Saturday, May 25, 2024 May 25, 2024
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The Book Club That Never Reads the Book

Seventy-five years ago, a Turkish immigrant started a trend in Dallas. It’s not dead yet.
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Ermance Rejebian was born in Turkey in 1906. When she was a little girl, her father was arrested for his political views. By the time he was released, the family had fallen into poverty. Rejebian’s father told her she should leave the country, and she eventually found her way to America, where she met a man who sold Oriental rugs. They married and moved to Houston, but in 1933, Rejebian’s husband was asked to head up the rug department at the Titche-Goettinger department store in downtown Dallas. The couple made a home here and joined the Munger Place United Methodist Church, where Rejebian volunteered. She would often tell stories about books she had read. Her fame as a storyteller spread, and she began attending book clubs and doing reviews for them. Rejebian became so popular that women started book clubs in her honor.

More than 75 years later, many of those clubs still exist. Women gather, they hire a reviewer to tell them about a book, they have lunch, and they go home. No reading required.

That is the itinerary for a meeting held on the third Friday of May, at the Park City Club. The room is ornately decorated with green and beige carpet, burgundy drapes, and five round tables set with dinnerware. Around each table sit silver-haired ladies, a couple of them in their 90s, all members of the Tri-City Book Review Group.

I’m offered a flower made from a handkerchief and escorted to the front table. I’m told the program will begin in six minutes. Exactly six minutes later, Rose-Mary Rumbley takes the stage. Wearing a black sweatshirt, black pants, and what were once white sneakers, the petite Rumbley tells the group she will review four books for them. “The first book I bring you is a book about prayer that was written by Anne Lamott,” she says. “She’s a little far out. She’s a white woman that wears dreadlocks. I wouldn’t recommend her book to a conservative Baptist, for sure.” The book’s title is Help, Thanks, Wow, and she doesn’t actually review it. “It’s a little bitty book,” she says, “a great gift book for your more liberal believers.” (It should be noted that Rumbley is a Baptist and attends the First Baptist Church downtown.) Then she launches into the second book, a nearly 1,000-page tome by Simon Sebag Montefiore called Jerusalem: The Biography.

Rumbley has several versions of reviews ready to go at a moment’s notice. The 81-year-old woman gives about 550 book talks per year (some for clubs, others at retirement homes and the like), and she knows her audience well, sprinkling her reviews with references to cultural touchstones like Flip Wilson. Rumbley is considered the best book reviewer in Dallas. When a group of wom
en formed the Dallas Professional Book Reviewer’s Association, they didn’t even consider asking her to join.

“It would be like asking Martha Stewart to come to your house to bake muffins,” says Lurline Morrow, one of the founders of the association. “She’s so well-known and so popular that she doesn’t need any sort of publicity from any of us.” Morrow and a few of her friends started the DPBRA two years ago. “What we wanted to do was create an organization that had high standards so that a program chairman can look at our website and know that when they hire us, they’re getting a really professional book review. They’re not getting a singer or a dancer, just book reviewers.”

To join the DPBRA, a reviewer must survive a selection process and be invited. Reviewers must memorize their presentations (no reading from notes), and they must be entertaining. Morrow, who prefers to do biographies, says it takes her about a year to perfect a review. She’ll use up to 10 books to write a manuscript, which she then commits to memory. Other reviewers, she says, are smarter than she is and, like Rumbley, can maintain a library of reviews. 

During her 45-minute set at the Park City Club, Rumbley touches on most of the world’s major religions and gets a lot of laughs. Her third book is The Epic of America, by James Truslow Adams, in which she says the phrase “the American Dream” first appeared in print, in 1931. Her last book is Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by Marla R. Miller. Once she leaves the podium, the club’s officers conduct a few minutes of business (budget reports, reading of last month’s minutes, and announcements of birthdays and deaths). Then it’s time for lunch.

Over chicken crêpes, I ask the members about not reading the books. “I know it’s very nice that we’re not on a schedule that you have to read a book by a certain time so that you can discuss it,” says president Betty Thomas. “I’ve heard of book clubs that way.”

Sally Branch, former president, puts it bluntly: “It’s not a discussion group of the book.”

The women do read. Some read quite a lot. They just don’t want to read a 1,000-page book about the history of Jerusalem.

Martha Brooks, sitting beside a couple of her neighbors at lunch, joined the club 66 years ago. She says the Tri-City Book Review Group was formed in 1936. Several of its officers claim it’s the oldest club of its kind. (The DPBRA’s Morrow points out that all the review clubs can trace their origins to Rejebian, so they all claim to be the oldest.) Brooks, who just celebrated her 90th birthday, says she heard about the club when she was a student at Ursuline Academy in the ’30s. In 1947, she joined the club with Rejebian. “I was anxious to be in her club,” Brooks says. “I was very taken by Mrs. Rejebian.” Clubs bearing Rejebian’s name popped up all around Dallas, eventually spreading throughout Texas and even into Oklahoma.

Brooks explains that the Tri-City part of her club’s name comes from Dallas, University Park, and Highland Park. To join, one must be invited by a current member. Dues are $40 per year, and lunch costs $18. The club has 42 members (two passed away since last month’s meeting, as was documented during the business portion of the meeting), but they’re willing to take up to 50. Prior to the Park City Club, the group gathered at the NorthPark Neiman Marcus. Before that, they met in each other’s homes.

“I remember having it at my house when we hadn’t been there too long, and we didn’t have near as much furniture and possessions as I do now,” Brooks says. “I’d rent chairs from Cannonball and set the living room like a theater.”

In those days, the women wore white gloves and hats. They were generally young and could take time out of their days to gather for a review and lunch. Today, the mostly retired women are dressed in their Sunday best. Brooks wears a pink jacket, green and pink scarf, and a matching handkerchief flower pinned to her lapel. She looks out at the room full of her friends.

“I suppose we all kind of aged with it,” she says. “For the most part, we’ve just grown old with the club.”