Diane Simmons’s The Courtship of Eva Eldridge: A Story of Bigamy in the Marriage-Mad Fifties explores the unusual twists and turns of one woman’s life but, in a wider sense, sheds much-needed light on the radical transformation of women in America after the Second World War.
Eva Eldridge was a young woman from rural Oregon who, like many women during the Second World War, took a job in a war industry. In Portland Eva had her first experience of freedom from the shackles of family and a small town life she often found inhibiting as she had her own income and was rewarded for her hard work with promotions and pay increases. Eva lived in an unembellished, hastily built dormitory, but her life was filled with parties and the attention of young men in uniform. During these heady years she had an active social life, a steady job, and freedom; it was a satisfying time for Eva.
But this was all over by the war’s end. The Portland shipping yards laid off female workers, and American institutions pressed women back into domestic roles. As Simmons’s subtitle suggests, America in the 1950s was “marriage-mad.” Veterans returning from the war sought jobs and wives, fueling America’s postwar economic boom. The women who had built ships, tanks, and planes were suddenly expected to raise children and cook.
Initially Eva resisted marriage and charted her own course. After an unsuccessful marriage to an alcoholic veteran, she settled in Boise, Idaho, selling cigars and cigarettes in the lobby of Boise’s finest hotel. It was here that the author first met Eva, a family friend, in 1956, and observed a life that was radically different from the lives of other women she knew. Simmons says:
I loved everything about Eva’s tiny apartment, especially its utter bareness . . . aside from her dresses and shoes and a couple of handbags hanging in the closet door, Eva had virtually nothing.
Far from living the affluent life of a ’50s housewife, Eva had few possessions: “In her doll-sized kitchen were three cups, a little teakettle, a couple of cereal bowls, three spoons . . . On the kitchen shelf was one box of Grape-Nuts and one box of tea bags.” The author, accustomed to the heavy labor of farm life, was bewitched by Eva’s freedom. There were no “leftovers that you had to think how to dress up and serve again. No stacks of pots or pans to be washed.” For young Simmons, Eva is living the dream of female freedom. Only decades later, after inheriting Eva’s letters, would Simmons fully realize the dark complexity of Eva’s freedom.
Soon after Simmons’s first visit, Eva met Vick, a new chef at the hotel restaurant. They quickly fell in love and married. Both were well beyond their twenties, marrying extremely late for the 1950s. Shortly after the wedding, Vick disappeared. After a period of bewilderment, Eva came to understand that Vick was a serial bigamist who arrived in a new city, married a woman, in some cases even fathered a child, and then abandoned his family. Eva discovered the names of Vick’s other wives, and the women corresponded with each other, leaving a gripping paper trail.
Simmons consults a professional on serial bigamists to better understand Vick’s actions. The expert, Dianne Kaminsky, explains that Vick was motivated by a mixture of narcissism and pathological idealism. Kaminsky concludes that Vick was unable to fully enter the adult roles of a husband and father: “I don’t think he could tolerate being a father and having a child. He’s the child; he’s the one that needs to be idealized. Having a baby is real life, not playing house anymore. So he splits.” Vick is unable to live up to the model of the 1950s man; instead, he plays a pathological version of that ideal.
Although Simmons investigates Vick, her prime interest is Eva who “came of age in a world turned upside down, one in which her parents’ beliefs seemed only dimly relevant.” Despite this, Eva was drawn to the dream of romance and marriage until her fantasy dramatically collapsed. Simmons suggests this is in keeping with the wider social ideals of the postwar period, where “Americans spent a great deal of imagination and energy creating fantasy . . . Everyone had to have the storybook romance and marriage; everyone needed the glowing home, where a loving husband made a lucky woman joyously happy.”
Ultimately, Eva’s wartime experience of “self-sufficiency, independence, and excitement” guided the remainder of her life. She never remarried and spent the rest of “her life in the bare little apartments that resembled the liberating dorm rooms of her youth.” She continued her quest for economic and social self-sufficiency but paid a heavy price. As Simmons explains: “As so often happens to those who break all the rules, Eva had it tough.” Despite this, Simmons never believed she was a victim: “She made her own decisions, took her own lumps, and always landed on her own two feet.”
Simmons’s well-researched, absorbing book depicts a crucial moment in America when young women were caught between two worlds—the quest for marital love and the desire for personal autonomy—and often found neither. The author had access to Eva’s letters, interviewed people who had known her, and shares an intimate, firsthand knowledge of Eva and her world. She combines her own analyses with impeccable research and a compelling prose style to craft a book that is riveting, suspenseful, and intelligent.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel, and short stories.