Thus did Chuck Berry pay homage to St. Louis in the classic Back in the USA, later parodied by The Beatles with their Back in the USSR. Our plan was to spend the weekend in Chuck’s home town, the Gateway to the West.
We left Mountain View on a bright and sunny Friday morning and set an indirect course towards St. Louis, via Piggott Arkansas. The reason for the trip to this small town off the beaten track was its association with Ernest Hemingway. Paul Pfeiffer had accrued a fortune in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics working alongside his two brothers, Henry and Gus, creating the companies that would later become Pfizer and Revlon. He grew tired of industry and longed to become a gentleman farmer. He had his brothers buy out his share of the companies, for over $200 million in 1913. That’s when $200 million was real money.
He acquired 63,000 acres of fertile Arkansas farmland and moved to Piggott. The key part of farming was the gentleman part. He didn’t see himself actually as a ploughman, so hired workers to actually work the land. He also instituted a program of allocating 40 or 80 acre holdings to tenant farmers, with a rent-to-buy program. He even waived interest on their loans during the depression to ensure they continued to thrive. The Pfeiffers lived in a nice, but far from ostentatious, house. He very much wanted his family to be part of the community.
While this was all well and good for Paul and his wife Mary, their daughter Pauline, having grown up in St Louis, was less enamoured of spending her life in Piggott. She stayed in Missouri and completed her tertiary education at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. After graduation, she worked for newspapers in Cleveland and New York before being recruited to work for Vanity Fair and, later, Vogue.
While working for Vogue, she moved to Paris where she met and became friendly with Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. By this time, Hemingway already had Pauline’s rich uncle Gus as a patron, supporting his career. When Hemingway met the attractive, wealthy heiress Pauline, it was clear Hadley’s married days were numbered. Hemingway and Pauline started an affair and, eventually, were married after Hemingway managed to have his first marriage annulled by an amenable Parisian archbishop.
During the marriage, Hemingway often visited the house in Piggott and wrote there in a barn-come-studio that the Pfeiffers fitted out for him. As you would expect with Hemingway, the marriage eventually ended acrimoniously, but Hemingway produced some of his finest writing while married to Pauline. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum was well worth the detour, if you have any interest in Hemingway at all. The tour guide, Buddy, was excellent and knowledgable. He greatly enriched our experience of the tour.
So, on we went to St Louis, where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet. We had booked a room at the Hyatt Regency, right next door to the famous Gateway Arch, and were allocated a room with a view of the arch upon check-in. We took a walk across the arch park to stretch our legs and blow away the cobwebs after our drive. We walked along the park but couldn’t take the riverside walkway as the Missisissippi was so high it had flooded the walkways. That also meant that the pontoon piers weren’t useable so there were no Mississippi paddleboats running during our stay.
We decided to treat ourselves for dinner tonight, and had excellent steak and a nice bottle of wine at Mortons Steakhouse. They have locations scattered across the US, but the quality is consistent and high. We certainly weren’t disappointed with the food here.
On Saturday, we headed up to 2658 Delmar Boulevard.
This is the location of the house in which Scott Joplin lived while in St. Louis and is now a Missouri State Park. This is the place where what is probably the world’s most famous piece of ragtime music, The Entertainer, was written. We were lucky, once again, to receive a guided tour from an enthusiastic and knowledgable fan of Joplin’s music who was also able to provide some social history context on turn of the century St. Louis. As an added treat, the tour ended with us being permitted to make a couple of selections to hear from a huge library of player piano music.
This is the 1900s equivalent of a jukebox. It was fun to see and hear a working example.
The rest of the day, we allocated to playing a little bit of poker. Neither of us won, so there’s no excitement to report.
For Sunday, we had a couple of things planned. First, we had booked a 9:50am ride up into the arch.
While I’ve been aware of the Arch’s existence for a long time, I had no idea it was possible to get to the top. It transpires that there are little – seriously little – tram cars that ride up the legs to a viewing gallery at its peak. Each tram has eight carriages, each of which seats five people, so it’s important to book if you want to ascend.
The tram takes you up to a low ceilinged viewing gallery at the crest of the arch with small rectangular windows that allow a restricted but interesting perspective on the city.
There is also an interesting museum in the visitor centre where we whiled away a couple of hours educating ourselves on the economic and social history of St. Louis and points west.
We had decided that we would eat at a place called BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. Nothing to do with BB King, but a bar and restaurant that featured live music. We went along for the early session where, as luck would have it, the lead singer of the featured band was celebrating his 40th birthday so we enjoyed an excellent gig in a celebratory atmosphere.
This was a great way to end the St. Louis portion of the road trip.