Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Helen Woodruff Smith. Or, Research Rapture Demonstration

Fishing stories always include tales of the “one that got away.” In our research we catch glimpses of stories that get away – interesting tidbits about women for whom there isn’t really enough information to build a whole profile, or who didn’t make the cut for the book we’re working on, because there are already “too many suffragists” or “too many authors” and the list had to be trimmed . . . .or because the lady in question is just not a suitable subject for a book for fourth-grade classrooms.

To wit – Helen Woodruff Smith, who made my original list of New Hampshire women as the founder of the first bird sanctuary in the United States. Here’s the tantalizing glimpse, courtesy of a WPA book New Hampshire: A Guide to the Granite State, which I happen to own but which you can read on Google Books (just go to Google and click the "More" drop-down arrow at the top):

Left from Meriden about 0.5m on a dirt road to the Helen Woodruff Smith Sanctuary, the first of its kind in the country, and established in 1910 by Mr. Baynes on an abandoned farm that had been bought by Helen Woodruff Smith, who financed the project at first. The sanctuary comprises about 32 acres of sloping pasture and meadow land sheltered by deep woods. It was improved by the landscape architect and ornithologist, Frederick H. Kennard. Paths lead through the woods, bird houses of every type hang from trees, and drinking pools are numerous among the ferns. Bird baths are placed at intervals, one a boulder weighing 5 tons, another of bronze and sculptured by Annetta (Mrs. Louis) Saint-Gaudens in commemoration of the bird masque, “Sanctuary,” first performed here in 1913. The masque was written by Percy MacKaye and the cast included the Misses Eleanor and Margaret Wilson, daughters of President Woodrow Wilson, Miss Juliet Barrett Rublee, the artists Joseph Lindon Smith, the poet Witter Bynner, MacKaye and Baynes.”

Right in that one paragraph there are more than enough rabbit trails to keep me happily distracted all day long.

First I need to know if this bird sanctuary still exists? Indeed it does—and I learn from the Plainfield Historical Society that “The stone pillars and original sign were designed by Maxfield Parrish.”
And in 2006 someone waymarked this cool birdhouse there. Must put this on my to do list for the summer!

Have you read about Waymarking, by the way? It sounds like a lot of fun. . . .

Then there is the “masque” in which the daughters of the President acted. What’s a “masque”? I wonder? I thought it was a dance. This turns out to be a challenge, Wikipedia assures me that it’s a theatrical form of the middle ages but it’s clear that it was pretty popular in community theatre in the opening decades of the twentieth century. This particular masque was something of an environmental propaganda piece, apparently .

If you want to, you can read the full text of the play at Internet Archive . Type in "Sanctuary" and "Bird Masque."

And thanks to the new policy at the New York Times, you can read a review of the performance at the Hotel Astor. Just search for "Helen Woodruff Smith" and it will come right up.

I learn from the Internet Archive copy of Bird Friends; a complete bird book for Americans that the Meriden Bird Club is (or was, the book is copyright 1916) the ”best known bird club in America”! Who knew??

I know a little bit about the sculpting Saint-Gaudenses. I’m thinking of looking up Fred Kennard and I’m intrigued that Mr. Baynes (full name Ernest Harold Baynes) apparently travelled the country urging the creation of bird sanctuaries, but I finally remember that it’s Helen Woodruff Smith I’m researching.

And only then do I learn that – she wasn’t from New Hampshire, she was from Stamford, Connecticut. And she wasn’t quite the role model you’d like to offer to young women of impressionable age!

According to the New York Times, she was sued for breach of contract (marriage) by a spurned chorus-line dancer. (This was only the third time that a woman had been the defendant in such a suit.) This was quite the celebrity trial: The Gary (Indiana) Evening Post describes her as “Dashing Millionaress.” The New York Times reported that “people fought for places in the small courtroom.” The plaintiff is described as a “black-garbed, sunken-cheeked youth” while "Miss Smith" is a “small, pink-cheeked woman, with a sharp, diminutive nose.” Reference is made to Helen's 14 year old son (Dickenson Schuyler) by her former husband, ex-Mayor Cummings of Stamford. (Also available from the New York Times archive are the details of her 1907 divorce decree.)

A quick scan of some genealogy websites reveals that Helen was born in December 1869 (so she was 33 when she took up with the 18-year-old) and died in 1954 (although several listings show her death at "about 1908," unlikely since she was in divorce court in 1911 - demonstrating the importance of double-checking facts!). Helen was the daughter of the late Commodore James Smith, who had been president of the New York Stock Exchange. (And he WAS from New Hampshire. How did he earn the title of Commodore, I wonder?) Her ex-husband Homer Cummings went on to marry three more times, and was Attorney General of the United States as well as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He wrote a memoir in 1939, that might be interesting. I bet I could find a copy on addall. Or maybe Google Books or Internet Archive has digitized it.

Oh wait, Helen. Her love letters to the young dancer were published in the newspapers during the lead-up to the trial, including this map of the "Sea of Matrimony," which would certainly seem to suggest all manner of domestic bliss:

The young man admitted being responsible for her divorce, and described sneaking in by the back door of her home while supposedly working as Helen’s secretary. There are detailed descriptions of various kinds of kisses that the two shared during their nine years of intimacy, (when did the New York Times become the Old Gray Lady? Clearly sometime after October 18, 1911!) The jury found in favor of the well-heeled Miss Smith, by the way, on the grounds that no where in the many letters did she actually promise to marry her young paramour. Geesh, no wonder she’s not in the New Hampshire book!

There’s more , but this will suffice to demonstrate the risks of Research Rapture (thank you Deborah Brodie for the description diagnosis), a recognized occupational hazard of non-fiction writers.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a story, Sally!

Sally said...

I know, she's a hoot. I only wish I could find a photo!

This comment has been removed by the author.

I posted a link to a fun bird masque photo, but it doesn't seem to work, so I took it down. I'm sorry we can't put photos in the comments! If anyone knows how to do it, please let me know.

Anonymous said...

Sheesh, why were those highly accomplished and interesting people so often a little too, uh, highly accomplished and interesting. Guess we keep her out of the Connecticut book, too!

Awesome, Sally!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the was wonderful! I loved learning about Helen Woodruff.