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Great-Aunt Gertie and the 1939 Expo

For months, one Californian lost herself in the sights of the San Francisco extravaganza. Her diary is almost as good as being there.

July 30, 2006|Ellen Kaye | Ellen Kaye is the coauthor of "The Wine Guy." Her work has also been published in the New York Times and CHOW magazine.

"Miss Gertrude Kaiser, who is not only a native daughter (and proud of it) but the daughter of a native daughter, arrived in our editorial sanctum on Women's Day, Sept. 18, in a high state of dudgeon. She thrust under our nose a clipping from a city daily claiming as how a Fresno woman had some sort of a record for seeing our Fair 65 times. Miss Kaiser fairly snorted at such a low down, lazy attendance. Said she: 'I'VE been to this fair 105 times this year and by the time it's over (12 more days) I shall have been here for my 117th visit. I consider it a privilege to attend the Exposition. Wherever the eye turns there is loveliness and grandeur.'" (Ed. -- Can anyone challenge Miss Kaiser's record? If anyone does, we'll bet she'll be pretty mad.)

--Treasure Island News, Sept. 27, 1940

I had always been told that my Great-Aunt Gertie was sort of eccentric. (I believe "nuts" was the word I heard most often.) She was long dead, and I had never met her, so I had to rely on the impressions of others. That is, until a few months ago, when I opened the box.

It had been gathering dust in my apartment since it had arrived from San Francisco, shipped to myself, by myself, following the heavy-hearted day four years ago when my siblings and I hastily divvied up my deceased uncle's possessions. The yellowed article from the Treasure Island News was tucked away between a batch of sepia studio portraits, which followed Gertie as she grew from forlorn toddler to dour spinster, and a deed for a single plot at Cypress Lawn, purchased by a 58-year-old Gertie in 1937, some 30-odd years before her death.

So maybe the article was confirmation that she was a nut. But at least she seemed to be an interesting nut. I had to know more. I called my brother in Marin, and a week later I had my hands on Gertie's day-by-day account of her record-breaking excursions to the fair.

Built to commemorate the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, the Golden Gate International Exposition drew millions of visitors during its 1939 and 1940 runs, each visitor recorded on the giant cash register that dominated the Central Square of the fair. To its left, the magnificent statue of Pacifica loomed over the Court of the Seven Seas, like a benevolent goddess beckoning the public into a make-believe world where all men were brothers, all lands beautiful and fascinating, and where the West was, by far, the best.

The winds have banished the clouds in promise of a golden day to bless the birth of the exposition, when the Phoenix claps its wings and hails the opening of the Pacific Pageant to the pressing throng. The sirens call, the bells clang a chorus of welcome to the Fair and I am off to Treasure Island, Gertie wrote on Feb. 18, 1939. Over the course of the fair's combined 12-month duration, she'd spend 277 days strolling among the crowds along the Court of the Moon, through the Vacationland Building and past the Cavalcade of the Golden West, with its live pageant celebrating four centuries of Manifest Destiny, complete with conquistadors, stagecoaches, steam engines, Indians on horseback and a curtain made of 2,500 jets of water, sparkling with colored lights.

Only inclement weather, religious holidays, her late mother's birthday or an occasional game of mah-jongg could keep Gertie from claiming her usual seat to hear Goldman's marching band in the Court of Honor, from getting her free coffee at the El Salvador pavilion or from visiting Willie Vocalite, the talking, smoking electronic robot who lived in the Westinghouse exhibit.

These were hard and anxious times. As the fair got underway, 17% of Americans were unemployed. Madison Square Garden had just housed a huge Nazi rally, and Fascist cells were reportedly popping up all over the country. During that summer, Hitler and Stalin were busy dividing Eastern Europe among themselves, and the last remaining Jewish businesses in Germany were being forced to close. Great Britain and France were getting ready to declare war on Germany. By fall, Roosevelt was being urged to hurry up with the development of the atomic bomb. And day after day, my Aunt Gertie pinned on her henna hat and laced up her sensible shoes to join the throngs clambering aboard the ferry, eager to bury their heads in the silt of the 400-acre paddy dredged from the bay to house the Pageant of the Pacific. There they would be blissfully blinded by a Neverland of flowering trees and sumptuous gardens, majestic statues, romantic pavilions, shimmering pools and prancing fountains.

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