Ida [Early's wife], an officer in the Junior League, took me and the children to a Junior League Christmas bazaar at Le Chateau Mall, which was where the Junior League Headquarters was located then. While she and the girls looked at the Christmas displays, I, bored and restless, walked around the mall for a bit then went back to our van and sat there for a time and read. After 20 or 30 minutes, I went back through the mall to get them. I walked past a jewelry store. A man and a woman stood in front of it, talking. I didn't say anything to them, never stopped to look at anything in the jewelry store, barely even glanced at them. I simply wanted to go home....

When I arrived back at the Junior League headquarters, I couldn't find Ida or the kids. Once again, I went down the front steps of the Junior League and stood there, waiting for them to come out. Then the adventure began. A young police officer named Mayer drove up and asked me what I was doing there. He told me that he had received a call with a description of someone who looked like me "lurking" in the mall. Something in me snapped. There I was, I immediately thought, about to be humiliated before the whites coming in and out of the building (and there were a good many of them doing so, through the front entrance), being reminded that I was a nigger, that I had no business being where I was, that I was a "threat" to the good white folk of Frontenac.


Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, then called Marguerite Johnson, was born in St. Louis, but when she was three, her parents divorced. She moved to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her grandmother. Four years later, she and her brother, Bailey, returned to St. Louis and their mother. In her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she recalls driving into the city for the first time:

St. Louis was a new kind of hot and a new kind of dirty. My memory had no pictures of the crowded-together soot-covered buildings. For all I knew, we were being driven to Hell and our father was the delivering devil....The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe they were against the law.

Angelou's premonition of Hell proved correct. A year after she arrived in St. Louis, her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, raped her. Freeman served four days in jail; upon his release, Angelou's uncles kicked him to death. Angelou blamed herself and stopped speaking for five years. She and Bailey were sent back to Stamps. They never came back to St. Louis.


Jonathan Franzen
This week's Time magazine cover boy, the "Great American Novelist," is a somewhat proud product of Webster Groves High School. Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom, out later this month, is already being hailed as a masterpiece.

Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, won the 2001 National Book Award, but that's not why it made Franzen infamous. After the book was selected by Oprah for her book club, Franzen offended the media goddess by confessing his ambivalence about the honor to several reporters he met on his book tour. Oprah rescinded her offer, and Franzen got saddled with a reputation as a snotty intellectual. (Deserved or not? Let the debate begin!)

The Corrections, which was set in a thinly disguised St. Louis called "St. Jude," was not especially kind to our city. But Franzen claims to have fond memories of growing up in Webster Groves, and he made an attempt to defend his hometown in an essay in his book The Discomfort Zone.

"As an adult, when I say the word 'Webster Groves' to people I've just met, I'm often informed that I grew up in a suffocatingly wealthy, insular, conformist town with a punitive social hierarchy," he wrote. "The twenty-odd people who have told me this over the years have collectively spent, by my estimate, about 20 minutes in Webster Groves, but each of them went to college in the seventies and eighties, and a fixture of sociology curricula in that era was a 1966 CBS documentary called 16 in Webster Groves. The film, an early experiment in hour-long prime-time sociology, reported on the attitudes of suburban sixteen-year-olds. I've tried to explain that the Webster Groves depicted in it bears minimal resemblance to the friendly, unpretentious town I knew when I was growing up. But it's useless to contradict TV; people look at me with suspicion, or hostility, or pity, as if I'm deeply in denial."

Despite his best efforts, Franzen even managed to have some fun during his Webster Groves years; in his senior year at Webster High, he and his friends formed a society of pranksters. On one occasion, they disabled all the classroom bells and sent Mr. Knight, the principal, on a quest around the school to find them, using a series of doggerel poems, composed by Franzen, as clues.

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