Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ethel White at the Hotel Jermyn, August 21, 1947

On Thursday, November 15 I read a poem at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective (NEPWC) Open Mic Night at The Vintage in Scranton, PA. As I took the stage I realized it wasn't just my first time reading at one of our Open Mic Nights, it was also the first time I had read anywhere, period, at least since my high school Speech Team days.  Of course, I have appeared on television each week for 90 seconds at a time presenting the Blog of the Week  for much of the last year, and I took part in the Bloggers Roundtable last year. I've also done some teaching (over twenty years ago!) and my current job is all about talking to strangers. So I wasn't really ill-prepared to speak in front of a group largely composed of people I already knew. 

This poem came from a lot of sources. I first read about the story of Ethel White at the Hotel Jermyn in this article on Brian Fulton's blog Pages from the Past, back when I was doing research for that blog's upcoming feature as Blog of the Week. The blog post reproduces the bizarre, almost-comical photo showing the path of Ethel White's descent, with start and stop points indicated with X's.  The Vintage (then known as The Vintage Theater) had just announced the intention of moving into its new home in the Manhattan Room at the old Hotel Jermyn, so I was fascinated to learn this admittedly horrible bit of history about our new home. I had nearly forgotten about the story until back in October when I heard Greg Russick present a poem about a man watching his life slowly drip by at the bar in the Manhattan Room. I realized the Ethel White story could make a good poem. (Whether or not I produced a "good" poem is, of course, open to discussion.)  I discussed this with Greg and two other members of the NEPWC during a break at their poetry reading at Crave in Jim Thorpe a few days later. The next day I bought a notebook at a junk store and began scribbling out this poem while waiting for my mom to complete her shopping.

I don't want to trivialize the tragedy of what happened here. Suicide is no laughing matter. I also don't want to suggest that Ethel White's death was actually a murder arranged by someone else in the story. If that question even existed, I'm sure it was asked decades ago. But recently we observed the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Very few losses of freighters are well-known, and the memory of this one stays with us in large part thanks to the song by Gordon Lightfoot. If this poem in some way helps to keep the memory of Ethel White alive, I will feel like it has succeeded as a poem.

Ethel White at the Hotel Jermyn, August 21, 1947

She stepped out of the window
and falling, she fell
(Why was she even there? 
Why did her husband bring her
from Albany to Scranton
on their way to Washington, D.C.?
Salesmen stick their feet in doors
and sleep with farmers' daughters
Why did he bring his wife with him?
Was he afraid that, left alone, she might do herself a mischief?
Was she afraid that, left alone, he might stray with some trollop?)
But he brought her with him
from Albany to Scranton
to the seventh floor of the Hotel Jermyn

She stepped out of the window
(or was she pushed?
While her husband was out
visiting some friends in another part of town
did someone, some man, or maybe a woman
come to the seventh floor
to make it look like she had jumped
make it look like suicide, not murder
make it look like on her own 
she stepped out of the window)
and falling, she fell
seven stories to the street below
(Not seven stories straight down
No, not straight down from the window to the street
Six stories straight down
or maybe five and a half
to hit something, some obstruction to her descent
a flagpole, perhaps
or an awning
where she bounced
and was tossed
in a trajectory helpfully illustrated in the paper the next day
in a broken white line outlined in black
showing her descent from the window
to the street below)
where a crowd gathered round
and her husband
returning from visiting some friends
came across the crowd and asked what was the matter
the matter that had gathered them round
the matter which had been a woman
the matter which had been his wife

She stepped out of the window
and falling, she fell
seven stories to the street below
not seven stories straight down
but seven stories nonetheless

Copyright 2012 by Harold Jenkins. All rights reserved.


zxcv0987 said...

Wow, I knew I liked your local history photography and your local history essays; now I am really liking your local history poetry. You are a good son of PA.

Cheri Sundra said...

I came across her story after I did the photo walk in Scranton…..I also thought it was suspicious that she did not go with her husband to visit friends. Women weren’t exactly “independent” back then….. Good poem!