I feel, somehow, as if I really knew Eva, at least a little bit.
I guess you could say we ‘met’–or the possibility of our meeting blossomed–at the Granville book sale many years ago. Mark, Jim, and I went on a Sunday afternoon, when the nice volunteers at the local high school set us each up with a sturdy shopping bag. They sent us off to browse table after table of donated books–novels and fantasies, memoirs and how-tos, children’s books, biographies and histories. We separated, each to our own special interests; time slowed down as we hefted and paged and pondered.
On the biography table, I found a treasure: Harrison Kinney’s thick biography of James Thurber. Thurber had fascinated me since an enthusiastic prof presented “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” during undergrad years. I explored a bit, back then, and fell in love with Thurber dogs and the whole Thurber/EB White ethos at the New Yorker. When we moved to Ohio, I realized we were living not far from Thurber’s birthplace in Columbus, and I had the chance to visit Thurber House–heady stuff.
So I snarfed up the Kinney biography, snugging it into that sturdy bag with dozens of lesser books.
We toted our loot to the car and took it home to unpack onto waiting shelves.
But it was years before I opened the bio to do more than look at pictures. It is a dense volume, almost 1200 pages of text, and I was teaching English courses back then. My days were obligated to grading papers and reading essays, and the recreational reading I needed was light and fun and not too taxing.
We moved to Zanesville; we took our books. I chucked the teaching for a middle manager’s job–trading my summers off for zero grading. And time opened up, and I took books off the shelves and cracked them open and dived inside.
Eva showed up, first, on page 47, mentioned as the little girl from Zanesville who was Thurber’s first love. They went to the Sullivant School in Columbus together for many years; he helped her with her math and they eyed each other from their segregated sides of the play yard. Then Eva’s mother packed her up and swept her away, and the girl became a motion picture star with Essanay Studios. She worked with Francis X. Bushman; Louella Parsons took the tiny beauty under her wing. In less than ten years, Eva starred, literally, in hundreds of films. (One can still find her filmography on Imdb.com).
Imagine that! I marveled. A girl from Zanesville captured Thurber’s heart. I read how she and her mother came back, after World War I–and the film career–ended, and settled again in Zanesville; I read that Thurber took the train from Columbus to woo her. They walked, arms linked, on the moon-washed erstwhile golf course; the writer gave her his fraternity pin.
But Eva was skittish and wary and there was another man on the scene, a dark-haired younger guy named Ernie Geiger, whose black eyes flashed and who was known as one of the best young men in the town. Eva took the pin, but she told Jim–and oh, I could just tell she liked him, so much, but she was torn, was drawn to that younger flashing man–she told Jim if ever he saw her wearing it, then he’d know they were engaged.
He visited, whenever he could, taking the train down from Columbus, staying in the old Rogge Hotel, writing, at night in his sleepless room, nonsense love poems for the girl he loved so madly.
He wrote to his friend Elliott that he thought Eva was daunted and undone by his college student status.
I decided I needed to learn more about Eva.
There was surprisingly little to find about a woman who’d made so many movies, who’d acted, for instance, in The Perils of Pauline. I scoured the Internet and I looked through the library, and finally, I got myself a subscription to Ancestry.com.
I learned that Eva’s father had died when she was about 18 months old, and that he was away, at a sanatorium called Shepherd’s Water Cure in Columbus, when he died. And I learned he’d been there two years. Two years, I thought, and his youngest daughter eighteen months, and I turned myself upside down, doing the math of a baby girl who never knew her daddy. And why was he in the sanatorium in the first place? I looked that up and found that at first, it had been a place to take women with nervous disorders. When Shepherd started letting men in, those patients often had tuberculosis or mental illness or were hopeless alcoholics.
I wondered about Eva’s father, and about the sad little girl whose daddy came home on the train in a coffin.
I wondered about the mama. Thurber wrote to Elliott about Eva’s mother: oh, she was a looker, he exclaimed. The records on ancestry.com suggested that she’d encouraged each daughter onto the stage; it was with Eva that she hit pay-dirt–a wonderful singing voice, a presence that etched itself into the celluloid viewer’s mind.
There were suggestions that Eva was ‘nervous’–that she came home after the movie years because her nerves couldn’t stand it. She broke Thurber’s heart and married Ernie; they worked in Zanesville for awhile and then they put together the Eve Prout Revue and they went off onto the vaudeville circuit. Eva would pop up at home, welcomed in newspaper clippings. She’s needing a rest, the clippings said. She’s home to recuperate after a busy season.
Ernie didn’t seem to need the same kind of respite; the stage life apparently agreed with Eva’s man. Thurber writes about the Revue coming to New York City; he met them after the show and they hit the bars, returning, the three of them, to Eve and Ernie’s rooms. She curled up and went to sleep. The men, fast friends now, drank on.
Eve and Ernie returned to Zanesville. They became the master of ceremonies and the hostess at a popular club. And then they moved to Coral Gables, Florida. Records suggest they opened a music store, but the trail dries up. What were they doing? There’s a vacuum there I longed to fill.
In 1945, a bare census record surfaces: Eva divorced Ernie in October; he was remarried within a month. And he divorced again, and remarried again, before another five years went by.
But not, apparently, Eva. She seemed to disappear into an ordinary, solitary Florida life, working at a store, going to church, but not making a splash of any kind. She had no children. Records note she had a dear friend.
I drove to Columbus, to where a metro library stands on the site of the old water cure facility, hoping to find out more about Eva’s father. All the records from Shepherd’s Water Cure, the friendly librarian told us, disappeared after the place shut down. Not a trace; not a clue.
I went to the special collections at OSU, and, having given up my cell phone and photo ID, I paged through a thick folder with the letters from Thurber to Eva. There were photos of Eva; there were hand-inked Christmas cards from Thurber up through the years.
I found an address for a Coral Gables apartment, and when I went to visit my niece Shayne, she and her family drove me there. Amidst towering high-rises and sleek fancy row homes, Eva’s old art deco building was still, amazingly, there. Shayne and I jumped out of the SUV and raced to the door. It was unlocked, and we let ourselves into the foyer. And there was Eva’s door, the door to the home where once she’d lived with Ernie. We looked at each other, Shayne and I, eyes wide, face to face with a friend in history. But when I tentatively knocked on the door, there was no answer. No one at all, in the whole building, seemed to be at home.
Eva surfaced in 1973 to do an oral history–talking, not about her career, but about her relationship with Thurber. Then she slid back into her private life. She died seven years later. They sent her body home to Zanesville.
My son Jim was with me when I found Eva’s grave, after plowing through obituaries had identified the graveyard, and a visit to the cemetery office narrowed down the plot. We walked, oddly excited and chastened, down the winding cinder roads outlined in the map, and we found where Eva’s body lies–in an unmarked grave on top of her mother.
And in the process, I came to feel that Eva called to me, that she’d left something unfinished, a story untold, and maybe, I could help her tell it. But then life, like a zealous, old-fashioned housewife, took the blanket off the line and snapped it, and when it fell back down, settled back over me, there was no room for extraneous research. I put the Eva notes in the Someday Basket and swore I’d get back to them soon. The blanket billowed, I plunged beneath it, and three full years went by.
Then, last night, I cleaned my desk and sorted my paper and cleared my surfaces. And I took the Someday Basket to the dining room table. I pulled out the Eva notebook.
Her voice compels me, just as strongly as it did when we first met. Time perhaps, to throw off the blanket and follow the path and fill in the blanks. Time to honor the weird, time-traveling acquaintance, and to find the rest of Eva’s story. It seems unfinished, the tale of that wonderfully skittish and talented girl, the girl who sang and danced her way onto the silent movie screen, into a famous author’s heart, onto the stages across America’s heartland and even in the Big Apple. And who, then, just quietly disappeared.
What happened, Eva? Were you happy? Were you relieved to disappear into obscurity? I ask her silently, but if I want to know, I’m going to have to work for the answer.