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.

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