Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Long Arms of Zayda Zabriskie

Zayda Zabriskie, 1914

It’s surprising to see Romer Shawhan’s name listed as one of the ushers at Zayda’s first wedding in 1911. She would marry and divorce thrice before they took their own vows 25 years later in the marriage chapel of New York City’s Municipal Building, a wedding-cake structure in lower Manhattan.

And that was just 11 days after she secured a divorce from husband #3, in Reno.

Later on, Romer said they were childhood sweethearts. So you have to wonder what happened during the years between.

It reminds me of Rhett Butler’s line in Gone with the Wind: “I can’t go all my life waiting to catch you between husbands.”

After marrying in 1936, Romer and Zayda were together until her death two decades later.

The pair probably met in the Bay Area where both grew up. His father left the family a few years after Romer was born in 1888. His mother, Ada Romer Shawhan, a painter and illustrator, worked out of a studio on Sacramento Street in San Francisco. And his beautiful, ethereal sister, Violet, pursued a career as a modern dancer.

Romer attended Lick-Wilmerding High School and graduated with technical and college preparatory degrees. At age 17, he submitted a plan to redesign the city’s Dolores Park, on the western edge of the Mission District. Romer’s design clearly was inspired by the work of the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.  The city fathers chose it but before anything could be done, the earthquake happened.

Ada, Romer, and Violet all were bold, creative, and enterprising.

In 1910 Romer went to New York City to study architecture at Columbia University. Zayda Zabriskie already lived there with her parents. She attended Brearley and Miss Porter’s before heading off to Bryn Mawr.

Her father, Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, made his fortune as vice president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Zabriskie Point in Death Valley is named for him. The company’s 20-mule teams hauled the borax from the mines to the nearest railroad in Mojave, California.

Zayda stayed just one year at Bryn Mawr before marrying Frank Buck, heir to a California fruit company, who inherited great wealth and invested it well. The ceremony took place in New York at the Little Church Around the Corner on 29th Street.

Zayda Zabriskie Buck in her wedding gown,
pictured in the New York Sun, April 30, 1911

After the wedding, and after Zayda had been presented in her wedding gown at the Court of St. James, the couple moved to the West Coast where their four children were born.

Meanwhile, Romer studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Returning home, his projects included various office buildings around the country.

The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. In August, Romer enlisted in the Air Service and became a lieutenant and fighter pilot. He served as Assistant Operations Officer on the staff of General William Mitchell, Chief of Air Service in the American First Army. Romer’s fellow pilots included Eddie Rickenbacker and Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, who was killed during a dogfight in the Second Battle of the Marne.

Romer received the Pershing Army Citation, the Croix de Guerre, and the Distinguished Service Medal.

Romer Shawhan, circa 1917

Through the 1920s, he worked with several prestigious architectural firms, living in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis. Building materials especially interested him. He published articles about slate, terra cotta, and marble.

Out in California, Zayda stuck with Mr. Buck (who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a New Deal Democrat) until the mid-1920s. Then they divorced and she married Scott Springer Hendricks, who also ran for the House (as a Republican) but lost.

In 1927, Zayda and Scott testified on behalf of a friend in a custody case before the New York State Supreme Court. The cast of characters included a deceitful father, an adulterous mother, a blind aunt who stated the child always looked dirty, a maternal grandmother whose Garden City home was said to lack sufficient yard space, and a governess who was ill or told to be ill whenever a dashing real estate developer came around . . .  largely played out against the backdrop of dozens of dinner parties in San Mateo where liquor flowed freely.

Zayda displayed some wit on the stand but she definitely stayed with her story.

Sometime in the early 1930s, Zayda and Scott divorced, and she married a lawyer named Mark Daniels. A few years later, she divorced Daniels in Nevada and within two weeks married Romer.

He was working for the Federal Government so they lived in Washington. During World War II, he served four years as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S.A.F. The man must have adored flying.

After the war, they bought a house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where family antiques, art, and relics were arranged throughout the spacious rooms. Subsequently, Romer helped found the Marble Institute of America. This organization brought together quarriers, wholesalers, importers, finishers, and contractors to create standards for quality and craftsmanship of marble.

After Zayda died in 1956, Romer stayed in the house with his sister Violet. They lived out their days painting and reading. Romer died in 1970 and is buried with Zayda at the Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City, Nevada, surrounded by Zabriskies.

Shawhan House, Mt. Vernon, N.Y. 

See also April 13, 2016 + December 29, 2015 posts.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


My high school boyfriend emigrated from Brazil to the U.S. around 1960. Crazy in love, I tried to pry that story out of him, looking to make sense of his changeable personality. He didn’t want to share, so I picked up not a single detail about his early life.

Lately, though, the coverage of government corruption and social instability has helped me to imagine the situation from which his family fled. It’s clear that the people of Brazil have never caught a break.

In 1930 after a contested election and military action, Getulio Vargas became president through a junta. This began the Second Republic, marked by nationalism and authoritarianism. But Vargas did institute social welfare programs which is why Brazilians still celebrate the “Father of the Poor.”

Skimming through history, there was a 1937 coup and Vargas’ establishment of the New State (Estado Novo), a political and economic system known as “corporatism” that also found favor with Mussolini. Vargas kept coming back until 1954 when he committed suicide rather than resign.

Violence, terror, and poverty; I guess my ex-boyfriend’s parents had enough by then.

They were very young. I knew that because his mother bore him at the age of 18, possibly earlier. She was a sweet worried lady who hugged me the only time we met. His stepfather, I learned later, harassed him even though he earned excellent grades and didn’t make trouble. 

Clearly there was discord in his family, but he never talked about it. Not that family life felt harmonious anywhere in the U.S. during the 1970s.

Looking back now, I think: why should he have shared his Brazilian immigration story with me?

Between 1948 and 1980, many of the kids who went to public school in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., were the grandchildren of Italian, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants.

We didn’t tell our families’ stories to each other. We knew them, all right. They weren’t that far in the past. But why would teenagers, already embarrassed by so much about themselves, draw attention to stuff that would make them feel even more conspicuous?  

I wouldn’t have told anyone that my grandfather slept on a park bench in Union Square after he got off the boat at Ellis Island in 1914. 

As an adult, however, I've found that some of the best stories that friends share are about the lives of their parents and grandparents. Some are about immigration. Overall, they grant greater understanding and intimacy.

Meanwhile, here I am stuck with a tenacious habit, gravitating toward any and all information about Brazil. After 42 years, still trying to figure out that boy.

Collage by Claudia Keenan

See also 2015 posts: November 5, November 23, December 21 + December 29

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Story of Negro Mystic Lore

Advertisements for the book appeared exclusively in To-morrow Magazine, an early 20th century journal whose writers enthused about Socialism, atheism, and woman’s suffrage.

The “talented authoress,” an Alabama native named Mamie Hunt Sims, wrote with “a Pathos and a Sociological Insight” and “knew every touch of Negro Philosophy,” according to the promotion.

In passing, I assumed that Negro Mystic Lore, published in 1907, was written by a black woman.  Perhaps it explored stories told by former slaves and analyzed their African antecedents.

But now, book in hand, I realize that my assumption was absurd.  Negro Mystic Lore comprises 18 stories written in what linguists today define as African American Vernacular English.  In her foreword, Sims wrote that she hoped “to show the real kindly feeling that existed between the people of the South and the better class of the negroes.”

A character named Uncle Jake, based on a real person according to Sims, is the main voice in a series of interactions between “de collured pussuns” and “white folkies.”  He is a grotesque caricature:

You chillun is too interruptin enny how and ef you all don’t hush I gwine to hush my mouf and I ain’t gwine to tell you nuthin. I did low ter tell you some two or three nannydotes dis mawnin in case hits too naturally hot ter work dat garden an I mout as well be erestentin you chillun as gwin ter sleep under dat fig tree.

According to the sole notice the book received, Mrs. Sims originally created the stories as entertainment for her friends. “Her work is at once a memory of the ‘Old South’ in its pride and beauty, and a suggestion of the new and greater South flushed with the dawning of more glorious days,” wrote the reviewer.

The title page bears the quotation: “Dem dat has must give to dem dat hain’t.”

How did Negro Mystic Lore come to be published? The likely answer is that it was a favor granted by Parker Sercombe, editor of To-morrow Magazine who also ran a press.

The self-aggrandizing Sercombe (see earlier post), stood accused of many things but not bigotry. He had railed against South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a white supremacist who led a KKK-style terrorist group called the Red Shirts. He expressed solidarity with J. Max Barber, editor of the newspaper Voice of the Negro, who fled a white mob in Atlanta in 1907.

But it turns out that one of Sercombe’s friends, William Hill Hunt, had a sister named Mamie Hunt Sims who wanted to publish her stories. Sercombe obliged.

William Hill Hunt, born in Alabama in 1864, grew up in a family with some wealth in its past. He became successful in business at a young age. In 1902, he founded the Mexican Trust Company with a group of American investors. Around this time, Parker Sercombe also was active in banking in Mexico.

Like Sercombe, Hunt proved slippery. In 1905, the state of Illinois accused the latter of violating its banking laws when he accepted deposits from a bank that he knew was insolvent. Sentenced to Joliet Penitentiary, eventually he received a pardon from the governor.

Mamie Sims dedicated Negro Mystic Lore to her brother, thanking him for his support and encouragement.

The book is a nasty relic of racism written 44 years after the end of the Civil War. But it is typical of its time. During the Progressive Era, America’s white upper class perpetrated outrageous indignities against black people in books, music, and theater. The insults reflected the deep-seated, rationalized prejudices of educated whites.

During the Theodore Roosevelt administration, performers at the White House included Mary L. Leech, a soprano who performed a selection of “coon songs.” The German diplomat Baron Speck von Sternburg and TR’s Secretary of State, John Hay (once President Lincoln’s private secretary) were among the guests who applauded “You’se Just a Little Nigger, Still Youse Mine All Mine” and “Is Dat You?”

Whose dare? Whose dare?
Oh who’s dat knockin’ at my door?
Is dat you, Sambo?
Is dat you, Sambo?
Now you better stop dat knockin’ at de door!

Although Negro Mystic Lore was published by an obscure press and scarcely advertised, my bet is that it was read widely.

Mamie Hunt Sims, frontispiece of Negro Mystic Lore

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Miss Violet Romer

Violet Romer, 1910

It made complete sense that they lived in a quintessential American house: an elegant Foursquare with generous bay windows that overlooked the sidewalks lined with elm trees.  

The elderly brother and sister at 108 Forster Avenue filled their home with art, antiques, and such memorabilia as a broken plate pulled from the rubble of the San Francisco Earthquake.

While we trudged to school through sunshine and snowstorms, Violet and Romer Shawhan moved about in rooms hung with the portraits of ancestors. A few of these men had accumulated tremendous wealth before and during the Gilded Age.

Their paternal grandfather, descended from a Kentucky family whose money came from whiskey distilleries, moved West after the Civil War and invested in mining, streetcars, and stocks.

John E. Shawhan had everyone living in grand style at the Palace Hotel until the State of Virginia defaulted on its “consols” (consolidated annuities). Then he became known for “Shawhan’s Folly” – the California Street property where he built a stable to house his collection of splendid horses and carriages.

The horses drank from marble troughs and occupied stalls carved of birds-eye maple. In a private room at the stable, Mrs. Shawhan entertained friends and reporters. She showed off her gold-tipped harnesses and whips.

After the bankruptcy, the Shawhans decamped to Nevada where the missus filed for divorce. But their son James made a bit of a recovery when he married Ada Romer, a free-spirited painter whose father had arrived in California during the Gold Rush.

Ada’s father, John Lyons Romer, made his fortune in real estate and as a founding director of the San Francisco & North Pacific Railroad Company and vice president of the Sausalito Land & Ferry Company. Her portrait of him won a silver medal at the 1909 Alaska Yukon Exhibition in Seattle.

Sometime around 1890, Ada’s husband took off and left her with their two children, Violet and Romer. She turned to art full-time, set up the Shawhan Studio, and earned money illustrating books and painting society portraits. She became well-known in California and often was written up in the San Francisco Call, where a woman reporter followed the art scene closely.

It’s evident that Ada nurtured her children, who developed confidence and worldliness. In 1896 Violet wrote to her grandfather Romer, who was visiting Colorado:

I think we are going to San Francisco and I am glad for I am just getting so I hate the sight of Los Angeles, business is so poor here I don’t know how it is. I guess you have lots to tell about Denver. I guess it is a nice city. Of coarse those big citys all are.

Violet Romer's letter to her grandfather, "Parmer," 1896

Within several years, Violet was dancing her heart out. She never took formal lessons or studied classical ballet. Like Isadora Duncan, Violet danced interpretively and free form, eschewing ballerina costumes. Isadora, also raised by an artistic single mother in the Bay Area, had long gone to France by 1904 when Violet performed as a hamadryad in a redwood forest grove for members of The Bohemian Club.

Violet’s career really took off when The Papyrus Club, a San Francisco woman’s group, decided to sponsor her. She danced at the city’s Columbia Theatre accompanied by a 6o-piece orchestra and returned a week later by popular demand. Soon after, Ada took Violet to London and Paris where the young dancer’s “inspirational” performances drew acclaim.  

That same year, Violet caught the eye of an impresario named Marc Klaw who co-controlled the Theatrical Syndicate, which monopolized theater bookings nationwide during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1910, the powerful syndicate was losing its influence to the Schubert Brothers of New York, but Klaw and a former drama critic, Harrison Grey Fiske, were producing the Arabian play Kismet. They cast Violet as “the Egyptian Girl.”

Kismet ran for two years on Broadway and made Violet’s reputation. She stayed in New York to star “sans hosiery” in Joseph and His Brethren, a pageant by a British playwright named Louis N. Parker. A critic wrote: 

It may shock a number of persons in the present generation to see graphically depicted on the stage the disreputable bunch of crooks from which sprung the whole Jewish race of today, but they will find comfort in the immaculate qualities of the Joseph of Mr. Parker’s play.

Violet turned 30 years old in 1916. The following year she returned to California, moved in with her mother and taught dance at a studio into the early 1920s. Thereafter she dropped her stage name and became Violet Shawhan. The two women lived together until Ada died in 1947, with Violet working in a library. 

Romer, who married in 1936, had bought the Foursquare in Mount Vernon, N.Y. just before World War II. His sister crossed the continent for the last time to live with him and his wife.


See also December 29, 2015 + January 12, January 16 + April 27, 2016 posts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Uncompromising Parker Sercombe

Advertisement for a book by Parker Sercombe, 
evidently never published 

He was a newsboy, editor, capitalist, anarchist, and lecturer. And it looks like he led a colony that verged on being a cult.  

His education stopped at high school yet he engaged the interest of professors, including Oscar Lovell Triggs of the University of Chicago.  He mastered the works of Herbert Spencer, edited To-Morrow, a magazine advertised as "a hand-book of the changing order," and received Jack London, H.G. Wells, and other authors at his office.

Born in Milwaukee in 1860, Parker Holmes Sercombe wended his way through Chicago, Detroit, Mexico City, Austin, and other places that remain unknown before dying in obscurity in Alhambra, California, in 1944. 

By the time Parker turned five years old, his mother was gone, probably in childbirth, leaving six children with his father, a farmer born in England. 

Two of the daughters went to college; one to the Women’s Medical College of Northwestern University which was no mean feat in 1881. She returned to practice in Milwaukee where Parker still hung around, figuring things out. 

He worked as a teacher and postal clerk, married, and finally found some success selling bicycles, typewriters, and the occasional cash register.

“He sprang to prominence in 1894,” noted the Milwaukee Journal. Powerfully athletic, he loved bicycle races and built a plant that manufactured the “Parker Sercombe racing bicycle.”

Parker H. Sercombe was lauded as an up-and-coming
bicycle entrepreneur in The Bearings, the Cycling Authority
of America

As bicycling became a nationwide craze, Parker made a lot of money but annoyed competitors with schemes to get free advertising. They called him a “plunging faker” and “snooky.” Then, at the top of his bicycle game, his wife died and in 1896 he suddenly took off for Mexico.

In Mexico City, Sercombe became friends with President Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico from 1876 until the first stirrings of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. An autocrat who favored economic development through capitalism, Diaz encouraged foreign investment. 

Between 1897 and 1903, Sercombe promoted commercial banking in Mexico with support from Chicago and New York financiers. He established the American Surety Bank in Mexico City and traveled between Mexico and the U.S. numerous times. According to two books that describe Sercombe’s work, he conducted several unsavory business transactions.  

It sounds like Sercombe’s yanqui colleagues eventually drove him out. Bear in mind, however, that the trusts established by Morgan, Schiff, Baruch, Rockefeller, and others carried on and came to dominate the Mexican economy.     


Back in Chicago, Sercombe struck up with Professor Triggs. They collaborated on several ventures including the Spencer-Whitman Center at 2238 Calumet Avenue – named for Herbert Spencer and Walt Whitman – which became notorious as a free love colony. It also housed the offices of To-Morrow Magazine.

To-Morrow published the poems of young Carl Sandburg, who accepted Sercombe’s offer of room and board in exchange for some writing and copy editing. “A foggy philosophical anarchist,” as Sandburg described him:

. . . he was at any time ready to show his various wrestling holds though never throwing a guest to the floor. He welcomed radicals and revolutionaries but he preferred the gentle philosophical anarchists of the Kropotkin variety to the direct actionists who believed in bombs and ‘the propaganda of the deed.’

Parker Sercombe inscribed an issue of To-Morrow to Otto Lippert,
who was either a Cincinnati pharmacist or a news photographer.

Then there was the People’s Industrial College, to be “funded by the intellectual elect,” per Triggs and Sercombe. They would offer free tuition to students of all ages who would perform “at least four hours of useful work with their hands each day.” 

The plan for the college grew out of the men’s interest in industrial arts education. The sole evidence of its existence is advertisements.

In 1906 the Chicago police broke up the Spencer-Whitman Center, citing immoral activities and ramshackle living conditions. Referring to himself as a prophet, Sercombe told a Chicago Tribune reporter that the colony would move to an 800-acre farm on the Kankakee River. That never happened.

In 1907, Triggs went down in a scandalous divorce trial and soon disappeared from the scene.

But Parker Sercombe carried on.

He lectured widely, presenting himself as an expert in politics, religion, philosophy, economics, crime, and sociology. 

He claimed to be organizing a National Bureau of Longevity for the Federal Government. He claimed to be a retired Baptist minister. 

He claimed that his collection of 7,000 rare books would be housed in a marble hall of fame which Andrew Carnegie had agreed to build at a cost of $200,000.

In 1909, he promoted his book Correct Thinking, The First Gun in a Revolt against Leisure-Class Ideals of Education. In 1910, he spoke about “Education in a Democracy” at the University of Wisconsin. In 1915, he was fired from his job as a supervising statistician for the Cook County coroner’s office after he told a welfare bureau official that “350 high school girls are ruined yearly in Chicago.” (Perhaps he was right about that.)

While he denounced marriage as a social evil, Sercombe married a woman named Leontine with whom he had three children: Syndex, Rommanie, and Herbert Spencer.

In 1918 the police sought him for embezzling $875. In 1927, he ran over a child with his car. During the Depression, he moved his family to Mexico where he owned a gas station. Eventually the Sercombe family ended up in California where he came full circle working as a salesman. His ashes are in the Chapel of the Pines crematory in Los Angeles.

What’s compelling about his life? Everything! It’s remarkable that he dissembled so often; people and newspapers took note, but he rolled along. He embraced established institutions – universities, government, banks – yet he attacked the conventions that they represented. He sat on top of the heap at several points in his life, then almost perversely made his own trouble. 

But you have to hand it to him: unabashed, unapologetic, he always acted out of self-interest.

See also March 2 + 10, 2016 posts.

What the Widow Nolen Left Behind, Part 2

  W. W. Nolen, 1910 (Harvard University Archives) From his third-floor window, William Whiting Nolen watched the twentieth century arrive at...