Ellen and Marion Dashiell’s story begins in Canton, Ohio, in the middle of the Great Depression. Why did I choose this relatively unglamorous location? I was looking for a mid-American industrial town, and Canton winked at me because I have relatives there. They could tell me things about it, and who knew? Maybe I’d even get to visit.
My choice was confirmed when I stumbled across the memoir, A Secret Gift, by Ted Gup, that tells the story of how his grandfather became the mysterious benefactor to dozens of impoverished Cantonians during Christmas 1933. The peek at life in the town was fascinating and enlightening. I learned about local favorites such as Bender’s (a restaurant) and Turkey Foot Lake (a popular recreational draw in the next county over).
I actually did get to visit Canton in 2015 and do on-location research (thanks to my wonderful relatives, blessings from above!), gleaning even more valuable insights – streetcars were no longer used in 1935; the Pennsylvania Railroad station was painted red; McKinley High School seniors put on the play Secrets in 1935; the jail stood beside the courthouse until 1937. I had a spectacular time physically strolling the town that I had hitherto accessed only through my mind.
Canton is in eastern Ohio, not too far from the Pennsylvania border. It’s the seat of Stark County’s palatial courthouse, where Suit and Suitability begins.
The wind was against them as they descended the courthouse steps, snapping at their skin and clothes with ferocious bites. Canton’s brick and stone façades soared over them, every one impressing Ellen with her family’s insignificance and aloneness. She glanced left and right to watch for cars as she and her mother and sisters crossed the street. Even the Gothic church behind them was stern and cold. Bells clanged over the traffic noise, clock towers proclaiming twelve noon like any ordinary day.
Ellen looked back at the gold-bricked courthouse, glancingThe Dashiell family lives in Vassar Park, a neighborhood that sprang up in the 1920s when housing was booming. Today it’s one of the inner layers of Canton, but back then, it was near the outskirts. Their home is a fairly large Elizabethan. Rather close to where I imagined them living, I found this house:
at the angels trumpeting in the high tower. The trumpeters of justice? She’d always admired this palatial structure, but now it galled her.
It had been a dream house, this Elizabethan. She [Marion], Ellen, and Greta had squealed in delight when they saw it for the first time seven years ago. It was out of a fairy tale. Its maples, elms, and oaks were woods, its flowering plum trees enchanted brides, its gardens fairy courts, its yard a lawn where energetic imagination knew no bounds. Inside, the girls each got their own room, like true princesses, and the number of rooms felt mountainous. Four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a cellar, an attic, a kitchen, a laundry, a dining room, a living room! Everything was bright and new. What she wouldn’t give to go back to those days.
And then there’s Ridgewood, the luxurious neighborhood where the Dashiells’ relatives, the snooty Westwoods, reside. What a place for a stroll! Ridgewood was even more gorgeous than I imagined it: unique mansions, manicured lawns, stately trees, vibrant gardens, and those distinctive red roads . . .
Ridgewood was a ritzier neighborhood than Vassar Park;
one step out from Canton, it was at least one step up in class, with red brick roads, spacious lawns, and large, strongly individualistic houses. The Depression had raided here, too, however; several mansions had the empty, haunted look of homes longing after their owners.
One of Canton’s greatest residents was William McKinley, the governor of Ohio before he became president in 1897. He is buried there in a memorial mausoleum that was built in 1905, so it would have been a place Suit and Suitability’s characters would know well.
Canton was full of industries: Hoover (sweepers/vacuum cleaners), Timken (roller bearings), Diebold (safes), and Republic Steel, to name a few. All humongous complexes that clouded the air of this once prosperous city but gave jobs to countless people, many of whom were immigrants. Ellen and Marion’s father is (or rather . . . was . . .) the vice president of Friar’s Tool and Die, a company I created based off Canton’s industries.
Well, I’d better leave you with that. I hope you enjoyed this short visit to the Canton of Suit and Suitability! There’s still more to say about the theaters that played such a role in Marion’s life, but we’ll save that for next time.