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Dr. Irvine Page No. 03 [February 1, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0573
Run Time
0h 18m 33s
Date Produced
February 1 1987
Q: Otis Skinner read the Penrod stories in manuscript to you?
A: Otis Skinner was living at our house, and Tarkington brought the manuscript out, and he read it aloud to us, and the question was: was it a good manuscript? Skinner said that it was . . . it was great. We loved it, of course. We saw the play later with Greg Kelly. You probably don't know who Greg Kelly was, but Greg was a very well-known actor in those days, so we thoroughly enjoyed the thing. I know that . . . .
Q: So you were among the first people to hear Penrod?
A: Yes. Of course Penrod was written by people we knew. You know, Herman, Sherman, and Verman? That's part of Penrod. Well, that's all beside the point. We were talking about the environment. I think the environment was good because it let you do what you wanted to do. There wasn't any particular encouragement, but there wasn't any discouragement. So if you had any particular talent, it would be quite apparent; you would begin to do it. And I think that's why Ruth went her way, I went my way, and my older brother went the other way. He went into business down in Florida with Carl Fisher and people like that.
     The other advantage was that you had a chance during the course of your youth to make contact and get to know people that today you never could know, never could know. As I look back on it, I have literally dozens of people that I have met and knew slightly, so that if I ever wanted them or was interested in them, they would be glad to do something about it. I didn't have any feeling that they were celebrities and that I couldn't speak to them. Like Pavlova . . . sure, I knew that she was the "Madame" and all that, but I felt perfectly free to talk to her and the rest of the company. You see, it was my contact with the ballet. I was always peripheral, but today I wouldn't think of going down there. They would wonder what is a doctor doing backstage, is somebody sick?
     It was a quiet, peaceful atmosphere that allowed you to develop your own talents. I think there's much to be said for it. As I look today, where these kids are shuttled around by their mothers, rushing from here to there and everywhere, all being taught tap dancing, jazz, ballet, this, that and the other thing, I wonder. You know, people don't learn things that way unless they want to. It's like we were talking before about diet. We have been talking about diet for thirty years, and when you see what the kids are being fed at noon by most of the schools, it makes you wonder if it's worth anything at all to try to teach people about diet. So that's the environment that Ruth was brought up in. It was not unusual that she could go into professional ballet, even though nobody even knew anybody who went into professional ballet. When Baryshnikov [Nureyev] and people like that came, they were coming into a world of their own. Once in a while, some of them would come and stay with Ruth until they could get established. Now, they're big shots. You don't get established anymore -- you are the big ones.
Q: Could you make sort of a little list of all the people who surrounded you in your childhood? I know that you've mentioned them, but so I could have them all in one place -- James Whitcomb Riley and Otis Skinner . . . .
A: I suppose that as I think of actually where they lived, Janet Flanner was the one right across the street. Farther up the line was Judge Elliott, subsequently president of John Hancock and a very well-known judge, then Meredith Nicholson, the well-known author, I guess Lew Wallace lived near us. I don't think I remember him although I am told I do remember him, but I don't think I do. Then, Booth Tarkington and James Whitcomb Riley. You see, many of these people were patients of my father's, so we got to know them quite well. Riley, we saw a good deal of him. He was a regular patient. I think he liked to come and just talk with Father, because I couldn't imagine why he would always be showing up. He gave me a teething cup. You know what a teething cup is? And it says, "A couplet to a little Page" . . . which was the inscription on the thing, which was rather cute. Those were the people, other than the business people, that were sort of in our circle of people that we knew.
     I don't think that the business people were quite as important in those days, because large sums of money didn't exist, except with the Rockefellers and people like that. We got to see the tail end of that when we first went to Cleveland where the Rockefeller influence was still present, but still very raw. A lot of people had been burnt by Mr. Rockefeller. They remembered him only too well, and they weren't anxious to be full of praise for Mr. Rockefeller or oil or anything else. Much of this sort of thing began during that period.
Q: Dr. Page, I've wondered about it. It's all very well and good for you to say that it was just kind of an ordinary midwestern childhood and just ordinary people came to the house; that's the way things were in those days. It seems to me that it's unlikely to be accidental that both you and your sister should have turned out to be people who have made very, very, very substantial accomplishments. Is there something that you have thought about that was part of your upbringing, something in your childhood, that made you both so successful later in life?
A: Now, you've touched on a very difficult problem. How much is genetic and how much is environmental? The scientific world is never going to solve that one, I don't think. You just have to say, well, maybe we've got good genes, but I suppose the only thing you can identify really is what was the environment we lived in that allowed these genes, if indeed they were that good, to develop? That's the only thing I can think of, because I was born in the era when they weren't counting genes under the microscope.
     So there, I'd have to say that I think it was the quiet peaceful environment of a moderately intellectual world where we heard good music. Mother played music. We were expected . . . when the Chicago Symphony came, we went to the symphony. We went to the theater. We got to know people in the theater, so that none of these things were foreign to us. Today, they are very foreign to people. I don't think many people would know much about a symphony, for instance, in the sense that they would know the tympani player, they would know the conductor, the violinist. We do. That was so because we lived in a world where nothing was denied us. They weren't particularly paying any attention to us; we were just there. We were allowed to know these people. I think that and the peace and quiet were the things that allowed you to be more reflective, and you thought little by little, perhaps, you might say unconsciously, about what it is that you are going into. And my life has been just a series of strange events which I couldn't have anticipated.
     But, on the other hand, I wasn't unprepared for instance when, as an intern, I was invited to form a department of brain chemistry in a German institute that I had never heard of, and I didn't know what brain chemistry was . . . yet, there it was. As I look back on it, I think, "You were a perfect idiot. Why would you accept a job like that? You don't know anything about it?" Of course not. I didn't know anything about it, but when I got into it, I found that nobody else knew anything about it either. That was where I was lucky. So in a sense, I was the first brain chemist. But the rough part of it was that when you try to sell yourself in those days as a brain chemist, people had never heard of such a thing. It was nonsense.
Q: You know, you sound a bit like your sister describing when she was asked to come and be a choreographer for the Ravinia Opera. She said, "Well, I don't know anything about doing it, but just went ahead and did it, and I was lucky. It all worked out." I don't think that luck has much to do with it.
A: Well, call it luck if you like, but I think it's more that you have learned to accept the changes in life which are unanticipated, and they're very radical. If you approach it without any fear, you just say, "Well, I didn't know anything about it, but you asked me to do it, so I'll do it." Then you get into it and find out nobody else was doing it either. Then as you look back on it sixty of seventy years later, you think, "Believe it or not, I was a pioneer." But by that time, nobody cares whether you're a pioneer or not, so it's all right to say it.
Q: Can you describe for us the first time you saw your sister dance professionally?
A: Well, I honestly don't remember when I first saw her dance professionally. You see, she had been dancing professionally with Diaghilev and Pavlova and then Adolph Bolm.
     When I was in medical school and in Germany, I really lost track of her as a dancer, except that she would write me, "Would you go to a dance congress and meet your wife?" So, I did that. Our relationship has been very nice, very undemanding. Ruth is a remarkably nice person to know, because I never feel concerned, even though I'm her brother. If she wants me, she will call me, and if she doesn't, she doesn't call me. We don't have to feel that we ever have to get in touch with each other. She's a very likable person. I like Ruth and we've gotten along. We've never quarreled over the years, and we've always liked each other, and that's about the way it's gone. I don't remember, I suppose I saw her in the Broadway musical?
Q: Music Box Revue?
A: Music Box Revue, yes. I think that was the first time I saw her professionally. I was so entranced by the Music Box Revue itself that I didn't pay too much attention to Ruth, although I do remember that she was a very beautiful person. I remember a big skirt. Billy Gaxton was the comedian. Why I would remember that name when I can't remember the person I met yesterday . . . . I think of these absolutely ridiculous things that come out of the recesses of your mind, and what they're doing there, I haven't the slightest idea. I haven't thought of Billy Gaxton since the Music Box Revue in probably 1921 or something like that. I never met him. I laughed at him, but that was all.
Q: Your sister's career. Did you ever know what happened with Frankie and Johnny? That her ballet was nearly banned in Boston and that it created a scandal?
A: Yes. I sort of knew that. I didn't know too much about it. Tom was a very domineering person in a sense, and he took charge of these things. He loved the aura and glamour of ballet. That was Tom's meat; he loved it. Ruth was lucky in that sense, because he was a very efficient businessman and lawyer, very argumentative, but still he won cases and took over all of that aspect of Ruth's life. So I heard very little of it. I knew that she was looked upon as being a little peculiar, in particular, putting on black ballets and things like that, which, at that time, were not considered the thing to do.
Q: Where does . . . is there a place that you can see in the background that you share that would make her sort of a trailblazer?
A: Well, again I refer back to our environment. I think that we both came up in an environment which was calculated to let you take care of yourself, and I don't think Ruth ever worried about color or anti-Semitism or anything. She just thought that if it was the right thing to do, she just went ahead and did it and seemed quite oblivious to criticism. I can remember that she sometimes would say, "Well, you talk to Tom about it. I don't care whether these people think that or not. It doesn't bother me." I would say, "Okay, if it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother me either."
     It was that sort of non-confrontational environment that we lived in. It was also an authoritative kind, because you didn't sass your mother and your father, and we never even thought of doing it. That's the important thing. I never confronted my father, but I never thought of confronting him. When he said, "You do this," I did it. He was always fair, and so was my mother, and that was it.
     Ruth was brought up under the same thing. She was never brought up to think that she was a celebrity or anything great. She was just doing what she wanted to do, and they were for it, and that was it.
Q: And yet, here we have her in 1924 [1925] leaving her husband on their honeymoon to go and dance with Diaghilev -- a bit unconventional.
A: You know, I think that Tom encouraged that. I mean, Tom was a very . . . I don't know quite the adjective to use, it's not "broad-mindedness." It's just simply that he was very aware of Ruth's activities and he loved them. He loved the associations so that he could always talk, and whenever I was visiting them, it was always Ruth and Tom that were doing the talking about it, and I listened. Tom felt that he was an expert on ballet, and he let you know it, too. I think that's what it was. I don't think that she thought there was anything odd at all about it. If anything, it wasn't any different from when they left me in Indianapolis for two years.
Q: Just went off and did it?
A: Just went off and did it. They never asked me. They never discussed it with me.
Q: Your mother and your sister just picked up and left?
A: Yes, and my father and brother picked up and went to Europe to the war. So, Father was a major in the Base Hospital 32 and my brother was an artillery officer. So, I was left here.
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