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Yale 62

Eisendrath and Valier: Same Place, Same Time. Different Result.

By Charles Valier

Charlevoix, Michigan is really two towns, north and south divided by a narrow body of water. Charles Eisendrath and I both claim the town as our spiritual home, a summer paradise. But we live in two different worlds, separated and distinct, yet geographically close. How can this be?

In our youth we, both St. Louisans living a few blocks apart and attending two similar private preparatory schools, spent our summers in Charlevoix, culturally and physically separated. Charles in the north half and I in the south half. The town is sited on three lakes, Michigan, Round and Charlevoix, all connected by the Pine River, really a channel. It was dredged in the final quarter of the 19th century, as a result of the final passage of the “Rivers and Harbors Bill,” passed originally in 1846 and vetoed twice by President Polk, a Democrat who felt it was unconstitutional for government to do such things. The only physical connection is a bascule bridge across the channel between Lake Michigan and Round Lake, the town’s protected harbor. While a bridge connects the two halves, there was in the 1950s a far deeper divide – religion. The large homes on the north side were inhabited by wealthy Jewish merchant families. Eisendrath – “Michigan Avenue’s four blocks were the social hub of a Jewish aristocracy drawn mostly from the Midwest and South.” Valier – The exclusive association on the south side was dotted with American stick style, clapboard-clad cottages, and was the domain of “old Midwest money” gentiles, the businessmen who worked with their Jewish counterparts in their home towns. While less impressive than the mansions on Michigan Avenue facing west on the small ocean called Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes, it was shrouded in exclusiveness. Ironically, the Jewish merchants and the WASP entrepreneurs worked together assiduously in St. Louis and throughout the Midwest to grow our national economy, but in Charlevoix they remained steadfastly apart, as if the bridge which opened on the hour and half hour for boats remained permanently closed by religion to any form of intercourse. I confess, I grew up ignorant of the divide, oblivious to the social chasm that existed. The summer of 1958 changed all that.

Both of us had recently graduated from our high schools and been admitted into Yale College. In a final fling of youthful exuberance that August, I had brought my future roommate, David Scharff, up with me to visit the Valier homestead, an unheated wooden frame cottage, as a last spasm of youthful idleness of summer pleasure, including my passion for sailing on the waters of the clear lakes that were in abundance in Charlevoix. We became immersed in summer pastimes, sailing, tennis, swimming and chasing girls. My grandparents indulged my constant absences due to our youthful innocence. I included “Charles” (Eisendrath) in our activities. As we prepared to return to St. Louis, and the journey to New Haven, we received a rude entry into a grown-up world we had been escaping. Both of our grandmothers brought the whole enterprise down to earth: Charles’ criticizing him for “passing” by playing tennis at a gentile club, and mine expressing fear of expulsion or shunning for the sin of bringing a Jew into our closed society. Charles will have to respond to his feelings (Scharff was spared the drama by my unwillingness to inform him), although Eisendrath has written about “the loves of a place inhabited temporarily, but which shape a person permanently,” in his book, Downstream From Here, A Big Life in a Small Place, Mission Point Press, Traverse City, Mich., (2019). “There was no intermarriage, and not even any summer socializing…. My invitation (from Valier) to play tennis at Belvedere … came as something of a Michigan Avenue astonishment. My grandmother, … angrily accused me of ‘passing’ at Belvedere.” For me it was a loss of innocence, an inconvenient truth that religious prejudice still existed in 1958.

Recently, both of us have written essays for Yale ’62, with Charlevoix as its nexus: Eisendrath – 7/20/23; Valier – 9/20/22. How could such a small town – population 2,347 – present such a dichotomy? The answer lies in decisions our parents and grandparents made before we were born. Charles’ father in an attempt to escape an overbearing mother-in-law, the grandmother who accused Charles of “passing,” and my grandfather, a busy executive running his flour milling business, who wanted his family to escape the heat of St. Louis summers, chose vastly different locales in the same town.

Eisendrath’s father forsook the large wood frame, shingle style, white mansions overlooking Lake Michigan for a farm on Lake Charlevoix accessible from the town only by a ferry boat across a narrow strait. Just far enough away to keep his in-laws at arms-length. Enmeshed in “one hundred of 146 acres was woods” in an antebellum farm house with shutters painted “Union Blue,” he became the gentleman farmer. He cleared timber and planted cherry trees for commercial use, and harvested maple syrup from his abundant sugar maple trees. Do not confuse the farmer in a straw hat behind the wheel of a Morgan Plus Four with other farmers in his township!

My grandfather, a flour miller, in 1918 sought out a haven for his family from St. Louis summers, hot and humid, in an era without air conditioning. He found it on the grounds of the Charlevoix Summer Home Association (later adopting the gentrified name: Belvedere Club). Built above Lake Charlevoix on two terraces left by a receding glacier eons ago, its gayly colored Victorian cottages are lined up in neat rows with manicured lawns and an array of summer entertainment – a beach with cabanas, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, intermittent parks, a private forest, and boathouses and boat slips nestled in a bayou – it defies the rustic existence of Eisendrath’s Overlook Farm, yet exists within a short drive and ferry boat ride away. Today, the distance between the two lacks the barrier of religion, thankfully.

Recently, during a walking excursion on the terrace below my home my puppy rebelled against her leash and in the ensuing struggle the skin on the back of my hand was peeled back. Who should come to my rescue with a bandana to stop the bleeding – Eisendrath! Last night we had dinner together in town. Perhaps the world can learn from our example how to heal divisions and prejudices of long ago.

1 comment to Eisendrath and Valier: Same Place, Same Time. Different Result.

  • Bill Weber

    Charlie, Thanks for this great story. It took me back to my youth where I spent my summers away from my usual home and friends in Corning, NY so very much different in Pulteney from the friends I had in school.

    No special religious or ethnic differences, just a bunch of country fellows!

    Keep up the good work! Bill Weber