Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview
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The Young Adventuress

"IN quick apprehension of personal relations, no one excelled her," anthropologist Leslie Spier noted of Elsie Clews Parsons in 1943. Surrounded by family secrets and silences, and by a wall of conventionalities, the young Elsie Clews developed a heightened sensitivity to the subtleties of relationships, and a determination to conduct her own life openly and honestly. From an early age, she demonstrated what she later saw in herself as an extraordinary--and unfeminine--facility "for detaching herself from her experience, for viewing it and even acting upon it impersonally." It was this facility, she pointed out in 1913, "which made her appear to the simple- minded so disquieting, to others so inhuman, and to still others so witty."1

When the Belknap family returned from their self-imposed exile in 1888, her cousin Alice found the fourteen-year-old Elsie quite different from any girl she knew. Elsie wrote about "the queerest things" in a manner that was distinctly her own. "Your letter was written exactly in your style," Alice wrote in 1889. "I could have told it was from you even if it had not been signed." She had no time for sentimentality or flattery; she liked athletic games; and she laughed when Alice complained of a sunburned face. Alice sometimes ventured to send "a kiss on your dear little neck," in fashionable sentimental style, but for Elsie, "Your sincere friend" was the highest expression of regard.2

Elsie's originality and forthrightness did not find such an admiring audience in her mother. Although she conceded that Elsie had been both "good" and "interesting" as a baby, Lucy Clews generally found her daughter very trying. She told her granddaughter Lissa that "she never could understand [her] from the time she was a little girl." As an adult, Elsie recalled that she had played with boys in Bryant Park although her mother said it was unladylike; she took off her veil or gloves when her mother's back was turned; she stayed


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