What led you to write about Eva Eldridge?
I found [her] letters. I was close to Eva in childhood; she was a friend of my family. When she died, I was executor of her estate. The letters were in the attic of her mother’s house. It took a long time to go through them. Once I read them, I realized I had quite a story.
Grace was a farm woman, who married at nineteen. Her world was the farm. She never worked outside the home and seldom left her county. Eva was raised like that, but when she went to Portland her life was not what her mother imagined for her. Eva left a protected country life to go to a big city. Caught up in the war effort, she worked with male shipbuilders and met hundreds of sailors. At home, parents knew all the boys and fathers quietly protected daughters. This couldn’t have been more different.
Why didn’t she marry her local beau, Dave?
He became horribly shell shocked in the war. And Dave blamed her for his collapse in Europe, saying when she left the farm his world fell apart. When he came home, Eva had gotten used to living on her own. He was very crazy, bossy and controlling. She was only 17, when she dated Dave. Soldiers were fighting and women were expected to wait loyally for them to return. At the same time, the government wooed women like Eva to take jobs. In Portland, she controlled her own life.
What jobs did Eva do for the war effort?
At first Eva worked in a VA hospital in Portland. Then she moved to Swan Island shipyard. She worked as a cashier for the food service. (Eva had wanted to go to college but her eyes were too weak.) In the shipyard, she made good money for the first time and earned promotions. She had friends and attention from a constant influx of young men. One night, she had 25 invitations. In that time you did not hear about sex without marriage, but she did go out. The frenetic wartime atmosphere was exciting. The shipyard was a world of its own.
So there was a societal disconnect, women were expected to wait at home and at the same time work in the war effort?
There was a double message. “One woman can shorten the war” was a slogan to encourage women to go to work. But there were constant concerns that work was a threat to women’s femininity. The underlying fear was that women would change and refuse to go back. But women’s work was crucial to produce weapons, ships and tanks.
What societal fears were raised by working women?
Losing your femininity meant a woman could become rough and tough. Or she could retain her femininity and be preyed upon by men and be unsafe. Or she could lose her moral compass and become “loose.” Eva came to enjoy her independence. She liked having choices, making her own decisions. She could not return home.
During the Great Depression, women believed it was wrong to take a job from a man. Now the government had to use propaganda make women change their view, to make them believe it was their patriotic duty to go out to work.
How were women manipulated by propaganda to quit jobs, when 80% wanted to keep their jobs in war plants? What happened to Eva?
Women were told it was time to quit and go home. They couldn’t stay, whether they wanted to or not. They needed to get out of the way for returning men. Praised before for doing good jobs, now business said they weren’t so good or wanted special considerations. Society said women had to rebuild homes, where people could be safe and normal. Margaret Hickey, of the Women’s War Bureau, wrote it was wrong for democracy to use women’s talents in emergency and then kick them out. She said the courtship of women by the government may not have been honorable.
In the 1950’s it was thought everyone in America needed to be married. Even Margaret Mead said so. Unmarried women were considered “unwell” and mentally unstable. For men, being unmarried meant you weren’t normal, subtext was homosexual–an odd duck. Eva had been working as a hostess at an elegant hotel in Boise, when she met Vick, who was a chef there. She was 35; he was 43. They were oddities in a culture, where everyone married in their twenties. When he proposed she must have thought, finally.
What was your impression of Vick, when you met him in 1957?
He and Eva drove to Oregon to meet Grace. I was going to be the flower girl in the wedding, so I was invited. He was a city guy who wore sports clothes like the men on TV and I was impressed by his socks with clocks embroidered on them. I thought it odd that Eva sat in the car and waited for him to go around and open the door. She was obviously in love. I didn’t think he was nice or funny, like men in our town. Mine wasn’t a favorable impression. Oddly, he did show me a photograph of a daughter, who he said he missed. Vick was supposedly a widower.
Who was Odette?
Eva was VERY happy after a year of marriage. She was shocked when she came home and found all his things gone with their car. She tried to find him from an ad in Mexico but it was a dead end. Then she was contacted by Odette, a previous wife, who found Vick’s trail from Oregon to Idaho. Odette had searched Vick through automobile records, since he always took the couple’s car. For some reason, Vick always gave a correct name. Tracing automobile ownership to legal marriages, Odette contacted several wives. Bigamy with two wives in the 50’s was sometimes reported. It was seldom prosecuted and considered a joke. And multiple bigamy was almost unheard of. Odette and Eva knew of four or five wives. I discovered something Eva and Odette never knew: Vick had at least ten wives.