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Sophie Sherwin's mother, Bella (far left) at a Camelback Inn soiree circa 1957.
Sophie Sherwin's mother, Bella (far left) at a Camelback Inn soiree circa 1957.
Sophie Sherwin

Sophie's Choice: Retracing Her Mum's Footsteps Through 1950s Phoenix

Sophie Sherwin was in town last week, looking for her mother.

“I went to the apartments where she lived, over on Fourth Avenue,” said Sherwin, sipping tea from a paper cup at a midtown café. “But they’d been torn down and the lot was being redeveloped.”

Sherwin, who’s British, thought her mother would be glad the apartments were gone. “She said the place was a dump, but she lived there because it had a pool,” she said, and laughed a little. Sherwin’s mother died 11 years ago this month, from esophageal cancer. Sherwin has lately been retracing her mother’s steps through westernmost America in the 1950s.

“I’m sad she’s not with me,” Sherwin confided. “I can’t ask her about what Phoenix looked like when she was here.”

It looks quite a bit different, Sherwin has discovered, than when her mother, Bella, visited more than 60 years ago. Bored with her humdrum life in a Yorkshire village, 19-year-old Bella left the UK in 1957 and headed for North America.

“She thought there’s got to be more to life than this,” Sherwin said wistfully. “In Montreal, she lived at Mr. Fudger’s Home for Ladies. But she wanted adventure.”

In Banff, Sherwin’s mum met two other girls, and the trio lit out for the States. They couldn’t afford train fare, so they hitchhiked. They visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas — all detailed in Bella’s diaries and the scrapbooks her daughter now cherishes and travels with.

By the time the girls got to Phoenix, they were out of money. They applied for work at Lulu Belle’s Old West Bar in Scottsdale but weren’t old enough to serve drinks. They eventually got jobs as housemaids at Camelback Inn, and stayed for four months, from November 1957 till February 1958.

“Unfortunately, her diaries stop in Las Vegas,” Sherwin sighed. “She got to the point where she was having too much fun to make diary entries. So, I’m using her scrapbook to guide me — postcards and receipts and things like that.”

She pointed to a yellowed clipping pasted into a scrapbook. “These are help-wanted adverts from the Arizona Republic.” Bella had circled one from Leonard’s Luggage; another looking to hire “cotton snappers” to help harvest a local field. Sherwin’s mother landed a job at Ken Brown’s Photography Studio in Glendale. Sherwin took a bus out there, but the studio was gone.

“That’s been happening a lot,” she said, sounding miffed. “Mum pasted a menu from the Flame restaurant in one of her books. I went there to have a look the other day, and it’s not there. It’s disappointing, and I get quite emotional when these places aren’t there. But that’s the thing about life. It goes on.”

A program and ticket stub for a Phoenix Little Theater production of Susan Slept Here held promise, as the theater is among the few places that hadn’t been razed. “But I haven’t gone there yet,” Sherwin admitted. “I’m on such a strict budget, and I’m doing this by foot and by bus and by Uber.”

She’s keen on seeing as much of her mother’s Phoenix as she can. She grew up hearing stories, like the time Mum and her girlfriends visited the Grand Canyon. “They decided to sleep under the stars and awoke to find they were surrounded by 20 Indians, sitting there staring at them,” she recalled.

Sherwin, who’s worked as a health coach, had lived in Monaco and the South of France, and more recently in Croatia and Vienna. Wherever she was, she said, people were fascinated by stories of her mother hitchhiking around America. She hoped to write a book about Bella’s adventure, and to call it There’s Always a Hitch.

“I never thought I’d go on this journey,” she said of retracing her mother’s steps. “It’s a way to stay connected to my mum, but not in a creepy way. Not in a let’s-build-a-shrine kind of way. I’m going to places Mum went, feeling the energy. I’m trying to find the people she got lifts from. I’m thinking, ‘Maybe this is the same pavement she was on.’ I’m trying to imagine her mindset back then, when young women were expected to get a job or be a housewife.”

Phoenix, she confessed, had so far surprised her. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I think I expected more of a city. I think it’s missing a soul, the kind you get from having history. It’s all quite shiny and new, but I went downtown, and there was nobody there. Most of the places I came here to see, places Mum went, are just gone now, and something new’s been built there instead.”

Later that day she planned to visit the former Emerald Lodge, out near Deer Valley. “Mum loved it there,” she mused. “It’s a pool and spa place now.”

Next, Sherwin will head for Las Vegas, where she planned to stay at the Gold Nugget. “Mum spent a mad 24 hours there. She and her friends kept meeting sailors.”

She held up a faded picture postcard of Saguaros and sand that Bella had mailed home to the UK. “Listen to what she wrote,” Sherwin said. “’How I’m going to miss Arizona. Everything outside is so very white.’”

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