As I spoke about in my last post, the 20th Century Limited that ran between New York and Chicago was an iconic train and, in many ways, one of a kind. One aspect of the 20th Century Limited was the presence of Century Girls, modeled on airline stewardesses, who acted as hostesses on the train. I had the great pleasure of interviewing one of the Century Girls and, as you will see, their experiences onboard were incredibly interesting and rewarding to them.
I spoke with Joan Jennings Scalfani, now 80, who was a Century Girl for fifteen months in the early sixties. Joan was a New Yorker who had worked as a stewardess. She had a roommate who was a Century Girl, and who informed her that they were looking to hire more Century Girls. Joan was hired and was then well on her way to what may in fact have been the job of a lifetime.
I spoke with Joan about the job and who she met during those fifteen months. She explained that the job was similar in some respects to that of a stewardess, but in other respects very different. For example, she did not have to serve food and drinks, as on airplanes and, given the length of the trips, had much more of an opportunity to wander throughout the train and meet the travelers.
And, oh, what a prestigious roster that was. Joan spoke to me about walking through the dining car and greeting President and Mrs. Harry Truman, who were friendly and gracious. They then asked Joan to join them for breakfast. How exciting! It’s hard to imagine a current President being in such a position given current security needs. It’s also hard to imagine our current elected officials even slowing down long enough to dine in leisure and get where they’re going when they get there.
Joan also told the story of meeting Ernest Hemingway, who was traveling with Mary Welsh Hemingway, who was called Miss Mary. Joan was invited to call on them in their stateroom, which she did and had a lovely conversation with both Hemingway and Miss Mary. Sadly, this was the last train trip Hemingway ever made, as he committed suicide soon after.
Presidents, writers and also singers! Joan had the pleasure of calling on Lena Horne and her husband, Lennie Hayton, in their stateroom and having a interesting conversation. She notes that Lena was somewhat reserved, but Hayden was outgoing and both of them were charming people.
Joan recounted a story of meeting an old gentleman on the train, someone from the silent film era, called Harold. He was traveling the country via rail and visiting college campuses to promote silent films to the students. Harold offered to buy lunch for Joan in New York City, but she needed to return to her family and declined the nice offer. When she arrived home she told her father about the invitation and the conversations with Harold, and noted that she felt a bit sorry for him, traveling throughout the country trying to interest folks in silent films. Her dad informed her that she didn’t need to feel sorry for him, as he was Harold Lloyd, and he was one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, had kept copyright control of his films, and made more films than his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin.
Questioning Joan about the uniforms they wore, she noted that they were designed by Dior, in a light worsted wool and a river blue color. She was proud that they wore pillbox hats, which were all the rage at the time because Jackie Kennedy wore them.
I asked Joan if she would do it all over again and, of course, I knew the answer – yes, a thousand times over. These were the days that offered comfortable rail travel, when people weren’t in a rush, and when a President could invite a worker to dine with him and his wife. Might we ponder whether this genteel and gracious age could ever return?
Joan Jennings Scalfani will be appearing at the Parade of Trains at Grand Central Terminal on the weekend of May 10 – 12. For information, see