Ted Mathys in the Stacks: Sang Froid and the World’s Fair

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the fourth in a series; see below for previous entries. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

It’s hard, living in St. Louis, to not feel the historical pull of the year 1904. It marked our city’s coming out party. During that single summer, St. Louis played host to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, as well as the 1904 Olympics and the 1904 Democratic National Convention.

Today, the World’s Fair legacy is everywhere. Most palpably it is felt in Forest Park, the site of the Fair. Twice as large as Central Park in New York, and four times the size of Grant Park in Chicago, the park accommodated 20 million people at the Fair during 1904. The fountains and grounds where the Fair was held are now the site of the St. Louis Art Museum. In the park there’s also the Missouri History Museum, which has a permanent exhibit about the Fair, as well as the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center, the World’s Fair Pavilion, restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, ball fields, horse stables, an ice skating rink, and gobs of geese.

ArtHillCollage

But the legacy of the Fair also indexes aspects of St. Louis identity. Like, we here in St. Louis were once the center of the world, and now we’re not sure what we are, but damn, look at those amazing trees and serpentine gravel paths and fountains and architecture. If you look in the right direction, doesn’t it just feel like Paris? The Exposition was also largely a celebration of conquest and racial exceptionalism, issues that haunt the city today. The Fair came in the wake of the Spanish-American war in which the U.S. had acquired new territories in Puerto Rico, Guam, and elsewhere. People from these areas, as well as Native Americans and indigenous peoples from the Philippines where literally put on display at the Fair. Finally, the Fair lives on in kitsch. For example, there’s an amazing little hole-in-the-wall donut shop that I visit at the end of each semester to get donuts for my students to bribe them into thinking I’m a good teacher. It’s called World’s Fair Donuts. The address is, appropriately, 1904 Vandeventer Avenue. And yes, of course, there’s Judy Garland as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis, which takes place in the lead up to the World’s Fair, and has given us standards like the “Trolley Song.”

The Internet also tells me I can now buy an incredible Judy Garland doll donning her trolley dress.

JudyGarland

But, as with Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and toasted ravioli and slimy provel cheese on St. Louis cracker crust pizza, I’m never sure if I’m supposed to be proud of the Fair. Turns out this is nothing new. It’s a question about St. Louis’ identity as a provincial city or a national city, an outpost or a center. And it’s further a question about citizen humility vs. citizen self-regard and ambition. This is what Reedy wrestled with in The Mirror during 1904.

In the New Years Eve issue in 1903, Reedy pontificates on the coming year. Writing about the Fair, he wonders about the city’s residents’ flatlining enthusiasm: “What shall we say of it that shall avoid the mere hyperbole of patriotic booming? It will be the greatest Exposition of all history: that is vague. There have been already expended upon it $30,000,000….[But] to us here in St. Louis, perhaps the Fair doesn’t wear its true proportions.” Reedy feels that despite its magnificence, the locals have been working for so long to land the Fair, raising money for the Fair, preparing for the Fair, and thinking about the Fair, that they’ve forgotten that St. Louis is about to do something of global significance. He mocks how St. Louisans think of the local leaders who helped secure and bankroll the events as just guys down the street: “Dave Francis is a big man? Pshaw! We see him every day. We even take a drink with him. We don’t see any halo around him. He’s much the same sort of man he was when we knew him only as a citizen. He a man of genius? Go on! He’s only a slob of a St. Louisan like the rest of us.” For Reedy, this line of thinking is the problem. “That’s the essential slobbiness of sentiment that has kept the St. Louisan of worth always in the slob class – in his own town.” Reedy wants his city to act like a world city, to have some self-regard.

As the Fair approaches, Reedy ramps up his boosterism. “The Fair opening is only four months away,” he writes. “The old town isn’t in the least excited.” Having struck out in his attempts to whip up excitement, he then tries an about face, half satirically and half earnestly suggesting that St. Louisans aren’t excited precisely because they are not provincial bumpkins but mature cosmopolitans: “We are only acting as cosmopolitans. This is a big city and the World’s Fair isn’t anything more than an unusually large and pretty bazaar or picnic held in an outlying wood…We are not like Kansas City, that turns out en masse to a flower show or a horse show or a cattle show. St. Louis is Cosmopolis. It has all the sang froid of Cosmopolis. It has acquired an “imperturbable aplomb.’…As was written of India, so of us it shall be said: “She heard the legions thunder past, then turned to dream again.”

By February he’s grumpy. He’s worried that construction on a new railway terminal to transport people to the Fair is behind schedule. He uses the fair to highlight corruption again, this time focusing on how “Lindell avenue, the main boulevard to the World’s Fair, is to be paved with bituminous macadam. Now bituminous macadam in St. Louis is a rank monopoly….But Lindell Avenue had to be paved for the Fair, and the Board of Public Improvement would have nothing but the Warren Brothers’ material, and “there you are.”” And he inveighs against local barbers who are preparing for the coming influx of visitors by jacking up prices: “Barbers about the St. Louis Union Station will make whiskers popular with World’s Fair visitors, if they keep up the present rates of $2 per have and $6.25 for a hair cut…The robbery of visitors to the Fair should be punished as severely as the laws permit.”

But by early April he’s excited, as is everyone else, and his pride is palpable. His reflection on April 28th, right before the opening, reads in its entirety: “Even the mighty Mississippi rises thirty-five feet above its banks to do honor to greatest World’s Fair in history.”

Reedy writes on the Fair throughout the rest of the year, though he seems more interested in and writes more frequently about the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis and the meatpacking strikes in Chicago that would be later immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. About the Fair, he’s consistently celebratory, working to convince the locals that what they’ve done is great. He pillories national and international newspapers that have attacked the Fair for early sluggish attendance and for the “recklessness with which the critics set about to knock the city.” By the time the Fair attendance turns the corner and the year winds down, Reedy seems sure that the Fair will go down in history, and he’s right. In the end his verdict is: “World’s Fair a Winner.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ted Mathys in the Stacks: A Streetcar Named Riot

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the third in a series; see below for previous entries. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

At the corner of Washington Avenue and North Broadway, four blocks from where I now sit in the St. Louis Public Library, 116 years ago, on Sunday, June 10th, 1900, William Reedy was huddled in the barracks of a posse of men wielding shotguns. The citizen brigade was made up of over 2,000 members of St. Louis upper crust society – lawyers, bankers, businessmen, vestrymen from churches – who’d been tapped by the Sheriff to restore order to a city wracked by a streetcar strike gone haywire. The police had proven ineffectual, and the posse wanted their businesses to get running again. Reedy was not in the posse. He was there, of course, to get the scoop.

Posse

Outside, a parade of striking union families and sympathizers were returning home after a picnic. They’d been on strike for a month, in protest of long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions. They had the backing of much of the citizenry. They were livid at the scabs who had taken their places. And they’d done everything imaginable to stop the cars – like rolling huge boulders and trash onto the tracks. Businesses were at a standstill. Fights were on the rise.

The parade wended past the posse barracks and, Reedy writes, the strikers “jeered the posse guard in front of the barracks. They attempted to pull a [scab] conductor off a car that was passing. Several of them resisted attempts to arrest them.” And then “A shot was fired, stones were thrown. Then the posse began pumping buckshot at the strikers.” Reedy was astounded at the bloodlust among his fellow society gents in the posse: “The scene in the barracks was thrilling,” he wrote four days later in the Mirror. “When the first shot was fired, the writer of this article realized, for the first time, that ‘the hunting of men is the greatest game sport in the world.’ The way the posse rushed to its guns, the sharp, metallic, clattering chorus of the filling magazines, the dash for the street of those already armed, and the evident impatience of those who were held back to fall in line, showed that the posse men were more than half glad ‘the music had begun.’”

Stone

The posse killed 3 strikers that day, wounded others, and dragged some strikers inside their barracks. The strikers “were not criminals,” Reedy wrote. “Many of them had families that might starve as a result of the strike. But when the prisoners were searched, a dozen revolvers, many wire cutters and brass “knucks” were found in their pockets.” Armed but innocent. The three dead strikers became for Reedy “a ghastly testimony to the fatuity of their leaders and the lack of foresight upon the part of the Mayor and the police in permitting a parade past the posse barracks.”

How had it come to this? Just one month before, as the strike began, Reedy had written a cheeky “Reflection” in the Mirror in which he surmised that spring strikes, here and elsewhere, were psychological and physiological evidence of spring fever! His deeper point in the piece was that “…unfounded strikes injure the case of Labor…The strike to dictate how the employer shall manage his own business is the strike that fails, and the strike that fails hurts every laboring man.” But Reedy gets carried away with the idea that spring literally causes strikes: “The influence of the sun and air and the burgeoning earth, these days, is not conducive to work. The halcyon time is the time for resting, and the vernal lassitude steals over the man with the hoe, or the man in the shop as much as it does over the man in the office, who begins to hear the ripple of fishing waters…” He lobs one at Whitman, saying that men in spring just want a good loaf. Spring is when “men generally have a tendency to sympathize with themselves. That’s why, as you notice, spring poetry is touched with sadness…The season softens men. It seems especially to soften their brains. So that we have strong reasons for suspecting that the strike is a symptom of the same lunacy which beholds the rarer iris on the neck of the dove and makes the young man’s fancy ‘turn to thoughts of love.’” Spring calls up some “long gone sense of freedom…Boys now begin to play truant. Older boys would go on strike.”

So what changed for Reedy between May (spring fever) and June (horror)? It wasn’t just witnessing the posse’s violence; as a young newspaperman, one of Reedy’s beats had been covering public hangings. No, it was that by mid-summer he had started to put together the political antecedents of the strike, to follow the money. In a feat of proto-muckraking, he untangled a huge string of corruption in Missouri politics. His spread on the corruption was published in the same issue as the posse anecdote and was subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet that went viral across the country, selling out multiple print runs. It reads like something right out of House of Cards:

House of Cards

Episode 1: Until 1899, there are ten independent streetcar companies in St. Louis, transporting rich and poor alike throughout the fourth largest city in America. Then, with the backing of the state legislature and the Democratic Party, a man named Edwards Whitaker moves to consolidate the streetcar lines into a syndicate called the St. Louis Transit Company.

Episode 2: The Transit Company treats workers like dogs. The workers threaten to unionize. We learn in flashback that out in bucolic Jefferson City, the state capital, the Democratic governor of Missouri, who ran on a platform of cleaning up and rooting out syndicates and trusts, has accepted a $50,000 bribe in return for getting behind the legislation that would allow Whitaker’s St. Louis streetcar monopoly to go forward.

Episode 3: Back in St. Louis, local publisher Billy Reedy, gamboling down Washington Avenue, greets merchants and street boys, mocking Whitaker’s new power: “Mr. Whitaker now rules supreme, and wields the scepter. Ave Caesar, be merciful to your helpless vassals!”

Episode 4: We’re introduced to a powerful Democratic Party gentlemen’s club called the Jefferson Club. The president of the club is a party operative named Harry Hawes, who is pals with the slimy Governor. Hawes and his Club are facing a primary election season and need a lot of manpower to help win their candidates’ campaigns.

Episode 5: Reedy’s Mirror: A Weekly Journal Reflecting the Interests of Thinking People hits the stands, predicting an imminent streetcar strike. In retaliation for increasing union activity, Whitaker’s St. Louis Transit Company has begun to arbitrarily fire conductors and replace them. “There are so many new drivers,” Reedy writes, “that wrecks with other vehicles and horses is way up…The syndicate…has a death grip on the community.”

Episode 6: The union votes to strike. Whitaker replaces every streetcar worker with a scab. Riots break out, with violence on all sides – fights, property destruction, attempted lynching, gunfire, women stripped naked and painted green. But the police are weirdly absent, ineffectual.

Episode 7. Episode set in pre-Civil War St. Louis. In the lead up to the War, sentiment in the northern leaning city is at odds with pro-Confederate minds in rural Missouri and in the state capital. State leaders, fearing that the St. Louis Police force will turn on them, take control of the St. Louis police, putting the city’s police under state control, an odd arrangement that will last 152 years, until 2013 when Mayor Slay signs an executive order to bring the force back under local control.

Episode 8: Back to 1900. Reedy learns that the bill that the bribed Democratic governor signed allowing the streetcar monopoly to go forward was attached to another scheme in which, unbelievably, the St. Louis Police management has been handed over to the Governor’s friend Harry Hawes, president of the Jefferson Club. Hawes then literally pulls the St. Louis police off the streets and withdraws officers from streetcar trolleys during the strike in order to work on Democratic party primary campaigns for his Jefferson Club.

Episode 9: Citizens in St. Louis are desperate. People ask the Governor to send in a state militia to restore order after the police force leaves to work on campaigns. The Governor refuses, punishing the city and its newspapers for treating him so harshly in his own recent campaign.

Episode 10: The strike’s economic toll has now filtered down to the Mirror. “The strike has simply paralyzed the great retail dry goods stores,” Reedy writes. “The patrons cannot get down town. These great stores have stopped advertising. That cuts off the newspaper revenue. It cuts THE MIRROR pretty deeply each week.”

Episode 11: The posse is formed. Things get ugly.

Episode 12: A federal court passes an injunction requiring the streetcar lines to start up again, in the name of ensuring that the U.S. mail can travel on the streetcar lines. “The people of St. Louis have seen too much rioting, have seen too many cars smashed, too many innocent people killed and maimed,” Reedy writes. “The Federal Court injunction has put a stop to the obstruction of traffic and the displays of disorder.”

Episode 13: In a private club called The Noonday Club at the top of a downtown skyscraper, Reedy returns to his private luncheon group with some powerful men. In a twist, we learn that one of them is Harry Hawes, the Democratic party operative who pulled the police from their jobs. Another is James Campbell, a man worth $60 million who also helps bankroll the Mirror. Reedy has been playing all sides or has been played by all sides.

Episode 14 (Finale): The strike wears on until finally petering out in September, leaving 14 dead, hundreds injured, and the city in shambles. At the Noonday Club, the conversation turns to the bankruptcy of the two party system, the rampant corruption that precipitated the strike, and the need to fix it if the city is going to land the deal for the upcoming World’s Fair. Reedy wants a third party to get into politics. Campbell instead decides to buy up both parties, pay for everybody’s campaigns, and demand the right to choose the slates. This appeals to Reedy’s love of the absurd. It happens. The strike is over, and the municipal reform movement is born out of bribery.

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Ted Mathys in the Stacks: On Cyclones and Call Outs

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the second in a series. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

There’s a myth that admissions officers at elite colleges have so many applications by equally qualified megastudents – those valedictorians who have 1500s on their SATs, are captain of the school squash team, serve as president of the debate club, spent 3 summers doing service work in Guatemala, and moonlight as cartoonists – that they just throw the stack of applications down the stairwell and see which ones land face up.

This past week I’ve felt a bit like one of those admissions officers, staring down 25 years of Reedy’s Mirror with 52 issues per year. The Special Collections librarians have advised me against throwing the archive down the stairwell, so instead I’ve decided to pluck ten key events in Saint Louis history from the period and see how Reedy handled them. They are:

  1. The infamous 1896 St. Louis tornado.
  2. The 1896 Republican National Convention in St. Louis.
  3. The St. Louis streetcar strike in 1900.
  4. The 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park.
  5. The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
  6. Construction of the St. Louis Coliseum, site of the Veiled Prophet Parade, in 1908.
  7. The 1914 publication of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology in Reedy’s Mirror.
  8. The 1914 founding of the NAACP Missouri Chapter in St. Louis.
  9. The 1916 battle over a proposed segregation ordinance.
  10. The 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

These ten events, then, will help me wade into Reedy’s process of, as his biographer put it, “bringing life and letters into phase with one another.” Starting with The Great Cyclone of 1896.

Tornado1

At 5:00 p.m. on May 27, 1896, a super twister made a direct hit on Saint Louis. In just 20 minutes the tornado killed 255 people, damaged almost 10,000 buildings and structures, and decimated Lafayette Park. It remains the single deadliest incident in St. Louis history.

TornadoPath

Reedy’s Mirror was set to go to press the following morning. I imagine him up late at night, scrambling to reorganize the issue’s text and to write something appropriate. The issue did appear on schedule, and Reedy’s “Reflection” on the tornado begins with a thunderous statement: “This city awakes to-day, after a night of suspense, to but a dim realization of one of the most colossal calamities that ever befell an American metropolis.” The reflection maintains a sober tone, personifies Death, and calls the storm a “visitation” whose “majestic horrors” will only be appreciated over time and by degrees. Reedy tries to find purpose and meaning in the event, and writes that “there was one thing about the storm that those who have passed through it remember with a certain increased pride in humanity. During its fiercest moments no one thought of himself. Affection for others was stronger than personal fear.” I believe that Reedy believed this.

In subsequent issues, the cyclone starts to morph into a platform for Reedy to do what he does best: call out selfish members of genteel society who haven’t donated to the relief fund, and dream up cyclone metaphors to address politics, slam the newspapers, and make people laugh. He would have excelled on Facebook.

In June, he lambastes the national newspapers for sensationalizing the event, inflating the death toll, and padding their stories with “sloppy ‘fine writin.’” He then starts in on the Mayor, who had declared that St. Louis needed no outside aid for cyclone recovery efforts. Reedy points out that in their pride, the politicians and wealthy people are throwing the poor people under the bus: “The big factories will rise again. The fine homes will be rebuilt. The man whose house, that he had not yet paid for, is splintered and shattered into debris that cannot be rebuilt.” So, “Let the gentlemen who have told the outside world that we want no help ask the people whose homes were swept away for their opinion on that proud pronunciamento.”

Tornado2

Then Reedy gets weird. In one reflection he tries to wrap his head around Malthus’ en vogue theories on the dangers of overpopulation, and argues that “Wars, at least bloody wars, are a thing of the past. Pestilences are becoming rarer and rarer and diseases, necessarily fatal a score of years ago, are now regarded as little worse than a bad cold. But there have been killed by natural forces in the last three months more people than have been slain in battle for thirty years. Cyclones, tornadoes, floods, come upon the world and in a mere pang of fear thousands of peasants lose their lives.” I can’t tell if he’s being satirical, but he basically argues that the population question is a non-issue because for all societies in all times, natural disasters will wipe out enough people.

Reedy then plays punching bag with one newspaper, The Chronicle, which has proposed a new tax on corporations to repair city institutions. “By all means,” he writes, “Tax them to death. Tax their profits until they dwindle to losses… The rich are all criminals… They bribed the cyclone to pass them by and devastate the poor man.” Then the characteristic swift pivot: “The rich have no rights. They are Enemies of Society. The Chronicle is right. It is the Friend of the People. It is a rich corporation.” Boom. The reader can feel Reedy’s delight as he turns the Chronicle’s boneheaded oversight against them.

Finally, he’s gotta have his jokes: “I direct the attention of the dog-catchers to the cyclone humorist… I object to the cheerful lunatics who say that St. Louis is a solid city and can always raise the wind. I loathe the fellow who says in response to this that the wind razed us right back. Who does not abhor the meteorologist in motley who accounts for the disaster by saying that the cyclone was due to our having recently, by our vast progress, taken the wind out of Chicago’s sails? It is weariness to the flesh to listen to the narrow-gauge infidel who points out that the churches suffered more by the storm than the breweries and saloons because the latter were better able to beer the pressure of the elements.”

 

 

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Ted Mathys in the Stacks: Hall of Mirrors

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the first in a series. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

For my residency at the Saint Louis Public Library, I’ll be digging into the Special Collection archives of William Marion Reedy. Reedy was the so-called “literary boss of the Middle West” and founder and editor of Reedy’s Mirror, a prominent St. Louis-based literature, politics, and social gossip magazine that seems to have all but disappeared from literary memory. But during its run from 1891 to 1920, Reedy’s magazine peaked with a larger national distribution than either Atlantic Monthly or The Nation. The library has the full run of the magazine, as well as Reedy’s private library.

I spent my first few visits with early issues of Reedy’s magazine, and was reminded of a particular hall of mirrors:

kane

There’s a famous scene late in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in which Kane, having blown his newspaper empire and been dumped by his second wife, is alone with his monkeys and Roman statues and servants in his absurd Florida mansion, Xanadu. He paces down an ornate hallway with his snow globe in hand, and passes between opposing mirrors, which reflect him infinitely. Welles exploits this trick of camera placement and mise-en-scène to exaggerate Kane’s paradoxical nature. He’s an arrogant, entitled bully, but one who cares mostly about bullying people into loving him. He’s a political populist but only so long as he’s “popular.” He’s an irrepressible consumer who hates everything he buys. As his reflections ricochet in the distance, Kane gets simultaneously larger in number and smaller in stature. To me he’s not a flat, incoherent character; he’s about as complex as they get, knowable only as the sum of his many reflections.

I’m starting to think of William Marion Reedy as a real-life analogue of the fictional Kane. Reedy was a precocious Irish kid from the north side of Saint Louis who entered Saint Louis University, where I now teach, at the age of 14. He was a newspaperman who had grown restless with journalistic convention, so founded his own eclectic magazine. He was overweight, humorous, and enamored with European decadence, but his political views remained stubbornly conservative. He desperately wanted St. Louis to have more artistic ambition, to get out of its provincialism, and yet he had no desire to flee to the east coast cities or Chicago. He was a high society man who pilloried that set in his magazine. And he married a brothel keeper, for which nobody really forgave him. It’s hard to get a bead on Reedy, except through his raffish writing, which is consistently lucid, sly, and as engaging to read as anything I can get my hands on today.

Each issue of The Mirror begins with a section called “Reflections,” punning on the name of the magazine and giving Reedy a platform to editorialize on matters of the day. These “reflections” are short observations that read like a mash-up of prose poems, salacious police blotters, and op-eds, and taken together they give us parables of St. Louis life at the end of the 19th century. And Reedy wrote them under a bunch of pseudonyms – “Uncle Fuller,” “Marion Reed,” “F.S.R.,” and so on. The reader isn’t really fooled by the pen names because of the consistency of his tone, but the upshot is that most of the magazine is devoted to these multiple reflections by multiple versions of one writer who, like Kane, remains deliciously slippery. Here’s Reedy’s “reflection” on one local politician’s ostentatious diamond stud in an issue from April 1894:

“The most gorgeous thing in St. Louis just now is Alderman “Jim” Cronin’s diamond stud. It’s as large as the stopper of a cologne bottle on milady’s dresser. It weighs as much as a 44 calibre bullet, and it glitters and gleams like an electric light of 1,300 candle and 250 horse power. When the lights went out in the Assembly room Friday evening, the illumination from the stone enabled the members to transact business without interruption. It looked as if the Alderman had found the lost Pleiade, and stuck it in his shirt bosom. Its fulgurous refractions burned all the back hair off the head of his deadly rival, Delegate Billy O’Brien. In the daylight Mr. Cronin wears an asbestos pad between the “spark” and his shirt so that it cannot burn into his manly bosom. It broke the camera when Harry Newbold tried to photograph it. The diamond is as much a mystery as Wilkie Collins’ “Moonstone.” Every member of the House of Delegates has searched the minutes of the meetings for two months back in a vain endeavor to determine the identity of the measure voted for by the Alderman that produced this splendiferous jewel. Who will explain the secret of Cronin’s Kohinoor?”

Originally from Ohio, Ted Mathys holds an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received the John C. Schupes Fellowship for Excellence in Poetry; and an MA in international environmental policy from Tufts University. He lives in St. Louis, where he is Creative Writer in Residence at Saint Louis University and co-curates the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts Poetry Series. He is the author of three books of poetry, Null Set (2015), The Spoils (2009) and Forge (2005), all from Coffee House Press.

Ted will give a reading and presentation on Wednesday, April 20th at 7 pm, in the Carnegie Room of the St. Louis Central Library.

 

 

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Gazing into Reedy’s Mirror with Ted Mathys

Public libraries are places where strange and idiosyncratic projects can be undertaken. The projects go on every day here at Central Library — epic screenplays, syntheses of Marvel Comics and ancient mythology, wild theories on the nature of space-time, you name it — and it has been one of my greatest pleasures as a library professional to help guide these projects on their way.

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The library as a creative space; a space to play around in; a lab in which to re-animate, appropriate, and mix up the materials of the past. To give old words life in a new context.

I hope this is what the good people of Coffee House Press, from the good state of Minnesota, had in mind when they devised their In the Stacks residencies, part of their larger Books in Action initiative. They were also looking for a way to give their writers shelter and inspiration, I imagine. It seems to have gone well so far, with participants staking out institutions as diverse as the American Swedish Institute, Poets House in New York, and the LGBT Quatrefoil Library on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

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With this program, Coffee House Press aims to create a body of work that will inspire a broader public to engage with their local libraries in a new and meaningful way, and to encourage artists and the general public to think about libraries as creative spaces.

 

Enter Ted Mathys

He was here before we became friends, I think. Bent in concentration at one of our reading room tables, or making a request for a poetry volume from the stacks. I remember being a little intimidated, the sleek dome, the serious glasses.

If we were going to have a poet in residence at this library, it made sense to have Ted, as he was already part of the daily life of the building, an admirer of it and a curious explorer of all it held. And his three books — Null Set, The Spoils, and Forge — were all published by Coffee House, so it came together pretty logically.

pic-tmathys

Mr. Reedy and His Mirror

I’m going to quote Ted’s description of Reedy and how The Mirror made him a cultural authority not just in St. Louis but around the Midwest around the turn of the last century:

“From 1891 to 1920 the so called ‘Literary Boss of the Midwest,’ William Marion Reedy, ran a literature, politics, and social gossip magazine out of St. Louis called The Mirror that at the time rivaled Harriet Monroe’s Poetry in Chicago and had a larger national distribution than either Atlantic Monthly or The Nation. He first published Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology anonymously in the magazine, as well as people like Carl Sandberg, Sara Teasdale, Pound, Theodore Dreiser, etc. and was a prominent literary critic. He was overweight, eccentric, and powerful in the community. The Special Collections has both Reedy’s personal library as well as the full run of Reedy’s Mirror magazine from the period, and the issues have these gorgeous covers and have not really ever been explored. I hope to produce a long poem or creative essay or hybrid out of exploring the Reedy collection.”

D14762[1]

I just finished a wonderful novel called The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay (forthcoming in May from Melville House). It brought together the stories of three Venices: the modern-day Venice reconstructed in Las Vegas, Venice Beach CA in the 1950s, and Venice Italy of the late 16th century, when mirror technology was only starting to come into its own. The three strands of the novel are all connected by a mysterious volume of alchemistic poetry called The Mirror Thief.

So this idea of The Mirror is interesting to me right now: what Ted will find in it, what it will reflect back of St. Louis when it was published, and the St. Louis of today. I think Ted is going to put together some truly fascinating creative work based on this archive, which is held in Special Collections here at Central Library. This blog will also be publishing Ted’s blog updates about his residency.

He may be somewhere upstairs, even as I write this. Going through the old volumes, making notes. Undertaking some poetic thievery.

Ted Mathys will be doing a public presentation on Wednesday, April 20th at 7 pm, in the beautiful Carnegie Room at Central Library. He will also be sitting in with the STL Scribblers group for our April meeting on Monday, April 4 at 7 pm. If you have any questions about these events, don’t hesitate to contact Eric Lundgren at elundgren@slpl.org.

 

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Honored Ghost: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” by Monica Groth Farrar

One of the most frequent questions asked about this year’s Ghost Story Contest was, “does it have to be scary?” The answer was no–it just had to be under 1000 words and have a ghost in it. As it turns out, our grand prize winner took a very unconventional approach to the genre, deploying wit and lightness instead of gloom and chills (although there is some nudity). It’s a great pleasure to publish this year’s first-place ghost story, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” — the photograph is also by the author, Monica Groth Farrar.

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Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain

I met Willie Nelson’s ghost while sitting on the toilet, reading People. Well, reading
might be wrong. I was looking at the photos of the young ladies—red-carpet champions, all of them—in their fancy dresses. I didn’t recognize any of them except for the one from the Harry Potter movies who went to college out east and good for her for getting an education, although what she ever did with her degree, who knew. They never told you that part, just that she was going. Still, she probably didn’t have any student loans to contend with, so why not? Let the girl explore.

I hated to see her looking so uncomfortable in her dress, an asymmetrical little number
with mesh. She had a frown on her face like she was wondering if she was so smart, how come her feet hurt so bad? Why all the girls had to wear such pointy-toed shoes I couldn’t fathom. Take care of your feet, girls. Take care! Then again the starlets probably had access to the best podiatrists in L.A. so why should I worry? Wear what you want, girls. As long as it was they who wanted and not some stylist wearing Dr. Scholl’s and comfy sweatpants making decisions they had to suffer the consequences for.

“Hermione! You’ve got an Ivy League degree and royalties out the wazoo—why the
long face? You’ll get marionette lines if you don’t watch it,” I was thinking when Willie
Nelson’s ghost stepped out of the shower.

His bandana was dripping and his old man privates were no more than an arm’s length
away from me sitting there on the toilet in my bra with my undies around my ankles. Just my luck! This was how I met a celebrity—sitting on the pot without my teeth even getting brushed yet. Eileen would never believe it.

“I didn’t know you were dead, Willie!” I said. “People’ll probably put you on their next cover. Your fans will enjoy a nice retrospective.”

“What?” my husband hollered from the kitchen. “You say something?”

“No, Len! Can’t I poop in peace?”

That man was always interrupting me in the bathroom even when the door was closed. Very needy, but there were worse problems to have in a marriage. Look at Eileen and her jackass of a husband. Mine didn’t drink. He just followed me around the house asking why I couldn’t stack the Tupperware so the lids didn’t fall out every time you opened the cabinet. A little more space would’ve been nice, but at least he wasn’t a carouser.

Willie Nelson’s ghost looked like he couldn’t speak—like his eyes had to do all his talking. It reminded me of a scene on television when one person was tied up with a gag in his mouth and someone else discovered him, but neither could speak because the kidnapper might hear them so they’re forced to communicate with nods and intense looks while they grappled with knots. That’s what it was like for me and Willie Nelson’s ghost in my bathroom. He had something he desperately needed to tell me, if he could just spit it out.

“What is it, Willie?” I whispered. “You having trouble crossing over? You stuck or something?”

Willie Nelson’s ghost eyes beamed into me hard. I felt an instant connection. I was very good at charades so he was lucky he’d wound up in my bathroom. I was fairly certain I could interpret wherever it was he needed to go.

“Close your eyes while I wipe, will you, Willie?”

I took care of my business on the pot, then grabbed my robe hanging on the back of the door. Thank goodness I’d locked it. Otherwise Len would’ve busted in asking where the decaf was or did I forget to buy some again and ruined my intimate moment assisting Willie Nelson’s ghost. Locked doors were a necessity in a marriage. Why Woman’s Day never mentioned that was a shame. Less crockpot recipes and more honest information would’ve been nice, but I wasn’t an editor, just a loyal subscriber.

As I soaped up at the sink I looked in the mirror. Talk about a horrible sensation! It was Hermione. Her tiny head with its slicked-back boy-cut and sad doe eyes didn’t look so hot on my flabby shoulders. I wanted my head back, my grays notwithstanding.

“You fall in or something?” Len hollered. “Your omelet’s almost set.”

“I’m flossing!” I lied.

Willie Nelson’s ghost looked sick to his stomach, like he really regretted dragging me into his mix-up. I have to say I was a little upset. Not that I minded trying to help a celebrity, especially one who aided farmers.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on between you and Hermione—I’m guessing it’s a shame on you,” I whispered to Willie Nelson’s ghost. “but you have got to get my head back and move on over to the other side. I’ll be married 55 years this October! You think Len’s gonna appreciate having a Hermione-head for a bed partner? No sirree.”

The fridge door slammed and Len must’ve dropped something because I heard, “Oh, shit,” and then what does Willie Nelson’s ghost do, but start mouthing Blue Eyes Crying minus any sound whatsoever! Talk about eerie. There I am, standing face-to-face with a raggedy old country star lip-syncing with his dentures out while his gray braids dripped sticky stuff all over my bathmat. There was no way I’d ever get that stuff out either. That was one bathmat that was getting pitched whether or not we could afford a new one.

I unlocked the door. Len had come around eventually after I wrecked the Oldsmobile. Even though I just about liked to die this time, I’d simply have to trust that he’d forgive me. At least he’d get a younger wife with a terrific college education. Maybe I could convince Len to hang in with me thatta way.

Monica Groth Farrar first encountered the charms of flash fiction at the Washington University Summer Writers Institute. She’s currently at work on her first novel The Big Let Go, an existential comedy about a late bloomer who finds her purpose fulfilling a great aunt’s eccentric bucket list. 

 

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Honored Ghost: W.F. Gunn’s “Owl Get You”

The STL Scribblers Ghost Story Contest received a lot of strong entries this October, but W.F. Gunn’s mischievous “Owl Get You” proved among the most popular, receiving the second-highest number of votes. It comes from a collection-in-progress entitled Ghostly Tales of Tower Grove East. We are very pleased to present the story here.

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Owl Get You

Three times Max faced death, the third time death got lucky . . . and paid the price.

Max grew up working alongside his parents on the family vineyard where he developed a kinship with spirits of all kinds. His slight limp came from a tractor rollover, his first encounter with mortality at age eleven. The second time his uncle Thomas fell over drunk into the pond and nearly drowned Max who dove in to save him then needed saving himself. That was his second run in with the reaper.

City folk came to the rolling foothills of the Ozarks in the fall of every year for harvest. Max enjoyed the city folk, even those that couldn’t hold their wine. With them he could engage in his favorite activity: listening to and talking with just about everybody about everything. When there were no humans he would commence to chatting-up critters in the surrounding hills.

Max could mimic birdcalls to a point of conversation. His favorite and longest relationship was with a Barred Owl that lived in the trees around his home, they grew up together, and Max felt, looked out for each other. Many a nights his Pa would threaten the switch if he didn’t stop their sleep disturbing back and forth of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for yall? Who?”

When Max reached twenty-one he told his parents he wanted to move to the city. His uncle Thomas had said there would be a place for him if ever he wanted it. His Ma gave him a steel owl lantern to mark the occasion, “To keep you company and remind you to be civil,” she said. His father bequeathed Max his bowler should the occasion arise for one.

His parents were certain Max would thrive anywhere, even in the wilds of the city. His uncle Thomas, faced with a booming post prohibition business, believed his nephew’s decision providential. Before long Max was slinging drinks at the Tick Tock Tavern in the Tower Grove East neighborhood of south St. Louis. He kept that owl his Ma gave him on a shelf across from the bar where he could see it. On afternoons before the regulars arrived and nights after closing he would taunt the mute bird urging it to answer, “WHO?”

First day on the job and every day there after Max wore his father’s bowler and grew a thick, black handlebar mustache over his ever-present, pudgy smile, just like his father. His time at the Tick Tock, among hundreds of friends that flowed in and out like the tide, was, Max thought, as close to heaven as he’d likely get. Max became guardian of the Tick Tock and of the neighbourhood, he was by all accounts a civil man.

It was Tuesday, the slowest night of the week as evidenced by the last customer saying goodnight. Uncle Thomas had gone home and Max figured a quick dispatching of his duties would get him to his room for a radio show and a ham on rye. Max hooted at his steel owl, “Who cooks for you!” Then, just as the clock on the bar struck midnight the door burst open.

In came a breathless woman Max recognized from the neighborhood scared out of her wits running away from the door screaming, “He’s coming! Please! Help, me!” Then the door slammed open again. A stranger came into the Tick Tock. Max looked away from the woman at an enormous dark visage nearly blotting out the room.

Evil came from it in waves. Max still behind the bar turned to the woman now struck silent with terror, pointed and said, “The toilet is that way Miss. Go in and lock it.”

Max was not a tall man by any measure, but he carried his powerful frame like a wrestler as he moved to come around from behind the bar. The monster looked down at him and snarled. Dark embers flared in its eyes. Max kept moving and in a steely voice said, “We are closed Mr.” A deep, menacing growl came from the behemoth. “Rudeness is an act of fear my friend,” Max said in a steady voice, “you are safe here, as long as you’re civil.”

The beast mimicked Max’s movements toward the woman frozen where she stood. Max considered the creature far from civil and on his way to meet his tough customer up close. He reached beneath the bar for the nightstick his uncle Thomas kept there. In a swift maneuver Max moved to the woman, gently pushed her toward the toilet, then turned to do what he must in the name of civility.

The beast focused on him him and was about to pounce when it was startled by the shrill question coming from behind it. “Who cooks for you!” The distraction was enough, without hesitation, much to the monster’s dismay, Max attacked.

The woman, feet braced against the toilet, back against the door, felt the pressure of the battle between good and evil vibrate on her spine, the horror of the struggle punctuated by howling and screeching and the furious flapping of metal wings. Palms pressed hard against her ears her screams became the maelstrom’s chorus.

Max’s uncle Thomas arrived the next morning. Concern swept over him when he went to put the key in the door and found it open. He peered in. Nothing was disturbed except for a few lights left on that should not have been. The faint sound of sobbing drew him to the ladies room where he found the woman.

Max was never found or heard from again. His uncle Thomas, devastated by Max’s disappearance and the incomprehensible story gotten from the woman, keeps Max’s owl on the mantle across from the bar where it sits in silent vigil. Outside, above the door hangs a portrait of Max, a reminder to all who enter dear Tower Grove East to — be civil.

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