In a world of LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram, I’ve been musing about the protocols of the age-old practice of “name-dropping” and the new rules of “networking.” About 20 years ago, I helped to launch a consulting firm, and in our early days, we were eager to network with anyone and everyone. But by the time I joined LinkedIn, I had sold off my share of the business, and was pursuing more solitary activities—like, say, writing books. I had more than enough friends to struggle to keep in touch with and viewed “networking” very differently.
As I explored the life of Emily Hale, the focus of my new novel The Poet’s Girl, I became fascinated to discover all the famous people she had known. As far as I could tell by the record she left behind, she did not “use” these connections. They were merely friends, and it was only through my own curiosity (and aggressive Google searches) that I discovered that many of them were noteworthy.
Emily Hale acted opposite a Harvard student named Tracy Putnam, who later went on to discover the drug Dilantin, the key treatment for epilepsy. She also acted opposite a then-amateur actor named Osgood Perkins. If that name sounds familiar, he was the grandfather of Oz Perkins, an actor/director who appeared in the movie Legally Blonde, and father of Anthony Perkins, the star of Psycho. She directed the actor Sam Waterston when he was a student at the Brooks School in suburban Boston, joining forces with his father when she taught drama at Abbot Academy in Andover. Hale’s great-aunt, Sarah Hooper, helped to found the Boston Cooking School. (Fanny Farmer wrote its well-known cookbook.)
Of course, first and foremost among the names that Emily Hale could have “dropped” was T. S. Eliot’s. Hale taught speech and drama at four women’s colleges and two girls’ private schools, and she arranged for Eliot to speak at three of them. At a key point in their relationship, he traveled to California for the first—and only—time in his life to visit her when she taught at Scripps College in Claremont. He was there for New Year’s Eve 1932, and one of her students drove them to spend a weekend at her family’s cottage on Balboa Island. Eliot and Hale were still young enough (44 and 41) that it was possible for her students to imagine that they were romantically involved. The fact that she could “deliver” Eliot as a campus speaker probably enhanced her own standing on her campuses. But as the years went by, her later students thought they were merely friends. The ones I interviewed were surprised to learn that Eliot wrote Hale more than one thousand letters over the course of their lifetimes.
My own experiences with name dropping color my book. Having lived in Washington, D.C., for nearly 45 years, there are many “names” I know (or knew), but only a handful I truly count as friends. A high school friend of mine recently achieved national prominence (but I’m not going to drop his name here!) I am grateful that we are still friends, and I consider a measure of his greatness that he still chooses to make time for old friends when his frenetic schedule permits. At my stage in life, one of my measures of a person’s greatness is whether they treasure the friends they made before they were “somebody.” Of course, if you met them when you were “on the way up,” someday you may find you need them when you are “on the way down.”
It was something Emily Hale came to learn, too.