A person of powerful contrasts, Bacon could be a stickler for rules, yet often did not stand on ceremony. An example: "The rest of the staff said, 'You can't get away with that,' and I said, 'Oh, yes I can!'" What she got away with was imitating Elvis Presley at an annual Junior Girls' Play. "They laughed like crazy. Well, it was very funny."
Elizabeth Davenport '56, '72 MA, who became the dean's business administrator in 1956, remembers the performance well: "She gyrated her hips and sang 'Hound Dog.' Everybody died laughing."
Equally notorious was her fabled drive across campus in 1955 during U-M's first panty raid. Bacon was so "mad at the students," Davenport says, that she drove her red convertible into the fray to break it up. "She was always fortissimo, always on stage," Davenport continues, describing with a laugh Bacon's habit of reading the Michigan Dailywhich was often critical of herin the morning. "We'd hear, 'Oh [bleep!]' and the paper would come sailing out of her office."
Rebel in a Georgian Mansion
It was only when she came to U-M to be interviewed that Deborah Bacon discovered that the position she was being considered for in 1950 was not professor of English, but dean of women.
At 43 she had just completed her PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and had no other job offers. Bacon figured that she'd done everything but "work on an assembly line," she recalls, and could handle any job. She wrote in her recently completed, unpublished memoir, Been There...; Done That, that most of her jobs "surged towards me; I just plunged under the oncoming wave."
Born in 1906 in Chappaqua, New York, Bacon grew up in a pillared Georgian house on 100 acres in Westchester County. Her mother, Josephine Daskam Bacon, was a prolific writer who, Bacon enumerates, "wrote everything-short stories, novels, one detective novel that wasn't very good, and imaginative stuff, all for Scribner's."
Her father, Selden, left the family, including a sister and brother, when she was 6, and she didn't see him again until her 20s. Asked if that had been hard, she says, "No, because since he was a busy lawyer, I wouldn't have seen much of him anyway." Among his clients was Buffalo Bill, whom he met in the 1880s when he traveled west for a tuberculosis cure.
It might seem a straight shot from that genteel world to a PhD in English, but Bacon's life took dramatic detours on roads women had little traveled. After graduating from St. Timothy's near Baltimore, she enrolled at Smith but "cut 100 percent of my classes," dropped out and bought a second-hand Harley-Davidson. "This was absolutely unheard of, in 1924, for a girl," she says. Her first paying job was as public health pioneer Lillian Wald's assistant at the Henry Street Settlement on New York's Lower East Side.
At 20, Bacon took a job for two years at the New Jersey State Prison for Women,
working with farm-gangs, producing plays and teaching inmates to read.
From Wartime Nursing to Lewis Carroll
At 23, in 1930, Bacon began training at Bellevue Hospital in New York. She chose nursing "because I knew I was a restless person and could do it anywhere." Her first job, at Fort Yukon in the Alaska Territory with an Episcopal missionary hospital, gave her wide experience. "I did a little of everything as a nurse and drove a dog sled. That was lots of fun."
In 1937, she studied psychiatric nursing at Bellevue and began work at New York University on a BS in public health. Upon graduation at 34, in 1941, she went to Chicago to receive obstetrical training and then took off for another kind of outbackKentucky. "Life up in the 'hollers' was exactly like 18th century America, with the occasional Flivver [Model T Ford]," she says.
After the outbreak of World War II, Bacon enlisted in October 1942 in the Army Nurse Corps. She crossed the English Channel with the 103rd Evacuation Hospital a month after D-Day in 1944. Tending to the wounded and dying, Bacon endured bombing raids and witnessed the liberation of villages and towns and one concentration camp. Second Lieut. Bacon earned five battle stars as her unit followed Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army across Europe.
Upon demobilization, Bacon put nursing behind her. "I wanted to work with words; I'd read all my life. Also, when you've emptied 20,000 bedpans, that's enough. Let's try Shakespeare." Before returning to the United States, she spent three months in 1946 attending classes at the Sorbonne. Back in the States, supported by GI Bill educational funds ("that and the Marshall Plan were America at its best"), she enrolled at Columbia in 1947, and wrote her master's degree thesis on the poetry of John Donne. For her doctoral dissertation on "The Meaning of Non-Sense: a Psychoanalytic Approach to Lewis Carroll," she spent six months researching at Oxford University and underwent three years of psychoanalysis in New York. Her doctoral committee included three literary scholars and three psychoanalysts. "I had the shrewdness to talk to the literature professors about analysis and about literature with the analysts," she says with a laugh.
'An Administrator Could Be Fired'
Had she not been offered the job at Michigan, Bacon was prepared to rejoin the army, which was gearing up for the Korean Conflict. Instead, she became U-M's dean of women and assistant professor of English in October 1950. "They always do that in combination," she explains, "because an administrator could be fired with two days' notice, but with an academic post, they can only fire you for cause."
Bacon says she and her four assistant deans did "everything that is done today by about seven or eight different departments." Every undergraduate woman had to live in housing under the University's supervision, whether dormitory, sorority, co-ops or private residences. Three assistant deans handled that huge job. Elsie Fuller managed the dorms, Gertrude Mulholland the hiring and training of residential staff and Elizabeth Leslie the rest. Bacon once sent Davenport, the fourth assistant dean, on a cross-country tour to look at housing at New England's best women's colleges to assess the possibility of relaxing U-M rules as these smaller, more remote campuses had done. Meanwhile Leslie struggled to force homeowners to make changes that would improve the comfort and sanitary conditions for women who lived in the approved private homes called League Houses. Her reports in Michigan's Bentley Historical Library attest to her job's endless demands.
Bacon worked hard to make residential halls "more hospitable to women," recalls Stanley R. Levy '55, '64 PhD, president of the U-M Interhouse Council during that era. She bolstered the spirits of her small staff with impromptu parties, excursions to restaurants and meals at her house on Brooks Street.
In an era before federal financial aid, most grant and scholarship money was raised privately. "Michigan was unusual in the amount of money given to students," Levy says, "and Bacon was very generous. My bet is that not a penny was left over" at year's end. Davenport concurs: "She was big-hearted and open-handed. If somebody needed something, when she decided there was a need, she'd open her coffers."
"I had much money that the University brass never knew I had," Bacon says of her discretionary fund. "I got it in bits and scraps. Some alumnae groups would give something to the dean of women. You wouldn't find the men giving very much."
The dean's office kept records on women, and the information was available to future employers and the FBI. Elizabeth Davenport, who as Bacon's successor oversaw the office's absorption by the Office of Student Affairs, says there were itemized sheets on each woman. The University didn't let the authorities see the sheets, she adds, but staff used them to "answer questions they [investigators] asked." Among the records were reports by housemothers on such things as social adjustment and personal appearance, as well as information on any student's academic or disciplinary difficulties. Davenport believes that the Health Service occasionally reported to the dean's office on women's visits there.
In its career planning and placement functions, Bacon's office posted employment opportunities and also, at the students' request, sent recommendation letters that included "everything," Levy recalls, both good and bad evaluations. Bacon also used the records when she wrote to the parents of each freshman woman about six to eight weeks into their first semester. "I made it a personal letter," she says. She'd tell parents, "Your daughter is here and I'm pleased to say that-and then I would have a report from the housekeeper on what kind of girl she was."
Working with so many thousands of young people inevitably meant crisis and tragedy. Bacon was very caring, Davenport says. "If a woman had to go to city police for something like rape, and tell her story, somebody went with her from the residence hall or dean's office. The police weren't allowed to interrogate girls inside the housing units."
One woman came to Bacon devastated by learning she was pregnant, Bacon recalls, and she helped her find an uncle who would take her in for the birth and let her stay in school long enough to write papers for her courses that semester. Another time she encouraged two young people to elope to avoid the wrath of their parents who, being of different Protestant denominations, pressed Bacon to help them break up the relationship.
'Three Feet' and 'Six Inches' Rules
For many decades the women in the League Housesthe U-M's first official women's residencesset down rules for behavior, as people living in groups usually do. The rules grew and became codified in a judicial system set up through the Michigan League and supervised by the dean of women. Throughout the 1950s, articles in the Daily pointed out that at Michigan women wrote and administered their own residential rules.
Bacon in her memoir describes the minuteness of the rules: "Evenings, each [woman] signed an 'Out-In' slip [telling where she was going]-to library, dates or meetings. 'In' was at 10:30 week-nights, 12:00 on Fridays."
Other rules have achieved fabled status today. Many students from the 1950s interviewed for this article mentioned the "three feet" and "six inches" rules (but no one reported seeing them written down): When a man and woman were together, they had to have at least three feet on the floor at all times or had to be six inches from each other. A housemother might check compliance, bearing down on them with ruler in hand.
Bacon explains why women had rules and men didn't by noting, "It was the 1950s, remember. This is the time of Doris Day. Rules had to fit Doris Day, I guess. I don't know who set them, Moses, probably. They were just given to me."
The Dean's Edicts
Dean Bacon also had power to enact rules on her own. The Daily in the 1950s is full of her edicts: women may not wear Bermuda shorts to the library; women may now stay out till midnight on weeknights when the newly built Undergraduate Library closes; women may not wear slacks to dinner in the dorms; women may stay out till 4 am for the Junior Hop.
A famous night provided an instance of Bacon's powers. John F. Kennedy was due to speak on the steps of the Michigan Union in October 1960-an address that would propose the Peace Corps. He was delayed long past midnight, and the women waiting to hear him would be late back to the dorms. Before her recent death, Faith Weinstein Dunne '62 told Michigan Today her memory of that night. Word went around the crowd that the women wouldn't leave before the speech, no matter what time it was, and none did. Suddenly, Dunne said, "Dean Debbie turned up and stomped up the steps, and looked out in fury at the crowd. 'Women's hours will be extended until one half hour after the candidate speaks.' A cheer went up from the men and women. My God, I thought, even she couldn't stand up against the will of the people."
Every incoming first-year woman returned a form to the University describing her preferences in a roommate. With it came the "mother's letter," a mother's summary of her daughter that could make a favorable impression on the dean but could sometimes cause a student trouble. The mother of Susan Lowy Lubow '61 reported that her daughter "liked to read and be alone." She received a letter from Bacon suggesting that there was "something socially wrong with me," Lubow says, "because I wasn't 'Betty Coed.' I'd never even got there and there was this bizarre letter."
The long and short of it is that Dean Bacon held great power over all women students, for good or ill. She had wide discretion when it came to grants and scholarships, letters of recommendation, approval to live in cheaper off-campus housing, the contents of a woman's file and even the final say in the nominally independent student judiciary proceedings.
Bacon found the judiciary invaluable. "There would be a chairman of women's judiciary who was invariably a marvelous young woman, marvelous, oh, really good. And she would have about four or five on her committee, and I shoved off onto her everything but expulsion."