Celebrating Labor History: Who Built History?

Visiting the cats, 1963: left to right: Carey Couse, Laura Frank, and author. Photograph by Joseph L. Frank.

THE GATES OF my historical imagination, though, had swung wide open. I had started out vaguely curious about who’d built my stone cats, and found out more than I’d thought possible, not just about two bohemian poets and their estate on the hill, but about their two lifelong servants, and their lives together as masters and servants. My private memory had opened up into a wider narrative about class, deference, and dignity in a country built on myths of equality.

Sara Bard Field and Charles Erskine Scott Wood were wonderfully attractive people, with fascinating creative lives that splayed across the western landscape and, especially, in their later years, the Los Gatos foothills. I didn’t doubt that Erskine, especially, believed what he said about democracy, equality, and liberation; I didn’t doubt that they respected and cared about Vincent and Mary Marengo. For thirty years the two couples’ lives were intertwined at an intimate and daily level, in houses not far apart, eating the same food, looking out at a garden lovingly tended. But Sara and Erskine’s benevolent appreciation of their servants was always swimming in condescension, in paternalism, in stories they told themselves about how they were subtly but assuredly smarter, more valuable, ultimately simply better than the two working-class Italian immigrants with whom they lived.

Were Mary and Vincent their equals? Of course. They were human beings, with hopes, dreams, parents, children, and a joyous love for each other that wasn’t that different from Sara and Erskine’s. And yet, on that hillside they weren’t. All day, every day, the two poets explored their respective inner essences while Vincent and Mary picked up the mail, rooted out the weeds, washed the sheets, and shooed away unwelcome visitors. Six, sometimes seven days a week; ten, twelve, fourteen or more hours a day or more, they did what their two employers told them to do, well aware, especially during the Depression, that they were lucky to have good work. Vincent laughed at the Colonel’s jokes; Mary put on those white, painstakingly ironed uniforms every morning and had dinner on the table every night—on Sara’s table, not her own. Even the house Mary and Vincent lived in wasn’t theirs, as Mary was quick to remind her grandkids. Vincent and Mary watched patiently over the Wood and Field grandchildren, but rarely saw their own.

Are they equal in the eyes of history? My upstairs, downstairs story at The Cats was ultimately a saga of the unequal politics of history. . .
Excerpted from “Upstairs, Downstairs at the Cats,” from the book Local Girl Makes History by Dana Frank, published by City Lights. Frank’s exposé is about the bohemian poets who commissioned “The Cats,” enigmatic sculptures by Highway 17 in Los Gatos, CA, and their relationship with their Italian servants.

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