The fourth, and last, in a series of posts on how the friendship between a pair of musically gifted, independent young women in the early 1900s, led to the friendship over a century later of two of their descendants.
Previous posts introduced GeneaJourneys readers to Grace Desmond and Ruth Bowers , musical prodigies at the turn of the last century. Ruth and Grace became friends in 1911 when they were 20 and 23 years old, as they traveled the Chautauqua circuit together bringing classical music to small towns across America.
Readers also learned how Jay Sherwood, Ruth’s grandson introduced this writer, Grace’s niece, to the concept of Chautauqua, and to Grace’s role in this unique part of American culture–something the Desmond family knew nothing about.
In the last post, Grace, pianist for the Clarke-Bowers Company, had suddenly fallen ill with typhoid fever, a serious–often fatal disease–at the turn of the last century,
So while the Clarke-Bowers Company found a last minute replacement for their pianist and finished the tour that summer of 1911, the ailing Grace returned home to Chicago to recover and recuperate.
Despite Grace missing out on the last few weeks of the tour though, the friendship between Ruth and Grace continued–at least for a while.
Jay Sherwood, who wrote about his grandmother’s adventures in Chautauqua Serenade, discovered a rare letter from Grace to Ruth among Ruth’s mementos of her Chautauqua days. Through that letter, we learn firsthand just how Grace survived her illness back home in Chicago while Ruth concluded the tour as scheduled. The story of their friendship picks up there:
4430 Vincennes Ave.
Aug, 23, 1911
My Dear “Rufus” [an affectionate nickname for Ruth used by her friends],
… I got your note that was put in Ted’s letter. You old darling. You certainly are good to me! Have received all my mail and two postals from Dammels. Those photos are good aren’t they? Also got a letter from Belle Kearney, telling me I was very brave and hoping I escaped the fever! Also heard from the Riners and keep it dark – Tommy Weatherwax! [The people Grace mentions throughout this letter were all fellow Chautauqua performers who were friends of Grace and Ruth.]
You know I gave him my address and he is evidently going to make use of it when he comes here in September! Delighted, I’m sure. But Rufus, ne’er a word, as you know how things travel along that system. Everybody has certainly been most solicitous of my condition, and I certainly appreciate such thoughtfulness…
Well, honey, I certainly did not expect to leave you for good! This turn of events was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to you…
… I heard that you just cried your heart out… and as for expecting to see you all in a few days – I certainly was sure of it, as I felt so much better that morning and felt sure that I was not going to have the fever.
I guess we both would have broken right down if we had known how things were to turn out! But it was all for the best! …
…I nearly had another one of those famous fainting fits when I arrived at the Dr.’s that day, and Ruth, they gave me nothing but liquids for two days, and I nearly starved!… I was wishing you were around to have a good laugh! … I did not intend to write home about my sickness, but the nurse advised it in case it did get worse…
So I wrote a long, cheerful letter on Monday, telling the folks not to worry, it wasn’t serious, and not to think of coming out!
Well, much to my surprise, a telegram came from Dad on Tuesday, saying he was leaving at 6 PM to bring me home!…
Saw my Dad on Wed. A.M. and maybe I wasn’t the tickled girl! I meant to ask him about my going on, [continuing on the tour] but just merely mentioned it, as the Dr. advised not to, and Dad said there was no sense in it, and so I saw where it was the only thing to do. I don’t think I could have let Dad go home without me anyway.
I intended to join you the next day, but I realized… that it would have been a very dangerous thing for me to continue, and I never could have – would have fallen in my tracks very quickly!
I stood the trip home fairly well – but slept rather poorly and was sick in the night. Left Seymour at 11:40 and arrived here at 8:50 the next morning.
Mother met me at the car and I just fell into her arms! I tell you it seems good to be at home again. We are going to the lake [Clear Lake in Buchanan, Michigan, where the Desmond family had a summer cottage] on Friday for a few days and Mary Mitchell [Grace’s friend] is to go with us. Very few know I’m home, and those that do, were quite surprised!
Grace’s letter to Ruth continues:
Dr. B and his wife were good to me and even insisted on Dad staying there. We will never forget what they did for me and they will always be two of our dearest friends. We liked them very much personally, also! Mary came to see me while I was in Seymour. O’Dair, Mrs. Bristol, and a White Rose girl – and so many inquiries for me!
…Thank all for their kind inquiries and say good-by to everybody. Don’t forget Buck & Langston, Jerry – tell Ruth McK to write! I am feeling better but am as yellow-looking! Am weak and nervous – my trouble was intestinal disturbances and a nervous breakdown. My first offense in that direction!
Now, honey, we all expect you to visit with me on Sept 4 or 5 for as long as you can. I surely expect you & will prepare for you…
Don’t get lonesome – love and kisses & regards to the crowd…Assuring you of how I hated to leave & thanking you for your good care of me…
In a letter home (pictured below), Ruth explains to her mother about the dramatic turn of events for Grace and the Clarke-Bowers Company in the waning days of the tour: how Grace had to leave the company after contracting typhoid fever; how the company had to find a pianist to replace Grace for the remainder of its engagements; and how Ruth had been invited by Grace to visit her in Chicago when the tour was over.
Shortly thereafter, Grace sent this postcard to her loyal friend, Ruth:
Will expect you to call me on phone on Monday and want you to come to 4430 on Tuesday A.M. and stay until Wed. eve. anyway, if not longer Don’t fail me! Miss Mitchell has something planned for you on Tuesday. Say goodbye to all for me. Love, Grace”
A Festive Reunion
Ruth accepted Grace’s invitation to visit her in Chicago a few days later when the tour was over and Grace was well once again. And what a time those young ladies had!
Here’s how Ruth described their visit in a letter to her mother:
” Arrived at Chicago Monday morning and spent a real quiet Labor Day for I was dead tired… [Grace] has recovered from her illness and although she doesn’t look as well as she did earlier in the season, she is rapidly recovering….She looks far better than I expected and surely treated me great….
…Tuesday noon we went downtown to the “Tip Top”, a very swell restaurant where we had a dollar-and-a-half luncheon, were joined by Miss Mitchell [Grace’s friend], and went to the matinee [at The La Salle]… to see the musical comedy Louisiana Lou, …
Ruth’s letter to her mother continued:
In the eve. Grace gave a real party for me and she surely knows how to entertain. Their home is a regular mansion and was fixed up beautifully for the “event.” After a short musicale in which we all did stunts, we proceeded to the ballroom and tripped the light fantastic (how’s that for style!)… As the guests didn’t leave till about three a.m., I didn’t wake up till noon!
By today’s standards, the Desmond home in 1911 certainly wouldn’t appear to be a “mansion” as Ruth described it to her mother in that letter, but Jay Sherwood explained his grandmother’s words in an email to Grace’s niece like this:
The [Desmond] house certainly looks “mansion-like”, with all the windows, veranda, wrought iron fence, stained glass window on the front door, etc.
Quite possibly it had marble fireplaces and other luxurious features. You could make a nice ballroom on the third floor, and I notice the big windows that would have made that area very light…
In reading my grandmother’s letters and postcards, I sense that she really enjoyed the visits to big cities like Chicago, New York and St. Louis. I guess it’s part of being an artist and performer that you want to go to and enjoy performances,… get a sense of …[what other artists are doing], meet others in the art scene, and participate in events like the one that your aunt put on for my grandmother, Ruth.
Even from the distance of 100 years I still sense her excitement, and imagine what it must have been like for young women like my grandmother and your aunt to have had such opportunities at that time.
It’s doubtful that Ruth and Grace ever performed publicly together again. It’s also not known how long they remained friends after their Chautauqua tour in 1911 was over and their reunion in Chicago was behind them.
What is known though, is that both Ruth and Grace, each enjoyed many more years of sharing their musical gifts with others, including on other Chautauqua tours with other performers.
Ruth Bowers, who was from Erie, Pennsylvania, went on to form her own Chautauqua company in 1912, bringing her skills on the violin to rural areas of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. When her Chautauqua days were behind her and she was married with four children, Ruth continued to perform, mainly in Pittsburgh.
In 1920 she played on KDKA, soon after it became the first radio broadcast station in the United States. Two years later she formed her own small musical company which played in the area for many years. Ruth also taught violin, both at schools and in private lessons, and continued to play until late in life.
Ruth died in 1982 at the age of 94.
Grace Desmond, who was from Chicago, also performed on the Chautauqua circuit again when she joined renowned reader and performer Katherine Ridgeway in the fall of 1912. That tour took her through several states including Colorado, Utah, Washington and Montana.
Like Ruth, Grace also continued to enjoy and share her skills as a classically trained pianist when her Chautauqua days came to a close. Newspaper research in Chicago papers from the 1910s through the 1950s has unearthed numerous mentions of performances by Grace at women’s clubs, society functions, recitals, and other events featured on the Society pages of those newspapers.
Grace married in 1916 but was widowed after her only child left home for the seminary to become a Jesuit priest. She too, gave lessons and mentored others as she shared her musical gifts with future musicians.
In her later years, Grace served as a sorority house mother on the campus of Indiana University–undoubtedly teaching her girls a thing or two on those black and white piano keys.
Grace died in 1972 at the age of 81.
As for Ruth’s grandson, Jay Sherwood, and Grace’s niece, Patricia (Desmond) Biallas…
We’ve exchanged over a hundred emails back-and-forth with each other since we met online just three years ago.
As Jay recently wrote in one of his emails to me:
“I’ve been thinking that my grandmother, Ruth, and your aunt, Grace, would probably be very pleased to know that their descendants have made contact a century later…”
I couldn’t agree with him more.
Jay and I remain friends to this day sharing stories and news we continue to discover about our mutual ancestors who were–themselves–good friends more than a century ago.
Jay Sherwood is an award-winning historian, retired teacher-librarian, and author of six history books on British Columbia, one of which was a finalist for the 2015 BC Book Prize and the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing.
His latest work, Chautauqua Serenade: Violinist Ruth Bowers on Tour 1010-1912, was released in September by Caitlin Press, Inc. and is available at Amazon.com (US) or Amazon.ca (Canada) or Barnes & Noble.com. More information about the book can be found at the following link: www.ruthbowersmusic.ca
Copyright © 2016 Patricia Desmond Biallas