Regular readers know I recently published David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. What you may not know is that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my research opportunities were limited—and this book called for lots of research. Thankfully, in the age of technology, solid research can be conducted from one’s own living room. But there was one big piece I had to go without.
Rae’s long-time mentor, voice coach, and friend Sol B. Cohen and his brother Julius lived in Urbana, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois, where Rae attended school and studied with Julius. Upon Sol’s death in 1988, his voluminous archives were bequeathed to the university’s Illinois History and Lincoln Collection. I knew those archives had to be rich with helpful information. However, the university was closed to researchers from March 2020 until late August 2021 because of Covid. Though the library graciously downloaded the few items I had been able to positively identify as useful from the collection’s written inventory, publication of the book had to go on without knowledge of most of this treasure trove. And what a trove it was—30+ boxes of 949 folders crammed with correspondence, diaries, photographs, compositions, manuscripts, and more. I simply had to get my hands on that material. Surely there were references to Rae, possibly photographs and other materials, which would help tell his story. Because my curiosity is never-ending, it hardly mattered that this research would be post-publication. I just needed to know.
So, as September rolled around, the Gnome and I made an appointment to travel halfway across the country so we could spend a day and a half in the Archive’s reading room. (Turns out we were the first researchers to grace the place since things shut down eighteen months ago.) There was no way we could go through all 949 folders, especially since they included sixty years’ worth of Sol’s chock-full personal diaries; we had to prioritize. We decided to focus on letters between Sol and Julius when one or the other lived and worked elsewhere, as well as correspondence from other people who were part of Rae’s story.
We knew we might find absolutely nothing of interest. But then again. . . . Well, our bet paid off. Granted, most of our new knowledge is not about Rae so much as it about other personalities central to his life, but that is fascinating too. However, we did learn a few new ‘Rae’ facts and even came across a couple of previously unknown photographs.
During the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the finds we discovered: some about Rae, some about Sol’s family, and maybe some about other personalities and places I found intriguing. For now, let me leave you with a few photographs of Sol, whose writing and saving (hoarding?) habits I give great thanks.
I’ve been feeling a little down lately. I’m probably not alone in that with all that’s going on in the world, but a lovely drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway always helps to brighten my mood, so that’s what the Gnome and I did a few days ago.
At 469 miles long, the Parkway is the nation’s longest linear park, stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in far southwestern North Carolina through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Near Charlottesville, the Parkway turns into Skyline Drive which will take you another hundred miles or so to Front Royal, about 70 miles west of Washington, DC. Both drives are extraordinarily scenic.
But don’t expect to travel the full distance of the Parkway in a day. Or even two. With a 45-mph speed limit and winding roads along ridge tops, you couldn’t if you tried. But with breathtaking vistas all along the way who would want to? You don’t travel the Parkway to get somewhere fast—or necessarily to get anywhere at all. You travel it for relaxation and for the bucolic scenery. You travel it to stop at overlooks and take in spectacular views of valleys and mountains, of trees and wildflowers, of blue skies (sometimes) and clouds. You travel it to stop for a picnic alongside a mountain creek or to take a hike along one the many trails through the woods. The Parkway is a place to slow your pace and soak up Nature’s glory. Nary a billboard will mar the scenery. You’ll find no aggravating traffic lights, not even a stop sign. Just 469 miles of calm.
There’s a lot of history along the Parkway, not all of it particularly uplifting. Folks who lived in the way lost their homes for the most part, and long-standing communities vanished. Today, you will see remnants of those homes and communities in fascinating educational exhibits.
At the same time, Parkway construction created hundreds of jobs during the Great Depression when no other jobs were to be had (as well as hundreds if not thousands more since.) All but the most specialized labor was local. Throughout its 86-year history, tourist dollars from Parkway travelers have filled coffers of nearby towns with untold dollars. And more than half a billion (that’s billion–with a B) have enjoyed its beauty ever since. A 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine noted that 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway the previous year, compared to about 3 million each for Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.
Some the Parkway’s history involves my family. My Uncle Bill had the contract to construct several of the historic stone tunnels as well as the original tower at Mount Mitchell. A portion of the Parkway sits along the ridge of the mountain behind the home where my mother and her siblings grew up in Jackson County, North Carolina—the very mountain they climbed to pick blackberries for their blackberry and biscuit breakfasts.
Begun in 1935 (when my mom was a teenager), the Parkway was not completed until 1987 (when my own children were teenagers) when the final segment was built around Grandfather Mountain in a stunning piece of engineering genius to protect the fragile ecology of the area.
I consider myself one of the most fortunate of souls to be no more than thirty minutes from a Parkway entrance. And when I get there, I realize I’m in a place that connects my present to my mother’s past, even though I’m maybe a couple of hundred miles, Parkway style, from her childhood home. It’s a special feeling.
Private land still borders the skinny ribbon of roadway, and astute travelers might notice inconspicuous roads going off to the left or right as they pass any number of pastures filled with cows. It’s hard to drive along the Parkway without sighting deer and wild turkey, too. Lucky folks will even come across a fox or a black bear.
On our recent trip, we headed north on one of my favorite sections of the scenic drive. No need to try to explain it. These photos tell the story.
We stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia, to listen to some good old-fashioned bluegrass music. You can catch live performances every day of the week from noon until four June through October. What a treat! (All the musicians volunteer their time, too.) We spent about an hour in the museum learning about the history of old-time and bluegrass, whose home is in these hills.
As we made the return trip, we stopped by Jeffress Park and hiked the sometimes-treacherous trail through the woods and along the streambed of Falls Creek on its way to The Cascades, an amazingly powerful waterfall. I wish you could hear the roar and see the frothy lace. But I was as impressed by the shallow stream that made its way to the noisy cascade. It was such a restful place where I felt the cool air swirl around my ankles and envelop body and soul as I caught scents of damp earth and mushrooms and leaf litter. It was, as it always is, magical. And I came home uplifted.
This is one of my favorite times of the year. No, not because a sliver of Autumn’s breath is in the still-hot August air (though I love that, too) but because all across the country it’s time for Freshman Move-In Day. I live in a college town, so no calendar is needed to tell me it’s that time of year. I know it has come the day our heretofore relatively calm streets are jammed with cars nearly bursting with boxes and bags. It always puts me in mind of my own first move-in day. Excitement and trepidation competed for space in my overstimulated brain. Everything—absolutely everything—was new. I had no idea what the future, even the future of the next day, held.
All the anticipation and anxiety from so many years ago came flooding back last week as the Gnome and I had the privilege of participating in our second granddaughter’s freshman move-in. As we drove onto campus we joined another couple of thousand cars filled, like ours, with student belongings. Before we saw the dorm, we heard the sound of the band playing high-spirited music on the lawn to match the day’s mood.
Then we spotted burgundy-and-gold-clad upperclassmen, staff, and administrators swarming on the grounds and around the cars. Like busy bees, students emptied vehicles’ contents into giant blue bins, rolled them to the dorm, and emptied them again, carrying containers right to dorm room doors. Five minutes and it was a done deal. In spite of the muggy ninety-degree weather, they were all smiles and energy. During our couple of minutes’ wait for an available bin, a dean sauntered to our car to engage us in conversation, playfully inviting us Silvers to join the student body. So welcoming.
Every aspect of move-in day was equally seamless, speedy, and gleeful.
We’d never been on campus before, but we were already charmed. The more we learned the more charmed we became. The school is filled with traditions that instantly create a feeling of belonging. As new students processed to their first convocation on a big lawn shaded by old oaks, they passed by—and touched—the pedestaled bell which survived the 1923 campus fire that came darned close to closing the school for good.
Not surprisingly the school mascot is the Phoenix, ancient symbol of rebirth. These particular students have lived through their own catastrophe with the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic defining much of their last two years of high school and still on the rampage as they begin their college careers, so they already know a little about survival. How appropriate that during their college tenure, the school will commemorate its one-hundredth anniversary of the fire that nearly destroyed it, but did not. Like the Phoenix, it rose from the ashes. Like the Phoenix, these freshmen have already been through their own fire and proved their resilience.
As students left convocation they participated in another tradition. The school’s name, Elon, translates from the Hebrew word for oak, and each student was presented with an acorn, the first bookend of their four-year experience. At graduation, they get their second bookend, an oak sapling. What fitting symbols for a period defined by so much promise and growth.
Even though I can’t help feeling a little nervous on ‘our’ student’s behalf, I also feel excited for what the next few days and weeks and years will bring her. If her experience is anything like mine, she will explore new things and discover new passions as she grows into her adult self. She may face grave disappointments as well as great joys. She will survive and she will learn that she can. She will find out what she is made of. And years from now, she will look back on these yet-to-be-experienced years with sweet nostalgia, a time of foundation-building for all that will have come after.
Convocation was for parents too. The university president took the opportunity to calm their nerves, reminding them that they have raised competent children whom the school believes in as much as do the parents. “They are prepared,” she assured them. “They are ready.”
In my last post I wrote about Bertha Palmer, influential Chicago socialite and aunt of Grace Potter Carroll (advanced piano teacher to David Rae Smith, subject of my latest book—check it out on Amazon). At that time I promised more information on the Chicago Woman’s Club, one of Bertha’s passions. In fact, the Palmer House, an upscale hotel built by Bertha’s husband and where the Palmers lived at the time, was one of the club’s early meeting places.
In my time I’ve encountered a few women’s clubs—from a distance. They were usually fancy, two-story, white-painted brick affairs in fancy neighborhoods, usually with a magnolia tree or two in the front yard. I always thought of them as hoity-toity organizations to which I would likely not be considered for membership.
All that may (or may not) have been the truth of the matter. I suspect membership in such clubs today is wide open—as long as a person can afford the annual dues, a factor which effectively still keeps a lot of people out. However, in the case of the Chicago Woman’s Club, founded in 1876, six years after Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, the image I had of such groups was pretty accurate.
Except for one thing: I had no idea of their impact on society. As it turns out, the woman’s club movement, which started about the time the Chicago Woman’s Club was established, quickly grew to become a social welfare and reform movement based on the philosophy that women had a moral responsibility to effect public policy for the betterment of society.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago notes the Chicago Woman’s Club, the oldest woman’s club in the city and one of the first in the country, stood out as one of the most active of all the nation’s women’s clubs. Originally, its uniformly well-to-do members focused on personal and social improvement. They studied classical literature and art while simultaneously establishing the first kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago. (The kindergarten movement was still a pretty new thing in the United States and the Woman’s Club endeavor led the Chicago Board of Education to formally incorporate kindergartens into the school system. Also, under Bertha Palmer’s leadership of the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a demonstration kindergarten was set up in the Children’s Building, one of the projects of the ‘Lady Managers.’)
By the late 1880s, the club’s efforts focused on “the improvement of state facilities for dependent children, orphans, and female prisoners, as well as legislation for compulsory education and against child labor,” according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago. The club largely ushered in the Illinois Juvenile Court Law of 1899 and created the first juvenile court in the United States.
A decade after Bertha Palmer’s 1918 death, the Chicago Woman’s Club began construction of its own facility, a six-story building plus basement at 72 East Eleventh Street. What began as a twenty-one member club had grown to about 1500 by this time. The clubwomen raised every penny necessary for the building and its furnishings.
As quoted on the website Chicagology, Kathleen McLaughlin of The Chicagoan wrote of the new facility, “The only fault I can find with the building is that it offers no detail with which I can find fault.” She described the rooms as beautiful, comfortable, and modern, though club members preferred the term contemporary. The ladies of the club thought through every detail, much as the Board of Lady Managers had when designing the Woman’s Building for the Chicago World’s Fair. Every element of architectural and interior design was synchronized. According to McLaughlin, “Not more than three pieces of furniture in the club were not designed especially for it.”
For instance, the large rug in the first floor reception room was designed by one if the building’s architects and was woven specifically to fit the room, carrying out the color of the room’s soft blue furnishings and matching the contemporary interior design.
Color schemes were coordinated throughout, including the stairways. Everywhere was a note of silver—silver against blue in the reception room, silver upholstered furniture against green in the main dining room on the floor above. The third floor featured the library filled with leather-bound books, the building’s main lounge—walnut paneled with violet and gold divans and two marble fireplaces, and the board room “with only its amethyst carpet to relieve the silver sheen of its walls.”
The building also featured a card room decorated in black and gold patterned paper and matching black and gold tables and chairs, “contrasting with woodwork and carpet of a tomato tint.” In addition, the club’s new home included numerous meeting rooms as well as bedrooms and “three kinds of dining rooms.”
Of course, the club was about far more than its building. McLaughlin wrote, “To catalogue the club’s activities would be to compile something comparable in size to the Chicago telephone directory. The pies in which it has had all its fingers and both thumbs have ranged from the first legislation on compulsory education and the establishment of the Juvenile Court to the genesis of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Art Institute and in 1915 the furtherance of typhoid relief work in Belgium. . . . One of the club’s proud recent achievements was the establishment of the first nursery school to be operated within a public school in the United States.” She noted that as government caught up “with one or another of the club’s modem ideas,” it took over some of the club’s projects including, in addition to kindergartens, “night schools, vacation schools, and the work for the blind, which are only a few of the enterprises which long had the support of the club.”
The club still supported personal development of its members, hosting a curriculum of no fewer than fifty classes taught by “professional teachers, lecturers, and leaders in every field of human endeavor,” putting the club “in competition with the colleges.” According to McLaughlin, members could easily spend six full days each week in educational endeavors, even if they did not immerse themselves in the club’s important civic work.
The club’s early membership read like a Who’s Who. Notable members included the following women who have left a significant legacy.
Jane Addams was a settlement activist, social reformer, author, and pacifist. A leader in the history of social work, she was co-founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union and Chicago’s Hull House, one of the country’s most famous settlement houses. Addams was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.
The first Black woman to gain membership (in 1894, it took more than a year of debate) was Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams, educator, political and women’s rights advocate, musician, and portraitist. Williams became well known for her efforts to have Black people officially represented on the Board of Control of the 1893 World’s Fair. She helped found the League of Colored Women, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known today by its acronym NAACP. She was both the first woman and the first Black American to be named to the Chicago Library Board. She was associated with both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and was the only Black American chosen to eulogize Susan B. Anthony and the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1907.
Ada Celeste Sweet was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to be United States agent for paying pensions in Chicago, the first such position ever offered to a woman by the federal government. In that role she established a strict system of civil service reform. Having raised money among friends to build and equip an ambulance, she gave the first police ambulance to the city of Chicago, thus becoming the founder of the Chicago police ambulance system. In addition to her philanthropic and governmental reform work, Sweet was literary editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Publisher and political activist Myra Colby Bradwell founded and published Chicago Legal News. Sheattempted to become the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar (1869), but was denied admission by both the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts. (They upheld “a separate women’s sphere.”) Meanwhile, influenced by her case, the state legislature passed a law making gender discrimination illegal in admission to any occupation or profession, excepting the military. The state Supreme Court finally granted her admission to the Illinois bar in 1890 and the US Supreme Court soon followed in its footsteps. Bradwell was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
Education, children’s welfare, and social policy reformer Julia Clifford Lathrop, who directed the United States Children’s Bureau from 1912 to 1922, was the first woman ever to head a federal bureau. Lathrop was largely responsible for the Chicago Woman’s Club’s efforts to establish a juvenile court system.
One of the staunchest supporters for Frances Barrier Williams’ admission to the Chicago Woman’s Club, Sarah Ann Hackett Stevenson was the first female member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Stevenson was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at Cook County Hospital. She co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses together with Lucy Flower, another notable member of the club. It was Stevenson who proposed to the club creating a safe home for women and children in need of shelter, and with the help of private donations and other clubs, the Woman’s Model Lodging House was opened to the public.
Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. She was also an educator and suffragist whose influence continued as the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments (prohibition and women’s suffrage respectively) were adopted. Among Willard’s accomplishments was raising the age of consent from fourteen to eighteen in many states as well as passing labor laws including the eight-hour work day. In her 700-page autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years (1889), Willard wrote, “The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere. . . . In these days when any capable and careful woman can honorably earn her own support, there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel,’ both of which are feminine.”
Novelist, Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and social reformer Celia Parker Woolley was founder of the Frederick Douglass Woman’s Club, one of Chicago’s few interracial women’s clubs. As president of the Chicago Woman’s Club, she opened its membership to Black women with the help of fellow Unitarian Fannie Barrier Williams.
The Chicago Woman’s Club met until 1999 when the group voted itself out of existence. As then vice-president Louise Pavelka told the Chicago Tribune’s Barbara Brotman, “The glory of this club was philanthropy,” but that time had passed as membership, and therefore funds, declined. Another member said the club had moved away from social justice issues “because so many other organizations had taken them up.” Member Ruth Wiener said. “We used to do those things when no one else did. . . . We served a purpose.” She laughed as she told Brotman, “We did our jobs too well.”
As one would expect, the club’s remaining assets went to support scholarships and other philanthropic endeavors.
After writing about Grace Potter Carroll, I expected my next post to be about her patron, Hattie Pullman. But researching Grace’s early life led me to information about the wealthy, socialite aunt, Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of Grace’s maternal uncle, Potter Palmer. The newspaper headline announcing Grace’s multi-day disappearance from Asheville’s Highland Hospital said she was the niece of the Chicago socialite, suggesting that even western North Carolinians knew about Bertha. With a teaser like that, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to learn more and share what I discovered, even though the Palmers have no direct bearing on my original subject, David Rae Smith—no known bearing, at least.
Normally, lives of the rich and famous hold no interest for me, but Bertha Palmer is a special case. Read on and I think you’ll see why, though we have to get through a bit of background first.
Now, Potter was the one with the social and financial cachet—at first, anyway—though Bertha’s birth family was quite well-off too. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Bertha moved with her family to Chicago when she was six, where her father made a fortune in real estate. He was, in fact, responsible for creating the commercial district along Dearborn Street, a high-profile street in Chicago’s central business district, the Loop. The Honoré Building at the corner of Adams and Dearborn was destroyed during the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, which played a big role in fate of the Palmers, as well.
Bertha was 21 when she married the more-than-twice-her-age multi-millionaire Potter Palmer (Grace’s maternal uncle) in late July 1870. Their relative social standings were made perfectly clear in the 14-paragraph Chicago Tribune article reporting on their marriage. Only three short sentences near the end of the article were dedicated to Bertha and only two paragraphs referenced the wedding itself. Everything else was about Potter, who had already made a name for himself in both retail and real estate. Several years earlier he had sold his popular retail store to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, and it soon became the retail icon we know today: Marshall Field and Company.
Meanwhile, Potter Palmer put his efforts into his real estate interests, which were substantial. He is considered responsible for the development of much of both Chicago’s downtown district. Thus he was viewed as one of Chicago’s founding fathers. One of his buildings was a luxury hotel, The Palmer House, located in the Loop. He built it as as a wedding present to Bertha. Opened September 26, 1871, it was the city’s first hotel with elevators, and the first hotel with electric light bulbs and telephones in the guest rooms.
But the hotel and all the rest of Palmer’s (and Honoré’s) real estate efforts went up in smoke—and flames—only 13 days later when the Great Chicago Fire broke out. And just like that Potter Palmer’s legacy was in ruins.
That’s when young Bertha went to work. The self-confident woman contacted financial institutions in the east and singlehandedly arranged financing so her husband could re-establish credit and borrow money to rebuild his holdings. The couple joined forces to reestablish their fortune. Thus began Bertha Palmer’s rapid rise “to the top of Chicago society,” according to her Wikipedia biography.
Incidentally, both Marshall Field and the Palmer House hotel were immediately rebuilt. The Palmers lived in a suite in the hotel for almost 15 years, after which they built a 42-room mansion known as the Palmer Castle on Lake Shore Drive, then considered a wasteland. Unsurprisingly, the house was built to be fireproof. With Palmer Castle as its cornerstone, Lake Shore Drive quickly became the most desirable address in Chicago, and Chicago’s Gold Coast was born.
The Palmer Castle is the largest home ever built in Chicago, Even though it was razed in 1950, glessnerhouse.org reports it is still well-known to Chicagoans where it is remembered as one of the most legendary homes ever built in the area. The website notes that even though Potter died in 1902 and Bertha in 1918, their a names “remain well-known to anyone with even a passing interest in Chicago history.”
Aside from its sheer size and elegance, part of what made the Palmer Castle so memorable was that it was intentionally built with no knobs or locks on any of its exterior doors; the only way to get in was be admitted from the inside, most certainly by a servant. The place could never be left empty.
For those who did gain admittance, a major feature of the home was its three-story Italianate central hall under a glass dome. Rooms were built in a variety of historic styles. There was an Ottoman parlor, a Spanish music room, and a Renaissance library. The dining room could seat 50. The ballroom, where Bertha held court, was 75 feet long. There was even an elevator. The home was the hub of Chicago’s social life, even more so after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
With that background, we get to the heart of this post: Bertha herself. While her husband and father had been part of a delegation to the St. Louis Word’s Fair to determine the feasibility of bringing such an event to Chicago, it was a group of activist women, including Bertha, who lobbied to bring the fair to the city. They also petitioned for an official place for women in the planning and exhibitions at the fair and suggested forming a “Women’s Department for the Fair,” which literally took an act of Congress to initiate. Bertha was named President of the Board of Lady Managers, a plum of a position which oversaw the construction of the Woman’s Building and everything that went inside it. Bertha approached Congress about producing a commemorative coin for the Exposition. The result was the Isabella quarter. (In addition to serving as a celebration of the city’s comeback from its disastrous fire, the fair was designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.)
The Woman’s Building featured women’s accomplishments exclusively. Beyond that, the Lady Managers selected women to produce all aspects of the building’s design, ornamentation, and content, including paintings, sculptures, and exhibits. They were an extraordinarily hands-on oversight board consisting of 117 members representing every state (only nine members were from Chicago)—the first women to serve in any capacity at a world’s fair. The work of the so-called Lady Managers was a big deal, so big that it warranted a 611-page 1981book titled The Fair Women. Bertha, who had never held any position of this sort, managed the organization, the men who held its purse strings, Congress, contractors, artists, and heads of state around the globe with a velvet glove concealing an iron fist. There were all kinds of infighting, machinations, egos, and time and budget constraints–and she kept all of it under control. The Lady Managers, particularly Bertha, also ensured two additional buildings at the fair–a Children’s Building and a dormitory for female visitors without touching any part of the fair budget. All three projects were run in the black, in part because of the many aspects funded at Bertha’s personal expense and in part due to fundraising conducted by the Lady Managers.
In spite of the glamour and luxury, Bertha Palmer was obviously much more than a well-connected socialite interested in fashion, jewelry, and entertainment.
She was an astute businesswoman, quickly more than doubling the $8,000,000 her husband left to her in his will, despite being widely known as the “the only American woman who knows how to spend a fortune.” That moniker came from the many European cities where she retained multiple residences (surrounded by royalty) and maintained full-time servants in each of them even though she was in one place for only a few weeks of the year. And from things like her penchant for completely remodeling rooms in her home for her lavish parties. But there was more to those parties than social extravagance. Her son reported that only after her death did he learn those elaborate social gatherings were really fundraising events for the important causes she supported.
She was a staunch social activist and reformer. The Palmer Palace was home to organizing meetings with and parties and classes for impoverished working class women. Her rousing speech to all the muckety-mucks at the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair socked it to ’em as she berated wealthy industrialists for the paltry wages paid to working women and children. (You can read her speech in its entirety in The History of the World’s Fair Being a Complete and Authentic Description of the Columbian Exposition. See Part VI, Chapter III (https://archive.org/details/historyofworldsf01trum/page/8/mode/2up?q=Mrs.+Potter+Palmer%27s+address)
Though Bertha claimed not to be a suffragist (she was more concerned about equal rights than votes), as Erica Gunderson noted in a 2017 piece for PBS station WTTW, “That didn’t mean she kept her mouth shut.” Regarding the Chicago Exposition and the Board of Lady Managers, she said, “Even more important than the discovery of Columbus is the fact that the government has just discovered women.” And she might well have objected to being called a feminist if that word had been around in her time, but she was definitely the latter and accomplished worlds for the former.
Consider this: following the close of the fair, the Illinois governor wrote Bertha to say the cause of women’s rights had been advanced a century by her work. None other than Susan B Anthony herself said the fair had done more for the cause of women’s suffrage than twenty-five years of agitation, according to an article in encyclopedia.com, and had given the movement “unprecedented prestige in the world of thought.”
Oh, Bertha Honoré Palmer was a feminist all right. As she advised the women who submitted work for exhibit in the Woman’s Building, “Keep up with the procession, and head it if you can.”
Bertha was a mover and shaker in the Chicago Woman’s Club, which not only advocated but was responsible for advancing workers’ rights, juvenile court reform, the first public kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago, and the first protective agency in the country that dealt with assault and rape of women. (Look for more on the work of the Chicago Woman’s Club in a later post.)
Then there’s Sarasota, Florida. Look on any website featuring the history of the city or county and you are likely to find mention of Bertha Palmer as critical to the region’s development. As a widow, she tired of Chicago’s cold winters. She moved to Sarasota, then only an eight-year-old entity. At the time, it was mostly considered uninhabitable because of the mosquitoes and swampy land. But Bertha bought up nearly a third of the county’s property. She became interested in developing new agricultural techniques, cattle-raising, experimental farming, and new citrus marketing initiatives. She created a subdivision of farms and advertised them to northern farmers. She opened her Bee Ridge Hotel for farming community and networking meetings, and she was instrumental in developing the region’s first farmers’ market. She got the railroad extended farther south to help the local farming economy, and she paid the highest farm wages in the region. Instead of the fancy gowns she used to wear, she walked the fields in plain cotton dresses. Visitsarasota.com says she “introduced ranching techniques that would revolutionize Florida’s cattle and hog industries” and notes that “in 8 years of living in Florida, she molded the city into a flourishing and popular destination for the elite.” With her elevated social position, she started the trend of winter homes in Florida.
This all took place in her sixties, the last eight years of her life, at a time when women’s rights were sorely limited. One hundred years after her arrival, the city declared 2010 the Year of Bertha Palmer with loads of events to honor the woman who, as one resident said, in Sarasota’s history, “is rivaled only by John Ringling [of circus fame] as a leading figure.”
Bertha Honoré Palmer’s legacy lives on in Sarasota in any number of ways, including the names of streets, parks, and subdivisions. Historic Spanish Point, where she ultimately made her home, now houses a campus of the Selby Gardens, which, among other things, features some of the gardens Bertha established. In 1976, Historic Spanish Point became the first site in Sarasota County to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, the Palmer heirs donated the site to the Gulf Coast Heritage Association. Former Mayor A. B. Edwards was instrumental in the state’s purchase of more than 17,000 acres from the Palmer Estate. Shortly after, Bertha’s sons, Honoré and Potter, donated more than 1,900 additional acres to the state in her memory. Soon, the Myakka River State Park was born on the site.
Grace Potter Carroll simply had to be influenced by her aunt. How could she not? And though we will never know just what or how much, I suspect that influence reached the life of David Rae Smith, too.
Interested in more?
Look for Frank A. Cassell’s book, Suncoast Empire: Bertha Honoré Palmer, Her Family, and the Rise of Sarasota, 1910-1982.
Can I just say, with a big Whew, I have just completed my magnum opus. Let me introduce you to my newest nonfiction book, David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. And it feels a-mazing! The fabulous cover art is courtesy of the Gnome. I could not be more proud.
Now, if the title doesn’t strike you as a page turner, I get it. But let me tell you a little about it. Actually, let me share the blurb on the back cover:
How did a Depression-era boy from the mountains of western North Carolina end up as a featured performer on the New York opera stage? Multi-talented David Rae Smith could have made a success of any number of professions, but opera and musical theater stole his heart. From his first days at the University of Illinois, he was determined to make it on stage. Years of study, hard work, and downright doggedness paid off when he signed a contract with the New York City Opera, marking the beginning of a thirty-year career with the company widely known as The People’s Opera. Along the way, he starred in opera productions and musical theater throughout the United States and internationally; created his own cabaret act; sang with the famed Robert Shaw Chorale, and performed on Broadway and luxury cruises. He was featured on recordings and appeared on radio and national television. Comedy was his forte, but he could do it all.
Combining personal interviews, newspaper archives, and other historical records, the author has woven Smith’s personal story and the world of the performing arts into a narrative which should interest music and history lovers alike.
David Rae Smith, Rae as he was known to family and childhood friends, was my dad’s first cousin. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was the last of his family line, and I wanted to learn and preserve his story before it was completely lost. Turns out it was pretty interesting. In addition to relying on various print sources, I was able to dig up some of his opera colleagues and even his oldest friend from Asheville to learn about the kind of person he was as well as his professional struggles and successes. I found some old correspondence to fill in even more gaps. And I added in a number of opera anecdotes, story plots, and other historical information to create what I think makes a fascinating tale. OK, call me biased, but I stand by those words. It’s chock full of information, and I can guarantee readers will learn more than a few new things. Honest! (Bonus for those interested in Asheville history: you’ll find some little known and curious facts between the covers.)
As of this week, the book is available on Amazon.com. If you want to take a look, just be sure to type in the entire title. It may take a few days for the ‘Look Inside’ feature to be available, but if it isn’t there already it should be soon. I’d be so tickled if you choose to purchase the book. Every reader helps ensure his legacy, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you read the book, may I ask that you post a review. And many, many thanks.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
When I wasn’t planning to be Debbie Reynolds when I grew up, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I didn’t picture myself playing so much as bowing to the standing ovations. Oh, the applause!
I began taking piano lessons when I was seven. Dad drove me to Mrs. Kennedy’s each week for my 7:15 class before the start of the school day. How I treasured my red-and-white-covered John Thompson piano books. We haven’t owned a piano for thirty years, but I think I still have one of those falling-apart books tucked away somewhere. Some things are just too precious to give up. I mostly remember “Toreador Song,” “Berceuse,” and “Spinning Song”—one of my favorites.
I was never going to make it to the concert stage. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that—I swooned over playing, but I didn’t relish practicing scales at all. Yet, my dreams were reignited the 1959 day a 33-1/3 LP of twenty-five year-old pianist Philippe Entremont playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed up in our home. Now, I could listen to Chopin all day, but I heard Entremont’s Pictures in my sleep. I sat next to our high-fidelity stereo cabinet listening for hours as my head and shoulders swayed and bounced to Mussorgsky’s rhythms. Nothing would do but to obtain the sheet music, which I practiced relentlessly. Next thing I knew I was playing at least the first movement, “Promenade,” at the recital of my new piano teacher, Katherine Saleeby. (She was very patient with me and my musical whims.) Even today, I recognize Pictures at an Exhibition after hearing only the first note.
Young Philippe Entremont at the piano, circa 1959
It’s like that with other pieces, too. Along with a hundred or so college classmates, I sweated through our mandated Music Appreciation class. We spent long hours in the library’s listening room, dropping the needle at random points just as our professor did for tests, hoping if we did it often enough we could identify the music by hearing a mere measure. I guess it worked because, as long as I’m familiar with a piece, it rarely takes more than a couple of notes for me to know what the next ones will be, even if I can’t call up title and composer.
Somewhere along the way, my parents’ Entremont recording disappeared. Knowing how much the music meant to me, the Gnome spent years (way before the internet age) searching for a Pictures album. One day he surprised me with an orchestral recording. But it was not the same. Many more years later, we were lucky to score the original Entremont solo.
Several years ago, the pianist came to town, conducting (I think) the New Orleans Symphony. Of course I was there. At some point he sat down at the piano. I don’t recall what he played—not Mussorgsky, but it didn’t matter. I wept.
Philippe Entremont, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)
(You can listen to the first three movements of the 1959 solo recording here.)
This is the season of endings and beginnings. Where I live we are only now seeing spring come into its fullness with all its attendant hope and promise. Our current spring followed a particularly hard winter, both in real and metaphorical terms, so the season of rebirth is particularly welcome this year. The calendar may tell us summer begins in a few days, but I intend to savor spring as long as I can.
The spring of 2021 brought a number of graduations to our family. After more than a year of almost zero in-person events, I count myself lucky to have been able to attend one of these ceremonies—a high school graduation. Somehow, high school graduations seem a little more exhilarating than the same event following a college career. Perhaps it is because these seventeen and eighteen year olds find themselves on one of life’s particularly sharp edges. Whatever futures await them, their lives are about to change in some very big ways.
Until now, most of them—though certainly not all—have lived under the protective wings of family. The clothes they wear, the roofs they sleep under, the food they eat have been the worries of others. When the car broke down, when they were upset about something a teacher said or a classmate did, or when they hit upon a problem they didn’t know how to solve they knew help was in the next room or a mere phone call away. Their tomorrows will be different and they can feel it, but they understand they can’t really comprehend what that’s going to mean.
They are on the edge. On the edge that separates childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why their joy in this moment seems particularly honest and pure. The heavy stuff comes tomorrow or the next day or next month. Today they feel only relief and pride at having reached their biggest-yet milestone as they smile and laugh and hug and mug like the children to whom they are saying good-bye.
After the festivities of last week were over and hundreds of snapshots were taken, the remainder of our graduate’s evening was celebrated with family. The next day was reserved for friends. One after another hosted get-togethers, whether a day on the lake or a cookout complete with toasted marshmallows. We got to participate in one of those, too.
It started out as a family party, but quickly expanded to include now-former classmates. They were the stars; family members became spectators. That was fine by me because, except for the laughter of babies, almost nothing can rival the unadulterated exuberance of teenagers enjoying each others’ company. I eavesdropped unabashedly on their giggles as they reminisced about moments passed, shared favorite television and online programs and episodes, laughed at every scene in the movie they were watching as they munched on chips, gummy worms, and M&Ms. Their already high spirits rose with every chuckle.
Edges can be scary. But they amplify what is joyous. I hope all this year’s graduates and everyone who is sitting on an edge feels the same kind of elation I was part of a few days ago. As the salutatorian at our stadium-filled celebration ended her address to her classmates, “Peace out, Shawties.”
As regular readers of Living on the Diagonalmay know, I’ve been working rather furiously on a deeply personal book project for almost eighteen months. It is about David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae spent his entire career as a professional singing actor, and my goal is to tell the story of his life and the world surrounding him. One ‘side effect’ of my research is that I’ve come up with lots of fascinating material which simply could not find a place in the manuscript. But it is impossible for me to ignore it, so I thought I’d share some of those amazing extras through this blog. Maybe you’ll find them as engrossing as I do. This week’s entry seems an appropriate way to prepare for Memorial Day when we commemorate those who died while serving in the United States military.
Though most of Rae’s career was spent on the opera stage, he also had numerous appearances in regional and touring musical productions as well as concerts. Among the latter was a performance of British composer Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking Britten composed this piece as some kind of glorification of war. It was quite the opposite. Britten’s anti-war sentiments were strong. As stated by the California Institute of Technology, the piece was “a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men.” Britten made that point rather powerfully by writing War Requiemto be sung by three specific soloists: one German, one British, and one Russian. Cal Tech says, “The piece was also meant to be a warning to future generations of the senselessness of taking up arms against fellow men. (Source: http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/britwar.html)
Britten composed the nearly-90-minute piece 61 as a commission for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. The original, built in the fourteenth century, had been destroyed in a World War II bombing blitz. At around 8:00 on the night of November 14, 1940, the cathedral was bombed the first time. Fire fighters managed to put the resulting fire out, but more direct hits created new fires which, in turn, created a firestorm. Meanwhile, the attack had set fire to more than two hundred other buildings in the city. Firefighters were overwhelmed not only by the fires but by damaged water mains as well as a crippled phone network which prevented them from knowing which fires needed to be attacked first. Citizens—those who survived—huddled wherever they could during the surprise attack as 500 tons of high explosive bombs, 30,000 incendiaries, and 50 landmines were dropped on their city. Eleven hours following the initial attack, they finally heard what they’d been waiting for, a siren signaling the all clear. They climbed into a dreary, smoky daylight to discover the medieval cathedral; the library and market hall; the 16th-century Palace Yards; hundreds of shops, factories, and public buildings; and 43,000 of their homes—more than half—destroyed. Imagine the shock and overwhelming helplessness they felt walking out into that scene.
Though the ruins of the original cathedral were left to serve as a reminder of the bombing, a new cathedral was built alongside it the following decade. Along with the cathedral’s 1962 consecration, the Coventry Cathedral Festival was held as a national celebration to symbolize an international act of reconciliation, and Britten was commissioned to write a new piece for the occasion. He readily accepted the challenge and composed War Requiem as “an act of reparation,” according to the English National Opera website. (https://eno.org/discover-opera/an-act-of-reparation-the-story-behind-brittens-war-requiem/)
Britten’s approach was to juxtapose traditional Latin texts with nine poems about war written by Wilfred Owen. Owen’s poems on his World War I reality of trenches and gas warfare stood in stark contrast to the era’s public perception of war and to the haughty, chauvinistic works of poets from earlier wars. Owen, who had already witnessed many war horrors, suffered a concussion after falling into a shell hole in March 1917 and was caught in the blast of a mortar shell. Following several unconscious days lying on an embankment amidst the remains of fellow officers, he was hospitalized and treated for ‘shell shock.’ He returned to duty a year later.
Twenty-five-year-old Owen was killed in action in France on November 4, 1918. Those who know their history realize the date preceded the signing of the November 11 Armistice by precisely one week—and almost to the hour. All but unknown in life (only five of his poems were published before his death), Owen has since become recognized as one of the great war poets.
In the March/April 2020 issue of St. Austin Review, Dana Dioia wrote, “The First World War changed European literature forever. . . . For poets, the unprecedented scale of violence annihilated the classic traditions of war literature—individual heroism, military glory, and virtuous leadership. Writers struggled for a new idiom commensurate with their apocalyptic personal experience. . . . Their work, which combined stark realism and bitter irony with a sense of tragic futility, altered the history of English literature.”
Britten’s War Requiem was an immediate success, praised by both critics and the public. The Library of Congress has preserved the work in its National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” According to the English National Opera website, War Requiem’s reception was “more than its creator originally bargained for: it soon took on the mantle of a public statement of outrage against war, conflict and violence, sentiments that were only intensified in 1964 with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and the growing international discomfort with the atrocities unfolding in Vietnam.” I suspect Britten was not disappointed by that.
Britten dedicated his masterpiece to five men: two who died in World War II, two who remained missing, and one who survived the Normandy landings, though he died by suicide in 1959 two months before his wedding. The composer said his goal in writing the work was to make people think. He quoted Wilfred Owen on the score’s title page: “My subject is War, and the pity of War / The Poetry is in the pity . . . / All a poet can do today is warn.”
A full-length screen adaptation of War Requiem was made in 1988 using the original soundtrack and featuring Laurence Olivier in the role of an aging veteran.. The experimental film can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOVIjKvOcE4/.