Helen Leister says it was the railroad job that spurred Volney into popping the question and set her to thinking about wedding gowns, back in the spring of 1938. The country was still dragging itself out of the Depression then; caution was the order of the day, even when it came to marriage. But when Leister started spending her nights hurtling across the land at 100 miles an hour in a futuristic, silver-sided dream machine, Volney suddenly realized he couldn't live without her.
Leister had graduated from Northwestern University in 1931 with a major in the brand-new field of psychology. Her name was Helen Hansmann then, and she had spent all of a modest inheritance from her father's estate to put herself through school. After graduation she took the only job she could get, waitressing at an Evanston tearoom. She was promoted to hostess and stayed until 1935, when she moved on to run the office of a couple of local dentists. The next year, mutual friends introduced her to Volney B. Leister, a dark-eyed six-footer from Wisconsin with a good sense of humor and a job in the personnel office of an outfit that later merged with Commonwealth Edison. They began keeping company.
Then, in 1937, Helen got a crack at a more exciting job. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad was hiring stewardesses for its astounding new twin Zephyrs, diesel-powered stainless-steel trains that ran at incredible speeds--as much as 116 mph--from Chicago to Minneapolis and Denver. The first of the Zephyrs, the Pioneer, had created a sensation in '34 when it made a demonstration run from Denver straight into Chicago's Century of Progress exhibition in half the usual time. The public was smitten.
The first two stewardesses hired for the twin Zephyrs must have been custom ordered by the CB&Q publicity department: they were a perky set of twins from Kansas. Leister, with her psychology degree, her experience as a hostess, and a summer as a waitress at Yellowstone, was, as she recalls, "the lucky eighth." "They gave us our uniforms, and $125 a month, and all our expenses," she says. "It was one of the best paying jobs around.
"We were part nurse, part hostess, part information bureau," Leister says. There was a single stewardess on each train, "pacing the chair cars, trying to keep everybody happy." She could usually count on a sick baby and a few passengers who overindulged in the bar car. But the most common problem was simple motion sickness: with the Zephyr eating up the track and the landscape streaming giddily by, even the soberest passengers could find themselves a little green around the gills.
The days were long: on overnight runs, Leister got a maximum of four hours sleep; the Chicago-to-Twin Cities one-day round-trip, a regular assignment, meant a shift that was close to 18 hours.
"But we had permanent hotel rooms in Denver and Minneapolis," Leister says. "And when we had a layover they would ship us off to Colorado Springs or Estes Park or Rocky Mountain Park, so we could promote these places to our clientele." It beat manning a dental office hands down--except from Volney's point of view. "I was away about four nights a week--either riding the train or in Denver or Minneapolis--when he proposed," Leister says. "Maybe he just got tired of coming down to Union Station at midnight to pick me up."
Leister began to make plans for a fall wedding, and she knew what she could do without. There would be no engagement ring and no expensive white gown that she'd wear once and put away forever. She wanted something functional, but it wasn't daywear she was thinking of. Volney was a smooth dancer, and even with money scarce it wasn't unusual for the couple to head for some posh venue and dance the night away a la Rogers and Astaire.
"Everything was so much less expensive then," Leister says. "You could go to the Drake or the Edgewater Beach or the Palmer House. They didn't have any cover charges, so you could order one drink and sip it all evening. It didn't cost any more than just going to some joint. But we did dress up. Men wore tuxedos, and you wore long dresses." If she was going to invest in a gown, Leister decided, it would be a dinner dress--something that could two-step across the Gold Room after it waltzed down the aisle.
The one she picked is a stunner: a body-skimming, wasp-waisted midnight blue velvet slashed nearly to the waist in back. The gently flared skirt kisses the floor, and the sleeves, tight as a second skin from elbow to wrist, terminate in points that echo the deep V of the back. In place of a traditional bridal headpiece Leister wore a tricorn hat of the same dark velvet tipped insouciantly over one eye. For the nuptials a piece of the blue fabric snapped into the back to raise the neckline; for a night at the Drake, the deep V (a 1930s couture trademark) could be opened, a fancier belt added, and the dramatic long sleeves, designed like a rip-away suit, could be shed. No gloves, no heavy veil, no froufrou, it was all color and fluid line, as much a departure from traditional wedding attire as the streamliner was from the iron horse that preceded it.
Helen and Volney Leister were married Saturday, September 24, 1938, in the chapel of Evanston's First Methodist Church. After a brief ceremony, 150 guests walked a block in the pleasant afternoon sun to a fruit-punch reception at the Georgian Hotel. Leister gave up her job, returning only a few times to fill in as a substitute. Over the next few years, the streamliners ushered in a renaissance in railroad passenger service and had an enormous influence on design.
The CB&Q diesel-electric Pioneer is on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry. Leister's wedding gown is included in "The Bride Wore Red," an exhibit of nonwhite bridal attire at the Evanston Historical Society, through September 12. Volney died more than 20 years ago, but Helen Leister, now living in a retirement home, still works as a volunteer docent at the historical society. Visit on the right Tuesday and you might hear more about the days when she rode the speed king of the rails and married Volney B. in a blue velvet dance dress, sleek as a Zephyr.
The Evanston Historical Society, 225 Greenwood, is open 1 to 5 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Admission is $3, $1 for students and seniors. Call 708-475-3410 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.