My father’s family history has two interesting stories that have been passed down over the years. Although each one is a fact, the exact dates and details are a bit blurry. Also no one seemed to pay attention to specifics and the stacks of photos that my father’s sister gobbled up, so no one else could have them, lacked dates anyway.
However each of these stories are about two of my female ancestors: one who was deemed crazy, and another who pursued her dream as a dancer in New York City. They were both long gone before I was even a notion in the universe, but they’re two women with whom, had I known them, would probably have gotten along fabulously. Crazies and dreamers are good at bonding with each other.
The first story is that of my paternal grandfather’s older sister, Elizabeth who, in her late teens and at the height of the 1920’s, was partying in Boston one night and was involved in an automobile accident. Of course, I often pictured this incident as something straight out of The Great Gatsby and she, Elizabeth, looking exactly like Myrtle Wilson racing toward the car under the keen watchful eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg, but the actual reality of the crash was less dramatic.
Not long after the accident, which she (as well as everyone else in the car) had survived despite a serious brain contusion, she married and had a daughter. But she was never quite the same. Over the next couple years that followed her behavior became increasingly strange; so strange, in fact, that one day she was sat down by the family and confronted. They decided that she needed help; and of course, in those days admitting one just might be a wee bit crazy isn’t an option – they just go right ahead and lock you up. In defending herself, as my grandfather would tell it over and over before his death, she accused everyone else of being crazy, walked out the door and was never seen nor heard from again. Not letters, no telegrams, not even a body to confirm that she had passed – nothing.
I always loved this story. As a little kid, I imagined she went off somewhere into the world and had another family. In my head, she married into an Italian family and I was somehow related to Madonna in a round about way. Yes, these are the daydreams of an eight-year-old living in New Hampshire. However, these days, I don’t think I’m related to Madonna. I think I’m related to Kate Middleton instead.
The second story, and the one that I love even more is about my great-grandmother, Mary, who dreamed of being a dancer. Mary is actually the only one of my ancestors born in the States who wasn’t born in either Massachusetts or New Hampshire – I’ve always found this strange. I assume it’s the diehard New Englander in me, that doesn’t care for this fact. Mary was actually born in Allentown, N.J. if, to quote my father, “memory serves.”
For a brief time she lived in Boston with some family members, and when things weren’t coming to fruition there with her dancing career, she decided to make the big move to New York City. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was looking for, but she just knew she wanted to be a star.
Unable to afford to live in the city (some things never changed) she lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the early 1900’s then, so, similar to my Gatsby-inspired visions of Elizabeth’s existence, I’ve allowed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to paint a picture of how Mary lived, when in actuality it probably wasn’t even close. I highly doubt Mary was neighbors with Francie Nolan.
In 1907, inspired by the Folies Bergères of Paris, Florenz Ziegfeld created the legendary stage series known as The Ziegfeld Follies here in New York City. The Follies was an over-the-top Broadway production that ran until 1931 and was performed at the Jardin de Paris Theatre on 1514 Broadway at 44th street.
Whether it was luck, talent or beauty, my great-grandmother was a Ziegfeld Girl by 1909. Yes, she was living the dream of being a dancer, but it’s not as though anyone knew the names of the Ziegfeld Girls. They were stunning backdrops to some of the top performers of the time like W.C. Fields and Josephine Baker, but it’s not as though they were much more than pretty young things in sequins. Can you name a Rockette?
Honestly, Mary, who may or may not have used a stage name, is sadly no one anyone is probably even going to find on Google just like so many of those other “Girls” with whom she shared both their dreams and the nightly stage. Sure, some made it big, but most of them did their time, got too old to dance then moved on to something else.
Eventually the city life took its toll and although she met some of the great actors of the time, she fell in love with a French artist; they married and moved to New Hampshire. She soon stopped dancing and became a mother and wife, choosing virtual obscurity over the possibility of fame had she stuck it out in New York a little longer.
By the time my father knew her, the Alzheimer’s had already set in and her husband was long dead. She was living in an elderly home in Concord, NH where she’d spend her days rocking in a chair always with a baby doll cradled in her arms. On days when she was lucid, she’d break out one of the exquisitely elaborate headdresses from her days as a Ziegfeld Girl, but since those lucid days of awareness were few and far between, the headpieces usually just remained in her closet collecting dust like any memory that has seen better days.
I love both these women and these stories so much, because I can see a lot of myself in them. One was deemed insane, but before she could be trapped in a cage, in a place where she was probably too fragile to have survived, she escaped. Although no one will ever know what became of her, whether she died shortly there after or did go on to live a very long and happy life under the guise of someone else, for me, she is a true example of creating something else for yourself when the one you’ve been presented with isn’t working out so well – as did Mary. Mary came to this city where dreams either flourish or die on these hard sidewalks. And although she didn’t make a name for herself in the world’s eyes, to us, her family, she will always be a star.
I know the New York and Brooklyn she knew then are a far cry from the ones I know today, but I like to believe that occasionally I step somewhere exactly where she once did. I like to hope that those in my family who come after me will recall me in the same light even if I do end up walking away from this place someday. I think we all leave a lasting impression here; and whether or not we ever know it, New York City is a better place because of each and everyone of us who have walked these dirty, nasty, gum-stained streets. I like to think Mary would agree.