As a senior Linus Pauling was quite clear about what he wanted to do – Chemistry – and where he was going – to graduate school at Harvard, Berkeley, or the new California Institute of Technology – until his infatuation with Ava Helen briefly threatened to derail his life project. Occasionally he wavered. “Up until the time you came into my life,” he told her, “my work was sufficient for me.” Perhaps he should marry her right away, work for a while to save money for graduate school, and follow his dream later? He worried about her being idle or anxious; he nursed some guilt at keeping her waiting while he followed his passion.
Their mothers wanted nothing to do with an early wedding. Nora Gard Miller wanted this daughter to finish college. Belle Pauling probably wanted no interference with her own claim on Linus’s earnings, but she argued that he needed to go to graduate school and get his Ph.D. before he committed himself to this marriage. She did tell Linus’s sisters and cousins what a “sweet” girl Ava Helen was. The young couple was determined to marry, but complied with their mothers’ wishes and laid plans for several years away from each other.
As early as June 1922, just a few months after they had begun to date, they were sharing intimate details. Linus wrote not just about his reading, but also about his finances, his diet, his sunburn, and his conviction that he was getting broader across the chest.
When I stand in my birthday suit in front of my big mirror my chest seems larger than it used to be. My hips are broad compared with my waste [sic], but not compared with my chest. I have a number of rather fine dark hairs on my chest too — perhaps some day I’ll be all fuzzy. I don’t think so, though, and I don’t care to be.
From Linus’s work site in Warrenton, Oregon, that summer of 1922 Ava Helen received daily letters from her doting and busy fiance. When he wasn’t doing his paving inspector work for the state highway department, he was reading French and working physical chemistry problems supplied by his soon-to-be Caltech mentor, A. A. Noyes. A special office for the paving inspector had yet to be built at Astoria, and Linus got to oversee that project. She read letters filled with cheerful reflections on his co-workers, his chemistry problems, his hopes for the future, his successful attempt to secure a loan from his Uncle Jim (“The Miller girls are splendid women and I am quite sure this particular one will make you a good helpmate,” Linus quoted his uncle), and his overflowing love for her (“you are the dearest girl in the world”).
Although we have few of Ava Helen’s letters to Linus from this period, his own daily letters respond to hers in detail. She wrote to him about her financial worries, and he reassured her that he would share his loan and his earnings with her. For the first time in his life he felt free to spend or save the money he earned, without accounting to his mother for every dollar. A loan of $1000 from uncle Jim Campbell was earmarked for his mother and sisters, so Linus could move on to graduate school without lingering worries for them. To his future wife he reported that he had “never become intimate with my family.” Despite his mother’s high expectations of his dutiful obedience, and his own guilty feelings as he tore away, he kept a large part of his inner life barricaded away from them. Once he admitted to her that he did not help them much financially, whereas his sister Pauline did.
He was eager to protect her, too, from the careless comments of their friends, who suggested that a long separation might lead to Linus looking at other girls. “Being apart won’t make us forget each other, sweetheart – nothing can separate us in spirit.” They spent the July 4 weekend together that summer, and other evenings every so often. By the end of July, Linus’s restlessness had issued in a new plea to his beloved: Would she consider marrying this September, rather than waiting another year, or two, or three?
This query came out of the blue. The prolonged separation ahead while he completed graduate school in California and she slogged through OAC was suddenly intolerable. But more pressing even than their families’ reluctance to bless a precipitate union was the money question. Linus knew that he must do his graduate work. As he saw it, the only way to assure her lifelong happiness was for him to be “out-of-the-ordinary.” Though this sounds hilariously narcissistic now, there was wisdom in his reasoning. He needed his work to be happy: to be complete. He reassured her that, if he had to choose, he would choose her over his chemistry, but this was not always the tune he played, and fortunately for him, Ava Helen did not want him to make that sacrifice. For the next fifty years she hewed to the same standard. She relied on him to be extraordinary. The time would come when she would look back with regret at having failed to seize that kind of ambition for herself. But she did not begrudge him his fame, won by brilliance, persistence, and her own household management. She thrived on his fame.
In the summer of 1922, Linus tried to figure out how much money they would need to live together in Pasadena as he pursued his graduate studies and she continued her education at one of the California universities. How much of a loan would they need to supplement his $600 stipend? He wondered if she would be willing to share a house with his OAC friend Paul Emmett, who would also attend Caltech, and Paul’s mother. He worried that they would not be able to afford a piano for Ava Helen. He knew they could hardly afford the wedding they hoped for. As he wrote, he started to talk himself out of what he knew was an impractical scheme. Yet he waited anxiously for her reply. Touching back to the vivid everyday world, he asked her about the crabs he had sent over from the coast. He returned to his fantasy.
A few days ago this would have seemed like the wildest dream. Now it seems not improbable. I’m not building my hopes high, tho, sweet. I wish you could talk it over with your mother.
Before she answered he rushed a second letter into the mail. He called himself “careless” for proposing an early marriage. “Dear heart, I so abhor mediocrity. I want our life to be wonderful.” He knew he must devote his energies to graduate study and somehow simultaneously carry out this agonizing long-distance courtship.
Ava Helen wrote back to Linus and offered a plan. They could get ahead financially if she got a job to supplement their income while he studied. He nixed that idea. “You are not equipped for work you like nor can you make a great deal.” During the last week of July Linus’s feelings racketed around like a pinball. He brought himself to the point of believing that they would certainly marry, and even planned the day of the event and the honeymoon (a night in a hotel).
Then he spoke to his mother. Onto his longing Belle poured all the cold water she could chill. Why didn’t Ava Helen’s family finance her schooling? Why hadn’t she worked over the summer? Why couldn’t she work in Oregon over the coming year? What if something went wrong in his graduate studies? What kind of gratitude would an early marriage show for the “sacrifices” his family had made for him? Surely he owed them the Ph.D. (an interesting assertion from the woman who had begrudged him his bachelor’s studies). What if poverty embittered the young couple? What if they had a baby? What if one of them fell ill? Further, the Emmetts could not provide a suitable place to live in Pasadena. Mrs. Emmett disapproved of Paul even dating before he finished his graduate work. And they too were struggling financially.
It was a litany of disasters that only a mother’s mind could marshal. Linus’s dreams were shattered. He had planned to write to Ava Helen’s mother, but now he even gave up that step.
Dear heart, I believe now that perhaps it would be unwise of us to be married….I think that my rather blind enthusiasm has caused me to forget things.
Now repeatedly he asked her not to tell either of their mothers that he was helping her out financially. The young man’s agony and the irresolution of life in two places resonates through the correspondence. Even his mother had to admit that she had “never seen a couple so completely gone on each other.” However, Linus’s unquenchably cheery disposition provided ballast. While he was being pulled apart by irreconcilable desires, he was also enjoying crab fritters, mayonnaise, malted milk, and Ava Helen’s candy. His appetite was healthy and his taste for his chemistry problems unabated. He made friends easily at the work site and enjoyed his neighbors across the hall and the woman who ran the restaurant where he ate most meals. He was not a man waffling in his love or evading his beloved, but he believed in the future and could face disappointment in the present. “We are making our small sacrifice now so that our gift to the world may be perfect.”
And Ava Helen was a woman who, for all her little-girl flirtatiousness, could cut to the heart of the matter. “It hurt me a little,” Linus admitted in a letter a few days later, “that you thot it was just because of my mother’s wishes that we aren’t married.” He wrote that he would do whatever Ava Helen wished — though he did not see how he could resign his assistantship or manage his loans. She had acutely assessed his dependence on Belle’s good opinion, and perhaps used it to poke him after her disappointment. But she also stuck to her sensible belief that they needed to minimize their financial dependence, and she too resigned herself to waiting for marriage.
In early September Linus detoured through Corvallis on his way to stay with his family in Portland for a few days before taking off with Paul Emmett for their big adventure at Caltech. “They are too dense to ask if I had been to see you, and I’m not going to tell them outright.” He planned to circle back through Corvallis one more time. There is an unusual break in the daily letters between September 6 and September 16, so the couple probably spent a few days together in that period of time, either in Corvallis or perhaps Portland. “Did you get to Corvallis all right? Did you cry because your bad boy left you?” Linus wrote on the 16th.
Her fiance’s description of his trip to California, and his lyrical portraits of Pasadena, the mountains, and the coast, suggest one compelling reason the Paulings made their lifelong home in California. From the beginning Linus was entranced by the state’s natural beauty and its architectural charms. Housing was expensive, though. He stayed in a hotel while he waited to move into the Emmetts’ new house, bought for $6500, which struck Linus as very high. “Our house is a beautiful little place, as are all of them here. Pasadena is lovely — there are all kinds of palms — some forty feet tall and some three feet thru. There are orange groves a hundred feet from our house, and all the way to school, and there are palms in front of the house. It is all beautiful. The pepper trees are delicate lacy things. I’m enclosing some leaves,” he wrote, sending her a bit of his new world; ” — they may lose their odor, tho.” He fantasized all year about how they would hike the hills together, and perhaps have their own little house.