Meet Marie

There were other romances for Melville Jacoby before he and Annalee Whitmore escaped the Philippines as newlyweds. This shouldn't surprise most of you. Many have remarked about Mel's good looks, and photos of him certainly seem to excite the Tumblr set. Saying Mel was dashing might be superficial, but it's no less true. Of course, it's tough not to allow our contemporary nostalgia for all things vintage to enhance Mel's charm. Nevertheless, he was handsome.

Though Annalee was the woman who finally won Mel's heart, others came first. After a visit to Hong Kong in early 1937, for example, Mel wrote about a date "with two girls Sunday night one of them was a more modern Chinese girl." Mel proceeded to remark how Hong Kong girls were more modern than those around his college in Lingnan; then he bragged about swimming at the Lido twice, including "Once at one A.M. in the moonlight." Modernity indeed.

But Mel had more than dates. Two women stand out in particular: Marie (Seen above) and Shirlee (a college sweetheart who I'll introduce in another post).

Marie was the daughter of a wealthy Portuguese colonist who had many Chinese wives. Mel first met her on a holiday vacation during his year at Lingnan University. He'd befriended a man named Carlos at a pilot school in Hong Kong. Carlos, in turn, invited Mel and some other exchange students for what Mel describes in one letter as a "big four day party."

In those four days, Mel met Carlos's 18 sisters. Among them was Marie. Over the ensuing months and weeks, Mel's letters evolve from mentions of a "very nice looking friend" who telegrams Mel to visit Macau for the weekend, to references to his "girlfriend." The exchanges ensue as Mel accepts more invitations to Macau, though some are also from his friend Carlos, who he admires very much.

"Did so and again was the victim of hospitality, one or two parties and such," he wrote to his parents(I continue to be struck by his candor in his correspondence with them). "Arrived on campus at six a.m. and read your letters in my seven o'clock class."

It certainly is a unique relationship. Though Mel gladly visits, their dates must be chaperoned. And chaperoned they are ... by all seven of Marie's "mothers." Each of the wives of Marie's father accompany the couple on their dates.

None of this dissuades Mel, and by the time his exchange program wraps up in June, 1937, he considers bringing Marie with him back to the United States. But in his description of his decision not to do so we see a troubling hint at the casual prejudices of Mel's era, prejudices that Mel himself can't escape.

"Had lots of fun taking her out spending money and everything," Mel writes to his mother and stepfather. "Thought about taking her home and putting her in pictures but decided stepping off the gangplank in U.S. with her on my arm might cause considerable consternation among my closest relatives."

It's too bad to realize that Mel's relatives -- my relatives -- might be so troubled by the thought of Mel becoming serious with a half-Chinese woman, and it's even more troubling that Mel himself succumbed to such concerns. Sadly, such hesitations were not isolated to Mel or his family but were a reality of their era.

But even that sentiment is my interpretation of a small part of Mel's correspondence, much of which reveals a growing infatuation with Marie. In future posts and in the book itself, I hope to offer more about Marie (indeed, I have one special treat planned). I'll also, of course, introduce Shirlee as well. If you don't want to miss these or other posts, please subscribe to email updates or this blog's RSS feeds if you haven't already.

For now I"ll leave you with the note Marie left for Mel the day he left after his exchange program.