Of Orphans and Snowstorms

Absorbing Winter Reads

My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans. 

Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.

Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary. 

Buy the Little Ones a Dolly

Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery. 

In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.

Rose E. Bingham

The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.

It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.

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’Tis the Season

And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.  

Jerry Peterson

’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time. 

If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.

If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.

Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.

And just in time for Christmas, too.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Thanks for the humiliation

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

[A]mongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

—Edward Winslow, December 12, 1621

This well-known event was not “Thanksgiving,” even though we remember it that way. 

We know it was not Thanksgiving because if it had been a special time of Thanksgiving,  the Scrooby Separatists would have treated it like a designated time of Repentance: with fasting, prayer, and humiliation. Not with feasting, fun, and games.

Humiliation? What’s that got to do with thanksiving?

How Humiliating

John Adams, painting by Gilbert Stuart. Public Domain.

A friend of mine, who happened also to be my boss, boggled when he read a presidential proclamation by John Adams that called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer. 

“Humiliation? Why would the president of the United States call for our country to be humiliated?” 

My friend/boss was a soldier and a patriot, proud of our nation’s achievements. He was also a classic narcissist, the star of his own show—a show in which all the rest of us were bit players. Humiliation was a concept that did not appeal to him. 

His question was not rhetorical. He was sincere; he wanted an answer. Sadly, other matters more pressing at the time pre-empted the long talk it would have taken to justify the role of humiliation in the psyche of our infant nation.

Of all the presidents who have called us to prayer and thanksgiving, only one embraced the “h” word—John Adams, a staunch old Puritan. His proclamations of 1798 and 1799 urged national, as well as individual, humiliation. That need was seen by the Calvinistic Adams, and perhaps by most New Englanders of that era, as an absolute prerequisite if there was to be any hope for a people mired in original sin.

My boss scorned old John’s advice, I surmise, because he equated humiliation with defeat. After all, the Packers routinely humiliated the Bears. Victorious allies humiliated Germany at Versailles. Saddam Hussein suffered abject humiliation by Norman Schwarzkopf.

Victorious allies David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson prepare to humiliate Germany, Paris 1919. U.S. Army photo. Public Domain.

The Upside of Humiliation

“Humiliation” also signifies a path to remembering our creaturehood. Humans are inclined to hubris, yet our proper attitude—the realistic attitude in the full context of God’s world—is humility. That does not come easily to us; thus we require humiliation. Such humiliation could be seen as a victory, not a defeat. I think that is what John Adams meant.

If we ourselves are the center of the universe, we thereby occupy the whole. Where is there space for gratitude? What is there to be thankful for? Who is there to thank?

It has been a very long time since anyone of Great Importance in our general life ventured the faintest suggestion that humility might be a good thing; or, even better, modeled humility as a public virtue. 

Rather, those who dominate our headlines and our consciousness reliably turn out to be monsters of pride and arrogance. Their toxic self-absorption trickles down to the public at large. Or, could it be that it seeps upward to them, from us?

Authentic Gratitude

On the day we call Thanksgiving, we gather around the groaning board. We honor a tradition begun in 1621 with a feast and various entertainments, including football (our most military game). 

Because the name of the day is Thanksgiving, we try to remember, amidst all revelries, to give thanks. Our thanksgiving may take the simple form of each person around the table, in turn, stating what he or she is thankful for. That’s not a bad thing to do. 

Humility, if nothing else, might suggest it is also important to mention Whom we are thankful to.

A little humiliation could be a good thing. Happy Thanksgiving.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

 

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part III

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets]. 

Grandma’s Narrative:

I mentioned transportation, but didn’t say what kind. It was horse drawn of course, and usually was a “spring wagon,” which was a light wagon with two spring seats with leather cushioned seat & back.

Spring wagon. Public Domain.

My grandparents never did have anything with a top. They had umbrellas for sun or rain in Summer, and when it was snowing or raining in the winter, I think we mostly stayed at home. We did go quite often in sleigh or bobsled when there was snow on the ground. We always had sleighbells on.

The sleigh was not one of those fancy looking ones with large round runners. But I rather think it may have been home made. Anyway it was made of wood, painted red, and had two seats. Then there was straw in the bottom and hot bricks to keep warm.

Millie Marie Gunsten, age 18.

We never tho’t of anything better. There were top [?] buggies and “surries with the fringe on top,” but very few around then. 

Later came the Klondikes or enclosed buggies, but we never had any of those.

When our family was small, we usually went to Greenview for Xmas, but later spent it at home. There were now several families of relatives living there, and they would take turns having family dinners—one at Xmas, one at New Years, another at Thanksgiving etc.

Age of the Telegraph

When we moved to Middletown there were still no telephones. When Election time came, the returns would come in by telegraph at the R.R. station.

Everyone would go to the hall or Opera House and there would be some kind of entertainment.

Every so often a Messenger would come from the station with a Bulletin, which would be read.

How to Keep Food Fresh

Most every one had a small vegetable garden and fruit trees. But we didn’t know how to can vegetables then, except tomatoes. We canned fruit, but not a lot, as we did after I was married.

Vegetables, such as beans etc., were dried, and we also dried some fruit.

Most everyone had cellars or caves which would keep apples, Potatoes, cabbage etc. 

Girls were pressed into service as “icemen” during World War I. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain.

Most people baked their own bread, but when there was a bakery near by, the bread would be shipped in, in large baskets, unwrapped. The loaves were baked in large pans & were stuck together. They were put in wall cases with sliding doors, and when you wanted to buy some, they would tear off as many loaves as you wanted, and wrap it.

Of course there were no Electric refrigerators or freezers. The fresh meat was sold in Butcher shops, who had large coolers, cooled with ice. They did their own butchering, as did all private families who had butchering to do. and also smoked their own hams, bacon, etc. The sausage & some other meat was fried, and put in stone jars, and covered with Grease so it would keep.

It all tasted much better than the meat we get today, or so I tho’t.

Dairy Products

Our milkman had a horse-drawn covered wagon & the milk was in a large Milk Can. We would take a pitcher or something out & he would dip out as much milk as we wanted. That was in larger towns. In smaller towns most people had their own cow & some sold milk, but you would usually have to go after it.

Milk wagon. Public Domain.

My own folks never had a cow, that I remember, but we bought milk & butter from a farmer who lived on the edge of town.

My grandparents were Norgeian [sic], and they always had 2 kinds of cheese on the table for Breakfast. One was made from what we call cottage cheese. It was wrapped in cloth after being drained & salted, and laid away until it became real strong. I didn’t like that quite as well as what was made from the whey. It was boiled down to about ¼ of what it was, and then a little sweetening and thickening added. There were small grains of the cheese as it had not been strained. I tho’t this was super & could eat it at every meal

Well this is all I have written at the present time. I may think of more later.

June. 5 – 1969.  .

And that’s all she wrote.

Next Week: Something Completely Different!

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part II

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets]. 

Grandma’s Narrative:

I was the oldest at home, and was more of a homebody, not caring so much for getting out and tearing around as some liked to do.

Grandma at 18

There was always plenty to do at home outside of school hours, and then we didn’t have automobiles those days to race around in. We had parties of different kinds quite often especially in the winter. When they were out of town we often went in bob-sleds—a farm wagon bed on sled runners, with straw in the bottom to sit on.

Of course there were dances, but I didn’t care for them, and my folks didn’t like them either.

They were mostly public dances in a hall, and some not very nice to go to.

They didn’t have dances in schools & for teenagers as they do today.

Roller Skates and Old Maid Decks

Then Roller skates came in & as we had no cement walks those days, the skating rinks were in a hall or opera House. Very few had their own skates, whoever operated the rinks had skates for rent.

I was never very good at it, but I always went and tried. But ice skating was simply out for me. I was too clumsy or too big a coward or Something.

19th Century Old Maid deck. Public Domain.

My father was never a very religious man, but he never would allow a deck of cards in the house, even a deck of “Old Maid” as was popular then.

So I never learned to play cards & didn’t care enough for it to play much, or try to learn.

At school we played BaseBall, jumped rope, drop the Handkerchief etc. (I expect you think “Some Fun”)

In summer & fall when the leaves came down, we would rake the leaves into ridges or walls for the houses we would layout, marking off rooms etc. This was mostly the girls games. We also played hide & seek quite a bit in the evening, and caught lightning bugs under the street lights.

When some cousins or neighbors came to visit in the evening, especially in the winter, we kids would play what we called “Dark Room,” which was Hide & Seek in the comparatively dark bedrooms or other unoccupied rooms. It was a lot of fun but I wouldn’t have liked my children playing that game, as the rooms were not very presentable when we were through, as we crawled over & under beds and other furniture etc.

Avid Reader

My one enjoyment was reading, and I had a little trouble with my eyes. The folks would hide any books I was reading, but I usually dug something out to read. My grandmother [Johnanna Marie Elizabeth Nybro Gunstenson Reierson Anson] lived next door at the time, and she was as much of a reader as I was. Of course they didn’t have magazines and librarys in most every town as they do now. 

One day she bro’t out some magazines that were yellow with age, but they surely had a lot of good stories in them. I don’t know where she got them, but she had a lot of them & would bring out a few at a time. So I had a “Field Day” for quite awhile. She came from Norway, but these were American magazines.

My younger brothers and sisters cared for a few different things that I did not.

But as I write it, it seems like practically nothing compared to what they have today, but we never knew about anything else, so we were satisfied.

Organic Entertainment

We always had an organ, a reed organ as practically everybody had. We didn’t have pianos at that time.

1882 advertisement for Beatty’s Parlor Organs. Public Domain.

My mother taught me a few pieces to play by ear when I was quite young, long before I was of school age. & soon I could play practically anything by ear, or rather any tunes I had ever heard.

Then one day while looking in the instruction book I accidentially [sic] caught on as to how the notes were placed on the scale & what it all meant. So after that I played also by note. None of my sisters or brothers ever learned to play much.

I have always played in churchs [sic], Sunday Schools, School etc. without ever having taken a lesson.

I never have learned the pipe organ & very little on Electric organs, tho I have always wanted to, and still do.

Household Chores

Being oldest of the family, I naturally learned to cook & sew very well & did most of the sewing for the family. Those days we couldn’t go to the store & buy ready-made clothes as we do today.

But I never cared too much for sweeping, dusting etc. I would rather do outside work, such as shoveling snow, carrying coal, wood etc. and as my brothers were a lot younger than I, I could always do that. One thing I remember that I had forgotten about, where a short time ago something in a paper mentioned the fact that when we set the table, we always turned the plates upside down over the knife, fork & spoon. I think maybe on account of dust etc. as we usually left them on the table from meal to meal along with salt, pepper, Sugar, vinegar etc. which were in a caster (a sort of merry-go-round) which was in the Center of the table & was high and would hold up the Cover.

We always covered the table with a thin white cloth or a mosquito bar or something.

Feel the Burn

We usually had a summer kitchen for summer use, as we had no gas, electricity, or even kerosene stoves at that time.

We would move the kitchen stove out there every spring, unless we had two stoves as some had.

But it was nice to get the stove out of the way so we didn’t have to look at it in hot weather.

Corn cobs. Photo by Krish Dulal, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Then there was usually a rag carpet, which had to be taken up each spring & cleaned.

We burned quite a lot of corn cobs in the summer as they made a quick fire & would cool down quickly when we were done with it.

Later we had a kerosene stove, and then a gasoline stove. That was something! but a lot of people were afraid of them.

There were no furnaces in those days. As for heating stoves, they were also moved out and in, spring & fall, or at least set back in the corner, and decorated a little during the summer. These burned coal or wood.

1888 Advertisement for a gasoline “vapor stove.” Public Domain.

Then there was the Base Burner which was a large heating stove, with small squares of ising glass [sic] all around, through which the fire glowed and looked real nice. They burned hard or anthracite coal with very little smoke or soot.

We didn’t always have transportation of our own but our grandparents lived near, on a near farm at first, then in Middletown they lived next door. So we went with them quite often. Of course we didn’t go places like folks do now a days, and if we went to Springfield or some place farther, we went on the train. To go to Greenview (10 miles) on the train we had to change in Petersburg. But we went that way every once in a while.

While living in the country, we went to Church & Sunday School sometimes at a Country Church.

Then there were always Decoration Day services at the Cemetery about 2½ miles from town.

There was a speakers stand, and they would take an organ out from town. I sometimes played the organ at these services. Later when a band was organized they played too.

Then on 4th of July we usually went to Greenview. They had a large grove there at the edge of town, and there would be a program. Everyone took a picnic lunch, but I can’t remember that there were any tables. They just spread the lunch on the ground.

The water supply was in large barrels, set around the grove. There was ice in them, and about a dozen tin cups fastened to the barrel with long chains, and eveyone drank. (Real sanitary)

They also had fireworks, but of course not as elaborate as they have today. But we all had firecrackers, sparcklers [sic] etc.

Next Week: All the Comforts of a 19th Century Home

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part I

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].

Grandma’s Narrative:

I was born Aug. 8 – 1889, at Greenview, Menard Co. Illinois. I was the oldest of 10 children. My father & mother were running a resturant [sic] in Greenview. But when I was about a month old, we moved to a small farm, about 10 or 12 miles from there.

Millie, age 5, and her sister Mabel, 3.

My father’s name was John Oliver Gunsten, and his folks were Norwegian, altho he was born in this country. My mother’s name was Sarah Elizabeth Foster. My father did not farm, but was a carpenter as were quite a few cousins of two other Gunsten families who lived near by.

They all worked together, with my father as Boss Contractor. He never had but little education, but was an excellent carpenter, and drew all his plans and then had them blueprinted. He also made a lot of our furniture, such as dressers, desks etc.

Several years later we moved to Lincoln, Logan Co. Illinois. There was a Feeble-minded Institution there, and they always kept several carpenters for repair jobs & other work that needed to be done. So my father was Boss Carpenter there.

School Days

I also had my first two years of school in Lincoln. Then we moved to Middletown, also in Logan Co, and about 25 miles from Springfield.

Later quite a few of my fathers relatives moved there, as did a few other Norwegian families.

My mother’s folks still lived in Greenview, about 10 miles away, but quite a trip in horse & buggy.

I finished my schooling in Middletown, which had 8 grades, and 2 yrs. High School, as most small towns had.

This was all one 2-room building – one downstairs and one upstairs, with two teachers.

I even taught several times in the lower room, when the teacher was sick or had to be away.

I was large for age and also rather quick to learn, so I suppose that was the reason I was chosen.

In those days only the “well-to-do” tho’t of going away to High School or College.

Small Town Life

After finishing school, we moved to Lowpoint, Ill. a very small town in Woodford Co. But it was a very important town, and was practically owned by three brothers. They had a large general store, lumber yard, elevator, coal, etc.

Millie, age 18.

They always kept a Carpenter for their house building etc. thru out the country, so that was my Dad. The telephone exchange was in the middle of the General store, and there were wires extending from there to different parts of the store for the cash boxes. So I was the telephone and cashier there.

There was a blacksmith, but he was independent, and let everybody know it.

Several years later we moved to Springfield. My mother’s sister lived there, and later most of the rest of her family moved there. 

The older ones lived there until their deaths. I still have one sister living there. My mother’s father lived to rather a good age, and her mother [Martha Elizabeth Smith Foster] lived to be 100. She was in good health always and able to get around rather well altho her hearing was not too good. She was knitting a suit for one of her grown up grand-daughters, and finished it soon after.

But she seemed to give up at 100 years, and 6 mos. later she died.

Marriage and Family

William P. Sommers, around age 30.

I worked as telephone operator in Springfield for awhile, then later did office work, until I was married on May 29, 1912 to Wm P. Sommers of Metamora, Illinos. He and his father [Peter Anton Sommers] owned and operated the Telephone Exchange in Metamora, as in those days most of Telephone Exchanges were privately owned.

My husband was a Telegraph Operator, and railroaded since quite young (14 yrs.) Those days they worked as apprentices ˆ(and general roustabout) in a station until they learned Telegraphy and then they were on their own.

One of Grandpa’s telegraph keys, an unusual Foote, Pierson & Co. “Twentieth Century” key from the early 1900s, popularly known as a “Pump Handle Key.” Larry F. Sommers photo.

We lived in Metamora 23 yrs. Our 5 children (4 boys & 1 girl) were born there. My husband was station agent there for awhile, then he went to work for Sinclair [Oil Corporation]. At that time they dispatched their oil [on their oil pipeline] by telegraph, and had pumping stations every 40 miles (I believe). He had to work as relief Opr. at different places at vacation time until a permanent place was open. Finally we moved to Dahinda, Knox Co., Ills. We lived there 8 yrs. but as the children had to drive 10 miles to High School, we moved into Knoxville where we still live (or at least I do.) My husband died Jan. 1957. He had retired from Sinclair after 16 yrs. The children all live away now.

Our children all graduated from Knoxville High School. The oldest Edward went to University of Washington 2 yrs. Then enlisted in the Naval Cadet Program, which was being pushed at that time on account of W.W. 2 looming up. After 4 yrs in Navy, he went with Pan American Airway where has been [sic] ever since. 

He married Mary Nelson of Knoxville, and have three children and 3 grandchildren.

Next oldest is Mabel, who married Robert Hiler of Knoxville, who is mechanic for United Airlines in California. They have one son.

The third was Stanley, who went to Knox College 2 yrs. & then enlisted as Aviation Cadet. He became a Pilot and 2ndLt. He married Mary Parkins of Galesburg just before going overseas.  

He was killed in So Pacific. Dec-1st 1942.

The youngest Franklin was also a pilot and 2nd Lt. He was killed in France at age 20 years. Sept 2 – 1943.

The next to youngest was Lloyd went into the Army, just after High School.

He spent 3½ yrs. in So Pacific and came home in fairly good shape. He then went to Knox College for 4 yrs, and taught H. School for 3 yrs. [Mistaken: Actually 2 years.]

He is now Chemist for Johns-Manville in Waukegan, Ills. He married Barbara La Follette of Knoxville, and they have two children. Cynda, the youngest is in first yr. college.

Larry who is overseas with Army Air Corp [actually, U.S. Air Force], works as interpeter [sic] of Communist broadcasts, for one thing.

Millie Sommers, 1950s

He went to a Chinese language school & studied the Chinese language. Since being in Okinawa part of the time, he has studied Japanese language. He is the one who gave me the idea of writing these memoirs. He wanted me to write of some of the things we did differently in the days when I was young, and what we did for fun. So I will try and think of some things that might be interesting.

Next Week: Fin-de-Siècle Pastimes

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

The Units

Daddy’s friend Clark drove standing up. That’s the first thing I noticed. “That’s how milk trucks are,” he explained. “You have to drive standing up.” I was still amazed at this when we arrived at the circus. 

A three-ring circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. Public Domain image from State Archives of Florida, published under Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 license.

There in the gathering darkness: a big tent on a dusty lot. We sat high up and saw people called “acrobats” fly through the air and drop into a big, bouncy net. And there came a little car that drove around the three circus rings and dropped off clowns, one by one—at least a dozen of them. The little truck, by some magic, seemed to to have an inexhaustible supply of clowns. 

A milk truck. You had to stand up. “DSC_5874” by improbcat is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 .

Clark drove the milk truck but did not own it. He was not a regular milkman. He was a college student like Daddy. He drove an early morning milk route for extra cash and could use the truck in off hours.

It was 1949; I was four. We lived in The Units—three or four rows of jerry-built shacks on the campus of Knox College. Each unit, one of three connected side by side, had a kitchen, a bath, a small livingroom, and two small bedrooms. Each unit housed a mommy, a daddy, and one or two very young children.

The occupants were families of war veterans attending college on the newly-enacted GI Bill. We moved in when I was three months old, in September 1945, and left in June 1949, not long after Daddy took me to the circus. 

Special Bond

The families who lived in The Units shared a special bond and a certain kind of outlook. The men were college students, the women housewives. They were all, on average, four or more years older than the typical entering freshman. They were householders, married, with young children. The usual campus hijinks of the era held no charm for them. They had their own hijinks. 

They were more serious men, you see, having just fought a war. Yet, like all students everywhere, they sometimes put studies on the back burner, accepting lower grades as a  reasonable price for the rich social life of The Units. That social life included beer, cigarettes, the needs of their toddlers, and late-night bridge games.

The family next door, with whom we shared a wall, was Bud and Helen Steele and their daughter Heather. Helen and Bud played bridge with Mommy and Daddy most nights in their place or ours. When the visiting couple got the contract, the one who was dummy got up and ran next door to check on the ostensibly sleeping child. Bud, whose name was Virgil, was a wiry man with a ready smile, from a family that farmed just south of Galesburg. Helen was a fresh-faced and friendly young woman from Saskatchewan. I don’t know how they managed to find each other, but they made a great match. They remained fast friends with our family long after The Units and until their dying days. My younger sister and I still keep in touch with Heather and her siblings, Hugh and Linelle.

Diversions and Hijinks

One of the men in The Units sought to beautify the little patch of green grass in front of his place by planting two or three sapling trees. Several of his colleagues, by dark of night, dug up the trees and, perhaps inspired by the beer, re-planted them upside-down.

Iceman and children. German Federal Archives, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Life was likewise fun for us tots. A small pack of us roamed The Units, outdoors in almost any weather, older ones picking on younger ones. In summer the iceman came twice a week. Our iceboxes had to be replenished with large blocks of ice, which were slid into the upper compartment to cool the meat, butter, eggs, and milk in the lower compartment. The iceman used black wrought-iron tongs to lug these ice blocks into our kitchens. We kids waited beside the iceman’s idling truck until he came out, tongs empty, to get another ice-cake. Then the boldest of us, Dale Price, begged ice chips from the iceman. He gave us each a two- or three-inch sliver of ice to hold in our hands, very cold under the hot sun. You had to brush dirt and sawdust off the ice chip. Then you sucked on it for as long as you could stand, dropped it, and ran off to play another game. 

It may not sound like much, Gentle Reader; but for us it was a treat.

One time Dale Price drank turpentine from an old Campbell’s soup can my mommy had left on the back stoop, midway through a furniture painting project. Dale was rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped out. “Darn that Dale Price,” Mommy said. “Always getting into things.”

The Railroad

Burlington engine No. 5633, no longer going anywhere, on static display in Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Wusel007, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Galesburg was a railroad town, astride two great lines: The Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy. The Units stood across South Cherry Street from the main line of the CB&Q. I clearly remember standing in our front yard on a bright morning, watching a fast train zoom by, pulled by a chugging black steam locomotive, perhaps a 4-8-4 “Northern,” a long cone of white smoke streaming out behind it. At night, I lay in my crib beside Teddy, my bear and best friend, and listened to the imponderable chug, roll, and bump of iron thunder as switch engines sorted and grouped railcars in the nearby Burlington yards. 

Mrs. Grable’s School

Life went on. Daddy had a part-time job taking the Galesburg Register-Mail to the outlying district of Bushnell in the afternoons. The GI Bill provided tuition, subsistence, books and supplies, equipment, and counseling services for veterans in college; but daily  expenses, beyond “subsistence,” could be tight. When I was three, Mommy got a part-time job as a secretary in an auto parts company, and I began attending a nursery school, “Mrs. Grable’s.” 

1950 DeSoto Suburban ad, Public Domain. Scanned by Alden Jewell, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Mrs. Grable had a large house with a big backyard and lots of toys and crayons. One or two other old ladies helped her wrangle kids. She had maybe a dozen of us. She picked us in the morning in her DeSoto Suburban—a big car with jump seats and room enough for the whole dozen of us. Later in the day she drove around The Units and dropped us off one by one, like circus clowns alighting from a mystery vehicle every afternoon at three.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Colleville by the Sea

December 9, 1954—Edward turned right at Formigny, and the little German car divided the French fields en route to Omaha Beach. Millie, riding in back beside Mary, watched the hamlet of St. Laurent-sur-Mer slide by her window. No bigger than Knoxville, she thought. Not many people out. Probably taking their siesta.

Frankie’s headstone at Colleville, 2009.
Steven Sommers photo.

At the cemetery, all four got out of the car. The sun came out, but a stiff wind drove the cold into one’s bones. The caretaker, wearing a beret, led the way to Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32. Millie was glad Will had bought a new overcoat in Galesburg before they left. Thin and wiry as he was, the cold went right through him. Not like me, she thought.

There it was: 

FRANKLIN W. SOMMERS

2LT   559 BOMB SQ   387 BOMB GP (M)

ILLINOIS   SEPT 2 1943

Will polished his specs, stuffed the handkerchief back in a pocket. He stared at the cross.

That’s the look he gives to kids cutting across his vegetable patch, Millie thought. 

Edward frowned as if embarrassed how the Luftwaffe had treated his youngest brother. Mary stood by him, eyes closed, lips moving silently, hands clasped in front of her. 

Will stepped up, bent forward, ran the fingers of one hand over the letters cut into the cross. 

Frankie, second from left, and crew of Janet’s Dream, 1943.

“He was flying a Marauder, Pop,” said Edward, the pilot. “B-26.” 

Will straightened up, turned away. “Doesn’t matter much, now.”

Grandpa catches his hat. From film by Edward Sommers.

The wind was blowing from land to sea. You could see the English Channel from here. At least Frankie has a view, she thought. What a thing to think.

Will brushed his cheek with the edge of his hand as he walked away from the grave. “God-damned wind. Smarts the eyes.” 

The wind took his fedora, and he chased it across the memorial colonnade.

A fictionalized account of true events.

#

After a War

CARE package, 1948. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

Western Europe today is modern, progressive, and well-to-do—a success story. But in the 1950s, when my grandparents made their only visit there, the place was a wreck. In the first half of the twentieth century, it had been destroyed, partly rebuilt, then destroyed all over again. When peace came in 1945, standing Europe back on its feet was a monumental task. There was the Marshall Plan, but that was hardly enough. We were urged by radio announcements to support the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, which sent “CARE packages” to needy Europeans. When Grandpa and Grandma, Will and Millie Sommers, visited at the end of 1954, the contrast between American prosperity and European austerity remained sharp. 

Older Younger

He was 70; she was 65. That equates to 80 and 75 in today’s world. Folks got older younger in those days. They were not wealthy but were thrifty. Still, they might not have made the trip had they not had a ready entrée to Europe. Their eldest son, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways. He and his family lived in Bad Homburg, an old mineral-springs resort town about ten miles northeast of Frankfurt.

Due to a flight delay in Boston, Grandma and Grandpa missed connections in London and had to stay overnight at the Richmond Hill Hotel. There, at 4:00 pm on November 10, according to Millie’s notes, they had “tea, milk, and hot water; sandwiches of fish and cheese—very good; bread, butter, and marmalade.” You may think of “English High Tea” as something a bit more elaborate, but remember: This was less than ten years after the most destructive war in history. As to the hotel—“Rooms cold,” she reports, “so to bed early.

Remains of Hitler’s bunker, after 1947 demolition. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

They flew on to Frankfurt to stay with Ed and his family. In the following weeks, with Ed or his wife, Mary, at the wheel, they visited Freiburg; Alzenau and Michelbach in Bavaria, in quest of Sommers family records; and Berlin, including a brief trip into the Russian sector. While in Berlin they saw the bunker where Hitler spent his last days. “Mass of rubble – right in business section,” Grandma reports. 

At this point in her narration, she pauses to wax philosophical: “It has been said that after hearing of all the destruction, you may say, ‘There’s nothing left to see.’ But turning to what remains, there is more than any traveler is likely to take in during a lifetime.” Clearly, she was impressed by the sights of Europe.

There was one sight, however, that must have evoked strong emotions. (Understand, Dear Reader, in our family strong emotions are something to be avoided rather than sought or indulged.) On Monday, December 6, they left for France by auto with Ed and Mary. Grandma lists every city and town through which they drove. 

Spoils of War

They drove through places famously scarred by the First World War: the Meuse River and Argonne Forest, Château-Thierry on the Marne. At Verdun, they saw a monument to André Maginot, whose fortifications failed to prevent the Nazi conquest of France in 1940. At Châlons-sur-Marne, they stayed in the Hotel de la Haute-Mère-Dieu, built in 1700. They drove through the Belleau Woods battlefield.

They rushed through Paris and Versailles in less than 24 hours—a shame bordering on a crime. They continued across France to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a newly-built resting place above the invasion beach. (This is the setting of the imagined vignette above. It’s a piece of fiction, but from my knowledge of the individuals involved, something very like it must have taken place.) 

Grandma and Grandpa at the grave, 1954.

While at the cemetery, they spoke with the its caretaker, whom Grandma describes as “very nice – American with French wife. 2 live there with 24 hr. supervision. He was in Normandy invasion. Cemetery on shore of channel where landing was made. This was after our boys were gone of course. [She’s referring to sons Stanley, lost over the Solomon Islands in 1942, and Frankie, lost over France in 1943.]

“Much wreckage still in Channel – which is covered during High Tide. Drove along water – Fort still partly standing there with German Gun still sticking out.” 

Later the same day they visited Dunquerque (which the British spell Dunkirk), site of a major battle early in World War II, a beach from which more than 330,000 men were spirited across the Channel in a huge boatlift. Grandma’s notes report: “Desolate country  . . . . Immense amount of damage. . . . Looked across at White Cliffs of Dover.”

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Grass

by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 

Shovel them under and let me work— 

                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 

Shovel them under and let me work. 

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

                                          What place is this? 

                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 

                                          Let me work.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Onward and Upward, with Missionary Zeal

After a recent family reunion in Portsmouth, Virginia, my wife and I drove across North Carolina and stayed a couple of days with old friends in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Chattanooga!”

It sings. 

In fact, it has been mentioned in songs like “Chattanooga Choo-choo” and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” With two doubled letters, it echoes the magic of  “Mississippi” and “Walla Walla.” With four syllables, Chat-ta-noo-ga, it is redolent of “Chattahoochee,” a river that has a song of its own.

The city has its own dedicated typeface, Chatype, released in 2012. It boasts the fastest Internet service in the Western Hemisphere. But I’m getting carried away with present-day embellishments. Whereas this blog, you know, kinda focuses on the past.

Lookout Mountain, 2007. Photo by Teke, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Chattanooga” may derive from a Creek word that means “rock rising to a point.” That would be Lookout Mountain, where they fought “the Battle Above the Clouds.”

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

You can’t imagine Chattanooga without remembering the Civil War. Tennessee was desperately contested from early in the conflict. President Lincoln wanted badly to protect the pro-Union folks in East Tennessee from being swallowed by the Confederacy. But first things had to come first: General Grant invaded West Tennessee. His hard-won victories at Fort Donelson and Shiloh meant the North would stay in the South. 

The next order of business was Vicksburg. The guns on its heights controlled traffic on the Mississippi. Grant wrested the city from the Southern grasp on July 4, 1863. The Confederacy was effectively broken into two parts.

Next Stop: Chattanooga

Chattanooga stood on the Tennessee River, in a place where great ridges of the Cumberland Plateau came together. A key point for river and rail transport, Chattanooga would be the ideal staging point from which to invade Georgia. On September 9, 1863, Union general Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. That was the easy part. 

General Braxton Bragg. Public Domain.

Rebel general Braxton Bragg, failing to oust Union forces in the Battle of Chickamauga September 19-20, laid siege to the river city and tried to starve the bluecoats out. In mid-October, Grant—now commanding all Union forces in the region—wrote, “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards, I will be there as soon as possible.” He arrived four days later and immediately began planning a campaign to break Bragg’s siege. 

After a month spent building a logistical advantage, Grant’s troops assaulted the rebel-held high points on Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. 

Seeing the Sites

Our friends and hosts, Andy and Janet Johnson, longtime Chattanooga residents, graciously showed us the battle sites.

Lookout Mountain, its top preserved as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, is as impressive now as it was then. It’s hard to imagine General Hooker’s men fighting their way up it to dislodge Bragg’s troops—but they did. 

The other two high points, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, have been developed as residential real estate, but you can see the layout clearly from the top of Lookout Mountain. The final battle for Chattanooga was at Missionary Ridge. Union troops under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas stormed the steep heights. 

Sherman’s troops stalled on their way up the north end of the north-south ridge. In the center, George Thomas’s division stalled after capturing Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they milled around, having gained what many appaently thought was their final objective, rebels poured fire down on their heads from the top of the ridge.

On, Wisconsin

Officers and men of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry knew what the real objective was. They started up the hill, but their color bearer was wounded and dropped the flag. Civil War units used their flags as rallying points. It was crucial the men of the 24th be able to see the colors  mounting the hill ahead of them. 

“On, Wisconsin!” Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur leads the 24th Wisconsin at Missionary Ridge. Painting by Michael Thorson. Used by permission.

Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, an 18-year-old, snatched the flag from the fallen soldier’s hands and dashed up the hill, shouting, “On, Wisconsin!” The regiment responded with a ferocious charge. Other units left and right did the same. The seasoned Confederate soldiers manning the guns at the top of the ridge experienced what can only be described as a moment of simultaneous panic. They ran. General Bragg chased them, implored them to turn and make a stand, but he did not get the stampede under control until his Army was safely in Georgia. Chattanooga was secure.

Major General William T. Sherman. Photo by Mathew Brady. Public Domain.

Chattanooga capped a long string of victories in the West for Grant. He became general-in-chief of all Union Armies, and moved on to Virginia for the final confrontation with Robert E. Lee. Grant’s right-hand man, Sherman, was turned loose to range from Chattanooga through the State of Georgia. His march to the sea, still remembered with more than chagrin by Southerners, once again subdivided the Confederacy. 

It would be more than a year before the final battles in Virginia and North Carolina, but Chattanooga played a decisive role in the outcome.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not interested in the Civil War, this may all seem frightfully dull and remote. But everything runs into everything else. 

For his actions at Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863, Arthur MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Later, he would serve as military governor of the Philippine Islands, when the U.S. won them in the Spanish-American War.

Just as important for history, Arthur MacArthur fathered a son, named Douglas, who became an American military legend in his own right, was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines in World War II, dictated the reconstruction of Japan along constitutional democratic lines after the war, and rescued South Korea from North Korea’s invasion in 1950.

“Plunge Right Through That Line”

And, by the way, Arthur MacArthur’s battle cry, “On, Wisconsin!” came to be  immortalized in a pretty catchy football tune.

And I, Dear Reader, will be eternally grateful to our Chattanooga friends, Andy and Janet Johnson, who helped me with my Civil War itinerary. As an unabashed Grantophile—any man who can’t hold his liquor is okay by me!—I had visited the sites of all Grant’s major victories, except this one. Now that box is checked.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Could Have Built Less, But Instead Built More

What is our fascination with the lives of the rich and famous? Is it envy? Incredulity? Wishful thinking?

My wife and I recently held a mini-reunion with family members in Virginia’s Tidewater region. Hankering also to see friends in Tennessee, we resolved to rent a car in Norfolk and drive it, after the reunion, to Chattanooga. This made a perfect excuse to stop in Asheville, North Carolina—a pleasant enough town in its own right, but most famous as the site of Biltmore, “the largest privately-owned house in the United States.” 

Biltmore Estate (Original image cropped.) 
“IMG_0333” by wonderwolfpack is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

It’s hard for most of us to envision a house with 178,926 square feet of floor space. Louis XIV’s little place at Versailles is only four times larger. Here in America, Biltmore would  comfortably engulf the White House, the Hearst Castle, and Graceland combined.

It was built between 1889 and 1895 by George Vanderbilt, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. George’s grandfather, “Commodore”  Cornelius Vanderbilt, started in 1810 as a boatman ferrying passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan and through entrepreneurship in the shipping and railroad industries amassed one of the largest fortunes in American history. At his death in 1877 his estate was estimated at $100 million—equivalent to $2.8 billion today.

Cornelius Vanderbilt. Public Domain.

The Commodore’s grandson, George, visited Asheville, in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, with his ailing mother in 1888. He fell in love with the place and began acquiring land—125,000 acres of it. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the estate grounds, Gifford Pinchot to manage its forests, and Richard Morris Hunt to design the house. 

A thousand workers, “ranging from local laborers to internationally known artists,” spent six years building the house, a French Renaissance château of 250 rooms. George and Edith Vanderbilt moved in and were soon joined by their infant daughter Cornelia. It took thirty servants to meet their domestic needs. Of course, the Vanderbilts did not live there alone. They entertained lots of guests. In luxury.

To walk through the four-story mansion requires energy and stamina. The rooms are large, the halls are long, the stairs are steep, and there are no elevators. But it’s worth the effort: You will see a concatenation of private rooms, public spaces, and connecting corridors arranged to offer a life of comfort, ease, elegance, and luxury beyond anything in your personal experience (unless your name is Rockefeller!). The 70,000-gallon  heated pool in the basement, for example, had to be drained and refilled every three days to meet guests’ needs; chlorination to keep the water fresh had not been invented yet. But who cares how much water you need to run, and heat, if you are among the super-rich?

George Washington Vanderbilt II. Biltmore Company. Public Domain.

After George’s death from complications of appendicitis at 52, his widow took over the running of the estate. She sold off approximately 86,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains at $5 per acre to the U.S. Government, which established it as the original core of the Pisgah National Forest. Later, daughter Cornelia and her husband, John Francis Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore to the public, “to increase area tourism during the Great Depression, and to generate income to preserve the estate,” according to the official Biltmore brochure. 

The house and its remaining 8,000 acres—including extensive gardens, the famous Biltmore Winery, the Antler Hill tourist village and hotel, and a number of on-estate restaurants and “light bites” venues—continue to be owned and managed by Cecil family descendants of George Vanderbilt. The paid staff numbers 2,700. The cost for a tour ticket is around $65, and there is no shortage of visitors. It’s a good example of an overly-ambitious project that has been saved after the fact by prudent management. 

Considering George Vanderbilt’s own personal resources, it’s amazing he managed to execute as much of his grand plan as he did. George’s share of the Commodore’s $100 million only came to about eight million, plus the income from another five million. Money went a lot farther in those days, of course. Even so, the size and scope of Biltmore boggles the mind.

My wife had visited Biltmore years ago so she stayed behind, enjoying a day of leisure at our hotel. My sister, however, accompanied me. The two of us toured the house but did not have the stamina to see the gardens as well. 

Before starting our tour, we had an excellent lunch at the Stable Café, a large restaurant adjacent to the house. As the name suggests, it was originally the George Vanderbilt’s stable. A huge barn, it is unlike any stable you may have seen. The walls are of glazed porcelain tile in a warm golden tone. The floor is of staggered red brick, also with a heavy glaze. A high row of arched casement windows sports an elaborate framework mechanism to open or close all of them at once. Diners sit at tables placed in former horse stalls—the straw bedding has been removed—with walls of laminated planks, topped by ornate metal grilles. 

I would like to have been one of Vanderbilt’s horses.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Say Goodnight, Gracie

Nattie Birnbaum was in a jam. He needed a new act. Nattie loved the vaudeville circuit, but it was not a secure living. 

Vaudeville was a form of theater—before cinema, radio, and television—that featured brief live performances: Songs, dances, song-and-dance teams, comedy acts, animal acts, jugglers, magicians.

Nattie was game for almost anything that got him a gig. He had been Glide of Goldie, Francis, and Glide; Jed Jackson of Jackson and Malone; Maurice Valente of Maurice Valente and His Wonder Dog; Harris of Harris and Dunlop; Jose of Jose and Dolores; at various times both Brown and Williams of Brown and Williams; Jack Garfield; and “Eddie Delight when the real Eddie Delight got out of show business and gave me all his left-over business cards.” 

However, after years of experience, Nattie still did not have a successful long-term act. For the past year he had performed with Billy Lorraine under the name George Burns, but the act was going nowhere fast. Then—

SHAZAM!

Show Business Magic happened. 

A woman named Rena Arnold brought a friend to see Burns and Lorraine perform. “Nattie,” Rena said, “this is Grace Allen.” 

Grace told Rena she would not consider performing with Billy Lorraine, who had a tendency to stutter when he was nervous. But she would not mind trying a partnership with the other one. “That was my big talent.” George Burns reflected in his 1988 book, Gracie: A Love Story. “I didn’t stammer.” That’s the kind of line that would cue a cigar puff. Whenever George delivered a funny line, he puffed on his cigar—a signal for the audience to laugh. You know, in case they couldn’t tell.

George and Gracie started with “a boy-girl act, a flirtation act.” George had most of the funny lines. “Just to make sure the audience knew I was the funny one in the act,” he wrote, “I dressed like a comedian. . . . I wore wide pants and a short coat, a hat with the brim turned up in front, and a trick bow tie on a swivel. That jazzbo tie was very important; this was long before I smoked a cigar onstage; I let the audience know I’d told a joke by whirling my bow tie. Being the straight man, Gracie wore a lovely dress.” 

Gracie Steals the Show

Burns and Allen, 1952. CBS Television. Public Domain.

They soon discovered that Gracie got more laughs than George. So George rewrote the material with himself as straight man and Gracie the funny girl. They became a  sensation. When vaudeville died, they made the transition to motion pictures and radio. In 1950 they dropped radio for television. For eight years they had a hit half-hour sitcom—in fact, they helped invent the form. Then Gracie retired, never to perform again.

George and Gracie were what vaudeville called a “Dumb Dora act.” The woman got the laughs by being silly, stupid—a featherbrain. But Gracie, from the beginning, was Something Different.

“The audience had created Gracie’s character,” George wrote. “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type. Gracie certainly wasn’t the first comedienne in vaudeville. There had been a long line of ‘Dumb Doras’ . . . . What made Gracie different was her sincerity. She didn’t try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. Onstage, Gracie was totally honest, and honesty is the most important thing a performer can have. And if a performer can fake that, he can do anything.” 

Gentle Reader, if you have never seen Burns and Allen perform, you may not understand what George meant in the paragraph above. So we invite you, through the wonders of the Internet, to spend the next four minutes watching this. When you have done that, our symposium will reconvene here.

Many other samples of Burns and Allen’s work can be found online; you don’t need me to direct you to them. They include brief monologues when George tells jokes and puffs his cigar so you’ll know when to laugh. But, invariably and everlastingly, Gracie is the mainstay. George’s true genius lay in knowing how to cue Gracie appropriately, stay out of her way, and react naturally. His other true genius was in running all the business and managerial aspects of their show-business partnership. 

“The audience roared,” he wrote. “Either I was the greatest straight man who ever lived or Gracie was something special. By the time we finished those three days in Newark, Gracie had three-quarters of the punch lines. I didn’t mind, I still had 60 percent of our salary.”

Partners in Life, Too

When Nathan Birnbaum, from the Lower East Side of New York, and Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, from Irish Catholic roots in San Francisco, started their vaudeville act, it was strictly a business partnership. Gracie was in love with a big star named Benny Ryan. But theirs was a long-distance relationship, since she and Ryan were always playing different cities. Soon, George fell in love with Gracie and began a determined campaign to woo and win her away from Benny Ryan.

With the disarmingly honest self-assessment that is one of his charms, Burns wrote: “I fell in love with Gracie because she was pretty, smart, nice, and talented. But I’ll tell you the truth. I also fell in love with Gracie because I fell in love with making a good living. If she had married Benny Ryan, what was I going to do for an act? I had no real affection for the seal [with whom he had once performed]. The Siamese twins already had partners. Where was I going to find another Gracie? Remember, she was born Gracie, she wasn’t manufactured. Gracie didn’t come by the dozen. I fell in love with her just like our audiences did.” 

Extra Tidbits

George Burns, who lived many years after Gracie’s death in 1964, turned out to be the bestselling author of ten books. I have not read any of the others. But I suppose Gracie, A Love Story is the one you need. Besides the tiny glimpses given above, it reveals many facts I had not previously known about George and Gracie, even though I grew up in the era when they were household names.

  • Gracie Allen ran as the Surprise Party’s candidate for President in 1940 against FDR and Wendell Willkie, on the slogan, “Down with common sense. Vote for Gracie.” She even did a whistle-stop tour.
  • Gracie was never seen in public except in full or three-quarter-length sleeves, because her upper arm had been badly scarred in a scalding accident when she was a child. 
  • She had one blue eye and one green eye. 
  • George and Gracie, unable to conceive, adopted two children, Sandy and Ronnie, as infants from a Catholic orphans’ home in Evanston, Illinois. Ronnie later appeared on television as their handsome young-adult son, Ronnie.
  • Jack Benny, fellow star of stage, screen, radio, and TV, was their dearest friend—a man beloved by all who knew him. His wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadie Marks), not so much.
  • When Gracie retired in 1958, she was physically worn out and had a debilitating heart condition. In those days there were no heart transplants or coronary bypasses. She was given nitoglycerin pills to control the pain, but eventually her heart gave out.

Nattie summed it all up very fittingly in the opening line of the book: “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author