Excerpt from "Winnipesaukee Gardens" from HALLELUJAH JUNCTION: COMPOSING AN AMERICAN LIFE by John Adams. Copyright (c) 2008 by John Adams. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. http://us.macmillan.com/fsg
Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, lies on the southwestern comer of Lake Winnipesaukee in the central part of the state, just south of the White Mountains. For much of the earlier part of the last century it was a summer resort, receiving vacationers, many of whom arrived via the Boston and Maine Railroad as it passed through on its way to destinations farther north. A modest New England resort in the 1930s, Weirs Beach was no Coney Island, but it nevertheless featured a boardwalk, several small hotels, a boat marina, and its prized possession-a dance hall built on pilings that extended out over the waters of the lake. It was here in this dance hall, lrwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens, that my father and mother met in the summer of 1935.
I have undated pictures of them from that period: Carl Adams, born Carl John Vincent Adams in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, in 1911; and Elinore Mary Coolidge, born in 1914 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. In the photo of my father you see him seated, straddling his clarinet between his legs, one or ten members of a band identified on the picture as Ed Murphy and His Orchestra. The players are dressed nattily in dark blazers with handkerchiefs in the breast pockets, brilliant white slacks, and white wing-tip shoes. Standing to the side is the only female, the vocalist who my father later identified to me as Fredda Gibbons, at the time no more than seventeen, but later to become a hugely successful pop singer in the 1950s better known as Miss Georgia Gibbs, a regular on the Jimmy Durante Camel Caravan, and whose hits included "Kiss of Fire" and "Seven Lonely Days.”
The band is posing for its picture on what looks like a lazy summer afternoon or early evening. It is the deep middle of the Great Depression, and big band jazz is one of the few sources of solace for a population ground down by a dysfunctional economy and massive unemployment. Everyone in the photo looks tanned and youthful and in good humor, a testament to the summer employment of a jazz musician with its leisurely unoccupied days and long nights of music, dancing, gin, and cigarettes. Three of the band members are holding clarinets. It is the era of the clarinet in American music: Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman play the instrument for its raunchy, high-register sassiness and coax out of it a provocative and licentious squeal. In these days before the advent of amplification, the sound of the clarinet carries over the clamor of a fully crowded dance floor. My father's instrument, it will also become mine, taught to me by him. By the time I am twenty-one the clarinet will have vanished from popular music. The Beatles will bring it back for a moment in 1968 in Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band to summon up a sentimental, doddering oldster singing "When I'm Sixty-four.”
The picture of my mother may be from the same summer of 1935, or possibly even earlier. She too is seated with a jazz band, a quintet identified only by the name Russ Cole. She wears a cotton summer dress with diagonal stripes and her dark blond hair is pulled gently back from her bright, expressive face. She looks at the camera intently, self-conscious and a bit stagy, far more self-aware than the men in the band. Of my mother's forays into professional jazz singing I know next to nothing. She may have sung on occasion for the sheer fun of it, but it's unlikely that Russ Cole was a paying gig for her. Nevertheless, it's a pity that no recording survives of her singing from around the time this picture was taken. She couldn't have been more than nineteen, and despite a complete lack of formal training, she had a commanding stage presence and a rich, powerful voice. I suspect she was attractive and sexy. Even in her sixties, she could stop a noisy party of celebrators in its tracks with a gutsy rendition of "Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"
The Irwin of Irwin's Winnipesaukee Gardens was my mother's stepfather, James Irwin, born sometime in the early 1890s in South Boston of Irish Catholic and English immigrant parents, an energetic and self-congratulatory entrepreneur who over a forty-year period became the Lakes Region's most successful businessman. Jim Irwin first visited central New Hampshire in the summer of 1914, playing comet in a small band. Of his eventual acquisition of the choice properties of Weirs Beach much is left to rumor and legend. In his old age he liked to say, "The first time I visited I played in the band. Then I came back as a leader of the band. And finally I owned the place: The neat progression of status and ownership fits perfectly the model of self-esteem and self-initiative that he cultivated throughout his life. In fact his first purchase was a small boat marina at Weirs Beach where summer visitors could dock their pleasure crafts. As a businessman he appears to have been endlessly creative in his ideas about developing the lakefront. He was instrumental in introducing the first motorized speedboats to the area, initiated the annual Miss Winnipesaukee beauty contest, and even brought in the region's first seaplanes, offering pleasure rides over the beautiful, pine-scudded lake.
By 1924 my grandfather had made enough money to build a dance hall over his very successful boat marina, modeling it after a similar one he'd seen while on a tour of Florida. It opened on Memorial Day 1925, and by the middle of the 1930s, Irwin's Winnipesaukee Gardens had become a major stop on the line for touring big bands, and throughout the Swing Era all but the most famous appeared there regularly. Even in the 1960s, when I was a teenager, bands continued to pass through, including on several occasions Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. A photo supposedly existed of one of my uncles, then a four-year-old, seated on the lap of the great stride pianist Fats Waller while both float in the waters of the lake on an inner tube.
My mother grew up with a station in life somewhere between a stepchild and an orphan. Her mother, born Ella Henry, had deep brunette hair, a commanding physical presence, and a personality that was both engaging and at times violent and tormented. Although born near Boston, she spoke with a slight Irish lilt. Pictures of her from 1he 1920s confirm her great physical beauty. Her first marriage was to a man named Thomas Coolidge. I know nothing about him other than he lived into his mid-nineties and that my grandmother Ella divorced him sometime around 1920 to marry Jim Irwin.
In order to accomplish this divorce, no small thing for an Irish Catholic in the Boston of 1920, my grandmother took my mother out of school-she must have been between six and eight at the time-and placed her temporarily in a Catholic convent. My mother was kept in the dark as to the reason for this sudden forced removal from her friends and teachers. All she recalls of the terrible six-month period of virtual incarceration was the strictness and prudery of the nuns and the fact that she was told to wear a T-shirt when bathing so as not to shame the Virgin Mary. Her memories of the convent as a dark, foreboding labyrinth of corridors and candles, statues of suffering saints, and the regimen of strictly observed rituals never left my mother’s unconscious and as an adult her natural sensuality and openness of character fought constant dark battles with a recurring sense of guilt and remorse.
Then one day, after six months of convent life had passed, her mother suddenly reappeared with an unknown man. "This is your new father,” she informed my mother. Not long after, they all moved into a large house in Lakeport, New Hampshire, not far from Weirs Beach. Within a few short years my mother found herself caring for a new family of three half brothers and a half sister. James Irvin had meanwhile become a stunning business success. He traveled on the Boston and Maine Railroad to Boston during the workweek to do business and was rumored to have partaken in the surreal financial killings that abounded in the stock market euphoria of the 1920s. After establishing Irwin's Winnipesaukee Gardens, he concurrently worked the real estate market of the area while continuing his successful business of selling pleasure boats. His crowning achievement was the establishment of Irwin Marine, a boathouse and marina, at the time the largest of its kind in the country, that stretched nearly a quarter of a mile along Paugus Bay on the south shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. One of my first memories is of riding in a sleek, elegant Chris-Craft, one of many speedboats that my grandfather sold to his wealthy customers. On these outings the Chris-Crafts were from time to time piloted by one of my uncles. My grandfather, who never seemed to do anything other than talk business, could sell a pleasure boat, but I never saw him pilot one.
While Jim Irwin ascended in the small world of New Hampshire business, his wife began a long descent into alcoholism and depression. She gave birth to a sixth child, a Down syndrome baby who died as an infant She suffered painful spine and back problems and was prescribed drugs. Her drinking, combined with fits of temper and physical violence, left her at times unable to care for her new children and my mother, by then a teenager, was forced to pick up the pieces. Still bearing her original name, Elinore Coolidge - her new stepfather would not let her change it to become more officially a part of his family - she found herself bringing up her own half siblings. If there had been even the glimmer of hope in her mind that she might study acting or learn from a professional how to exploit her generous and beautiful voice, that hope would surely have been doused by the hard realities of her family duties. Elinore Coolidge never took a singing lesson at any point in her childhood, nor was there ever a mention of her attending college. Even so, her talents as a singing actress managed to survive to the point where, in her late thirties and forties, she stunned local audiences in Concord, New Hampshire, with her performances in Carousel, Oklahoma!, The King and I, and other Broadway classics. In South Pacific she stole the show with her salty portrayal of Bloody Mary. The sailors surrounded her, singing. "Bloody Mary is the girl I love ... now ain't that too damn bad!"
My father and mother met in the summer of 1935 and soon eloped and were married in Hanover, New Hampshire. Certainly neither had the money for even a modest honeymoon. Not long after that the couple resurfaced in Worcester, Massachusetts. My sister, Carol - now Carol Dunning - was born in 1936, my only sibling. The new family spent the remainder of the Depression years and the years of World War II living mostly in the Worcester area, near where my father had been born and where his Swedish immigrant parents still lived. His father, born John Adamson in Ryd, Sweden, had come to America around the end of the previous century, the first of a large family who left the southern province of Smaland during a period of especially severe agricultural hardships in the 1890s. He Anglicized his name after his arrival, but I don’t know if when he made that change he was aware of the famous political predecessors in Massachusetts who had already given it a good road testing. John Adams worked as a baker and eventually had his own restaurant in Shrewsbury, a town on the shore of a small lake not far from Worcester. I remember this jovial, sturdy Swede with the build of a peasant when he was in his eighties and still spoke with a thick Smaland accent and called me Yannie. John Adams made a reputation for his restaurant by offering homemade bread and carrot-flavored ice cream.
Thus my name, John Coolidge Adams, so blue-bloodedly Yankee in its import, was in fact a conjunction of a Swedish paternal grandfather and a maternal grandfather I never knew.