Sunday, August 1, 2010

Echoes From the Past: The Season at New London, 1909

I go on occasional kicks of historical and genealogical searching. This is part of my hobby of maintaining an extensive family tree at geni.com that encompasses my Mahaffie, Farrar, Cooper, Becker, Kelly, Bartlett, Williams, Redmond, and Harrison heritage. (To name just a few generations)

This morning, while searching among the New York Times' archives, I came across a society-page article from 1909 that likely mentions my paternal grandmother. It doesn't add anything to my genealogical knowledge, and the Isabel Cooper mentioned may not be my grandmother, but the time and place are right and the subject matter is charming in any case.

The article, Midshipmen Give a Tea at New London (PDF), is from July 18, 1909. It details the summer social scene at the Hotel Griswold, on Eastern Point near New London, Connecticut, which lies across either Long Island Sound or Block Island Sound (depending on how you look at it) from the easternmost tip of Long Island.

New York City, in the days before air conditioning, could be a lousy place to be in the summers. Those who could adjourned to beaches and mountains for much of the summer. Resorts became centers of summer social activity and newspapers reported on the comings and goings and recreational doings of society. It was, I think, somewhat like our present fascination with the personal lives of television, movie and music stars -- except much more G-rated.

In July of 1909, the midshipmen of the warship Tonopah gave an afternoon tea for the guests of the Hotel Griswold "and to a large number of those who make up the summer colony at Eastern Point." It is described as "the red letter day of the season.
The afterdack (sic) of the warships (sic) had been polished until it was as smooth as a ballroom floor and under the gaily colored awnings and flags the young people danced the afternoon away to the music of the Hotel Griswold Orchestra, while the chaperons looked on, nodding approval at the pretty picture.
Along with tea with the Navy, there were tennis tournaments and amateur theatricals. The young woman who may have been my grandmother is listed among the doubles players, paired with a Miss Van Vleck.

Isabel Cooper is also listed as portraying Mrs. Muriel Crosby in a comic opera composed by an Arthur E. Cushman to be sung in the hotel on August 6.
It is called "The Tourists" and the songs are to include only the most popular airs of the day. The first act shows the lawn of the Griswold, with Summer girls flitting about. The second shifts the players to the Prada in Cuba, and this setting gives the actors a chance to wear picturesque costumes, and the men a chance to look mildly ferocious.
The article includes a lengthy listing of who has arrived, who has taken a cottage, and which yachts are in the harbor.

And, in a nod to the latest technology, there is a paragraph of "automobile arrivals" at the hotel. There were four Packards, and one each of Mathewson, Stevens-Duryea, Columbia, Chalmer's Detroit, Stearns, Buick, Hotchkiss, Palmer-Singer, and Winton. Of this random sampling of early automobile makes, I recognize only two.

I am not certain that the "Miss Isabel Cooper" mentioned here is in fact the Isabel Ruth Cooper who later married Charles Delahunt Mahaffie, Sr. and raised Charles Junior (my father). But I think it may be.

My grandmother would have been just a month shy of 17 years old in July of 1909. She was raised in New York and may have summered in Connecticut. She was, by all accounts, a beautiful young woman, and artist and later a model.

She briefly attended Bryn Mawr, near Philadelphia, before starting a professional career as an illustrator that found her, starting at age 25, painting tropical fish and fauna as part of a series of scientific expeditions.

I can see her taking part in the summer social scene of New London in 1909; a slim, athletic young woman dancing with midshipmen, playing tennis and performing for other guests. She would have taken it all in with a detached, amused, but friendly air, storing the experience among her catalog of people and places and ways of living that molded the fascinating and broadly interested older woman that I knew, all too briefly.

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