Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Encounters at Chicago's International House

The first in an occasional series about where John Bellairs lived during his time in Chicago.

The International House of Chicago (1414 E. 59th Street) is a student residence for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students on the University of Chicago campus. John Bellairs moved here when began graduate work in 1959 and remained a resident there until around 1961. He may have returned to live there later during his later years as a student in Chicago.

Moving In

Moving to Chicago meant "making as clean a break from South Bend's monastic living arrangements as possible," and because Alfred Myers lived near Chicago, he went apartment hunting the summer after graduation. He remembers coming up empty-handed, finding the campus as an "oasis" in a "slummy" and dangerous area of Chicago's south side.

"I did make a perfunctory effort, but those I found were more appropriate to staging The Lower Depths or Porgy and Bess or some such similar classic rather than living in. I was accused of not looking very hard, and they were right - but we had the International House to fall back on [2]."

The intent of the dormitory was spelled out in its name: to provide cross-cultural encounters between Americans and international students in a roughly 50-50 ratio. Dubbed "I-House" by the hip and "Int-House" by most everyone else [3], the looming structure was completed in 1932 with monetary contributions from the John D. Rockefeller Foundation. Notre Dame English Professor Joe Duffy lived there as a student and recommended it to Bellairs and Myers. Myers doesn't recall any particular requirements or guidelines for living there: "It was a first-come, first-served basis, though I'm pretty sure it was reserved for graduate students, a safe assumption as the graduate student population greatly outnumbers the comparatively small undergraduate college [2]."

Inside Activities

Myers remembers living on the seventh floor ("more or less in the front and center of the building [2]") but does not recall Bellairs's exact location. Rooms were single-occupancy and sparser than Notre Dame's, with communal toilets and showers. Also, there were separate wings for men and women students in those days: "visitation, cohabitation, or whatever you want to call it was permitted on Sunday afternoons. This proved to be only a theoretical advantage to me (and I believe the rest of the group) because we didn't find anybody else there worth visiting or cohabiting with [2]."

Elsewhere, the building had a large lobby downstairs with a lounge, a separate television room, a large function room, and a cafeteria serving mediocre food at low prices ("the cafeteria was home to our frequent bull sessions [2]").

Bellairs and Myers took advantage ("to the extent our workloads allowed [2]") of some of the cultural offerings of living in International House, with movies being the biggest draw. Having frequented theaters in their undergraduate years, Myers remembered some differences from those offered at Notre Dame, such as a Darwin festival and a series of Russian film classics sponsored by the Young Socialist League.

"I do believe that it was there that Bellairs and I saw Kurosawa's Rashomon and Seven Samurai, plus the first two films or Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, Pather Panchelli and Aparajito. We skipped the third, The World of Apu, because, frankly, we were both tired of Indians by that time."

As far as other interactions with international students, Myers recalled participating in an informal chess tournament sponsored by one group. Also, upon receiving news of Patrice Lumumba's assassination in the Congo, a bunch of Americans chanted, "Lumumba's dead! Lumumba's dead!" until an African woman shouted at them, "One day an American will die, and I will celebrate!"

"Chalk up another one to international brotherhood and understanding! Despite that, there was one Pakistani fellow in John's group that we became quite friendly with; however, we made no lasting friendships with any foreigners. Anyway, I missed out on a lot of interaction because of my propensity to go home on weekends [2]!"

Robert Yaple recalled how wonderfully weird living in the I-House was:

"When I (an innocent who'd graduated from the University of Kansas) arrived there in October 1959, I was puzzled to receive an official notice – repeated periodically – that 'Residents are warned NOT to throw things out of the windows of their rooms.' It was not until that quarter was almost over I learned the 'things' referred not to superannuated class notes, empty beer cans, or even used condoms, but to the contents of the Indian women's chamber pots, which they persisted in emptying without leaving their rooms [3]."

One event of note that Myers remembered was the Academy Awards telecast in either 1960 or 1961. "Several weeks before the program, a major police scandal had erupted in Chicago. It was later revealed the cops were routinely casing various clothing, jewelry, or other stores to set them up for robbery by the local Mafia. Bob Hope, who was emceeing the Oscars that year, opened the show by gazing out at the auditorium, saying, 'I've never seen so many fabulous jewels, expensive gowns and furs in one place before. It looks like the basement of a Chicago police station!' That gag cracked up our local audience [2]."

Moving On

Bellairs lived here until the spring of 1961, packing up and moving into an apartment with friends Dale Fitschen, John Moriarty, and Lewis McFarlane for a few months. Following his return from Winona, Bellairs may have again lived here around 1966, when he lived in room 667 [1].


[1] Publication of the Modern Language Association; September 1966 (p.91, Vol 81, No 4).
[2] Correspondence with Alfred Myers.
[3] Correspondence with Robert Yaple.

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