The Intriguing Life of Grace Potter Carroll

NOTE: As Living on the Diagonal readers may know, I’ve spent the last year and a half furiously at work on a book about the life of David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae, as he was known to family and childhood friends, was associated with the New York Opera company for thirty years. Research for the book led me to dozens of fascinating side stories, far too many to include in the book. This blog seems a good place for some of that extraneous material to land.

Grace Potter Carroll (1883-1978) was Rae’s advanced piano teacher. Carroll also taught Nina Simone (back when she was Eunice Waymon) at about the same time Rae was taking lessons from Carroll. Carroll was an important influence in Rae’s life and he maintained contact with her throughout her lifetime. He visited her on return trips to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, including after she was living in a nursing home in the late 1970s.

Born Grace Stewart Potter she grew up in Chicago and showed early promise as a pianist. She got some help along the way in the person of Harriet “Hattie” Pullman (1842-1921), widow of George M. Pullman (1831-1897), inventor of the Pullman sleeping cars of railway fame. George’s story is pretty fascinating, too. Look for it in a future post.

Harriet Sanger Pullman (Photo retrieved from findagrave.com)

Grace and Hattie’s association likely came about because Grace’s grandfather, William Wallace Stewart, was one-time attorney for the Pullman company. At any rate, Hattie became Grace’s patron, in the very old-fashioned sense of the word, providing her with financial, personal, and emotional support. Hattie footed the bill for the young pianist to study and perform in Europe for five years as a student of Ferruccio Busoni and Theodor Leschetizky in Germany and Moritz Moszowski in Paris. She also studied in Switzerland and Russia.

While in Europe, Grace won a scholarship—one of twelve worldwide and the only one from the United States—to the Meisterschule of the Vienna Conservatory. She appeared with orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and London—probably more. The Asheville Citizen later reported she “has been acclaimed by European critics as well as critics of Chicago and New York as an artist of the first rank.”

Grace’s personal life in young adulthood was full of mystery and intrigue, and the Chicago papers told all about it. In 1915 she simply disappeared. She had last been seen leaving a friend’s home on her way to another engagement carrying her handbag, two books, and a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Days later the books were found under the flooring of a bathhouse. But no Grace.

According to the Tribune, authorities had been scouring the countryside for eight days when Mrs. Scott Durand, on the lawn of her Crab Tree farm, looked up and saw “a tall young woman, thin and haggard. . . . Her hat had lost its shape, her frayed lace waist had evidently once been white and her blue skirt and shoes were grimy with dust.” The two knew each other and Durand recognized her immediately. She said, probably in surprise, “Why, Grace Potter, how are you?”

“How do you do, Mrs. Durand? May I have a drink of water? I’m awfully tired and dusty.” The first thing Durand did after slaking the young woman’s thirst was to call Mrs. Pullman who “expressed great pleasure” at her reappearance. Thus the search ended.

Although Grace was thirty-three, the Tribune’s headline reported her return with the following headlines: “Missing Potter Girl Turns Up at Durand Farm” and “Girl Pianist Makes No Mention of Eight Days’ Whereabouts.” By the time the first reporter arrived at the farm, Grace was at the piano. She never mentioned her adventure. Relatives, who had earlier feared suicide, told reporters they believed “she has been suffering from a lapse of memory due to overwork” and said Grace had no memory of where she was or what happened during her disappearance.

After consulting with a nerve specialist, they decided not to mention the subject unless she brought it up and planned to “take her out west for a little while and give her a chance to get back her strength.” Hattie Pullman had her own plans for the pianist. The Tribune announced she “planned to invite Miss Potter to spend a few days with her as soon as she recovers from her nervous condition.” Relatives apparently agreed and secreted her at Mrs. Pullman’s, after which she was admitted to a Wisconsin sanitarium. By mid-July the sanitarium’s director thought she would soon be able to make short visits to Chicago, though he declared she was not yet ready to return to work at the Bush Conservatory of Music where she was head of the piano department.

The episode was not her first disappearance, however. It was her fourth in two years. But on each of the three previous occasions, she returned to the home where she boarded after a few days’ absence, each time saying she had been visiting friends.

In June of 1917 Grace went missing again only to turn up at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a couple of months later. Once again she received “treatment for a nervous condition,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The hospital staff had been aware of her tendency to wander, so when she left the hospital grounds for hours or even a few days at a time, they did not worry. However, in October she disappeared for a much longer period, and a police-assisted search was mounted across parts of three states. In the same vein as the Tribune, the Asheville Citizen announced the unexplained absence of the now thirty-five-year-old woman this way: “Chicago Girl is Missing.” To help facilitate the search, the paper provided a description: “Tall, slightly round shouldered, and brunette complexion; fluffy, curly black hair; blue-gray eyes; smooth scar on right cheek extending with corer of mouth; even white teeth. . . . Hospital officials describe the missing woman as exceedingly handsome, and one that would attract attention for her beauty in a crowd.”

Grace Stewart Potter, 1915 (Public domain photo)

The striking woman was found walking toward the hospital twelve days after her disappearance. As before, she gave no explanation for her absence except to say she had been “out in the country.” Though she was exceedingly tired from extended walking, the Asheville Citizen reported she was “in the best of health” and evidently had been well-treated during her absence, wherever she was.

The paper made the point that Grace was a well-known Chicago society woman and “niece of the famous Mrs. Potter Palmer [Bertha Honoré], society leader and club woman.”(The website chicagology.com referred to Palmer as the city’s “social dictator.”) The paper found Grace’s habit of disappearances all the more odd for the fact that she was “highly connected socially in Chicago, and bears every evidence of culture and refinement.”

Bertha Honore Palmer (Portrait by Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later Grace returned to Chicago and resumed her teaching at the Bush Conservatory, but not for long. The March 2, 1918 Asheville Citizen announced that Grace Potter and Dr. Robert Carroll, founder and medical director of the very hospital where she had been a patient, had been married in the Chicago home of Mrs. Pullman.

Though Grace’s marriage to Carroll meant a permanent move to Asheville and the end of her association with the Bush Conservatory of Music, she continued her performance career and her life retained a high degree of elegance. In 1922, the couple set out on a full year of traveling “entirely around the world with stops of length in many European countries doing psychological research work,” according to the Asheville Citizen. In addition to stops in European countries, their travels included Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand.

The couple resided at Homewood, a turreted stone manor on the grounds of Highland Hospital. Grace added a large music salon where she performed, taught, and often hosted other musicians, including Béla Bartók who gave private concerts for the likes of the Vanderbilts and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The music room featured cherry walls, a twenty-foot ceiling featuring wrought iron chandaliers, and a large stone fireplace.

Grace was an original faculty member of the Sayn Conservatory of Music in Asheville, founded by Russian violin virtuosa Elena de Sayn, Grace’s classmate during her European studies. After de Sayn moved her conservatory to Washington, DC, Grace traveled there for ensemble study in preparation for a series of concerts at the Congressional Library. She also played with the New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and North Carolina symphonies.

Grace Potter Carroll’s life apparently became more sedate after her marriage, but she continued to promote music in the area and to teach piano lessons privately for the rest of her life. She did not pocket any income from those lessons. Her obituary in the Asheville Citizen said she put those fees into a loan fund for promising students who wished to further their musical education. In return the students, including Rae, presented recitals at Homewood once they completed their studies. It was all part of her philosophy that no one succeeds in a vacuum. As she pointed out in a 1933 interview with the Asheville Citizen, “What any person is able to do is only made possible by the unselfish help and devotion of others.” She knew that from personal experience, and since she felt she had been unable to adequately give thanks for the help she had received to achieve success, she tried to pay it forward through the scholarship fund. She wanted to teach her students the same lesson.

6 thoughts on “The Intriguing Life of Grace Potter Carroll

  1. Pingback: The Chicago Woman’s Club (1876-1999) – Living on the Diagonal

  2. Pingback: Grace Potter Carroll, Part II: Bertha Honoré and Potter Palmer – Living on the Diagonal

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