Interview with Norman Gentieu

Interview at Jeanne’s, Princeton, April 1999. With Betty Gentieu

Penny:  Norman, you told me that you spent many summers when you were growing up at Pierre’s house.  What did you do there?

Norman:  Well I read…he had this library, and he had a complete collection of Jules Verne stories, in English, which included the well known ones, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey From the Earth to the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he had some of the less known ones like The Mysterious Island and Five Weeks in a Balloon, so I must have read all of Jules Verne’s stories while I was over there. 

Celeste Gentieu

Aunt Celeste would go to work in the morning, she worked in the Du Pont building in the office, and granddad and I would sit and read.  I sat and read and ate candy.  They had these little white mints… when I think of the quantity of mints I ate during the day, I shutter, and I wonder why I have any teeth left.  I would eat mints and read. 

I read every Jules Verne book, and he must have had thirty of them.  The English of the North Pole, that is another one, and I have a copy of that.  I still remember one of the pictures you know because at one point the English went up to the arctic region in a sailing ship and this was the time when the sun was very low in the horizon, and they were terrified of the shadow of this monster, but it was the ship’s dog and it was because the sun was the way it was it projected this immense shadow of this little dog on the side of snow.

And Granddad was very progressive with his reading, and he gave some of these books to my mother to read because he thought that would widen her knowledge of what really went on, and one book was The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and that was the first lesbian novel.  It wasn’t a very good novel, I’ve reread it since then, but I still remember my mother saying she read the book but she didn’t have the least idea what it was all about!  Because my mother wouldn’t have known what you meant by a lesbian.

Betty Gentieu:  My mother would have been that way too.

Norman:  And then the other book I remember he gave her to read was the one written by the woman who was President Harding’s mistress, Nan Brittan, and she claimed that she had had a daughter and that President Harding was the father.  Granddad somehow got a copy of that book that he read and then he gave it to my mother to read because he wanted her to know what was going on in the world!   

He wasn’t doing this because they were salacious books, but he really felt that she needed to be educated!  She was in her late thirties then.

Penny:  The picture of Pierre with your mother looks like they had a close relationship.

Norman:  My mother just thought the world of Granddad, because for one thing, her own father died young, her mother died young, and the family dispersed, and he was so kind to her, and I just think that he was a kind of father figure, the father that she really never had, or didn’t have very long.

Norman’s mother and grandmother
Joseph and Pauline, Norman’s parents
Penny:  How did your father meet your mother?

Norman:  The family lived near Salem, and when her mother died in her early forties from TB, her father just sent the different kids to different relatives.  And my mother came up to Penns Grove to live with a distant cousin, and that would have been a couple of years before the turn of the century.  And so my mother went to Penns Grove High School and graduated in 1903.  She took piano lessons, and there was a Nickelodeon in one of the early silent movies in Penns Grove and she played the piano for that.  He may even have gone to that movie because I know my dad loved to sing and mom would play songs and pop would sing.

Another thing that was interesting about Granddad – there would be people to come to see Aunt Celeste you know and Granddad was very friendly, he’d get up to greet them and welcome them to the home, but they were Aunt Celeste’s friends so he’s sit down again with his book, and he’d be puffing on his pipe and reading his book.  It didn’t interfere with his reading schedule – I thought that was a great idea.

The way it was when I was over there, Aunt Celeste would get dinner ready when she came home from the office, and I guess Granddad fooled around in the kitchen too.  I remember the pantry there.  It was a fascinating place.  It had all his spices and things.  It had a wonderful smell.  And they always had the table set up in the dining room, so you ate your breakfast, lunch and dinner in there.  And there were these little salt gismos, you didn’t have your salt shaker there, they had these little glass receptacles only about an inch or two in diameter with a little hollow for the salt, and you take a little spoon and take the salt and put it on whatever food you had.

Uncle Fred gave, this was about 1927 or 28, one of the top of the line radios of the period – it was a huge thing – great big cabinet, and I guess you could get any station at all.  Well you see in those days there was no FM, it was all AM,  and if you wanted to stay up late you could easily get stations in Chicago and on the West Coast. 

Frank Jr. and Betty Gentieu family, circa 1950. Frank Sr. and Mae in the back.

That is something Frank and I used to like to do.  My dad in Carney’s Point fixed up an area so that we could have a little radio in the kitchen and Frank would come to see me, and we would close the door, and pop and mom would go to bed, and we would have the radio on and we would get these dance bands from Chicago and California, and we would get some great stuff!  You can’t get distance like that on FM, you get better aucostical quality, but we got stuff from Canada…it was a lot of fun.

Pierre and Binie’s home, 1405 Riverview Ave, Wilmington, Delaware

I remember one incident when I was a little kid, this was before I used to go over on vacation, and I don’t know what I did, maybe I was trying to run away from home or something, I must have been about four years old, but I remember Granddad came after me and got hold of me.  He wasn’t brutal or anything, but he marched me right back to the house and gave me to understand that I wasn’t to stray away from the house.  I remember he was very stern.  And I went with him, I didn’t protest.

Betty:  Well you had good sense.

Norman:  Well those were good days Betty, but the trouble is that you don’t appreciate it at the time!  Not as much as you do later on.

Binie with five (of six) kids, around 1895

Penny:  How do you remember your grandmother Binie?

Norman:  Binie was a staunch Methodist, and she was a member of Mount Salem Church.  And she was also a member of WCTU, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Sarah Albina Weed wouldn’t even allow grape juice in the house.  The worst story I heard about them, was that one of the Du Pont’s, I think it was Alfred I., would come around and visit Granddad around Christmas time with one of those great big baskets with wonderful fruit and things, which also included two bottles of a very fine wine… well Sarah Albina, aided and abetted by Celeste and Jessie would commandeer the wine, take it out, open it up and pour it down the drain!  That’s something that I’ll never forgive my grandmother for!

Frederic Gentieu, Penns Grove mayor and fire chief

Penny:  What do you remember about Uncle Fred, my great grandfather, and what happened to him during the stock market crash of 1929?

Norman:  Well, Uncle Fred was the superintendent of the Carney’s Plant I think through World War 1 and into the early 20’s, and then after he retired he had a financial office and I think that was in his home, and I believe he was connected to the stock brokers in Wilmington.  And like everybody else, he was buying stock on margin, in other words, he only had to put 10% down.  And my dad was doing the same thing because everybody had the same idea that this was going to go on indefinitely. 


And I still remember I think the crash came in October of 29, and I remember my mother started getting telephone calls from stock brokers in Wilmington wanting their money, the 90% to cover the stock, and of course pop didn’t have the money, so the stock all left, and that was true of Uncle Fred.  But I don’t think he lost everything. 

Mantel Frederic bought for the new home he was furnishing in Penns Grove right before the stock market crashed.

I think he thought he lost face, and that’s when they decided to make that move down to Ventnor.  After having been in such a position in town, and I mean a very affluent and wealthy man and of course with anybody who is a great success, he had a lot of critics who would gloat over the fact that he had been hit so hard in the stock market.  I have a program of a play, and there are ads in town, this is 1928, and he had an ad for his financial advisory service. 

Stain glass window with family motto designed for Frederic’s home, right before the stock market crashed.

I still remember my mother and father, of course they felt bad about losing it but they felt even sorrier of uncle Fred.  Fortunately my dad had a job, and he didn’t lose his job, and he was working at plant 1.  It was the psychological thing.  He had enough money to keep going.  But I just think that he felt that there were enough people around there that would glout over his losses that he didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of being around there.  Because when he moved to Ventnor, he had a pretty nice house there, it wasn’t any shack or anything.  And he lived in pretty good comfort for the rest of his life.

Frederic and Maud Gentieu and family on their porch in their Ventnor, New Jersey home, c. 1949.