The Scofflaw southern granny

May Wells and her daughter, Virginia and son, Thomas, my father-in-law. Don’t let the pic deceive you: May did not like boys and she often said so. She grew up in a female dominated family.

She was not your run-of-the mill granny, that’s for sure, my husband’s father’s mother, May

In fact, she was something of a catfish-out-of-water in 1940’s and 50’s Montreal, taking her skinny six foot tall frame for a tromp down Ste Catherine Street, sticking her head into Marshall’s to ask the price of a pretty fabric on window display only to slam the door shut with a “YOU KEEP IT” when she didn’t like the answer.

It didn’t help that she had a very loud, raspy voice with a pronounced Southern drawl that would draw attention anywhere let alone in a francophone city.

One day in 1944 in a pediatrician’s office, May made my mother-in-law shrink down into her chair when she exclaimed in her embarrassingly loud twang,“It’s plain to see, we have the only good-looking child in the room.”

Granny May was a strong-willed southern belle who came of age in Warrenton, Virginia in the Edwardian Era, the age of ‘the new woman.’ New women were brash and often broke the rules so it helped to be born into a wealthy family if one wanted to follow that route. And she was.

May was so proud of her southern heritage that for years she hid the fact she was actually born in the North.

Mary Pinkney Hardy Fair was born in 1880 in Wallingford, Connecticut to Robert J. Fair formerly of Galway, Ireland*1 and Elizabeth Hardy of the Virginia merchant class who grew up on a lavish Norfolk plantation, Riveredge.

Her mother, Elizabeth Mohun Hardy was one of fourteen children with long roots in Norfolk. Virginia and North Carolina. (No surprise, my husband gets this very ‘community’ on his DNA results.)

Elizabeth Mohun Hardy Fair (I assume as we have the original. Norfolk photographer. She looks a lot like her sister Mary Pinkney. Just check on the Net.)

One of Elizabeth’s sisters, Mary Pinkney Hardy, married Arthur MacArthur, a military captain and gave birth to Douglas, the future American general.

Elizabeth and Robert Fair married in Norfolk in 1870 but lived in Massachusetts and then Wallingford where Robert prospered in dry goods.*1 The couple had six children, three girls and three boys. Fair died young in 1885. The eldest son died soon after. Elizabeth moved back to Virginia and lived comfortably as a widow the rest of her life. The boys got Ivy League educations. The girls received a genteel, privileged upbringing, their social life chronicled in numerous society columns.

Thanks to the General Douglas MacArthur connection, May’s Hardy line has been traced by multiple genealogists: it goes back to the mid 1600s in Pembrokeshire, Wales and includes many generations of land-owners as well as Methodist Minister and a Sea-Captain who founded a trading post with the West Indies. *

May’s uncles fought in the Civil War for the South under Robert E. Lee. Two of them refused to attend the MacArthur wedding.

Two of May’s Uncles.

The many Hardy sisters of Norfolk, by all accounts, were tall and willowy, strong-willed and vivacious.

Every MacArthur bio has at least a short paragraph on the attractive Hardy women, but it’s an obscure epistolary volume from 1850 we own that suggests that these traits were inherited from the mother, Margaret Pierce*2

”Mrs. H is somewhat larger than myself; her complexion is a dark brunette; she has jet black eyes and her raven tresses nearly touch the ground. Some say she is a descendant of Pocahontas. I do love a real Southern character it makes one so cordial, generous and impulsive.”

Mary Pinkney Hardy Fair Wells of Westmount, Quebec was certainly impulsive. She tied-the-knot for the first time ‘on a dare.’ Her second marriage was to a handsome Italian whom she left because ‘he couldn’t have children.’

Somewhere, I have Thomas and Mary’s 1917 marriage certificate. The line “publication of banns” is crossed out, so it is likely, as May often hinted, that she didn’t get a proper divorce from one or both of these men.

As an ingenue May was thrown out of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel for smoking a cigar in the lobby. Still, she was a more practical and mature 31 when she married the thrice-widowed Thomas G. Wells, 49, of Montreal.

When May first set eyes on the affable, much older Thomas Wells in Montreal sometimes prior to or during WWI, as her sister, Elizabeth, had married a Montrealer in 1911.*3 May told her sister, “If he is ever widowed again, call me.” When Thomas’ third wife passed away, May hightailed it up to Canada and made her successful play for “Tommy,” the President of Laurentian Spring Water. (Thomas’ favorite first wife, Maude Walker of Ingersoll, Ontario also had North Carolina roots, I have recently discovered. This fact might have been an icebreaker.)

Thomas recounted to his children the first time he ever noticed May. It was on a boat and she was seated and when she got up “she went up and Up and UP!”

Although Thomas was bringing in a hefty salary, it was May’s large dowry that allowed them to live the high life in Westmount. Tall and skinny, she could really rock the 1920’s flapper styles. Still, May, a typical wife of the era, spent most nights at home while her husband shmoozed at his elite social clubs. She liked it that way. She had servants and a singleton sister, Emily, to keep her company.

That Flapper Style

Later in life, Mary was somewhat frail herself. My mother-in-law said May kept scores of medicinal bottles on her bedside table. Her favourite medicine was by far the bourbon and it was kept this ‘southern comfort’ in a flask by her side at all times.

In the 1920’s the Wells family lived on Chesterfield Street in the dry Westmount section of Montreal where she routinely scandalized her friends by pouring booze into her afternoon tea. She didn’t let American Prohibition get in her way, either. The story goes that when travelling back to America by train with her two girls* in the 1920’s she hid bottles of liquor under their pillows. She also sewed pockets into her petticoat to hold small flasks.

The one time she did get caught, she attempted to bribe the border guard. She got plunked on Ellis Island. Thomas was so angry at her he sent his chauffeur out alone to bail her out.

A flask engraved EHF likely, my husband’s great aunt Emily’s. We have inherited quite a few silver flasks from that family 🙂

After Thomas passed away in 1951 (receiving a note of condolence bordered in black from Mayor Camillien Houde) May moved to an apartment on Coolbrook above Cote Ste Luc, where my husband, as a little boy, often visited her and where she lived until her death in 1967.

And, yes, she even managed to make a splash on that occasion. She passed away on her eldest granddaughter’s wedding day.

Apparently, my father-in-law was ashen-faced as he walked his first-born daughter (that good-looking baby) down the aisle, but no one else at the wedding had been told.

May is buried in her famously all-female family crypt in Norfolk, Virginia. Here’s the pic.

Well, Thomas Hardy Fair, her older brother is buried there, too.

Poor little rich boy: My father-in-law may have missed out on maternal affection but he didn’t lack for material comfort. Besides, his Aunt “OMIE” (Emily) took care of him, even taking him -against the law -to the movies in the late 20’s and early 30’s to a Verdun movie theatre that looked the other way when it came to kids.

1. According to an obit (May 17, 1885) I found online from a New Haven, Connecticut newspaper, Robert Fair, from Fair Hill Galway, Ireland, had got his start as a new immigrant with a cousin, Edward Malley who owned a successful department store in New Haven. The obit also said he ended up as a breeder of fine Jersey cows which makes it sounds as if he was so prosperous, in his early 40’s, ­ he could devote himself to a gentleman’s hobby.

The obit doesn’t say that he first landed in Quebec. Robert’s sister Elizabeth stayed in Quebec and married a Samuel James Bennett, a lumber merchant, of St. Romuauld D’etchemin.

2. The book is Place in the Memory by S.H. de Kroyft New York John F. Thow 1850. It was given to Emily Fair my husband’s great aunt by her Mom. In pencil is written, “I wish my daughter Emily H. Fair to preserve this book carefully as a letter from Oyster Bay speaks of her grandmother and mother, who went for the Water Cure there in 1848.” A page later: “Page 13 speaks of your grandmother.”

On page 13 of the book is written “Tomorrow a lovely family Mr and Mrs Hardy and daughter of Virginia leave for their home and will be much missed in our social circle. Mrs. H is somewhat larger than myself; her complexion is a dark brunette; she has jet black eyes and her raven tresses nearly touch the ground. Some say she is a descendant of Pocahontas or Metoka as her father called her. I do love a real Southern character it makes one so cordial, generous and impulsive. Mrs. Hardy and myself have climbed these hill together, crossed valleys and traversed winding footpaths and waded the brooks, and plunged and bathed together till she almost seems a part of myself.”

This Mrs. Hardy was the former Margaret Pierce, also of the Norfolk merchant class.

3. Robert’s sister stayed in Quebec and married a Samuel James Bennett, a lumber merchant, of St. Romuauld D’etchemin. They had nine children, the eldest of whom, Benson, became President of the Asbestos mine in Thetford Mines and the first Mayor of that city. May and her two sisters often came up North to visit their many cousins, to escape the heat and, apparently,to scout for husbands.

James Fair’s sister’s marriage record on Drouin says that she is from Fair Hill, agreeing with his obit. . The Drouin record also says her father James (married to Bedelia Keyes) is ‘ecurie’ as far as I can decipher. From records online the Fairs were land agents for the Berminghams and Earls of Leitram and Rosshill in Galway. James in 1838, was a land agent for the Provost of Trinity College Dublin. He rented the land from them and sublet it to tenants. They raised potatoes and oats, so the upcoming potato famine couldn’t have been easy on their tenants and maybe that’s why James Fair, my husband’s great grandfather, came to Canada and then the US. Descendants of the Fairs in Galway run the Fairhill House Hotel and have a law firm Fair and Murtagh.


­- 1.One MacArthur bio The General’s General, claims that the Hardy’s family were Scottish –and proud of it – and that’s why he fell in love with her. (The Hardy surname is Scottish or Irish. Pierce appears Scottish but, hey, we’re talking way back.) This book claims the Hardy’s dealt in fertilizer so came out of the Civil War relatively unscathed. Most other books say the Hardy’s dealt in cotton. MacArthur’s memoirs seem to leave that detail out. He calls them ____merchants. The Hardy’s had to leave their Riveredge plantation for a time during the Civil War when the Union Army took it over. Of course, they were slave owners.

2. May never took her son, Thomas, on trips. He stayed at home and played hockey on the Westmount rink. She wasn’t a total loss as a mother. She was a crack seamstress and made all over kids and grand kids fancy winter coats with fur trim. (She was scared of the cold Canadian winters.)Thomas wasn’t so keen on the fashion. It made him stand out at the rink.

3. As you can see, most of my stories of May come from my father-in-law, her son, and my mother-in-law. I am sure other family members have other stories that perhaps could put another slant on her personality.

4. My husband’s grandmother referred to Douglas MacArthur as “Dougie”. Watching a newsreel she might say “Dougie’s looking good.” Someone kept a stash of news clippings which I once had. I tossed them. May danced the first dance at his 1903 West Point Graduation Elizabeth the second. May’s dance card was donated to the MacArthur Museum. My husband’s aunt visited Douglas in retirement and she said that he was very bossy. LOL

5. May was embarrassed about being born in the North. She didn’t tell anyone until she absolutely had to. She had an older brother Thomas, who went to Cornell and studied engineering and died a widower, I think, in an Upper East Side apartment off Central Park. (My father in law claimed he was the private secretary to Dupont but I have found nothing to collaborate this.). She also had younger brother,

Charlie, who worked as a doctor for free (the story goes) but she clearly grew up in a comfortable female-run environment. I wrote about sister Elizabeth’s dizzying social life here.

Below: Thomas Hardy Fair, May’s eldest brother. It’s written on the back.

Of the 136 trees on Ancestry with Elizabeth Mohun Hardy Fair and Robert Fair, only two mention this son. This is what happens when you have no children. He liked to hunt in Canada. I have his hunting picture album. (Too many dead animals, but a few pics of women in their voluminous turn of the 20th century ‘white dresses’ posing on the porch of small log hunting shacks.)

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