I was a working girl in Detroit in 1939. I was a freelance fashion designer making clothes for women in the more affluent Detroit suburbs, including wedding dresses, etc.
Through the work/study program at Antioch College, Polly took a summer job in 1939 at the Mt. Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. When she and I talked about doing something together the following summer, we decided to go work at the hotel again. Then, at the end of the summer when Polly would go back to school, I would have saved some money and would go to New York City to try and find work as a fashion designer in the big city.
I was past student age, so I had to leave out some details when I applied to work at the hotel, because it was really a summer job for college students. But since I look much younger than I am, no one could tell the difference or felt any reason not to believe me.
So in the late spring of 1940, we took off. We had very little money and decided to start our trip by taking the boat from Detroit to Cleveland. We traveled steerage to save money, which meant that we had no warm place to sleep and spent a cold windy night on the deck with nothing to eat. Then we took the bus to New York City and lived on red bananas for a day or so while we were there. We stayed in Antioch House. I visited Valentina, a fashion design house, to see about a job later on. We bought a wind-up victrola at Macy’s department store and two records, one of which was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto #1. The victrola was our prize possession – which was very heavy and which we had to drag along with us everywhere on our way to Vermont. On the day we arrived, we were met at the train station and immediately taken to the hotel and our rooms on the top floor. My sister Polly and I roomed together. I think the boys stayed in rooms that were part of the golf clubhouse near the golf course.
It was a huge hotel. If you were a hotel guest you entered up a wide stair case in the front that opened onto the second floor into the lobby. The dining room was also on the second floor, a large solarium with windows all around looking toward the mountains. And on this same floor on either side of the entrance stair case were verandas; big wide verandas that curved around the whole building, where we served tea every afternoon at 4:00pm.
As it was 1940 and already World War II, what was wrong with the hotel that year, from our point of view, was that the guests staying there that summer were mostly refugees from Europe with little or no money. So we waitresses weren’t making the tips we might have made some other year and even though the hotel was completely booked there was very little extra money coming in. The hotel management was cutting as many corners as they could.
There were about 50 of us student workers from all over the country, Vasser, Antioch all the big schools; half and half boys and girls. The girls filled the positions of waitresses and the boys were either bell-hops or golf caddies and were also hired to play baseball on a regular schedule to entertain the hotel guests. The bell-hops had to be available to meet the hotel guests at the train station. For recreation the bell-hops could either caddy or play golf with the hotel guests. The waitresses played tennis sometimes.
We would get up in time to be inspected in the dining room by 7:00 am for breakfast. Lunch started at about 11:00 and we would be finished about 2:30 pm. Then 4 of us would be picked to serve tea at 4:00 pm. There was also a special breakfast buffet for the late comers where we waitresses took turns similar to the afternoon tea time. The rest of us were off until 5:00 pm when dinner started and then we would work through until 9 or 10:oo pm each night. We had to clean all the glasses, and the A-1 sauce bottles and the silverware and put it all away before we were finished.
Before each meal, we were lined up by Mr. Grey, the maitre’d who checked our uniforms, etc., and explained to us our duties. He was a very pleasant man, but very strict about protocol. He would check our hands and fingernails and hair and makeup. One of the most important things that I learned from this job, I learned from Mr. Gray about the preparation of the dishes they cooked for the dining room. He would describe to us how they were made so that we could tell the guests when we served them. For example: Fresh Trout from the local mountain streams, Amondine. Saute’d in butter with lemon Juice and toasted Almonds. My sister Polly, can remember the fried breaded eggplant sticks that were served as a side dish.
Sunday nights were “grill nite” and the grill short-order chef was a sight to behold with a bandana around his head and another bandana around his neck and he sweat and swore a blue streak the whole evening long. And when we swerved steak, A-1 sauce was served with it. I can remember very well that we were required to clean those bottles after they were used each time.
This was the second year of waitressing for my sister Polly. Besides the regular duties of a waitress, Mr. Grey gave her the job of being his secretary as well. She was kept busy all the time with the extra work. (She’d been here the year before and dated a football player from Moonsocket, Mass. He couldn’t come back, as planned, the second year and Polly was so disappointed that she didn’t date anyone else the whole summer.)
We had a mutiny/strike among the student workers. We protested over the fact that the hotel staff were giving us only left overs to eat. So we rebelled. We didn’t eat their food for almost a week. Some of the fellows went out and got hamburgers so we wouldn’t starve. We understood that the hotel was having a hard time and had to use all the food they could-even to feed the college boys and girls, but it was supposed to be good, healthy food. I don’t remember how the strike ended. Eventually we just worked it all out and went on with our work and play.