Author Archives: Dorothy Nixon

Montreal Movie Mysteries

rialto

The Rialto ceiling today from Google Earth.

When I was a little girl in the 1960’s, whenever my family crossed the Cartierville Bridge in Montreal’s Ahunsic area to go to Laval, my mother would claim, “That is Uncle Louis’s bridge.”

Her much older brother, Louis, who died of a heart attack in 1965, had been a civil engineer and it is likely he worked for Dominion Bridge, the company that made that structure in the 1930’s.

The Cartierville Bridge wasn’t much to look at, so I wasn’t at all impressed.

I recently learned that back in the day my mother had a much lovelier family creation to brag about. Her Uncle Isadore’s glass company, Ceramo, had manufactured the beautiful stained-glass panels on the ceiling of the Rialto Theatre, the opulent 1924 movie theatre on Park Avenue decorated to look like the Paris Opera House.1

According to reporter Dane Lanken, who wrote the definitive book on Montreal’s old cinemas, this ceiling is rare, if not unique, among the grand movie houses of the day.*2

My mother’s Mon Oncle Isadore, an Outremont-based insurance broker, was also the VP of the United Amusements Corporation, a company that distributed films for Famous Players and that built the Rialto and dozens of other lavish Montreal movie houses, so it was all very convenient.3

Mummy rarely spoke about her Uncle Isadore during her life-time and she never talked about his many interlocked businesses.

She clearly didn’t know anything about the Rialto Cinema ceiling.  She never mentioned how Isadore had welcomed the audience at the opening of the magnificent Monkland Theatre in 1930, not in-person but from up on the screen in a talkie film.*4

(How cool that must have seemed just a few years after sound technology was introduced.)

In 1930, my mother would have been only nine years old and not entitled to enter movie houses.  Children under 16 had been banned from cinemas in Quebec 2 years before, in 1927, after the infamous fatal Laurier Palace fire.5

And my mom was only 11, in December 31, 1932, when her Uncle Isadore fell to his death from his 7th floor office window at 414 Saint James Street West.

She never ever mentioned that shocking event, either: I suspect no one told her about how her Uncle Isadore died.

Isadore414StJacques

From La Patrie, online.

 

Lanken mentions Mon Oncle Isadore more than a few times in his beautiful book. He doesn’t discuss the manner of Isadore’s death.

However, Louis Pelletier, a Concordia scholar, does mention Isadore’s demise in his PhD thesis about the movie distribution industry in Montreal – with a sly aside.  Was it a suicide? Who knows. *6

Pelletier also says that Isodore was likely brought on as VP of United Amusements in 1921 as a ‘token’ francophone.

The 2012 thesis is brilliant, but here Pelletier (like Lanken) fails to make one key connection. Isadore’s brother was Jules Crepeau, my grandfather, Director of City Services in the 1920’s. Isadore’s appointment wasn’t token: It was tactical.

If you conduct a search of the Digital Media Database which contains many era Hollywood Trade Magazines, Jules’ name comes up more than Isadore’s.*7

Jules also died relatively young, in 1938, about a year after he had been hit by a car driven by a plain clothes policeman on Royal Avenue in NDG.*8

He had retired from his lofty post at City Hall in 1930.*9

Back in 2008, when I asked my mother if the 1937 car ‘accident’ had been a ‘hit’ *10 she replied an emphatic “No.” The policeman in question had been very upset about it, she told me. She died in 2009.

Ten years later, knowing what I now know about my Grandpapa Crepeau’s controversial and scandal-ridden career at Montreal City Hall,*11 I imagine that my mom’s recollection of this very contrite cop was a second-hand memory planted there, perhaps by her older brother Louis.

Uncle Louis. Now, he’s the one I should have been able to talk to.  Had he lived, what twisting tales he might have told me.

  1.  Lanken, Dane. Montreal Movie Palaces. Great Theatres of the Golden Era 1884 – 1938.  Penumbra Press. 1993. This feature is likely why the Rialto has been deemed a National Historic Monument, and why it still stands today. Most other Montreal movie houses were destroyed or left to languish.
  2. Ibid. These United Amusement theatres included the Belmont on St.Laurent, and the Monkland on Monkland Avenue and the fabulous Art Deco Snowdon Theatre where I saw The Sound of Music in 1965 – at 11 years old. We lived on the adjacent street.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid
  5. It’s a ban that stayed in place until 1962. Over 70 children were crushed to death escaping from the balcony of a Sunday showing after a small fire.
  6. Pelletier, Louis. The Fellows Who Dress the Pictures: Montreal Film Exhibitors in the Days of Vertical Integration (1912-1952). Concordia PhD Thesis, Communications Department. 2012. The Montreal Gazette, December 31, 1932. The official story is Isadore fell trying to build a device to hang a flag to signal his chauffeur. This happened after his secretary had left his office. After dark. In the depth of winter. Supposedly, Isadore’s unfinished cigar was found on the sill. The police cited unnamed sources for this report, not the secretary, not the chauffeur, not the wife.
  7. www.digitalmediahistory.org. In 1921, Jules was interviewed by Variety about the controversy over Sunday showings. In 1924, he was interviewed about risqué movie posters. In 1926, during the Coderre Commission into Police Impropriety and Malfeasance, his name is brought up in connection with the police. It is said he forced police on the beat to look the other way when movie houses broke the bylaws by letting children in unattended. The New York Times rehashed this bit in 1926 in a two-page story covering testimony during American Senate hearings into Prohibition. In 1927, Jules is mentioned in relation to the Laurier Palace Fire. Jules was the first to testify at both the initial inquest and the later Royal Commission.
  8. Family lore says his death was due to bone cancer from the X-Rays he received from a broken leg from the accident.
  9. Jules had been forced to retire by new Mayor Camillien Houde. Jules negotiated a huge pension of 8,000 dollars a year that was rescinded in 1937 with an emergency measure due to the Depression, just two weeks before he was knocked down by that policeman on Royal Avenue, a block from the United Amusement Offices on Monkland.
  10. In 2008, I asked my mother to tell me all she remembered about her childhood and my grandfather. She didn’t know much about the political intrigue but she did know that her father and brother received numerous death threats and that on occasion big shots like the Mayor or the Chief of Police visited their home on Sherbrooke Street West in secret meetings.
  11. According his obit in Le Devoir, he had a mind like a bank vault and each drawer was filled by a City Hall by-law or other fact. A Gazette article about Mayor Mederic Martin in 1937 claimed “Jules Crepeau’s hair went gray teaching aldermen their jobs.”
  12. Jules and Isadore were the sons, two of four, of Joseph Crepeau and Vitaline Forget-Depatie who, according to Jules’ marriage certificate on Drouin (1901 – Maria Roy) were from St.Louis de France, which would be Trois Rivieres. Montreal City Hall records (his file) claim Jules was born in Laval and that Joseph was a house-painter. Joseph’s paternal line can be traced back to Maurice Crespeau (curly-haired ones) of Poitou-Charentes, born 1637. Vitaline’s Forget line goes back to Abraham Martin, owner of the Plaines of Abraham, known as “L’Ecossais.” https://www.geni.com/people/Abraham-Martin-dit-l-Écossais/6000000000397138666  Jules and my mother did have very curly hair and this is perhaps due to deep Sephardic Jew and Algerian roots. My mother has some Sephardic DNA, to the tune of 4 percent. Crespeau (Crespin) is understood to be one of the Sephardic French Canadian names. https://www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/nameorig.HTM  Jules’ wife’s Maria Roy’s MT DNA has traces of Sephardic as well and can be traced back to a Lily Rodrigue in Normandy. Rodrigue (Rodriguez).

 

My Uncle Frank: German or French?

supr8

1958 St-Eustache, Quebec. Super 8 film ‘capture.’

I never thought I would write about my Uncle Frank Walter, my Aunt Flo’s husband and my mother’s brother-in law.  He is, perhaps, the least controversial figure in our family. One might even call him boring. I never heard a word uttered for or against him – and, believe me, that’s saying a lot .

Frank married Flo her late in life, in 1955, when she was 50 and he was 63. He was a tile painter by trade. He was French from France, my mother told me, but in Quebec that’s hardly exotic.  My mother also told me his last name “Walter” was really pronounced “Valter,” but that didn’t seem important.

Frank and Flo, the giddy ‘newlyweds’ would visit us occasionally, in St. Eustache, north of Montreal, where we lived in the mid 1950’s. They had a big black Buick and they took it everywhere on day trips. They also had a Super 8 movie camera and I have a few seconds of faded film of Aunt Flo and me by the swing set. On another visit, they brought me a giant stuffed panda bear. I was enraptured. My brothers later beat the stuffing out of it, out of jealously, I imagine.

My family visited them at Christmas at their apartment in the city on West Hill Avenue in 1964.  I have a colour photo with my Dad and us kids sitting on their fancy pink French Provincial style couch that I would inherit much later in the 1980’s and put in our basement.

Frank was very old (in my eyes). He was the closest I came to having a grandfather around.  He had grey hair on the thin side and sported a debonair pencil moustach. He was always smoking a pipe.  I could sense, even as a child, that he was a bit on the vain side.  He had a twinkle in his eye and he still flirted with my Aunt Flo who happily flirted back. They made quite a pair.

Frank died in 1977 and I clearly recall the scene at the grave on a hill with trees in Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery on the mountain, as Aunt Flo wept uncontrollably and the tears rolled down my cheeks in empathy. She was crushed at the loss of her “Ptoutsi.”

I thought of Uncle Frank again, in 1990, when Aunt Flo went into a retirement home.  Helping her clear out her apartment, I found a photo album from his WWII service. The album contained many pictures of younger female servicewoman. His girlfriends?  He was a ladies man, after all!  The album creeped me out, so I tossed it in the garbage.

At the same time, my aunt gave us her ‘junk’ to sell in a garage sale in our suburban garden. One piece was Frank’s foot locker from WWI. (Yes, he participated in two world wars.) A collector came around before the start of the sale, gave the tables in the yard a quick scan and immediately pointed to the foot locker.

“I guess French Infantry foot lockers from WWI are worth something,” I said to my husband, suddenly wishing I’d held on to it.

 

uncleffrank2 unlcef1

Intimate ‘captures’ of Frank and Flo from a Super 8 film taken in the mid to late 1950’s in their home.

flo1 flo3

Left: Domestic life on West Hill, in NDG. Right: A visit to a war memorial in Montreal.

 

Aunt Flo died in 1999.

The other day, checking up on Aunt Flo in Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery1 where she was laid to rest, I realized she wasn’t in the family plot but buried with Frank and his family.

So, I took a closer look.  To my surprise, I saw that Uncle Frank’s full name, at least as listed at the cemetery, was Ferdinand Francois Walter and that he was named after his father, who was buried beside him.

Frank’s Mom, Octavie Turgeon, was there, too. A Quebecois name, that’s for sure. So Frank had a German-sounding father and a French Canadian mother.  He wasn’t even from France. He was Canadian-born.

I checked on Drouin and sure enough, Frank’s father, Ferdinand married his mother Octavie in Quebec, in 1890.2  Ferdinand, an engineer, was from Willers, Alsace Lorraine, the son of Francois, and Octavie was from Levis, Quebec.

(Willers, by the way, is one of those achingly picturesque towns in the Haut Rhine.) Ferdinand’s mother was a Berkertz, also German sounding.

Ferdinand’s signature on the marriage document was remarkable in that it was executed in a meticulous ornamental font. I can see where Uncle Frank got his artistic talent. Octavie’s brother signed for her indicating she was illiterate.

The couple sounds like a mismatch. Maybe she was beautiful or rich.

Other Drouin records reveal that Ferdinand Francois, my Uncle Frank, was born in Montreal in 1893.3  WWI military records at LAC reveal Frank enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1916.

“Frank Fern” is how he is registered. So, that prized foot-locker was Canadian Army issue. Fern? Is that a typo, or, back in 1916, did Ferdinand sound too German?

Was Uncle Frank, French or German?  Actually, he was something in-between.

I checked the 1891 census to see that Frank’s father, Ferdinand Walter, emigrated to Canada in 1878, a few years after the Franco Prussian war, when Alsace was turned over to the Germans in the Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871. He is listed as “French” and “Catholic.”

I further learned that in 1872 residents of Alsace who wanted to remain French citizens had to make French Citizenship Declarations or automatically become German citizens. These declarations have been digitized and are available on Ancestry with an explanation. Apparently, there were 124 Walters from Alsace who were determined to keep their French citizenship. Five are listed under Francois.

I wonder if most in the Walters clan wanted to remain French.  That would take a lot more research.

In the end, I picked up some interesting European history while I learned a rather boring truth about my still very uncontroversial “French” Uncle Frank Walter – the “W” pronounced like a V.

Sorry if I led you to believe otherwise.

Still, I wonder how my young uncle felt in 1916 going  back ‘home’ to shoot at his cousins. Perhaps it was just business-as-usual. Alsace-Lorraine was been the site of a vicious tug-of-war between Germany and France for generations.

Ferdinand

Ferdinand’s pretty signature on his wedding certificate.

  1. Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery: Locate a deceased person. https://www.cimetierenotredamedesneiges.ca/en/recherche-defunt
  2. Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
  3. Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
  4. Ancestry. ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

margsword

I’m sitting on the fence, myself.

Over a decade ago, I discovered an old trunk of  paper memorabilia once belonging to Nicholson family of Richmond, Quebec, my husband’s mother’s ancestors. It contained 1000 letters, 300 from the pivotal 1908-1913 years.

From these missives, I learned a great deal about these  Canadian- born Scots, whose parents were  Hebridean Scots, cleared from the land in the 1800’s and forced to come to Canada. And, because of a rather weird series of coincidences I learned all about a certain Masonic sword.

One  evening back in 2004, about a  year after I first found the trunkload of letters, I received an email.It was from Matthew Farfan, editor of Townships Heritage WebMagazine.

It seems that a  couple in the Okanagan Valley of BC, we’ll call them the C’s, wanted to get in touch with me.  They had Norman Nicholson’s sword!   Norman is my husband’s great grandfather.

I had very recently posted an article about the Nicholsons on Matthew’s webmag with a big pic of Norman in Mason regalia front and center.  The family papers revealed that old Norman Nicholson was a member in good standing of the Sussex Preceptory No. 9, Knights Templar, Sherbrooke.

I immediately emailed this Mr. C. “How in Heaven do you know it is Norman’s sword?”

He explained.   In the early 60’s, his family had rented the Nicholson home, in Richmond, Quebec,  from  Edith Nicholson, Norman’s daughter.  Somehow,  Norman’s sword had been swept up in the bustle when the family moved out around 1965.

Mr. C had adored that house with its steep basement stairs and wondrous attic filled with fantastical (see : old fashioned) things. Mr C remembers  using the silver sword to ‘terrorize’ his sister.

tighsolas

 Tighsolas, built by Norman  in 1896, the year Sir Wilfrid Laurier came to power for $2,700. 

 

« Phone my wife, » Mr.C  further instructed. « She’ll tell you all about the sword. »

So I did, on the jump, and what a story Mrs. C. related! The sword had been hanging on the BC couple’s wall since the death of her in-laws. Prior to that it had traveled all over North America, as far as California.

In 2004,  Mr. C’s sister visited them. She mentioned, out of the blue, that the silver sword on the wall had a name engraved on it. They checked : the name was ‘Norman Nicholson.

A few months passed. Mrs. C had a sudden impulse to return the heirloom to its rightful owners. (What impeccable timing on her part!)  Her husband’s childhood stampbook provided some clues. Apart from many stamps,  it contained a picture of an old man with handlebar moustache decked out in Masonic garb with said blade at his side, and one envelope addressed to Mrs. Margaret Nicholson, Richmond, Quebec.

Normanregalia

 Norman in full Masonic regalia. This photo was in the stamp book and returned with the sword in 2004.

normanmargregalia

Margaret and Norman on Tighsolas lawn. A photo in the Nicholson photo album

Mrs. C googled ‘Norman Nicholson’, but no luck. There were too many people with that name .  She then he entered “Margaret Nicholson” into the search engine and, presto, she  fell upon the Eastern Townships Heritage website with my story and, plunk in the middle, she saw another picture of Norman in his Masonic regalia.

I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye. Over 50 years ago, in the age of Beatlemania and go go boots, an imaginative little boy living in Richmond, Quebec, plumbed the depths of that Nicholson treasure chest full of letters and memorabilia – the same one I discovered  in 2003 at my in-laws’ – and this little boy snitched some stamps and an envelope for his collection and glued it into a page beside an appealing photograph of a snowy-haired swashbuckler, who was really a down-on-his-luck Eastern Township hemlock bark dealer.

A little later,  he took the very sword the old man in the picture was posing with!

 stanps

(Some Nicholson letters. Many letters in the 1000 envelope stash  had the stamps carefully cut out. I now know where these stamps are!  )

There’s more.

Norman ’s sword arrived at my house  soon after. I showed it to my husband and my sons, Norman’s heirs, then placed it on the mantel.

That very night, as we all watched TV downstairs, we  heard a loud thump in the living room.

We went upstairs to find the Nicholson binder I had put on the coffee table had exploded open. Its cellophane pages were strewn on the floor. Atop the pile was Norman’s death certificate. I kid you not.

It was likely the dog nosing around that caused this to happen, right?  The binder had been filled to bulging with Nicholson documents. Still,  I took no chances. I placed a portrait of Margaret on the mantel beside the Masonic sword.

I like to think that is what Norman was looking for.

 

PS. Although perpetually cash-strapped due to the crash of the hemlock bark industry in the Eastern Townships around 1900, Norman always found the 3 dollars to pay his monthly fees to the Masons.  Norman’s records reveal he paid a hefty initiation fee, too, in 1888. Fifty dollars!

Clearly it was important to be a Mason in the ET. Apparently, the Presbyterian Church frowned up the society, saying Masons were encouraged to keep secrets from their wives. I know because the Nicholsons clipped a bit from a newspaper, likely the Montreal Witness, claiming as much!

In 1912, Margaret and their daughter, Edith, join the Order of the Eastern Star Chapter in Richmond. Edith became the Secretary. This OES was a female version of the Masons.

 

This is an updated version of a story published on the Eastern Townships Heritage Webmagazine in 2005.

A Contrast in Character

DrHenry

Dr. Henry Portrait.

He looks like one of the clan in the snapshot, with a trim athletic body, a handsome, rugged face, full-lips, sturdy chin, prominent brow over deep set eyes. He is confident in his posture as well as a snappy dresser.

He is Dr. Henry Watters of Kingsbury, Quebec and Newton, Massachusetts, first cousin to my husband’s grandmother, Marion Nicholson, the son of her Aunt Christina on her father, Norman’s, side.

That also makes him first cousin to Herbert Nicholson, Marion’s older brother.  And although the two young men resembled each other in build and facial features, they could not have been less alike!

Dr. Henry , by all accounts, was a near-perfect man, a  high-achiever, a man who rose to the top of his profession at the Newton Hospital near Boston, but who remained devoted to family (and that includes his cousins) throughout his life.

Despite his busy vocation, he corresponded with all of his extended family, regularly, with letters than demonstrated uncommon empathy. When writing his youngest cousin, Flora, who apparently had complained of boy troubles in her letter, “I don’t have much experience in these matters, but I can only say, if he doesn’t want you, he isn’t worthy of you.”

Herb, well, what can I say?  As the only son of Norman and Margaret Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec, great things were expected of him. A whopping FIVE dollars was put aside at his birth in 1885 to start a bank account for his future medical career. But, upon graduation from St Francis College in 1905, he went to work as a clerk at the Eastern Townships Bank.

A ladies man and/or a gambler, Herbert immediately got into debt, borrowing money off all of his relations, until, in 1910,  he got into such a desperate situation that he filched 60 dollars from the till at work.

Herbert didn’t go to jail: The Nicholsons were too well connected for that, but even Norman’s patron, E.W. Tobin, the Liberal MP for Richmond, Wolfe, couldn’t help Herbert’s cause.

  Herbert was forced to skulk out West. His already cash-strapped dad had to come up with the huge sum of 500 dollars to help pay his sons debts and travel expenses.

Herbert was a teeny bit ashamed. “Don’t tell anyone where I am,” he wrote to his parents from Saskatchewan, where he was staying with Norman’s former partner in the hemlock bark business.

Out West, Herbert worked in a series of jobs in, yes, banking, then insurance, and then with a the farm equipment company, Massey-Harris.

At one point he devised a scheme to dupe immigrant farmers out of their hard-earned cash.

“I also made a 100 dollars yesterday in the shape of a man’s note due in a year’s time. I sold a threshing outfit that I repossessed from a party that could not pay for it.  For 3300 and as there was only 3000 against the rig to the company; I am 300 dollars to the good.  In doing this I had to divide up with two others who assisted me and knew what I was doing so we get 100 each.  Have to keep these things quiet, of course.”

 

Herbletterhead

Herb’s letterhead from 1911-12 illustrating his roving ways

His other letters home were full of complaints about his workload, the freezing cold weather, etc. – and no shortage of insights into how capitalism works. “You have to already be rich to get rich out here,” he said.

Later, Herbert settled down in ‘real estate’ in Vancouver, got married twice to wealthy women, and then moved on to California.  He died in 1967, childless.

Beside his name in the Nicholson family genealogy it says “Successful Banker.” sic.

Dr. Henry ,whose dad, Alexander Watters,  was a Kingsbury, Quebec farmer, never married.  Henry employed his younger sisters, Christina then Anna, as his housekeeper in his comfortable clapboard Colonial in Newton, Massachusetts.

Henry may not have been a ladies man in the usual sense of the word, but he certainly had a way with the young ladies in his family. In the 1910 period, he indulged the Nicholson women no end with trips to Wellesley College in his flashy Stanley Steamer, with sea-bathing at Nantucket, box seats at Red Sox games, theatre plays, and dinners at the posh Windsor Hotel in Montreal, when at home visiting.

His younger sister, May, got new shirtwaist suits and fancy hats from him as gifts on a regular basis. Henry once used his  vacation time to drive his Aunt Margaret up and down the E.T to visit old friends.

And much to his Uncle Norman’s admiration, he paid his own father, Alexander, a trip “home” to the Old Country in 1911. “Not many sons would do that,” wrote an envious Norman to his wife.

Unlike Herbert, who found nothing good to say about any of his employers, the banks, the railway or insurance,  Dr. Henry never complained about work as a doctor and surgeon in his letters to family, even when suffering from a fatal disease at a relatively young age.

From his obituary in the New England Journal of Medicine: “When stricken with what he knew meant the shortening of his days and the limiting of his activities, he carried on cheerfully and uncomplainingly. He was the friend as well as the associate of those  with whom he worked, the friend and the physician of his patients.

Dr. Henry died 1937 and is buried at home, of course, in the clan cemetery in Melbourne, Quebec.  Herbert died in 1967 and is buried somewhere in a Long Beach cemetery. His last visit home to Richmond was in the 1920’s.

Herbnicholson1910

 Herbert Nicholson 1910ish

The information comes from the Nicholson Family letters of the 1910 period. The Watters clan of Kingsbury, Quebec is written down as Waters on the 1911 Canadian Census. Henry had a younger brother, William, who died in 1910. A photo on Ancestry claims this 21 year old William is an MD too. He must have been a recently graduated one, or still a student.

I have a short obit cut out left by the Nicholsons. It says the family is shocked at William’s death in Montreal, but nothing  else. A man could catch a cold and die in a day in those days, but this very short obit suggests something else more nefarious.

Below: 1911 census showing Herbert Nicholson living in a boarding house in Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan, with two recent immigrants, one from Germany, one of Scotland (a bartender, no less) and a female (!!!) stenographer. His temperance-minded parents would have passed out, had they known. 

 

quappelle

*This post was originally published on Writing Montreal, my blog.

“Piccole Donne” and Why We Write Family Stories

margMcleod

Margaret McLeod Nicholson, born 1853 in Richmond, Quebec. During the US Civil War she, too, would have been a ‘little woman.’

 

The first novel I ever read was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  I was ten or eleven years old.  I didn’t read the book in school. My mother bought it for me along with a number of Deluxe Junior Classics published by the Doubleday Company.

I can remember the look of the book: grey with a yellow spine and sketches of the four March girls in blue ink embossed on the cover. I can remember the feel of the book: the pages thick and slightly hairy, typical of Book-of-the-Month Club editions. I can remember the smell of the book: inky and acidy. It was a new book, after all. And I especially recall the thrill of opening the book, which I understood was my rite of passage into the brave new world of grown-up reading.

I loved Little Women. It changed my life as great books often do, but I can’t say the plot stayed with me. It was only recently, when I decided to learn Italian by listening to ‘easier’ audio books, that I became re-acquainted with Louisa May Alcott’s American classic. Over and over again, I listened to each delightful chapter, first in English, then in French, then in Italian. “Piccole Donne”. Superbo in any language.

It is understood that Louisa May Alcott used her own Massachusetts family as a model for Little Women, a work of fiction.  Authors often lean on real-life characters for inspiration. Who wants to read about unrealistic characters?

1967

Me at 11 with Mickey Finn, the Jr. Deluxe Big Red and very badly cut bangs courtesy of my mom.

The authors at Genealogy Ensemble are publishing a book of authentic short stories about their ancestors, Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble. These stories, many of which saw first light on this blog, will soon be available in a glossy hold-in-your-hands hardcopy format.

Beads in a Necklace also includes personal essays by the nine authors, explaining how each of us was inspired to begin the long, difficult and rewarding journey of writing down our family stories.

Claire Lindell was surfing the Net, way back in its early days, when she came upon an article about her father, a pioneer in the Canadian mining industry.

Barb Angus was inspired by missed opportunities and a book called The Wolfe Pack by a McGill University author, Dr. Mildred Burns.

Lucy Anglin lost her mother very early in life and feels that her stories help honour her memory.

Janice Hamilton grew up with oil paintings of her ancestors on the walls around her.

Tracey Arial first wrote about genealogy for a classroom exercise; not a great experience, but one she looks back on with amusement.

Marian Bulford immigrated to Canada from Great Britain in 1978, but it’s her English sea-side roots that move her to write.

Mary Sutherland was inspired by her father once saying, “Find your way home,” and by some fine family heirlooms.

Sandra McHugh was inspired by her ‘two solitudes’ marriage and her Greek husband’s very different kind of family.

I myself got my start when I found 300 family letters from the 1910 period that had belonged to my husband’s ancestors from Richmond, Quebec.  I read them out loud to a good friend who said, “Ick. They sound so old-fashioned.”

But I saw something else in these letters. I saw the story of a strong matriarch and her very spirited young daughters, who had known much better financial times but were making the best it.

I saw women who were on their own, in their fine house in the good part of town, because their men-folk were far away.

I saw proud, independent women who sometimes relied on the kindness of a well-off, gentlemanly neighbour to drive them to the post office or to shovel out their walk in winter.

It was the plot of Little Women, but with characters from real-life closely related to my husband and my very own children! How could I possibly resist that?

 

Beads in a Necklace: family stories from Genealogy Ensemble will be launched in mid-November. A limited number of hard copies will be available for purchase, locally. 

Check back with http://www.genealogyensemble.com to find out how to buy one of these rare first editions.  An e-book  version will be available at launch, as well, with print-on-demand capability by Christmas.

 

pagefromCanadthenandnow

The chapter on the Laurier Era from Canada Then and Now, my fifth grade history textbook. I read this, too, back in the day, but I was not impressed.  This was a typical textbook, filled with sturdy but dull prose and employing a narrative style devoid of colour and controversy. This chapter, about a most pivotal time in history, made no mention of suffragettes and restless young women in harem pants.  In fact, there are only two women in the entire textbook: Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance, worthy women, no question, but only two? Beads in a Necklace showcases many of our worthy women ancestors. It’s terrific social history.

Heatwaves and Victory Gardens

 

socialnotespotato

On Sunday, October 1, 2017, some members of Genealogy Ensemble will be participating in the Culture Days event at the Verdun Farmer’s Market, in promotion of Beads in a Necklace, our  book of family stories to be published in November.   My talk will focus on WWI Victory Gardens and the rising cost of living during that period.

The newspaper clipping, above, is from the social notes column of the Richmond-Times Guardian, (Richmond, Quebec) circa 1905. The very silly item about a big potato is probably my husband’s grandfather’s way of poking fun at small town pretentions.  Or is it?

The Nicholson family’s vast vegetable garden behind their charming red-brick house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec was no joke to them, not even in an era when pre-prepared foods like Heinz Beans, Jello, and Quaker Oats, were fast becoming house-hold names.*(1)

In 1911, with their four children were grown up, the large backyard garden that produced corn, beets, sweet peas, etc., was critical to the diet of this frugal Scottish Canadian family.

The potato patch was a particular concern:

“I put the Paris Green on the potatoes twice. Mrs. Montgomery came over to tell me that the bugs were eating up my potatoes. I was waiting to get someone to do it for me, as that was one thing I never attempted.

“But when she interfered thought we would try it. So one dark night, Flora (daughter) got the lantern and we went out when the bugs were asleep and gave them their dose. We dressed ourselves in the shed. You ought to have seen us. When we got through left our clothes there. Went to bed and dreamed all night that the bugs were crawling over us.”

So writes Margaret Mcleod Nicholson, in a July, 9, 1911 to husband Norman, who was away in Northern Ontario working as a railway inspector.

You have to admire Margaret’s style. Although her letters were often penned in haste and full of household concerns, ‘the local news’  as in gossip, and much high anxiety over finances, she certainly could paint a word picture when she wanted to.*(2)

In the spring of 1911, it was 57 year old Margaret’s job to care for the garden because her two older girls, Edith and Marion, were away teaching in Montreal, and her youngest, Flora, was very busy studying for final exams. Margaret and Flora were living alone for most of the year.

Although her daughters returned to Richmond for the summer, they came and went as they pleased, often in motorcars owned by wealthier neighbours. *(3)

Norman, in his letters home,  warned his wife not to work too hard out in the backyard, especially in hot weather, and the summer  of 1911, as it happens, was very, very hot.*(4)

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An ‘old-fashioned’ carriage in front of Tighsolas, the Nicholson home, circa 1910. A hire. The Nicholsons couldn’t afford to keep a carriage, let alone buy an automobile, like so many of their neighbours.

The same  letter continues:

“We have had dreadful hot weather. Just fancy, one night we slept out on the veranda. Took our mattresses down. The Skinners (other neighbours) were sleeping in theirs so that we were not afraid and we had Flossie (the dalmatian) with us but yesterday afternoon it rained so last night was cool.

We all had a good sleep and today is fine. We feel like working. I hope you did not have this extreme heat. We had quite a cold wave about the 24th but no frost.”

This sounds like typical Quebec  weather, doesn’t it?  So up and down.  It’s not easy cultivating a garden in this province. It takes perseverance.

Six years later, in the spring of 1917, most everyone in the west end of the city of Montreal was out on the street digging their wartime Victory Gardens.*(5)

Marion Nicholson, now a mother and homemaker living on York Street in lower Westmount, describes the scene in a letter home to Mom:

“Every vacant lot around the city has been utilized for gardens and I think it is more common to see people out digging and planting in these gardens than in a small town like Richmond. Some I think are making their first attempt.”

Her small family is no exception.  “Hugh (husband) and Willie (cousin) are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing for sure, the beds are straight (her underline) and square. I myself would prefer more in them.”

Marion (who is six months pregnant) then describes how she has hardly slept all week while tending her very sick toddler. She begs her mom to send as many crates of eggs as she can on the next train.

It certainly was an era of high-anxiety about food, nutrition  – and so many other things.

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Margaret’s 1917 butter bill. Inflation. The price of butter goes up from 30 to 40 cents from September to October.* (6)

Still, Marion closes her letter to her Mom by praising her comfort food:  “So, now to get a taste of your home-made bread. When I eat it, I close my eyes and I feel as if I were home. Thank you for all the good things you sent.”

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Edith, young Margaret, and Marion, far right, in summer of 1918 in an orchard in Richmond, possibly behind the Nicholson home as they had apple trees. (The newborn is in other pics.) This was the year of the Spanish Flu. It was safer in the countryside. Marion stayed an entire month in Richmond, until her husband, Hugh, begged her to come home in a letter. “The ice in the icebox has melted all over the floor, there’s no food in the house, the windows are kept open and it’s hot as Hades in here. Please come home and take care of me!” He was in the care of his sisters-in-law, who had better things to do in wartime Montreal  than to baby their brother-in-law. Edith, a Sun Life employee, volunteered in Soldiers’ Aid for the YMCA and for the Navy League.

  • 1. Most of the famous food brands of the 20th century got their start in 1900-1910 by advertising in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with happy-family lifestyle ads with bigger graphics and fewer printed promises. “Pure” was the adjective of the day.

It was understood, even back then, that the home was evolving from a center of production to a center of consumption. Margaret, born in 1853, made everything from scratch, on a woodstove, with recipes she kept firmly locked in her head; Marion Nicholson, born 1886, would cook on a gas stove relying on her Fanny Farmer Cookbook; her daughter, also Marion, born 1917,  living in middle class comfort in 1950’s suburbia, would feed her brood nothing but canned vegetables, even canned potatoes, which she warmed on an electric stove.

  • 2. Norman was tickled by an anecdote from a November, 1909 letter, where Margaret vividly describes a back-and-forth argument she has had with a male relation over woman suffrage. The relation invokes St. Paul as was the custom. She replies “St. Paul has been dead for a long time. I don’t live in those days, milking cows and making fires.” Norman, who is active in local politics, replies in support of his wife: “Too absurd to think that a woman cannot exercise her franchise with as much intelligence as some of the male sex. And when you have to drag some of these supposedly intelligent men to the polls as you would cattle.”
  • 3. Margaret disliked motor cars. From 1909. “Mr. Montgomery is selling his horse and buying a car. Don’t you think he is foolish?” But, she was happy to go on drives when invited.
  • 5.  http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/victory-gardens. Apparently, Victory Gardens weren’t only a way to add to the food supply; they were about improving morale on the home-front by making people feel useful.

 

  • 6. A Chicago Agency sent a very fancy direct mail advertisement out to Richmond homemakers in 1916 on behalf of a new product called Crisco Shortening asking, “Do you like the taste of fresh buns in the morning? Try Crisco.” A coupon was attached.

 

Border Raiding Ruffians

Border Raider and Reivers Public Domain

  Border Reivers: They were often romanticized in art.*

 

Growing up in Montreal in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I was often asked, “Are you related to HIM?”  They were referring to Richard Nixon, President of the United States from 1969 to 1974, also a Vice-President from 1953 to ’61.  To this I would reply an emphatic “No! I’m English.  He’s Irish.” I always wanted to add, “Do you ask everyone named Johnson if they are related to Lyndon?”

My father was the one who insisted we were not related to Richard Nixon. Dick was an Irish Nixon, Daddy said. Our Nixons were English. My father also told me, with a sly self-effacing wink, that our Nixons were sheep stealers.  It all sounded a bit cockeyed to me.

Today, 50 years on, I am engaged in working out my genealogy. I’ve had my DNA tested at Ancestry and I’m growing a tree. It seems that my dad was right on two points, about the sheep and, possibly, about Richard Nixon’s Irishness, but not about our family’s relationship to the late American President.

We probably do come from the same ancient stock.

I’ve just learned the Nixons of Northern England are descended from Border Reivers, families from the lawless, burnt out Scottish/English border regions of the British Isles  (Cumberland and Northumberland) who raided other people’s livestock for a living. If you are a Nixon, Forster, Graham, Armstrong, Bell, Eliot, Armstrong, Robson, Crozier, Kerr, and yes, Johnson, you might be descended from these 13th to 17th century outlaws.  Apparently, the Nixon Administration was full of them.

As it happens, I am both a Nixon and a Forster.  An alleged ancestor of mine, illustrious Border Reiver Sir John Forster of Northumberland, was knighted for his service to Queen Elizabeth I in 1557. Sir John was lucky to be on the winning side of two key battles. His castle was in a strategic location on the “middle march” section of the border, so, apparently, he enriched himself with his share of the spoils from all local cattle raids, in England and Scotland.

The Nixon Clan has an even sketchier reputation. According to some accounts, they were “rude borderers” from Carlisle, Cumberland, who held no allegiances (except to the Armstrong Clan) and felt at home on either side of the border.  They were real baddies who were exiled to Ireland and, then, kicked right back to England. Many in the clan were hanged for their transgressions at Carlisle Castle.

That is likely where my father got the idea that Richard Nixon was an Irish Nixon.  I suspect my great grandfather, Robert Nixon ( 1863-1937), a sawmill worker in Helmsley, Yorkshire in the 1920’s, filled his young grandson’s head with many a grand, romantic tale of their burly, bearded ancestors, skilled light horsemen on  fleet-footed stallions, engaging in strategic, daring cattle raids on the Scottish border.

It appears that these Border Reiver families can be described as reckless ruffians on horseback and/or heroic defenders of the monarchy; scoundrels or heroes; charming rascals or organized crime. It’s only point of view.

Just don’t blame these people for their wild way of life.  In the 13th to 17th centuries, the area around the English/Scottish border was ravaged by warfare and not suitable for farming. Raiding sheep and cattle was just a way to earn a living. Also, the exact location of the border was disputed.

The BBC paid homage to these Border Reiver families with a TV show in 1968 called “The Borderers,” featuring a young and handsome Michael Gambon. The adventure series never came to North America, but I have found it on YouTube. If the BBC series had come to Canada back in 1968, when I was 13, I doubt it would have appealed to me any more than any other small screen horse opera.

But my father would have been mightily impressed.

* Illustration at top from book  Border Raids and Reivers, Robert Borland. Available on Archive.org and in the public domain.

 

Here’s  Sir John Forster’s Wikipedia page.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forster_(soldier)

You can read more about the Border Reivers on the Historic UK website, where I got some of my info.

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Border-Reivers/

Read about their connection with the Nixon Adminstration here.

http://articles.latimes.com/1996-02-11/news/mn-34692_1_border-reivers

How to Bring a Voice to Your Personal Essay

Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent.  Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.

Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.

Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers.  Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.

Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”

It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.

What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art.  The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent.  Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.

The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because   readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.

Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:

  1. Are you using your own unique voice?
  2. Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
  3. Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
  4. Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
  5. Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?

The Dowry

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Maria Roy Crepeau and three daughters and a granddaughter in front of 72 Sherbrooke West in 1926 or so.

In the Edwardian Age, an ambitious young man, however resourceful, usually needed a solid financial foundation to kick-start his career.  If he didn’t have family money, he had to marry well. Take my grandfather, Jules Crépeau, (1873-1938). The son of a mere house painter, he rose up in 30 years from Messenger Boy in the Health Department to Director of City Services, the top civil servant at Montreal City Hall.

Jules didn’t have the advantage of a superior education; indeed, he completed his regular studies at night. He did have a workaholic nature, an affable disposition, a memory like a steel trap,*1 as well as a connection to the powerful French Canadian industrialists, the Forgets.

New information I found on the Internet reveals that the make-or-break-point for young Jules was in 1901, the year of his marriage. Back then, Jules was making only $600 a year, not a terrible salary for a single man, but certainly not enough to get married on.*2 So, Jules, like so many others, had to choose his wife very carefully.

My grandmother, Maria Roy, the daughter of a master butcher, brought a huge $40,000 dowry to their 1901 marriage, so I’m told. The next year, Jules had a house built for them on Amherst, near Ontario Street, and by a noted architect, at that.*3 Maria’s money!

Lovell’s Directory shows that in 1905 the Crépeau family moved to a tony stretch of St. Hubert Street.  Jules is listed as Head Clerk.  City Hall.   In 1918, they moved to St. Denis Street, just a few doors down from J. A. Brodeur, “Montreal’s Napoleon,” and Head of the Executive Committee. My grandfather was, by then, Second Assistant City Clerk, with a salary of $2,500 -$3,500.

 

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Crépeaus around 1918. My mother wasn’t born yet. Doesn’t Jules, center, look stressed?

In 1921, Jules was promoted to the newly-minted post of Director of City Services*4, almost tripling his salary to $8,000, and soon thereafter, to $10,000. In 1922, his family moved to a three storey greystone at 72 Sherbrooke West.

It’s during this period, the Roarin’ Twenties, that my grandmother, Maria, finally started earning dividends on her dowry, taking  shopping trips to New York City to stock up on bourgeois bric-a-brac like marble urns, porcelain statuary, and art nouveau lamps; a complement to the whole roomful of ‘gifts’ the family received from various community groups, especially at Christmas. Jules and Maria needed a good supply of breakables. Family legend has it that the crockery flew over the stairs throughout their tumultuous 37 year marriage.

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Aunt Flo posing in front of some Crépeau bric-a-brac on Harvard in the late 1940’s. The marble bust of three children actually ended up in my mother’s possession, gracing our upper duplex apartment in the 1960’s, but rather out of place among the melamine furnishings and artwork from Woolworth’s. Today, I own the orange art nouveau-deco Le Verre Francais “Amourettes” vase at top right.

In 1931, Jules Crépeau was forced to resign by the new populist Mayor Camillien Houde, but not before negotiating a huge life pension of $8,000 a year. But, soon,  my grandfather, who had no hands-on business experience, lost all of his savings with bad investments.*5  In 1937, Jules also lost his pension when Montreal City Hall passed an emergency bill to abolish it as a cost-saving measure. *6

Just two weeks later, Grandpapa was hit by a car driven by a plain clothes city policeman. He died the next year from complications. Jules probably threatened someone with a long reach.

Living out her life in the final family home on Harvard in Notre Dame de Grace, Jules’ wife, Maria Roy Crépeau (1879-1951) never complained about her situation as an impoverished widow, and this despite the fact her fat dowry financed the first years of the choppy Crépeau-Roy merger. Still, I suspect her story wasn’t at all unique, especially in the Depression Era.

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Rue Jules Crépeau, Ahunsic, Montreal. Designated in the 1980’s. Funny story. In the late 80’s, when my husband and I were buying our first computer, the ONLY place in Montreal we knew that sold them was in  Ahunsic, where we seldom ventured. We got lost and stumbled upon this road and park. I had to find a phone booth to phone my mother to tell her that a street had been named after her father. Serendipity or what? Jules’ nemesis, Camillien Houde, has the huge road winding through the mountain named after him.

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  1. Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to publish a long obit of my grandfather, in 1938, saying that Jules was the go-to guy for any information about how City Hall ran. Affable is their term.
  2. The 1911 census shows that a $600 a year salary was average/above average for a family. Many era workers were ‘day workers’ with unsteady employment, but, even that $600 salary was not enough for the big families of the era to live on. Terry Copp, the sociologist who wrote An Anatomy of Poverty,claims that $1500. was the minimum salary for a family to live in dignity in Montreal in 1910.  In the Edwardian Era, in England and elsewhere, a working class couple might start out in good shape, with a decent salary for a small family, but as more and more kids came, the family fell into poverty.  Such might have been Jules’ fate, save for this huge dowry.
  3. Louis Zephirin Gauthier specialized in churches. His partner was a Monsieur Roy, so maybe he was a relation. Back then few Montrealers owned their own home, in the 20 percent range. Since 1899, male renters could vote in the municipal elections; women had to be single and own their home to vote. Montreal has long been known as a city of renters, but, just lately, this appears to be changing.
  4. The post of Director of City Services was created in 1921 after much deliberation and input from citizens to ensure an equitable distribution of money among the city districts. The post was a liaison between the seven city departments and the Executive Committee. Newspaper accounts of the time reveal that my Grandfather’s office did everything from organizing events for the visiting Royal Princes to being on the City Clean-Up Committee, to testifying in Quebec with respect to Private Bills. When someone had a beef at City Hall, they wrote to his office. My grandfather was the first to testify at the inquiry in to the fatal Laurier Palace Fire, in January 1927, which was ironic, as I suspect  the fire may have been started by organized crime to get at him. (Just my theory, though.)
  5. Jules’ brother, Isadore, Insurance broker and VP Of United Theatre Amusements, the company that erected many of the famous 1920 era movie houses in Montreal, ‘fell’ out of his 7th floor office while waving for his chauffeur in 1933.
  6. Kristian Gravenor, journalist at Coolopolis.blogspot.ca http://coolopolis.blogspot.ca/2017/01/ndg-coincidence-undercover-cop-slams.html wrote a bit about Jules and dug out the info about the cancellation of his pension.

An Ingenue, a Diary and the Goddess of Love

 

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Young Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Virginia. Daughter of Elizabeth Hardy, who was  sister to Mary ‘Pinky’ Hardy, United States General Douglas MacArthur’s mother.

As a schoolgirl back in the 1960’s before Expo 67 opened in Montreal, the only works of art I would have recognized were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.  I would have seen them, you see, on TV caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste or gloves, or on sophisticated Saturday morning cartoons like the Bugs Bunny Show.

Today, when I think of the Venus de Milo, I think of my husband’s Great Aunt  Elizabeth.

In 1910 Elizabeth Hardy Fair,a single society girl from Warrenton, Virginia, USA, was visiting the Continent for the first time. She was in her mid twenties.

The aging ingénue kept a written record in diary form and I have  it.  This European diary reveals that she started her trip in London (hated it, too gloomy) and then went on to Paris,  (loved it, so pretty).

Sorry to say, that’s about as deep as she gets.

Still, Elizabeth penned this one rather intriguing phrase from a visit to the Louvre:  “Saw Gaylord Clarke coming out of the Venus de Milo Room. Second time we have met since abroad.”

Now, if this were a scene from an E.M. Forster novel, and Miss Elizabeth Fair were a luminous young woman of head-strong character, this  ‘chance meeting’ at the Louvre would have been, no doubt, a significant turning point in the trajectory of  Miss Elizabeth’s life.

Just think of it.  In 1910, women such as Elizabeth covered themselves, neck to toes,  in starchy shirtwaists and princess skirts.

Now  contemplate  the Venus de Milo with her sumptuous drapery dipping below the upper curve of her perfect buttocks, and  then figure what it must have felt to be  a young man coming out of the Venus de Milo room  in that era–before the age of California beach volleyball. And then imagine what an opportune moment it was for the very eligible Miss Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Warrenton, Virginia.

As it is, this Mr. Clarke left for England the next day. End of their story.

Elizabeth soon returned to Warrenton, still very much single. Eight years later she would travel to Montreal (to visit her older sister, Mae) and find a husband in the form of one Frank Tofield,  banker.

She would live out her life in the posh Linton apartments on Sherbrooke Street West in ‘uptown’ Montreal, impressing her great nephews and nieces at every Sunday dinner with the button on­­­ the floor under the dining room table that she used to summon the staff with her foot.

Now, as someone who likes to write about ancestors, I like to think that everyone who ever lived is worthy of at least one book, or at least a good short story, but my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth may be an exception.

Elizabeth and Frank had no children and all she left behind  to her nephew is a tattered scrapbook with a few yellowed clippings like this one from a 1904 St. Louis Social Notes page: .

Miss Elizabeth Fair of Warrenton VA is the guest of Dr. and Mrs. John O’Fallon and is a beautiful girl who has been a great deal feted and admired around St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair!

The year before, in  1903, she attended her soon-to-be famous first cousin, Douglas MacArthur’s, West Point graduation.  She glued the dance card into her scrapbook. Mae had the first dance, a waltz; she had the third, a gavotte.

And then there’s this diary, this pedestrian record of her 1910 European experience visiting  all the usual landmarks, Hyde Park, Les Champs Elysees  and Le Bon Marche where she bought handkerchiefs and gloves. It is a diary exposing no wicked sense of humour, sharing no penetrating insights, and including not even one memorable phrase like, say,   “I shall return.”

Well, she did mention seeing suffragettes on the march in London.

Oh, she does pencil in this candid opinion on Da Vinci’s most famous work.

Went to the Louvre in the morning. Pictures most interesting. Mona Lisa was carefully inspected but it does not appeal to me in the least. After lunch, shopped and then drove through Parc Mont Claire. This park is lovely, abloom with flowers, statuary and strollers galore. Great place for lovers and babies… So, no surprise, in 1910, Elizabeth, had love and babies on the mind.

I wonder what was wrong, then, with this mysterious Mr. Clarke?  If things had gone well, it might have been a very good thing for one Frank Tofield. Family legend has it the well-to-do couple argued incessantly over the decades over her spendthrift ways.

(I found Frank’s signed Bible and it was filled with dozens of brittle, faded four leaf clovers.)

So, no book about Great Aunt Elizabeth Hardy Fair, by all definitions a most ordinary Southern Belle and first cousin to a genuine history-book legend. No short story either.

Just this short blog post.

The End.

Below: Elizabeth at her wedding: lavish tastes

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