Drawing on some eight hundred letters and other research documenting over two decades, Diane Simmons illuminates the unusual life of family friend, Eva Eldridge during and after WWII America. Simmons, originally neighbors and friends with Eva's mother, Grace, when she was just a young girl, became the executor of Eva's estate upon her death, leading her to secrets “hidden away in the arid eastern Oregon attic” of Eva’s home. Drawn by return addresses from Italy, North Africa, “somewhere in the Pacific,” and from all over America, Simmons looked past “a creepy sense of voyeurism,” grabbed a knife and cut through the “loops of tightly knotted kitchen string” that held together envelopes “collected into fat packets.”
Before entering the world of Eva’s letters, Simmons smells “the sweat of World War II infantry fatigues; the residue of Eva’s cigarette smoke; the aroma of face powder and perfume that had seeped in from a dresser drawer.” She notices some letters delivering “life-shattering news, some blotched with tear stains, some with a handwriting slanting so crazily that the words lie almost prostrate.”
In The Courtship of Eva Eldridge, the first page recounting these “long-ago lives” is as memorable as the last. Taking a deeper look into the adventurous, exuberant woman Simmons knew only from brief encounters, she unearths the untold drama of Eva’s life she could never have recognized in childhood, when Eva’s doting gaze and “conspiratorial wink” made a youthfully credulous Simmons beam. Now, an established reporter and writer with the investigative power to make the past come alive, Simmons realizes the tragedy Eva endured in following her heart; how Eva’s radiance was actually part of a lifelong struggle for romantic fulfillment in an age disillusioned by war and propaganda.
The book begins in 1958 with Eva dreaming of her becoming life with Vick, her WWII veteran husband of just one year, only to find that he has mysteriously cleared out his closet and belongings and left their apartment without a word. Upon her return home from work, Eva is in disbelief as she begins the investigative process of unraveling what may have happened to him (though she assumes the best). As Simmons goes through check stubs and letters, parsing out the mystery, she puts herself in Eva's shoes, in 1950's America, when movies were the muses of our nation. Film series like The March of Time would have long since urged women to tolerate veteran outbursts, that it was “a woman’s patriotic duty to be his ‘anchor,’ to renounce her independent life, marry him, and do whatever it [took] to cure him.” Offering such glimpses of Eva’s unquestioning solicitude toward her husband, Simmons then illuminates the backstory of Eva and her wayward years growing up during WWII.
Around 1940, Eva’s first engagement with a local boy named Dave Johnson was prolonged by his entrance into the war, where he left their hometown of Wing Valley, Oregon to join the ranks of the Canadian army, and soon after aided the American resistance in North Africa and Italy against Third Reich expansion. Waiting for Dave’s return, Eva would eagerly open each letter from him; and as each season passed, Dave’s correspondence began to evoke the more harrowing effects of the war. In one letter, Dave “describes the beauty of the clouds and rainbows and also the “black roses” of anti-aircraft fire.” Simmons portrays poignantly Dave’s strange sanctification of combat, made graver only by his compulsion to keep “a finger in the war,” his “trigger finger.”
As millions of other American men followed suit, the vast labor shortage of the early 1940’s prompted the country's desperate call for women to take over office, service and industrial jobs, beginning the well-known era of Rosie the Riveter. Massive PR campaigns from the Office of War Information, the Oregonian, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, and many other media outlets throughout the country, began to promote—if not mandate—women’s involvement in the war. Their general sentiment: "One woman can shorten this war." They emphasized that "men will die without the proper equipment, and that American women must churn out "ships, airplanes and tanks" to prevent this from happening.
Despite Dave's wishes to return to "something clean, wholesome, and worthwhile," an Eva untouched by the grossness of the war, Eva pursued work at a VA hospital, and later moved to Portland for the high-paying, electrifying scene of the Kaiser Shipyards, which comprised of the west coast’s seven largest shipbuilding sites. It was there Eva met men from all over the country, made friends and money, and ultimately found an independence that would stay with her for the rest of her days.
Some ten years later, countrywide advertisements once again pressured women to focus exclusively on their home and family life, infantilizing them and ousting them from the workplace. A Life magazine editorial, for instance, stated, “Scientists and philosophers have argued for generations about how much equality women are equipped for. . . [while] others find that woman’s dependence and man’s chivalry are rooted in nature.” (emphasis added). Throughout her historically comprehensive narrative, which is impressively crisp and captivating to read, Simmons offers intermittent snippets of Eva and Vick's relationship, which foregrounds Eva’s search for her missing husband as the story’s momentous plot.
As Eva withstood Dave’s eventual nervous breakdown, an alcoholic husband named Jimmy Wright, whom she met at the shipyards, and a slew of other unfit men, Simmons draws the reader so close with Eva's personal story that Eva begins to feel like family. In a time when the nation’s mass obsession with marriage peaked, Eva finds that she is no longer dreaming of a future with Vick, but waking from the fantasy of a storybook romance. Eva discovers at least three of Vick’s other wives; unbeknownst to her, there were seven more.
By the end, Simmons does not neglect a spotlight investigation on the villain of this story, arguably the embodiment of WWII’s general desensitization and disillusionment, Vick: the serial bigamist out of touch, guiltless, and, not unlike the American soldiers that sanctified combat, utterly blind to the pain of others. Traveling to his birth place in Newton, Kansas, Simmons puts herself in Vick’s nascent shoes, takes from census information, school records and property deeds recorded at the Harvey County courthouse, and begins to unravel the true story of Mr. Virgil B. Vickers, and why he would "marry one solid, respectable, "well-turned-out" woman after another." In her tenacious research, she consults family members, a lawyer, a psychoanalyst—even the psychiatrist who diagnosed the "sexual psychopathy of Ted Bundy before the killer's identity was known."
The Courtship of Eva Eldridge is an impressive work of history and investigative lure; Simmons offers a truly immersive experience, a pearl of true crime well worth reading.