The Mystery of the Lecherous Limerick

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

Everyone loves a good limerick. Though somewhat out of fashion these days—what has the man from Nantucket been up to?—that perennial poetic configuration of lowbrow humor can still get a smile when crafted properly. Everyone from Mark Twain to Shakespeare has tried their hand at putting together a good limerick: Stephano’s drinking song in The Tempest as well as the wine-drunk Iago’s barroom shanty “And let me the canakin clink” are both composed of the requisite five anapestic lines and AABBA rhyme scheme. Likely originating in France in the eleventh century (it’s true—the limerick didn’t even make it to Limerick until the 1700s) everyone reading this probably has that familiar rhythm in their heads. And if you didn’t, now you will:

The misspelled word in line two is supposed to be “guileless”–that gave me some trouble for a while

These paired verses have been stuck in my head since I cataloged the Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook (Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook, 1934-1937, Ms. Coll. 1422, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania). During processing, I was struck by both how much and how little I learned about Anne Sandwith Drinker—the author of the little ditty above—who was just graduating high school and beginning to head off to college when she started putting this scrapbook together in 1934.

I learned that Drinker’s friends and family referred to her almost exclusively as “Nancy,” which was the name written at the top of every letter and telegram pasted throughout the scrapbook. I learned that she rarely went a week, and never went two, without attending a play, ballet, or concert of some kind. I learned what her grades were in November of 1934 (she was quite a good student, but evidently her posture was abysmal—see the gym class grade below), and that she graduated from high school 57 years and one day before I was born. I learned that she liked to dance.

But scrapbooks are strange, even frustrating, in that for all the information you can glean about a person who puts one together—from pet names to academic standing (pun intended)—there is quite often little if anything written by that person included among its pages. Everything you can learn you get, literally, from the scraps of this-and-that that the author (is that even the right word?) comes across by fate or happenstance. Imagine telling your autobiography only through what you find in your pockets at the end of each day; then imagine some poor archival processor, nearly a century later, sifting through those odds and ends in search of the “real you.” Where do I even begin?

Needless to say, the Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook’s letters, playbills, magazine clippings, report cards, and sundry documentary bric-a-brac gave me a surfeit of what and a paucity of why. Where did the name “Nancy” come from anyway? What was her favorite play? Did she really slouch, or was her gym teacher just an insufferable hardass? In examining each page, I started to keep an eye out for anything that seemed like it might have been written by Drinker herself, for anything that might give me some whys to go with all my whats.

Aside from the occasional descriptive caption of a photograph or clipping, I was only able to locate a few substantive documents in Ms. Coll. 1422 that appear to have been written by Drinker herself. One is a brief paragraph in French about how beautiful Boston is in the wintertime—a composition, it seems, assigned in her French class, and not a bad one at that. There are also two original dramatic compositions, evidently written when Drinker was very young.

What Happened to the Widow’s Daughter is actually quite fun, and shows both that Drinker’s obsession with the theater was truly lifelong and that she had a preternatural sense of what makes a good story.

But then there’s that limerick. That’s the one that stuck with me. See, in researching Drinker, I found that she married Hans Handforth Zinsser, a student of her father’s, just two years after her scrapbook leaves off. Part of me was hoping for some evidence of budding romance—playbills and dinner invitations are all well and good, but I tend to find that love letters are much more interesting. Evidently hers was a whirlwind romance, because there is no evidence that Nancy and Hans even crossed paths aside from (possibly) at a dinner party hosted by the former’s mother. Drinker in fact seemed to be the object of another’s affections, namely one Bob Murphy, a quite funny young man who also happened to be a student of her father’s. Bob would often visit Nancy at Vassar, where she studied, and he apparently became a more or less constant companion in her frequent social outings during her early college years. When not by her side, Murphy would send her a fairly steady stream of cheeky notes and telegrams—often anonymously or pseudonymously—which seem to me to imply a good deal more than their laconic form may at first betray (see below).

Pasted among several of these notes and telegrams is that strange and provocative little limerick, written in Drinker’s hand and certainly about herself, being as she was “a young lady from Brookline.” Given its placement and the apparent relationship between Drinker and Murphy at the time, I can’t help but think Murphy is the “manly sire” of the second verse. Of course, I learned years ago not to read poetry biographically and everyone knows that limericks are supposed to be humorously lecherous, but still—that little scrap certainly felt like it gave me more insight into the inner life of the young woman who put this fascinating scrapbook together. And it gave me a bit of the romance I was hoping for, even if it does leave me thinking that there are even more mysteries in the Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook than I could ever begin to tease out.

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