Bernard A. Drew: The Finnish maid wrote a novel
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Sally Salminen, a Scandinavian, was a maid in the Rodney Procter residence in Stockbridge when she finished writing a prize-winning novel, "Katrina," in 1936. It wasn't an upstairs-downstairs kind of novel; it was about the fishing community in her homeland, Vargata, Vårdö, on the Åland Islands of Finland.
The eighth of a dozen children to a Swedish mother and Finnish father, Sally Alina Ingeborg Salminen (1906-1976) attended public elementary school, worked in a country grocery then moved to Sweden to work as a domestic, clerk in a bakery and study correspondence and bookkeeping. "I had to take Swedish language and spelling in those courses," she told The Berkshire Eagle Oct. 19, 1936. "The lessons taught me to look things up for myself."
She said Finland was once part of Sweden, and is bilingual. People in Åland speak mainly Swedish. She applied for an American visa, and with her sister Aili came to the United States in 1930. Her aim, she said, was "to get out and see something of the world. I wanted to go some place."
Rodney Procter (1878-1957), a stockbroker, was born in Cincinnati. His grandfather was William Procter, founder of Procter & Gamble. Rodney and his wife, Beatrice Sterling Procter (1887-1962), had two daughters. Hope (1917-2006) married Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes Jr. Beatrice (1919-1996) wed Congressman Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen.
Procter served in military intelligence during World War I. When in Stockbridge the Procters lived at Orleton Farms, on which Rodney and brother William bred champion Guernsey cattle. Mrs. Procter was active with the Lenox Garden Club. Her generous donation to Stockbridge in 1963 to renovate the town hall resulted in its being named Procter Hall. Orleton Farm remains a horse farm today, frequently host to Colonial Carriage and Driving Society events.
While in the employ of the Procters at their Park Avenue apartment, Salminen began writing a novel in her spare time. "Members of the Procter household, where the woman had been employed since spring, said she had been working a year and a half on the novel," the Springfield Republican reported on Oct. 16, 1936. She entered the manuscript in a contest sponsored by a Swedish-Finnish publishing house, Holge Schildts Förlag, and won the first prize for best novel written in Swedish: $1,100 and publication.
The writer explained that the main economy of Vårdö was fishing "and it falls on the lot of the women to do most of the hard work on the farms when the men are away," The Eagle said. "Her father, once a sailor, who twice visited the United States, owned a farm on Vårdö and was the mail carrier, who in his small boat ferried the mails from one island to another. The young author helped her mother and her 11 brothers and sisters with the farm work, rising in the cold Arctic dawn to milk the cows, feed the chickens and pigs, cut the hay and harvest the potatoes."
This was the life Salminen depicted in her story of Katrina, who marries and moves to Åland, finding poverty rather than prosperity. The work drew considerable attention, including an invitation to speak on the "Magazine of the Air" program over WABC. The novel was translated into 20 languages. Rinehart published it in the United States in 1937.
The Republican coaxed Salminen into writing a brief account of her life with the well-to-do, and she responded for the paper's Oct. 18, 1936, issue with a description of witnessing her first wild society party: "They all drank so much before dinner that the lady of the house forgot her manners and served cranberry sauce with her hands." In another household, the mistress "stood over me while I scrubbed and scrubbed that icebox and stove. She had a fear they were not clean and refused to use them until they were."
Finally she joined the Procters, "where the work was reasonable and I took up my novel again, working from 3 to 5 in the afternoon and from 9 in the evening until sleep struck me down."
The Procters -- Salminen stayed at their New York apartment as a guest after her spurt of fame -- "were nice," she said in an AP news story. "But I knew they didn't understand what I was trying to do They would ask, casually, how it was, but they didn't ask to read it."
Salminen used part of her winnings to return to her homeland and in 1940 married Danish painter Johannes Dürhkopf. They lived in Denmark and the author continued her writing career, though none of her 10 later prose works was as popular as the first. She also wrote travel books and a memoir, "Sally's Saga" (1968). She was featured in a 1945 documentary film, "Sally Salminen."
I might tell you more about the author, but most of the resources are in Swedish, and I can't read them.
I can tell you, though, that Salminen's image appeared on a 2.80 mark Europa Aland commemorative postage stamp in 1996.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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