"I thought I had come into hell. Van Nuys was so hot. I mean, God. And at that time I was naughty: I smoked. And I thought, 'How can anybody have a cigarette in this place? It's so hot! You can't breathe!' I didn't know where the hell I had got myself." Jennifer "Ducky" Dorman was talking about coming, by her own choice, some 40 years ago to the United States. "When I walked off the plane, I was scared to death. The vastness of everything scared me. Everything seemed very large. The freeways and the roads. The one wonderful thing was that I spoke the language. God forbid how it is for those poor foreign people who come here and can't speak the language. They've got to be twice as scared, or three times as scared, as I was."
I drove out on a late-summer day to Dorman's La Mesa condo. My car's steering wheel burned my palms. Sweat trickled down my back. Sweat stung my eyes. Days before my visit, I'd been reading The Splendid Outcast: The African Stories of Beryl Markham. Markham, born in Leicester, England, in 1902, was taken as a child by her father to British East Africa. As a young woman, Markham learned to fly and became not only a famous bush pilot but, according to her biographers, the "finest woman pilot in the British Empire." Reading Markham's African stories, I was reminded of how the English often found their way to hot climates. Lawrence of Arabia. General Charles Gordon in the Sudan. The British East India Company. The artist David Hockney in Los Angeles, with his eye for Southern California's flat, stark light. "In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done," crooned Noel Coward in 1932, "but mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."
Dorman's condo sits among several dozen others in a quiet, parklike complex with hibiscus hedges and broad, well-watered lawns. Sturdy picnic tables in shady corners contribute to the complex's "vacation village" feel. A sleepy cat sunned itself on Dorman's welcome mat.
"Come on in, luv," Dorman greeted me at her door. "I was going to make you lunch, but I thought a spot of tea would be better. At least in this heat."
A trio of large, ornate Victorian vases — "They belonged to my grandmum" — gleamed on a library table on the living room's east side. Another table displayed a collection of Wedgwood boxes and vases. Out on the patio, a "Lytton's Tea" sign hung on the fence. On a white glass-and-wrought-iron table in the dining room, Dorman had arranged her turquoise-and-white Royal Doulton tea service. A plate of McVities "Classic Rich Tea" and "Digestive" biscuits sat at the table's center.
"Yorkshire tea," Dorman said, pouring my first cup.
She told me she was born and raised in Lincolnshire, in a small seaside town called Cleethorpes. Her mother was Danish, and her father, who worked as a carpenter, was from a family of Lithuanian Jews. I asked Dorman how she first came in contact with Americans.
"During the war," she said. "We lived in an area where we had the North Sea, and the planes, the German planes, used to fly over. We could hear them. We could hear their heaviness. Just outside where I lived is a place called Boston, and they have a big, tall monument there called Boston Stump. When the Germans saw the monument, they would know that they were a hundred miles from the center of London. So they did fly over, and they did do a few bombs. We had a few bombs in our town.
"And during the war, there were Americans in our town. I lived across the road from a family, and there were four girls there. Well, of course, there were Americans there every day. Gorgeous, handsome, handsome young men in their uniforms. Really good-looking. And I was a little girl who was five years old. I was this blonde little kid. The Americans used to think that I was kind of cute. They used to buy me Juicy Fruit gum. Wait. No. Not Juicy Fruit gum. It was the Hershey bar.
"That was my first contact with Americans. Everything else about America we learned from films. Even as small children, we knew the names of American film stars, like Elizabeth Taylor. We used to play a game using the names of American film stars. For example, we'd yell out, 'Who's E.T.?' If you knew 'E.T.' stood for Elizabeth Taylor, you'd run from one side of the street to the other.
"After the war, I met this American chap, Roman, and I came to live in Van Nuys. He was from Oklahoma but lived in Van Nuys. At the time we met he worked for the Thor Missile Project not far from our town. The idea was that I would fly out to California and live with his auntie and uncle and see how things worked out. I was 21 years old. My father had told me that I couldn't leave home until I was 21 and that, if I did, I would burn my bridges behind me. He was serious so I did stay until I was 21. I did not leave until I was 21 years old, because [parents] were controlling in those days, you know.
"So, I flew. I think it was a maiden voyage for the plane. I think the 707 had only flown about four times overseas. It was with Pan American. We flew to Inglewood, California. It was my first trip on a plane, and there were only 20 people on the plane. Twenty people on the plane, a bloody big plane. The captain asked us to move to the middle of the plane so we could stabilize it. It was the scariest damn thing. And then, would you believe it, I later became a stewardess.
"I went to live with Roman's auntie and uncle in Van Nuys. They were from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and were very, very religious. We said prayers every morning and evening. We went to church twice on Sunday. This was quite a surprise for me. I was raised in the Church of England. Anyway, it became clear that things with Roman and me weren't going to work out. There I was, living with his auntie, and he would come to visit me only after eight or nine o'clock at night. It wasn't going to go anywhere. I was just devastated, really. I didn't know what I was going to do.