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.


  1. Great story. You have a wonderful way of bringing these people to life

  2. Romer may well have known my great-uncle Rob, an aviator and balloonist who also joined in 1917

  3. I loved this story about the one and only step-mother my father, George H Hendricks ever had. My Grandfather, Scott Springer Hendricks was a West Coast playboy. After the death of his sister, who kept all his belongings, we found letters from assorted women and after 40 years the perfume on the letters was still potent enough to smell from across the room. The time of the marriage between Scott and Zayda was the only time during my fathers young years that he was not raised by his Maternal Grandparents, Wendell P Hammon, the "Dredger King" and his Wife Augusta Mary who lived on Washington Street in San Francisco

  4. I have always wondered and looked for the history of Zayda. My grandfather, for whom I am named was #2 in the line of marriages to Zayda. Scott Springer Hendricks was quite the playboy up and down the California coast. At one time Irene Pringle was one of his love interests. My father was raised by his maternal grandparents, Wendell P "The Gold Dredger King" and Augusta Mary Hammon, because Scott was not suited to be a father, let alone a single parent father.


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