Tag Archives: James Clayton Newman

Tangling Up, 1920s-style

I had to get married right away and didn’t have time to get someone I really wanted so now I’m Mrs. James Clayton Newman.  Jimmie’s a sweet kid but I can’t understand how his own mother can love him, let alone me.

For this Women’s History Month, we bring you a tale of courtship right out of the Roaring Twenties.  Though it’s hard to imagine this same scenario playing out even a generation earlier, it’s likely it did; few, however, described it with more casual candor than 18-year-old Elizabeth Jolly of Stanford, Kentucky.

It started with a date with “Jimmy.”  They raised a pint . . . then two, then three (all presumably illegal, since this was December 1927).  Before long, Elizabeth wrote her girlfriend Emily, “I was absolutely wild and passed out once.”  It was almost midnight when Jimmy poured her into her Louisville rooming house and left her asleep, “with my hat, coat, shoes, stockings and everything on,” to fetch them something to eat.  On his return, Jimmy was spotted sneaking into the house muffling his steps with “soft bedroom slippers,” a scandalous infraction that led to Elizabeth’s eviction by her housemother.  “Call a taxi,” an angry Elizabeth told her amour the next morning.  Their destination: one of many “marriage parlors” in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  “Getting people married,” she reminded Emily, “is the chief business there just like bootlegging is in some towns.” 

On the train, Elizabeth noted, word spread quickly as to “what we were up to.”  Some fellow passengers happened to have a portable Victrola, which they pulled out and played for the entire trip (no wedding march, thankfully).  On arrival in Jeffersonville, another taxi driver efficiently connected the lovebirds with a license clerk and a magistrate, who was “up waiting for us and had a light on and everything.”  Elizabeth had “never seen a place where marriage is looked upon so commercially.”  When the magistrate “had finished tangling us up he gave us one of his cards and asked us to send our friends.” 

The bride and groom returned to Louisville, resolved to seal their union with a proper wedding ring.  “I was married with my class ring,” Elizabeth reported, noting with a mix of sentiment and practicality that Jimmy “wanted me to use his but I thought maybe we would get us a divorce sometime and I will always want the ring I got married with.”

Now came the really tricky part: breaking the news to the folks at home.  But Elizabeth had a plan.  She intended to go home for Christmas in a few weeks “and have dates just like nothing had happened.”  Then, on her way out the door, she’d share her secret with her mother. 

And what did the future hold?  On this, Elizabeth was hazy, but “this won’t interfere with all our good times,” she assured girlfriend Emily.  In fact, two young fellows that she and Emily had recently had their eyes on might still get the benefit of their company.  “I will still help you get Beecher and I am going to see Lawrence or tear up a couple of these Bluegrass towns,” promised our newlywed. 

Elizabeth’s letter to Emily about her hasty marriage (spoiler: it didn’t last) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid and full-text scan.  For more collections about marriage and courtship, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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