Club puts 50 years in the books
Barbara Simon of Highland Park looks at some photographs before the start of the Sherry Literary book club at a member's home in Northfield September 27, 2012. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
There is Absolutely Nothing Like Sherry Lit
By the late Priscilla “Priss” Chapin
We choose books ... with some debate,
Nor, as critics, hesitate
To express, or to withhold, our approbation.
‘Though books be grave or sentimental
We never fail to be judgmental
And every session is a revelation,
Though our “meeting-of-the-minds”
[One quite naturally finds]
Is a traffic jam, it’s great communication;
We shift all our mental gears
As each cogent view appears
And our brain cells jump about in agitation
It’s a small wonder we are merry ...
We are LIT, by books and sherry!
Updated: November 5, 2012 6:36AM
GLENCOE — Many North Shore women’s clubs that were founded 50 years ago have since withered and died.
Those still alive are likely as not being propped up by a skeleton crew. People have turned inward over the years, concentrating on their own families.
Yet, the monthly Sherry Lit book club, founded to entertain Glencoe housewives 50 years ago, still has 25 members — many more members, in fact, than in the ’60s.
Sherry Lit’s founders foresaw the trend, and created a club that was a woman’s oasis from family life, and proud of it.
One of the most important rules: get a baby-sitter.
Members’ children were banned from the parties, seasoned as they were by the namesake drink of choice, circa 1962.
There’s a lot less sherry or any other alcohol being partaken of now, but all the kids are grown up, and sitters aren’t needed anymore. It’s easier to plan a monthly date, as long as there’s sufficient time to read the book.
New members are admitted only when somebody leaves ... for one reason or another.
“We decided to keep the numbers down,” Barbara Diettrich said. “You get much over 22, and they get pretty mouthy.”
But in the 50th anniversary session, when the subject was 2011’s “In the Garden of Beasts,” by Erik Larson, mouthy-ness was rare. Very seldom did more than one person speak at once.
There were ample differences of opinion, however, about the true story of a pre-war U.S. ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his family. Sometimes Jean Howlett, a Glencoe woman who seemed to be the unofficial moderator, gave the nod to those who signaled a desire to speak.
But much of the time, the give and take seemed to be governed by telepathy.
These are women who know each other very well. The newest member has been coming for five years.
They’re friends, who nevertheless disagree about important things.
Northfield’s Jean Skrak noted that Ambassador William Dodd had been convinced in 1933 that Nazi violence was not endemic, and he didn’t call for U.S. action until later because “he was a wimp.”
Angela Flocco of Wilmette added, “He was almost too accommodating, too kind.”
“He was a diplomat, and he was diplomatic,” differed Susan Moss. “He saw this wasn’t right, but our government didn’t want to get involved,” the Evanston woman said.
“He was very selfish,” Glenview’s Peggy Paulsen Nelson interjected. “He just wanted to write his book.”
Glencoe’s Roberta Olshansky added, Larson “portrayed him as a bit of a dip. Dodd had a bit of anti-Semitism in him. He just wanted to talk to the Nazis.”
“He did something that was not namby-pamby,” Pat McGuiness, of Northfield, said. “When there was that huge Nazi rally at Nuremburg, he got three other ambassadors not to go.”
Lucy Hayes of Evanston put in that after Dodd saw how violent the society had actually become, he was a rock. “Once he figured out what was happening, he never let it go.”
At the end, they all seemed to reconcile themselves to just what many historians have — that it was hard to tell, even up close, just how bad the Nazis had become — until it was too late.
They then got into a discussion about how citizens should police themselves.
“As they said about Hitler, if you tell a big enough lie, they believe you,” Moss said.
“If you abdicate leadership, somebody is going to fill it,” Barbara Simon, of Highland Park, said.
The attending membership felt a lot less charitable about Dodd’s daughter Martha than Dodd. That free spirit apparently slept with the head of the Gestapo, a Russian spy and several other interesting friends and enemies of her country before eventually marrying a rich American. She herself became a Soviet agent, though a very ineffective one.
The Sherry Lit members pretty much all disrespected Martha Dodd, but they also agreed that the book would have been pretty dry without her.
Diettrich, alone, spoke up for the young woman.
“She was a girl with a strong sex drive,” she said. “Come on girls, give her a break.”
Her comment was in the spirit of the club. Long ago, the late member Gerry Peterson told Diettrich, “My husband came home one evening, (and) noticing the empty bottles of sherry in the trash, asked, ‘What’s this?’
She responded, “When you read ‘Anna Karenina’ and Emma Bovary, all that adultery makes you thirsty.”
Diettrich’s opinion about Martha Dodd, however, may not have been taken seriously because moments before, she admitted to realizing she’d accidentally broken the only real rule the modern club retains.
“I have to tell you, I didn’t read this book,” she said.
Instead, she had read “Garden of Beasts,” a 2004 potboiler set in the same time and place, and also named after the Tiergarten, the big park perfect for pets in the middle of Berlin.
“It’s an excellent book by Jeffery Dever,” she said to roars of happy laughter. “It’s a mystery. Very exciting.”
She and Helen Turley, who still lives in Glencoe, were the only two original members in attendance last week.
Diettrich and her husband retired to a Wisconsin horse farm years ago, but she still drives about 47 miles each month to see her friends.
That was the exact mileage to McGuiness’ house in Northfield last Thursday.
The club long ago stopped being a Glencoe thing. Any particular month, the ladies might be at one another’s houses in Winnetka, Wilmette, Lake Forest, Evanston, Northbrook, Glenview, Highland Park or St. Charles.