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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Ideas of masculinity and class drive Durr's family into debt

Because part of her father's definition of masculinity was his ability to provide every important status symbol for his family, her parents fell deeper and deeper into debt during her late teenage years. This caused turmoil with his wife and insecurity in his children.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Daddy was either very up or down, Mother used to say it was like riding the elevator. He was always very enthusaistic or busy with something, he was going to make a million dollars. He was always investing money in oil, for instance, and the oil wells always came out dry.
CLIFFORD DURR:
But whether up or down, he was always articulate.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Always articulate and then if he was down, he was the downest you can imagine.
CLIFFORD DURR:
Everybody else had to be down with him.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, he would say he was a failure and make everybody perfectly miserable and he would just pour out his frustrations and his grief and his disappointments, just drown Mother and all of us in them when he was down. You see, he was such a contradictory man because he was highly educated and he was terribly interested in things, he would read the paper from cover to cover and he was very interested in foreign affairs and interested in what was going on in Washington, he had a really bright mind and read everything in the world. He always waked up about three o'clock and read to about five o'clock. He read a great deal and kept up with things. He took The Literary Digest and he read it from cover to cover, that was kind of the intellectual journal of the day. But at the same time, you see, he was so full of these total contradictions about race and class and women, you know what I mean. So, his mind and his emotions were so totally at variance. Does that make any sense to you at all?
SUE THRASHER:
Yes.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Then, he felt so guilty. You can't imagine how guilty he felt because he wasn't making money and wasn't rich. He felt such a failure. You see, in those days, if a man didn't make money and couldn't support his family in the right style, he was a terrible failure.
SUE THRASHER:
How about his brothers in Union Springs?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, his brothers had done better, you see. His brother Robert, his oldest brother was judge in St. Louis, he made a lot of money in rice and one of his sons got to be head of the Arkansas Power and Light Company and so, they were very rich in a way. Then, his other brother, Hugh, was head of the bank and then he got to be on the Federal Reserve, didn't he, in Atlanta?
CLIFFORD DURR:
I think that he was in the Federal Reserve System and pretty high up in it, I can't quite remember.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
So, he did better than Daddy, too, as far as making money was concerned. So, Daddy really had this awful feeling of failure, you see. It was the same thing about being run out of the church, he took a stand for the truth there, he refused to lie and to be a hypocrite and he really did a very noble act by saying that he did not believe that the whale swallowed Jonah. At the same time, the consequences of it, having to go to work selling insurance, just nearly killed him. He thought that it was the most degrading thing to have to go around asking poor white people or blacks or just people to buy insurance from him. He just hated it. He did it, but he didn't like it. He wasn't a good business man, he was always trying to get rich by investing in real estate and of course, Birmingham had booms and busts, you see. A lot of the real estate, if you could have held on to it, he might have been a rich man, but he was very . . . if Mother wanted a big house or a Packard automobile, he got her one whether he had to borrow money for it or borrow on the real estate or the farms or the plantation. Then, he sent me off to Wellesley and he couldn't afford to do that, I'm sure, but he did it. So, he was always doing more than he could afford to do. He just couldn't admit to Mother that he was broke, that he was getting so poor. She knew it, but she couldn't accept it either, really. She would find the bills, she would hide them. Mother would hide bills-stick them behind the cushions of the sofa or the pictures on the wall; she couldn't bear herself to give him the bills, until they started calling up over the telephone. It's kind of like Mr. McCawber in a way, but not really as cheerful as Mr. McCawber. You remember him in David Copperfield? Well, anyway, there was always this feeling of the debts never being quite paid, but in any case, they did send me off to Wellesley. You see, I was conscious of all this at the time and it made me somewhat unhappy, but at the same time, I was like most young people, I was only eighteen and I was absorbed with myself.