Marion Blair, my mother-in-law, 1990s
There were no teenagers back in the old days, my mother-in-law, Marion Blair, used to say. You were a girl one day and a woman the next – at least when it came to the way you dressed and the way you arranged your hair.
Somewhere, I have a black and white studio photo of Marion looking rather glamorous wearing what appears to be bright red lipstick, (it’s hard to tell for certain) taken in 1929.
I find the photo a bit freaky, because Marion was born in 1917! At a mere 12 years of age she certainly had achieved that polished ‘movie-star’ look and she maintained that impeccably groomed image right up until her death in 2002.
So it was no surprise to me when my husband came into the room a while back as I was watching an old Bette Davis movie on TCM and said, “That woman looks just like my mother.”
“Your mom didn’t look at all like Bette Davis,” I replied. “But, I can see your point. The movies, back then as now, instructed girls – and boys – on how to be grown up.”
Now, this was doubly ironic as here in Quebec in the 1930’s children under 16 were banned from the cinema because of the 1927 Laurier Palace Theatre Fire where 72 children had died in a crush to the exit.
So what did these deprived Depression Era English Quebec children do to bend the rules and partake of some healthy Hollywood escapism? According to my mother-in-law, they sneaked into the movie theatres and comported themselves like adults. That meant no shouting and no jostling. Girls often applied make-up to enhance the illusion.
Marion Blair was the middle of three sisters, so it is no surprise, really, that her appearance meant a lot to her, especially since her sisters were, let’s face it, much better looking. Think Rita Hayworth and Merle Oberon.
She was the skinny sister with the slightly wonky left eye and a wild boy-crazy “biker chick” personality that had to be tamed with two years at Trafalgar all-girls school. (Hmm. Maybe, there were ‘teenagers’ in the 1930’s after all.)
The 1930’s Hollywood Dream Factory inspired more than Marion’s hair and makeup. She was a wannabe thespian. At McGill in the late 30’s she got to play comedic parts in the famed Red and White Revue.
Somewhere, I have some clippings from the early WWII McGill Daily. In one of them Marion is flying in the air attached to cables with a giant wand in her hand and an enormous toothy grin on her face.
Marion Blair was a natural for the theatre, but in 1941, with war raging, she chose a domestic existence and married Thomas Wells, a Westmount boy who had played semi-pro hockey with her brother and who had recently enlisted in the RCAF.
Marion, ballerina, 1942, Dunville, Ontario RCAF training base.
As a young mother in the 1950’s, Marion continued to act in local amateur theatre out in the suburbs with the Hudson Players Club. (I guess the stage was the only place she felt safe ‘letting her hair down.’)
Her own mother, Marion Nicholson Blair, had been widowed in 1927, when Marion Jr. was just 10 years old. Mother Marion had been cut out of her husband’s family lumber fortune, but instead of remarrying one of her many suitors she went back to work as a teacher at the Montreal Board and also got involved with the Protestant Teachers Union, rising to President during WWII.
The Nicholson/Blair female-run family had little money to spare but being a natural wheeler-dealer, mother Marion found patrons to send her children to university which is why daughter Marion could swing from the rafters at McGill’s Morris Hall.
Which brings me to another related story – about another photograph, one I actually have on hand to show you.
My mother-in-law’s patron was a friend of her mother’s, a Mr. Dean from the local Westmount Church. One summer in 1936 he took them to Saranac Lake, New York on a vacation.
One morning, as they walked on the waterfront, at the marina, Marion spotted a portly older man with very disheveled hair on the pier beside a small sailboat. “What messy hair that man has,” said Marion to her companions. “Disgraceful.”
Mr. Dean would have no part of it. “That, my dear,” he told her, in a hushed and reverent tone, “is Professor Einstein.”
So my mother in law snapped a photograph – and here it is.
This picture is more than mere family memorabilia.
With a little online research I soon figured out that my mother in law caught the Man of the Century setting up for a famous AP photo shoot. (Or perhaps shutting down from it.)
Here’s that photo “Einstein at Play” taken a few minutes before or after my mother-in- law snapped the photo of the physicist icon with the famously messy head of white hair.