Winter Carnival Back Then

Editor’s Note: The following is one of the staff’s favorites and comes to you from our archives. Professor Hart, a one-time Dartmouth student and professor emeritus of English literature, was one of The Review’s founding figures and remains a prodigious source of inspiration to this day. We hope you enjoy his reflections on his Carnival experiences from the late 1940s.

In the summer of 1947 I had just finished my first year at Dartmouth, and most of the girls I knew were members of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. One afternoon, I saw a girl approaching across the porch of the club. She would soon become known as the ace prom trotter around the Ivy League, her goal to get invited to every Big Weekend she possibly could. I call her an “ace” because in her own limited field of action she could be compared to Baron Manfred Von Richtofen, the “Red Baron” who, in his red Fokker tri-plane, would shoot down eighty-six enemy planes on the Western Front.

Fitzgerald before the bender of 1939.

Fitzgerald before the bender of 1939.

For each kill he had a small silver cup made with the date and place of the kill engraved on it. He was a hunter of planes. Without much small talk this weekend hunter got right to the point: “You are going to invite me to the Dartmouth Winter Carnival this year, aren’t you, Jeffrey?” I certainly wasn’t, so I banked my plane sharply to the left, pushed the stick forward and dove out of the way. “Terribly sorry. I’ve already invited someone else.”

The following February I saw her at the Winter Carnival anyway with a Dartmouth man I didn’t know. Another silver cup joined her collection.

My Class of 1951, entering in 1946, was the first class after the war to come directly from secondary schools, and a large proportion of the undergraduate body consisted of veterans. During my sophomore year I lived on the fourth floor of Wheeler Hall, along with a number of veterans. One had a small bag full of Japanese gold teeth. Years later a Marine who had fought in the Pacific told me the teeth were extracted by a rifle butt, the Japanese soldier presumably dead. Another veteran in Wheeler still had his service revolver and liked to shoot beer cans off a waste basket when he was drunk.

The College then had strict parietal rules: when a woman was in the room, the door had to be open one foot. No women after eight PM. With so many veterans in the dorms enforcement was almost impossible, even dangerous. There was a campus cop whose Dickensian name actually was Wormwood. Wearing sneakers, he crept around the dorms trying to catch a woman in someone’s room. One night in Wheeler some veterans were waiting for him at the top of the stairwell, ready with the fire hose. When Wormwood reached the third floor they washed him back down the stairs with a cataract of water.

The Dartmouth Winter Carnival was probably the most famous Big Weekend in the Ivy League. The ice sculptures in front of the dorms and the fraternities were often brilliantly done. The Outdoor Evening in the football stadium featured expert ice skating performances, a band concert, and the presentation of the Carnival Queen, her selection mostly a matter of fraternity politics. A name band performed for the Saturday night dance. My father had been in the Dartmouth Class of 1921 and I still have a dance card he had for the Carnival dance, small green leather-bound facing pages with numbered dances and women’s names written in for each.

In 1947 there must have been downhill ski races somewhere. The Dartmouth Skiway did not exist then. But the ski jumping competition was a major event on Sunday afternoon. On Sunday morning there were milk punch parties, good for a bad hangover, and in the afternoon a big crowd turned out to watch the ski jumping at the large jump on the golf course. The ski jumping event has now been dropped, because insurance is so expensive. Also, there were a few famous accidents when drunks tried to go off the jump in baby carriages.

The presence of so many veterans after the war made Dartmouth a very different place, more serious, less distinctively “collegiate” than it had been during the 1930s, let alone the 1920s. Many of the veterans were married and lived in houses north of the campus. There were said to be Marxist study groups there, even as the Cold War got sub-zero colder.

But nevertheless and somewhat contradictorily the 1950s began to have something in common with the 1920s, and not surprisingly the great revival of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald and the 1920s began to happen. I first read Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise on the train going from White River Junction to New York. The college atmosphere of the 1920s is beautifully evoked by Francis Russell’s great essay, “Sheiks and Shebas Dance No More: The World of John Held Junior.”

It is always the autumn of 1926, the last Saturday in September or the first in October, the ivy leaves on the stadium wall crisping to scarlet, the sun still warm, the lucent air all blue and gold. . . . Over that pied and milling campus the sunshine is almost tangible. The sheiks wear Fair Isle sweaters of gaudy intricacy, checkered plus-eights with tasseled socks, or grey flannels so bell-bottomed that they completely cover the saddle-strapped shoes. Most of the sheiks are hatless and their hair, parted in the middle, is lacquered with Slickum or Staycomb to a mirror-like stiffness. The shebas have close-cropped shingled hair. Beneath their sweaters or sheath dresses there is only the vaguest convexity of breasts. Their knobby knees are topped by frilled garters. A Theta Delt is strumming “Bye Bye Blackbird” on his ukulele for a covey of shebas sitting on the library steps. They sit with legs apart, displaying the V-shaped patter of their lace panties with provocative unconcern.

Then of course came the Game:

There is not a vacant seat in the fur-lined stadium. The saxophones of the band are muted. It is that hushed moment before the two teams surge onto the empty field and the rival captains walk toward each other for the coin-toss. Any hushed moment, however, is apt to be shattered by the crash of a hip flask inadvertently dropped on the concrete.

That was during “Prohibition,” when booze was outlawed. Sure. Off the New Jersey shore ships full of booze anchored outside the three-mile limit while speedboats full of booze beat the Coast Guard boats to the beach as thousands stood watching and cheered.

College Humor, a popular magazine of the time, summed it up wittily: “College bred. A four year loaf.” It was not especially difficult to get into an Ivy League college during the 1920s and 1930s. Yale admitted about one third of those who applied. And there was always the “Gentleman C.” All of that changed after the war. The veterans were on the GI Bill, had been delayed by the war, and wanted to get on with their careers. Most college students now did not come from wealthy families, planned on serious careers; many wanted to go on to post-graduate work, and a gentleman’s C was not good enough.

The 1939 movie Winter Carnival attests to the persisting glamorous reputation of this event at the end of the 1930s. I can’t think of another college weekend that would have a similar appeal. Walter Wanger, a Dartmouth graduate, was a producer at MGM and conceived of this movie, with an improbable plot but still of interest as a period piece. Ann Sheridan plays a woman recently divorced from a count who has returned to Dartmouth where she had been a Carnival Queen. Her younger sister is vying for the title now. Now the woman picks up with a former boyfriend, who has become a stereotypically stodgy Dartmouth professor.

In 1939 F. Scott Fitzgerald was an MGM screenwriter in Hollywood. Once a famous novelist and short-story writer, Fitzgerald was now struggling to recover from alcoholism and debt and prosper in a new career. Wanger had the bright idea of sending Fitzgerald along with Budd Schulberg, a Dartmouth graduate and former editor of The Dartmouth, back to Hanover to witness a Carnival firsthand, get some color and maybe write some preliminary material. Schulberg’s father was important in the movie industry, and gave Budd a bottle of champagne for the plane trip back east.

That’s where Fitzgerald’s epic bender began as they polished off the champagne on the trip. They stayed at the old Hanover Inn, still the Hanover Inn when I was in college, and Fitzgerald first got drunk at the C and G house across the street. Things went downhill from there.

When I returned to teach at Dartmouth in the fall of 1963, Henry Williams was a professor in the English Department and remembered Fitzgerald in 1939 at a reception for him in the lounge of the Inn. He told me that Fitzgerald swayed on his feet as if uncertain of his balance, and also that no other member of the English Department showed up at the reception. He didn’t explain this, but I inferred that the rest of the Department saw Fitzgerald as little more than a washed up writer from the 1920s, a Saturday Evening Post short story hack. Well, this was the author of The Great Gatsby, an American classic, recently reissued with scholarly apparatus by the Cambridge University Press.

The 1947 Carnival Poster

The 1947 Carnival Poster

I’ve thought about this Inn reception episode. Maybe the English Department in 1939 was pretty dismal. Maybe the stodgy Professor in the Winter Carnival movie possessed some truth. I spent two undergraduate years at Dartmouth, and one reason I left was that the English Department was undistinguished, even boring; I wasn’t learning much. I didn’t know that then-President John Dickey agreed and was trying energetically to improve the faculty across the board.

Not surprisingly, Fitzgerald and Schulberg produced nothing for the movie, and were dropped from the project by Walter Wanger.

Fitzgerald was in such bad shape that he checked in at Doctors Hospital in New York before returning to Hollywood. About a year later, living with his last love Sheilah Graham, he died of a heart attack at age forty on December 21, 1940 while listening to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony on a phonograph and reading the Princeton alumni magazine. Incidentally, “Sheilah Graham” was a female Jay Gatsby. Born in England of Jewish parents, her name was Lilly Sheil. She moved to America and became a successful Hollywood gossip columnist named Sheilah Graham, which sounded English (Cf. “Gatsby’). Her memoir about Scott, Beloved Infidel, is worth reading.

In the mid 1960s Budd Schulberg visited Hanover and I had a chance to talk with him at a small dinner party. I asked him what Fitzgerald would be like if he were here with us tonight. Schulberg replied that except when drunk he was gracious, even courtly, and slightly Southern—though he had been born in St. Paul. When drunk he could be nasty. I also asked Schulberg about Hemingway. Also polite except when drunk. Then he might punch you in the face if you disagreed with him.

Note: When Hemingway was living at his Finca Vigia in Cuba several Brooklyn Dodger players visited him. They admired him. He got in an argument with a young pitcher, who was about 6’ 2” and weighed more than 200 pounds. Hemingway punched the pitcher, who then knocked him across the room and over the bar, smashing a lot of glass. Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary was not amused.

Fitzgerald had once been in awe of the boastful Hemingway, and thought Hem could beat the heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. Good thing he never tried.

This set piece to the Review‘s Winter Carnival coverage was written by Jeffrey Hart.