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Book Report: A poor little rich girl, others reminisce

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Peg Meier has hit the jackpot.

Peg is a former colleague of mine and has written a passel of bestselling books of popular history, including "Bring Warm Clothes," gleaned from newspaper reports and the rich data stored at the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Last year, she wrote another hummer, called "Wishing for a Snow Day," which required research about how kids have lived in Minnesota for the past 150 years. In her research at the society, she ran across an old diary written by Clotilde "Coco" Irvine, of the famous and fabulously wealthy Irvine family.

Coco grew up on Summit Avenue, in a mansion that is now the governor's home. Her father was Horace H. Irvine, an executive of the Weyerhaeuser Company. That family was the family that F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to come from. Unfortunately, the Fitzgeralds were nouveau riche and only owned a chain of hardware stores and so they couldn't compete.

But the Irvine family could. Coco's brother Tom ended up marrying Sally Ordway, whose family managed to finance the St. Paul concert hall that bears their name.

Growing up in the Irvine mansion "Coco" began keeping a diary when she was 13. That's the one Peg Meier discovered and had the brains to get it published as "Through No Fault of my Own: A Girl's Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age" (University of Minnesota Press, $12.95).

Coco was something of a brat, playing pranks at the exclusive Summit School for girls (now part of St. Paul Academy), like purloining silverware from the school cafeteria because she didn't like the food served or starting the fire alarm when she hadn't prepared for her Latin test.

And of course there's love. Coco has several crushes (even rich kids have them), but they never turn out.

She also has run-ins with her mother and her father, especially after returning from Saturday dance class and reporting at dinner a dirty joke an older kid told her that she didn't understand.

Not that she wasn't bright. She comments on the comments made by her parents to good advantage and when the diary ends a year later you can't help admiring the feisty and beautiful little girl who was born into the lap of luxury.

And so what happened to Coco?

This is where Peg Meier comes in and why I didn't much appreciate the Star Tribune review of her new book. The reviewer liked the diary, but never mentioned the excellent introduction and conclusion of the diary contributed by Meier, who explains what happened to Coco.

Coco married well, but her husband St. Paul socialite Creighton Churchill died young. Then she married another St. Paul bigshot, who turned out to be an alcoholic.

With little money, Coco and her kids managed to stay in a big house in St. Paul's tenderloin on Goodrich Avenue. Her daughter Vicki told Meier that Coco's parents gave her an allowance of $300 per month, which amounted to $5,000 per month in today's U.S. dollars, but she was no good at managing money and Meier was told by her daughter that she remembers curling up in expensive furs at the Goodrich Avenue residence because Coco couldn't afford to pay her fuel bill.

If this isn't a Midwest version of "Grey Gardens," the story of Jackie Kennedy's cousin, I don't know what is. Fortunately, the diary is going to be made into a play at St. Paul's History Theatre.

And fortunately, unlike the poor girl in "Grey Gardens," Coco survived her difficult early womanhood to become a social doyenne on the St. Paul scene.

Lots of concern of late has been voiced about the future of history. Although history shows are popular on TV and books of popular history continue to roll out from publishers large and small, the study of history as an academic subject has declined over the years on college campuses.

Who better to discuss this problem than 87-year-old John Lukacs, who has more than 30 books to his credit including, "June,1941" reviewed on these pages?

His new book, "The Future of History" (Yale University Press, $26), is a clear-eyed look at recent developments which Lukacs isn't afraid to take shots at, including quantitative historians, who, one wag said, would weigh the nails on Christ's cross if they were doing a history of Christianity.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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