"I don't like my mother very much, but I do want her to like me," the 13-year-old diarist wrote after a particularly stressful day in May 1927.
Such frank and poignant comments echo through the pages of a slim volume kept by young Coco Irvine, as she wrote of her adventures and dreams that year. The third child of lumber magnate Horace Irvine and his wife, Clotilde, Coco grew up in St. Paul's high society during the Jazz Age. Her parents built their 20-room Summit Avenue home in 1910, and although it was many blocks west of the imposing stone edifices overlooking downtown, the Irvine residence did not lack for stature. In fact, you know it today as the governor's official residence.
And yet, even though the details of Coco's world revolved around cotillions, regatta and proper dinner-table conversation, her diary is remarkable for its resonance with anyone who has been 13. Who hasn't at times hated their mother or father, exercised their yen for mischief or felt butterflies over a crush?
"Coco's Diary," an adaptation of the journal, opens Saturday at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
It features an adult Coco looking back on her life on the eve of her childhood home being turned over to the state of Minnesota in 1965. The action then casts back to the stories she wrote down after receiving the diary as a Christmas gift in 1926.
How the long-forgotten diary journeyed from a cardboard box to the History Theatre stage is an interesting story in itself.
"This is to be my most private account of everything that happens to me. No one must read a word further under pain of death."
So reads the opening page, signed by Clotilde Emily Irvine before her first entry on Jan. 1, 1927. Young "Coco" wrote that the diary was intended to keep track of how things went with a certain boy she had discovered. She liked him, and was rather sure he liked her. Referred to only as "He" or "Him," the youngster appears frequently throughout the pages -- such as the time he docked his boat near the Irvine place on Manitou Island and asked why Coco had been making herself scarce. She told him: She had been grounded for driving one of the family cars around the island and running into her own mother, who was coming back from town.
That daredevil instinct shows up time and again: stealing all the silverware at school so the cooks would not serve their horrible lunches, or sneaking out of the house at 9 p.m. to go dancing one block over on Grand Avenue. She was fearless, and often reported her high jinks with the caveat that she was in trouble again, "through no fault of my own."
Tender introspection threads through the pages, too. She was quite smitten with her older sister's boyfriend, and humiliated by having to take a test to see whether she might need special school. When she summarized 1927 at the diary's end, she noted: "I get along much better with Mother. I realize now that she is growing old. It is hard for her to see that things have changed since the olden days when she was my age."
Coco's daughter, Vicki Ford, was sorting through papers in 1975 and discovered the diary in a drawer. Coco's younger sister, Olivia Irvine Dodge, decided to have it privately published and surprise Coco with it at Christmas.
Unfortunately, Coco died on July 11, 1975. Olivia went ahead and published the work privately, distributing about 100 copies to family members and friends.
Years later, Ford was helping Dodge prepare boxes of documents to give to the Minnesota History Center. The Irvines were, after all, prominent in the Minnesota lumber industry.
"She must have put in one of those copies of the privately published diary, and that's how it got to the History Center," Ford said.
Writer Peg Meier, researching a book on childhood diaries, came upon the book and fell in love with its writer's precocity.
"Do you know of any 13-year-olds who can write so well?" Meier said, when asked what captivated her. "The exuberance, the oh-so-13-years-old lines like 'I don't like my mother,' which a lot of us can identify with."
Meier asked permission to write an introduction and afterword to the diary. In 2011, "Through No Fault of My Own: A girl's diary of life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age" was published by the University of Minnesota Press. Even before that, however, Meier had told Ron Peluso, History Theatre's artistic director, to look at the diary as a stage play.
"Of all the things that happened this year the most important was that someone thought me charming."
Coco was prescient as she closed the book on 1927. Creighton Churchill, the beau of her older sister, Lib, had commented that he found 13-year-old Coco charming upon meeting her at the Manitou Island home. Nine years later, Coco and Churchill married, a highlight of the St. Paul social scene. The couple had daughter Vicki in 1938. If this were fiction, we might imagine a wonderful life for Coco Irvine Churchill -- full of the finer things.
Reality was less kind. Creighton died of a heart attack in 1940, leaving 26-year-old Coco a widow with a 2-year-old. Her parents offered to take them in at 1006 Summit, but Coco refused.
"Oh, no, she wanted her independence," said Ford. "I don't know where a person gets the understanding, but I completely understood the dynamic between my mother and grandmother -- my grandmother being a controlling, managing, domineering personality and my mother very easygoing and fun-loving."
A bizarre incident occurred in 1945 when a teenager showed up at Coco's home and told her that Vicki had been kidnapped and he wanted ransom. It was a hoax, but Coco was profoundly shaken.
Two years later, she married a successful businessman named Ted Moles. However, he was haunted by his war experiences, lonely and prone to drink.
Despite Coco's misfortunes, Ford credits her mother for maintaining her equilibrium and generosity. Coco helped to raise three of Moles' daughters from a previous marriage.
"That was her steadfastness to responsibility, to make a good life for them," Ford said. "I was a teenager when they came to live with us. Mother had me tuck the younger one into bed every night.'"
The young Vicki went off to Sarah Lawrence College, married Silas Ford (a St. Paul boy) and raised six children in Bronxville, N.Y. Given her mother's hardships, did Ford ever feel guilty about leaving?
"She wanted me to go," Ford said. "When I was a senior in high school, I said, 'Mom, I don't need to learn any more.' And she said, 'Just for me, would you try just one year at Sarah Lawrence College?'
"She knew I needed a broader horizon. There is such a thing as a smothering mother, and she barely escaped that."
"I get only $5 a month. Daddy lets me spend it as I wish."
Despite the locales and the social circles that she traveled in, young Coco seemed to take her family wealth and her grand home in stride. As an adult, economics pinched her more, but the family still retained status. Her father was president of Weyerhaeuser Co. when he died in the 1950s. When their mother died in 1965, Coco and Olivia were charged with dispensing with the home at 1006 Summit.
"That was one of the stipulations of my grandmother's estate," said Ford. "It had to be given away and if they could not find a use for the house, it had to be destroyed, so my mom and my aunt were frantic about it."
The Legislature approved the donation in May 1965, and agreed to spend $100,000 on renovations. The house was upgraded again in the 1990s and became a source of controversy when Jesse Ventura said he would close it because the Legislature hadn't provided money for maintenance.
Each year, Ford still brings her children and grandchildren back to "reconvene at the roots" -- the family home on Manitou Island. It is the same place where Coco drove into her mother's car, fell off a sailboat during a race and met young Creighton Churchill, who thought her charming. And really, if her diary reflects her personality and eloquence, Coco certainly would have seemed a charismatic young girl. Now, despite her dire warning on New Year's Day of 1927, the contents of that remarkable volume will indeed be revealed to the world.
"I think it's the most amazing thing," Ford said, when asked about the stage adaptation. "When they brought up the idea, I thought, 'We'll see what becomes of it.' And now, this is it."