Diaries Reveal One 'Swelegant' Dad

Jun 19, 2011

I recently looked through diaries that my father wrote as a young man in New York in the 1930s, trying to get his start in life during the Great Depression.

The man in the diaries is not the man I knew: a middle-aged father of four who commuted from the New Jersey suburbs to a job he detested in Manhattan. Instead, the 20-something Robert Fessler was eager, passionate, full of hope. He dreamed of traveling around the world, maybe getting a job as a reporter. Just out of high school, he was trying desperately to mold himself into an interesting adult.

He made lists of everything, including how he would improve himself — by learning to dance and swim and write and play the banjo. He listed every movie he saw. In 1933, there were 75 of them. And he rated them all. The White Sister with Clark Gable and Helen Hayes got four stars. The Mummy with Boris Karloff got one. "Stardust" was the song he liked best.

The New York of the 1930s may have been in the midst of depression, but there was lots of entertainment.

And there were girls. Marjorie, Dot, Ruth, Rita, and a blonde in a red coat he saw on the ferry. He called her Rhapsody in Red. The others he described as "swelegant."

And then there was my mother, Agnes, the most "swelegant" of all. He met her at a dance after his date went off with someone else. "I cried myself to sleep," he wrote in his diary. But fortuitously, he also scrawled my mother's name and address in the margins.

Soon, he was head over heels.

"A glorious, blissful, wonderful, marvelous, sweet, five-plus months, which I hope will continue forever and ever," he wrote at the end of 1933.

Compared to others, he was lucky. He had a job as a clerk at a shipping company. He gave what he earned to his parents for room and board. He got a weekly allowance — first $3, then $4 and $5. He wasn't starving, but money was tight.

I saw the start of a lifelong obsession with what things cost. The good news is not very much back then. Twenty-five cents for three movies. Fifty-five cents for dinner in Greenwich Village. Forty cents for a trip to the emergency room!

But increasingly he was desperate to earn more, so he could ask my mother to marry him. His options were few and in1936 there were signs he was starting to feel trapped. "I feel so blue," he wrote. "Wish I had another job, but all I seem to do is wish, wish."

He went on to marry my mother and raise a family. And that job he complained about was the same one he held for almost 40 years.

But he never complained to me. He traveled some, but never around the world. My brother did that. He never became a reporter. I did.

Growing up we seldom appreciate our parents for what they once were, or what they've given up. My father is long gone now. But if I had a chance today, I'd say, "Thanks, Dad. I think you're swelegant."

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