The First Lady Driver
Lucy Gregg Muir
Although based on the life of Alice Huyler Ramsey, this scene is pure fiction. In 1909, Alice Ramsey, a 22 year old wife and mother, becomes the first woman to drive cross country, and she repeats the drive numerous times throughout her life. She is a woman after my own heart.
Alice Rumson ran her gloved hand over the dark green Maxwell’s fender and smiled at the older man standing by her. “It’s beautiful!”
“Great choice, Mr. Rumson!” The happy salesman pumped John’s hand. “Our finest model! You’ll never go back to a horse!”
“It’s not for me, Mr. Kelsey.” John rubbed his abused fingers and nodded at his young wife. “It’s for Alice.”
“Oh, John," she turned to her husband, eyes bright. "Is this truly mine?”
He smiled, tapped his pipe gently in his palm. “Yes, Alice. It’s yours," he said, talking around the pipe as he placed it between his teeth.
“Well, yes,” said Mr. Kelsey. “I’m sure she’ll enjoy riding in it.”
“Not riding, Mr. Kelsey,” Alice smiled demurely. “Driving.”
The salesman’s eyes lit up. “Driving?”
“You seem surprised.” She walked up to the man who was barely older than she and looked him in the eye. “It is the twentieth century now, Mr. Kelsey. Some women are no longer tied to the archaic notions of home and hearth.”
“Yes, well,” he said, offering a slight bow of the head. “You are the first such woman I have met.”
“Then I’m happy to make your acquaintance.” She held out her hand for him to shake.
He smiled, took her hand, and laughed. “And I yours.”
She circled the car slowly, tracing its curves and seams, brushing the back of her glove over the fragile glass of the headlamps. She stopped at the crank on the front of the car, leaned down and wrapped her fingers fully around its thick handle. Looking up at her husband, she winked. “Dare I?”
John laughed. “I’d wait till I had a proper lesson, if I were you.”
She ran to him and put her arms around his neck. “You’re right, of course, Darling,” she said, taking the pipe from his mouth and kissing him with abandon and seemingly little care of what the people around them might think.
She looked deeply into his eyes and the smile left her face. “You’ll get in trouble for this, won’t you, dear?”
“Oh, I am always bringing you trouble.” She leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Yes, you are always bringing me trouble,” he said. She looked up at him, a deep crease on her brow.
“My life was trouble free before I found you,” he said, putting his arms around her shoulders and holding her close. “My life was also free of happiness before I found you.” He brushed her hair with his lips. “You bring me such joy as I have never known.” He took her face in his hands. “And for that, I will suffer all the trouble in the world.”
A slow smile returned to her face. “It’s a motorcar, John. My very own motorcar.”
“Your very own.”
“I’ll share it with you.” Alice twirled out of John´s embrace and leaned against the door of the car, smiling.
“No!” He walked to where Alice stood. “No, dear. I know nothing about these mechanical carriages and I don’t wish to.” He waved a dismissive hand at the horseless beast. “I much prefer a horse who obeys the whip.”
“You are an old fogey,” she said softly.
“Married to a young woman with strange desires.”
He looked over her shoulder at the showroom filled with well-dressed but stodgy gentleman and a few of their equally dull wives. Alice followed his gaze thinking she stood out much like her beloved new motorcar would in a corral full of aging mares.
She removed a glove and slapped it loudly in her hand. “Well,” she said in a voice for all to hear. “I’m ready for my lesson, Mr. Kelsey.” All heads in the showroom turned to her.
John’s eyes widened above flushed cheeks as he put the pipe back in his mouth. Alice isn’t trouble, he thought, but she is a force to be reckoned with.
“You’re certainly not going to allow your daughter to drive.”
John turned to the man peering at him over rounded spectacles.
“She’s my wife,” John smiled, “not my daughter.” The man looked from Alice to John, raising his eyebrows.
“And it’s not up to me to allow her to do anything. She is perfectly capable of making her own decisions about what she is able to do.”
“Well.” The man turned to his wife, maneuvered his head under her wide brimmed hat and whispered in her ear. Her shoulders went from round to rigid the longer he spoke.
The woman turned to Alice, who sat in the driver’s seat of the Maxwell. “You should know your place,” the woman said, pushing tight blue gloves over her spindly fingers.
“I do know my place.” Alice pressed the plunger on the Klaxon horn, emitting an Ahooga! that knocked the woman back a pace onto her husband, her hat falling forward over her face.
“Dear! Dear!” The man struggled to keep his wife standing.
The woman shook her husband off, stood erect, adjusted her skirts and repositioned her hat. “Children today have no manners,” she said pointedly, turning in a huff.
Alice laughed as she provided fanfare for the couple’s retreat.
“Child indeed,” Alice said, smiling at John.
John walked around the car to where she sat and gently closed the door, locking her in her seat at the steering wheel. “Trouble you are, my Dear. And trouble you will always be.”
“I know, Darling.” She pulled the skirt up over her knees and peered at her feet as she randomly depressed the peddles. “You will never hear the end of this, I’m certain, so I shall make myself scarce by driving and driving and driving.” She jiggled the gear shift. “No one will ever see me and I’ll no longer be a bother.”
She turned to him. “I’m sorry I’m a bother, John, but I am so eager to … ” She hesitated, looking him in the eyes. “...to live.”
John laid his hand gently over hers and turned to the salesman. “Mr. Kelsey?”
The salesman trotted over to the Rumsons. “Sir?”
John smiled at Alice. “It’s time we were on the road.” Alice squeezed John´s hand tightly.
Mr. Kelsey walked to where Alice sat in the car and smiled at her. “You’re going to love it, you know,” he said, his voice low. They were youthful conspirators, anxious to begin their roles in this new age of mobility.
She beamed. “I know.” She ran her hands over the controls in front of her. “There’s so much to learn.”
“Oh, but it’s easy, really!” He ran to the front of the showroom and opened the two hanging doors to the street. “I’ll have you driving like you were born to it!”
“I was born to it!” She sat straight in the seat, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear shift.
“I should drive it out onto the street, though,” he said.
“Mr. Kelsey.” Alice took the haughtiest tone she could conjure, which was difficult considering how unhaughty she felt. “It is my motorcar. I will drive it.”
He looked at John.
“Sorry, young man,” John said. “Once her mind is made up….”
Mr. Kelsey grabbed a pair of goggles, then another, and jumped into the passenger seat of the Maxwell. “Here,” he said, handing the extra pair of goggles to Alice. “Safety first.”
She giggled and pulled the goggles over her hair, positioning them on her eyes.
“You might want to fix your hair,” Mr. Kelsey whispered to her.
“My hair be damned!” she cried, causing a few of the more prim members of the crowd that had gathered around the Maxwell to gasp at her language. “Let’s drive, Mr. Kelsey!”
“Please, call me Caddy.” He motioned for a young man to turn the crank on the front of the car.
“And I’m Alice." She laughed and shook his hand again, a more informal greeting of like-minded friends. "Call me Alice!”
The engine caught with a sputter and a cough, soon coming to a gentle rumbling idle. It was an odd sound of machinery, still uncommon to most ears, but for Alice it was a call to her soul.
“Ohhhh.” Alice took her hands off of the gently vibrating steering wheel and pushed her goggles up. “What power there is beneath my hands.”
“But you control the power, Alice,” Caddy whispered. “That is the joy of driving.”
“Are you sure you´re ready, Dear?” John stood next to Alice, his hand resting gently on her shoulder.
“Yes, Darling.” She put her hand on his. "I love you, John Rumson.” Alice held John´s gaze. "No one has ever been as lucky as I," she whispered.
"I´ll be waiting here for you." He put his hand under her chin and kissed her lightly. "I will always wait for you."
"Ready, Alice?" Caddy Kelsey pulled the goggles over his eyes.
She smiled at John, kissed him again quickly, and put the goggles back on. "Ready, Caddy."
She winked at John and put her hands on the wheel.
“Drive, Alice," he smiled. "Drive.”