Side Trail Story
Sherril Romanov
Steve Levi

Side Trail Story

Sherril Romanov, correctly spelled incorrectly with a single l, had a unique reputation in Santa Zanni. She was every man’s fantasy; a well-built single woman who was an open advocate and practitioner of free love. This is not to say that she was a prostitute for she did not charge for her services. They were provided free with no obligations expected.

Was this unusual in Santa Zanni in 1918, in the year of the Great War? In actuality, no. What was odd was that she was so open in her liaisons. It was no secret around town that certain men and women, sometimes married to each other, were what were called players. They indulged, individually or collectively, in the forbidden fruit of sexual excesses. But they were quiet about their liaisons.

If there ever was a term and human expressive movement that defied social definition it was free love. It appears that everyone in every generation has a different concept of what it means. To some it was sex without commitment. To others it was a form of commitment between individuals that was not glued by sexual activity. Yet to others it was simply a crude sheet which was used to cover sexual activity of any kind with an air of philosophical respectability.

All this being said, Sherril Romanov was true to her calling. She understood exactly what she believed and could have cared a whit what the rest of the community thought. She had money of her own, local legend had it that she was kith to the Romanov family of Russia (which was not true) and that her maternal grandfather had made a substantial fortune supplying canned beef to the Union army during the Civil War. The latter was only half-true as he had provided canned pork. No one knew how much money she had inherited but everyone did know she made a modest living as a music teacher in Santa Zanni. Everyone also knew that the teaching of music was not a front for some other enterprise. She lived modestly and matched her expenses to her music teaching income. If there was a fortune hidden in her larder there was no evidence of it.

One of the difficulties not faced by Sherril Romanov was an understanding of the philosophical tightrope of what free love was – and was not – in an age when women could not vote, inherit property or indulge in European social movements without risking the arrest. After all, women were being arrested in New York for committing such an unforgiveable sin as sunbathing on a public beach in a single piece swimming suit which exposed their legs above their ankles to males who were, also, sunbathing but with their legs exposed.

The basic problem with free love in the years before the Great War was that it was a term that was not sexually balanced. There was no male counterpart to the concept. America, along with the rest of the world, was a man’s oyster. He not only ruled the roost, but the business and social worlds as well. Women were, at best, male appendages in those worlds. A philandering male was not looked upon as one who was following the dictates of the free love movement. He was just a philandering male. His wife was looked upon as “that poor girl” who had to spend more time in church praying her man would find his senses and reframe from his perambulations. If she was educated she might refer to the new-fangled science vocabulary as proposed by the German Sigmund Freud and discuss the powers of the ego and the id but, in the end, it was the all the same since the dawn of time: philandering men were just men; philandering women were sluts.

From Romanov’s point of view, which she was not afraid of sharing with anyone who would listen, she rejected marriage because it was simply a form of social bondage. Bondage it was and it was imposed by a government which required marriage and sex to be in the same package. She believed the two could be mutually exclusive if the participants so chose.

Romanov so chose.

Romanov also chose not to mix the political with the social. Free love was part and parcel of the forbidden political alchemy of anarchism, the belief that the government should not be involved in the personal relations of its citizens. A half-century later this would be referred to as libertarianism but would include panoply of other political rights which the individual had which the state could not violate. But it was not a half-century later and even if it were, free love would have the same reaction among conventional society then as it did before the Great War.

But there was an underlying theme which resonated greatly with the women before the Great War though most of them did not state or admit it. The very basis of free love was the concept that women had equal rights with men when it came to emotional equality with regard to the sexual act. Women had the right to sexual pleasure. Their husbands may have looked at them as chattel but they were still entitled to sexual pleasure, one of the few equalities available to them.

But there was a very fine line between what Romanov did privately and what women like Harriet Doucette were doing publicly. Romanov was simply indulging her personal, political rights as a woman in the privacy of her home. Doucette was neck-deep in the politics of sex including the raising of money for abortions for women would could not afford the operation, quietly assisting women in matters of birth control if they chose to delay pregnancy, fighting what later became known as spousal rape and arranging for legal assistance for women who were faced with ruin because a husband had died and his property was to be inherited by a man whose only link to the couple was that he was a brother, uncle or nephew of the deceased.

Free love also brought another unmentionable to the social surface: same sex love. This had been a blasphemy since the Old Testament and the modern age had not changed the leopard’s stripes. It was still looked upon as an abomination. But then again, there were all kinds of vocabulary problems with this supposed sexual dysfunction. There were same-sex couples in committed relationships who lived very quiet lives. They did not flaunt their unique relationship even though everyone in town knew who they were and what they were doing. Young men and young women who appeared to be on this road went to live with their aunts.

But this was not the only wrinkle in the social fabric. The numbers of loving couples in committed relationships were few. The bulk of the same-sex activity was casual, infrequent and often part of a group activity. The man from Santa Zanni who went to San Francisco once every few months was never questioned as to what he had done during those lonely nights away from home. That he came home satiated and was a good husband were all that mattered. This was 1916, after all, and men were expected to exhaust themselves every once in a while. Wives did not ask what had transpired in San Francisco and were always thankful that their husbands came home.

There were other reasons for concern among the women. The Great War had opened what appeared, to them anyway, a floodgate of pornography. While there had always been licentious literature and drawings, it was not until the Great War that photographs were added to the mix. French postcards came home with the French disease and French sex. There was nothing domestic here; these were imports.

The worst part of pornography was that pictures did not age. The girls who posed for those postcards were well into their 30s when doughboys in their teens picked up the cards in Paris. But that did not matter for fantasies do not age or sully. Sultry lasts forever in a man’s mind. Age a man may but, again referring to that German psychiatrist, a man’s libido was forever young.

Not so a wife’s body.

Year by child by hard winter flesh sagged on bones. Pimples and age spots appeared and not all were swallowed by the flesh. As a woman ages she shrinks in height and expands in girth. Men grow distinguished with age; women just age. Worse, many marriages were not made in heaven. They were not necessarily made in Hell but they were of convenience, propinquity, a family with money, a child that came early, a woman who married late, a man who divorced late, widows and widowers. Some marriages were passionless but they were marriages, nevertheless.

For the women of Santa Zanni, every passenger car on the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad could carry a competitor. Every neighbor’s daughter was going to erupt into womanhood. Every denizen of Savanna S. Murphy’s brothel was looking for a rich man, not necessarily to marry but to be kept in style. There was no rest for the wicked or the sainted.

Then there were the dark and twisted people lurking in every community. Husbands who preferred their daughters to their wives. Husbands who preferred boys to their wives. Husbands who went to the Orient two or three times a year, not to San Francisco and returned home with diseases unknown to American doctors. Husbands who had habits wives never talked about but wore long sleeves summer and winter. Husbands who preferred to spend weekends with other husbands and would not touch their wives for months at a time.

There was never any doubt that Sherril Romanov was engaging in the unmentionable sexual practice. It was not as if she was open in her affection of other women, it was just that she did not hide it. She also did not hide the fact that she was intimate with many men. She was not a gossip and refused to discuss what she did in her private life. What happened behind her closed door was her business just as what happened behind any other closed door in town was only the business of those on the inside of those homes. Tongues may have wagged but nothing was said to Romanov’s face.

If the good women of Santa Zanni expected Sherril Romanov to finally see the error of her ways and take a husband, that did not happen. She had moved to Santa Zanni as a young woman in about 1906 and a decade later she was still there, still teaching music, still indulging her passions behind closed doors. She did not seem the worse for the wear-and-tear and there was not a steady stream of male or female friends. It was not as if she was operating a brothel. She was choosey because she could be.

All would have been well with Sherril Romanov and the good citizens of Santa Zanni had there been no Great War. But there had been a Great War. It is an ill wind that blows no good and no one in the United States of America could say that the Great War blew nothing but ill. It certainly blew ill for the 116,516 dead from across the country. But this was miniscule compared to the 3.6 million total dead from all other countries. But 116,516 was still a sizeable number; enough to have a coffin flag in every community, four of them in Santa Zanni. But that number was dwarfed the same year by the Spanish Flu. Five times as many Americans died of the Spanish Flu as were killed in the Great War. There were no coffin flags for those who succumbed to the Influenza of 1918. Or the recurrence of the disease the next year.

The Great War had brought a primordial change in America. It gave Americans a taste of the future and they liked it. The United States had entered the Great War as a parochial country; it concluded as a world provider of things that everyone else was buying. For the first time in their lives Americans were on the verge of riches. Not wealth but riches. Wealth comes from sustained income from long-term investments. Riches came from cash.

Americans had cash.

Americans also had a wealth of women who wanted equality in the courts and the ballot box. They had been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their men in the fields and still could not inherit the fruits of their own labor. They watched as black men got the right to vote after a terrible war and then they themselves were beaten when they asked for the same. If it took a terrible war for black men to get the vote then women would duplicate the effort to get their right to vote. But their battle would start in the home and spread nationwide, not the reverse as the Civil War had been.

In the battle for equality in the courts and ballot box, every woman was a soldier. Every woman had a role to play. Even the Sherril Romanovs of the world. She had as much to lose as every other woman in town. She also had as much to gain.

And in this fight she had a distinct advantage in this fight for equality.

Romanov was already in the camp of the enemy.

A generation after the Great War the Speaker of the House would coin the phrase, “all politics is local.” What this meant was that all elected officials get into office by responding to local issues. Local voters think of local issues, not national ones. Woodrow Wilson’s catchphrase for the 1916 Presidential Election was “He kept us out of war.” That was baloney to the voters in Santa Zanni. It had no local hook. There was nothing special here. So the Republicans were going to vote for Charles Evans Hughes and the Democrats were going to vote of Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes was expected to carry California and with California’s electoral votes would go the Presidency. It was all very predictable. But that was not what happened in the Election of 1916 and the political stumble over local politics by Charles Evans Hughes in San Francisco finished him.

The Republican Party had been split badly in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt bolted and ran for President as a Progressive. Roosevelt lost and by 1916 it was clear that there was no political steam left in the Progressive engine. The party was over. Roosevelt returned to the Republican fold and urged his fellow Progressives to vote for Charles Evans Hughes. California had strong Progressive sentiments and it was a bygone conclusion that Hughes would carry California and with it the national election.

But Hughes was going to learn the hard way that “all politics is local.” He arrived in San Francisco in the middle of a city-wide labor management dispute. On July 22, 1916, during a Preparedness Day Parade, a bomb had gone off and killed ten bystanders and injured several score more. No one knew who had set off the bomb but the business leaders of San Francisco yoked a city-wide open shop campaign to the hysteria. The conviction of two labor activists for the crime cemented the belief in the public’s mind that labor had been involved with the outrage.

That may or may not have been what the public believed but it was what the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce promulgated. The Chamber of Commerce also believed that if it could somehow get Charles Evans Hughes to appear to support the city-wide open shop it could take its anti-union campaign statewide, possibly nationwide. So they maneuvered Charles Evans Hughes into dining at an open-shop restaurant served by strikebreakers and the story made the front pages of the San Francisco newspapers.

All politics is local and San Francisco was one of the few strong labor towns in America. Laborers may not have had money but they did have votes and in November of 1916 the union vote in San Francisco was solidly anti-Hughes. It was not pro-Wilson; just anti-Hughes. Hughes lost San Francisco by a good 15,000 votes. He lost California by 3,800 votes. That meant he lost California’s 13 electoral votes. Had he carried San Francisco as expected he would have carried California and defeated Woodrow Wilson for the Presidency of the United States by three electoral votes nationwide.

But he did not carry San Francisco.

So he did not carry California.

Thus did Woodrow Wilson go on to a second term.

All politics is local.

The women’s suffrage movement in California understood the concept that all politics is local. In America, change happens from the grass roots up, not from the top down. To succeed nationwide they had to succeed statewide and each state had to succeed city by town by community.

In Santa Zanni, like most other small towns, there was a hierarchy of authority. Mayors, city councils and chamber of commerce presidents were all fine and good but the real power lay in a handful of individuals, usually male, who could make things happen. Or not as the case may be. What was needed in all small communities was to neutralize these individuals. No one expected them to be in favor of women’s suffrage – but no one wanted them to be actively against women’s suffrage either.

Thus did Sherril Romanov and others of her ilk become the back channel of the suffrage movement. Romanov was not a libertine in the sense that she was open to all takers. She chose her liaisons carefully. She preferred men of intelligence and culture, wealth not being a consideration. Thus, over her stay in Santa Zanni she knew the influential men in the community intimately in more than one meaning of the word. Because both parties were communicating on a level that was neither business nor politics, Romanov was able to convince a significant contingent of important men in Santa Zanni that women’s suffrage was actually going to make the city a better place. Certainly a more profitable one. Widows in Santa Zanni would keep their property in Santa Zanni and continue to spend their money in town. If their property went to male relative of their deceased husband in another locale, their livelihood would leave Santa Zanni never to return. Working women also meant more money to be spent in local stores and, considering that there had been a significant number of deaths from the Great War and the Spanish Flu, someone had to fill the jobs of the men who had been killed or died of the pandemic.

Her second hardest sell was that when women voted they would vote just like men. The prevailing belief was that women were not as smart as men, or at least not as worldly, and therefore could be easily swayed to vote for a good-looking man as opposed to a smart one. Romanov countered that if there was any one thing that women understood it was the nickel-and-dime reality of life. Men may earn the money but women spent it. It was the women who ran the households of Santa Zanni. Good-looking was fine and dandy but when it came to cold hard cash, women had ice water in their veins.

The hardest nut to crack with the men of her acquaintance was that fact that the bulk of the people in temperance movement were women. True, countered Romanov. But they were the only people who truly believed that prohibition was going to cut drinking in America. Men and women were gambling on the sly, going to smokers on the sly, using opium on the sly and indulging in lustful affairs on the sly so what made anyone believe that making liquor illegal was going to get people to stop drinking? Gambling was done by men and women and the law had now slowed either sex. So why should women’s suffrage make any difference at all?

No one ever knew how effective Sherril Romanov was with her subterfuge. She was not an activist in the women’s suffrage movement so there was no way to gauge her impact. But she did have some influence. Santa Zanni was considered the masthead of the movement in Central California because of community support and Harriet Doucette became the titular head of the Central California Women’s’ Suffrage Battalion.

Sherril Romanov eventually moved to Salinas where she married the owner of a short-lived socialist newspaper. The two later moved to San Francisco where they became involved in the labor movement. The residents of Santa Zanni lost track of the couple because Sherril had to change her name to get a bank loan with her husband in the 1930s. No one had ever bothered to remember the last name of the man she married because she had remained a Romanov for a good decade after leaving Santa Zanni. When her name changed she dropped into obscurity.