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May Frances Aufderheide was one of two siblings born into a somewhat musical family in Indianapolis, Indiana, to John Henry Aufderheide, a capable violinist who chose a career in banking, and Lucy M. (Deel) Aufderheide. Some sources report varying years of birth, but the 1900 census is fairly specific with an 1888 date, which aligns fairly well with the ages given in 1920 and 1930. John's sister May Kolmer was a talented pianist who had played public concerts with the Indianapolis Symphony, later teaching at the Metropolitan School of Music.
May Frances took classical piano lessons from her aunt while in her teens, but always felt a lure to ragtime and popular music. Her father remained somewhat dedicated to music, even while running his growing small loan business. With some of his profits was became a patron of musical arts in Indianapolis. It was likely when she was attending Pelham Manor finishing school in the east that she set some rags down to paper. When she returned around early 1908 May was determined to have one of her pieces published.
With the help of a young itinerant Indianapolis sign painter named Cecil Duane Crabb, who drew a cover and arranged the printing, and one of his friends, future composer Paul Pratt who did the musical arrangement and engraving, Dusty Rag was released. Crabb did not have the capability of distributing the piece beyond the boundaries of urban Indianapolis, and while May was touring Europe (as all refined girls from well-to-do families must), Dusty Rag was initially gathering dust in local music stores.
Upon May's return from Europe in 1908 she married young architect Thomas Millikan Kaufman on March 25, and they settled to the eastern part of the state in Richmond, Indiana, by year's end. Her musical desire must have been compounded when her cousin Frieda Aufderheide had The Flyer Rag published. May's father saw that she was determined to write, and spurred on in part by her ability to publish a rag on her own and by growing sales of Dusty Rag, he formed J.H. Aufderheide & Company to publish her works, perhaps also as a wedding present. John bought the Dusty Rag copyright and reissued it under his label along with her Richmond Rag, named for her new locale.
Hiring Paul Pratt to manage the enterprise, John's company was successful enough to garner column space in the American Musician and Art Journal in the summer of 1909. He also placed a large ad in the journal with a picture of May, informing the readers to "keep your eye (and ears)" on her. It touted May Frances as a composer with a future, noted her two pieces that were currently in demand, and told of two more that were sure to be hits. They were Buzzer Rag and The Thriller, the latter which would become her best known work.
The Kaufmans were honored by May’s parents at an extravagant society reception held in Indianapolis on January 14, 1910, so Thomas was certainly a welcome addition to the family. The 1910 census taken in Indianapolis had John listed as a loan broker, and Rudolph working as a clerk in his father’s Commonwealth Loan office. Over in Richmond, Thomas was listed as an architect, and May had no occupation shown.
The Aufderheide company published other works not only by Paul Pratt, but two of May's acquaintances, Gladys Yelvington and Julia Lee Niebergall. May and her husband moved back to Indianapolis in 1911 or 1912 1912 in part because of his inability to retain work in the architecture field, and to live in a place where he had better income prospects. It was during that time that she finished her last published piano rag, Novelty Rag. The only issue from the Aufderheide company in 1912 was a song version of Dusty Rag which did not fare well. It also marked the end of May’s composing career.
Thomas Kaufman, who had not measured up as an architect either in Richmond or Indianapolis, eventually ended up reluctantly working for John in the banking business as a broker around 1916. His marriage to May reportedly remained strained in spite of abundant financial security. His 1918 draft record showed Thomas working in land and investments. In the 1920 enumeration May is shown as having no occupation, not even teaching music, while Thomas was shown as a broker of stocks and bonds. In 1922 the couple adopted a daughter, Lucy Kaufmann.
The 1930 census showed Thomas to be an investment broker during a difficult time for that occupation. By that time May was reportedly not even playing the piano at home anymore. The family was living in the same place in Washington, Indiana, as of the 1940 enumeration, with Thomas now the Vice President of Commonwealth. In 1941, following John Aufderheide’s death, Thomas became the chairman of the board of directors for Commonwealth. The family eventually moved to Pasadena, California around 1947. In the mid-1950s Mrs. Kaufman became wheelchair bound due to arthritis and other issues, and remained so until her death.
Lucy passed on in the late 1950s, followed by Thomas, who died in December of 1960 in Pasadena. May remained there another 12 years until her death, but was also the victim of several strokes in the interim. She died on the cusp of the ragtime revival that would bring many of her works and her story to a new audience, thanks to musicians such as Max Morath and John Edward Hasse. To this day, May Aufderheide's rags remain among the most popular of those composed by women during the ragtime era.
Edythe Baker lived both a charmed and cursed life in some ways, and is sadly not all that well remembered except by dedicated fans of Broadway and player piano roll history. While there are a few biographies available on her - actually they appear to have sprung from one central source - there are a few points that could be called into question and a few that are missing. In addition, given the information the author found on her early years, it is understandable how she may not have wanted to talk about them. This entry will hopefully fill in some gaps, but there are still a few questions it cannot answer.
Among those questions is a precise date of birth. While August 3, 1895 has been the accepted date, again, from a central source, there are many good reasons to call this into question. From the time this lovely young girl made it to New York City in 1919, she was clear that her birth year was around 1900. census records from 1900, which were taken before August, do not turn up anything definitive for her or her family. Edythe Baker appears to also have somehow evaded the 1920 census, and not living in the United States when the 1930 enumeration was completed. Therefore, no Federal Government record pinpointing her year of birth appears to exist. The best record is from three different ship's passenger lists from 1934, 1945 and 1958, in which the date from her U.S. Passport read August 25, 1899. Therefore August 3, as widely reported, is incorrect, and August 25 her actual date of birth, even if 1899 is not the year. Given additional information explained below, August 25, 1899 will be accepted and promoted as her most likely date of birth.
The name is also of question. Edythe is a very uncommon spelling, outnumbered more than tenfold by Edith, but it appears to have been fully changed over once she started to win fame in New York City. The commonly reported middle name Ruth has been hard to find, but on a marriage certificate she used a middle initial of A. The explanation and source of most of these anomalies was made clear by researcher Nora Hulse who provided the author with an obituary for an E. Ruth Baker, who just happened to be a musician and copyist. However, she was born and raised in Michigan, and later in Illinois. Her presence in the 1930 Federal census clearly differentiates her from the Edythe Baker who is the topic of his essay, and it was her information that appears to have been erroneously applied to the piano roll artist for many years.
Edith was born in Girard, Kansas to laborer Asa Baker and his young wife Gertrude. She had one brother, Cecil, born in late 1900. By 1905 Asa and Gertrude had divorced and Asa was remarried to Sophronia A. King. It was Sophronia's second marriage, having been widowed by Martin W. King a couple of years prior, and she was around 22 years older than her Asa. In the 1905 Kansas census and a 1906 city directory the Bakers were seen living in Gas, Kansas, a few miles from Iola. By the time of the 1910 enumeration, Sophronia had died. Asa and Cecil were boarding in a home in Humboldt, Kansas, just south of Iola. Edith, now as Edythe, was living with her mother Gertrude and her new husband Paul McDonald, in a Kansas City boarding house Asa and Cecil were still in Humboldt in 1915 for the Kansas census, and Asa had remarried once again.
In a University of Missouri book on The Enchanted Years of the Stage (2007) concerning performers from Kansas City, the following passage not only reinforces the 1900 year of birth, but the probability that her original name was Edith:
[Theater entrepreneur] Joe Donegan was a large man of remarkable generosity, always concerned for the well-being of his performers. When the African American boxing champion Jack Johnson performed at the Century in February 1912, Johnson and his white wife could not stay as registered guests in the hotel proper, so Donegan put them up in Butler's old suite with a view of the stage. In 1915 Donegan hired a fifteen-year-old girl who needed to support her mother [or relative] and brother [Cecil may have joined her]. The girl, Edith Baker, had no musical training, but learned some piano fundamentals from Ernie Burnett, a performer who reportedly composed "Melancholy Baby" at the piano in the Edward cabaret. Miss Baker worked hard at learning to play the piano, including regular visits to the Orpheum to observe the styles of various pianists there. She developed her own "peculiar style" and became a favorite among the cabaret regulars. After a year or so she got a booking on a small-time circuit and eventually landed in Brooklyn. Her "eccentric" playing catapulted her to attention when she substituted for a pianist who was ill. Soon she was on the Orpheum circuit...
While that is the short story to her rise to fame, there is more information that questions this oversimplification of her training. From the age of eight through at least fourteen Edythe received an education at St. Mary's Convent in Independence, Missouri. She received at least some rudimentary musical training there in both piano and voice. Later articles said she was "classically trained," but to what extent is hard to confirm. The first newspaper report of her appeared in the Music Trade Review of September 11, 1915, and counters the previously quoted text to some extent:
Miss Edith Baker, the latest entrant into the piano business in Kansas City, is now employed with the Nowlin Music Co. and has become very expert in the handling of customers in the talking machine department as well as in the piano department. Miss Baker is an accomplished musician.
Whether she was fifteen, or more likely in her late teens at this time, Edythe (still spelled Edith) had caught the performing bug. With a friend she ventured to Chicago, Illinois, to obtain a theatrical engagement of some kind, playing the piano while her friend sang. This did not pan out as planned. In early 1918 Edythe went out on the road with a local vaudeville troupe associated with the B.F. Keith organization, and eventually worked her way back east to New York City in late 1918 or early 1919. It was there that she reportedly substituted for an ill pianist, was heard, and immediately hired to stay in New York.
One of the first acts she became involved with in New York was "Two Girls and a Piano" with small-time singer Corrine Harris, produced by Lew Leslie. They were seen in vaudeville advertisements from April through July 1919, and by this time Miss Baker's name was spelled Edythe, either a decision of hers or Leslie's. Later in the year Edythe teamed with singer Nellye De Onsonne on the Orpheum circuit, as noted in the New York Clipper on November 26, 1919:
Programmed as "A Bundle of Blues," Nellye De Onsonne and Edythe Baker, the former singing and the latter playing, came on in the second spot and scored a hit which proved that this girl team is one that any theatre will be glad to receive. Miss De Onsonne's delivery and singing of "blues," easily places her far up in the ranks of this type of singer. And when it comes to playing the piano, Miss Baker, who, by the way, wrote the music and lyrics of the act. can make a jazz band look sick.
Edythe's reputation as a pianist grew exponentially in both the press and the inner circles of the music industry. Several piano rolls showed up under the Wilcox & White label in late 1919, likely the result of just two or three contracted sessions, and possibly in cooperation with Aeolian as some of those performances also appear in their line. Before the fall was out Miss Baker had secured a job playing for the larger Aeolian Company, which also employed rising star George Gershwin, cutting rolls for their Universal and Mel-O-Dee labels. In advertising from December, 1919, Universal touted Baker as "the foremost ragtime pianiste of vaudeville," saying that "Miss Baker's conception of the various kind of 'Blues' so much in vogue at present is considered the most unique of its kind. Her playing is both snappy and artistic, while her charming personality is apparent in everything she interprets." One of those early rolls was of her own composition, I'll Be True to the Girl of My Dreams.
The beginning of the 1920s would be the breakout time for Edythe. The Universal releases started hitting the market, including two more of her own compositions, Dreaming Blues (turned into a song the following year) and the iconic Blooie-Blooie, a late ragtime novelty tune. She was then nabbed by comic performer Harry Fox for his stage show, which also received some press, this from the New York Clipper of February 4, 1920:
...Harry Fox has taken unto himself a female company of six and is back in vaudeville with a new act. The billing of the act is "Harry Fox, with five fascinating beauties, and Edythe Baker..."
Edythe Baker formerly appeared with Nellye De Onsonne, and, in this act, accompanies Fox at the piano, and also renders a few solos. That Fox thinks her work makes her worthy of a more than "and company" billing is evidenced by the fact that the act is billed "and Edythe Baker."
Fox starts the act with some comedy patter in which some stage hands figure. He also tells of his wife, one of the Dolly Sisters, and shows a big picture of the twins, but forgot to tell the audience which one is his wife. In telling about his wife, he states that she has given him permission to work with Edythe Baker and then goes into a glowing eulogy of Miss Baker's talents.
His first number was "Hello Broadway," with Miss Baker at the piano. This was followed by "If All The Girls Were Good Little Girls" and "Profiteering Blues." Miss Baker then did a piano solo so well that she almost stopped the show, and took an encore, which again brought her a big hand. She is a wizard with the ivories.
For the next several years most of Edythe's recordings would appear on the Mel-O-Dee label, with a few selections played for Aeolian's Duo-Art reproducing piano rolls. Aeolian touted her playing of the "bluest of blues," and made it known in no uncertain terms that "Miss Baker is a jazz pianist of unusual ability and with Mr. Fox exhibits her talents to the fullest extent." As early as February 1920 she had recorded Yellow Dog Blues, Joe Turner Blues, St. Louis Blues, and performer Al Jolson's signature song of the moment, You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet. All this was magic to the music press who frequently made the most of her Cinderella story, including this example from the New York Herald of March 21, 1920:
Pianist Wins Her Way in Vaudeville
Miss Edythe Baker, a pretty pianist, who is featured in Harry Fox's new vaudeville act. will play the piano at the Royal Theatre this week. Nineteen years old, she came from Kansas City, Mo., a few months ago alone and without a friend in New York, seeking a career as a concert pianist. A volunteer act got her a hearing and this got her a contract to make piano [rolls] for two years. Since signing the contract she has composed and recorded two numbers and has undertaken a vaudeville engagement in New York.
Just ten days later it was announced the Edythe was leaving Harry Fox (who was starting a new show anyhow) and the vaudeville stage to work on other musical specialties of her own. One of her first assignments was a promotional tour for Aeolian along with her peers, as noted in the Music Trade Review of April 10, 1920:
Frank Banta, Edythe Baker and Harry Akst Now Appearing Professionally in Various Cities-Will Call on Melodee Roll Dealers
Several of the popular and exclusive Melodee roll artists are at resent touring the country with vaudeville acts or regular productions, a fact that should prove of much interest to dealers in the sections to be visited... Edythe Baker has left vaudeville and joined the cast of "What's in a Name?" now playing in Kansas City, which company is now on a tour of the Middle West.
Even though it was probably nice to go home flush with success, the tour did not last long, and Edythe was on to much bigger things by May. Columnist and press agent Walter Kingsley was impressed by the girl, and arranged an audition for her with theatrical entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld. She was allowed one piano number in his Midnight Frolic, an after-the-show cabaret staged at the rooftop restaurant of the New Amsterdam Theater. If he was impressed she would guarantee her a salary for two weeks. Both Edythe and Walter invited several friends to her public audition, and the ringers helped urge the overall audience to a fever pitch that was “epoch-making.” However, the next day it was revealed that Ziegfeld had not been able to attend, and would she like to try again that evening. Given the cost of attending such a show, she could not urge her cheering section to return, but did sufficiently well enough to impress the boss.
As reported in the press in late May, she was signed by Ziegfeld to play for the Midnight Frolic of 1920. She soon became one of the highlights of 42nd Street, as noted in the Music Trade Review of July 10, 1920:
Edythe Baker, the popular vaudeville pianist and exclusive Melodee roll artist, is one of the bright features of the Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic atop the New Amsterdam Theatre. Her act is entitled "Ten Fingers of Syncopation," and her playing makes it difficult for members of the audience to keep their feet still. The artist is using a Steck baby grand piano furnished by the Aeolian Co.,
Before long, a white grand piano would become one of Edythe's stage trademarks, as if her unusual playing style wasn't enough. In addition to the 1920 edition, Ziegfeld extended Baker's contract to cover the Winter 1921 edition of the Nine O'Clock Frolic as well as the Midnight Frolic. During this time she continued making rolls for Aeolian. After making a number of special appearances during 1921, Edythe was tapped for Broadway the following year. Her striking beauty, petite size, red hair and piano skills made her a natural for the stage, and it was found out that she was a capable dancer as well.
The first production she was in was The Blushing Bride, which had a relatively good run from February through June of 1922. After another few months of recording, touring, and special performances, Edythe was put back on stage in 1923 in The Dancing Girl, as both a pianist and dancer. A reference to this musical as well as a review of one of her personal appearances was printed in the trade magazine Presto on July 28, 1923:
In Anticipation of Entertaining Number Club Members Flocked to I. A. C.
Under the guidance of Edythe Baker of the "Dancing Girl," now playing at the Colonial, the members were enabled to have a little intimate conversation with the piano. Miss Baker did more than make the piano talk. She made it converse. She proved a wonder at it. No wonder she is the hit of the piece at the Colonial.
Mr. Henry picked a big number and a big attendance showed appreciation to Miss Baker not only for coming to entertain, but also for what she is doing for the good of the business in her entertaining piano act.
Edythe's rolls were getting good press from Aeolian/Mel-O-Dee, and sold briskly once her fame had been cemented. In 1924 she applied her bluesy touch to pieces like Twelfth Street Rag and a derivative compostion called the Twelfth Street Blues, in addition to Hard-Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah) and the soon to be popular Don't Bring Lulu. She also made it back to the stage, this time in Innocent Eyes which ran through the spring and summer of 1924.
In early 1925 Baker was tapped for an important role in a new Al Jolson comedy, Big Boy. Jolson had been doing mostly revues for a while, so a return to a plot-driven musical comedy, with Jolson as a horse jockey wearing blackface throughout, made the news, as did Edythe's performances playing a female lead. The New York Times of January 8, 1925, was not unkind to the starlet, noting that "The moments in which [Jolson] is not on the stage were probably brief, but they seemed extremely long and terrifically unimportant. Something was done to lighten them, however, by a lissome and dainty young woman named Edythe Baker, who danced with airy grace and played the piano with skill." Baker's name is associated with two different characters during the two runs, so she may have had either multiple or shifting roles.
Following the initial run of Big Boy Edythe turned to the cabarets of New York exploiting both her dancing and playing talents. She teamed with William Reardon, a former partner of fox trot pioneer Irene Castle, and they played at Club Lido for several months, with Edythe also providing piano interludes. This was followed by a second run of Big Boy in the late summer of 1925, with some adjustments made to the score. It was overall a bit more successful than the first round.
Edythe also had done some of her most advanced work yet in 1925. Now mostly recording Duo-Art reproducing rolls, she excelled in performances of Yes Sir! That's My Baby and the Richard Rodgers composition Manhattan. He association with Rodgers would eventually take her to the next stage of her life. However, she would first take her act on the road again, this time in yet another musical, noted in the Music Trade Review of January 23, 1926:
Edythe Baker, one of Broadway's favorite pianists, whose Duo-Art music rolls have large sale, has quit Al Jolson's Company now that it goes on the road and is the featured player in "Hello, Lola," opening this week in New York. The new musical play is based on Booth Tarkington's comedy, "Seventeen." Edythe Baker, with George Gershwin, author of the score of "Tip Toes"; Phil Ohman, Freddy Rich, Wilbert Robertson, Frank Milne, are the favorite pianists of Broadway who record exclusively for the Duo-Art. The production received fine notices from the New York critics upon its premiere.
After Hello Lola closed due to audience apathy in spite of the reviews, many members of that group sailed for Europe on April 30. For Edythe, this would be the trip that launched a new lifetime. She instantly took London society by storm, and was noticed by some important people, including producer Charles B. Cochran and Richard Rodgers. They had been working on a new musical play, One Damn Thing After Another, and had some issues with casting and other elements to bring spark to it.
After making her way through England and Europe for several months, Edythe was tapped to perform in this new play staged at the London Palladium. The production included the Rodgers and Hart song My Heart Stood Still, which was introduced by newcomer Jessie Matthews and her stage beau, Richard Dohnen. The piece was reprised in the second act by Edythe at her white baby-grand, and became the clear hit of the show. She also interpreted Rodgers and Hart's I Need Some Cooling Off, and Cole Porter's Play Us a Tune. There was also a new song by Bud G. De Sylva, Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, who had been feeding Al Jolson a number of hits. Birth of the Blues became a hit in its own right, and became one of her most asked for interpretations.
Rodgers had high regard for Edythe, and mentioned her very kindly in his autobiography, noting her unusual novelty style of performance. Her role in My Heart Stood Still brought enough attention to the piece that Flo Ziegfeld wanted it for his latest Follies. The writers and producer, however, held out for more, and it was interpolated into the U.S. production of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where it again became a hit. It didn't hurt that the production was staged by newcomer Busby Berkeley, who would make his fame in movie musicals within a few years.
Having now left Aeolian, and the United States, Edythe ventured into the sound recording field as well, recording her hits from One Damn Thing After Another for Columbia Records in England in July and September. It would be a few years until anything else made it to disc, as Edythe was a bit busy in the romance department.
The attractive redhead obviously had her pick of beaus from around the world, but eventually settled for one in England. Gerard John Regis Leo, Baron d'Erlanger (sometimes seen as D'Erlanger), nicknamed “Pops,” was the son of a major British banker, so fairly well off, and evidently quite a ladies' man as well. The news of their pending nuptials first hit the wires in late September 1927:
LONDON, Sept. 24 - Edythe Baker, American actress who made a great success in the Cochran revue, "One Dam [sic] Thing After Another," has become engaged to Gerard D'Erlanger, son of Baron D'Erlanger, according to the Evening News. It is understood the wedding will take place next week.
D'Erlanger, who is the scion of a famous banking family, is tall, dark and handsome. Miss Baker, who is fair and petite, has been a great social as well as a stage success in London.
However, it was more than a week before they would wed. Rather than go through a big wedding that would likely be stalked by he press, the couple chose to do a civil ceremony followed by a reception, as reported in the American papers the day after the event on January 3, 1928:
LONDON, Jan. 2 - The marriage of Edythe Baker, young American revue star, to Gerard d'Erlanger, son of Baron d'Erlanger and member of a famous family of bankers, took place today at the London Registers' office. Miss Baker became a social favorite in London after her appearance on the stage here. The bridegroom is 21 and the bride 27. After a honeymoon in Monte Carlo the couple will reside in London. The bride has announced her intention of giving up her stage career.
While Edythe would not appear on the stage in public again, she was not through with her career, which was simply on hold. With Gerard she traveled the world from time to time. The couple was seen on a few passenger lists, including one returning from Durban, South Africa, in September, 1930. However, she did not give up her playing, and in late 1931 went back to the recording studios, this time for Decca, where she started on a series of 16 sides that are still regarded as fine performances of otherwise average pieces. Mrs. d'Erlanger was successful in maintaining her social status and that of her husband's while playing jazz at some functions as well as the recordings. Her last session was in February 1933, the height of the Great Depression, and little more would be heard from the fingers of Edythe Baker d'Erlanger.
Trouble had been brewing at home as both Edythe and Gerard - more Gerard according to some reports - had been stepping out from time to time. The childless couple finally divorced in 1934. He soon remarried, but she remained at large. Among those she was often seen with, and commented on in the press, was Edward, Prince of Wales and his younger brother George, the Duke of Kent. The speculation raged in January 1936 when Edward was finally crowned King Edward VIII, still a single man. According to the United Press:
Friendly with many Attractive Americans.
May Marry Whom He Chooses of the Protestant Faith.
There is hardly a marriageable princess in Europe whose name has not been linked with the new King as a possible bride. Throughout his life he has enjoyed the friendship of many charming women. First, there was Mrs. Dudley Ward, one of the earliest acquaintances, with whom he is still on the friendliest of terms. Then Miss Edythe Baker, the American musician, was another. She leads the list of many attractive Americans who have enjoyed the monarch's confidence. Miss Baker was followed by Thelma, Countess Furness, sister of Gloria Vanderbilt, and up until recently, Mrs. Wallis Simpson was another American often seen in King Edward's company.
Mrs. Simpson ultimately won out, but even if Edythe had been the choice, the result would have been same as both she and Mrs. Simpson had ended relationships in divorce; twice for Wallis. It appears that King Edward was destined to abdicate the throne in either case, as it was the noble thing to do to keep the peace among his British subjects who wanted no such scandal accompanying their monarch. He became the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson the Duchess. But there was still another chance for a royal family association for Mrs. d'Erlanger.
Edythe's relationship with the Duke of Kent, Edward's younger brother George (their brother Albert, the Duke of York, succeeded Edward to the throne as King George VI) was still in play in the press. It had evidently been active since before her divorce from Gerard, and was based on a common love they both had. As reported by the UP in snippets from stories published in early 1937:
Re-hashing stories of the visit of the Duke, accompanied by Mrs. William Allen, to a phrenologist, the News Review article recalls members of the "Duke of Kent's set" at the time he was Prince George. The set included the America Edythe Baker, pianist, who married Gerard d'Erlanger, son of the banker, Baron d'Erlanger.
"With Edythe Baker Prince George had one great taste, a common expertness on the piano which she played professionally before her marriage into banking..."
When the Duke was Prince George, he is said to have moved about in the same "Bohemian" set that his older brother frequented. Both Mrs. Allen and Miss Baker, the former Kansas City girl, were his companions for many a gay evening. King Edward is reported to have felt a closer bond between himself and Kent than between himself and either of his other brothers.
Both Mrs. Allen and Miss Baker are beautiful women who have moved in London's highest social set for years. Mrs. Allen as the former Paul Gellibrand, was England's loveliest, best known mannequin. She was called "Britain's most painted" woman and her photographs and portraits appeared in advertisements in all parts of the British Empire.
Edythe Baker, a stage pianist, is reported by the "Review" to be even dearer in the Duke's affections than Mrs. Allen, largely because she and the Duke have a "great common interest," - piano playing. Miss Baker was born in Kansas City, married the son of Baron D'Erlanger, one of Britain's most important bankers, and now is divorced.
The pianist and some companions took a trip to Trinidad in the spring of 1938 on the Simon Bolivar. After that, by 1939 virtually all mentions of Edythe disappeared from the press, and she had settled to a quiet life in London. She was listed in directories from 1936 through 1944 with the same phone number throughout, MAYfair 5852, at two different addresses. In August 1945, just at the end of World War II, Edythe sailed back to New York on the George H. Pendleton, and evidently resettled in the United States, likely in New York City for a while. She made another trip to England in 1958 aboard the United States, and now at nearly 59 years, listed herself as retired.
Little is known about Edythe past that point. According to a 1971 article in the AMICA newsletter, member Bob Pye had corresponded with her through a mutual friend in England. However, it later appeared unlikely to him that she was still living there, and had possibly resettled in Southern California. As it turns out, she had married Maine native Girard S. Brewer in Orange, California, on December 2, 1961. The couple resided there through the time of Edythe’s death, which was noted under both her maiden and married names.
Even before the AMICA article had been published in October, on August 15, 1971, just short of her 72nd birthday, Edythe A. Baker, the piano ingénue from humble beginnings in Kansas and Missouri who rubbed shoulders with famous composers, producers and royalty, passed on in obscurity in Orange, California. Girard Brewer survived her until October of 1978. Fortunately through the efforts of dedicated piano roll collectors, record restorers and AMICA members, she is not totally forgotten. Hopefully this particular record will bring the lovely Ms. Baker the recognition she deserves for her unique style of piano playing and her overall presence in the world of music.
Most of the information on Edythe Baker, including the newly confirmed dates and places of origin and death, was researched by the author through public records and countless newspapers on two continents, as well as periodicals and a few remembrances, the autobiography of composer Richard Rodgers being of some use in this regard. Thanks as always to historian Nora Hulse who provided the author with some of her original research that explained the mistaken identity, and her initial verification of the data that is presented here for the first time.
Charlotte M. Blake was born in Franklin County, Ohio, to Edward C. Blake and Caroline P. Graves, both natives of the state, within a year of the couple's marriage. She was the oldest of six siblings, including Harry F. (8/1887), Marguerite L. (3/1891), Fennimore C. (4/1893), Benajmin S. (5/1895), Laura J. (9/1898) and Martha J. (1903). Marguerite did not survive to adulthood. The family appears in the June 1900 census in Grove City Village, a suburb of Jackson, Ohio, located near Columbus. Edward was listed as a "commercial traveler." However, they had moved to Michigan, where Martha was born, by 1903.
Charlotte started her professional musical career in 1903 at age 18, working initially as a clerk, then later as a staff writer, arranger and music demonstrator for for Whitney Warner Publishing in Detroit, Michigan, which would soon be folded into the firm of publishing giant Jerome H. Remick. She turned out to be a fairly prolific composer for the publisher turning out a reported 35 titles, many of them marches and waltzes. This was done initially without recognition of her gender to the general public. Even Detroit city directories of that time show Charlotte's occupation as merely "clerk" or "pianist."
Early acknowledgments in publicity, trade magazines, and on sheet music covers, although generous in their prominence, listed her as C. Blake until she was 21. It was then that her full name was revealed on her music and in ad copy from Remick that read as follows:
“Dainty Dames” Novelette: This beautiful, little, dainty semi-classic by Charlotte Blake stands out prominently with the very best class of leaders and is played continuously. It is called a Novelette and certainly is novel in every sense of the word, and exceedingly melodious. Especially adapted for Theatre and Concert work and is a most catchy Schottische.
A typical announcement from 1907 read: "Jerome H. Remick & Co., music publishers, are exploiting a new march two-step, "Curly," written by Miss Charlotte Blake. The piece has just come off the press." However, also that same year, the Chicago Tribune gave Charlotte and other female composers their due in an article printed on November 17, 1907, but it was also highly indicative of the contemporary roles and expectations of the sexes in general:
Woman has invaded another field in which man thought he was supreme. She has become a writer of popular songs and instrumental numbers, and many of the most tuneful and affecting ditties of the day are written by women...
Miss Charlotte Blake of Detroit, Mich., although she has been writing popular music for only a short time, has established a reputation that most any of the men song writers might envy. She unquestionably is the most prolific and versatile of the many women composers. "Dainty Dames," a novelette for the piano, is undoubtedly her best number. "My Lady Laughter" and "The Last Kiss," both waltzes, are in demand. Her latest number is a "rag," entitled "Curly." Two songs from Miss Blake's pen which bid fair to be successes are "Could You Read My Heart" and "I Wonder If It's You."...
Although the women may have just as much talent as the men, it is not to be expected that their songs and music numbers ever will become as genuinely popular as are those of the men. The men have this advantage: For the purpose of "plugging" (a term used by the profession for popularizing) their new creations, they can go where they please, when they please, and stay out as late as they please without shattering any of the traditions of propriety. The women, however, cannot do this.
Imagine a woman song writer standing at a stage door until she can converse with some masculine performer and impress upon him that she has the one song that will "make his act." Imagine her running around until 1 o'clock or later in the morning leaving orchestrations of her latest with the orchestra and piano players of the good, bad, and indifferent cafés.
She can't do it, and it isn't expected of her. These are but two of the many things she can't do to "push" her song. Of course her work is placed ultimately where it will do the most good, but it isn't given the close attention the men can pay to their own screeds.
Despite these handicaps, however, the writings of women song makers are growing more popular with each succeeding year, and it is only a question of a little while when their work will stand on an equally sound footing with the ditties of the men.
In spite of the alleged handicaps that her gender reportedly served her, and her obvious talent at composing songs and waltzes, Charlotte showed a propensity for syncopated ragtime as well. She composed her two most famous rags, Gravel Rag and That Poker Rag, in 1908 and 1909 respectively. In the 1910 census Blake is listed as a music composer, but still residing with her family in Detroit City. Her father was now in the wholesale fur trade as E.C. Blake & Company, "Dealers in Raw and Dressed Furs."
Around 1911 Blake wrote her last rag, followed by a series of songs and waltzes over the next several years. That Tired Rag elicited the following review in the American Musician and Art Journal:
With "rags" in general we are at enmity, and we pour out the vials of our wrath on the ragger who invented rag. But seeing that “rags” are on the market we must acknowledge them. As a sample of the peculiar king, Charlotte Blake’s "That Tired Rag" is as good as any of them.
One of her best sellers was the romantic song The Harbor of Love. Published music by Blake ceased nearly altogether by 1916, when she had evidently retired from composing. One more song reportedly appeared in 1919, although it is hard to verify Honey, When It’s Money. Her mother Caroline, now widowed, had moved to Buffalo, NY, to live with Charlotte's sister Laura by the time of the 1920 enumeration, but was back in Detroit before 1930. She and Charlotte shared an apartment in that city at a couple of locations between 1930 and 1932.
Most sources with any information on Charlotte cite that she was never married, but there is a probability that she had a short marriage to a bank teller several years younger than herself. Charles H. Wainman lived in Detroit, although he was born across the river in Canada, but little else is known of him. Charlotte cannot be readily located in the 1920 census under either name, but her status in 1930 shows her as recently divorced and living with her mother, and her last name as Wainman. She soon took back her maiden name. Caroline died in the early 1930s, and before 1935 (assuming she gave the 1940 enumerator the correct information) Charlotte had relocated to Hollywood, California. She was found there for the 1940 census, divorced, and living in an apartment at 1736 North Orange Drive just north of Hollywood Blvd with no occupation listed. The California voter records for 1940, 1942 and 1944 generically listed her as a housewife.
Likely beginning after America entered World War II, Charlotte worked for some 20 years at Douglas Aircraft Corporation as a clerk. Remaining in Hollywood until at least the 1950s, she eventually relocated west to nearby Santa Monica. After retirement Charlotte remained in Santa Monica until her death in 1979 at age 94, and her status on the death certificate also indicates that she was divorced, most likely the same event from the late 1920s.
Charlotte Blake's rags demonstrate a direct and studied approach to composition, making certain that the pieces fit together, and they show inherent cleverness and a sense of humor as well. That Poker Rag and That Tired Rag in particular demonstrate her talents with both melody and cohesive continuity. She also wrote many songs while in the employ of Remick, though they have been mostly forgotten. Charlotte was mostly forgotten until the mid 1970s when performer Max Morath recorded his legendary The Ragtime Women album, giving That Poker Rag new exposure, and revealing to the ragtime revival consumers the talents of many women composers like Ms. Blake. In the 21st century select works of hers are performed often at festivals an on recordings.
Henriette Blanke is not one of the prominent figures of ragtime composition by any stretch, focusing largely on waltzes and mood pieces during her decade-long career. However, her presence as a woman composer in the ragtime era and the considerable sales of her works cannot be ignored, thus her inclusion in this set of biographies. Also, recent searches by the author have uncovered a lot more information about her than was previously known, which helps to fill in her overall story a bit better.
Henriette Blanke was born in Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas was claimed in the 1900 census), to Romanian immigrant Max Blanke (sometimes misspelled as Blank) and his New York native wife Dora. They had married when Dora was 17 to Max's 25, and the pair lived briefly in Humboldt, Nebraska where Max worked in a restaurant. Although it appears that her given name was Henriette, which was also used for copyrights and some other documents, it was interchangeable with Henrietta, sometimes seen in directories, sheet music or advertising. The Blankes moved to Kansas City by late 1881, and Henriette was born soon after, followed by her younger sister Lena Helen (6/1884). The family was in Nebraska when their daughter Pearl (3/1888) was born, but still listed in Kansas City in 1889, where Max was working as a manager for a trust company. The Blanke's last child, Celia (3/22/1891), was born in Chicago, Illinois. The family subsequently moved again to Detroit, Michigan, where Max died in the late 1890s.
Henriette had obviously received both public school and private training in music. Most girls of that time period received training in piano or some other instrument, usually stringed, so with a houseful of girls there was possibly a houseful of music. By age 17 she had secured a job with Whitney-Warner, at that time one of the larger Detroit music publishing houses. Continuing to receive training in composition, harmony and theory after her regular work hours, it was said she quickly worked her way to "a responsible position," likely as either a pianist and music demonstrator or as an arranger. For the 1900 census taken in Detroit, Dora was shown a widow living with her four daughters, and Henriette was listed as a musician, the only one in the household with an occupation.
In 1901, dairy farm magnate and banker Jerome H. Remick decided to get into the music publishing business, and one of his first acquisitions was Whitney Warner and all of its assets. The management then made a call for new compositions for the catalog, and Miss Blanke answered the request by composing Lazarre: Waltzes. It hit the shelves running and the first printing, presumably of 2000 to 5000 copies, sold out in less than two weeks, requiring a second run. There were more reprints in its future as Lazarre was one of the more popular waltzes in the Remick catalog over the next decade. It also launched Henriette's career as a composer.
The following year saw at least three entries from Henriette, who was in the beginning billed (as many women were) as the non-gender specific H.B. Blanke. Two were similarly successful waltzes - a classic form considered by some to be a respectable alternative to the still new ragtime music. The third, Cubanola, was a Spanish serenade, showing that Henriette was in touch with current trends and tastes as well. She also continued to work in the main Detroit office of Remick as the owner was starting to branch out to New York City. In 1903 more waltzes were forthcoming, but so were her first songs, penned with lyricist James O'Dea. One of them, My Wigwam Queen, was a result of the recent trend toward "Indian-themed" pieces which was started by one of Remick's primary managers, Charles N. Daniels, with his 1901 composition Hiawatha.
The year 1905 would prove to be a banner one for Henriette, whose name on music covers was now sometimes used interchangeably with the perhaps more poetic Henrietta. In addition to another hit, Hearts' Haven Waltzes, and increased sales of the popular Colleen - An Irish Love Song from 1903, she had another social hit when she got married. Miss Blanke had previously caught the attention of one of Frederick E. Belcher, Remick's New York manager and Vice President of the publishing firm. The Providence, Rhode Island native was already married, showing in the 1900 census living with his wife and daughter, both named Emma, and listed as a dealer in music. In the next four years he had improved his position considerably, but his home life became a casualty.
A few months after his divorce, 35-year-old Fred Belcher married Henrietta just before her 23rd birthday in an extravagant affair held at the Russell House in Detroit. It was attended by many top names in the growing music publishing business. Advance notice of the event appeared in The Music Trade Review of February 11, 1905:
On St. Valentine's day Fred Belcher, manager of the New York house of Jerome H. Remick & Co., will be united in marriage to Miss Henrietta Blanke, a writer on the staff of the Detroit headquarters for several years, several of her instrumentals achieving no mean fame. Following the wedding the happy couple will visit the leading eastern cities, though Mr. Belcher insists the trip is taken in the ordinary course of business and is not to be a honeymoon jaunt at all. Be this as it may, in retiring from the ranks of bachelordom Mr. Belcher is to be felicitated in winning so charming a bride. During his absence Mr. Remick will come east, after looking over the field in St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago, and take charge.
The now-hyphenated Henrietta Blanke-Belcher relocated to New York to enjoy a life of luxury with her new husband. While Henrietta continued to compose, she also became quickly accustomed to the finer things in life. Her pieces of 1906 and 1907 sold largely because of her name, but seemed to show only moderate effort to some degree. In the mean time, she was making the society page and snippets of trade news as was her husband as a result of their sometimes ostentatious lifestyle. The couple traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe.
Belcher's 1907 passport application (Henrietta's was not located as often wives were admitted on their husband's passport) showed him as a music publisher living at the north end of Central Park West in Manhattan. He reportedly enjoyed driving custom built touring automobiles made in Detroit explicitly for him, and wore such fine European shirts that his wardrobe often overshadowed his wife's, which was similarly replete with fine dresses and fur coats. Henrietta was described by retired hit composer Monroe Rosenfeld as "a prepossessing woman... one of the most beautiful girls in the musical arena." On August 26 of 1906, Henrietta gave birth to her only child, Maxine F. Belcher, who presumably joined her parents on some of their travels with a nanny in tow.
In 1908 Mrs. Blanke-Belcher came fairly close to ragtime with her instrumental The New Barn Dance, and her lovely Marsovia: Waltzes reestablished her role as "America's Waltz Queen," an image that would be pushed by Remick in coming years. She made the news late in the year as the result of a fine sealskin coat Fred had purchased for her Christmas (note that this was a much different time in the world). That evening as the Belchers traveled with publisher Maurice Shapiro and his wife on the subway headed toward the theater district, she crossed her legs and the concealed knife gave her a nasty cut in her left thigh. It was quickly fixed at a hospital, but the evening theater trip was canceled.
The following year Henriette headed for the stage, playing for a time in vaudeville when not traveling, and presumably promoting her own material. This may have included two songs composed in 1909 with Bartley C. Costello, among them the considerable hit Ain't You Coming Out To-Night?. She was often billed as a “pianologist,” performing humorous sketches and observations in between playing her tunes at the piano. In 1910 Henriette had the distinction of writing a song with the still largely unknown Irving Berlin, Telling Lies. That same year brought forth another waltz hit, Maxine: Waltzes, named for and dedicated to her young daughter.
In a profile on women composers of note printed in The San Francisco [California] Sunday Call on November 20, 1910, Blanke talked about her songwriting and collaboration process:
Mrs. Blanke-Belcher writes only the music to her songs, collaborating with some one who suits her with the lyrics. While the words of a popular song may seem unimportant compared with the music, they really help to make the song a success or failure. As one publisher explained it, "the words must have at least one catchy line and be filled with sentiment or gush," as he called it, "to make it take with the popular song singing public."
Mrs. Blanke-Belcher writes the score of her song first and then has the words fitted to it. She is very critical with her collaborator and often changes so that her songs are rather more varied in sentiment than those of many of the other writers. Her best known one is "Love Dreams." She has a flattering reputation as the composer of "Lazarre Waltzes" and the "Enchantress Waltes," this rhythmic dance measure being her favorite both for songs and instrumental compositions.
At least one of Henriette's works was orchestrated for cinema by Remick arranger J. Bodewalt Lampe, and was titled Polaire, likely in honor of the French singer and actress Emilie Marie Bouchaud who used Mlle. Polaire as a stage name, and was known for her obscenely tiny waist. Even more hits were forthcoming in 1911, and by 1912 the American Music and Art Journal described Mrs. Blanke-Belcher as "one of the big successes of the Remick staff," in spite of a rather light output compared to many other composers. But in spite of these successes, not all was well on the home front.
The 1910 census showed the Belchers living in high style, with Fred listed as a publisher (of books, but this may be an error), Henrietta as a composer, and a young Hungarian servant in the household as well. However, there are very often difficulties in "show business" marriages, and that of Fred and Henrietta was no exception. They divorced in 1912, an event which barely even got a mention in the news. Almost immediately Henrietta seems to have dropped off the map as there were no more compositions or vaudeville performances forthcoming. As her ex-husband still worked for Remick, this may have had more than just a minor ripple effect on her musical career. Fred Belcher continued in his role with Remick for several years, and was even remarried to a former Ziegfeld Follies girl in May of 1919. He died less than four months later at age 50 of complications from a surgery for appendicitis.
Henrietta did resurface for one composition in 1918 in support of the war effort in Europe, the Loyalty Waltz. Soon after that she remarried to a British immigrant of Russian parentage, Ralph Melson. Ralph was a few months younger than Henrietta, and a successful stockbroker. The 1920 census shows the couple living on Riverside Drive in Manhattan with Maxine, but no occupation listed for Henrietta, who was by now nearly retired from music. One last piece, possibly composed earlier but released to a piano roll in 1922, was Butterfly Waltzes, the only work credited to her as Henriette B. Blanke-Melson.
There had been a bit of a legal battle between Henriette and Fred's widow, Florence Hart, concerning the disposition of his estate and continuation of child support. As Florence's written claim to Fred's estate could not be substantiated, Henriette, considered a creditor to the estate, finally won out after two years court appearances, and managed to collect a few thousand dollars for herself and her daughter. In the interim between 1919 and 1922, Hart had remarried, and subsequently divorced as well.
As of the 1930 census the Melsons had moved and were now living at the Plymouth/Mayflower building located at Central Park West, and could therefore be considered fairly comfortable in spite of the declining financial climate of the city. A year later Ralph was more or less forced into retirement after being expelled from the stock exchange for questionable transactions, similar to insider trading and conflict of interest. Just the same, Henrietta was able to resume the lifestyle in which she had become accustomed, and the couple traveled extensively throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Passenger lists show them on pleasure cruises to and from various ports in Europe, Aruba, the Pacific Coast via the Panama Canal, and even Canada. The last noted travel of Henrietta and Ralph is in 1937 when in their mid fifties they cruised on the Statendam.
According to the 1940 census the Melsons were living at Central Park West, with no occupation listed for either of them. They later retired to the Miami, Florida area where Henrietta passed on at the age of 76. Ralph subsequently returned to Manhattan and died there in October 1967 at age 85.
Even though Henrietta never returned to music, her compositions remained staples in the Remick catalog nearly to the end of its run in 1929. She was one of the exceptions - a woman composer who continued her career even after she was married, although it may have cost her that marriage to some degree (though one must consider that Belcher had already divorced one wife). She was one of the few who managed to keep the waltz as a viable music and dance form in the midst of a flood of syncopated rags and songs, yet managed to remain current to some degree as well.
Thanks to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for information article citations on Henrietta's time in Detroit and some of the details on her marriage to Belcher. The remaining information was researched by the author from numerous public records and assorted articles.
Grace M. Bolen was the oldest of two girls and two boys born in either Joplin or Kansas City, Missouri [there are indicators leading to either location], to James A. Bolen and Frances "Fannie" Mary Carter, who were married in June of 1882, the other siblings being James Griffith (3/20/1886), Frances (7/1891) and Lorraine (9/1892). Two other siblings died very young. Grace’s death certificate cites an 1883 year of birth, but 1884, as cited in the 1900 census and on a passport application, is likely more accurate.
By the early 1890s the Bolens were fairly well off as her father ran Bolen Coal in Kansas City. The family was notable enough that Grace made the social pages in the Kansas City Journal and the Saint Louis Republic as early as age 14, around the time of her first composition submissions, often helping to entertain at parties or similar events. Grace and her mother were even subject to early versions of "who are you wearing" at some reported events.
Her first march, The Fair, was released by noted publisher Carl Hoffman when Grace was only 14, with two more appearing the following year. There may be a relationship to her discovery and the fact that she might possibly have taken piano from one of the piano teachers in the same building as Hoffman, facilitating knowledge of her compositions. The 1900 census showed Grace still at school, so she had not declared herself as a musician or composer, even with compositions in print. Newspaper accounts of the circles Grace ran in clearly indicated that she was being groomed for something different than just a composer of questionably moral music. The family had two domestic servants working for them that year.
It appears that Grace was sent for some schooling abroad. A passport application for April 16, 1900, states that she was a student traveling overseas, and that she would return “within two years.” Where she went is unclear, as there were no indicators in the newspapers. However, she was clearly back by April of 1901 when a party was held in her honor.
Bolen's most famous piece, Smoky Topaz, was published by two former clerks of the Hoffman publishing house in 1901, Charles Daniels (aka Neil Morét) and Albert Russell, who had by then set up shop next door to their former boss. It is a gentle piece that evokes elements of both cakewalks and ragtime, and still frequently played by ragtime artists in the 21st century. When Whitney-Warner bought the Hoffman and Daniels & Russell catalogs in 1903 through Daniels' negotiating the sale of his own Hiawatha, Smoky Topaz was reprinted under the Jerome H. Remick logo. They kept it in their catalog for many years.
As was the case with so many promising women composers, Bolen's work ceased around a year before she was wed. Her first marriage was to William M. Louderman of St. Louis on Wednesday, January 7, 1903. In reports of preparations for the event Grace was called "one of Kansas City's most prominent belles, and is considered a beauty." The union, however, did not last very long and ended in a divorce in late December. Grace got married once again on December 3, 1904, this time to Matthew Charles Smith. While it lasted a little longer, this marriage also failed. Neither of them were readily found in the 1910 enumeration.
On July 5, 1915, Grace married her third husband in Chicago, Illinois. Jay J. Davidson was a Missouri-born lawyer turned newspaper editor who had also been previously married and living in Los Angeles, California. The couple moved to Lafayette, Louisiana before 1917, where Grace gave birth to their daughter Frances Lorraine Davidson that February. His 1918 draft record indicates that Jay was working for the Press Publishing Company of Lafayette. The family is shown in Layfayette in the 1920 census with no profession listed for Grace. They continued to reside there into the early 1930s. Jay passed on at age 57 on April 9, 1932 in Lafayette.
As of the 1940 enumeration Grace was living in Cheneyville, Louisiana, with her daughter Frances and son-in-law Lee Reynolds. No occupation was listed at that time. In the late 1940s Grace moved to Kilgore, Texas with her daughter who had also remarried. Then in 1956 she moved to nearby Longview, Texas. Grace taught piano and voice in both locations. Those who knew her affectionately called her "Mama Grace." Never having married again, she died of pneumonia at the age of 89 just as the second ragtime revival was gaining ground throughout the world.
Thanks to to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for quite a bit of the information on Grace during her Missouri years.
The tale of Miss Billie Brown starts out as one full of incredible promise, but sadly ends with her evident potential cut short by mortality. Yet even after she was gone she managed to have some impact in the world of recorded music, crossing race lines and transcending age and the ages. Some of the mystery of who she really was will be revealed here.
It should first be noted throughout all the research the author has done on over 500 women composers of the ragtime era and beyond that nearly half of them seemed to age less than ten years in at least one or two decades of their life, sometimes as little as a remarkable three years per ten. There are ways to see around this decision of vanity to find their actual age, which makes a difference when discussing when they first started composing. However, in the case of Miss Brown, or perhaps her mother, this exaggeration was not only extreme but started at a markedly early age, perpetuating a myth that has fooled many researchers, including this author. Thanks to some information sent by researcher Nora Hulse, a better accounting of Miss Brown’s overall life can be assembled. Billie and her mother even fooled the State of Missouri, claiming on her death certificate that she was but eighteen and born in 1903, leaving off up to possibly nine years. Now, here is something more like the truth.
Billie was born as Irene Anderson in Arkansas in 1894 (possibly 1895) to a Swedish father and Illinois-born mother. They appear to have given her up for adoption [she could have also been orphaned], perhaps as an infant, to Eureka Springs, Arkansas saloon keeper William B. Brown of Ohio and Anna Welker of Kentucky, a childless couple who had been married since 1886. As of the 1900 enumeration, the family was living in Eureka Springs with William listed as a saloon owner [scribbled in over the word "carpenter" which is crossed out], and Irene was specifically noted as their "adopted daughter" in that record, born in June 1894. Given that earlier census records are typically more accurate, and that the 1900 census specifically had both month and year included, 1894 is the most likely year of birth, far from the 1903 year given on her death certificate.
Little is known of her earliest years, but they likely included some musical exposure owing to the saloon business. As of April 1910 the family was still living in Eureka Springs, and William still owned a saloon, but Irene was now referred to as Willie Anderson, perhaps after her adoptive father. Her age, which should have been 16, was noted as 14, implying an 1895 birth year (the census was taken in April two months before her birthday).
It is clear that the Brown's adopted daughter showed extraordinary musical talent at the piano even before her teens, and Billie either had some public school training or, more likely, some private tutelage for both piano performance and harmony and theory. This was the case for other composers who similarly were in such an environment, where visiting pianists might teach them a thing or two before they left town. Sadly, disharmony entered the household, and Anna appears to have left William, moving to Kansas City with Willie as early as 1911, based on a possible listing found in that year's city directory, and no later than 1913.
Mother and daughter surfaced in 1915 at Libbie Dwyer’s Rooming house on Locust Street on the Missouri side of Kansas City. Anna’s daughter was now referred to as Billie Brown, modifying her first name again and changing her birth last name. Her heart was clearly in music, and she started in the trade at a fairly young age (until recently thought perhaps to be in her early teens), even garnering a mention at age 20 or 21 in the Music Trade Review of October 30, 1915:
DEVELOPING MUSIC BUSINESS.The Owl's Nest Music Shop, operated by Miss Lenore Rudd and Miss Billie Brown, is installing a cabinet for its teachers' musical literature. The young women have been handling the Century Edition, having a complete line, and they have the past week received the McKinley Edition. They are fully equipped for teachers, and also they are building a good reputation for always having everything anybody wants in the sheet music line.
Two Kansas City Women Who Are Doing Well with the Century and McKinley Lines.
Miss Rudd was for several years manager of the sheet music department of the Jones Store Co., and previous to that had been with other sheet music departments. Miss Brown was Miss Rudd's assistant at the Jones Store.
It was implied in that mention that even before this time that Billie had gone to work to help support herself and her mother, as well as nurture her talent. Owl Music, where she spent some years, was actually the small music department of the Owl Drug Store. That same year, as noted in the city directory, she also went to work as a pianist playing for diners at the Finance Cafeteria, which was situated in the basement of the Finance Building in downtown Kansas City.
It was also in 1915 that one of the first two publications with Billie’s name on them appeared. One was a simple set of variations of the increasingly popular Aloha Oe by Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i. The other one was an arrangement of the song Shower of Kisses, which was composed by her mother. It was mentioned in a 1915 publication but copyrighted in 1916. Both were published by the store as the Owl’s Nest Publishing Company, jobbed out as a vanity printing in Kansas City. The cover of Aloha Oe has a picture of what is likely Billie dressed down to look much younger than her probable age of 21 at that time.
No other music has been found from 1916 or 1917. Anna was still living on Locust Street during that period, and in the 1916 city directory she also listed music as her occupation. It appears that Billie was living elsewhere at the time of that listing, further supporting the 1894 birth date. In 1918 both of them were paired up again at 1214 Cherry Street. That year mother and daughter published another piece through the Owl Music Shop, The Star and the Rose. It garnered enough attention that the piece was picked up the following year by composer and publisher Fred Heltman of Cincinnati, Ohio, who enhanced and rearranged the piece with a violin obligato, adding his name to the composer credit, and thus increasing Miss Brown’s credibility at age 25, even though an age closer to 16 or 17 was being claimed. In the 1919 directory both were back at 1009 Locust Street.
Billie appears to have continued to write and play throughout the next couple of years, and had a number of pieces that she reportedly had tried to get published elsewhere, but with little success. Around 1920 when the Owl Music Store went out of business she went to work for J.W. Jenkin’s Sons Music, the largest in Kansas City, Missouri. She appeared as their employee in the 1921 city directory. At some point her employer recognized her obvious writing talent, and in 1921 took on Billie’s Dangerous Blues (Ta De Da Da De Dum), with lyrics by her mother, Anna Welker Brown. The near-immediate success of this publication signaled the start of a career as a composer, and perhaps performer, and garnered Billie nationwide attention in the trade, and across color lines. It was arranged for popular bands, and recorded by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (6/7/1921), black blues singer Mamie Smith (5/20/1921), and black pianist/composer Eubie Blake. The piece quickly went into a second printing, and there was the promise of much more on the way.
Then suddenly it was tragically over in early December, as Billie contracted the deadly disease smallpox and died on December 4. December 24 has been erroneously reported, but the death certificate is clear on the date. It is also clear on a 1903 year of birth, which is part of the reason researchers considered her to be much younger than her actual 26 or 27 years. This was exacerbated by the report of her passing in the Music Trade Review of January 14, 1922:
DEATH OF BILLIE BROWN REGRETTED Youthful Composer a Victim of Smallpox Epidemic in Kansas CityThe composer of "Dangerous Blues" is dead. "It does not seem possible to us here in the office where she came from day to day and brought her cheerfulness and happy heart," said E. G. Ege, manager of the music publishing department of the J. W. Jenkins' Sons Music Co., of Kansas City, "but she is gone."
Billie Brown was scarcely eighteen [sic] years old, and had just entered upon what promised a brilliant career as a composer of popular music. She was identified with the retail store of J. W. Jenkins' Sons Music Co., and demonstrated in the piano department, and had from a child composed little things which she played on occasion. She sent her "Dangerous Blues" to a dozen music publishers, only to have it returned. She came to the Jenkins store and asked for a position of some sort to help her support herself and her mother, and was employed to play the piano. One day she was playing "Dangerous Blues" and Mr. Ege, attracted by its unusual character, stopped and asked her what was the name of the piece. She told him, and the conversation following resulted in the company paying her $100 for the composition.
"Dangerous Blues" was first published in the Spring of 1921 and was an instant success, more than a million copies having been sold. By the first of July the sales had grown to such proportions that the Jenkins firm felt that they were justified in changing the contract with Billie Brown and of paying her a royalty instead. They therefore handed her a check for $500 and told her to write more songs. Two of these will be released in January, one of them, "Lonesome Mama Blues," appearing on the 1st, and the other, "Lullaby Moon," on the 15th. There are some others to follow later which the brilliant little composer had finished before her untimely death last week from smallpox.
True to their word, Jenkins released the other two blues. Lonesome Mama Blues got some traction and was recorded as well. Lullaby Moon was a lovely ballad that demonstrated Billie's versatility as a writer. However, her most outstanding legacy was clearly Dangerous Blues, especially as represented in the recording by black blues singer Bessie Smith who made the piece sound like it was from the pen of a seasoned composer of her own race, not a teen-aged white girl.
In the 1922 Kansas City directory, Anna Brown, now living at 620 E. 9th, listed herself as a music writer. As it was,one other song co-composed with her late daughter was released in 1924. Even though Anna was still around in the early 1930s, William Brown considered himself as widowed in the 1930 census taken in Eureka Springs. This may have been the result of the pain from losing his adopted daughter. Fortunately she has not been lost to history, her one iconic piece is still performed over a century later, keeping the name and memory of Billie Brown alive.
Thanks to historian Nora Hulse for sending along information that helped to make this account of Miss Brown's life much more accurate than previously published. The author has confirmed these findings and augmented them with further research. The contention of Billie being the adopted daughter of the Browns is based on circumstantial evidence and the 1900 census. It is very probable that no official adoption record was filed in rural Arkansas at that time as laws were not uniform and rather lax at that time outside of larger municipalities. However, the recognition of school systems and the government that Irene/Billie was their adopted daughter acts as a proxy to support the intent of adoption as a likely fact. While questions continue to be raised about her actual age, it makes little sense that a 12-year-old would be working in a music store rather than going to school, and less that she had prior experience working for the store manager, and even less that she would warrant a directory listing at an address other than her mother’s. So it is fairly evident that the contention that Billie Brown was 18 when she died is false, likely part of a facade being kept up by Anna Welker and others close to the girl. The author is highly confident of the content of this article relating to Billie Brown and her time line.
Mary E. Brown was a role model for women composers and performers, holding a very important role in rolls, piano rolls, with one of the larger companies. While not a prolific composer in any way, her arrangements of piano rags and popular songs into the 1920s, accompanied by her adept interpretations of classical works, have made her one of the more popular names attached to collectible rolls. Yet little is known of her personal life, as it seems to have been her professional life as well.
Mary was born to bookkeeper Samuel A. Brown and his wife Mary A. Burke in Chicago, Illinois. She had four siblings, Thomas A. (09/1885), Eleanor V. (08/24/1887), Samuel J. (3/26/1890-3/27/1890) and Florence I. (09/27/1891). In the 1900 census the family was shown living in Chicago with four boarders in the home, and the children all attending school.
In 1909 at age 25, Mary was hired by the U.S. Music Company, a prominent Chicago area piano roll producer, as an arranger. Over the next few years, until the advent of "hand-played" piano rolls, Mary proved herself as a very capable roll arranger. This process involved the reinterpretation of printed sheet music into holes in the paper roll that sounded like a performance by one or even two skilled pianists, not just a direct translation of the score. In the 1910 census she was shown to still be living with her retired parents in Chicago. Mary was listed as a musician for a music company, her younger sister Eleanor showing the same vocation. Whether Eleanor was also working for U.S. Music is unclear, but it is possible.
Many of Brown's early popular rolls were released under the gender-neutral attribution of Arranged by M.E. Brown. In the early teens as she became one of the lead arrangers for the company, some rolls and even publicity for them would appear with the name Mae Brown, a concatenation of MAry and E. The creation of manually creating piano roll arrangements was labor intensive and somewhat tedious, so many arrangers only worked a few hours a day or more hours and fewer days, keeping up with their musical activities outside of the piano roll firms. Mary also did so, playing piano or strings with a couple of Chicago orchestras, and working as an organist at "one of the most prominent churches in Chicago," in addition to directing the choir.
Within one to three years (although not likely when she started in 1909 as a later article stated), Mary was made the lead arranger, then the manager of the arranging department for the U.S. Music 88 Note line, and one of the cultivators of talent, bringing other musicians into the firm as needed to cover different performance styles. She had also invested in the company, becoming one of the larger stockholders. By the time of the January, 1920 census she was living with her widowed mother in Chicago, and listed as a musician with U.S. Music Co.
The advent of jazz in the late 1910s combined with improvements in recording markup pianos made it possible for star performers to cut rolls. The fastest growing roll company was QRS Music, who by 1920 had moved from Chicago to New York City to be closer to the major publishers. They were the toughest company to compete against in the 1920s, and would eventually be one of the only ones to survive into and beyond the Great Depression, although not without a lot of internal strife. The other biggest competitor to U.S. Music was Imperial, a label featuring some of the early players of novelty piano, such as Roy Bargy and Charley Straight.
U.S. Music was known more for their arrangements than their stars, although they did acquire a markup piano in mid 1910s that allowed for "live" performances. Mary E. Brown had some star power among buyers of rolls, particularly in Chicago, owing to her sometimes spectacular arrangements. Among them were her medleys, of which her only attributed composition is included. Highbrow Rag [U.S. Music 6486] is a collection of syncopated strains from fairly well known operas, assembled somewhat in the manner that composer Julius Lenzberg did with his rags, but as a performance rather than as sheet music. Mary also assembled a couple of "States Rag" medleys, of which States Rag Medley #8 [U.S. Music 65679F] is the best known. Performer and historian Dick Zimmerman, in his Ragtime Review of September 1973, noted that "She truly made each medley sound like one composition, not just a bunch of tunes tacked together."
Zimmerman had also reprinted an article from an earlier edition of Ragtime Review from 1962 that was very kind to the U.S. Music rolls arranged or "played by" Brown, although there was one glaring but forgivable oversight by the article's author, Russ Cassidy. He claimed that "Nothing is known of Mr. Brown, except that... he had a genius for syncopation and for what might be called melodic line in his fill-ins." Much of the relevant information on Mary, including her gender, had evidently been buried by the decades that had passed after her retirement, since in the 1920s it was a fairly well known fact in the industry that M.E. Brown was actually a female performer. She was also featured in an article in the April 30, 1921 edition of the Music Trade Review:
Some Interesting Facts Concerning "M. E. Brown," Famous Chicago Music Roll Arranger, and Her Work With U. S. Music Co.
One of the most remarkable examples of Miss Brown's arrangements is "Suwanee," [the spelling of the river is nearly correct, but the song was actually "Swanee"] the big Al Jolson hit. In handling this word roll she introduces delicate counter-melodies embodying the theme of Dvorak's "Humoresque" and Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 2." They were worked in so cleverly and unobtrusively that they did not interfere in the least with the singing of the roll, but simply furnished a dainty arabesque accompaniment to the melody of the song itself.
Miss Brown does a great deal of recording herself and subjects her work to the same continual and painstaking revision that she gives the work of others. Few realize how imperfect a roll is when it first comes from the reproducing machine. It has to be marked up, replayed sometimes, a number of times corrected, expurgated and harmonized. "Sometimes, after long experimentation," Miss Brown remarked, "I find it impossible at first to get a roll to suit me. I get so worried over it that I let it lie for a day or so until I get a new vision and can tackle the task of getting it into thorough musical shape from a different viewpoint."
Miss Brown has done a great deal of pioneer work in the music roll field. She laid out the tracker bars for some of the largest orchestrions and electric pianos, and at one time supervised the making of rolls for twenty-four different automatic instruments in addition to turning out over one hundred U. S. player rolls a month.
Some idea of the immense amount of work this remarkable woman has accomplished can be gained from the fact that there is not a single roll issued by the company that does not receive her immediate personal attention and revision and is given her final inspection before the master roll goes to the perforating machine. She is an excellent executive and handles the considerable force under her in a thoroughly tactful manner. She has the prime requisite of being able to impart her enthusiasm to others.
By all appearances, Mary's work was her life, and she apparently never married. She did not take her role at U.S. Music lightly by any means, and was aware that she was the only woman holding such a position in the entire industry. U.S. Music faced increasing competition as QRS started to buy up failing firms, but they still launched a second label of Auto Art rolls in the early 1920s and continued to add to their overall catalog, trying to beat the other companies to the punch when arranging and releasing the latest popular songs. Chicago firms were finding this to be an increasing difficulty as the majority of the publishers released their songs in New York City before distribution to the rest of the country. U.S. Music still worked on their publicity in order to keep sales alive, which included a story on most of the personnel of the company that appeared concurrently in the Music Trade Review and Presto Magazine, the former which is quoted here:
The large catalog of U.S. rolls, the recent addition of the Auto Art roll and the diversity of interpretation have only been possible with the recording personnel, which has at its head Mary E. Brown, the only woman who holds such a position.
Miss Brown is a rare combination of artist and business woman... Her musical work has given her valuable experience. In this capacity her main work consists of locating suitable artists and developing them so that they can conform with the requirements of the organization. Her knowledge of musical composition and arrangement also adds to the value of her work for this department.
In 1926 U.S. Music went the way of many other piano roll companies during the rise of radio and records and the decline of the player piano, and their inventory and masters were sold to QRS in New York. Mary remained in Chicago as a pianist and organist, and evidently arranged a few rolls for the rival Capitol Roll Company of that city, as found in a few listings in Presto and the Music Trade Review of around 1927 and 1928.
As of the 1930 census Mary was living in Maywood, a western suburb of Chicago, in a home with her brother Thomas, nephew William Hagle (the son of her sister Eleanor), and cousin Florence Gibbons. She was working as a theater musician and organist, although that trade was also quickly dying out thanks to the rapidly spreading success of sound films and the deepening Great Depression. Then nothing more was heard of her. Mary E. Brown passed on of an indeterminate cause in 1934 just two months short of her fiftieth birthday.
Some of the basic information on Brown was first uncovered by Richard Zimmerman and Mike Montgomery in the 1970s, with a follow-up by Nora Hulse and Nan Bostick in the early 2000s. The majority of what is presented here was researched by the author in public records, periodicals, newspapers, roll catalogs and other period sources.
Lily Coffee had a short lived writing career, but still provided an important component of Texas ragtime. Her life even warranted a largely unknown TV movie. Not too much information is available on her personal history, but what we've found is contained here, some with the valuable help of researcher Keith Emmons, and most presented here for the first time.
Thanks to collector and researcher Keith Emmons of hulapages.com for some valuable follow up research on Coffee's extended family. The remaining information came from Texas and Federal demographic records as well as period and contemporary newspapers.
Irene Cozad was born on the fourth of July, 1888 in Lineville, south-central Iowa, to Joseph Addison Cozad and Olive Jane Vanderbeck. She was one of nine siblings, including Ralph E. (1878), Neva A. (1/1880), Charles Carleton (3/1/1882), William Carlisle (5/12/1884), Flora G. (5/1886), Dearcie L. (10/1891), Guy Erving (1/29/1894) and Anna H. (3/1896). The Cozads moved just a few miles across the state line to York, Putnam County, Missouri around 1895 or 1896, as Anna was born there. The 1900 census shows the family living in York with Joseph listed as a school teacher, the same occupation he listed in Lineville in the 1880 census.
Ella Hudson Day, born Luella Lucile Hudson in Texas, was a Texas-based composer who was originally raised in Whitney, Hill County (there are two Whitneys in Texas) in between Austin and Fort Worth. Her true birth date is partially unclear, as the 1900 census puts her at February of 1876, which is at variance with the November 1875 date cited more often, including on her death certificate. Ella's parentage is also unclear. In the 1900 census she cites both parents as from Arkansas. In 1910 she claimed they were both Texans. In the 1920 census Ella put down South Carolina and Tennessee as birth states for her father and mother. Finally, in 1930, she changed it to North Carolina and Arkansas. It is evident that these were all just guesses, the correct answer most likely being Tennessee for both.
Much of the timeline and background research presented here, including an invaluable "Who's Who" article from Texas in 1924 that also contained her rare portrait, was sent by Nora Hulse, the champion of women composers of the ragtime era and beyond. Many thanks to Texas music historian Larry Wolz who provided some tidbits of information used here. Also, fan Don Lewis who knew Ms. Day in his youth (back in the Day), and reported on the children's songs. The remaining demographics and information on compositions was uncovered by the author from public records and newspapers.
Geraldine Dobyns was the fifth of seven children born to plantation overseer Henry Clay Dobyns and his bride Nellie Marie Fitzgerald near East Carroll, Lousiana. Her large family included two older brothers, Harry (12/1874) and Thomas T. (9/23/1875), two older sisters, Elizabeth "Lizzie" (1873) and Winifred "Winnie" (1879), and two younger brothers, James Fitzgerald (7/1886) and Leo (9/1888). According to her grandson she was likely born on the Australia Plantation near Milliken's Bend or Madison, Louisiana. Given the birth locations of her siblings, the family had been living in both Louisiana and Texas during the 1880s.
Some of the information presented here on Dobyns up through 1910 was uncovered Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse. Many of the remaining demographics and chronology of the family were researched by the author. Thanks go to Geraldine's grandson Arthur Cullen who confirmed much of the information and added details on the Davis's involvement with FDR and their final resting place.
Ethel May Earnist was long thought to have been a pseudonym for prolific composer and publisher Charles L. Johnson. However, information uncovered in 2006 by Bill Edwards and verified by historian Nora Hulse indicates that she was very real, and the probable composer of Peanuts - A Nutty Rag. Earnist was the only surviving child of three born to Belle La Gourgue and William H. Earnist in Odell, Nebraska. The Earnist family moved to Omaha early in her life, and they were shown living there for the 1900 census.
It appears that Ethel had at least some advanced musical training as a child, including private piano instruction. Even before she was 18 Ethel was listed in the Omaha city directory as a pianist. The 1910 enumeration indicated that William was working as a painter with his own shop, and that Ethel was a staff pianist at an Omaha department store. She was, in fact, working for Bennett's Department Store as a music demonstrator in their sheet music department. A March, 1910 advertisement exclaimed that Ethel Earnest [sic], the "expert pianist," and tenor Carl Moritz were "permanently" located there. The music manager for the store was none other than ragtime composer Theron Catlan Bennett (Saint Louis Tickle), who was possibly related to the owner. An April 2, 1910, advertisement for the store reads as follows:
A fine musical program will be rendered tomorrow by Carl Moritz, the tenor; Miss Ethel Earnest [sic], the pianist; and Theron C. Bennett, Omaha's well known composer. Come and enjoy the splendid music and hear the newest songs. We have the all. The songs you hear today in the New york theaters. There are a score of hits being introduced for the first time.
Given that ragtime was the most popular music form at this time, plus the added presence of publisher and composer Bennett in the same place, it is not only likely that Ethel knew both current popular songs and piano rags, but that she felt inclined to write something as well.
Based on subsequent census records and other indicators, the Earnist family relocated to the Kansas City, Missouri area in mid-1911, likely to the Eastern suburb of Independence. William was shown in 1912 directories in Independence and in many subsequent listings. This would coincide with the publication of Peanuts by Charles L. Johnson's publishing company in the late summer of 1911. Ethel would be just one of a handful of women composers who got a single-shot rag or song published by Johnson. A rare song was published in 1912 as well, but in Ohio by the lyricist, the aformentioned Carl Moritz. My Southern Gal with music by Ethel was entered into copyright on October 30, 1912, by the Moritz Publishing Company of Toledo, Ohio, late in the year.
Ethel was still performing or plugging as of the 1920 census, now listed as working in the music department of a drug store in Kansas City in the employ of what had been a Charles L. Johnson Publishing Company rival, J.W. Jenkins Sons Music. She was also shown as working for them through at least 1923. That year, Ethel was married in Wichita, Kansas, to Ober "Obe" Gentry Hamilton (1/23/1888), who had been a wholesale coffee salesman in the late 1910s and now worked in extermination chemical sales.
The 1930 census indicated that they continued to live in the Kansas City, Missouri area with Ethel's parents, but she is listed as having no occupation at that time (not even as a piano teacher, surprisingly). They were living in the same home in 1940 with Ethel’s widowed mother, with Ober now working as a wholesale drug salesman, and Ethel again with no listed occupation.
Obe died from a heart attack in early 1948 at age 61. Even though Ethel had not worked for many years, her 1957 death certificate listed her as a musician who was last in the employ of Jenkins Music, indicating that she perhaps had a longer career with them than the census records reveal. Given that her siblings died in infancy, and she had no children, there are literally no remaining relatives from which to extract a family history. Ethel (Earnist) Hamilton died at 69 of lung cancer after a brief hospitalization in Kansas City.
Many thanks to Women in Ragtime historian Nora Hulse who provided some of the information here to supplement my research, John Dawson who did some of the Kansas City legacy searches, historian Reginald Pitts who uncovered her death certificate in 2008, and ragtime performer Terry Parrish who was the catalyst for this search, strongly suggesting that Peanuts was clearly not composed by Johnson. Both Nora and Trebor Tichenor who have signed off on the probability of this Ethel being the mystery composer of Peanuts.
Irene Giblin was born to printer Richard Thomas Giblin and his wife Nora E. Reardon in Saint Louis, Missouri. She was the oldest of six children, including Gertrude (1/25/1890), Richard Thomas, Jr. (10/28/1891), Leon F. (11/4/1893), Mary (9/7/1895) and Walter Anthony (12/1/1899). Irene lived much of her life in the Saint Louis area, where the family was shown residing at 1322 13th Street for the 1900 census.
Having been a good piano student showing a natural talent for the instrument in her adolescence, she was first employed as a music demonstrator by composers Eddie Dustin and Charles N. Daniels (aka Neil Morét) at the Grand Leader department store in St. Louis. Irene had known the pair for at least a year before they hired her at the tender but eager age of 14. Irene was hired to play all of the latest hits from the Jerome H. Remick catalog, and her sister Gertrude was part of the deal, further encouraging people to buy Remick wares through sheer charm and guile. Miss Giblin was later moved to the Stix, Baer & Fuller department store, also in St. Louis, when she was right out of high school at age 17. She ended up working continuously for at least five years, missing only a week of work during that entire period.
In her desirable position, playing the piano several hours every day for anyone who wanted to listen to the latest Remick wonders, it was natural for someone of Irene's creativity to also write some of her own works. Over a period of six years Giblin published ten pieces, most of them piano rags, and most issued by Remick. Among them, Sleepy Lou and The Aviator Rag were substantial sellers. However, it was the simply styled Chicken Chowder, which essentially had one theme turned in different directions for each section that was her runaway hit.
An early mention of Irene and her simple hit rag was found in The Music Trade Review of August 19, 1905:
Miss Irene Giblin is St. Louis' youngest composer. Miss Giblin's latest successes are 'Chicken Chowder' and 'Quit, You're Kidding,' both of which have attained popularity Wherever heard. 'Chicken Chowder' is a composition full of originality and catchy passages. Though but 16 years of age [17 when the article appeared], Miss Giblin's remarkable abilities have attracted widespread attention. A great many copies of 'Chicken Chowder' have already been sold.
It was further indicated in another notice that she had been joined by another young female composer, Fleta Jan Brown, and that both of them had "achieved considerable fame not only here, but throughout the East." Yet another blurb in a couple of the early 1907 Victor catalogs, touting the Victor Orchestra's recording of the piece, read: "There is no doubt about it at all; this mess of musical chowder must be of the chicken variety, the bird being very much in evidence throughout. One of the funniest two-steps we have ever heard."
An indication of how hard it was for a woman to have a rag even considered by a publisher in this predominantly male city known for its ragtime is that not one of Giblin's pieces was actually published in St. Louis, even though she was perhaps its most prolific female composer at that time. This was in part because of her job working with Remick, but it seems that bulk of women composers were published in Kansas City, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit or New York. Still, her music was most certainly heard in St. Louis, as Chicken Chowder was particularly popular with ragtime orchestras.
As was so often the story, Irene eventually gave up her composing and performing endeavors, at least professionally, within two years after she married accountant Edward Patrick O'Brien in late 1908. Her remaining rags of 1910 and 1913, all printed under her maiden name of Giblin, were possibly submitted as late as 1910, but may have been in the Remick archives for a little while before they were released. They included her patriotic-themed Columbia Rag and the interesting slow drag Ketchup Rag. After The Dixie Rag, published in 1913 by Joseph Daly in Boston, Massachusetts, her musical output ceased.
Even though she devoted much of the rest of her life to raising a family, while still living in the Giblin family home with her parents for many years, Irene never stopped in her desire for playing the piano. In 1910 the O'Briens were shown living with her family at 5844 Romaine Place in Saint Louis, and Irene no longer listed music as an occupation. Richard and his sons Richard, Jr., and Leo were all working in the printing business, and Edward was listed as an accountant for a railroad, the Missouri Pacific according to Saint Louis city directories. Irene and Edward subsequently had two children, Richard Thomas (6/24/1911) named after her father, and Edward Patrick, Jr. (2/23/1916). The extended family was still living in the same crowded household in 1920, with Richard and Leo still printers, and Edward listed as a public accountant.
By the time of the 1930 Census the entire family had moved to a larger house, with Edward and Irene in their own section of the home at 5136 Lexington Avenue, and her widower father living in another section of the house with Mary and her printer husband George McSkimming. Edward was now listed as a public accountant with his own business, and Irene still showed no vocation. A decade later for the 1940 enumeration taken in St. Louis, Edward and Irene were still hosting their son Edward, Jr., and her widowed father Richard Giblin. The two Edwards were working as accountants – the son in advertising, and Irene continued to show no occupation. Although she spent much of the Great Depression through World War II without an instrument, her husband eventually procured a Baldwin baby grand for her which she treasured through the rest of her life. Mr. O'Brien passed away in early 1958, just short of the couple's 50th anniversary. Irene survived him by another 16 years, dying in St. Louis at age 85.
Gertrude Imogene Rupert was born in Fairfield, Iowa to Anna McReynolds. Although her father is listed as railroad worker R. Frederick Rupert, Frederick and Anna were not married until June of 1878 when Imogene would have been 18 months old. Either she was born to the couple out of wedlock, or her true father remains unknown. It was evident that the family was on the move. Imogene had one younger sister named Pearl (4/1882) born in Missouri, and a brother, Donald (3/31/1886), born back in Iowa.
In 1885 the Rupert family was found living in Moulton, Iowa, around 40 miles southwest of Fairfield. Little is known of Imogene’s musical training, but it was evidently sufficient that she was able to find employment in the music field. By the time of the 1900 census Anna had died, leaving Frederick a widower, and Imogene was living on her own in Quincy, Illinois where she would spend most of her life, listed as Daisy Rupert (her nickname), and working as a music teacher.
In June of 1901, Imogene was married to Henry Emerson Giles, who was originally from Pennsylvania. The event was announced in The Music Trade Review of July 6, 1901:
An event of some importance in the society circles of Quincy, Ill., was the marriage of Henry Emerson Giles, of the well-known firm of Giles Bros., music dealers, to Miss Daisy Imogene Rupert, an accomplished musician as well as a charming lady. There were no guests present outside of immediate relatives and a few intimate friends. Numerous presents were received.
Mr. Giles, some 13 or more years older than Imogene, ran the successful Giles Brothers Music Company in Quincy, Illinois with his brother Jacob E. Giles. Reorganized with his brother in 1888 from a music store originally founded with Henry's uncle, They sold pianos, organs, various musical instruments and sheet music, and later published some music as well. Many directories show them as a typewriter dealer as well. Within a couple of years of the wedding, Imogene started to teach music at the company store. Her husband was already well known by that time as somewhat of a local philanthropist.
The sometimes quirky Mrs. Giles, who often went by her preferred nickname of Daisy, may very well have published only one ragtime piece in addition to one other march attributed to her. Her single rag, Red Peppers, issued in 1907 by the Giles Brothers, is well crafted and leaves historians and collectors wondering what more she was capable of. The 1910 census showed her with no profession, and for whatever reason that she was now originally from Florida, where she alleged that her mother was also born (other census records indicated that Anna was from Illinois). Henry was listed as a partner for a music house. It was known that the couple attended Central Baptist Church in Quincy, where Daisy could potentially have been involved with music ministry in some capacity, and where Emerson was on the board of directors.
Emerson started to show signs of apoplexy and in 1921 had a cerebral hemorrhage which set him back. He suffered a second one the following year. In spite of this Mr. Giles managed to recover enough from both of these to continue running his business. However, the third one was too much to endure, and he died just two days before Christmas in 1923. In both the year of and the year after Henry's death, Mrs. Giles was listed as a musician for the Star Theater, likely playing for both silent films and occasional live shows. However, she was not seen in directories after 1925, so may have used a different name. Little else is known of her later years, most of which were lived out in Quincy. Daisy died there at age 87 after a brief illness.
Thanks as always to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for a few additional snippets of information Giles' life, including her additional composition.
Louise V. Moore (Louisa W. appears on her birth record) was born in Jackson, Michigan, about 40 miles west of Detroit, to British immigrants Francis B. Moore and Louisa Rawlings. In a couple of Detroit directories of the early 1870s it is inferred that the Moores resided for a time on the other side of the Detroit river in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. From the mid-1870s forward Francis worked for the Michigan Central Railroad as a clerk.The 1880 census showed that his wife Louisa was a "dealer in fancy goods."
Louise married Canadian immigrant drug store clerk James N. Gustin in 1887. Their son Frank Nelli was born May 11, 1888. The marriage did not succeed, nor did his budding pharmaceutical career, which his brother Charles did very well at, so by 1893 James had switched careers to travel agent. James and Louise were divorced by perhaps 1894. James remarried in 1898. Louise appeared as Louisa V. Gustin in the Detroit directory in 1895, listed as a music teacher residing at 27 Laurel, once again living with her parents from 1895-1897. Francis Moore died by 1897 and Louise, still using Gustin, was living with only her widowed mother Louisa at a new address. She was shown in the 1897 directory as residing at 154 Charlotte Avenue in Detroit.
In 1898 Louise composed one of her first pieces, a patriotic march written around the time of the military campaign in Cuba after the sinking of The Battleship Maine in Cuba. Ms. Gustin remained with her mother through 1898, but is not mentioned under the name of Gustin in any future Detroit directories. For at least that last year she was shown as employed at C.A. Shaefer's, a downtown Detroit department store, likely in the music department demonstrating sheet music. Some of it may have been her own, including her first two syncopated pieces, An Old Virginia Cake Walk and Topsy Turvy. Both were published by Fred Belcher who may have also got her the job.
On November 14, 1899, Louise married her second husband, Harry Bennison Taylor, a clerk for the Pittman and Dean Coal and Ice Company in Detroit. They were wed across the border in Essex, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, then settled in Detroit where both had been living. The couple was shown in the 1900 census in Detroit with 12 year old Frank, listed as a stepson, but implying Taylor as the last name. In spite of her having had four or five compositions in print by this time, Louise had no profession listed. Also as of the same census, Louisa Moore was living in Franklin, Michigan, with the family of her nephew Samuel Rawlings, which included her older brother Joseph W.V. Rawlings.
Regardless of her new last name change, Louise chose to publish her pieces as either L.V. Gustin or Louise Gustin. A search for titles under L.V. Taylor or Louise Taylor turned up nothing. Her works were published almost exclusively by Detroit publishers. Louise's X-N-Tric Two Step was picked up by Whitney Warner who had acquired Belcher's catalog, and Whitney Warner was in turn acquired by the growing and soon dominant publishing firm of Jerome H. Remick & Company.
The quality and good sales of her work made getting more pieces into print a fairly easy task, including her next few works from 1902 through 1905. One unusual work, the M.M. & M.C.B. March of 1905, got some attention in the railroad community, as noted in the Daily Railway Age, albeit with a bit of gender confusion:
A two-step by Mr. L.V. Gustin, especially dedicated to the Master Mechanic’s and Master Car Builder’s associations, and printed for distribution at the conventions by the Phillip Carey Maufacturing Copany, was played by the band yesterday. It promises to be a most acceptable piece of music and will be played frequently during the remaining days of the convention. On the cover of the folio appear the portraits of President Peck of the Master Mechanic’s Association, and President Appleyard of the Master Car Builder’s Association.
Then the promising output stopped after around sixteen known compositions. Louise and Harry had a daughter in 1907, Mary Louise Taylor. At some point during the decade Louise's mother moved in with the family.
There are clearly inaccurate reports in some published sources that show Louise as having died in 1910. Actually, the June, 1910, census listed the family in Detroit, Harry now as a manager with the coal company and Louise with no profession. There is a possibility that her son had died, yet curiously under children born and surviving children only one is indicated, contradicting the 1900 census. No Frank Gustin or a closely matched Frank Taylor was found in the 1917 draft.
Two more works did appear in 1915 issued Remick, including a waltz and the instrumental Let's Trot, taking advantage of the fox trot craze sweeping the country. Given that the fox trot was not even a glimmer in 1910, it would further make reports of her death that year somewhat premature. Let's Trot was dedicated to Mrs. Adele Strasburg Hyde, a well known dance teacher in Detroit. There is a possibility that Louise had accompanied some of her classes on the piano at some point prior to the composition.
By 1918 the Taylors had moved to Pittsfield, a far west Detroit suburb just south of Ann Arbor. As per the 1920 enumeration and directories through the early 1920s, Harry was still a manager for Pittman and Dean with an address in nearby Saline. Curiously, city directories and all future records showed Louise as Louise B. Taylor, having changed the V., and the source of either initial was not located. Harry died on May 28, 1928, leaving Louise single once again. She was shown as widowed in the 1930 census, living with her daughter Mary and another female lodger in Detroit. Mary was working in advertising as a sales promoter. As no marriage record was found, nor a verifiable death record in any nearby state, and given that she was not found in subsequent Michigan directories after 1930, it is probable that Louise died in 1930 or 1931.
Thanks as always to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for information on Gustin's Detroit demographics and on her first divorce and second marriage that led to more discoveries by the author.
May Irwin was born as Georgina May Campbell (Ada has often been cited but can be brought into question as it is likely her sister Adeline's nick name). While 1862 has often been her accepted birth year, her birth record and her age in various census records, starting in 1871 and continuing to 1930, is consistent with an 1861 birth year, which is likely the most correct. A native of Whitby, Ontario, Canada, her parents were Scottish immigrants (often shown in census records as Canadians) Robert E. Campbell and Sophronia Jane (Draper) Campbell. Georgina May was raised in her first years in Whitby, Ontario, around 35 miles northeast of Toronto. She was the second to last of six children, including Chester (1852), Franklin (1854), Albert (1856), and Abagail (1858). While her performing sister Adeline Flora was supposed to have been younger (possibly 2/8/1865), she was later listed as having been born in 1859, so in fact may have been Ada instead of Abby. No Ada appears in the 1871 Canadian census with the rest of the family. Robert was listed as an agent of some kind in the 1861 Canadian census, and as a clerk in the 1871 census, along with his oldest son working in the same position. May's singing talent was discovered quite early, and she was performing solos in church by age eight, sometimes joined by Flora. In late 1872 Robert fell ill and died, leaving his widow and four remaining children to fend for themselves. In need of funds to survive, Jane decided to leverage Georgina May's talent and potential as a singer and actress, convincing Florence to also give stage performance a try.
The first American audition of the Campbell sisters took place in Buffalo, New York at the Adelphi Theatre in December of 1874. It was reported that Florence fainted after their number due to the stress of the situation, but May, at all of thirteen and a half-years-old, came back with an encore that secured them a job. There is some variance as to whether May made her professional debut as a soloist on a stage in Rochester or with Florence in Buffalo, but both of these events potentially occurred in early 1875. Early in their career a theatrical agent name Daniel Shelby took on representation of the act. He claims to have given the girls the names of May and Florence to replace their current names of Georgina and Ada, but there is some doubt to this story as both are part of their middle names. It is, however, possible that Shelby gave them their new last name of Irwin, which both kept to the end of their respective professional careers.
Playing vaudeville stages in the Northeast over the next two and a half years, the sisters were finally booked at the Metropolitan Theater in New York City, which led to a series of bookings at Tony Pastor's famous music hall, where many vaudeville stars quickly rose to fame or sank to ruin. Pastor knew show business and he knew talent, fostering whenever he could. He was able to infuse many values of showmanship into the sisters, including stage presence and comic timing. This served May well when she finally struck out on her own a few years later.
It was in New York that May met Frederick W. Keller (may be W. Frederick Keller), a treasurer at one of the Manhattan theaters (it may have been Pastors, but this has been difficult to pin down). They married in 1878 and settled in Manhattan. Even though May and Flo were still performing on a regular basis, she is listed in the 1880 census as a housekeeper, staying home with their infant son Walter, the first of two children the couple had. It could be extrapolated that May was on a temporary hiatus following childbirth. Their second son Harry came around 1882. It was either late 1883 or early 1884 that May received an offer from producer Augustine Daly to join his traveling stock company. Either Flo was not included in this offer or she declined it. May did accept it and the sister act was split up, making May Irwin a soloist. She is shown traveling in 1884 on the Arizona for London with the company, listed as Miss May Irwin. It was on that trip that she made her London debut at Toole's Theatre in August of 1884.
In 1886 Frederick, close to two decades older than May, died after eight years of marriage, leaving her as a widowed single mother. After a short break she managed to find a way to manage both children and show business, her only source of income, and continued her climb to fame on stages in New York city and around the east coast. Some time in 1889 May received an offer from Howard Athenaeum in Boston that raised her standard of living considerably. He was able to find productions that best suited May's comedic talents and unique singing style. While she appeared frequently in farces, some of the songs were simply interpolated popular favorites or new pieces, often having little to do with the plot. However, her growing fame in Boston increased the demand for the comic songstress back in Manhattan, and she returned in the early 1890s.
Back in New York City, May developed her act into a genre known as "coon shouting," performing comic songs influenced by stereotypes of African Americans. During her travels she met a sportswriter that would eventually make her famous. In 1893, her current manager, Charles Frohman, got May a spot touring with the cast of The Country Sport, headed by Pete Dailey who had been engaged by the famous Weber and Fields. While they were in the western United States, she met Charles E. Trevathan, a sports reporter from the South. He joined the cast during a multi-day train ride back East in their parlor car while everybody told stories or sang songs. Trevathan had a guitar along and played on particular melody that attracted May's attention. She suggest that he put lyrics to it. Not long after that while the troupe was performing in Chicago, Trevathan came to the theater with a set of lyrics for the tune. May asked the musical director to arrange it, and soon after she to started sing The Bully Song, but not as part of the show.
By 1895, after having spent some time touring with Dailey in a couple of other shows, May wanted to stay put. She won the starring role in a musical comedy called The Widow Jones which after brief tryouts in Brockton, New Bedford and Boston opened on Broadway on September 16, 1895 at the Bijou Theater. Included in the play, at her insistence, was The Bully Song. It was what might be described as a "coon song" like those she had become known for. Unlike other women stars of the time who sang similar material in blackface, May preferred to just let the song sell itself through her performance. The ploy worked, and both The Widow Jones and The Bully Song received great attention after their Manhattan debut.
Not only was the piece a hit, printed as May Irwin's Bully Song (even though she did not receive composer credit), May became a bigger star almost instantly. She was also very protective of her new signature song, being the copyright owner. In a warning issued in the trades in 1896: "The White-Smith Music Publishing Co. have issued a notice to dealers warning them against unauthorized versions of the 'Bully' song written [sic] and sung by May Irwin,
As a result of her meteoric rise in popularity, May became one of the first movie stars as well. In the play was a particularly sensuous (for that time) kiss between Irwin and her co-star John C. Rice. Thomas Edison allegedly saw the show and quickly realized that this would make for sensational film. In 1896, most "movies" consisted of snippets from 30 seconds to 3 minutes long, and virtually anything captured moving was considered film worthy. Whether Edison really considered this independently or not is uncertain. The more likely story told is that the idea of staging the kiss for such a film was brought to Edison by the New York World newspaper. As a result, this very short subject shot in April of 1896 in Edison's Black Maria studio became one of his best known early Kinetoscope productions. Titled The Kiss, the first such known kiss in the history of cinema, it became well known both for Irwin and for the scandalous notion that such a thing should not only be filmed but shown in public. Editorials railed against it and preachers lambasted it, which probably made it even more of a must see event. All of 21 seconds long, 2 seconds of it comprising the actual kiss, the film was great publicity for both the star and the show.
By mid 1896 the lifestyle of a star who ate well had changed Irwin's figure a bit as she had gained several pounds since her appearances in the early 1890s. Yet she still insisted on doing high stepping dances, including the cakewalk, singing out loudly for all in the theater to hear her in spite of restrictive corsets. Her popularity actually helped make such figures in vogue by the turn of the century. Within a few years May was lauded by many titles including the "Dean of Comediennes", "the Funniest Stage Woman in America", and even "Madame Laughter." In the years directly after The Bully Song became a hit, she co-wrote some of her own pieces, including one titled Hot Tamale Alley with rising star George M. Cohan. Trevathan wrote a follow-up to the Bully Song called May Irwin's Frog Song, introduced in 1896. Both Bully and Frog would remain with May throughout the bulk of career, even when she wanted to shake them from time to time.
A New York Times article from February 5, 1897, gives a slice of how she was viewed during this busy period of her fame. It talks about a charitable appearance at the Colored Home and Hospital at First Avenue and 65th Street in Manhattan the previous afternoon. The reporter wrote:
"...and for an hour an uproarious audience enjoyed the fun. There was enthusiasm enough to stock many colored camp meetings every time the actress sang one of her Negro songs... Miss Irwin's jolly face beamed all over as she came to the front and met a storm of greetings. She began with Crappy Dan. The colored listeners had their eyes riveted on her, and their lips followed her words while they swayed in time with the music and broke out hilariously at the familiar ideas she express. The men especially were interested and were caught when the actress came to the lines: 'De wasn't no niggah dat eber frowed six But know I had 'im beat.' The men appeared chiefly uproarious, however, over the confidential information that 'wid a little bit o' lead de dice allus comes seven.' ...No house that Miss Irwin ever had had keyed her up to a higher pitch of enthusiasm. The sympathetic faces, the hearty laughter, the rhythmic swaying of the bodies seemed to inspire her. When she was through the audience wanted more, but she had to go. She held a levee and many wistfully asked: 'Ain't you gwine come no mo'?' She promised she would.
The high profile actress was also subject to controversy from time to time, but it usually did not seem to result overtly in negative press. Concerning a potential lawsuit in 1899, the following appeared in The Music Trade Review of November 4:
There is trouble brewing around Koster & Bial's and the Bijou, and all about a song. It is called "What Did Mary Do? " and is sung by May Irwin in "Sister Mary." She says the words were written by Louis Harrison and the music by Fred Solomon. William A. Brady claims it was stolen from "Mary Was a House Maid "in " Pot Pourri," a London burlesque which he has bought for America and will use at Koster & Bial's. He says that he gave Miss Irwin and Mr. Sire, manager of the Bijou, warning that he owned the sole rights to the song for this country. Miss Irwin is singing it every night, however, as usual. Brady says that he will get out a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Sire. Miss Irwin and Mr. Sire's side of the case is that though it may resemble the English song it was written by Mr. Harrison and Mr. Solomon.
May's living status in 1900 is uncertain as she was not found in the census for that year, possibly on tour when it was taken. Around that same year she helped to revive the first million seller song, After the Ball, with her own unique performances of the piece. After the Widow Jones she starred in at least a dozen other productions. None of them were very successful or garnered much interest other than Irwin's involvement, which most often meant singing interpolated coon songs, including the ones she was most famous for. In spite of the failure of some productions, May was a shrewd investor who took her high paying salary and turned it into somewhat of a fortune in stocks and real estate. Among these acquisitions was a full block of Manhattan on Lexington Avenue between East 53rd and 54th Streets, which she sold for a substantial sum in the early 1930s. She even wrote a cookbook, May Irwin's Home Cooking "Like Mother Used to Make", published in 1904.
Sometime in the early 1900s, and perhaps before, she met a theatrical agent from Lynnfield, Massachusetts named Kurt V, Eisfeldt (often misattributed as Eisenfeldt). Kurt had emigrated to the Boston area from Austria at the age of three in 1876 with his parents, and was nearly 12 years May's junior. In short order he became her personal agent, and by 1907 her husband. At that same time May entered another facet of the growing entertainment industry, recording a few sides for the Berliner and Victor record labels. Many of the recordings have survived over the past century, and can give some idea of the appeal of May Irwin through her vocal performance, even if it lacks the visual element that was part of the overall package.
Throughout much of her career following The Widow Jones Irwin became known as both generous and fierce. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and whenever possible became her own producer so she had more creative control over the shows she was in. Yet she also did many charitable appearances as well, and advocated for a number of causes. One of those was the humane treatment of animals. There was one vaudeville showman named Mr. Galeman who mercilessly beat animals on stage as part of his act. Once Irwin was alerted to this, she used her considerable power to have Galeman chased not only off of the stage, but out of the United States.
The actress had reportedly recorded a couple of cylinders for Columbia in the late 1890s, which are difficult to locate today. However, she did record seven of her most popular tunes for Victor in the Spring of 1907, six of which were released, all selling fairly well. Her success with audiences over the years also translated into many within the theater to look to Miss Irwin for advice. In a Music Trade Review article printed November 17, 1906, she offered the following on the selection of pieces. Please note that Miss Irwin was fortunately far off base on the topic of the perpetual popularity of the 'coon song,' but her quote is included here for context.
May Irwin, now playing "Mrs. Wilson-Andrews" at her own theater, the Bijou, New York has an interesting interview on the selection of songs in the Evening World. On this subject she is considered something of an authority by publishers, as follows: "Picking out wall papers is almost as hard as picking out a song," sighed Miss Irwin. "A really good song is written once in ten years, and only one in ten thousand is good for anything. You've no idea of the number of utterly worthless songs that are turned out these days. Not that they're worse, on the whole, than the songs of other days. But there are so many of them that the public has become surfeited. Most of the songs that we get today are machine-made, and that is why we are so sick of them. They're manufactured wholesale on the same pattern, and you can hardly tell one from the other.
"It is only now and then we get a song with individuality or originality. 'Moses Andrew Jackson' has individuality—genuine humor and a swing to it. A great deal, of course, depends on the singer. There's 'Bill Simmons,' for instance. The fame of that song reached me at my home in the Thousand Islands last summer, and I asked one of my sons to bring a record of it for the phonograph. When I heard it on the phonograph I couldn't understand how it had made such a hit. But when I came to town and heard Maude Raymond sing it, I understood why it was so popular. It was the way she sang it. She made you see and feel 'Bill Simmons.' I almost fell out of the box with laughter. She put character into the song; that was the secret of her success.
"I always approach a song with fear and trembling. Glen McDonough calls a song-cue 'the guilty moment.' That's exactly the way I feel. In fact, I feel like a fool. The play stops without any excuse, and there I am with my song. When you stop to think of it, the situation is ridiculous.
"You should see some of the songs that I get," went on Miss Irwin. "The other day some one sent me a 'mother' song, saying he was sure it would just suit me. Can you see me singing a 'mother' song? Why, I'd be mobbed. The 'coon song' comes by every mail. The man who says that the 'coon song' is dead doesn't know what he is talking about. It's very much alive. I don't believe it will ever die. It is characteristic of the country."
Her confidence in this ability was underscored in 1910 when composer Irving Berlin and composer/publisher Ted Snyder brought her some sample songs for interpolation into her upcoming play Mrs. Jim. After the pair went through their list, Berlin brought out an incidental number in manuscript form that he evidently had not thought too much of. However, May was immediately taken by My Wife Bridget, and asked Berlin to name a price on the spot for her to own it. He threw out a somewhat outlandish figure of $1,000, but May believed in the possibilities of this piece with her performing it, and startled Berlin by accepting the offer which gave her all future royalties. As usual, she was correct in her assessment and did fairly well by the tune.
While May's star started to fade in the 1910s, she still commanded attention at her performances. Her sister Flo was also seen from time to time, but rarely in the same place. In one 1914 ship manifest Flo is shown as an actress who was naturalized in the United States and living in New York, with a home in Canada as well. It is hard to find much on Flo past this point One play that May was in, Mrs. Black is Back, was turned into a full length feature film in 1914, her second film appearance following the famed kiss 18 years before. However she went in an out of retirement between 1915 and the early 1920s. In his 1918 draft record, Kurt is shown as a farmer living in Clayton, Jefferson County, Northern New York state, with May.
In addition to the farm, she was known to have had summer home property nearby on Club Island near Grindstone Island in the Thousand Islands area of New York on the St. Lawrence Seaway, mentioned as early as 1897, and a winter hideaway on Merritt Island in Florida. She also owned an establishment in Clayton, New York, the Irwin Island Inn. There is a legend that May was responsible for the invention of Thousand Island dressing. In fact, she was merely part of a chain of people that helped to popularize it outside of upper New York state. Active during the war as an entertainer in support of the effort, President Woodrow Wilson suggested to the press that he would like to appoint May Irwin as the official Secretary of Laughter for the United States. Following the war, as of the 1920 census, May was again working in Manhattan, but alone as Kurt was tending to their farm. She is listed as an actress in a theatrical company, and surprisingly as still unnaturalized, retaining her Canadian citizenship. In reality, May would be considered a United States Citizen by proxy of her marriage to her naturalized husband, a fact she may not have been aware of at that time.
In the early 1910s the had Eisfeldts settled in Clayton, and by the early 1920s May had retired there, involved peripherally with her inn enterprise. The town of Clayton eventually named a street in her honor. In the late 1920s, having been retired from regular performance for some time, she was asked by her friend, agent Eddie Darling, if she could replace a sick premier opera singer, Emma Calvé, at The Palace, one of the more famous theaters in New York City. On just a few hours of notice May took the stage and worked for a whole week, explaining the situation to the audience. At the end of a very successful week for her and the producers, May refused to take any money, stating it was a favor for her friend and nothing more. As of 1930, Kurt and May are shown in Clayton with no profession. He had been naturalized for decades, but May had retained her Canadian citizenship status.
Reaping the rewards of a long career and good investments, the Eisfeldts traveled the world during the early 1930s, often setting sail on The Resolute or The Reliance for their European adventures. Back in the United States she would sometimes make guest appearances in the "old-timers" shows at The Palace, and was known to have appeared on radio a couple of times as well. May finally succumbed at the age of 76 late in the decade, leaving a still substantial fortune to her husband and two sons, and a stellar legacy of the early days of Broadway to the rest of the world.
Most of the information was compiled by the author in public and private records and newspaper articles. Some additional information was found in a good substantial book set on vaudeville and early Broadway, Vaudeville, Old & New (2006) by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly.
Elsie Janis has long been known by many as the Sweetheart of the A.E.F., a title which is perpetuated on her headstone. But it was a long climb to that title. The story of Elsie is also deeply intertwined with her start in the ragtime era and the continuing presence of her doting mother. In spite of how well known both of them became, finding some information on their origins which is not present in most biographies of Janis, or at least accurate information were such origins are suggested, was a challenge at the very least because both were forgetful about many details of their life, including their names and their age, the latter being highly variable over time. Some deep searches by the author uncovered much of this information, and some will be presented here for perhaps the first time, or at least the first time in one place.
Elsie's mother was born Jennie Cockrell August 13, 1861 (she regularly claimed aynwhere from 1867 to 1875 later on) to Hiram Cockrell and his bride Nancy Oldham in Delaware, Ohio. The Cockrells traced their lineage back to an arrival in the United States in 1757. Jennie's name may have been Jane at birth, but consistently shows up as Jennie in public records. One of her father's close cousins was Senator Francis Marion Cockrell of Missouri, of which there is a traceable connection, and which she did mention in an interview at some point. The 1870 census showed her as eight years old.
The family moved to Centervillage, Ohio in the the early 1870s where Hiram remained for most of his life. In 1880 Jennie appeared as a boarder in nearby Mansfield, Ohio, working as a trimmer in a large millinery (hat makers). On May 1, 1881 Jennie was married to John Eleazar Bierbower, who was born in Marion, Ohio, in a ceremony in Bucyrus, Ohio. They spent some time around Indianapolis, Indiana, where Percy John Bierbower was born on January 8, 1885. By the late 1880s the family had moved to the area around Ohio's capitol city, Columbus. Elsie Jane Bierbower, was born there on March 16, 1889. In later years she would have birth years listed in census records and on passports that varied from 1892 to 1895, the latter year most consistently, but there is no question of the actual year of birth, admitted later in a Time magazine article.
It was apparent before Elsie was even two that she was a natural entertainer. As "Baby Elsie" she started singing for activities held at the First Congregational Church in Columbus at the age of two and a half. Jennie was delighted with the reception and quickly caught the management bug that many proud stage mothers were likely to get. She started getting appearances for "Little Elsie" as a singer, and finally got her a stage debut as a singer/actress at age six in the Great Southern Theater production of East Lynne in Columbus with the James Neil Stock Company. Elsie (or Jennie) also caught the attention of the wife of then-Governor William McKinley, and the child performed for the McKinleys at the official governor's residence, the Neil House. One of his favorite tunes that Elsie sang was reportedly Break the News to Mother. As much as Jennie, and reportedly Elsie, enjoyed their growing fame and occasional travel, Elsie's father John did not approve of the theatrical life for his children. Rather than deny her daughter, much less herself, of the opportunities afforded by Elsie's inherent talent, Jennie divorced John in the late 1890s. She then gave both she and her daughter a new identity.
Now making theater appearances with a local stock company, Elsie herself had the stage bug. Josephine parlayed their previous acquaintance with the McKinleys to receive an invitation for Elsie to perform in the White House where the couple now lived as President and First Lady. Given how well that went, Josephine next set her sights on the vaudeville stage for Little Elsie, now around ten. She went to vaudeville manager Mike Shea proposing he try the girl for a week. After that time she would either hit the bricks or he would pay her $125 per week. Put right after the opening on her first day, a make or break position, she was moved to second from closing by the end of the day, a position afforded only to top performers. So it was that Elsie, with Josephine in tow, spent the next few seasons performing in vaudeville stock companies. Yet they remained based in Columbus at this time, albeit in a nicer home. The mother/daughter team would call their High Street home across from Buckeye Field, part of the University of Ohio campus, ElJan, and Elsie would not part with it until after Josephine died. They were on the road at the time the 1900 census was taken, so concerted attempts to locate them in that year proved fruitless, but they do appear there in local Ohio records.
Percy was difficult to locate in the 1900 record, and may have been residing with his father at the time. However, after working in mercantile for a while he also got the same ailment his sister had, desiring to appear on the stage. His debut was reportedly around 1903 in Nixon and Zimmerman's production of The Strollers. Likely encouraged by his mother, Percy also adopted the last name of Janis. As Percy Janis he soon appeared with his younger sister in plays as well, and started working toward a career in vaudeville.
Among the emerging talents that Elsie possessed was that of imitation. She was able to do quite passable imitations of many celebrities of the time, including President McKinley and eclectic singing star Sarah Bernhardt. With the variety of talents she developed, Elsie was able to form a viable act that could sustain the larger part of a vaudeville show. Yet in spite of her good press, the child actress was not allowed to work in New York City for some time due to local child labor laws strongly enforced by The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who also set limitations on youngsters Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and Buster Keaton. In the case of Keaton the abuse was very real. But as for Elsie, her mother was her mentor, guide and protector. Added to her act were more impersonations, including vaudeville star Eddie Foy, himself a caricature, George M. Cohan in his gung-ho all-American style, Harry Lauder and his Scottish antics, and the patriarch of the great acting family, John Barrymore.
In 1905, After several years of vaudeville touring and summer stock, Elsie, now nearing 16, replaced Anna Held for a tour of The Little Duchess, staged by Held's husband Florenz Ziegfeld. The tour was a success, and the following year Janis was offered a role in The Vanderbilt Cup on Broadway.
As for Percy, his ability began to grow, but his work was still often associated with Elsie's appearances, including The Vanderbilt Cup. In that 1906 and 1907 production Percy had a small on-stage part, but was also tapped as a stage manager. His on stage work was enough to get him an audition, followed by a good role as Chris Hazy, the "lame boy," in a London production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch in the spring of 1907. Percy had hoped to emerge from his talented sister's shadow, and become a famous actor in his own right. He was to meet his mother and sister in London after rehearsals were through. Sailing to the United Kingdom on the S.S. Minneapolis, Percy disappeared on the night of April 14. Having no other viable explanation, it was surmised that he fell overboard and was lost at sea. The family had no reason to believe that it was a suicide as he was very happy about his new venture. A memorial was subsequently set up for him by his mother in her family’s plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in Delaware County, Ohio. The first of many tours that Elsie and Josephine would make to Europe was to France in mid 1908, likely traveling with The Hoyden. They are shown arriving back in New York on the Rotterdam on August 3rd, just in time for her to engage in a new show. The next big production, The Fair Co-Ed, started on the road in 1908, affording Elsie a visit to her home town of Columbus where she was very well received. The local paper raved about her acting, singing and dancing. The show ended up in New York in 1909 playing 136 performances. At some point in 1910, mother and daughter took a break and were found back in Columbus for the 1910 census. Elsie is listed as an actress with a theatrical company, and Josephine as her divorced mother, but with 13 years trimmed off her life showing an age of just 35 to Elsie's deflated 18. The same information appears in the Ohio Miracord census for that year. She was one of the top paid stars of the stage in the still-developing entertainment industry, pulling in between $2,500 and $3,000 per week in 1910, either in stage musicals or vaudeville appearances. This was equivalent to two other top American female stars, Nora Bayes and Eva Tanguay.
Next up was an English play brought to America, The Slim Princess, which opened on the road in 1910. This production, which went for 104 performances on Broadway in 1911, also introduced Elsie as a songwriter, her entry being I'd Rather Love What I Cannot Have, Than Have What I Cannot Love. It also signaled a transition into full adulthood for some of her fans and reviewers, as the following from The Music Trade Review of October 8, 1910 will attest: "It is Miss Elsie Janis now, if you please. No more little Elsie or even just plain Elsie, for the brilliant young lady is sedate and twenty and the relics of childhood days have been cast aside. 'The Slim Princess,' published by Chappell & Co., is the first play in which Miss Janis has ever worn her hair 'done up,' and considerable dignity attaches itself to this momentous transition... It is a new young woman who comes to us this year, with the recommendation of her name in electric lights above the Studebaker entrance, a mature and serious-minded young woman whose memories of the days long ago, when she was the 'Little Elsie' of vaudeville fame, are quite dim and hazy. Do not imagine that in personality the fair Elsie is less popular than ever, for no star ever held the affections of a company of stage players with firmer grip than she. But the romping days and the games of baseball with the boys, the decidedly ingenuous jokes on prim uplifters of the stage—all are forgotten."
In some respects, The Slim Princess became somewhat autobiographical for the actress, who while seen and heard often was rarely found with a romantic partner. It would become known in inner circles that Ms. Janis was potentially either a lesbian or at least bisexual, so if she did have relationships of that type they were certainly kept quiet. Her mother's role in Elsie's choice has rarely been explored, which perhaps could have been a result of often warning Elsie about stage door Johnnies or men in general, or perhaps from experiences with her father. In any case, Josephine was evidently tolerant of her daughter's choices in this matter. Some of Elsie's energies were put into a book in 1911 called Star for a Night, largely a publicity vehicle for her stage work in the play of the same name. In July of that year Josephine and Elsie ventured to Europe on the Lusitania for another tour, arriving back in early August.
The next couple of years found Elsie doing everything from stage revues to recordings of popular songs. One revue featured her second song, Fo' de Lawd's Sake, Play a Waltz, which had some popularity in New York City. After Over the River, which ran for 120 performances, Elsie won a role in The Lady of the Slipper, running an impressive 232 shows from 1912 to 1913. That summer was a trip to England, returning in August on the Imperator with Josephine, as always, by her side. Her single ragtime song, The Anti-Ragtime Girl, was published in 1913. It comically names off all of the "offensive" dances that the girl in question refuses to participate in, all of them fed by ragtime music. By 1914 Elsie stated her home as the Globe Theater, but Josephine was living in White Plains, New York, a short commute which is likely where Elsie spent much of her precious down time. They went to England in the summer of 1914 so Elsie could star in the Passing Show in London.
In London, Elsie became romantically involved with comedian Basil Hallam for a short while, and the couple even cut a few sides together in 1914, then again in 1915. It was in 1914 that Janis did her first entertaining for the boys on their way to war. Elsie and Josephine returned on the Mauretania from Liverpool in October, 1914. There was also a song that Elsie wrote and performed which was this time actually associated with a dance and specific dancers. A Castle Walk Song was composed for the premier dance couple of the time, Vernon and Irene Castle. Vernon had appeared with her in Lady of the Slipper. It should be noted that Elsie only made a handful of sides in the United States for Victor in 1912, of which three were released. For whatever reason, her records sold much better in Europe, and the recording quality was higher, so virtually all subsequent sides were done by the His Master's Voice, the British equivalent of Victor. This makes them much more rare in the United States as collectors items.
Elsie had also worked at the Palace Theater that year, a place that even Al Jolson was not able to get into, and she proved to be quite popular there doing her songs, imitations and other comedic material. However, Josephine, who was unflinching in her negotiations when it came to Elsie but also not abusive in that regard, insisted that the theater had not lived up to their promises to the star, and she pulled Elsie from her contract. Owner Edward Albee did not take kindly to this, and he attempted to blackball Elsie from The Palace publicly. His publicity in this regard turned back on him in an ugly way since the public could not imagine any such disagreement would be Elsie's fault, and they in turn came out against the theater creating potential financial issues. In the end, Albee had to send a public letter of apology to Josephine and Elsie, and offered them a much better deal, which worked out for all involved. In the end, the dynamic and perhaps even more famous Al Jolson STILL could not make it into The Palace, even though he evidently did rather brashly crash it one night, perhaps one of the reasons for his being shunned by Albee.
1915 turned out to be a productive year for Elsie. A second book appeared titled Love Letters of an Actress, a fictional series of letters showing the progression of a number of humorous love relationships. She also entered into a film career, making four movies for Paramount Pictures, writing the scenarios (the early version of a screenplay) for all four of them. This was followed by a collaboration with the up and coming composer Jerome Kern Kern and Janis came up with the show Miss Information, which may have turned out to be a little bit "miss-guided" in execution, closing in just around 6 weeks. After another trip overseas for a new edition of The Passing Show, While there she again became briefly involved with Basil Hallam, but did not respect his concerns about the potential of being drafted for the growing war effort. Elsie ended that relationship and returned on the St. Louis in August. Hallam would end up dying in uniform in 1916, and many believe that Elsie never quite got over the loss.
Upon her return Elsie immediately went into a show made from the remnants of Miss Information, also written with Kern, titled Very Good Eddie. This one they writers evidently got right, for it started in the Princess Theater late in the year, went to two other theaters during its Broadway tenure, and closed again at the Princess after an accumulative 341 performances. This was followed in late 1916 by the ostentatious and very expensive Ziegfeld production The Century Girl which itself went around 200 performances.
The fortunes of mother and daughter Janis were enough that Josephine was able to secure a shrewd deal for a home in Tarrytown, New York, known as the Talleyrand, which they named The Manor House. There they were able to live in style, most certainly in a manner quite different from Josephine's rural Ohio upbringing.
Following her earlier efforts to give the troops morale in a time of war, Elsie committed herself to doing this for all of the doughboys in Europe, and set out on a six month tour into the war zone. One previous trip, sponsored in part the YMCA and Salvation Army, as the U.S. Government was neutral and would not commit to backing her, established her as a cherished presence near the battlefields, so it was not hard to encourage further support, or perhaps aggressively negotiate for it since Josephine did the leg work, for this extended tour. Elsie's passport issued December 19, 1917, shows her traveling "to France and England. To France to make a tour of hospitals and rest camps through the racket and for tours to sing and entertain THE BOYS." Josephine's applications stated she was going "To assist Elsie Janis to fulfill theatrical contract. Mother/Personal Manager." This trip was when Elsie clearly earned her title "Sweetheart of the A.E.F." With Josephine by her side taking the same risks, Elsie was not considered as much a glamour girl as she was one of the guys in a sense, Her small troupe traveled around in pickup trucks or similar vehicles, using them as a makeshift stage. She would perform for anywhere from fifty to five thousand soldiers at one time, always to vigorous cheering, and even learned enough French to extend her act into the realm of French troops as well. They all looked forward to sing-alongs at the end, something that allowed the boys to participate in a way that reminded them of the folks back at home. Out of this experience came a 1919 book, The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces, and a documentary movie along the same lines called The Big Drive. She also appeared in one of the earliest Warner Brothers Vitaphone sound shorts, Elsie Janis Behind the Lines at the Front, shot in 1926. (This is currently available on DVD on The Jazz Singer set.) Elsie's selfless example in this regard clearly set the stage for what would eventually become the U.S.O. in advance of World War II.
After an extended stay following the war, continuing to entertain through Europe, Elsie and Josephine returned to the United States on the Rotterdam from Plymouth, England, on August 31, 1919. They were met in the harbor by a tugboat with a banner reading "Welcome Home Elsie Janis," and to a swelling crowd in port, having endeared herself to the American public even more during her time away. Unable to return to the stage owing to an Actors Equity strike that all but closed New York theaters, Elsie went back into film, working for a time for the Selznick Picture Corporation. One of the films was A Regular Girl for which she wrote the screenplay and a title song. She also prepared a new show based on her experiences in the war called Elsie Janis and Her Gang in a Bomb Proof Revue. When she finally got clearance to return to the stage, the show started on December 1 and played through mid January, going briefly on the road after 55 performances on Broadway.
The 1920 census shows Elsie and Josephine residing in Talleyrand at Tarrytown, with Elsie as an actress in motion pictures (in spite of her current stage work), and Josephine as 46 (adding a year to her previous claim), divorced, and manager for her daughter. Also in the household were five servants: a housekeeper, a chauffeur, a cook, a waitress, and a gardener to maintain the large property. Either because of the shift of the film industry to Hollywood, or perhaps since her company had gone out there, Elsie purchased a house in Los Angeles in early 1920, and would eventually trade up to Beverly Hills. On an April 1920 passport application she is shown as residing in Los Angeles. But she again recognized that she worked better in front of a live audience that could give her feedback, rather than in front of the camera. So Elsie again took another show to Europe and the United Kingdom in 1920, It's All Wrong: A Musical Complaint, followed by a tour of Elsie in Paris, actually staged in Paris in 1921, arriving back on the Titanic's surviving sister ship The Olympic on August 31.
Once back in the United States the actress attempted a new rendition of Elsie Janis and Her Gang which played from January through March for only 56 performances. Not able to capture the same energy after the war that she had before, and competing with the new acts emerging in the frenetic jazz age 1920s, her fortunes started to fade. Appearing wherever Josephine could get her booked, usually in Europe, she still worked fairly consistently through the decade. In 1925 Elsie got good some exposure in Puzzles of 1925, but after 104 nights the show closed. Her best effort of that year was the clever book If I Know What I Mean, one of the first that discussed her relationship with her tenacious manager mother. Elsie was also spending more time in Los Angeles, having bought an estate in Beverly Hills. Among her best friends there were actress and "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. Another book came out in 1926 called Counter Currents, co-authored by Marguerite Aspinwall. It was followed Behind the Lines for Vitaphone. Josephine and Elsie made two trips to France in 1926 and 1927. Another book came out in 1928 featuring contributions by Elsie. In her stage imitations of the famous Will Rogers she had become quite adept with a lariat herself, thus her role in the book Roping: Trick and Fancy Rope Spinning along with Rogers and actor Fred Stone.
As the Great Depression was just underway, the 1930 census showed Elsie now living in Beverly Hills with Josephine, the latter listed as widowed (if there is a story to that we were not able to find it) and 58, a step closer to her actual age. Elsie listed herself in her new profession, a writer for motion pictures. Living with them was one cook and a domestic servant. Indeed, Elsie started to amass film credits as a writer of both stories and dialogue. Among these were Close Harmony, Madam Satan, Reaching for the Moon and The Squaw Man. She also had several more compositions added to her musical credits. But it was also in 1930 that Josephine (Jennie), Elsie's constant companion, and at times both her biggest fan and driving force, finally passed on. Elsie took the loss of her mother hard, and buried herself in her behind the scenes film work.
In what turned out to be a questionable decision, Elsie married Gilbert Wilson before the year was out. He was a stockbroker who was only 24 to her 41, and some termed it a marriage on paper only. However, in a 1936 letter reprinted in Time Magazine, and originally appearing in the Tarrytown News, she noted that after her mother died, "I had asked for a helpmate who would understand me. He came and was young enough to be as inexperienced in the fundamentals of mating as Old Maid Janis was at 42 [sic]. Result: Four years of two being one completely, and now an understanding of what is what. He is young enough to make a new life for himself, if orders are such..." The intent of that last line is unclear, but it was perhaps a harbinger of what was to come. As for what had already been, she attempted another autobiography in 1932, updated from a first attempt in 1928, and optimistically titled So Far, So Good.
Early on in the marriage, Elsie evidently tried to turn the stockbroker into an actor with mixed results that created tensions. Perhaps a better indicator of the nature of their relationship is that she finally got him cast in a Noel Coward revue in 1934, Set to Music, and Gilbert soon became a frequent party companion to the gay playwright. Elsie herself was known to appear at parties with company as diverse as the "notoriously libidinous" actress Marilyn Miller at her side. She also attempted another show, staging New Faces of 1934, which ran from March through July for a respectable (given the times) 159 performances. But Elsie's lifestyle was fraught with drawbacks during the Great Depression, and Elsie's fortunes started to diminish. A serious automobile accident in 1935 created issues both with her body and her finances. In September, 1936 she made a move which prompted the Time Magazine letter printed above, selling her beloved Tarrytown Manor House and most of the possessions within during a three day auctions. While she attributed this as "Orders for G.H.Q." (General Head Quarters and she referred to God), it was more likely to help keep the couple solvent and in their Beverly Hills home where she spent more time. The property soon ended up in the hands of John D. Rockefeller Jr.. Through the second half of the decade Elsie and Gilbert spent more time apart than together.
While spending most of her time on the West Coast in the late 1930s, she did attempt a Broadway comeback that was short lived. Her self-titled variety show, Elsie Janis, sort of a throwback to vaudeville with narration infused, opened on New Years Day 1939, and disappeared after a mere four performances. She was also involved with Frank Fay Vaudeville, a nostalgic revue, fared a bit better, lasting for 60 performances from March through late April of the same year. But that was it for Elsie Janis and the theater. Just the same, as of the 1940 census, taken in Beverly Hills with her as Elsie J. Wilson, both she and Gilbert were still listed as theater actors (as opposed to film) with two servants residing in the rear quarters. She appeared once more on screen in 1941 in the film Women in War, playing a nurse in France.
As for the real war, Elsie's husband Gilbert enlisted in the Army on April 22, 1941, and was shipped overseas for around five years. His enlistment shows him as an actor or entertainer born in Illinois and still married. As for Elsie, the car accident had pushed her into somewhat of a religious conversion and she started an involvement with the church that continued through most of the rest of her life. She did benefit performances, was involved with four war time patritotic concerts, appeared on radio whenever there was an opportunity, and spent fifteen years visiting veterans of past and present conflicts reading to them, writing to them, and honoring them however she could. At one point during World War II she even worked with Bob Hope, who had pretty much taken over the role of entertainment ambassador that Elsie had held since before America entered World War I in 1917.
In 1946 when Gilbert returned it was clear to the couple that no real marriage existed. Rather than divorce they simply chose to live separate lives. In retrospect she was still loved, having had a number of works of music and poems and other literature dedicated to her. The number of articles that she had been writing for various magazines about her life and her associations with other stars started to trickle down to virtually no output. Other than her visits to veterans she was rarely in the public eye any more and spent most of the last decade as a recluse in Beverly Hills. When the end came in 1956 she was attended to by her long time friend Mary Pickford, who was at Elsie's side when she passed on. Another past friend was there as well. She had a framed photographc of her first real love, Basil Hallam, on the table next to her bed. While Pickford had been America's Sweetheart for so long, Janis still remained the American Soldier's Gal Pal, and was well remembered by many, particularly those of the armed forces. Her career had spanned vaudeville from before ragtime up through the height of swing and movie musicals. Her selflessness in recognizing and honoring those who fought for the United States set an example that continues among many entertainers to this day. Little Elsie Bierbower from Ohio had finally made good, but the show had closed and it was time to take the pictures down.
Some of the information on Ms. Janis' life was gleaned by many biographies, including two of her own; magazine articles, including some she penned; and theater reviews or newspaper listings. The remainder was researched by the author, delving into census records, passports, passenger lists, and some deep family histories going back to the 1850s. The information on her origins leading up to 1905 or so is as accurate as can be presented based on public records, and is often contrary to known information on Janis and her mother, some of which was fabricated by the two women. Corrections or addendums are most certainly welcome with corroborating information.
Sadie Koninsky left a fairly impressive legacy in composition, and not just in ragtime. She spent the bulk of her life in Troy, New York, born there to German/Polish father Harris Koninsky and British mother Mary. She was the youngest of five children, including Edward M. (1/1865), Esther (1866) David Harris (9/1869), and Maurice (Moses) Nathan (7/23/1874). Esther died in the 1870s. In the 1870 census, and in ads going back to the late 1860s in Troy, Harris ran a second-hand clothing and bedding store. In the 1880 enumeration, Harris was listed as a tailor and Edward, shown as 16, was a clerk. Sadie was listed under her probably birth name of Sarah, a common given name from which Sadie could be derived. Her listed birth years fluctuated wildly over the next decades, but the 1920 census falls in line with an 1877 year of birth. In an 1890 Troy city directory the family was residing at 404 River in Troy. Harris was shown then as working in the furniture business, Edward was still listed as a clerk, as was David, and Maurice was listed as a musician.
Sadie's first known published composition was issued by the house of M. Witmark in 1894. The Belles of Andalusia was a pleasant Spanish-tinged waltz. This was followed in 1895 by a typical march of the era, The Minstrel King, published in Albany. However, she first came to prominence at the age of 19 or 20. While training to become a classical violinist, a skill for which she turned out to be very capable, Miss Koninsky wrote Eli Green's Cake Walk It was quickly picked up by Joseph W. Stern for publication, and Stern had lyrics added by staff writer Dave Reed to further benefit from the call for cakewalk songs.
At a time shortly after cakewalk dance music had been introduced into publication, Sadie, a Jewish white woman, was able to successfully capture the feeling of the typical black-composed cakewalk. Furthermore, it published under her real name, a feat not often duplicated for this genre until a few years later when women such as Charlotte Blake and May Aufderheide started putting out ragtime works. The success of the tune convinced her to seek instruction to gain some further pianistic skills with Harriet Brower, a respected teacher and author of The Mastery of the Piano, This was likely to help with her ability to construct good piano scores, but Sadie ultimately kept the violin as her instrument of choice, training under Kate Atherton Barker, head of the Violin Department of the Emma Willard Conservatory in Troy. Upon completion of her education, Koninsky took on students of her own in Troy, as well as working as a soloist with various ensembles in the area. Her success with Eli Green's Cake Walk allowed her to secure a job as a staff arranger for short time with the Stern publishing house.
In the 1898 Troy city directory, the Koninsky family was shown as still living at 404 River, with Harris heading H. Koninsky & Sons, a pawnbroker firm that included David and Edward. Sadie listed music as her occupation. She was in business with Maurice, running what appears to be M. N. & S. Koninsky, dealers of music. By 1899 their local firm, now a full-fledged music publisher, was known as
Sadie had also become a very adequate song writer by the time of this expansion. The Music Trade Review of June 23, 1900, gave her credit where it was due in terms of her role with the company:
The Review heard a number of songs from their catalogue this week, and they are of a very fine order. Miss Sadie Koninsky is the genius of the firm, and it is she, who is entitled to credit for the songs. "When I Return We'll Be Wed," "You Alone," "I Didn't Think You Cared To Have Me Back," "Sing Me a Song of Other Days," are four songs of the sentimental style, in which the lyrics and melody are both by Sadie Koninsky. "I Wants a Man Who Ain't Afraid To Work," is a coon song also by this talented composer, and shows her great versatility. All these songs are being sung by various top-liners, in different parts of the country, and the orders for them come steadily along.
Their catalog was bolstered by the inclusion of pieces by the somewhat well known composer Arthur Trevelyan. The Manhattan branch of Koninsky Brothers was open only from mid-1900 to 1901.
In the 1900 census Sadie also listed her profession as musician as did Maurice. She and her older brothers, Edward, David and Maurice, also formed their own ensemble around 1904, and were listed as the Koninsky Orchestra for more than 20 years in based in Troy. Neither Sadie, Maurice or David ever married, but Edward did leave Troy for Rochester, New York, and married, producing one child from the union. With all of her brothers Sadie expanded the sheet music enterprise, changing the name to the Koninsky Music Company. They conducted their retail business from Frear's Department Store in Troy. The firm published out of the former Troy Times newspaper building, but their listed address was 17 King Street where the family now lived.
Sadie took on multiple roles as the primary composer, arranger and song plugger for Koninsky Music. Most of her marches were released under the name Jerome Hartman (perhaps women simply were not supposed to write good marches). It has been thought in the past that she also composed under the name of Julius K. Johnson, as he was responsible for the company's biggest hit in 1910, King of the Air and three other lesser marches. However, since compositions of Johnson's have been found published by other houses in the Midwest, the author is certain that the Johnson in question was likely the prominent L.A. organist of the 1920s and 1930s born in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In Troy musical society, Sadie was known as one of the finest violinists around, and taught in that trade for some years, but also played piano from time to time. The pianist of the family was clearly Maurice, ad he was known as a go-to accompanist anytime there was a need for a visiting artist. At age 11, he and a friend, who eventually became a producer, staged the recent Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy, The Mikado, in Troy. Maurice was also a composer, although the work he did with Sadie was mostly as a lyricist. David also worked for many years as a musician, specializing in cornet, playing with local bands and orchestras.
In the 1910 census Sadie is shown living with her now widowed mother Mary and her brothers David and Maurice (known by this time to Troy as Moe). David was the proprietor of their music store, and Maurice and Sadie listed themselves as publishers of songs. As of 1918, the draft record for Maurice showed him still residing with his mother, and his occupation listed at musical director for Proctor's Theater, one of a chain of vaudeville theaters. He was also known as having worked at the Griswold Theater. As remembered by William Noller, leader of the Troy City Band, "Moe had fingers like wings on the piano. He was one of the best. He knew harmony and he would play the newly-issued numbers in the music department at Frear's where he always attracted a crowd." In 1918 Maurice and Sadie wrote and staged their own Japanese-American operetta, The Belle of Tokio, which appears to have been confined to only Troy. It had encores in 1919 and 1921.
The 1920 census shows Sadie as 42, again challenging her birth year. Mary was still heading the household, with David, Maurice and Sadie listed as music publishers. In the 1920s Sadie started a separate publishing house in Troy, Goodwyn Music Publishers. She also took up teaching the violin and music both privately and in Troy area schools. David was a vocal teacher at the LaSalle Institute for many years during this period. The Koninsky Music Company finally closed in the mid 1920s. By the time of the 1930 census Mary had died. Sadie was shown as still living at 17 King Street with David and Maurice, and all three were listed as musicians, likely playing for dance bands or orchestras, and teaching as well.
A 1932 Troy directory lists Maurice as a piano and vocal teacher, and Sadie as a violinist. David showed no occupation, likely having retired by this time. Moe was the best known musician of the family, playing piano not only in local bands but also as part of a trio on station WHAZ at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for a number of years, and pianist for the Maurice String Ensemble on station WTRY. Moe could also be heard playing at times in Schenectady on WGY He also was long regarded as a good substitute concert accompanist in a pinch, once directing a show with 300 cues while sight reading it all. Sadie and her brothers moved to 120 Second Street in the late 1930s, where she would live for over a decade. The three siblings were found there in the 1940 census, all listed as music teachers.
David died in 1942 and Maurice in May 1944, just four days after his last performance at the local Jewish Community Center. Sadie kept plugging away at her musical passion. In the 1947 Troy directory, she was still listed as a violin teacher approaching age 70. Koninsky outlived her older siblings, dying at 74 years of age on the second day of 1952, following a long illness. Sadie was interred at the B'rith Sholom Cemetery in Troy. Her obituary listed her as a composer of more than 300 numbers, but many may have gone unpublished or are just lost to history. Her considerable net estate from royalties and other holdings was $50,613 was distributed in part among several local Jewish organizations, and largely to her niece, Edward's daughter, Marjorie K. Brainan of Rochester. It is unknown if this included any of the physical assets of the publishing company. However, it did include her fine violin, of which she asked Marjorie to "give the violin to a talented needy Jewish student, preferably a child, of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester." What finer final tribute could there be for such a great musical legacy.
Thanks as always to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for information on some of Koninsky's activities in Troy. The bulk of the information was researched by the author from public records, embedded sheet music information, perodicals and newspapers.
Elma Ney McClure represents yet another example of a female composer with a great deal of promise that was sadly unrealized. She was born in 1881 in Shelby County, Tennessee, to Bavarian immigrant saloon keeper Jacob Ney (erroneously spelled Kney in the 1900 census) and his Missouri wife Christina. She was the youngest of seven siblings including her older brothers Charles (9/1864), Frederick (6/1867), Albert (1869) and Amile (7/1875). Jacob was probably fairly well off as he was running a saloon in the 1880s and 1890s. The 1880 census showed both Charles and Frederick working in the saloon for their father. The family employed one or more housekeeper/cooks in the late 1890s and later.
Julia Lee Niebergall was born in Indiana to George Niebergall, a print shop lithographer, and Minnie (Krueger) Niebergall, who was likely already pregnant when the couple married on August 26, 1885. Julia was the oldest of two girls and a boy, including her brother Herbert (b.1888) and sister Mayme E. (b. 1891). She took to the piano at a fairly young age and by her late teens had become a friend of composer May Aufderheide, whose father eventually published two of Julia's works. Niebergall was born into a musical family as her dad played the double bass, occasionally even with the Indianapolis Philharmonic, her sister also took to the piano, and her brother was a percussionist. In the 1900 Census the family is shown in Indianapolis with George as a lithographer and all of the children still in school.
Anita Owen was born in Brazil, Indiana, near Terre Haute, to Welsh immigrant John Dale Owen and his Indiana-born wife Louisa Hughes. She had only one sibling, Morton D. (4/1880). John was a Welsh music teacher and composer, although he appears to have published virtually nothing in the United States. Louisa was a niece of English composer Sir Thomas Hughes. So music certainly was present at a respectable level in this family, even though she claimed in later interviews to have had little actual musical training as a girl. For the 1880 census John was listed as a traveling salesman. Terre Haute directories of the late 1880s into the late 1890s show that he was working as a piano tuner and Morton as a musician, although he would eventually follow in his father’s career track, working as a piano tuner.
Anita was boarded and educated at the Convent of St. Mary of the Woods in Terre Haute, and between the school and her father was sufficiently trained in music composition, harmony and theory, and piano performance. It is likely she was there for the 1880 census, as were many young girls aged 2 to 14, but cannot be pinpointed owing to clarity on that record. Given the demographics of that enumeration, Anita would have left the school in the mid to late 1880s.
According to her obituary Anita sold her first song at age 15 or 16 for a mere $5. The title of the piece is unclear due to shifting copyright dates, but it was stated, logically, as an Ave Maria type of song. Following that point, her story of her rise to fame for one of her next pieces, and subsequent early pitfalls was told in an article in The San Francisco [California] Sunday Call in their November 20, 1910, edition, opening up an article about women composers:
Once there a young convent girl whose finger tips tingled with a catchy melody, while sentimental verses ran through her head keeping tune with the elusive air. She wrote the verses, set them to the melody her finger tips unconsciously played, published the song herself and made one of the most remarkable successes that a writer of popular lyrics and scores ever has made.
Incidentally, she amassed a fair sized fortune — at least it seemed large to the practically penniless girl, for it fell only a little short of the hundred thousand dollar mark, and the royalties from this bit of musical sentiment are still making her purse bulge comfortably as the quarterly checks come in.
This is what it means to write a popular song. It means wealth, successes and being sought after by publishers of music, and fame as well, even though it be limited to the vaudeville and the hurdy gurdy circuits.
Since the convent girl's achievement other women have composed popular songs, and those who are known to the public as well as to the publisher receive handsome checks for what seems to the outside world only a few hours' work — merely the dashing off of a dozen or so melodious bars of music and fitting to them a set of verses bubbling over with sentiment or having a stirring swing...
The convent girl lived in Chicago when she made her fame and fortune with "Sweet Bunch of Daisies." That was 14 or 15 years ago, and the composer, Miss Anita Owen, is still drawing an income from the song, which cost her less than $50 to place on the market. Recently Miss Owen moved to New York and allied herself with a music publishing house, agreeing to furnish ten songs a year for which she is to write the lyrics and scores. That is less than an average of a song a month, and the publishers do not expect, greedy as they are for real successes, to have all ten reach the high water mark of sales, which is one hundred thousand copies of a song. But at least some, of them must have a run which is helped on to success by the whistling public and the ubiquitous hand organ. And her yearly guarantee is much larger than what the average professional woman earns...
Since this 16 year old girl launched "Sweet Bunch of Daisies" in Chicago, attending to the printing of the music, designing, the title page and the placing of the song on the market, it has sold about one million copies. In those days the composer's profits amounted to [optimistically] 10 cents a copy, but since those days the prices of sheet music have gone down and the composer's profits have gone with them, so that two cents a copy is considered a fair profit to be handed over by the publisher to the lyric and melody writer.
"My friends tried their best to persuade me to let some music publishing house handle my first song, but I was determined to look after the business end myself," said Miss Owen the other day. "What did I, a girl of 16, know of publishing music? Nothing at all, and now I marvel at my courage. But the success of the song was in no way due to its launching. It sold in spite of, rather on account of, my efforts.
"By the end of the first year checks began to come in so fast that I could not keep count of them, and as soon as I had an armful, I converted them into gold, which I kept stored in a vault in a bank. My convent head soon became turned by all this money and I rushed into all sorts of extravagances. I bought French gowns by the half dozen, had a maid and my own carriages, traveled wherever I wanted to, and felt like a Cinderella who had suddenly been released from the brown convent walls and got all the money she wanted to spend and told to enjoy herself. I did enjoy every cent of my wealth, and it all seemed just like a fairy tale to find that I suddenly began to have a steady income of from ten to fifteen thousand a year, when a year before I had no money at all.
"But you can not live always on the proceeds of one popular song," said Miss Owen. "Not when you spend your earnings as I did, and after I had had all the fun and the dresses and the traveling I wanted I took up my pencil and paper again and sat at the piano hours at a time setting other words to the music which ran through my head. But the 'Sweet Bunch of Daisies' had cut out a path which I had to follow to please my publishers, for they called me the writer of flower songs, and whenever I brought in something that had no mention of roses or daisies or pansies — some sentimental flower — they looked disappointed. One of my favorite songs, the 'lnvitation Waltz Song,' was written for and sung by Marie Van Studdiford, but it has never reached the popularity of my first attempt."
Before she was even out of her teens, Anita, as she now called herself, worked to become established as a serious composer. With the help of her father she set up the Wabash Music Company in order to publish and distribute her early works. Sweet Bunch of Daisies was, by some accounts, a record breaker in the 1890s, particularly for a woman, having sold over one million copies within a fifteen years of its 1894 publishing debut. Anita's affinity for flowers or floral music, as many of her subsequent works would be about daisies or roses, was obviously challenged by her own words. However, Owens' interest in the floral subjects that she wrote on eventually extended into her daily life as well. According to an article in the Music Trade Review in 1910:
Miss Owen, who has made a fortune writing flower songs, has a conservatory containing a profusion of beautiful floral plants adjoining the music room of her home, and the fragrance of sweet flowers permeates and fills the air when she composes.
Early on Anita wrote with popular lyricist Arthur J. Lamb and two others, but soon found she had a talent with lyrics as well, so all of her songs composed 1900 and later included her own lyrics. She also composed several instrumentals, including marches, waltzes, intermezzos, and one popular cakewalk in 1899, Dance of the Collywobbles, published under the Wabash logo. The title refers to a phrase used to indicate intestinal disorder or an upset stomach. As of the 1900 census, Anita was living in south Chicago, Illinois, listed as a song composer. She had also acquired an assistant who stayed with her for over a dozen years, Hattie Von Bulow, who was listed as Anita's private secretary in public records including the census. Nothing further was found on the personal aspect of their relationship. Hattie appears to possibly have been related to musician Dr. Hans Von Bulow, and either of them may have arranged and fingered some of her works.
A number of Anita's songs found their way to the stage in the first decade of the century, including a clever tune called Sweet Sally O'Malley and another Irish-themed number, Ellen O'Hagen. She also completed and copyrighted The Great Mogul (some sources mistakenly have The Grand Mogul), "A Romantic Comic Opera in Three Acts," in 1903. According to various accounts in trade and New York newspapers, The Great Mogul was successfully produced and staged a number of times. A copy of the entire work still exists on microfilm at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and assumedly at the Library of Congress.
The reason for the dual naming of the work is the result of an alleged piracy. At one run in 1906 at the Colonial Theater in Chicago, its legitimacy was called into question. According to an article from December 22, 1906:
Suit for an accounting on the ground that 'The Grand Mogul,' now showing at a local theatre, was pirated from 'The Great Mogul,' an opera by Miss Anita Owen, was filed in [Chicago] circuit court yesterday by Attorney H. J. Toner on behalf of Miss Owen... Miss Owen alleges that she submitted her production to Mr. [Frank] Moulan and Mr. [Herbert] Gresham a year after it was copyrighted in 1903, and that it was rejected. Afterward, according to the allegations in her petition, Messrs. [Frank] Pixley [lyricist] and [Gustav] Luders [composer] were commissoined by Klaw and Erlanger to build an opera on the ideas obtained from her manuscript, and the result was produced as 'The Grand Mogul.'
The defendants denied the charges, with Pixley claiming he had written his plot as early as 1900. The outcome of the trial was not found in the author's research.
By mid-decade Anita and Hattie had moved to Manhattan, New York. In early 1908 publisher Jerome H. Remick bought Wabash Music and in doing so acquired not only the catalog of Anita's works, but the composer as well. For the next several years most of her works were published by Remick. After a number of moderate hits she found her stride again with a 1908 best seller, Daisies Won't Tell, one of the most popular "daisy" songs of all time. The instrumental intermezzo Fire Fly also did well and was recorded on cylinder along with some of her "daisy" tunes. Remick had an agreement with her to compose several semi-classical compositions for their "Library Edition" which targeted both artists and music teachers.
The 1910 census shows Daisy and Hattie in Manhattan with Daisy now listed as a music playwright, although no works have been found specifically composed for Broadway by Ms. Owen. It is not known when Hattie moved on, but the last listing found for her with Anita is 1911 in the Manhattan city directory. The 1913 Manhattan city directory is the last in which Anita appeared. She may have moved around this time up to Bridgeport, Connecticut, continuing her work from there through the mid-1910s.
On February 27, 1917, Anita was married to a Bridgeport dentist who was raised in New Hampshire, Dr. Arthur J. Jones. The ceremony was held at The Little Church Around the Corner on East 29th in Manhattan. Anita continued to compose under her maiden name, quite heavily for at least another three years, with a particularly long list of works published in 1919. It was reported in an article planted by Jones that the Jones Music Company of New York, which was started by her husband, claimed that they had engaged Owen, "the daisy songwriter," for three waltz songs at the paid sum of $30,000. Some of those listed above for 1919 were likely included in that group. There were predictions about a bright future for the aging writer in the wake of her resistance to jazz music.
While in reality none of the pieces captured her previous success, they still saw fairly good sales under both the Jones and Remick logos. One interesting instrumental was a fox trot from 1920, Alla, dedicated to "The Famous Artiste and Metropolitan Star, Mme. Alla Nazimova." It was one of her only works in this particular dance genre but sold very well at its debut.
The Joneses seem to have evaded the rapidly taken 1920 census in spite of deep searches on variations of their collective names. Now in her late forties, Anita appears to have quit composing, or at least publishing her works, retiring from music. It is known that they relocated to from Bridgeport to New Haven, Connecticut around 1923. As of the 1930 census, Arthur was listed as a commercial salesman for wholesale dental supplies, while Anita no longer showed any occupation. In 1932 Anita Owen Jones died at St. Raphael's Hospital in New Haven after a short bout of pneumonia, just before her 58th birthday.
Muriel Pollock (it was sometimes seen spelled as Pollack) was a first-generation American, the daughter of Russian immigrants Joseph Pollock and his wife Rose. She was born Mary Pollock in Kingsbridge, New York, the oldest of three siblings, including Robert (1/1896) and Ruth (1906). As of 1900 the family was living in the Bronx in New York City with Joseph working as a news butcher. In the 1905 New York state census he was listed as a clothing manufacturer, but soon went back into newspapers. By the early 1910s, Mary started going by Muriel, which may have been her middle name. Her nickname was Molly, used more commonly in her later years.
At a young age musician Henry B. Harris recognized her unique musical talents, and helpe Mary obtain a musical education at the New York Institute of Musical Art (later known as Juilliard), focusing on harmony and performance. She helped support herself in school by playing in Manhattan movie houses both as pianist and orchestraleader, and working her father’s newspaper stand at the Far Rockaway, New York, train station. In 1914 Muriel teamed up with Mrs. Marie Wardall to write a musical comedy, Mme. Pom Pom. It was debuted on her 19th birthday (although she claimed 17th for the newspapers) and actually had a great deal of local support, as noted in this 1914 review:
Miss Muriel Pollock, a recent high school graduate, who not only takes but gives music lesson, leads an orchestra in a moving picture theatre and in her spare moments tends her father’s news stand in Far Rockaway, made her debut last night as a composer of musical comedy before an audience that crowded the ballroom of the Far Rockaway Club. It was an important night in this busy young woman’s career as, coincident with her “arrival” as a composer, she celebrated her seventeenth [sic] birthday.
The Collaborator with Miss Pollock was Mrs. Marie Warbell [sic], who furnished the book and some of the lyrics. Mr. Isidor Witmark [a son of music publisher M. Witmark] led the orchestra of twenty-six musicians, and Mr. James W. Castle was the stage manager.
The music comedy, called “Mme. Pom Pon,” [sic] told a lively story in two acts of thetexperiences of twenty-six young men and women at a fashionable resort in Florida, and in the telling the company sang constantly and well and danced upon the slightest provocation.
Muriel would write a few other works with Marie Wardall, but they would not be copyrighted or published until the late 1910s. Later in 1914 she debuted the work Carnival at a carnival held to support the Sanitarium for Hebrew Children in Rockaway Park, leading a band in the work. Over the next couple of years Muriel continued to work in the movie houses, but also made an effort to break into music either via Broadway shows or music publishers. Among the pieces she composed in that period was her iconic Rooster Rag, which is still popular a century later. The rag is slighty suspect in that the A section is a relatively direct quote of Missouri composer Artie Matthews’ Pastime Rag #1, but it becomes more original in the later sections. Muriel eventually did make incursions into professional music, but it was through another popular media form of the time. By 1917, she was part of the piano roll recording and editing staff for the Rythmodik Music Corporation, a branch of Ampico. She was shown as employed as a music composer by Rythmodik in the January, 1920, enumeration, but living across the river in Closter, New Jersey still living with her family. When the focus of Ampico shifted away from the Rythmodik line around mid=1920 she moved to the Mel-O-Dee Music Company. Muriel's roll recordings showed how adept she was in the interpretation of works by novelty writers, but her early work was more focused on editing the playing of others, fashioning ideal performances. There was an interesting account of her piano roll work by writer Robert A. Simon published in a May 1920 edition of The New York Evening Post, and is excerpted here:
"The most remarkable thing about player pianos," recently commented a man who owns one, "is the fact that famous pianists are able to make hand-played rolls of their best numbers without a mistake. Aren't they nervous when they record for posterity? Or do they forget about temperament and rattle off a flawless performance for the machine?"
There are several reasons why hand-played rolls fail to reveal the "blue" notes, which sometimes drop from the most magical fingers. One of the best reasons is Miss Muriel Pollock, whose job it is to edit recordings for a large player-piano house. Editing isn't Miss Pollock's only calling; she admits that she herself has made a recording of "Dardanella" and that sometimes she composes. Take it either way, she is a specialist in "blues," whether she eliminates them or immortalizes them on the perforated paper.
"My troubles start where the player's leave off," explained Miss Pollock in her little cubbyhole in the recording studios. "When a famous pianist like Rachmaninoff or Mischa Levitski comes to play for us he goes into a room with a recording piano. There he plays all by himself, and the roll tells the rest."
Miss Pollock, however, soothes the irate genius by cryptic red and black pencilings on the master roll, after which an equally cryptic mechanical process removes the "notes that are sweeter unheard.
"Don't you think that a pianist is entitled to a few 'blue' notes when he plays rolls?" I suggested, "knowing that future generations will judge him by what passes between him and the piano alone in that little recording room?"
'"They aren't always alone," replied Miss Pollock, "although most of them prefer to record without company. There's one woman, whose fame extends beyond their piano playing, who feels that she performs better when she carries with her the contents of several bottles of expensive, not to say far-reaching, perfume. And then there's a young pianist who likes to be accompanied on a second piano, with some one beating time for him. One great symphonic conductor broke a lovely new baton the other day while we were recording a concerto."
However, concert pianists are not so eccentric as the folk who make the dance rolls. "Rag players are the most temperamental," said Miss Pollock. "Even the women players of classic music are less emotional than the jazz artists. I know of one fox-trot exponent who would like to play in evening clothes to give class to his offerings. Concert pianists worry about shading and expression, but jazz players worry about soul. There are enough souls floating about loose when there's a blues recording going on to supply most of the ouija boards in town."
Although world-renowned musicians hover constantly about Miss Pollock's studio, her greatest thrill came not so many years ago when she started her musical career as a pianist in a movie house somewhere on Long Island. "I was only a kid then," she reminisced, "and one night, between shows, a man came down to the piano and said: 'You played that last piece better than any one I ever heard and I ought to know because I wrote it'."
Miss Pollock strummed a few bars on her piano. "Do you recognize it?" she asked. It was "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee."
"Who are the celebrities whose rolls you have laundered?" I inquired. Miss Pollock reeled off a list that sounded like the musical "Who's Who?" "But don't mention all these names," she implored, "because they might get excited, and the next time they played for us [there would] be so many blue notes that I mightn't be able to catch all of them—and then posterity might blame the pianist instead of me."
Throughout her career Pollock collaborated with a number of lyricists, creating both popular songs and stage musicals. Some of the first notices of Muriel playing for public concerts were found in 1920. In 1923 Muriel had two of her pieces interpolated into the Broadway show Jack and Jill, which ran for 92 performances. From the late 1920s to early 1930s, while still in New York, Muriel teamed up with pianist Constance Mering on the radio for a number of vivacious duets. They also cut several rolls for the Duo-Art label. Advertisements of 1925 and later show the name of another partner, Vee Lawnhurst (often shown as V. Lawnhurst) as well.
In 1925 Muriel made her first foray into marriage. There were red flags from the start, and it eventually failed, but it was announced in November of 1925 that she had married Professer Leon Leroy Groll of Pelham Manor, New York on October 15. Groll was an Austrian immigrant born in 1878 who was known as a Physical Culture Instructor, analogous to a personal trainer. He also worked as an ice skater, in early films, and soon became an expert equestrian and riding instructor as well. In 1915 he was the co-respondent in a divorce case concerning Mabelle M. Lane, in which he had allegedly kissed and made other advances to her while her daughter, Gertrude, stood outside holding their horses. Mr. Lane was soon granted his divorce. In a strange twist, Groll ended up marrying their daughter Gertrude in 1917 when he was 36 and she was just 18. Both parents were in attendance that day.
His first marriage having dissolved in the early 1920s, Groll then went after Muriel. They settled at his Pelham Manor equestrian facility where she continued to compose and perform, albeit keeping her professional and maiden name of Pollock. In 1926 Muriel advertised “Instruction in Piano,” saying she would “accept a limited number of pupils,” giving Grolls’s Riding Academy as her address. The last mention of Muriel in respect to Leon was in 1927. The time line becomes murky here, but it is apparent that she left the marriage before 1930, and was not found in that enumeration, nor was Leon. He married once more, and divorced once more, finally committing suicide in 1962 in order to escape some bodily pain he was experiencing.
Keeping up with her professional life, Muriel and Constance were featured nightly in the musicals Rio Rita (1927-1928) and Ups-a-Daisy (1928) on Broadway, a time during which two piano teams like Victor Arden and Phil Ohman were big draws in the theaters. The following year, Pleasure Bound, a stage musical that she wrote much of the music for, had a fairly decent run of 136 performances before closing. She allegedly wrote many more musicals, but this is the only one known to have been produced on Broadway. Pollock and Mering continued to sparkle with their inimitable style over the radio into the late 1930s, but Lawnhurst's name started to show up with increasing frequency as her alternate partner, and Mering's faded at the same time.
Although the timing is unclear, Muriel was married around 1933 to William "Will" John Donaldson, a songwriter who co-wrote Rialto Ripples with Gershwin, and also worked for the Rythmodik branch of Aeolian as a staff artist and producer. The 1930 census showed him as married in 1926 but living along in Manhattan. A 1934 article indicates that his wife had just lost a sixteen week battle with illness. So it is unclear whether Will and his first wife were even married at that juncture, but it seems that they had already dissolved that union. Pollock's last known contribution to the Great White Way would be in Shoot the Works in 1931, which included a hodgepodge of pieces by composers as diverse as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Muriel became a member of American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1933.
In addition to her piano performance, she was becoming known as a skilled organist as well, and would often focus on theater organs for her later appearances on radio. More importantly, Muriel believed in the power of radio broadcasts and felt that they could be even better utilized for the dissemination of culture and music. In an effort to prove this, under the sponsorship of the Palmolive Company and director Gustave Haenschen, she composed a suite of Spanish-themed pieces in 1929, debuting the first of them, Dance Espanol, exclusively on the Palmolive program on NBC. In Muriel's own words came a fairly accurate assessment of the future of the medium:
I firmly believe that the time has come for radio to demand its own special form of music and that many such compositions from now on will first reach the ears of the public via the air. To my mind radio demands a special technique of the composer just as it does of the musician and the vocalist and that the finest music of the air will be written specially for it with a clever understanding of the musical requirements of the broadcast studio. In addition to meeting with these requiremets the composers will have the thrill of presenting their work to a nation-wide audience for the first time via the air.
Even before Constance Mering's untimely death in 1933, Pollock was playing duets almost exclusively with Vee Lawnhurst, usually for NBC. Often billed as the Ladybugs, and later the Lady Fingers (after a New columnist applied the term Lady Bugs to effeminate young men in early 1932), these New York radio fixtures continued their run of creating hot duets on both radio and record, and some of their broadcasts were being syndicated around the country. Vee was turning into a fine composer as well, contributing music for interpolation into some Broadway revues. Muriel was showing up quite often from 1929 on as a solo artist on programs with widely varying content, often a mix of popular classics and popular songs. She even played one piano roll duet with George Gershwin, the Aeolian version of Make Believe.
Will and Muriel (and assumably not his first wife) had a son, Theodore (Ted) Donaldson, born in August of 1933. They appear to have remained in New York through the early 1940s, although Donaldson had made some excursions to Hollywood, California, largely as an arranger for films. The couple and their son were found living temporarily in midtown Manhattan for the 1940 census, both listed as musicians working in broadcasting. Will was still in Manhattan for the 1942 draft as well.
Muriel worked to reinvent herself again in the late 1930s, this time writing short radio musicals for children, many of which were broadcast in syndication from 1940 into the early 1950s. Most of those in the early 1940s were written with Madge Tucker ("The Lady Next Door"), NBC's director of children's programming. Some were also reduced in size to accommodate children's record sets. During this time she often wrote under the name Molly Donaldson. Also, selected compositions for children's piano books were composed with her son Ted.
When Pollock and Donaldson moved to California in the early 1940s, Muriel, now without Lawnhurst as her playing partner, was unable to retain the popularity that she had sustained in New York. Her solo broadcasts on NBC continued, often as a guest artists on popular programs and more on organ than piano. Some were from California and some were done from New York when she could get there. Muriel eventually faded from public view. Her husband continued working as a composer and arranger on both coasts throughout the late 1940s, in both recording and movie studios. Their son Ted, had been acting since he was four on stage, radio, and in some movies as a talented child performer. His big screen debut was with Cary Grant in 1943. The family lived at 1422 N. Alta Vista Blvd. throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s.
Having some difficulty in maintaining steady work in her fifties, Muriel more or less retired by 1950. With Will she wrote The Boys and Girls Quiz Book in 1940. Will Donaldson, died in 1954. On July 1, 1955, Muriel and Ted donated the Will Donaldson Collection of Theodore Drieser Books and Manuscripts to the UCLA Special Collections Department.
Muriel lived in Hollywood until her death at age 76. She bequeathed a twin stone diamond ring to Los Angeles City College, where she had furthered her education as a student in the late 1950s, for the purpose of establishing a scholarship. The ring was auctioned off in January, 1973, and started a liberal arts scholarship in her name. In the 1990s, musician Artis Wodehouse resurrected a number of fine piano rolls by Muriel and others in a MIDI format that allowed for enhanced expression on a Yamaha grand, once again bringing life to a performer who herself gave life to many great pieces during her career.
Zema Randale represents one of the more tragic cases of a promising performer, and perhaps even composer, being taken from this world much too soon for our liking. At the time she died she was a shooting star, making inroads into jazz that exceeded many of her male counterparts in the same field. Until this essay, little was known of Miss Randale's upbringing or career. The collective facts on Zema that have been discovered by the author are presented here, some for the first time, along with a few contemporary articles from periodicals that were written during her nearly three year rise to fame. Among the pieces of speculative information that have long been in circulation concerning Miss Randale, this information refutes the notion that she achieved her playing fame and met her death while still in her teens.
Her origin is presented here as the most likely scenario found, with a high level of confidence of known facts that are at as little variance with each other as possible.
Zema was one of two children born in Columbus, Ohio to Levi M. Householder and Matilda Mae Bowland in October 1893, the other being her older brother, Owen B. (7/1890). Levi was originally a furniture, stoves and tinware dealer, and possibly as a construction contractor. By 1896 he was a furnishings salesman for Yardley & Harsh in Columbus. Matilda was listed as a dressmaker in the city directories. As of the 1900 census Zema was shown to be six, dispelling the notion she was born that year. By 1905, Levi had switched careers to carpentry. He died in May of 1907.
Efforts to find the origin of the Randale name in association with Zema met with no definitive answer. However, Zema's acquired stage name started to appear in vaudeville notices in the Midwest in late 1908. By this time she had become an actress of some versatility, and was known more for her stage talents than her piano playing, which was still developing. This versatility was underscored in 1909 when she appeared in Zanesville, Ohio, playing the lead role in Peck's Bad Boy, based on a series of stories about a teen-aged boy and his comic adventures. This was the same play in which young George M. Cohan starred in the 1880s and made his initial fame. The picture (right) that went with the ad shows her as clearly older than 8 or 9 years old, likely in her mid teens.
In the 1910 census Zema was shown living with her widowed mother, Mae Householder, in Columbus, but Owen, nearly 20, had evidently moved out of the home. Zema was also listed under her birth name rather than as Randale. Curiously, both mother and daughter relocated during the census period of April 15th to 26th as on April 16th they are shown at boarding at 153 Winter Avenue, and a week or so later they were found living at 1301 High Street. Mary was working as a seamstress or dressmaker in a dry goods store, and Zema was listed as sixteen, working as an actress on the vaudeville/theatrical circuit. It is also possible that these were both temporary residences as Zema was traveling in vaudeville by this time, or they may have simply been in the process of moving.
Another clue was revealed in 1910 as Zema was appearing with a Betty Randale. No direct relationship between the two was found, and they were not billed as a sister act; only as a girl act. Betty may have been a cousin or other relative, and the source of the Randale name, but anybody under that name was difficult to pinpoint in the census or any city directories. They were advertised in the Bismarck Daily Tribune on January 29, 1911 appearing at the Grand Theater: "Zema and Betty Randale, in songs, dances and pianologue, are a pair that is hard to beat anywhere, and are considered as one of the best act[s] in the circuit. This being the fact leaves no doubt as to the high quality of the act." The subsequent review on January 31 read: "Zema and Betty Randale, who bill themselves 'a pair hard to beat,' more than make good that claim. We have yet to see their equal on a Bismarck stage."
It is surmised that in this act Zema was the pianist, but may have also done some singing and dancing. Since she later showed an excellent acuity as a writer, Zema may have also worked as a young piano monologist, a term which stage veteran Cora Salisbury termed as a "pianologist." Notices were also found for Zema and Betty with a host of others at the Airdome in Lincoln, Nebraska, in August 1911, a brief mentions in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio in 1911 and 1912.
The screen goes blank for a year or so, a period of time in which Zema, approaching twenty, was possibly receiving further training in her pianistic skills. By late 1913 these had become considerable within the vaudeville circuit in Illinois, where she had settled. She started recording piano rolls for the Imperial Player Roll Company as early as October, 1914, when she was 21. In the December, 1914, edition of The Piano Magazine, Imperial announced their new acquisition:
A remarkable player of 'rag time de luxe' discovered by the Imperial Player Roll Company of Chicago, Miss Randale is a resident of Chicago and her piano playing is characterized by remarkable originality and clarity of expression. Her hand played rolls will be featured in the Imperial catalogue exclusively.
Miss Randale's pianistic prowess got her noticed in other musical circles as well. As noted in The Music Trade Review of December 18, 1915:
Miss Zema Randale, a well-known pianist of Chicago, who has made scores of records [piano rolls] for the Cable piano player, is conducting the orchestra which has been engaged for the White and Black Room of the Livingston Hotel, where informal dances are held in connection with the cafe.
Obviously her focus had changed from overall stage performance to primarily piano, and that a female of her age was put in front of a mostly male orchestra also speaks well of her acquired reputation. Zema ventured into the field of composition as well, having her clever Mutilation Rag, commissioned and published by the Cable Piano Company in mid 1915. There were reportedly more pieces composed by her, but to date only one song has come to light.
The Imperial Company had a good reputation for high quality "hand-played" (well edited) piano rolls with top local artists. Having added Zema to their roster around 1914, they started advertising her as a top "raggist" in 1916 along with their whiz kid from the University of Chicago, Lewis J. Fuiks. Her work was described in glowing terms in The Music Trade Review of September 30, 1916:
Zema Randale has run amuck with Felix Arndt's Operatic Nightmare in the Imperial Co.'s October bulletin. The demon Zema has ragged this naturally distorted composition until it sounds like a twelve-cylinder car with the ignition system out of order. However, in the "tutti" she strikes her stride, hitting smoothly on all twelve cylinders with nary a miss to the elaborate ending. This is one of Miss Randale's finest recordings and will stand for a long time as a splendid example of ultra modern ragtime, the type of music for which America has become so renowned. For ragtime, if not the highest, is the most distinctive type of American music.
Miss Randale's aptitude for this type of playing was discovered at an early age. At the present time, she stands as one of the foremost exponents of real ragtime in this country. Her ragtime acrobatics have attracted the attention of managers of theatres. Some of the country's best musicians consider Zema's peculiar genius of intense interest from the standpoint of counterpoint. For this young lady, although lacking an academic musical education, can simultaneously play two different melodies, blending their contra-motion in a manner which would cause Bach to grow green with envy.
And she does it extemporaneously! That's what interests musicians. It's a gift with which few musical souls have been endowed. It is said that during her engagement at one of the Chicago theatres no less an authority than Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler found much interest in listening to Zema's original performances.
Even in her first two years at Imperial, Zema Randale's name quickly spread throughout the industry as a performer to pay attention to. A forward thinker in many ways, she was concerned with all facets of the process from the arrangements and recording of the rolls to how they were received by the consumer. Her thinking never got in the way of innovation, apparently, as this article in The Music Trade Review of November 14, 1916. would indicate:
Zema Gets Ahead of Herself
Zema Randale, one of the Imperial Co.'s staff pianists, is a musical enigma. A late display of her genius was quite accidentally caused by a discussion in the recording room between Miss Randale and William Hartmann, chief arranger, as to the most effective way to play the second chorus in a popular ragtime number. Mr. Hartmann, who constantly strives for new musical effects in player rolls, was suggesting to Miss Randale an idea of his. Miss Randale absorbed Mr. Hartmann's view and then with a display of versatility with which she is gifted, she agreed to play the second chorus with the right hand one beat ahead of the left hand, and yet producing a rhythmic and symmetrical composition which would satisfy the most ardent admirer of ultra-modern ragtime.
The result was that Miss Randale played the composition in such a manner that musicians who have studied the second chorus are at a loss to comprehend how she so entirely avoided the unity with which the two hands normally co-ordinate.
An eminent psychologist from the University of Chicago, who is also strongly musically inclined, has called this faculty of Miss Randale's one of her best exhibitions of real genius. For, in this number, she not only destroys the unity customarily existing, but she spreads over the whole a co-ordination of musical values which makes the entire production both musical and of decided interest to students of music and psychology.
Keyboard wizards Randale and Fuiks turned out some of the best of the Imperial arrangements of popular songs and instrumentals throughout 1916, after which Lewis left for New York to pursue a career with Ampico under the name Victor Arden. Zema remained in Chicago, not only venturing into jazz recordings in 1917, but gaining traction as one of the finest ballad interpreters in the industry. She was soon joined by Charley Straight who would also make his own mark on Imperial, and even record some duet rolls with her.
Randale had become the face of Imperial, known as one of the first female artists to record the new music, "jazz," to piano rolls. In a review of another trade exposition in Chicago in May, The Music Trade Review noted that:
The Imperial Player Roll Co., makers of 'Songrecord' player rolls, will be one of the exhibitors at the Coliseum during the Music Show, and will show a fine display of the company's product with strong specialization on the company's rolls with words and the "jazz" library with which the company has been doing such a fine business. Zema Randale, who is one of the best recorders of the popular in music, will be in charge, and will personally see that the Imperial line does not lack for adequate representation.
The end result of that effort, as written up two weeks later, was that:
The Imperial Music Roll Co. had a booth that, although it wasn't the largest, was one of the busiest and most popular of the entire exposition. Zema Randale, whose "jazz rolls" have been such a popular feature of the Imperial library, acted as hostess in a most charming fashion' and together with G. G. Bradford and other talented Chicago singers kept a crowd congregated continually about the exhibit and oftentimes obstructing traffic.
Zema's growing gravitas helped her lead the charge for Imperial at another piano trade show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in mid-July of 1917.
Robert E. Lauer, manager of the piano department of the Boston Store, this city, is continuing with much success the series of demonstrations of the Ampico Reproducing piano, which was inaugurated several weeks ago, when Zema Randale herself made her first public appearance in Milwaukee. Mr. Lauer is a great believer in the future of the player-piano and is pushing these instruments in every way possible.
The association with Ampico is not clear, as Zema continued working exlusively for Imperial as per her contract with them.
As Miss Randale’s name and her product grew in popularity, there was a natural curiosity to find out who the girl behind this powerhouse musician really was and what motivated her. One of the best examples of this type of a window into her mind was printed in The Music Trade Review in their January 5, 1918 issue, which included a rare informative interview with the artist:
ZEMA RANDALE TALKS ON MUSIC
Imperial Player Roll Artist Tells of Progress Being Made in Securing Faithful Reproductions of the Work of the Pianist
A good many good folks still look upon the player-piano as a medium for the dispensing of "canned melodies," and this unwarranted judgment is usually due to the fact that the person who renders it has failed to keep pace with the marvelous progress made during the past year or two in the reproduction of pianistic effects through the medium of the greatly improved player roll.
The old machine-cut roll was mechanical and very often it was harsh and full of faults. But with the introduction of the hand-played roll these defects were gradually overcome, and the final perfection of a reproducing process by the Imperial Player Roll Co. has changed all of this. Now the artist, after careful preparation, plays a selection and every touch is truthfully reportrayed upon the master roll. Every artistic accomplishment is indelibly inscribed - ability is as if it were photographed - and after careful retouching under the direction of the artist the finished print in the form of the finished roll is passed on to the player-pianist, perfect in every detail.
In seeking information on the progress being made in this reportrayal of pianistic ability an interview was obtained with Miss Zema Randale, of the Imperial Player Roll Co. Miss Randale is probably best known through her interpretation of old-time melodies and popular ballads of the day, together with the best in modern dance music. Miss Randale said, in talking of her work:
"I have been playing dance music for a good many years, and, of course, you realize that in playing modern dance music perfect time is absolutely essential, and likewise one must be unusually careful of the harmony, and here it is that my work with the Imperial Co. has been of wonderful help.
"I played my first Imperial rolls with a great degree of confidence. I felt that I was in full command of the piano, and when the first proofs of these first numbers came to me and I played them on the player I must admit that I was delighted with the results. I felt that each roll was a true portrait of my ability, and, handing the roll to our advertising manager, I said, "It is I - I hope folks will like me.'
"But there is another thing about producing rolls as we produce them in the Imperial Co.: I said I felt confident of my mastery, my command of the piano. I felt that I knew just exactly what would come out on the rolls which I produced. Imagine my surprise and my delight on discovering in my rolls little touches of harmony which I had never heard before.
"I must have been putting these things into my playing unconsciously, and unquestionably these were the things which made my playing popular.
"You can well believe that I improved on this discovery I sought for more of these little touches, and I truly believe that my playing for Imperial rolls has clone more to improve my technique, to give a smoothness and a finish to my playing, than even my many years of study, my many hours of close application to my chosen life-work.
"One of these days I am going to put into print what I believe my Imperial player rolls can teach the music-loving public. For, although player roll music in the past has been largely recreational, I am confident that its future will be just as largely educational."
In her continuing development of a fluid ballad performance style, Zema realized that the end user was often uneducated in the facets of performance they could apply through controls on their own home player piano. Proper manipulation of treble or bass volume variances, pumping pressure, and even tempo changes can be rendered to enhance the playback of any edited "hand-played" roll to, in some cases, rival that of an automated reproducing piano. To that end, Imperial and Zema wanted to find a way to convey this to the consumer. So she had a large hand in creating a small booklet that could be included with rolls or given out separately which not only informed the pianolist how to utilize their piano's controls to great musical advantage, but also detailed the process of creating the rolls in layman's terms. The Music Trade Review enthusiastically commented on this development in their February 23, 1918 issue:
Imperial Educational Work
It is one thing to produce a good thing and another thing to secure its intelligent use by the ultimate purchaser. That makes two good things.
The Imperial Player Roll Co. have just published a little booklet on "Ballads," by Zema Randale, of the company's recording staff. Miss Randale first describes the manner in which she records for the Imperial rolls. This is decidedly interesting, but the most valuable part is found in her very lucid instructions to playerpiano operators by which they can get the most out of the ballads. She takes a specific song record, "Lorraine, My Beautiful Alsace-Lorraine," and gives valuable interpretative hints.
This is excellent work and of a genuinely good nature. As a matter of fact not enough of this kind of educational campaigning is done by the music roll manufacturers. They are beginning to learn, however, that they can through the means of the printed word give concise and easily comprehended instructions for getting the most out of their rolls. It is to be hoped that we will see a constantly increasing effort of this kind.
More detail was provided about this groundbreaking booklet in their March 30 issue:
The brochure is small enough to slip into a music roll box. It contains a portrait of Miss Randale, and comprises a short talk, ostensibly by that lady, setting forth the manner in which she prepares her records of popular ballads for publication as Imperial hand-played rolls. The story tells simply the whole process, bearing hard on the personal side of the work and very lightly on the technical side. It is very interesting indeed, and shows the amount of care and skill needed to get a satisfactory and successful record of even a simple song. Indeed, without any desire to conceal the fact that the story is rather highly colored in its tone, it does not tell other than the truth; and tells it in a way that cannot but be popular. Following the description of her own work, the gifted lady demon of the keyboard goes on to tell how the person who takes her roll to his or her playerpiano should play the same to get satisfactory results. Here also, allowing for some pardonable and slight musical solecisms, the story is well and simply, but effectively told. A list of Randale interpretations concludes the contents of this interesting little booklet.
An excerpt from "Imperial Ballads," extracted from the excellent Billings Rollography compiled by Bob and Ginny Billings, reads as follows:
After selecting some particular number, I make it a practice to go over it carefully, note by note. I study the harmony with exacting care. I search diligently for those sections in every song which I know from experience are liable to become harsh, to predominate in its finished roll, when, in fact, they should be carefully subdued. Then I make it a practice to practice the chosen number over and over and over again, until I can play it with unerring exactness.
Then comes a period of playing the entire selection, passage by passage, to discover possible pianistic effects not present in the original score, and here, if I may say it, is the real test of an artist's ability in reproducing for the Player Piano. Of course, one must be letter perfect, one must have perfect command of the piano, and in addition, one must have the ability to discover these pianistic possibilities or the finished roll will be flat, uninteresting, a mere technical reproduction of so many notes in such and such sequence.
After all of these preliminaries, the first proof is cut directly from my playing on the piano in the Imperial Studio, and in this work I use a big Concert Grand...
When these first proofs are cut, I first play them on the players, and you can imagine the delightful experience of hearing one's technique and talent on such occasions. True, I am not always flattered by the results...
I then have an assistant play [the first proof] while I accompany the roll on the Grand Piano to detect every possible flaw. After innumerable changes, all designed to effect perfection, the master roll is finished and its replicas boxed and passed on to you.
Zema contracted diphtheria, a highly contagious and serious respiratory ailment, in early April. During her week in the hospital it was reported in an article from The Music Trade Review of April 20, 1918, that the piano whiz "...made a brave battle for life, and the specialists and nurses in attendance marveled at her wonderful resistance and her cheerfulness and optimism throughout the siege of sickness.” Sadly she made it only to Saturday, April 13, when she passed on at the age of 24½. To add to the tragedy, her fiancé, Mr. George Reed Wright Jr. (5/1892), was "somewhere on the Atlantic" as a member of the United States Government Scout Patrol service, part of the Navy. The couple was to have been married at the end of April, and Mr. Wright did not find out about the tragedy until he arrived in Chicago to prepare for the wedding. As of the 1930 enumeration, George was still unmarried, living with his widowed mother.
Miss Randale was interred at Oakwoods Cemetery in Chicago. On the anniversary of her death from at least 1919 to 1921 there was a notice printed in the Chicago Tribune obituaries that read similiary to this one from 1920: "IN MEMORIAM. HOUSEHOLDER -- Zema Randale Householder. In loving memory of our dear daughter and sister, who passed to beyond two years ago April 13. We Mourn for you, dear Zema, Though not with outward show; For hearts that mourn sincerely, mourn solemnly and low. MOTHER AND BROTHER." Mae Householder eventually died in 1924.
Zema Randale's amazing musical legacy in both words and music was no puzzle, and her rolls continued to be featured by Imperial for some time, and later by QRS when they obtained the Imperial catalog around 1923. The legendary Zema Randale still resonates with many piano roll enthusiasts today who marvel at this lovely "demon of the keyboard."
Bess Rudisill was born in Rensselaer, Ralls County, Missouri, around 100 miles from the area considered to be the "Cradle of Ragtime." She was the second of four children born to James W. Rudisill and Ella M. Bradley, including one older sister, Mina, and two younger brothers, Corwin and Alva Robert. Soon after she was born the family moved to the nearby New London Missouri, area. At the time of her birth Mr. Rudisill was a farmer. However, the 1900 Census shows James as a drug store clerk and Ella as a dressmaker, the family having moved once again, this time west to Spencer in the same area of Missouri. Bess was still in school at that time.
According to information uncovered by historian Nora Hulse, the family as a whole was rather musical. One clipping describing a local contest for the best musical family talked about James as the violinist, Ella as the cellist, Mina on the less than musical comb, and Bess at the piano. After playing "some soul stirring selections" they took the prize for the contest. James also had his own small string group for which Bess accompanied for dances, starting as young as 14 years. She was also elected the organist for a local group of young Baptists. Her inherent musicality was rewarded in 1900 when the citizens of New London sponsored a musical and literary program at the local Opera House, with the proceeds going to procure a piano for the talented teen. That same summer the family moved to St. Louis to afford their daughter the opportunity to work in the music department of the elegant Crawford's Department Store. (The beautiful original building still exists in downtown St. Louis.)
As for composing, Bess had already started writing her own tunes by age 11. So it was not long after the family had relocated to Saint Louis that she got her first piece into print, Francis Two Step, which was dedicated to D.R. Francis, president of the company that was working on the upcoming Lewis and Clark Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or World’s Fair. It was soon followed by Polka Dot: March and Two Step, published first in Saint Louis, then later bought and reissued by Harold Rossiter in Chicago. As an encore to that Bess came up with Way Down East which was ultimately released in two editions with varying covers. It was dedicated to Pattie Buchanan of Billings, Montana, cited as her teacher. Given the time line, it seems more likely that Miss Buchanan was either from or had perhaps relocated to Billings, rather than Bess or the family having ventured that far from Missouri. Many of her earlier works were issued by Saint Louis printer Samuel Simon, but some were later bought up by larger publishing houses such as Rossiter.
Yet another raggy march, Bright Eyes, appeared the following year. Around that time she was working for the Famous department store at Broadway and Morgan as their music demonstrator. Her first true piano rag, Burning Rags, made it into print around the time of the the World's Fair in 1904. In addition, with local lyricist Eddie Dustin, she composed one of many pieces that was associated with the famous mile-long amusement pike, one of the features of the exposition. Bess found even more notoriety the following year. As recounted in the April 29, 1905 edition of The Music Trade Review:
Miss Bess Rudisill, a St. Louis girl, has been awarded one of the prizes offered by the Whitney Warner Music Publishing Co., of Detroit, for a march and two-step, 'Ain't I Lucky?' which has become popular here. She is also the composer of many other instrumental compositions. The young composer plays in the music department of the May store.
It is unclear if Miss Rudisill lived in Chicago at any point between 1904 and 1908, but she may have at least spent some time there as most of her works were published in that city, at least a half-day train ride from St. Louis. It was more likely a business arrangement while she continued to work in St. Louis, possibly even representing Whitney Warner and Remick as part of her job. In 1910 Bess was shown in the census as living in St. Louis with her parents, with James now working as a "park keeper" for the city, and Bess clearly still working as a pianist for one of the local department stores. Mina and her new husband George P. Agnew were also living in the Rudisill household.
There is some mystery as to when and how Bess met Detroit, Michigan, lumberman Earl J. Leech, but on October 19, 1911, they were married in Detroit. She may have played in the motor city for a while, and perhaps even worked for the local Jerome H. Remick publishing office, but confirmation of her Detroit activites was difficult to find. Her final published composition, The Eight O'Clock Rush, was put into print in Chicago in two different arrangements of varying difficulty shortly after her wedding. The title likely reflects a street scene between the time of dinner and when the theater shows got underway in the city.
Earl appears to be single again in Detroit directories of 1913 and later, so it appears the marriage did not last long. Bessie then opted for a run on stage as a member of the vaudeville circuit for one of the many large touring companies during the 1910s, most likely as an accompanist. She was found in Oklahoma City for the January 1920 enumeration as Bessie Rudisill, listed as divorced and working as a vaudeville musician lodging with a number of other members of the troupe, and for whatever reason having deflated her age from 35 to 29.
In 1922 Bess relocated to the West Coast, living in the Los Angeles area for the remainder of her life with her brother Robert. She became a fixture on Los Angeles radio in 1924 on station KHJ as part of the Studebaker Radio Orchestra, a small jazz ensemble. Bess is also shown as a member of the Southern California Music Company. In a Los Angeles Times review March 15, 1924, the orchestra, headed by violinist Charles H. Lindsay, was said to consist of:
...a splendid combination, designed to lighten hearts and footsteps. The degree to which this effect has registered was strongly evidenced by the frequent requests to repeat or play other numbers. Many a couple undoubtedly danced to the tunes of these smooth portrayals of classic jazz, and if the truth were known many others had their youth restored to them by this elixir of music."
In the 1930 census Bess and Robert were listed in Long Beach, California. He was also an orchestra musician, and she was now listed an organist, likely working in both theaters and churches, something she appears to have continued for most of her final years. The Rudisills were living on Shrine Place in 1940 for the census, Bess listed as a theater organist, and with a lodger, Betty Hodges, listed as a “partner,”. Nothing more was found on her, so their relationship is unclear.
Bessie appears in Los Angeles County voter records with Robert at various addresses through 1954, both listed as musicians in 1942 and 1944, after which time occupations were no longer listed. Bess Rudisill finally beat the Eight O'Clock Rush, leaving it behind at age 72 in Los Angeles, apparently having never married again. As with many other female composers and performers of her quality we wish there had been more, but we'll certainly take what we got.
Thanks as always to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for information on Bess Rudisill while in the New London area.
It seems that there are two different schools of people who know at least something about Cora Salisbury - those who study or play ragtime piano, and those who know of her great protégé Benajmin Kubelsky. The story of both will be melded together in this account, although Kubelsky in his later years always made sure they were interwined.
Cora was born in Wisconsin in the winter of 1868 to Maine native James Harrison "Harry" Folsom and his bride Eliza Ann Knofsker, their only child. For the 1870 enumeration the family was living in Oskosh, Wisconsin, along with James' younger brother Benjamin Folsom and his wife. Both brothers were working in the local saw mill, as lumber was a big Wisconsin industry in the exponentially expanding United States. The family was still living in Oshkosh, for the 1880 census, in which Harry was listed as a saw filer. In 1884 Harrison passed on. His widow, Eliza, started taking in boarders, something she would do throughout the next two decades.
Most of those who stayed at the Folsom boarding house turned out to be theatrical types in traveling troupes or Chautauquas, usually at the Grand Opera House in town. So Cora certainly had exposure to contemporary music and learned something about working on the stage. Cora had been learning piano throughout her teens. She is mentioned in a February, 1887 article in Oshkosh as performing for the Carriage Men at the Y.M.C.A. along with Mary A. Grundy and the Keystone Orchestra. As the article also mentions that the two girls were “of the normal school,” it is possible that Cora was training to be a teacher. In April she was mentioned again, this time playing for Neff's Ball, a library benefit. Her name started appearing often in the local paper, over the next few years, sometimes in a social context, but often as a performer.
On June 6, 1888, Cora Folsom married newspaper editor Charles P. Salisbury, which could have been the end of a potential performance career. However she did work from time to time as an accompanist. Charles had been a newspaper man for several years, working as an editor for the Oshkosh Times, but eventually shifted careers and became the manager of the local Grand Opera House, then later in the 1890s the Great Northern Theater in Chicago.
There is no indication of whether Cora primarily played the role of housewife in the beginning or worked in music. However, it was publicly announced in 1897 that she had become a part of his musical theater troupe, the Music Hall Stock Company, based at that time in Buffalo, New York where the couple had relocated the prior year. There were also branches in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Syracuse, New York, and in 1898 Charles added the Columbia Theater in Saint Louis, Missouri. At some point by the late 1890s the marriage, which was childless, became contentious according to the family. While in Buffalo in the late 1890s, both mother and daughter fostered a relationship with Eliza's cousin Frances Folsom Cleveland, the wife of former President Grover Cleveland, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in that office.
By 1900 mother and daughter were found residing in Washington D.C. for the census, with Eliza now running a boarding house for members of congress and their aides, and Cora as a saleswoman for an indeterminate product (the garbled text looks like "toilet" but could be "toiletries"). Mentions of Charles' company are difficult to locate, so they may have been there independently of him. The pair returned to Buffalo in 1901, likely due to her husband’s current production company of A Trip to Buffalo performing there. Cora was at the Buffalo Pan American Exposition on September 6, 1901, in the Temple of Music hall (cannot confirm if it was in a performance capacity), and was reportedly standing in very close proximity to President William McKinley when the attempt on his life was made by P.M. Czolgosz at 4:07 PM. McKinley would die eight days later from infections sustained from inadequate medical attention when attempts were made to remove the two bullets.
During this period it is unclear how often Charles was traveling together with Cora and Eliza due to the marital tension. However, in November of 1901 an article in The Daily Northwestern in Oshkosh cites his role as the producer of A Trip to Buffalo which had recently returned from playing in Buffalo for a short run in Oshkosh. It also indicated that Cora was accompanying him on the Eastern tour of the play. But their marriage was not to last. The couple legally called it quits with a final divorce in November of 1903. As cited on the wires in May of that year:
Miss Cora Folsom Salisbury of New York is [in Oshkosh] for the purpose of prosecuting an action for divorce against Charles P. Salisbury, formerly of [Oshkosh]. The basis of this action is non-support. The defendant was manager at one time of the Great Northern Theater in Chicago.
Eliza and Cora were reported to have gone back to Oshkosh for a time to run another boarding house. Cora was able to focus even more on music while there, not only teaching piano but taking some time to compose as well. Through this period she kept the married name of Salisbury as it was the one in which she had gained her growing reputation as a stage pianist.Cora established a base in Waukegan, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border, by the middle of the decade maintaining it through the end of her life, but often spending time in Oshkosh with her mother.
It was around 1907 that Cora created her own comic vaudeville act and started to travel, most likely with a small troupe of other vaudeville performers. She is listed in a September, 1907 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern News article performing at the Bijou vaudeville theater, giving a pianologue. On November 23, the same newspaper noted that:
Mrs. Charles P. Salisbury, who is well known in Oshkosh as a pianist and vocalist, has taken up vaudeville with marked success. She has just had a trip through Michigan occupying two weeks, which she found delightful and successful. Now she has started on a tour of twelve weeks for which she has contracts to go through Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, with two weeks in Chicago. After that it may be that she will go on a further tour, perhaps coming through Wisconsin. Mrs. Salisbury appears in vaudeville under the name of Miss Cora Folsom Salisbury. The Evening Gazette of Burlington, Ia., said of her appearance there last week: "Cora Folsom Salisbury, who is at the Garrick this week, says a pianologist is a person who plays a piano and then some. Miss Salisbury calls herself a pianologist. The word does not appear in the dictionary, but she gives a side-splitting definition of it three times a day. She says she has hopes that some day they may incorporate her title in some unabridged edition of the encyclopedia dictionary [to date it has not happened], but in the meantime she is content with demonstrating its possibilities on the vaudeville stage. Miss Salisbury has an act that is absolutely new. It is also irresistibly funny. She is a good-looking little woman, but is willing to sacrifice her good looks and graceful carriage at times to amuse the public. She has evidently made a close study of the different methods different women pursue in playing the piano and she sings one song that is alone worth the money, entitled 'I Would if I Could, but I'b Married.' She says she finds the general public appreciates a 'pianologist' better than a pianist, and besides, the former can make more money."
One of Cora's first published compositions was the waltz Paula in 1906, followed by Poodles Parade in 1907, printed by Thiebes Stierlin in St. Louis, where Charles still managed the Columbia theater. All of her Saint Louis pieces were published as C. Folsom Salisbury. The following year saw another piece in print, My Light Guitar under the logo of Will Rossiter in Chicago, extremely hard to locate today so likely issued a small run. In 1909 her most second most famous piece found its way into print, Lemons and Limes: A Sour Rag, also published by Rossiter.
In the 1910 census it is difficult to pinpoint either Cora or Eliza, so one or both may have simply missed the enumerator while on the road. Cora’s mailing address as listed a few months earlier in 1909 was the Barrison Theater in Waukegan. One more composition would come from Cora during these years of travel, albeit still based in Wisconsin. This was Ghost Dance, a novelette published by Rossiter. Ghost Dance was frequently performed in and out of vaudeville all around the country over the next several years. One other piece, Love’s Embrace, was copyrighted and issued in 1913, but may have been written prior to that as it was mentioned on the covers of some prior music sheets. That would be the end of published compositions by Cora Salisbury, but one of her best acts was yet to come.
From perhaps 1905 on, one place in particular that was frequented by Cora in her capacity as a pianist when she was not traveling was the Barrison Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois. By 1910 she had become a regular there and was the musical director of the Barrison orchestra. Around the same time she met a talented violinist who had joined the orchestra at age 15 in 1909. Benjamin Kubelsky, who was soon expelled from high school as he missed classes in favor of matinee performances, was being paid around eight dollars per week, so to him life seemed good.His Polish immigrant father, Mayer Kubelsky, had placed a violin in the young boy’s hand and insisted on lessons for him so he could become a great classical violinist. Benjamin had other plans, as it turns out. Cora soon took some notice of Kubelsky, and there is a probability that he went on at least one of her vaudeville tours in 1911 as an extra performer.
By September of 1912, some time after the Barrison Theatre went out of business, Cora managed to convince Kubelsky's parents, who on religious grounds felt the theater would ruin their son, that he had a future in vaudeville and convinced them that he should travel with her in a single act. They had already nixed an offer made to Benjamin by Minnie Palmer, mother of the Marx Brothers, to travel with their small troupe as an orchestra leader. Cora promised to keep an eye on the teenager at all times so he would not be corrupted by admirers at the stage door or even on the stage. This act was meant to be strictly musical, not with comic patter. Mr. Kubelsky finally consented.
The original name of the traveling act was Salisbury and Kubelsky: From Grand Opera to Ragtime. However, a legal wrinkle created a change. Another much more famous violinist, Jan Kubelik, was using a similar title for his own traveling show, and was ready to bring legal action against Salisbury if they did not change the name of their act. Since they had seen some success in their short tenure, the answer was to change the name of one of the actors. Therefore Benjamin Kubelsky became Ben K. Benny (or Bennie). Still touring with their Opera to Ragtime act, now billed as Cora Salisbury and Benny, they were, as Benny put it later, "killing audiences" around the circuit. Among the pieces played in their shows included Cora's own compositions, plus popular songs like Everybody's Doing It by Irving Berlin, one or more renditions of the Turkey Trot, the poignant classically-based song The Rosary, and the old standard Poet and Peasant Overture. At several points in a show Benny would exaggerate the difficulty of the music by moving the violin dramatically, and keeping the pinky finger of his bow hand extended. As he later recalled, "I was an actor playing the role of a violinist." Over the two seasons they traveled the act went through a number of changes, eventually infusing a little bit of comedy, and also seeing some name changes. In October, 1912, the pair played in Oshkosh where Cora was warmly welcomed during a week of a well documented homecoming.
In 1914 Eliza had became ill and needed more frequent care. So Cora had to abandon the act with Ben Benny and return to Waukegan to care for her mother. Ben eventually teamed up with pianist Lyman Woods and would reprise the act as Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime. But again, the question of what's in a name came up when another established bandleader named Ben Bennie took exception with Ben Benny, believing that the youngster was trading on his good name. Another change was instituted, along with infusion of a little more comedy, and the career of comedian Jack Benny was born. He would forever remember with gratitude the role that Cora had played in refining his stage skills and getting him out in front of the public.
Now retired from the stage, Cora got married again on October 7, 1914, this time to Navy Warrant Officer George L. Aulmann. He had been stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Waukegan, Illinois, working as the chief yeoman, but they were married at South Bend, Indiana. Cora and her mother then resided with George in Waukegan.
Eliza died on November 11, 1915 and was buried in her beloved long time home of Oshkosh. Cora's health quickly deteriorated after the loss of her mother and she remained in ill health for the next five months. She went to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for a stay in a sanitarium, during which she recovered somewhat. On April 9, 1916, Cora was hospitalized for an attack of peritonitis. She appeared to be recovering several days later when she had a sudden turn early in the morning of April 16, dying in minutes before George was able to get to the hospital from the Naval base after having been called by the hospital. George was now a widower after a mere 18 months. He would move back to California and remarry in the 1920s.
As per Cora's final wishes she was buried beside Eliza in Oshkosh at the Riverside cemetery. However, through her rags, and through the success of her finest student of the stage, the delightful comedian Jack Benny, she lives on well beyond her relatively fruitful time on Earth.
Some of the information here was derived from various interviews of Jack Benny published over the years. Thanks also go to ragtime enthusiast and MIDI performer John Cowles who sent along some of the family information presented here, which was gathered by distant relation Tammy Wright through the writings of her grandmother, Dorothy Shorey Gavin. Much of the information on George Aulman was further clarified and corrected by women of ragtime researcher Nora Hulse. The remaining information was researched by the author in public records and publisher listings.
Adaline Shepherd (often erroneously seen as Adeline) was born in Iowa to Vermont native Charles Wilbur Shepherd and Massachusetts native Ella Gorarn Thissel. She was the last of three children, including Josephine Zella (1/1876), born in Wisconsin, and Harry A. (9/1881). One other sibling died in infancy. Adaline was often called Addie well into her twenties, including for some enumerations. The 1885 Iowa census showed the family living in Algona, with Charles working in a paint shop.
It is likely that Adaline’s early education included some music instruction at the piano, common for girls at that time. However, she was largely untrained in composition or theory, and mostly self-taught. The family moved to Berlin, Wisconsin, near lake Winnebago sometime in the mid-1890s. The 1900 census showed them living there with Charles now working as a grocer. By 1905 the family had moved southwest to Muscoda, Wisconsin and Charles was working for a hotel there as was Harry, while Addie was working in a hat shop or factory. By 1907, when she was 21 years old, Addie and her family had moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
It was in Milwaukee that Addie presented a ragtime piece to publisher Joseph Flanner. He was impressed enough with what he heard to have the piece notated from her playing, and not only did it become her most famous piano rag, Pickles and Peppers is likely the most popular rag ever written by any woman. Given Shepherd's obscurity in history it is amazing how popular this rag quickly became. It eventually eclipsed 2 million copies, and the hymn-like trio was readily adopted as the official musical theme for the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryant in 1908. Pickles and Peppers became as popular with bands as it did with pianists.
An article on Shepherd and her popular piece was published in the Evening Wisconsin of September 29, 1908:
“Pickles and Peppers” originated with Miss Adaline Shepherd, a young woman living on the West Side [of Milwaukee]. The peculiar thing about the composition of the piece is that the author does not know a note of music and yet is an accomplished pianist, playing entirely by ear. She did not write the music. One day in the summer of 1907 Miss Shepherd told Joseph Flannery she had an instrumental composition on which she desired his opinion. When the [Milwaukee] music publisher asked to see her notes, the young woman replied she had none, that the music was in her head. Thereupon he asked Miss Shepherd to play it for him. This she did and Mr. Flanner admits now that during the first two or three bars his mind was not concentrated on the girl playing beside him. In a moment, however, Mr. Flanner’s trained musical ear began to assume closer attention. When the girl had finished, the publisher said nothing in praise or dispraise, further than to ask her to call again next day at the same hour. Mr. Flanner requested a bandmaster to meet the girl, and after she had played the piece to the two gentlemen, the bandmaster declared his willingness to write [transcribe] the music for it, although, like all orchestra leaders, he expressed his abhorrence fo all “rag” music. Not long thereafter the instrumental music was placed on the market. The piece instantly made a hit.
Shepherd followed her debut with two more worthwhile rags, similarly composed by her and notated by an arranger, but Flanner did not publish them. Neither of them came close to matching the popularity of her first piece, and her output stopped for a while at three. The Shepherd family, minus Josephine, who was married in 1901, was shown living in Milwaukee in the 1910 census with Addie still working as a milliner, and Harry now employed as a railroad engineer.
Addie married appraiser Frederick S. Olson later that year. It was likely that Adaline, like so many other female composers, gave up her work to raise a family, including the couple's daughters Jean (1913) and Dorothy (1916), and their son Frederick Jr. (1920). Still, one further piece is known to have come from Addie during The Great War (World War I) in 1918. It was Victory March, and she penned it as Mrs. F. S. Olson.
The Olson family appeared in Milwaukee in the 1920 census with Frederick still employed by an appraisal company as a supervisor, but Adaline with no occupation other than mother and housewife. They were in the same location in 1930 with Fred now promoted to the position of president of the appraisal firm. Addie's mother, Ella, now widowed, was living with them. The 1940 census showed the same situation, and Adaline still showed no occupation.
In later years it was reported that Addie felt her works were either unimportant or not very good, in spite of their popularity speaking to the contrary. Her family did not particularly support her musical passion either, sadly showing little interest in it. Mrs. Olson lived the remainder of her evidently musically uneventful life in Milwaukee, passing on at age 76 in 1950.
Emily Smith was a first generation American, born in New York City to British father John Henry Smith and French mother Emily Onderdonk. She was the oldest of three surviving daughters, including Verene R. (3/82) and Annice (3/85). Four other siblings died at a young age. Her father died some time before 1900. As she was growing up Emily received training in voice and piano, possibly from her mother who worked as a music teacher at some point, and sang with the Grace Church Choir, as well as some concerts as a featured contralto. She was also known to be a capable accompanist.
In the mid 1890s Emily began writing songs with lyricist Harry S. Miller among others. He had done well with his big hit The Cat Came Back. However, they appeared to be selling their works one at a time to various publishers without a contract. One of their joint submissions, Down Old New England Way, was published by New York’s March King, Edward Taylor Paull, as was a subsequent march by Smith, Arizona, which saw at least two printings, the second in a new arrangement by Paull. There is some implication that she may have worked for the E.T. Paull Publishing Company for a time.
In the 1900 census Emily was shown as living with her widowed mother and her sisters in Manhattan, listed as a composer of music. Her younger sisters Verene and Annice were also involved in the music business, but in sheet music sales, not as composers. Emily was hired in the summer of 1900 by the Lyric Music Company to compose and arrange for them, followed by a stint with the newly formed Peerless Publishing Company in 1901 who reissued one of her earlier copyrighted songs, You are Not the Girl I Loved Long Ago, a minor hit that year. By 1905 the Smiths were living in the Bronx, New York, where most would remain for the rest of their lives, and were working as music teachers.
Smith composed over two dozen songs and instrumentals, even providing her own lyrics for a few of them. Her pieces appeared sporadically throughout the decade, including several under the lesser-known Star Music Company imprint. with the last known publication, Dainty Princess: Three Step, appearing under the Sam Fox imprint in Cleveland, Ohio. It is possible she worked as an arranger or promoter for Fox in his Manhattan office.
For the 1910 census Emily was living north of Manhattan in the Bronx, along with her mother and her sister Verene, but having removed some fourteen years from her actual age (Verene deducted six). Both sisters were working as musicians from their home. Annice had been married the year before in a story that caught the fancy of the public and mentioned Emily. A young architect and artist of Japanese and French extraction had seen her and wanted to sketch Annice. In a few weeks Gilbert James Fudji’s interest in Annice blossomed to the point of a romance and wedding that was actually printed as a story outside of New York as well.
Traces of Smith disappear after her 1911 waltz Dainty Princess: Three Step. She possibly was married at some point after 1911. However, since an Emily with her demographics is difficult to locate in Manhattan directories and the census from 1920 and later, she may also have perished during the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic. Emily was also not seen living in the Bronx with her mother or sisters in the 1920 census or later.
There are two other possibilities as well. There is a listing for an Emily Smith as a singing instructor at the London College of Music in 1914, which would readily explain her absence from the Census records, and an even more likely listing of an Emily Smith as a school system music supervisor in Woodbury, New Jersey, listed in Patterson's American Education Directory of 1922. Neither one can be confirmed as the song writer, so we may never know where she went after 1911.
Less is not always more. In the case of Ethyl B. Smith there was supposed to have been more, but we simply can't confirm that, having to do with less instead. While not a complete mystery, there are still many unanswered questions about this somewhat talented lady composer and piano instructor. Attempts to pin her down in city directories and census records proved daunting, considering her common last name. However, persistence won out and now at least something more is known of her. It should be noted that there was an Ethel E. Smith in Saint Louis, Missouri, that worked as a music teacher for many years in the early 1900s, but she was not the person discussed here – just a confusing coincidence.
Thanks to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, who found the Christensen article and the information on the Fontella Club. The remaining information was found, with some requisite struggles, through public records, news reports, and the process of elimination.
Bertha Stanfield was a born in rural Seneca, Newton County, Missouri to William Hall Stanfield and Mary Delina Niswanter. She was the youngest of five children, including brothers Harrison "Harry" C. Stanfield (1870), Aaron E. Stanfield (1876), Orson P. Stanfield (4/1881), and one older sister, Sarah J. Stanfield (1873). The family, comprised of William, Mary, Orson and Bertha, was shown in the 1900 census living on the Shawnee Nation Indian Reservation in southeast Kansas, with William and Orson working as farmers, the same occupation William had listed in 1880 while living in Buffalo Township, Newton County, Missouri. In the 1905 Kansas state census, the Stanfields were living in Eminence Township, Kansas, about 50 miles south of Emporia, with Mary working as a weaver and William and Orson as farmers. It also indicated that at some point William had been honorably discharged from military service under a Kansas enlistment.
Thanks as always to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, provided much of the information here through her regional and local research in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Remaining demographics were researched by the author in Joplin, Missouri, Baxter Springs, Kansas, and in public records.
One of the more cryptic composers in ragtime was actually related by marriage to one of the most eclectic ragtime publishers, and she would manage to find her own place in the history of the genre, albeit leaving a bit of controversy in her wake. Caroline May Bruggeman was born in Alton, Illinois, just north of Saint Louis, Missouri, the only child of tailor Adolph Bruggeman and his wife Mary “Mattie”. Just over a year before her birth Adolph appeared as single in the April, 1880, Federal census taken in Alton, so her parents were likely married within a year of her birth.
Carrie claimed she had very little musical training, and mostly played by ear. However, she obviously had taken enough lessons that she was able to read music sufficiently, and it landed her a job at the Boston Department Store in St. Louis in the late 1890s as a sheet music demonstrator, a position commonly held be women in the Midwest and eastern United States. It was there that she met William Paris Stark, the son of music store owner and fledging publisher John Stillwell Stark, in 1899 or 1900, around the same time that the senior Stark had taken on Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag for publication and distribution. Will handed her a copy and asked if she would learn the piece and plug it. She worked hard to do so, and in her own words, “began pounding it out at work as often as I dared.”
As of the 1900 enumeration Carrie was still living with her parents, with Adolph listed as a garment cutter. The family also had two boarders residing with them. Even though she was employed part time as a pianist, Carrie did not have any occupation listed. While she claimed that Will kept visiting her at the store until he eventually proposed marriage, in reality the couple was not married until Christmas Day, December 25, 1904.
In the interim, Carrie not only started learning more rags and songs, but writing them as well. One of the first of her instrumentals to be published under the Stark imprint was Dainty Foot, released under the heading of a "dance characteristic" and a "schottische," but very possibly the same work. This was followed by an almost-rag the next year, Comus, probably the last one issued under her own name. It was named for the Greek god of Festivity (and excess), Comus, a son of Bacchus.
Then for a while she was busy with marriage and babies, giving birth to John S. Stark around 1906 and Ruth C. Stark in late 1907. Her next piece in 1908 would appropriately enough be a lullaby, most likely written for her children, and perhaps the first of her pieces published under the opposite gender pseudonym of Cal Stark. As of the 1910 census William was listed as a music publisher, but Carrie showed no occupation. The couple was hosting Carrie's mother, who had been widowed early in the decade, and her stepfather, William Peters,, who had married her mother around 1906.
Carrie herself admitted to not being able to notate her own works, and that she had allegedly written more songs than she could even remember, although very few of them actually made it into print. That which did get published was usually completed by her brother-in-law, the resident musician of the company, Etilmon "Til" Justus Stark, who also had several compositions in his own name in print. She would play the piece for him and he would notate it for typesetting and production. But there was at least one exception to this, which was her next act, a hard one to follow.
There was a stir caused in 1911 and 1912 that was literally a matter of politics. Carrie wrote a song, (some insist she adapted an already existing tune from the Sally Ann family) with Iowa born newspaper printer and editor Webster Mil (Webb) Oungst (1854-1943). The song They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dawg Aroun' was arranged by John Stark's staff arranger and composer Artie Matthews and published by Carries father-in-law. It nearly immediately became known as the official theme song for the Presidential Campaign of Missouri's favorite son James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark. It is somewhat likely that Oungst submitted the clever lyrics to publisher Stark in hopes that it could be set to music, and since Will was managing at that time, he had Carrie step in to plug in the melody. Mrs. Stark claims she chose the name pseudonym of Cy Perkins because it sounded like a “good hillbilly name, and might make the music sell better.” Candidate Clark actually had a nice lead going, and this may have also been the motivation for Carrie to use the the Cy Perkins name in order to avoid any controversy as a woman songwriter involved in a political campaign.
In any case, the piece was known even before it was officially published by Stark, having been used in a rally in December of 1911. The Dawg song became so popular that publisher M. Witmark and Sons in New York City wanted it for their own catalog. They offered John Stark the respectable sum of $5,861.37 to acquire the piece and the plates, plus any unsold copies to date, which was soon accepted. The copyright date for Stark Music was January 3, 1912, and Witmark recopyrighted it on March 7.
However, soon after this the campaign of Clark, who was at that time the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington DC, against contender Woodrow Wilson collapsed,
At the same time Dawg was becoming a popular stage tune in New York and other venues where performers were looking for some "hick" aspects to their act. The Dawg grew legs again, starting a second life, and publisher Stark soon received the contracted payment based the court decision. Carrie was dragged along for the ride, but came out only slightly scathed as the acknowledged composer of the work, or adaptor in the case of the chorus. It soon prompted all kinds of hound dog paraphernalia in the stores as well, and gave wannabe hound dogs everywhere a temporary place on the stage. The piece was also picked up by the Second Missouri Infantry as their marching song, and at times has been proposed as a state song for Missouri (in 1912, and officially in 1949, plus other mentions of this possibility over the past century). Starting in the 1920s it was recorded frequently, and remains in circulation in country, bluegrass and old-time music circles. It became an old dawg learning new tricks.
Carrie got back on the horse, and in 1914 put out two more songs as Cal. One, Tango Tangle, was a pseudo-tango, a dance and music form that was very popular at the time, and the other was a waltz, usually a safe bet for light but solid sales. In 1917 Carrie as Cal turned out another fine fox-trot/blues, which would be perhaps her last known tune in print. Baby Blues was also released as a song with lyrics by Margie Brandon, very likely the wife of another Stark composer Clarence E. Brandon. These were put out on the Stark's subsidiary Syndicate Music Company, a label reserved for pieces that didn't quite meet the standards of pieces issued under his main logo. But John Stark, who had lost his wife a few years before, was now trying to champion a nearly dead genre in his last gasps of rag publication, and soon Carrie lost her best outlet to jazz and old age. As of the 1920 census she again was shown with no occupation, and William as W.P. was listed this time as a music printer, rather than a publisher.
While she did not give up piano playing during the remainder of her life, Carrie more or less faded from public view for a while, and lost her husband Will Stark in the 1940s. Then came the release of the book They All Played Ragtime in 1950, and the acknowledgement, clearly found in the notes taken for the book, of Carrie's role in They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dawg Aroun', which helped make her somewhat of a local celebrity again. Studio head Walt Disney heard the connection between Carrie and the Dawg and wrote to her requesting a copy. She could not find any extras, but discovered that she did not have even one copy of the piece. Eventually one was located in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society and she “autographed it for posterity.”
Caroline Bruggeman Stark lived much of her final two decades with her daughter in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, occasionally venturing out to public ragtime events as pictured here. She finally passed on in 1972 just as the huge revival of the very pieces and the musical genre that her father-in-law had championed was getting underway.
Thanks to Ragtime historian Sue Attalla, for much of the history and information on They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dawg Aroun' and its association with Clark. Sue is also responsible for the verification of my independent research on Webb Oungst's identity and his role in the piece. Also thanks as always to Ragtime Women Historian Nora Hulse for some of the chronology of Carrie Stark's life. All additional information was researched directly by the author.
Nellie Stokes was born in Springwells in Northwest Michigan to British immigrants James W. Stokes and Clara A. Minard. She had one older brother, Charles J. Stokes (11/1878). Her father, James, worked as a painter in Springwells. Clara died in 1886 around the time Nellie was 5-years-old. It is not clear who helped raise her, but she did get some musical education through her teens. The first listing for Nellie is in the 1898 Detroit city directory, which showed her as a music teacher at 17. She appears in at least three subsequent directories in the same capacity or as a musician.
The Stokes family had moved to Detroit with James, still working as a painter, and who had remarried to Nellie's stepmother Florence Hanna, on July 24, 1894. As of 1900, her brother Charles had moved to Cheboygan where he was listed as a landlord. Nellie was shown in the census as still living with her father, although city directories indicate that she was living in various boarding houses during the period and working as a music teacher.
Starting around 1902 Ms. Stokes went to work for Pardridge and Blackwell, a prominent dry good store and banking firm founded in 1894 in Detroit. Her role was likely as a sheet music demonstrator in their frequently advertised music department, eventually representing representing the Whitney Warner publishing firm that would soon be purchased by Jerome H. Remick. Given the known history of many other women composers, she probably got the composing bug while working in the store, and in 1903 her first piece appeared, Checkers, sort of a raggy march, published by Whitney Warner.
In 1904 Nellie moved back in with her father and stepmother. The next pieces to appear came in 1906, including Snow Ball and Hey Rube, two fine rag tunes under the Remick imprint. A point of curiosity is why her name appeared as Nellie W. Stokes on the cover of these pieces, yet as Nellie M. Stokes inside. It was possibly an error by the plate renderer or cover artist, but the initial showed as W in copyright records. Her death record for Woodmere Cemetery also shows W as opposed to M, but her marriage record shows an M, not W, so they may have been interchangeable in some way.
On March 28, 1907 Nellie married Edward T. Hawley and moved in with him for a while. Edward was listed as a travel agent, then later as a salesman for a novelty store. It is uncertain if he was related to the Hawley Brothers, Edward, Luke and James, who had started a saloon in Detroit in 1900 that ended up being the scene of the crime with Edward was killed by James in 1902. However, Nellie’s husband Edward’s father Louis may have also been one of their brothers.
In 1908 the only piece published under Nellie's married name of Hawley, In Love's Net: Waltzes, dedicated to her new husband, was published by Remick. Nellie W. Stokes was the name used on the cover of the piece. It was also in 1908 Nellie that became a manager for Remick in Detroit. There were two more pieces published in 1909, including the great rag Razzle Dazzle. She and Edward were divorced that year. She was still working for Remick in 1910, albeit using her maiden name of Stokes in the city directory.
Nellie was married to Herman W. Horstmeyer of Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 27, 1910, in Detroit. They appear to have taken a honeymoon trip long enough to keep them out of the 1910 census. The couple returned to Fort Wayne where they resided through 1914. In late May of that year Nellie gave birth to their first child on May 31, then died of an embolism on June 3. After the funeral in Fort Wayne she was returned to Detroit and buried alongside her father, mother, and in 1916 her stepmother, in Woodmere Cemetery.
Thanks as always to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse for much of the Detroit information on Stokes, including her employment with Jerome Remick. The remaining demographics on the family were researched by the author.
Kathryn L. Widmer did not leave much behind musically, but her single rag was certainly one of Notoriety and deserves recognition. She was born in Barton, New York to Swiss immigrant father Rudolf Adolphus Widmer (seen sometimes as Adolphus Rudolf) and her Pennsylvania born mother who she was named after, Kathryn "Caty" Torphy. Her death certificate claims August 9, but the 1900 Census cites May as her birth month. Also in the family was William Frances (1873), Cornelia J. (1874), Anna A. (1877), Mamie J. (4/1879) and Agnes A. (10/1885), the only five of twelve children born to the Widmers that survived to adulthood. Rudolf was a professional sign painter for most of his career although he was listed as a tailor in the 1892 New York state census, taken in Ithaca, which may have been an error. He moved the family to New York City by the mid-1890s. This is where Kathryn likely got most of her musical training. In the 1900 Census she is listed in the Census working as a musician in New York City, but no further details are available. She is not readily found in Manhattan directories of the time, perhaps because she was still living with her parents.
Thanks as always to ragtime historian Reginald Pitts for kindly providing information on Widmer's premature demise. Most of the remaining demographics were researched by the author.
Carlotta Williamson was one of two siblings born to Erastus Edward Williamson and Mary Ann (Rich) Carrigan (the Rich name may have been from a stepfather) in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, the other one being her older brother Edward Rich (6/17/1864), born in Fairmont, Massachusetts. She spent most of her life in the Boston, Massachusetts vicinity. Carlotta was evidently a child prodigy, as an advertising card from around 1874 showed her standing by a large upright, listed as "Carlotta Williamson, Infant Pianist, Aged 5 Years." There were also some notices in Boston papers of the mid 1870s noting that the young prodigy in various area venues, often billed as “(the child pianist).” Mary sang with her daughter at some of these events.
Erastus left Mary and Carlotta in the late 1870s, taking Edward with him and leaving the two women destitute. By the time of the 1880 census he was living in Quincy, Massachusetts, in his second marriage with a women who had also left her previous husband. There are curiously two listings for Mary and Carlotta that year, the first on June 5 when they were residing with Mary’s parents, the Riches, and the second on June 10 where they were living in a boarding house on Cambridge Street in Boston with Mary working as a dress maker. No definitive information was located on what type of income Carlotta had as a teen-aged pianist, but it was likely only a token amount that did not ease their poverty by all that much.
There were scant mentions of Williamson in Boston papers playing at one or another special event in the 1880s, a few even appearing after her first foray into marriage. Carlotta was married in Boston to Edward B. Wickwire on April 29, 1891. Their union lasted only four or so years, and even with a husband to help support her, there was an October 1895 notice of her divorce proceedings printed in the Boston Daily Globe about her having to continue to find work to make ends meet. Carlotta finally had to quit working owing to poor health, as she was very slight in stature. Due to no continuing support by Wickwire her divorce was granted.
By the mid-1890s Carlotta was lovingly remembered as the "former" child prodigy. Now single again she resumed her maiden name, and at the time of the 1900 enumeration she continued to reside with Mary in Boston. However, instead of performing music she was now working as a sales person in a hat store while Mary was still making dresses. There were four other lodgers living in their Clarendon Street unit.
The turn of the new century was around the time that Carlotta started to apply her musical gift to composition. In 1901 she had three of her first pieces published, the self-named Carlotta Waltzes, My Lady Dainty, and The Pickaninny: Cake Walk, plus a couple of songs with Boston lyricist William Henry Gardner. In an article in the May 30, 1903 edition of The Music Trade Review, it was stated that:
Women composers are still a rarity in this country, and few have made a success in the field as yet The West and the East seem to share the honors on popular compositions, and perhaps the best known woman composer in New England is Miss Carlotta Williamson, of Boston, who is connected with the music department of the great store of the Jordan-Marsh Company.
It was while working at the prestigious Jordan-Marsh department store in the 1900 time frame that Carlotta met her future husband. George M. Blandford was also previously married, shown in the 1900 census with his wife Lillian Roulston, working as a buyer in a music store (very likely the aforementioned Jordan-Marsh), while he was working as a bookkeeper. It may have ironically been through his wife that George was introduced to Carlotta. Sadly, Lillian Blandford died in late 1900 just days after giving birth to their son.
Blandford, now a widower, soon arranged to have Williamson's pieces published under his own logo of G.M. Blandford, which would at some juncture morph into the Colonial Music Company by 1903. Carlotta and George were married in Boston on September 11, 1905. Over the next decade George would issue many different pieces from intermezzos and waltzes to mature rags out into the world, all published under Carlotta’s maiden name, and with her husband supporting her throughout. One of Carlotta’s last works, Wild Flower Rag, was her most exquisite and well developed piece, and is the one that is best known a century later.
For the 1910 census George was still listed as a bookkeeper, at that time in an electrical office, and Mary Williamson was residing with the Blandfords. Carlotta proclaimed herself to be a music composer. However that was also pretty much at the end of her career. The couple did not have children so no surviving family was available to find out much about her later years. As of 1920 George was listed as an accountant, but Carlotta had no career. The same is true in the 1930 census, followed by a similar listing in Boston city directories from 1933 forward. However, there were a couple of notices of her playing on the radio in the mid to late 1920s.
George died on July 1, 1936, and Carlotta is shown as a widow in the 1937 Boston city directory and the 1940 census, which lists no occupation. In the early 1940s she was involved with the G.O.P. Dorchester Women and provided musical programs for some of their meetings. Carlotta lived at the same address on Lyndhurst in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston until 1948. Then she moved into a small apartment near Boston University for several years, and finally into an elder care facility in 1955. Little else is known beyond that except her death at age 88. However, we still have Carlotta's legacy of ragtime era music from Boston.
Thanks to Ragtime Women historian Nora Hulse, for providing a date of death and information on a couple of Williamson's compositions. The remaining information was researched by the author from numerous public records and assorted articles.
Fannie B. Woods was thought to be a pseudonym for Charles L. Johnson until 2005 when it was revealed that the composer of Sweetness was indeed a real person.
At the age of 20 Fannie composed Sweetness, the publication of which may well have been facilitated by Louisville publisher Al Marzian, who had recently had his own Angel Food Rag issued by Forster Music Publishers in Chicago. Woods further had the enthusiastic backing of the Herman Strauss & Sons Company department store, also based in Louisville. They featured her as a local celebrity, allowing her to play Sweetness and other pieces in their store on several occasions in 1912. Fannie evidently signed copies of the piece as well. According to a receipt the family provided she received a total of $75 for the rag from Forster. Sweetness is dedicated on the inside to W.J. Mansfield. Woods would marry William J. Mansfield on December 12, 1912, and take that name for the rest of her life. This further reinforces her role as the true composer of Sweetness.
Fannie was not only a fine pianist but also a well-regarded organist, spending over four decades playing for the Parkland Baptist Church, and three decades for Pearson's Funeral Home. Between 1914 and 1927, she and her husband had three daughters, Mildred (1914), Mary Edna (1922) and Jean (11/1927) and a son as well, William, Jr. (8/1925) The family was shown in the 1920 census residing at 1233 Cypress Street with Fannie's parents living in the same home and William listed as a bookkeeper.
In the 1930 census they were living in a different location on 26th Street, with Cora who had been widowed in the 1920s. William was now a credit manager for a plumbing manufacturer. In the 1940 census the entire family was still together, William continuing his work as a credit manager, and if Fannie was teaching piano she did not list it. Mr. Mansfield died suddenly at the age of 60 on November 10, 1947. Their son, William, a talented violinist, became a dentist in Louisville, and died there on July 24, 2012.
Fannie retired from performance by the mid 1950s, but continued to teach piano and organ to younger students nearly to the end of her life. Fannie and Edna also enjoyed performing Sweetness and other pieces as a two piano duet from time to time. In January, 2013, a recording of one of these sessions from 1962 was posted to YouTube with Fannie playing the treble and Edna playing the bass for Sweetness, and a lively rendition of Scott Joplin’s classic Maple Leaf Rag played by Fannie alone.
Fannie Mansfield died in Louisville December 28, 1974 at age 83. The only other compositions that may have been attributed to her were available locally in Louisville, and were likely church related. A couple of mentions of possible compositions show up in various recital or concert programs published in area newspapers, but publication cannot be confirmed.
I would like to add a personal note of thanks to retired Louisville dentist Dr. William J. Mansfield, Fannie's son, who helped me obtain information and materials in relation to his mother, and former Woods student and musician Rhonda Rucker who brought this information to my attention, and therefore to the ragtime community. It was this, more than anything, that motivated me to begin extensive further research to ascertain more accurate renewed or reinforced facts on all of the ragtime figures featured on this site.
Gladys Elizabeth Yelvington spent her life in Indiana, the fifth of six children born to Asa Pierce Yelvington and Mary Alice Cranor. Asa was a carpenter in Elwood, Indiana, just northeast of Indianapolis. Gladys' sibilings included Robert (1877), Burdella Francis (11/1878), Mildred (8/1880), Herschel (10/1886) and Louise (7/1894). She evidently received at least the minimal musical training given to most girls in this time period, some of it likely in Elwood public schools, and likely private lessons as well. For the 1900 census the family was shown living in Pipe Creek a few miles west of Elwood.
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