From the Preface to Helen Perry Curtis and the European Trip of a Lifetime
I was not yet ten years old when, standing beside my mother in front of one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the walls at my grandfather’s house, my mother pulled a book from the shelf, and, handing it to me, said: “Here, you’ll like this. It’s about a girl who goes to Europe.”I didn’t just like this book. I fell in love with it. Jean & Company, Unlimited, by Helen Perry Curtis, published in 1937, was just what my mother said: the story of a teenaged girl who, with her mother, sails to Europe aboard a glamorous ocean liner. While Jean’s mother travels the Continent collecting material on folk costumes for a book she is writing, Jean spends a year at a boarding school run by Dominican nuns in Provence. There she meets girls from across Europe: Jeanette from France, Giovanna from Italy, Hannah from Austria, Jenny from Norway, Janesika from Czechoslovakia – all Jeans. The girls form a club with the businesslike name “Jean & Company.” Jean spends the summer vacation and a second year traveling with her mother, visiting these new friends in their own countries.
Jean & Company sent me on my own journey. The interest in Europe it inspired led me to a Ph.D. in European history, followed by a thirty-year college teaching career. And with that came my own trips to Europe – to many of the places visited by Jean. The book became, as I often said only half-facetiously, “the only guidebook I ever needed.” “It’s just like Jean,” I found myself saying, dodging the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, slipping into the cathedral in Salzburg, or running through the water spouts in the Hellbrunn Gardens. It was with Jean in mind that I gazed across the Danube in Budapest and over the rooftops of Prague. Topics on which I would hold forth at length in the classroom: the Salzburg Festival, the Thirty Years War, the “Marseillaise,” all these and more I first encountered in the pages of Jean & Company, Unlimited.
Always in my mind there was the question: “How much of this is true?” Who were these people who could spend two years traveling in Europe? What happened afterwards? Did Jean’s friendships with the girls in the Jean Club survive the destruction that came upon the Continent with the Second World War?
From time to time in that now-remote pre-internet world I would interrupt some serious research to look up Helen’s name in sources such as The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, with little luck. There were a few reviews of Jean & Company from 1937 and 1938. I found listings of articles in women’s magazines written by Helen about gardening or sewing, but nothing that I could connect to my special book. Come the age of Google I made further attempts at a search, turning up only the occasional used copy of Jean on Amazon or eBay.
But then in January, 2015, I came across a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence at a Little Free Library, one of those “take a book / leave a book” stands that spring up in front yards in neighborhoods of a certain sort. I had somehow gotten this far in life without encountering Fisher, a noted travel and food writer, but Jean & Company’s two chapters set in Provence was endorsement enough for me. Reading Fisher late one night, I came across the mention of enrolling her daughters in a boarding school run by Dominican nuns in Aix-en-Provence while she traveled and wrote. “Just like Jean!” I thought. And then: “There has to be a way to find that boarding school! There has to be a way to find Helen!” Setting aside Fisher, I Googled Helen’s name and came up with a hit: a Helen Perry Curtis Room in the student center at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska.
This struck me as unlikely. My Helen Perry Curtis was a sophisticated New Yorker who took her daughter on a dazzling trip…. Nevertheless, I drilled down into the Doane College website and sent off an inquiry to the college library.
I was rewarded next morning with the first of a flurry of emails exchanged with Janet Jeffries. Yes, she wrote, this was the person I was looking for. Helen’s father was president of Doane College for forty years; Helen was born and raised in Crete. More details emerged from Janet’s emails, reinforcing aspects of Jean & Company. But the most important piece of information in Janet’s emails was that at a Doane family reunion on Cape Cod
I met the granddaughters!... Susie and Pat were excited that I was so into the Czech culture since their grandma liked the Eastern European culture so much. They sent me a skirt and apron that Helen had collected in South Moravia. I have correspondence from Susie at home and actually you and Susie should connect. I think the granddaughters would be so excited that someone else is interested in Helen.I wrote to Susie, and several days later received an enthusiastic reply:I was so pleased to receive your letter today! How well I know how books, at any time in one’s life, but especially when we’re young, and so open to all things, can be a tremendous influence on our lives. How wonderful that Jean & Company did that for you. I have so many, many things that I could tell you about my grandmother…. As soon as I finished reading your letter this morning, I called my cousins Martha and Pat and read it to them. [They] immediately asked me to send a copy of your letter, and asked that I give you their email address.
Over the course of the next weeks our correspondence deepened. The most startling discovery was that Jean was actually two girls: Helen’s daughters Jeanne and Polly. Susie was Jeanne’s daughter, and Martha and Pat were Polly’s. Susie sent me an unpublished family history, recounting Jeanne and Polly’s first trip to Europe with their mother in 1932-1933. The basic ingredients of Jean & Company were there, including the convent school, but Jeanne and Polly were twelve and eleven years old, not the teenaged Jean of the book.
Further discoveries revealed additional license Helen took in writing Jean & Company. I followed up on a clue I had shamefully neglected from the Preface: “With grateful acknowledgment to the American Girl magazine, in whose pages most of these chapters were first published.” American Girl was, from 1920 to 1979, the magazine of the Girl Scouts. The Milwaukee Public Library, a short distance from where I live, has a superb archive of magazines, so there I went and asked for all the issues of American Girl from the 1930s. Going issue by issue (American Girl was never indexed in the Readers’ Guide) I found eleven of the sixteen chapters of Jean & Company in nascent form. What was most surprising was that the girl is named Sue, and there is no mention of the girls from the boarding school forming a club, which in the book provides the narrative framework. One of the most appealing aspects of Jean & Company – the “Company” – turned out to be an invention.
The dismay of this discovery, however, was soon countered by a message that popped up in my inbox: “Please Come Visit Us!” Martha and Pat wrote that Susie was coming for her annual summer visit to New Jersey. The invitation promised “lots of family photos, letters, genealogy, diaries, etc.,” as well as day trips to Newark and Trenton where Helen had worked in museums. Who could resist?
What follows is a biography of Helen Perry Curtis, a woman very much of her times. She was shaped by the Progressive Era in which she came of age, participating in its currents of social reform: higher education for women, the settlement house, and women’s suffrage. She was acquainted, either directly or at one degree of remove, with significant figures in the reform milieu: Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, John Cotton Dana, John Dewey, Frederic Howe. She lived in a time of dramatic, disruptive change, and experienced tragedy. Her life intersected both World Wars; twice she volunteered in support of war-relief work, including going to France in 1918 to work in a YMCA canteen. She was an advocate for progressive childrearing. Her interest in the arts drew her into the orbit of avant-garde figures and movements of the time. Helen excelled in the art of befriending influential people, not in a cynical or self-serving way, valuable though these connections proved to be, but because she found such people to be accomplished and interesting. She enjoyed advantages of birth and education – especially education – but it was the ends to which she turned those advantages that make her life so compelling.
Helen’s story is equally that of a woman ahead of her times. Decades before the terms “gig economy” and “networking” entered the lexicon, she repeatedly adapted, reinvented, and reasserted herself. She began her museum career as a contract worker. She worked in turn as a curator and museum director, an interior decorator, a freelance writer, tour guide, director of non-profit organizations, and owner of a small business. The backstory of Jean & Company, Unlimited is that of a woman writing her way, story by story, chapter by chapter, across Europe, supporting her family while so doing.
While she embraced challenge and change, Helen exhibited stability and strength of character. In times of profound change, she recognized when it was time to let go. She had the sense of an ending: when her time of European travel was over, or when a long marriage had reached its end. Helen adopted the wisdom of her friend, the writer and activist Sidonie Gruenberg: “Women have to choose not once, but many times, and at each stage of life, with the same degree of uncertainty.”
This account of Helen’s life is told through the prism of her love of Europe and European travel. It is also, in part, the story of my search for the origins of a beloved childhood book. That search reveals the ways in which Helen drew on the experiences of a lifetime to craft the story of an American girl’s first encounter with Europe.