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Helen is sitting at a dining table. She is wearing pearls and a dark-colored dress. Polly Thomson sits to her right; four others stand behind her, with arms around each other. A white Christmas tree decorated with ball-shaped ornaments is in the background. The table is crowded with napkins, candles, coffee cups, long-stemmed glasses, and a bottle of champagne. Helen Likes Beer

“Helen,” she said superfluously, “does like beer.” That about sums up Helen Keller…

That’s not what people expected to read in magazine articles about Helen Keller back in the 1950s. But some things may never change – the recent conspiracy theory about Helen Keller as either a fraud or non-existent being an extreme example. In an incredibly odd group of words that seems to have passed for an article in 1955, Phyllis Battelle described her experience at Helen Keller’s 75th birthday party. Actually, Battelle described the June event as a celebration of “75 years of usefulness.”

Helen Keller is not all optimism, the author of the article implies while misspelling “Polyanna.” Phyllis shares Helen has no problem letting people know that she doesn’t like them – especially if they are bigots, filled with self-pity, or just plain stupid. And Helen, Battelle seems to be saying, loves to hang out backstage with the wild and wicked theatre celebrities – especially if she can get away from her chaperone (wink-wink). The only reason Helen doesn’t smoke is probably because her vocal cords are so delicate because of her inability to speak on a regular basis. But, the article seems to insinuate, she sure does like to drink! In fact, Polly even had to hold back Helen’s hand from grabbing a beer on her birthday, which Helen just went ahead and snuck anyway. Or, at least that’s how Phyllis Battelle tried to present the 10-second event. Helen, it seems, is only as good as the company she keeps.

It paints an amusing picture. And as much fun as it might be to spend some time drinking beer with a militant anti-bigot, it is all too easy to see through to the author’s desperation to find a juicy story about a person just trying to celebrate her birthday. Perhaps the best part of the article is a note added to the bottom in pencil, presumably by the collection’s original archivist. Typically, archivists’ notes give some contextual information about an artifact. This one is much more personal: “Horrible!”

 

Justin Gardner is the Helen Keller archivist at APH.

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