Jeanette McPherrin, ca. 1950–65.
© Walter R. Fleischer. Photograph Collection, wca00840, Wellesley College Archives. Library and Technology Services. Accessed [2022-08-31]

Jeanette McPherrin


Jeanette McPherrin (1911–92) studied at Scripps College and Claremont College, California, at Harvard University, and at the École Normale Supérieure de Sèvres. To Mrs Judy Harvey Sahak, Librarian, Scripps College, 1 May 1980: ‘I served as an Assistant in the French Department at Scripps while I worked on my Master’s degree in 1934, and the College sponsored me as a Franco-American exchange student in France the following year.’ She taught French at Reed School, Portland, Oregon, and at Kent School, Denver, Colorado (her home town), and went on to become Director of Admission at Scripps, 1939–43. Following war service in the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Navy, she worked at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts: as Dean of the Class of Freshmen, 1946–56; Dean of Freshmen and Sophomores from 1956; and she was a Lecturer in French from 1948 until retirement in 1975.

At Scripps, McPherrin was befriended by Hale, who asked her uncle and aunt Perkins to extend their hospitality to her in Chipping Campden in Aug.–Sept. 1934. McPherrin to Valerie Eliot (?1974/75):

I was a graduate student at Scripps College during the years that Emily Hale was a member of the faculty. I won a scholarship in 1934 to pay for a year of study at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Sèvres in the suburbs of Paris. The depression was in full swing and I was able to accept the award only because the father of a wealthy undergraduate offered me a round-trip ticket (San Francisco to San Francisco via the Panama Canal) in exchange for chaperoning his daughter during a month of travel in England. This was a windfall, if not quite a God-send since it left me with two and a half months of living to finance on my own before the opening of the universities in France. Emily Hale persuaded her relatives, the Perkins, to rent me a room at their house in Chipping Campden [from 27 Aug. 1934]. I stayed only a few weeks because Mrs Perkins invited me to move out when she had the opportunity to entertain some visiting Brahmin from Boston. I was glad to exchange my quarters for less pretentious ones in the home of the local bus driver and his wife. Because Emily had qualms of conscience about my eviction, I was still invited to meals quite frequently at Stamford House, included in excursions, and asked to help entertain weekend guests who were walkers, your husband among them. A common feeling for Dr and Mrs Perkins helped me to forget my intellectual inadequacies as I set out to explore the village with my celebrated walking companion.

Your husband was very kind to me during subsequent holidays which I spent with Emily in London and during my year in France when he provided letters to a number of interesting people. Since I was a very unsophisticated and rather gauche little Westerner, the doors which he opened for me, both through his introductions to people and through the advice he gave about my studies, were truly doors into an enchanted country …

As you will have surmised, I knew Emily Hale well, or perhaps “intimately” would be a better word. I was too inexperienced and unworldly a young woman to understand the sources and the depth of her self-preoccupation as I came in middle age to recognize the clues I’d picked up along my youthful path. If you will permit me the liberty of a personal remark in what was intended to be a business letter – I’ve been so happy to know that Tom had a real marriage of mutual love and shared dedication to spiritual and moral truths as well as to intellectual ones.

Of Emily Hale, McPherrin wrote further to Valerie Eliot, 19 Apr. 1976:

She was a very fine person and it was her most earnest desire to be a good woman. The circumstances of her life had created habits of introspection that led to an increasing preoccupation with her inner world. (As you probably know, her mother became hopelessly insane when Emily was a girl in her teens and was confined in a mental hospital in a Boston suburb until Emily was past sixty.) Her dramatic gifts made it possible for her to project scenes from the inner drama into the stage of her outward life. The result was a series of beautifully portrayed scenes that charmed and held the imagination of the observer. Mr [T. S.] Matthews [in Great Tom] has described the impression that she created on an audience of young people most effectively, though he was misinformed about the circumstances of her life and didn’t understand the sources of outwardly demonstrated attitudes. As a young woman I, like the young women Mr Matthews has described, was quite captivated by her. When I found her again after the War and the problems in my own family had taught me to read human nature with a more careful eye, I realized that what had seemed glamorous to me was really an unconscious compensation for the sufferings and disappointments of her family life. I do not believe that she would have been able to put aside her preoccupation and give herself fully to a life shared with another human being after the death of her father with whom she had shared so much. I do not mean to suggest that she was a hypocrite, a conscious self-dramatist. I’m sure she never dreamed that she was playing a series of beautiful roles in her associations with other people. The Perkins aggravated her problems. They were people with whom nobody could have had a real human relationship, and she kept feeling that she should be loving them!

Of TSE – who delighted in McPherrin’s company and took to addressing her, from an early stage, as ‘Jean’ and ‘Jeanie’ – she said: ‘I am grateful above all for the fact that he took me seriously as an intellectual being. He gave me a confidence in my capacity to arrive at valid conclusions through a reasoned consideration of available evidence which has affected both my career and my personal life. His deeply sensitive kindness was unique’ (EVE).

Valerie Eliot replied to McPherrin, 28 Apr. 1976: ‘I appreciate your scrupulousness with regard to Emily Hale and the Perkins and can assure you that what you say has been confirmed by my husband and other people’ (EVE carbon).

Writing to Judy Sahak, Librarian of Scripps College, 6 July 1980, McPherrin remarked that her own letters contained ‘no revelations about the relationship between Mr Eliot and Miss Hale … which modern readers would find unbelievably “proper” in the Victorian sense’.

In a letter to Valerie Eliot of 21 Dec. 1987 McPherrin recalled the day in 1934 when she first encountered TSE over tea at his office:

Because I still have a clear mental picture of ‘that small room overlooking Woburn Square’, I can see Tom sitting there with his diffident grace, quietly attentive to the words of all those ‘peculiarly difficult or peculiarly time-wasting’ people. I know that he really read and thoughtfully criticized literary aspirations, however preposterous, because he gave that kind of attention to a fatuous production of my student days. (It was a French-to-English translation of a life of Balzac written by a member of the French Academy.)

McPherrin to Valerie Eliot, 3 Oct. 1984: ‘My clearest memories of him include a mental picture of him sitting in a big armchair reading to us from the manuscript of his first poems about cats.’

On TSE’s centenary, 26 Sept. 1988, McPherrin to Valerie Eliot:

He was so unpretentiously kind and generous to me when I came to England as a young student on my way to a French university. The summer in Chipping Campden, in a household presided over by Emily’s mean old aunt and her lecherous old uncle, would have been a misery without his visits … Most gratefully I remember our talks about literature on walks to Willersey and Broadway.