Sunday, July 12, 2020

Conjuring the Past in Brunswick, Maine

Big catch: J.H. Jordan, fishing in Maine (probably 1920s) 

It’s July of 1910 and Joshua Hawkins Jordan is about to close his shop on West Thirty-Third Street and head to Maine. 

J. H., as he is known, can afford to take a break.  He’s a 52-year old dealer in old prints and engravings for whom the past few years have been quite profitable.  Early American art is in great demand and so is J.H.’s expertise.  His store is flourishing while he earns generous fees for advising wealthy collectors. 

Right now, though, he’s counting the minutes until he will drop a line in the Androscoggin River near Brunswick. The bass await him.

It’s not clear which came first, J.H.’s passion for fishing or his marriage into one of Maine’s famous seafaring families.  By 1892, when he wed Isabella Wilhelmina Curtis – known as Belle – her legendary father and grandfather had been gone for many years. 

It did not matter that J.H. had never met them.  He knew all about their spirit.  You couldn’t be a successful print dealer if you lacked an affinity with the land, sea, and skies of America’s first century. 

Advertisement, New York Tribune, 1899

Maine had been home to his wife’s family since the 1700s.  Belle was one of eight children born to an intrepid sea captain, John Curtis, and his wife, Leticia.  After Captain Curtis’s death, Belle’s older brother William became the family patriarch. 

Girded for the Gilded Age with a full beard and mustache, William headed to New York City to attend Columbia Law School.  He quickly made partner at the law firm which organized the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1901. 

After William became the company’s first president, which was the miraculous way of business in those fortunate years, he bought a Beaux Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue where he lived with his wife and five children.  

But Maine was ever in William’s heart, so he built a cottage in Camden overlooking Penobscot Bay.  This sprawling house with a deep wraparound porch was called Portlaw – the name of his father’s ship which in 1870 put in for repairs at Bermuda, where a typhoid epidemic claimed the captain.   

Currier & Ives print, 1850s: "Clipper Ship Great Republic"
(D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts)

Charismatic and humble, weighing in at 325 lbs., John Curtis could have boasted of many feats, including the rescue of his entire crew from a burning ship called the Windsor Forest as it sailed from Liverpool to Bombay in 1864.

John’s father, Captain Christopher Curtis, also died a long way from home.  In 1839 he succumbed to yellow fever in Natchez, Mississippi, where he and a partner owned a line of packet ships that ran between Maine and Mississippi.  Christopher Curtis is buried in a tiny cemetery ten miles east of Natchez.
The Curtis children revered their sea captain forebears.  In 1904, William established Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library in honor of their father. Perhaps a bit of a hothead, William had told Andrew Carnegie to get lost when the philanthropist offered to endow a library for the town one year earlier.

Curtis summer home, "Portlaw," in Camden, Maine

That took some nerve considering that Carnegie turned down many requests but was never rejected anywhere as he proceeded to build libraries all over the United States.

Belle had none of that sharpness.  Six years younger than her brother, she was surely the kind, thoughtful woman who appears in a series of photographs that spans five decades.

Like William, Belle left Maine for New York City.  It had been while working as a nurse during her early 20s that she resolved to become a doctor.  Most likely she met J.H. during the years she studied at the New York Women’s Medical College.

Born in Saint Martin, Dutch West Indies around 1860, J.H. was the eldest son of a widowed Irish-born minister who brought his family back to the U.S. after the Civil War.  J.H. found a niche in the swirling city, ambitiously working his way up from clerk in a print shop to general manager of prints at G.H. Richmond, a prominent book dealer.

He had large dark eyes and a dimple in his chin which would soon be covered by a goatee. 

Young man: J.H. Jordan

Belle graduated from medical school in 1892, but there is no public record of her work as a physician. 

Three children came along while J.H. went out on his own to specialize in rare engravings and etchings.  He became well-known among the millionaire likes of his brother-in-law, who competed for a dwindling number of valuable prints. 

Many had made their money in real estate.  Somehow the same men who transformed old New York into a metropolis were captivated by pictures of country lanes and quiet harbors.

J.H. worked as a dealer and appraiser until his death in 1932.  His most famous sale was a handwritten account of Lincoln’s death by a surgeon who accompanied the president from Ford’s Theater to the Petersen House and held his bleeding head until dawn. 

Advertisement, The Literary Collector
circa World War I

By July of 1910, the twentieth century was showing its true colors.  

Women increasingly entered the professions.  Trusts controlled the banks, railroads, oil refining, and steel industry.  Jim Crow proliferated.  Great wealth fostered indispensable philanthropy.  Abstraction emerged in art, literature, music, and dance. 

Meanwhile, in time suspended like an old print, Belle and J.H. and William and their families passed their summers on the wild coast of Maine. 

*Isabella Curtis Jordan died in 1938.   

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Some Words About Donald Bigelow

View from "Dellwood," the Bigelow family's lake house on
Manitou Island, Minnesota

Like most researchers, I often stumble over someone who is intriguing while I’m on the way to find information about an entirely different person. Such was the case with Donald Fairchild Bigelow.

In 1925, while serving as an American consul at Paris, the 29-year old Bigelow made the mistake of chatting with reporters about his refusal to grant a permanent U.S. visa to Nina Zizianoff.*

Princess Nina Zizianoff, 1920s

Nina was a self-aggrandizing French-born self-proclaimed Russian princess, the widow of Prince Karaman Petrovich Zizianoff, himself a suspicious character with close ties to the Czar. In 1903, General Zizianoff was accused of terrorizing the Jews of Vitebsk, a city in northeastern Belarus.

There, after a military parade, he asked the Jewish soldiers to step forward and announced: “I want you to tell your people to keep out of politics, or we shall grind them into powder. Should anything befall them, not a man will be sent to protect them.” Indeed, that is what happened.

In 1903, Donald Bigelow was a seven-year old boy growing up in a Victorian confection of a house in an elegant neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, C. H. Bigelow, president of a wholesale hardware manufacturer, later ran the St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company. These were highly profitable businesses.

Donald and his sister Alida had a close friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose family lived nearby during the first decade of the twentieth century. The children’s parents insisted that they all take dance lessons in a ballroom at a local hall called Rameley’s.

The dance master, Professor William Baker, was familiar to them. In summertime he worked as a bartender at the White Bear Yacht Club on Manitou Island, about ten miles north of St. Paul. Fitzgerald often visited the Bigelows there at their vast stone lake house, “Dellwood.”

Several of Fitzgerald’s short stories are set in the St. Paul of his youth, and it is believed that The Great Gatsby was inspired by White Bear Lake.

Both Donald and Fitzgerald graduated from high school in 1914, and both would go off to Princeton. But their lives followed quite different trajectories.

Donald spent a year on a ranch in Idaho; then, after two years of college, he decided to work for the American Red Cross in Poland when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. Subsequently, he joined the American Ambulance Corps of the American Field Service.

Donald F. Bigelow in France, 1918

Fitzgerald also left Princeton to serve in the war. He accepted a commission as a second lieutenant and reported to Fort Leavenworth, where he hastily started a novel, The Romantic Egoist. But the war ended before he shipped over.  

Donald never saw combat either but he was in the thick of war. After arriving in France, he wrote to his family:

From the moment we entered trucks at 21 rue Raynouard for our first stage of the journey to the front, equipped with steel helmets, gas-masks, and rifles (the rifles–I speak it softly–are of the vintage of 1874), we have experienced a rapid succession of impressions which can’t be assimilated . . . 

The convoy
(from "The Camion Diaries")

Assigned to the Aisne region northeast of Paris, where he manned convoys that transported cartridges, clips, bandages, food, water, and other supplies, Donald was promoted to second lieutenant in the U.S. Field Artillery. The “Princeton Section,” as the Army called his group, worked in and around Reims and a small village, Soissons, which changed hands several times between the French and the Germans.

“A perfect little piece of medieval France,” he wrote to his family.

Donald described ruin and desolation; towns shelled daily. Yet in one village he came upon Mont Notre Dame, a twelfth-century church of “really rare beauty,” used as a convalescent home, where an officer leaned against a stone wall with a sketchpad and pencil.

After the war Donald studied at the Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques in Paris. In 1920 he returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Harvard Business School but soon changed his mind and entered the American Foreign Service. That same year excerpts of his letters from the front – titled “The Camion Diaries” – were published in History of the American Field Service in France, 1914-1917, told by its members.**

Assigned first to Bucharest, Donald took time out to marry Honor Louise Morrissey, society editor of the St. Paul Daily News, in England in 1922.

In Paris Bigelow worked at 18, rue de Tilsitt,
office of the American Consulate General. 

In 1924 the couple moved to Paris where Donald encountered the unfortunate Princess Zizianoff. His indiscretion does not seem to have damaged his career, for he went on to Tangier in 1930; then Geneva and Vienna; Bern in 1941, and Addis Ababa in 1951. That would be his last post.

Donald and Honor’s sons served in World War II. The eldest, Larry, became a painter who spent much of his life in Europe. Their younger son, Roger, died at Iwo Jima at age 18.

Donald F. Bigelow, lower right,
American Foreign Service bulletin, 1936

In 1917, 21-year old Donald wrote to his family:

The other day, riding through the Compiegne Forest for miles without seeing a soul, we suddenly came to a place where a grassy forest road crossed our macadam obliquely. The trees were so thick and high that all our road was in deep shade. A little to one side, almost hidden by a large tree, was a cross with a wreath resting on the ground. As we came up to the spot, I thought that perhaps some French or German soldier was buried there . . . rolling on by, I saw the inscription which read: “Here are 160 men who died in defense of their country . . .” It moved me to think of this group of unsung heroes left in this shadowed backwater as the tide of battle swept on and away.

*See previous post, May 13, 2020

**Camion: a wagon used to transport ordnance. 

Note: Donald F. Bigelow died in Perroy, Switzerland in 1979.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

"Lincoln Weeps"

Commentary by Bill Mauldin appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on
November 23, 1963, one day after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Another new post appears below.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Camp Bonheur

Endpapers of Parlez-vous Francais? A First Book in French

There’s a book that my mother has kept since the summer of 1940 when she received it as a gift.

Parlez-vous Francais? A First Book in French is heavy and thick at 500 pages, and surely was a textbook.  It’s inscribed in the formal manner of parents born around the turn of the century: “With love to Gloria from Mother.”  My hunch is that it was packed in my mother’s suitcase when she went off to Camp Bonheur in Northville, N.Y., a town at the northern tip of the Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.

Sacandaga Lake, 1920s

Camp Bonheur had existed since the early 1920s.  Its director, Miss Rich, and all of the counselors were New York City high school teachers. The camp was for Jewish girls and had special classes in French and music.  One of Miss Rich’s assistants, Mrs. Drukker, performed as a soprano on various radio programs of the day.

1940 proved to be the happiest summer of my mother’s childhood.  That autumn her mother, Rose, became sick with tuberculosis and more or less disappeared into hospitals and sanitariums.  The cycle persisted until after World War II when antibiotics became widely available.

Tuberculosis was an epidemic and Rose’s story was not unusual.  But my mother never went to camp again.

Before she became sick Rose doted on her only child.  On Saturdays, they would take the trolley across the University Heights Bridge, from 207th Street in Inwood, the northernmost Manhattan neighborhood where they lived, to Fordham Road in The Bronx. 

University Heights Bridge with trolley tracks, 1938
(Municipal Archives, City of New York)
There they shopped at Alexander’s department store and saw movies at Loew’s Paradise, a palace-like theater typical of its time, and had a bite at Krum’s, which was a soda parlor, chocolatier, and candy store all rolled into one.

Tucked in along Fordham Road was a grocery store owned by Louis and Ethel Berenson. He had been a music teacher until the Depression when he was forced to switch his profession. The Berensons lived on Sedgwick Avenue, which ran north and south along the Harlem River near the Bronx campus of New York University.

Fordham Road stores, 1940

They told Rose about Camp Bonheur, where their daughter Cora went every summer.  

And so, in June the girls took a bus to Albany and then another bus to Northville, a picturesque town not far from the camp which could be reached by walking over a bridge. 

By 1940, going away to summer camp had long been part of the American experience.  Christian youth ministries and the YMCA founded camps in New England as early as the 1880s.  It was not until after World War I, however, that camps for Jewish children were established, largely in the Northeast.  Among the first was Camp Cejwin in Port Jervis, N.Y., founded in 1919 by the educators Albert and Bertha Schoolman, who were Zionists.

Indeed, Zionism was woven into the fabric of many Jewish camps where both the American flag and a Hebrew flag were raised and lowered each day.* 

The Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish aid society established in 1900, started Camp Kinderland, which emphasized Yiddish culture and taught socialist ideals, in 1923.

But most Jewish camps focused on the Americanization of the children of Eastern European immigrants while affirming their religious identity in the face of anti-Semitism. 

Postcard of Northville Bridge, 1940

Through camp activities like hiking and swimming, the children might also overcome the stereotype of Jews as weaklings with no stamina or tolerance for pain.   

That idea was promulgated by a well-respected University of Wisconsin sociologist, Edward A. Ross, whose book, The Old World in the New (1914), popularized the idea that Jews were the unfortunate opposite of the tough pioneers who led the Western Expansion in the United States.

Incidentally, Ross coined the term “race suicide,” which referred to the declining birthrate among white Americans, an issue of grave concern to anti-immigrants and eugenicists.    

My mother, who is 92 years old, did not grow up in a especially religious family.

No doubt, however, that Camp Bonheur was part of the scaffolding of her life as a young, first-generation American.

Gloria Stromberg, late 1930s

*A precursor of the Israeli flag was used between 1920 and 1948 during the British Mandate for Palestine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Mysterious Princess Zizianoff

Illustration from a New York Times story
about Princess Zizianoff, April 1921

Once there was a Russian princess who wanted to live in America. 

It was after the Great War, after the Bolshevik Revolution.  She had visited New York City during the early 1920s on a six-month visa and found it to her liking.  Since then the Immigration Act of 1924 had slammed the door shut, even on royal aspirants from Western Europe.  But the French quota had yet to be filled.

Nina Zizianoff had been born in Chambery in 1878, so it made sense for her to go to Paris to ask the American consul, a diplomat named Donald Fairchild Bigelow, to grant her a permanent visa.  To Nina's great surprise, on Christmas Eve of 1925 he turned her down. 

In an interview with American newspaper reporters, he accused the princess of having been an international spy for the Central Powers during the war.  She was deported to Siberia after being caught, he said, and now worked as an agent of the Soviet government while masquerading as an anti-Bolshevik.

Princess Zizianoff, newspaper illustration, 1921

No way would he grant a visa to Nina.  And yes, Secretary of State Frank Billings Kellogg backed Bigelow one hundred percent. 

“References to political activities which make me undesirable in America are extremely amusing and of an astonishing ingenuity,” the princess told the New York Times.  “On the contrary, I am a lover of American things and am eager to become one of you myself.”

The widow of a prince who had been close to the Czar and his family, Nina Zizianoff began selling herself to the American public in 1921, introducing herself as a “princess who became a peddler,” having defied deprivation and death before escaping from Russia to Vienna.  There she penned a long autobiographical article that was picked up widely by U. S. newspapers.  

The headlines proclaimed: 

She Lived Among Killers, Grafters and Children Trained to Brigandage

Princess Nina Zizianoff’s Thrilling Escape from the Bullets of the Russian Firing Squad Only Doomed Her to Years of Starvation

Her own story and her portrayal of Russia under the Bolsheviks may have been part of a grand scheme, but readers found it riveting.

The proletariat, promised land, liberty and ownership, instead is now a silent horde controlled by terror and hunger, she wrote.  The Russians are children.  They believe and want everything.  They will endure everything and are overjoyed by trifles.

Imprisoned in Siberia – because she had worked without a permit in an open-air market in Petrograd, she claimed – Nina saw prisoners chained together hand to foot, just like Russia dragging its chain, hoping for death.

Children over the age of six were taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools, where they occupied barracks, starving and dressed in rags but singing:  “Long live our red liberty!  The Soviet is our family!”  

The bourgeoisie have become agents provocateurs, she wrote.  People disappear, arrested for all kinds of reasons.  At night the Communists shoot the traitors.  At dawn they load the  frozen corpses onto trucks.

While Nina may have won the hearts of Americans, the article evidently planted seeds of doubt at the State Department.  Princess Nina did not give up easily, however.  After Bigelow turned her down, she filed a lawsuit against a young woman named Irene Kaline, the daughter of a wealthy tailor alleged to have had an affair with Nina after his wife and family fled to safety during the Revolution.

As retribution Irene had accused Nina of being a spy, said the princess.  A long, complicated tale emerged involving a family servant, stolen heirlooms, libelous postcards, and exonerating documents that might be stashed in a house in Prague.

The lawsuit fell apart but in 1927 Nina filed another one – this against Donald Bigelow, who had since moved on to an appointment in Tangier.  She charged defamation and libel and asked for 500,000 francs in damages.  The suit became a very big deal as it moved through the French courts.

Donald F. Bigelow appears in the third row,
far right; American Foreign Service Journal, 1936

At issue was Bigelow’s diplomatic immunity.  His lawyers admitted that Bigelow should not have publicly referred to Nina as a Bolshevik.  In fact, he should not have discussed the case with reporters.  However, since he had merely expressed the position of the State Department, how could he be personally liable? 

Invoking an 1876 consular treaty, Bigelow’s lawyers further argued that American consuls could not be tried in France except for the commission of a crime.  But the Tribunal of the Correctional Court of Paris was not buying.  In January 1928 it ruled against Bigelow, stating that the consul’s remarks about the princess did not constitute part of an “official act” and ordering him to pay the cost of the appeal.

While the decision was important enough to be debated in the American Journal of International Law, there is no evidence that Bigelow paid anything to the court or to Nina Zizianoff. 

The princess designed her own trademark,
which she planned to use on branded products
when she finally became a U.S. citizen.

The princess filed one more lawsuit in December 1929, going after the newspaper that first reported Bigelow’s accusations.  A French court fined Richard Grozier, editor of The Boston Post, 20,000 francs and condemned him to two months in prison.  But unless Grozier were to set foot in France, the judgment could not be enforced. 

It seems unlikely that Nina Zizianoff would have returned to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.  She probably spent the rest of her life in France, and her name never appeared in an American newspaper again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Imagining the Park

Century-old vines in the Wisteria Pergola, Central Park, 2017

Photo by Claudia

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

James L. Ford Postscript

Cover of James L. Ford's Forty-Odd Years
in the Literary Shop
(third edition, 1896)

A few weeks ago when I wrote about the journalist James L. Ford, my husband said that he liked the post a lot. Naturally, my first thought was that he would want to hear more.

Indeed, there is a postscript, a short piece called “The Dying Gag” that Ford published in the late nineteenth century. It’s about a tiresome joke that keeps making the rounds of the New York variety shows, the type of joke that has been delivered hundreds of times and now elicits groans instead of laughs. 

Ford sets the scene outside the stage door: “. . . a wild blustering night, and the wind howled mournfully around the street-corners, blinding the pedestrians with the clouds of dust that it caught up from the gutters . . .”  

Before long the pedestrians come in from the cold. They stand around backstage while a frail figure – the “Old Gag” – makes its way to its dressing room, dozes off, and is awakened by the stagehands who cluck about how he should keep resting. Nevertheless they help him onto the stage.

The Old Gag speaks:

“And so you say, Mr. Johnson, that all the people on the ship were perishing of hunger, and yet you were eating a fried egg. How do you account for that?”

“The ship lay to, and I got one.”

As a wail rises from the audience, the Old Gag stumbles back into the arms of the stagehands. They carry him to his dressing room but cannot rouse him.

“The Old Gag,” writes Ford, “was dead.”


Returning to the book to make sure to get the joke right, I noticed that my copy, published in 1896, once belonged to a man named John Tatlock, Jr. I decided to chase him.

At first it appeared that there were two men named John Tatlock, Jr., both born in 1860. Each man plowed through the nineteenth century and died in 1926, having reaped the harvest of upper-class American life. 

One Tatlock was a scientist and the other an actuary with the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Both were born in Williamstown, Massachusetts and graduated from Williams College, each like his father.

Of course, it turned out they were the same person.

Even as a child, John Tatlock, Jr. had a passion for astronomy. During college he studied with a brilliant astronomer, Truman Henry Safford, who incidentally was a calculating prodigy. * Tatlock graduated in 1882 and stayed on for a year to continue his work with Safford at the Williams College Observatory, the nation’s second oldest one in regular operation (erected in 1836).  

Screenshot of a drawing of the Williams College
Observatory, mid-nineteenth century
Tatlock then became the astronomer at the Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Subsequently he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Beloit College. Tatlock’s particular interests were occultations of stars by the Moon, and meridian circle observations. The latter involves the movement of celestial bodies across a local longitude. (Someone correct me, please.)

By the 1880s many colleges and universities had added astronomy to their curriculums and were trying to raise money to build observatories. But Beloit couldn’t make it work and Tatlock resigned in 1885.

“The funds of the college are so low that the authorities do not feel justified in keeping the observatory in a state of scientific activity,” the Chicago Tribune reported.  

“This is another one of the many cases in which science does not pay except as it can be placed directly at the service of some business-man.”

John Tatlock, Jr. (date unknown)

Tatlock promptly moved back East. He married a socialite, Kate Chamberlin, in 1886, and was offered the plum position of associate actuary at the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Later he worked for Prudential Insurance, became a bank president, and founded his own actuarial firm.

A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London and the New York Academy of Sciences, Tatlock remained devoted to astronomy. In 1897 when the Yerkes Observatory opened near Geneva Lake in Wisconsin, he was among the honored guests.

BIG EYE TO OPEN declared a newspaper headline:

Scientists from All Over the Country Will Be There.
Hitherto Hidden From the Sight of Man.

One must wonder whether Tatlock would have preferred to stay an astronomer. 

*When Safford was nine, a local priest asked him to find the square of 365,365,365,365,365,365. In less than one minute, without paper and pencil, Safford produced the answer: 133,491,850,208,566,925,016,658,299,941,583,225. Some observers said that Safford spun around the room like a top, rolled his eyes, and appeared to be in agony as he figured out the problem.

Conjuring the Past in Brunswick, Maine

Big catch: J.H. Jordan, fishing in Maine (probably 1920s)  It’s July of 1910 and Joshua Hawkins Jordan is about to close his shop on Wes...