Remarks on Helen Vivarttas and 1940

by John F. Vaglienti

Very early in 1938, a mere 17 months after George Henry Kay and his ragged band of rebels founded the American Amateur Press Association, George, then serving as Secretary, received an inconspicuous piece of mail postmarked from an odd sounding place in New Jersey. The postmaster in the community of Little Falls, Minnesota, was used to seeing Kay receive and send more than the usual volume of mail for their average citizen, and certainly more than the previous local Linotype operator. In his position as Secretary, George received mail from all parts of the country, and even overseas. He had no trouble separating this envelope from the normal junk mail, as it had first class postage of 3. Junk mail in those days wasn't all bad--there might be something from the Kelsey Company in Meriden, Connecticut, Turnbaugh Service in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, or even Johnson and Smith in Racine, Wisconsin.

Upon opening the envelope, George found an application for membership, a credential and the usual 50 dues. He rarely recognized the name of new applicants for membership unless they were members of another association. The name on this application was quite uncommon--certainly nothing like Smith or Jones. He did, of course, recognize the name of Sid Cohen as the person suggesting this applicant for membership. Sid was from Brooklyn, New York, and then serving as Second Vice President. Along with the application was a question: ``Do you allow girls to join?''

Most of you know I am talking about Helen A. Vivarttas, then of Weehawken, New Jersey. Secretary Kay obviously immediately recognized a true jewel and published the credential, a short story titled ``O'Malley's Kid,'' in his February 1938 issue of American Journal. The story won the Fiction Laureate Award for 1938, and so was launched the 60 year, and still counting, career of Helen Vivarttas Wesson in organized amateur journalism.

Helen had written her first ghost story at the age of eight. Imaginative writing was her outlet from a controlling mother who tried to keep her in a sort of literary seclusion. Helen's father encouraged her creative talents, but her mother resented amateur journalism and did not consider amateur journalists the type of company that Helen should be involved with. Some years back, Bruce Smith wrote me: ``We had to write to Helen under the alias Reve, in care of a girl friend somewhere in the metropolitan New York City area.'' I also understand she kept up some of her correspondence from her dad's architectural office.

By the fall of 1938, Helen, along with co-editor Erich Werner of Michigan, was circulating The American Dawn quarterly in the AAPA bundles. It was truly the literary gem of the day, well balanced with prose and poetry, primarily written by the editors, linoleum cuts carved by Helen, and with bits of ajay commentary. The 1940 Journal Laureate Award went to The American Dawn. The 1938 election recognized Helen's talent and buoyant enthusiasm by sweeping her into the post of Criticism and Manuscript Manager for 1939. Her service was outstanding, not only in placing over 75 manuscripts, but in working with writers about spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. Amateur journalists from the area met at the Vivarttas home on April 8, 1939, and organized the first local club of the AAPA. They called themselves the Metropolitan Chapter, better known as the Metchaps, and elected Helen as their first President.

Edgar Allen Martin was an early arrival for a June 10, 1939, meeting of the Metchaps at the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library. Three or four others arrived, and as Martin wrote ``We were waiting for Helen Vivarttas. Bryon (he was referring to Bryon David Mack) spotted her when she was still blocks away. I looked down and wondered vaguely why she was carrying an open umbrella on such a nice day. Then I noticed the umbrella didn't have any handle and that she was swinging a closed one at her side--the thing above her head was a hat and a very pretty hat it was, fitted her perfectly for she is tall and stately. As Helen came closer, a shadow at her side became the figure of a man. He was strolling in the shade. Helen introduced her father, and when he saw she was safely delivered into the hands of AAPA members he left for parts unknown. We went to the meeting room.''

The Metchaps hosted the 1939 AAPA convention, with the New York World's Fair as an added incentive for attendance. Mailer Bruce Smith traveled 1,560 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and in a 1994 letter to me recalled that ``Bill Groveman and I attended the World's Fair together, actually appearing on closed circuit TV to discuss our teenage interest in journalism. That undoubtedly was a first for AAPA.'' Helen reported at the time that ``the conventioneers cherished impressions, and scraps of conversation from a gabfest which left the air in Convention Hall blue with words.'' Reports also indicate there was no shortage of ice cream and soda pop. Helen was proclaimed the ``outstanding amateur'' of 1939 by President Kay. Her record of accomplishment was unequaled and the Association, being ready for more of the Vivarttas exuberance, could do nothing less that move her into the Presidency for 1940.

Helen immediately acknowledged that she was elected because of her activity and interest, and pledged to work hard to see that 1940 would find an even greater AAPA. To the other associations, her message was ``Don't Tread on Us!'' To quote her message: ``We are a peaceful group and like Americans in the broader sense, we want peace in which to progress.

When I joined the AAPA in April 1940 I had no idea the Association was going through a period which in later years would be referred to as its ``wild and woolly days.'' The membership was responding wholeheartedly to President Vivarttas' infectious enthusiasm, and Historian Kunde noted at the year's end that a grand total of 134 active AAPA publishers produced an astounding 369 issues of 163 separate amateur journals. Les Boyer commented in his July 1995 American Amateur Journalist that ``if the 369 count is correct, it is the AAPA's annual publishing record, not surpassed before or since.'' The 45 paper August bundle was undoubtedly the inspiration that sent the first issue of my Texas Star to press. The October bundle was another hefty one, with 40 journals.

That August the convention held in Milwaukee was a huge success with thirty some members and guests in attendance. Much fun was had by all. To quote one report ``Everyone was all atwitter over the proxy kiss that Helen Vivarttas sent to the handsomest man at the convention via Erich Werner.'' The convention highlight has been described as a half hour radio broadcast by delegates which was heard throughout the Midwest. Houston's Ralph Brandt made the 1,800 mile trip to successfully promote Houston as the 1941 convention site.

President Vivarttas' messages throughout the year were consistently urging the membership into activity, to write, publish, and print, encouraging new members and inactive members into activity, recruiting of quality prospects, and especially developing the talent we already possessed. She challenged the membership to improve the quality of their work. She repeatedly urged members to write letters and cards of appreciation and encouragement to publishers and writers. She advocated a larger official organ, but acknowledged the limitations of the Treasury. To help along this line, President Vivarttas and Treasurer Haywood initiated the sale of official pins with the AAPA seal. By the end of the year, Helen considered the Association's political activity to have reached a hysterical level and called for it to slow down and not start so early in the year. There were 17 elective positions that year and 31 candidates appeared on the ballot. The offices of Mailer and Clubs and Chapters Manager were the most hotly contested races, with 4 candidates for each position.

Helen has been credited with using her best cheerleading qualities during her 1940 Presidential term, and that was certainly an appropriate comment. But more importantly, the bottom line of her leadership was that she led by example. There is no better way.

Years later Helen recalled those years as Manuscript Manager and President as ``my happiest years in the hobby for they were the heyday of our teenage enthusiasm and activity.''

We salute Helen Vivarttas Wesson for her 60 years of good work and devoted efforts on behalf of the American Amateur Press Association, and look forward to that continuing well into the 21st century.


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