living room and something made me walk back toward Elise’s room. At the door, I distinctly heard her giggle and then whisper.
In a rage, I yanked open the door.
“Off the phone, young lady!”
Startled, she hung the phone up hurriedly.
“Was that Tiffany again?”
My anger was met with a smoldering look. “Yes, and you wouldn’t like what we were talking about.”
“Then you’d better not tell me what it was. But since you’re awake, get up and hang up your uniform. I’ve told you a hundred times not to leave it on the chair.”
Reluctantly, she dragged out of bed and I thought I heard her say under her breath, “You’re not my mother and I don’t have to do what you say.”
“I am your mother and you do have to do what I say.”
“No you’re not. You told me my mother and father were dead and I was adopted, just like you were when Aunt Grace and Uncle Howard adopted you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My mother’s dead. You said so.”
“I never said that. I said your father was dead.”
“You’re a liar. Daddy said so, too.”
I was aware that Hugh had come up behind me, drawn by the wrangling.
“Isn’t that right,” Daddy? “Didn’t you tell me when I was little that I was adopted? And didn’t you say my parents died in an accident like Mom’s?”
Hugh walked past me and put his arm around his now trembling daughter. Her eyes, so like her biological father’s, had filled with tears of real pain. I wanted to take her in my arms, too, but knew this was not the time.
“Sit down, Elise.” Hugh pulled her onto the edge of the bed and wrapped his other arm around her. “We haven’t talked about it in a long time, and you haven’t asked, so we both thought you knew exactly what the story was.” He nodded at me and I nodded back in corroboration. “Sheila, why don’t you go on while I clear this up with Elise?”
I gave him a warning look, but I was sure Hugh was only going to stick to the facts of how he became her father and not tell her the whole story. One day I would tell her—when she was older. Perhaps.
I walked to Hugh’s den and sat on the couch, my head in my hands. The printer abruptly stopped its scratching. How had all this happened in the space of thirty minutes? First the reminders of all the events of my year in Texas and then Elise going to the heart of everything that was a result of that period in my life.
Hugh came in and sat next to me. I let him enfold me the way he had comforted his daughter. “Damn.” He said it as softly as he said almost everything. “I’m so sorry. Somehow when we told her as a little girl, she got what happened to you mixed up with my adopting her.”
“There’s not much similarity. I was ten years old when my parents died. She was two when we married.”
“I know. But still, she just didn’t get it straight. Since she almost never mentions it, I thought she knew. It seems this all came out because Tiffany has been prying information out of her father about what the legal rights are on adoption records. She had some fantasy about finding out who her real parents are.”
“What did you tell her about her father?”
“I said you would tell her all about it when she was old enough, but that he was a man with some fine qualities.”
“And a few that weren’t so great and one really bad habit.”
“Speaking of old times, I think you ought to make the trip to Texas.”
“I don’t know. I’ve always felt you were avoiding something.”
“I’ve told you absolutely all that happened that year.”
“No unfinished business?” I just shrugged and he held me tighter. “You said you didn’t tell E.A. about Elise. Does that bother you?”
“Not really. I would tell her everything if the subject ever came up.” We sat silent for a moment. “I do sometimes think I should have told his parents but he was so adamant about denying his paternity and swearing me to secrecy.”
“Okay. All the drama aside, you need a break. Leave the hormonal teenager to me for a few days, anyway.”
“She’s obviously not going to miss me.” Her earlier dismissive attitude and her cutting words brought out a flash of rebellion in me. I had to smile, “God, I sound just like her.”
Hugh laughed. “I guess that’s where she gets it. Anyway, I’m glad to see you smile. Maybe a little Texas sunshine will bring back my wife with the serene disposition.”
“I don’t know about that, but I think I might really like to go and see everybody. I’ll see what happens at the office tomorrow and then decide.”
“Bedtime,” said Hugh. I kissed his neck.
We walked down the hall with our arms around each other. I hesitated at the door to our bedroom, realizing I already had begun to plan what to pack to go to Dallas when a chill replaced excitement. Suddenly, I was standing in the door of my bedroom in Brooklyn, looking at the suitcases packed for college. That September flight to Dallas had certainly changed my life. I left Brooklyn a schoolgirl, returned at Christmas a woman in love, and left for the second semester of college totally changed.
It all seemed so long ago. More importantly, Hugh was right. A lot had happened since the end of that freshman year that I had not shared with my friends. But then, there was no reason to discuss it with them even now. After all, this was going to be a fun girlie weekend.
Virgin Hall is a hard-to-put-down read for any woman who spent time on a college campus in the ’50s or ’60s…especially if it was in the South. It was a poignant trip back to my days at SMU, and the descriptions of these four freshman women and the fears, insecurities and issues they faced were right on the mark. I really enjoyed this novel and highly recommended it to my friends from college.
- Marilyn Walker
Reading Virgin Hall has allowed me to relive my own freshman college days at Syracuse 60 years ago—but now, for the first time, I had a view from a female perspective. Janet Taliaferro’s poignant and delightful remembrance has captured life on and off campus in the fifties so well—the fun, the fears, the sexual awakening, the melding of so many varied backgrounds. I remember it well, along with the years-later reunions and keeping in touch with a few classmates. Thanks, Janet.
- Arnold S. Friedman, retired editor, Springfield (MA) Republican
Janet Taliaferro’s beautifully written book reveals the fantasy of nostalgic longing for “simpler times” by adeptly demonstrating that women’s lives aren’t simple in any time. Gracious living covered up violence, a refusal to recognize women’s reproductive rights carried profound consequences, and social mores dictated racist practices.
It is the type of book I would have used when teaching Women’s Studies or Conflict Studies; approachable, entertaining, and sure to generate useful discussions that challenge students to look beneath the surface of our social myths. I appreciated the raw honesty of Taliaferro’s characters; it was a pleasure to meet them and I highly recommend that you make their acquaintance. It’s truly a pleasure to count such powerful storyteller among our web presence clients.
- Dr. Jo Golden, Educator & Digital Strategist at Chaos To Clarity LLC