Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Peg Meier: Unearthing Coco Irvine (1914-1975) from the MHS archives

Clotilde "Coco" Irvine Moles (1914-1975), daughter of a lumber baron, grew up with sister Olivia Irvine Dodge in a mansion on fashionable Summit Avenue at a time when music, art, and women's social status were all in a state of flux and the economy was still flying high. Here, popular Minnesota author Peg Meier recounts how she found Coco's diary in the Minnesota Historical Society archives and why she decided to get it published.

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BY PEG MEIER
Former Star Tribune reporter and popular author. Meier wrote the introduction and afterword to Through No Fault of My Own.

A treasure hunt, that’s what it is.

For fun, I sift through archives of the Minnesota Historical Society. Some days, nothing golden shows up. Other days, bonanza!

Clotilde "Coco" Irvine at age five.
A lumber baron's daughter, Coco grew
up in a twenty-room mansion on
St. Paul's prestigious Summit
Avenue at the peak of the Jazz Age.
One of my best finds was the 1927 diary of a St. Paul girl. Her name was Coco Irvine, and she turned 13 that January. Her one-year diary made it clear she was smart, funny, adventurous and prone to getting into trouble. Lots of trouble.

Such as:
-Helping herself to her older sister’s car and crashing into her mother’s.
-Repeatedly bouncing a basketball against a school wall and “accidentally” setting off the fire alarm.
-Going gaga over boys.
-Telling a dirty joke at the family dinner table.

You get the idea.

Yet Coco rarely accepted responsibility for her actions. Hence, the title of the resulting book, Through No Fault of My Own, her frequent disclaimer.

I was giggling as I read the diary, but I was in the Historical Society’s somber library so I tried to contain myself. This has got to be published, I thought.
At the time of “discovery,” I was working on a book about childhood in Minnesota, from the 1830s on. I was searching for stories written by kids and for reminiscences of childhood, plus fun old photographs. Coco was perfect for it.

Pieces of Coco’s diary made it into my book Wishing for a Snow Day: Growing Up in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010). But I could just envision Coco’s diary as a little book, with every word of the diary and pictures of this charming kid. Who was she? She seemed to be from a rich family; was she? What happened to her in adulthood?

At Cloverdale Farm, Coco, almost
14, gets a ride on a fine-looking
horse. On Christmas Day, 1926,
12-year-old Coco received a blank
diary, in which she recorded her
adventures, problems, and romances.
Well ... it turns out you may have been in the house where Coco was raised. It’s on glorious Summit Avenue in St. Paul — and it is now the Minnesota Governor’s Residence. Their father was a wealthy lumber baron, and the 20-room mansion features remarkable woods from around the world. In 1965, Coco and her younger sister, Olivia Irvine Dodge, donated the family home to the state.

Yikes. This story was getting better and better. I needed more.

Coco died in 1975 at the age of 61, I learned. Her sister was living. Olivia Dodge welcomed me to her West St. Paul mansion. She told me all about Coco. Later I got to meet Coco’s only child, her gracious daughter, Vicki Ford.

From them, I learned about Coco’s later life: her marriage to the man of her dreams, his early death, her kidnapping, her fears, her achievements. For a self-confident kid, Coco’s adulthood didn’t turn out as I expected. (For details, you MUST read the book’s afterword. I don’t want to spoil the surprises.)

The University of Minnesota Press — specifically senior acquisitions editor Todd Orjala — swept it up. He had me write the foreword and afterword, collect photos and put the whole thing into context.

Meanwhile, the History Theatre — specifically Ron Peluso, artistic director — in downtown St. Paul also loved Coco. He and playwright Bob Beverage wrote a play, “Coco’s Diary,” based closely on the diary. It opens March 3rd, 2012. It’s utterly charming. I can testify to that because the theater had two readings, one in the theater and one on the backyard patio of the Governor’s Residence. The audiences were wild about Coco.

So the 1927 story of this 13-year-old girl will be heard, for years to come. She should inspire kids to creatively misbehave — and write about it!

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Read more about Through No Fault of My Own.

See what Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews think about Coco's diary.

Peg Meier will be reading at the launch event for this book at 2PM on Saturday, April 16th, at Virginia Street Swedenborgian Church in St. Paul (sponsored by Common Good Books). She will also be reading at 7:30PM on Monday, April 18th, at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis.

"An unrepentant attention-seeker, Coco gets into frequent trouble at home and at school, but her exuberance, defiance, and sweetness will win over readers from her first entry. Photos of Coco and an afterword about her (fairly tragic) adult life round out an otherwise blithe glimpse into the past."
—Publishers Weekly

3 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful story. Thank you for bringing it to light.

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  2. Hi Peg, great post. I look forward to reading Coco's diary myself. But, the library reading room is not that somber, you can laugh out loud, I do it all the time.

    Hamp Smith

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  3. I loved the book/ diary! I can totally relate to what Coco went through because I am the same age as she was when she wrote her diary. Thank you for opening up this book for young readers like me.

    ~Luci

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