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FRONTLINE: Retrospect on James A. Michener

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Blaming the Messenger
How a famous writer slurred the good name of a Lower Merion neighborhood.

Sometimes journalists screw up. Mostly, they do a good job. Either way, they can make people furious.

In Lower Merion, for instance, writer James A. Michener has been damned for nearly 60 years thanks to a magazine article that so besmirched one neighborhood its name was changed. Michener himself never insulted West Manayunk, though he quoted someone who did—sort of.

Actually, renaming West Manayunk Belmont Hills didn’t occur until three years after the article appeared. In the 1950s, when Americans were streaming out of big cities, “Belmont Hills” simply sounded more suburban. The change, said residents, would make it clear their community was not part of Philadelphia. It might even raise property values. West Manayunk “sounds cheesy, like a hick town,” one resident told the Main Line Times in 1953. “Why should we be affiliated with Manayunk?”

Lenape for “where we go to drink,” Manayunk was the name given in 1824 to an area previously known as Falls of Schuylkill and Flat Rock. Incorporated in 1840, Manayunk developed into a well known manufacturing district after the Schuylkill Navigation Co. built a dam, canal and locks and began selling waterpower rights to mill owners.

The Lower Merion (west) side of the river had no similar identity. Two main hills were dubbed Ashland Hill, after the estate of an early landowner, and Narrows Hill, after the channel that separated the riverbank from Jones Island. The flat riverbank, meanwhile, was called Roslagen for reasons apparently unrecorded, although the same name is used to describe a coastal area in Sweden.

West Manayunk came into use in 1838, when the Reading Railroad built a train station using the name near today’s Belmont interchange. In the 1800s, its walkable proximity to the mills made it a convenient residential area. Italians and Albanians were dominant, and enough kept goats that, for a while, the area was nicknamed “Goat Hill.”

Socially and culturally, West Manayunk looked east to Philadelphia rather than west to the WASPy Main Line. Residents worked in blue-collar jobs and retained many Old World customs. In 1979, Patricia Puhl wrote in a local newspaper about the neighborhood in which she had grown up a half century before: “The women were dressed totally in black and almost always walked with a man at their sides,” she said. “The men were the dominant heads of the families. Many of them walked the hills wearing a turban-like headgear used for carrying food.”

West Manayunkers knew who they were. According to historian Geraldine A. Fisher, the immigrants who worked Philadelphia’s 19th-century mills came at a time when militant labor ideas were prevalent in Europe. That background, combined with oppressive working conditions, helped create a strong working-class identity. Philadelphia’s first labor unions were organized in Manayunk, with the first strikes occurring in the late 1820s. West Manayunk was those workers’ back yard.

Quaker’s Son
When James Michener came to town, he had recently won a Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific (1946), his first book, and had just published his second, The Fires of Spring (1949), a semi-autobiographical novel about an orphan who finds professional and romantic success.

Michener’s version of his life story was that he never knew his parents, his birthplace or even his birth date. He was adopted by a Doylestown Quaker, graduated from Swarthmore College and went on to teach at a variety of schools, including Harvard. His writing career began during World War II when, as a naval historian, he began to gather material for a collection of short stories.

Later in his career, Michener could afford to turn down hack writing assignments. But in 1949, he agreed to do a profile of the Main Line for Holiday magazine, an upbeat travel publication. It paid well. There was no shame in it. John Steinbeck and Irwin Shaw also wrote for Holiday.

The article itself was pure puffery. In prose accompanied by photographs of stone mansions, debutantes, horses and Quaker meetings, Michener praised the old families who ran the place so well. The article did acknowledge that the Main Line’s heyday had passed. Rather than a pile of stone costing millions, he wrote, “today’s Main Line aristocrat prefers a $40,000 house. And rather than 30 servants, he strives to get—and keep—one.”

Overall, Michener depicted a suburban utopia where most residents wanted—and got—little change. He could hardly do anything else. Holiday’s owner, Curtis Publishing, was based in Philadelphia. Many of its executives lived on the Main Line. Walter D. Fuller, president of Curtis, lived in Penn Valley. Michener hadn’t been hired to muckrake.

In his article, Michener didn’t omit Lower Merion’s Schuylkill waterfront where, he wrote, a “somewhat impoverished citizenry lives clinging to the river’s edge” despite frequent floods. And this:

“Farther downriver, the cliffside town of West Manayunk perches Pittsburgh-like in the gloom. ‘It’s a disgrace to call that a part of Lower Merion,’ the Main Liner is likely to protest. ‘It really belongs to Philadelphia.’ The school board, however, is determined to provide the best that democracy can afford, and sends the West Manayunk children to the ultra-lovely Bala Cynwyd Junior High. ‘By the time we get them in Lower Merion High,’ the officials say, ‘you can’t tell them from the others. Good kids, those Manayunkers.’”

If they read the article at all, most Main Liners quickly threw it aside. The Ehart brothers, publishers of the Wayne Suburban, entirely missed the implied slight to blue-collar West Manayunkers. Their editorial merely complained that Michener portrayed all Main Liners as rich. The Main Line Times didn’t react at all.

But in West Manayunk, there was outrage. At a standing-room-only meeting, neighbors demanded an apology from Holiday for “slurring” the community and “stigmatizing” the youngsters.” In particular, West Manayunkers focused on the implication that their children were not OK until the junior high had processed them to Lower Merion standards. Lower Merion High School principal George W.R. Kirkpatrick appeared to reassure parents their children were valued. “Your children have played in our bands and on our teams,” he told the crowd. “The most cooperative students we get in our orchestra come from West Manayunk.”

But it wasn’t quite enough; West Manayunkers wanted to know whom Michener had interviewed.

“The hill folk,” reported the Times, “assert that author James A. Michener did not suck the statement out of his thumb.” A civic association was formed to demand an answer.

Into this stepped Dr. Albert C. Barnes, art collector and local crank. Barnes had hated Michener since learning that, as a Swarthmore student in the 1920s, the writer had lied his way into his Merion art gallery. Barnes was famously distrustful of—and barred from his art gallery—anyone he thought an intellectual. College students had virtually no chance to get in, so Michener impersonated a steelworker: “I don’t have much education,” he wrote in a letter posted from Pittsburgh, “but I hear you have such a real nice bunch of pictures.”

That brought a written invitation and a tour guided personally by Barnes. He was furious when he learned the truth.

Now, Barnes drew a parallel between Michener’s earlier deception and what he had written for Holiday. Michener, he said, was an admitted “liar” and a “phony.” When Michener attempted a soothing response, Barnes responded in language that remains unprintable.

“What the hell do you use for a handkerchief?” asked Michener. “Barbed wire?”

Retorted Barnes: “Why should I use barbed wire when [you] serve the purpose so well?”

When Michener lectured at Penn, Barnes climbed on stage to harangue him in person. Michener walked out. When Barnes challenged the writer to a debate, Michener ignored him.

Michener declined to identify the official whom he had quoted. “It would be a serious breach of honor for me to tell you that,” he wrote one resident. But West Manayunkers’ angry letters, he noted, proved that the class distinctions he had described did, in fact, exist. (“The Main Liners despise us,” one had written. “But you should hear what we think of the Main Liners!”)

The uproar continued for a couple of months. In the Times, letter writer E.D. Wirt addressed Michener as “Commander, Flying Saucer Squadron” and advised him to “load your crew on your flying saucer and fly off into the blue.”

Mrs. K.S.C. wrote advising the swells that life was better without servants “in a cozy little six- or seven-room house with one bath, and not being too lazy to do your own work.”

Three-and-a-half years went by. In October 1953, West Manayunk’s civic association distributed ballots asking residents to choose the existing name or one of four alternatives: Belmont, Belmont Hills, Welsh Hills or Cadwalader. A Times editorial, which didn’t even mention Michener, joked that the real problem was phonetic.

“It’s that ‘yunk,’” said the paper. “A check of the words ending in ‘unk’ discloses that (with the possible exception of ‘plunk’ and ‘spunk’) not a one connotes anything good or true or beautiful. Consider, for instance, such opprobrious examples as bunk, drunk, flunk, funk, junk, punk, quidnunc, skunk, slunk and—of course—stunk.”

When the 896 votes were counted, 627 voters preferred a new name; of these, 475 chose Belmont Hills. Another 269 favored the old name.

Why? Some residents cited post office confusion. Mail for West Manayunk went to similar addresses across the river. Mrs. Albert Turtle of Price Street favored Belmont Hills because blueprints for the coming Schuylkill Expressway included a Belmont interchange at the foot of the hill. “Hills” worked, said Rita Terravana of Belmont Avenue, because “we certainly have them around here.”

Nobody mentioned Michener.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at mark.dixon@att.net.