Ronne Troup, daughter of legendary musician Bobby Troup and debutante Cynthia Hare, was handed her mother’s story when she was 35. Thirty year later, she transcribed her mother’s story and published it — it was a labor of love — discovering herself in the process.
Sandra Fluck: You were thirty-five when your mother Cynthia Troup gave you the manuscript of her autobiography, Once I Was a Debutante. Thirty years later, you decided to transcribe and publish it. What was it like reading Once I was A Debutante the first time? Then, thirty years later?
Ronne Troup: The book was a labor of love for my mom. She first wrote it in longhand, and had been compiling notes for quite a long time before she even started. She wrote in an incredible flow of words—the same way she wrote letters over the years—the same way she talked. There were pages and pages and I think she slowly found her voice and her story during the process. She says she ended up writing about “her whole damn life,” but that’s not how it first began. It first began because I was giving birth to my daughter (Bridget) at the same time and at the same hospital where she was having her leg amputated. As she said in the Prologue, she may have lost a leg, but she gained a grandchild. And that was the attitude she brought to her whole life! So, when I first read the book, it felt familiar and true and wonderful. Like a long conversation with her. It was funny, and self-aware and optimistic and joyful. And I was so proud of her for doing it. I loved reading the stories about my sister and me, about her growing up, about her dancing and meeting my dad, and traveling on Route 66 and moving to California. The openness about her drinking and her pain didn’t really sink in. Or, I couldn’t fully take it in. That was hard reading for me, and maybe I didn’t read it closely for that reason. I don’t think I was able to really appreciate the depth of my own feelings about the book then. Her life, and mine, was still going on. I was in the middle of it and touched by it, and involved with the on-going struggle she was in, often on a daily basis. And I was a new mom, trying to keep up with everything.
Reading the book all those years later I had the time for reflection and of course also the life experience that allowed me to see my mother as the individual she was, the remarkable woman she was. I think my connection to reading is often linked to what is going on in my life at the time; I will read the same book over again several years later and be amazed at what I missed the first time around. That was how it was with my mom’s book, and why it was such an emotional experience for me. Transcribing the book forced me to read and consider each word so carefully, much more so than any other book I can remember. It was often overwhelming and painful for me living in her shoes like that, somewhere between the memory and the surprise of her. And it’s still the most intimate thing I have ever read.
You asked how it felt to read it thirty years later. Well, it felt like I was swimming in it, surrounded by it, and sometimes lost in it. Other times it felt like complete happiness. It made me miss my mom, and grateful l had her in my life. It was like meeting her on common ground, recognizing her, and wishing I could hug her. It is so full of love, an incredible gift.
Sandra: You transcribed Once I Was A Debutante over a three-year period. What did you learn from this journey about reading, transcribing, publishing?
Ronne: I learned how much time and commitment it takes to do something like this. How personal and enriching it is on so many levels. It begins as an idea, and becomes a journey, like you said. And because it was a memoir written by my mother, it was always about serving her, honoring her story and her words, exactly as she wrote them. I stepped into her life. I listened to her voice. I said before how I had to take breaks, sometimes for months, from doing it. It was much harder than I ever thought it would be. On the surface it seemed easy—just copying the words, setting up the pages, checking spelling or punctuation, etc. But it was always SO much more than what was on the surface. I researched each reference she made to be sure I got it right, the places she lived, the schools she went to, the dates of songs and movies she talked about, the night clubs and bands she liked, the meaning of certain words I didn’t recognize, all about the era in which she lived. It was all fascinating. There is a lot of detail in transcribing and publishing, a lot of choices to be made. I wanted to do justice to her unique style of writing. I didn’t want to correct grammar for instance—it was how she talked and it was important to me to have that on the page. But I would ask myself, is that right? Would she want me to “correct” it? I had to learn to trust myself, which is an important life lesson in anything you do. I feel she taught me that through the process of transcribing and publishing her book.I remember her learning how to type, at the age of sixty, because she wanted to be able to type up her own book, and I can still picture the old typewriter and all the loose handwritten papers with their many cross-outs, and additional writing ideas and notes, sitting on the table. She had to work so hard at it, and her effort still inspires me. My sister eventually took over the typing for her, and transcribed all 354 pages, binding it and making a few extra copies. It was that thick typewritten manuscript, from 1980, that seemed to be calling out to me all those years later, the same copy that I gave Jamie to read when she chose to write an oral history of her grandmother for a class in high school. It was the closest thing we had to having a conversation with her. (And still is.) So I think reading can bring someone to life, and keep them close. I read every word so many times I knew them by heart. I still do. It became a part of me.
Sandra: Cynthia was an avid reader. How did her reading habits influence you as a child and as an adult?
Ronne: Yes, I think so, especially as a child. She always read to us, and had books she loved around the house. Lots of them—encyclopedias and reference books and a big dictionary in among the novels and biographies she loved. I can’t imagine a home without books! I’ve always loved children’s books, even now, and that’s probably where it came from. As a child she said she would get lost in books, fairy tales and adventure and animal stories, The Jungle Book and Winnie the Pooh. She remembered reading as one of her close childhood friends, and always the best medicine when she was sick. Her mother used to read to her too, and my mom always talked about how meaningful that was to her. As an adult I remember her reading books to learn about psychology or how to improve your vocabulary or plan a healthy diet. Our bookshelves were full of every kind of book you can imagine. She had a curiosity and interest in so many things! I am more of a reflective person than she was, I think, and reading allows me to be in my own little world, which I love. I find I sometimes prefer books to a conversation, which I don’t think my mom would ever say! I have many books on my shelf inscribed with a personal note from her; they were one of her favorite gifts to give me.
Sandra: In your bio you write this about a professor at UCLA: “ I was ‘inspired’ by the poet (and my professor) Jack Hirshman who “taught” us Rilke, Whitman, and Blake, reading them aloud in different languages (German, French) to have us HEAR the music of the writing, before allowing our brains the task of understanding what was being said. What was the difference between hearing the poetry recited in different languages and then reading it in English?
Ronne: I think it was the difference between the mind and the emotion of it. Reading in English, there was always the desire to analyze it, think about it, understand what the writer was saying. Hearing it was pure feeling—like music. That is why I remember it so vividly I think; it allowed me to turn off my brain and just experience it. That was a valuable lesson for me. It is like being completely in the moment or “going with the flow” as we used to say. Also, I was just inspired and delighted to hear a different language spoken out loud, so beautifully. He was the most original professor I ever had. And I still love being read to (rare as it is), or reading out loud to someone. It’s very intimate.
Sandra: Do you prefer fiction to nonfiction, or both equally? Why?
Ronne: That’s hard to answer because it depends on what book I am reading at the moment! I’m fickle that way, I guess! Definitely, some of my favorites have been non-fiction; I especially love memoirs and biographies. But a novel is such a wonderful escape, such a rich landscape of language and images and characters come to life. I recently finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man and it is still circling around in my head. It’s the true story of Eustace Conway, a young man who lives in the woods, in a tepee. Gilbert has such an easy touch, and is so readable, whether she is writing fiction or non-fiction. Right now I am reading the new book by Orhan Pamuk. He has a slow, visual pace to his writing (translated from the Turkish) and I love how he explores aspects of Turkish life and history, Istanbul in particular. It’s a novel, but the characters, I’m sure, come from his own experience and people he knew, his memories and dreams. I love historical fiction, when I can learn about another world or culture while the story unfolds. Anita Diamant writes novels that seem so true I feel like I’m reading a biography; The Boston Girl was like that. I like finding a new author, and getting to know them. I discovered Irish storyteller Maeve Binchy (Quentin’s, Light a Penny Candle) several years ago, and because she wrote so many novels and stories she kept me busy for a long time!
Sandra: Do you have a favorite author that you return to? Authors you read in college that influenced you?
Ronne: Well, I just mentioned Maeve Binchy, and I also have books by Anne Lamott that I keep and re-read, ever since I read Bird by Bird. Also Anna Quindlen, Amy Tan, and Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner. These are authors whose books I return to, and look forward to whatever they write; also Azar Nafisi, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran. She’s a brave and wonderful writer. I have short story compilations that I plan to read again by diverse writers, from Hemmingway to Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake). Joseph Kanon is a wonderful writer I discovered because his book Passage to Istanbul had a beautiful cover that I couldn’t resist. (Sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover!) Then I read his book The Good German which was made into a (bad) movie; the suspense and richness of the book was completely lost in the film. I generally always prefer a book to its movie adaptation. Even Gone with the Wind seems pale compared to the book, in my opinion.
I realize I was not necessarily influenced by the authors I read in college, which surprises me as I say it. Although I still have several of my favorite books from college, including poetry by Whitman and Blake and an anthology of English Literature, I don’t return to them much. But it warms me to know they are on the shelf. I majored in English because of a wonderful professor; Dr. Dembo was his name. It was my first year, and he taught American Lit. We read Faulkner and Hemmingway, among others. He was so knowledgeable and interesting and enthusiastic and told us stories about the authors and how and what they wrote, and why. It made their books so real for me somehow—the writer and the book becoming one. So I was definitely influenced by that, and feel I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for opening my eyes to the power and beauty of words and stories, and how much they can teach us.
Sandra: There has been a lot of discussion about the importance of reading. What is your “philosophy” about reading?
Ronne: I’m not sure I have a philosophy about reading, except that it’s important, and meaningful, and a delightful way to spend time. I like the way a book can become part of my life, like a good friend, or a song, or a spontaneous moment that happens and you never forget. It’s corny to say, but I think books open up the world to us, and allow us to feel a part of the human race.
Sandra: What books are you reading now?
Ronne: At the moment I am reading A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk; I was dazzled at the beginning, but now it is a bit slow, and I find myself skimming through some of it, which is allowed I think, with an author I have come to know so well. The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert is still in my head, and I don’t think I will be “finished” with that one for a long time. I read it just after Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher, and it helped me in the withdrawal from the world of that wonderful novel.
A few other books I’ve read this year that I want to mention are: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; China Dolls by Lisa See; My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege; Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen; Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford; and Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston—which I found at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles after seeing an exhibit of the wartime photographs of Ansel Adams taken during the internment of Japanese Americans at the camp.
Sandra: You have been involved in a book project about the life and work of your father Bobby Troup, the singer and songwriter. What do you appreciate most about this experience?
Ronne: The opportunity to pay tribute to his talent, his songs, and his life in music! And I appreciate the experience even more because it brought him so close to all of us who have been a part of it. It also inspired me to write about my memories of him, and that piece of writing will be in the book, which pleases me very much. I didn’t set out to write something for the book, so it is an honor to have my voice represented.
A short history of how this all came to be: The book was the brainchild of my dad’s close friend, actor and writer Kevin Tighe. After the death of my dad, and his wife Julie London, in 1999 and 2000, he helped sort and box for storage many of the personal items at the Troup family home, and among the papers, record albums, books, and photos were years and years of collected sheet music, lyrics and songs. Kevin said he felt then that the Bobby Troup story needed to be told, that his contribution to the jazz world was important and interesting and worthy of documentation. Kevin hoped to do this through publishing a complete book of his lyrics, supplemented with biographical information and photographs. Something both his family and colleagues would be proud of.
It was years later, 2014, before it began to take shape. Kevin enlisted the help of my sister Cynnie, and my husband Bob; Cynnie shared her enthusiasm and access to the storage, and Bob had a huge collection of photographs to contribute. I came along for moral support and some of the heavy lifting! In the two years we worked on it, sorting, compiling and researching all the material available to us, everyone in the family got involved. But it was the core group of Kevin, Bob, Cynnie and I that put it all together, and now we hope someone will publish it. There are legal obligations and clearances we need to have before that can happen, and so far it is slow going. My mom’s book was self-published and personal. But with The Maestro of Route 66, we hope to reach a much larger audience, with the help of a well-connected publisher. So, we’ll see. Fingers crossed.
In the meantime, I have a wealth of memories and rewards just in being involved in the project. I appreciate the close collaboration with Kevin and his loving insight into my dad’s life. My husband Bob, as well; he has always been a great support in my life, and working together on this was such fun. Both my mom and dad left us such an amazing gift in their words and music. I will always appreciate that I have that.