With Philadelphia a formal feeling came. Our house on Schoolhouse Lane was old and big and dark and tall and Victorian and sat back from the street on several acres. Other large buildings lay alongside and there was nothing in the untended hayfields across the street. The shutters were dark green, the stucco antique yellow. The house to the east was of much the same size and color and to the west was Roseneath, a rambling white sanitarium for wealthy patients disturbed by disorders that were never discussed at my house just as the eccentricity of moving next to what was to my mind a nuthouse was never mentioned. Beyond the sanitarium was a convent and school for girls.
We never saw the people to the east and pretended nobody lived to the west. Eventually the land across the street was developed and some of the people who moved in became friends of my parents but none had children my age. For my purposes, we had no neighbors.
Our house, early Charles Addams without the gingerbread, was decorated in an anarchistic blend of America’s past. The underlying design was elegant: numerous musty portraits; paintings by Dufy, Gorky, Hartley and Benton; Duncan Phyfe furniture; all the magnificence and flotsam of a family who had lived in this country for nearly three hundred years. But my parents had too many projects, piles, magazines, books and things waiting in corners to go from here to there to permit the underlying design to be more than a backdrop. Hence the overall sense one got was as if the period rooms of the Philadelphia Art Museum had been seconded — one by an environmental organization, another by a political campaign, and others by a used bookseller, a slovenly scholar and a developer of disorderly habits. Once our house was on a garden tour and as my mother stood at the door saying goodbye to the visitors, a woman told her, “I love your home. I’m so tired of beautiful houses.”
The house sat on the west end of Schoolhouse Lane, which ran along a ridge perpendicular to the Schuylkill River. There had been a battle there during the Revolutionary War. I knew this because of the old map in the first floor bathroom. To be more precise, it was in the first floor men’s bathroom, or “the gents” as my mother called it. Unlike “the ladies,” it was ill-lighted and red and smelled damp, but it did have a map showing how the Brits and the Americans had lined up right outside our front drive (and maybe even in it). The battle lasted only about three hours during which General Washington attacked General Howe’s troops encamped along Schoolhouse Lane. But the British routed the Americans leaving the latter with 152 dead, 521 wounded and 400 missing. The British lost 71 men.
The bathroom also had one of those shiny wooden gift shop plaques displaying a horse with the legend, “Always treat your wife as a thoroughbred and she will never turn into a nag.” The outside wall had a glass display case where a window used to be. The case was filled with tin soldiers and, over time, increasing quantities of dust. As far back as I can recall, a piece of paper was attached to the glass reading, “Please excuse the dust. Have lost the key.” It was never found.
In time, my parents added to the house – in flat-roofed cinderblock modern – an office, a child’s room, a sunroom, a two-car garage (later converted to a family archives), an extension of the library to help hold what eventually mounted to be 7,000 volumes, as well as a climate controlled vault for a collection of 15,000 old maps and globes. The additions gave the house the look of an eleemosynary institution that had outgrown its original headquarters and had added square footage with each capital fund drive.
On July 11, 1984, a patient Annemieke E. Roell, executive secretary of the Whale Adoption Project wrote my mother:
Dear Mrs. Smith: Thank you for your recent letter regarding your whale Arrow. Arrow has not been seen very often this year. She is still around the Stellwagen Bank, and hopefully we will know more about her next year. Thank you for your interest.
Many vice presidents and executive secretaries had to write to my mother on similar matters over the years. She viewed giving, like whale adoption, as an intensely personal matter; she would respond furiously to incorrectly addressed computer-generated junk mail, and lived according to the presumption — alternately trying and admirable — that everything she did mattered. It was not just in her broad brimmed hats that she emulated the Helen Hokinson cartoon ladies; she would have, in the manner of one of them, been equally likely to have entered a liquor store during the Second World War and asked the clerk, “Which will help the British more? If I buy woolens or if I buy some Scotch?”
Another Philadelphian described her arrival a 1950s Assembly ball:
Eleanor Smith, born and bred a Houston and a woman of stature, was clad in yards and yards of black taffeta, décolleté, large puff sleeves elbow length and a magnificent flowing skirt which surely Vorth or Dior had created. She looked like a square-rigged brigantine in full sail crossing the ballroom floor, a splash of shocking-pink taffeta tied in a huge bow with streamers down one side of the bouffant skirt! Above it was Eleanor’s lovely face, composed and dignified.
Only rarely did her upbringing fail her, one such exception being her regular use of diddly squat, a phrase described by one linguist as “euphemistically but correctly defined as the product of a child who squats to do his duty.” In her defense, however, at least one other of her generation, Justice Thurgood Marshall, used the expression during his retirement statement.
If their office reflected the intense activism of my parents with its echoes of Washington, there was one room that more than any other reflected the cultural change that accompanied our move. The dining room was off limits to the effluvia of a full life. In it, especially in the normal candlelight of evening, one was transported back almost two centuries. The Rev. Thomas Clemson raised a ministerial finger above the sideboard at one end, two ancestors I could never recall guarded the outer wall and over the fireplace a bonneted several-times-great smiled toothlessly at the long table in front of her. In a corner, beside the china cabinet, was Matthew Clarkson, former mayor of Philadelphia and partially responsible for those in front of him.
My mother sat at one end of the long table and my father at the other. In between — depending upon the occasion — could be up to two dozen family, friends, business associates, foreign students, antique dealers, art professors, politicians, or directors of some project my parents were starting or supporting, all served with quiet elegance by Susie Brown and Mary Thomas. The table had multiple leaves held together with ill-fitting brass clips that permitted it to expand or contract with the flow.
It was some time before I was permitted to eat dinner in the dining room. Children were meant to be “seen and not heard” and had to eat upstairs with Nannie until they could be trusted with “adult table conversation.” This was no hardship, given Nannie’s kind and pleasant nature. Besides, Nannie invariably listened to Lowell Thomas — often including the latest on what some exotic African tribe was up to — followed by Edward R. Murrow.
Furthermore, eating downstairs meant not only watching one’s manners and words, but putting on a jacket and a tie. Dinner was a state occasion. But it was more as well. It was a seminar on national and international affairs, a captain’s mast reviewing the sins of family members, a show-and-tell at which congratulatory letters to my parents would be read, a genealogical workshop, a lecture on my parents’ business and social projects and their importance to the free world, and an opportunity for children to attempt to convince their mother and father that they had done something worthy of their heritage and their “role in life.” In the latter category, grades were a critical indicator as was independent reading. Independent thought was actively encouraged, especially if it pitted one sibling against another and stayed within the boundaries of convention — what the Soviets called “the limits of socialist dialogue.” Improving the system was admirable; drastically changing or rejecting it was out of bounds and forcefully challenged by my father, punctuated by my mother muttering, “How did I get such awful children?” For a brief time, French was the required language on certain nights, but this proved to be pushing family education beyond its limits.
My parents never tired of reminding us that “to whom much is given, from whom much is expected,” and were only slightly less forgiving on this score than John Adams had been with his son John Quincy: “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your Profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness, and Obstinacy.”
The Victoria fetish was clearly linked to my mother’s admiration of the values of her parents and grandparents and her longing for the social respectability and position they had enjoyed, a longing early discouraged by the refusal of some of their old friends, unforgiving of their New Deal apostasy, to invite them into their homes on their return to Philadelphia. Had my mother lived in the Victorian period, she would have been incontestability a grand dame, unbattered by children she considered ill-mannered, unduly skeptical and disrespectful; a nouveau riche that called too many of society’s shots; and a growing incivility of daily existence. Since she didn’t live in the Victorian period, her efforts at emulation seemed, at various times, anachronistic, eccentric, vicious, charming, humorous, grossly insensitive and, in the end, futile.
Despite her independent and assertive nature, despite having run businesses, held her own against lawyers and accountants and helped to start the Nature Conservancy and the American Farmland Trust, my mother rejected any notion that she might be a closet feminist. I suspect one reason may have been the same as that which Heywood Hale Broun noted in his grandmother: “She wanted no changes in a system that permitted her, at least, to enjoy the fruits of tyranny.” My mother just didn’t want the competition.
o After her last sister died — she was a severely simple woman who inspired cautious respect — my mother theoretically became the head of the family. Not much later, I went to the wedding rehearsal dinner of one of my cousins. My mother spent most of the evening at a table in the corner, largely unnoticed and unrevered, as the crowd — including one heavily bearded cousin in tails and red hightops — danced to rock music. I said to myself: this is how Chicago is going to be after Mayor Daley dies. It was a room full of Houstons but the Houston machine was gone.
The Houston machine had survived for the better part of a century. It was not a political machine, but a social and economic one of no small import to the city of Philadelphia. The founder of the machine was Henry Howard Houston, my great grandfather. Because of his initials, H. H. Houston became known in our family as “H Cubed” and ultimately just “Cubie.” Cubie rose from canal boat worker to become the developer of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, owner of steamships, successful investor in Standard Oil of New Jersey, board member of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and provider of sufficient funds for the construction of at least two churches and the maintenance of several generations of descendants.
About 1725, Cubie’s great grandfather, John Houston, had come from Ireland. This was before the late 19th century wave of Irish immigration made such antecedents déclassé, thereupon greatly expanding the ethnic group known as the Scotch-Irish even though its members’ forebears had actually spent the previous two hundred years in Ireland.
Ireland would come to belong to the poor, to the Catholics and to servants, but not to our ancestors. Thus I was unaware that it was, in fact, American Irish Protestants who had secularized St.. Patrick’s Day and made it a beloved boisterous festival, even as the Catholics in Ireland continued to treat it as a holy day of obligation during which the pubs were closed. We never celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at our house.
John Houston had eight children. HHH’s grandfather, also John and the eldest son, attended Glasgow University, receiving a cautious certificate from the author of Wealth of Nations:
This is to certify that the bearer, Mr. John Houston, attended the public moral philosophy class regularly and punctually from the beginning of this session of the college to the date of this, & behaved in all other respects soberly & modestly, so far as I know. Witness my hand, Adam Smith
Gaining a degree in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, John Houston became a surgeon and served, along with his four brothers, in the Revolution. His brother James was killed in the Battle of Paoli. After the war, he acquired a large tract near Wrightsville, Penna., where he appeared to have adopted a fairly laid-back lifestyle. The diary of Thomas P. Cope offers this assessment in September 1800:
This man is an eccentric character. Imbued with considerable skill in his profession, he scarcely possesses energy enough to be useful. His conversation is conducted with so much deliberation that one might suppose he was doubtful whether to sleep or talk. About 20 years ago, he resolved to visit Baltimore on business that required his personal attention & in which his interest was involved. For more than a dozen times, he accoutred himself for the journey & had his horse saddled & bridled ready to start. Once he actually mounted, moved a few rods, & turned back. The journey was never effected & his business remains to this day unaccomplished, tho’ he occasionally talks of performing the jaunt, and believes his property may suffer if he neglects it.
Whatever caused this remarkable affinity for procrastination, the Houston family retained the reputation at least into my mother’s generation. It may have even predated the indecisive Mr. Houston; the motto on the ancient Houston crest was an ambiguous “In Time.”
HH HOUSTON’S CARRIAGE ON WHICH THE AUTHOR
WOULD PLAY WHEN VISITING HIS GRANDFATHER
Less is known about John’s son, Samuel Nelson, although one account described him as being “noted for his splendid physique and imposing presence.” Despite these attributes, “he had to give up his medical practice on account of ill-health and return to the countryside in Columbia, Pa., where he regained his strength, and with his martial spirit was able to give a good account of himself in the War of 1812.” According to my brother Lewis, however, he was actually discharged from the Army after he fell off a horse while drunk. There were also reports that his wife later regularly paid a town youth to fetch him home at night from the local bar and that when his son once asked him, “What did you do with the money for my education?” he replied, “I drank it.”
Lewis recalled that our mother got this story from an old man who had once been the little boy who would search the bars of Wright’s Ferry in order to find Samuel Nelson and bring him home in time for supper. This little boy later grew up to become the coachman of the stagecoach of Samuel’s son Henry.
But Henry had had a modest start. He worked at various jobs, including a stint at James Buchanan’s Lucinda iron furnace where the workmen changed their night shifts by the position of the Great Dipper.
In a letter home from the furnace, Houston wrote that it was “9 miles from no particular place surrounded by woods which abound in deer and bear” and complained of the “want of Fair Sex to occupy us in our rides [through] this neck of the woods.”
Four years later he joined the transportation firm of D. Lee & Co. Legend has it that he was on a canal boat when he looked up and saw a train gliding effortlessly by. Cubie decided he was in the wrong end of the business and became a railroad man. He was good enough at it to attract the attention of the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who selected him to organize and manage the company’s pioneer through freight business. Houston’s interests rapidly spread and, with associates, he eventually owned more than 20 oceangoing steamships as well as many more that worked the Great Lakes.
Cubie was also a cousin of Sam Houston and shortly before he died, the latter’s children sent him a gold snuff box “as a slight token of our esteem,” explaining that the box was “once the property of our father and greatly prized by him. It had been presented to him by Santa Anna, the Mexican President and Commander after his defeat by the Texan army at San Jacinto as a token of gratitude, we suppose, for our father’s intercession on his behalf when his life was threatened by Texan soldiers and civil officers.”
It is not clear that Santa Anna actually used snuff, but he did use chicle and one account of his first meeting with Houston describes the ‘Napoleon of the West’ as being so shaken by the Texas general’s vociferousness that he called for his box of opium. In the 1950s, my churchly grandfather traveled to Texas to give the snuff, chicle or opium box to the state.
Henry Howard Houston also became an oil producer and operator. According to family lore, Cubie was leaving a board meeting of the Pennsylvania Railroad when a colleague complained to him of being stuck with an excessive amount of Standard Oil stock that seemed to be going nowhere. HHH, who had developed an uncanny eye for the future, graciously took the languishing oil stocks off his hands in return for some PRR shares.
It was a tumultuous and dishonorable time for America’s railroads. In the summer of 1877, claiming financial troubles, wages for railroad workers were cut. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania and B&O doubled the length of their freight trains without increasing crew size.
The workers responded with strikes and riots, including one by 15,000 PRR workers that brought out federal troops. Writing in The Wreck of the Penn Central, Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen report:
The angry mob killed some of the soldiers, burned rail yards, and destroyed 104 locomotives and 500 boxcars and passenger coaches. Flames engulfed Pittsburgh’s Union Hotel and depot and downtown office buildings.
No one in the family ever spoke of the railroad riots or of HHH’s possible role in them. They spoke often, however, of his purchase of four and a half square miles spanning from the then small village of Chestnut Hill to upper Roxborough. In 1880 he became a member of the PRR board and wasted no time pressuring the company to construct a line to his prospective development, allegedly threatening to build a route himself if the PRR didn’t. In the end he donated a half million dollars worth of land for the right or way and may have put up some of the other capital as well. He also built an inn (which featured Sunday evening religious services), a pseudo-English church, and, for himself, a massive stone estate guarded by Irish greyhounds and modeled on an Irish castle. The 30-room house with a five story tower was called “Druim Moir,” Gaelic for “great ridge.”
David R. Contosta in Suburb in the City writes that:
Surrounding the residence were fifty-two acres of lawn and woodland, including a small deer park. There were also vegetable gardens, as well as small farm with chickens, pigs, cows, and horses. . . .In addition there were several small houses dotting the grounds, including an older farmhouse, an entrance lodge, and two dwellings for employees. Together these buildings made the estate look something like a small village.
All this was just one-half hour from downtown by the new rail line.
At casual glance, Houston, who left an estate worth $14 million in 1895, fit the pattern of your average late 19th century tycoon. In fact, he early established a family tradition of cultural inconsistency. E. Digby Baltzell, the sociologist who wrote of the rich of Boston and Philadelphia, has noted that the Houstons, unlike the dominant Quaker-turned-Episcopalian elite of the city, came out of the Presbyterian Calvinist tradition. In his Philadelphia Gentlemen, Baltzell wrote, “Philadelphia provides an excellent example of a business aristocracy which all too often placed the desire for material comfort and security above the duties of political and intellectual leadership.” But in an introduction to A Philadelphia Family by David Contosta, he notes that the Houston clan “is a fine and instructive exception to the general Proper Philadelphia rule of noblesse without oblige.”
DRUIM MOIR BEFORE ITS DECAPITATION
Contosta suggests that the Houstons’ “relatively recent arrival in the city perhaps saved them from falling into the local habit of complacency and resistance to reform.” In any case, Henry Howard Houston remained a lifelong Democrat and one of his sons-in-law, Dr. George Woodward, was among the most liberal Republicans of his day.
Woodward first came to public attention as a member of the Philadelphia Board of Public Health. In 1897, he published a pamphlet that documented from tests of the Schuylkill River all the way to Reading that bad river water was the major cause of recurrent typhoid fever epidemics.
The mayor reacted by abolishing the Board of Public Health but Woodward responded by helping to form the City Party which in 1905 won what Contosta calls a “stunning but temporary victory over the machine.”
He subsequently served seven terms as a colorful, knicker-wearing state senator. He published a newsletter in which, while attacking the New Deal for inefficiency and for taking away state prerogatives on such issues as social security, simultaneously supported Roosevelt on the Civilian Conservation Corps and his attacks on bankers and stock manipulators. He also wrote the first city income tax law, including a levy on Philadelphia’s commuters. Woodward even recommended to his readers Marquis Childs’ favorable book on Sweden, and supported that country’s housing program, under which families borrowed money from the government to build houses on public land, eventually retiring their debt to become homeowners.
Like many of his ilk and time, Woodward was anti-Semitic, openly declaring in a 1920 municipal reform journal that “I have always inquired into antecedents. I have never taken a Jewish family or allowed one to be taken as a subtenant.” With the coming of World War II and news of the death camps, however, Woodward had changed at least to the point that he could write passionately of the plight of the Jews, even suggesting that Prussia be turned over to them after the war. He stayed in the increasingly diverse legislature, he explained, until his was “the last name I could pronounce.”
One of Cubie’s grandchildren, Stanley Woodward, became chief of protocol under Truman, a backer of Adlai Stevenson and national treasurer of the Democratic Party. Another grandchild, my mother, married a New Dealer. Even my grandfather, whose conservative political views were reinforced by daily doses of listening to Fulton Lewis, was concerned with the needs of the poor and downtrodden. He simply thought it was his problem to do something about, not that of the government. Thus this extremely reactionary gentleman started the first integrated settlement house in Philadelphia and offered to donate 2,000 acres of land to the United Nations when it was considering locating in Philadelphia.
The latter plan fell apart only at the last moment when Nelson Rockefeller made a grander offer in New York City even as Houston family agents were on their way to New York to seal the deal.
The social responsibility that HHH passed on to his heirs, both conservative and liberal, was based on a fundamentalism of Christian responsibility rather than of Christian faith. The faith was there, but taken for granted. It was the works that took the effort, and the meetings and the lawyers and the accountants, and which spurred the constant social prostelyzing that commenced with Cubie’s admonition in his will that his descendants give away a tenth of their income and his own forgiveness of over 60 debts in that same document.
Nowhere was the marriage of money and duty more apparent, albeit with blandly discriminatory and peculiarly feudal overtones, than in HHH’s rapidly expanding Chestnut Hill development, where he rented the houses below what the market would bear to families he thought would appreciate the area and maintain the property. Thus began a unique tradition of privately subsidized housing for upper middle class genteel Philadelphians. The tradition carried on through the death of Cubie’s grandson, Charles Woodward, in the 1980s.
Woodward was described in the Philadelphia Inquirer as the “last de facto feudal lord of Chestnut Hill.” Houston estate audits showed little profit in the venture and, in fact, there were occasional fiscal contributions from family members that helped to keep housing cheap in Chestnut Hill and, although few would speak of it, contributed to keeping it white and Anglican as well.
Woodward told the Inquirer just six months before his death, “We’re not like General Motors or Ford, but it makes for a nice neighborhood.” Wrote the interviewer:
The real key to that community’s character is the rare brand of benevolent feudalism practiced there for more than a century by the Houston-Woodward family. Just as feudal lords protected their tenants from barbarian invaders, so the Houstons and Woodwards protected their tenants from the equally frightening forces of economic and social change…
The Houston-Woodward homes, with their gracious designs and bargain basement rents, served as a magnet to attract desirable people to Chestnut Hill — teachers, ministers, civil servants, journalists, young bankers, young lawyers and other people of (as one Hiller put it) “good breeding but not great earning capacity.” These tenants in effect became the family’s vassals for generations — not by force of law, but because the rents were so cheap that no family would dream of leaving.
Comparing two vastly different suburbs of two vastly different eras, Robert Fishman wrote in the Journal of American history:
One might even argue that Chestnut Hill, built in the era of ‘rugged individualism,’ reflects a far more intensive and insidious conformity than does Levittown. An important theme that emerges. . . is the remarkably high degree of social control that the Chestnut Hill elite imposed on themselves in order to maintain their identity and to keep outsiders in their place.
One beneficiary of the system, an historian, told me of being advised that his turn to have a Houston house had finally arrived. He went to the firm’s office and indicated to the manager which one he desired. He was politely informed that a different one had already been selected for him.
Chestnut Hill’s elite drank heavily of what it perceived as English upper-class values and was proud of its manners. To those not of the elite, however, these manners could have less attractive consequences. One chauffeur, for example, recalled to Contosta that he was told to report back to work just one hour after his son’s funeral.
On the other hand, there were at least some prejudices the local classes held in common. When my sister went into a Chestnut Hill shop in the 1970s she was warned by an alarmed clerk that “the Puerto Ricans are moving in.” It was, in fact, my brother, his wife from San Juan, and their four children.
In the Houston family the bottom line was not the profit margin but what it thought God would think about it. This made money far less fun than it otherwise might have been. And it produced inconsistencies. HHH, who built the now fashionable Philadelphia Cricket Club, also told his son as they were approaching the elite Philadelphia Club that he hoped “never to see you passing through those doors.” He, as an arriviste entrepreneur, had never been invited to join; neither was he ever asked to the exclusive Assembly balls.
My mother, who lectured endlessly on the social responsibilities of having money, had, as a young woman, her own chauffeur and a baby blue Rolls Royce. And my father gave up a college reputation as “Sapphire Sam” to carry out his various entrepreneurial activities in aged English tailored suits, accented with gravy-stained ties, and driving cars deaccessioned from his father-in-law’s five-stall garage. At one point in the mid-fifties, my father’s collection of cast-off vehicles in Philadelphia and Maine (complemented by a few mostly second-hand purchases) included a 1952 DeSoto station wagon ( the first new car my father had purchased since 1938), a 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, a 1946 wooden Plymouth station wagon, its 1941 forerunner, a 1946 six-wheeled Army truck, a 1939 laundry van, plus my father’s four door 1938 Cadillac convertible and my mother’s 1936 Plymouth. In 1955 I drove to college in the then 14-year-old Plymouth wagon and little concern or surprise was expressed when the front hood flew up at 60 mph on the New Hampshire Turnpike. The bent hood was secured with a jury rig and the car continued in service. There were, however, limits. When the DeSoto, with more than 100,000 miles on it, lost its front wheel on the Maine Turnpike, it was reluctantly retired as a pleasure vehicle and converted into a farm tractor.
Then there was my grandfather. My grandfather lived in his father’s castle with a butler, housekeeper, three chauffeurs, three maids, two cooks, a laundress, two full-time and two part-time gardeners, a groom and a part-time handyman. David Contosta reports that three piece German bands and ‘the Italian lady’ with her accordion would walk the long drive to Druim Moir knowing they could count on a reward for their trouble.’ Yet my grandfather wore black suits and gray gloves; unlike his father he never drank; he gave parties only for visiting clergy and dignitaries like Foch and Pershing; and was about the most austerely plain man I ever met.
It was hard for me to imagine that my grandfather had once played football for the University of Pennsylvania, although to the end he loved Penn second only to the church, a fact of which I am reminded each time I look at the Tiffany style lamp under which he would read with a magnifying glass held just below his green eye-shade. On this fine lamp is a Penn sticker posted there in jest by my cousin Wayne Brown. When he confessed, my grandfather said, “Leave it there. I like it.”
Football in Sam Houston’s time was a new and controversial sport and the trustees of the university were uncertain whether to make this dangerous activity an official form of competition. Sam Houston’s father, a trustee, made a personal investigation and got so carried away with the game that he began screaming encouragement to his son, who proceeded to score a touchdown. HHH went to the next board meeting and strongly endorsed the new sport.
Sam Houston had little of his father’s entrepreneurial spirit. His life was spent in trusteeship of the Houston estate, service to the church, and acting as head of an extended family that spread rapidly as five and six children for each of his three daughters and one stepdaughter become the norm. Even his final words tended to family business: as he lay dying, he is said to have murmured of the other branch of Houston descendants: “Never trust a Woodward.”
One of Samuel Houston’s rare attempts at commercial endeavor was striking. Houston became head of the Coastwise Transportation Company, which was involved in a last ditch effort to provide sailing competition to the steamships that HHH had so successfully promoted. The idea was to use coastal schooners of simple design with multiple masts that could be cheaply operated. Although these vessels seem exotic today, quite a few were built, 41 four to six masted schooners in Maine’s Percy & Small shipyard alone. The company owned nine multi-masted ships, the grandest being the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson, which was built in Massachusetts.
The masts carried only a mainsail and a topsail above the gaff. There were no square sails requiring large crews and all rigging could be raised and lowered by steam winches. Seven men could run the Lawson. There has been argument as to the names of the sails on this unusual rig. Some have said they each had a nautical name such as fore, main, mizzen, pusher, jigger, driver and spanker. Others said they were numbered. Still others said they were called after the days of the week. In any case, no sailing ship like it was ever built before or after the Lawson.
There was good reason. The ships were a disaster. Unwieldy and of marginal seaworthiness, the vessels were wrecked one by one. In 1908, the treasurer of the company wrote the stockholders that the “common stock is absolutely valueless:”
As you are well aware, the past year has been a disastrous one for this company, the loss of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson and other vessels has seriously crippled us at the present time. Under the present capitalization it has become necessary to suspend dividends for several years in order to make up the impairment of capital.
The news came at a time when Houston was deeply involved in another financial crisis. Two years earlier, the president of the Real Estate Trust Company, of which Houston was a board member, committed suicide. It turned out that he had been lending money — 5 million worth of 1906 dollars — to a promoter of dubious projects including a constructed but non-operating sugar plant. The bank was forced to close its doors temporarily but reopened two months later thanks in no small part to the fact that the board, including Houston, subscribed $2.5 million of their personal wealth to put the bank back in operation. Houston continued to work at the bank until he was in his mid-80s, rarely missing a day.
Other misfortunes, including the death of his first wife, the illness of his second, and the loss of his son undoubtedly contributed to the subdued and cautious manner in which Samuel Houston conducted the rest of his life. During the depression, he sold both his Rolls Royces and although living in a 38,000 square foot mansion, my grandfather owned only five suits when he died: three black and two white. During World War II he removed the third floor and tower because it became too hard to obtain heating oil.
Death at an early age hung like a shroud over the family. My grandfather’s son – Henry Howard Houston 2nd – died while serving in World War I. Trained as a flying observer at Fort Sill, he was killed by a shell as he went to help with the liaison between the airplanes and the artillery. His first cousin, Henry Howard Houston Woodward was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. He lost his life while on a scouting mission over German territory just a few months before his similarly named cousin died in France.
The Escadrille consisted of American pilots who joined the French Army to fight against the Germans before the US entered the war. In all 65 American pilots died while in the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps. After America entered the war, the unit became part of the US Air Service. One account describes Woodward’s last flight:
HENRY H. HOUSTON WOODWARD, Caporal Pilote, Escadrille Spad 94, of the French Army was killed in combat, April 1, 1918. Having been sent out to patrol the enemy’s lines on the afternoon of that day, he was seen several times by other members of the patrol during an attack made on some German planes, then disappeared. It was almost a year later that the remains of his charred Spad were located about three kilometers south of Montdidier, with a lone grave close by, marked with broken pieces of the plane.
Another uncle, married to my mother’s sister, came back from the war and, according to one of his grandsons, never smiled again. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.
In 1922, HHH Woodward’s sister (and my mother’s first cousin) Quita graduated from Bryn Mawr. Shortly thereafter she became ill, suffering from anemia and died in 1933.
It was a complicated family as my mother explained a couple of years before her death at a reunion of her cousins:
I wonder if you realize that, it was only after Mummy and Daddy died that the words step and half came into my life. Such things never existed as far as I was concerned as I grew up. Mummy always called me the ‘missing link’ and I was only too delighted with all the exbra relations I hadr which none of my frlends had.` . .
I have always loved the story of my parents, growing up as friends, Munmy belng a bridesmaid in Daddy’s first wedding and later, godmother to their first child. Mummy also married, Charles WardeII Brown. By the time they were 3O, each had lost thelr spouse, Mummy left with two children, Daddy with three.
Six years later they marry, and then, as a total surprise and, I suppose, horror, eight years after they had maried and when they were each 44, I appear. I told this at a ladies luncheon, wonen I didn’t really know, who were discusslng having children at an older age and one of thern said, “OOH, you should have been a mongo1oid!”
Most of the time I knew my grandfather he lived by himself in that big house. His second wife had also died. About my grandmother I knew practically nothing until well after my parents had passed. I thought of her, when at all, as a woman long ill in bed being loyally cared for by my grandfather. But my cousin Deedee Eder, much older than I, recalled her well:
I do remember her as always very conscious of her own position though not oppressively so. A grandchild would never be rude or fresh to her. It took courage to ask to be excused from the long family table before the grownups had finished the long family dinner. . .
Nana’s religious side was very much part of her persona. . . At my confirmation, Nana gave me a little golden cross on a chain with a note: “May the wearing of this little cross help lighten the other crosses you may have to bear,” or something like that. . .
Of Nanna and my mother, Deedee noted,
She was gracious and hospitable to Eleanor’s prospects, who were many in spite of the maternal requirement that Mamzell [Mado] go as chaperone on every date, including theaters. Between the chaperone and us, the ever-present inquisitive ‘grandchildren’ possibly behind every bush and tree, I don’t see how Eleanor kept her good humor and generous welcoming aspect to one and all. A good Aunt!!
I always knew there was more to the story, but no one seemed anxious or able to tell it.
In fact, my grandmother, Charlotte, had come from a line of plantation-holders and slave owners. My grandmother’s father, Charles Moses Shepherd Jr., had been wounded at the battle of Shiloh and was taken prisoner at the end of the war by the Union Army. Somehow the fact that my great grandfather had been a slave-owning Confederate soldier had been left out of all the careful genealogical accounting to which I had been subjected while growing up.
After the war, Shepherd’s whereabouts become exceedingly murky, but it is clear that he ran into deep financial trouble and essentially abandoned his children to their maternal grandmother, Ruhama, who took them to Philadelphia to live with a relative. My grandmother Charlotte was less than two years old at the time. When one of Charlotte’s brothers died, Ruhama wrote her own son:
Mr. H telegraphed the sad news to Mr. Shepherd, very fully; Then I wrote to him on the day the darling was buried, & Lotty H. had written to him during his illness; but not a line has been rec[eive]d from him. Can he be sick, or maybe he is away. We don’t understand not hearing from him.
In 1871, his plantation, Golden Grove, was almost seized by the tax collector. In 1872, a court ruled against Shepherd in an indebtedness case. No news or funds reached Philadelphia. Nothing more is known of him until his death in 1876.
Charlotte’s brother Kenner did, however, manage to track the northern relatives down. A wanderer and sometime railroad brakeman, his travels took him as far as western Montana. He was a seedy-looking heavy drinker described by one Louisiana acquaintance as a “mean bastard.” After Charlotte married my grandfather, Kenner would periodically show up at Druim Moir seeking money. According to my sister Meredith and her husband Chad, who looked into the matter:
These visits, building upon memories of her father’s neglect and financial ineptitude, intensified [Charlotte’s] distrust of Shepherds, and are said to have upset her so much that her husband . . . eventually had to pay the man off to get rid of him.
Kenner Shepherd had been named after a side of the family that fared a bit better, at least for a while. According to one account:
William Kenner arrived at Cannes Brulees at the turn of the century. The population of New Orleans at that time was just a little over 8,000 people. But the city was on the verge of an economic boom. Kenner established a very successful mercantile and commission business. In 1803 the Louisiana territory became part of the United States. William Kenner became a member of the legislative council and later helped organize a militia to repel the British in the Battle of New Orleans. . . Kenner played an important role in organizing a company which received a franchise from the United States Congress to dig a large canal across New Orleans. The canal was never started, but Canal Street received its name from the aborted project.
Kenner bought a plantation and married Mary Minor, the 14 year old daughter of Stephen “Don Estavan” Minor who had served as Spanish governor of Mississippi, “swatted mosquitos and hacked through cane thickets” as he later helped Andrew Ellicot plot the 39th parallel across the top of Florida and owned a goodly chunk of Natchez. Mary Minor gave birth to four sons and then died at the age of 27. Six years later a trusted partner of Kenner absconded with most of the assets of the business and three years after that, William Kenner died at the age of 47. The Kenner boys, all under 16, were rescued by a family friend, Creole lawyer Etienne Masareau. They went on to own three large plantations, roughly occupying the current town of Kenner.
The most unusual of the four was my great great grandfather’s brother, Duncan Kenner. Kenner had become a major slaveowner and one of the South’s richest men, reputedly losing $20,000 in one card game. He also married a Creole.
A little known part of his story is told in Retrospections of an Active Life, published in 1909, authored by John Bigelow, former Union envoy in Paris:
Kenner was a member of the Confederate Congress. He had long been satisfied that it was impossible to prosecute the war to a successful issue without a recognition of the Confederacy by at least one of the maritime powers of western Europe, into the ports of which the Southern States might carry their prizes, make repairs, and get supplies. He was also satisfied that they would never secure recognition or any substantial aid so long as the foundations of their projected new empire rested on slavery. He communicated these views to President Davis. The President asked what he had to propose in the premises. He said he wanted the President to authorize a special envoy to offer to the governments of England and France to put an end to slavery in the Confederacy if they would recognize the South as a sovereign power. The President consented to submit the suggestion to several of the leading members of the Congress, by some of whom it was roughly handled.
They protested that the emancipation of the slaves would ruin them, etc. Mr. Kenner told them that he and his family owned more slaves, probably, than all the other members of the Congress put together, and that he was asking no one to make sacrifices which he was not ready to make himself. The result of the consultations was that Kenner himself was sent abroad by President Davis, either with or without the confirmation of the Senate, with full powers to negotiate for recognition on the basis of emancipation. As soon as he received his commission he took a special train to Wilmington, North Carolina. On his arrival there he found either that the blockade was too strict, or that there was no suitable transportation available from that port, and returned at once to Richmond, determined to go by the way of the Potomac and New York. When he mentioned his purpose to Davis, “Why, :Kenner,” he exclaimed, “there is not a gambler in the country who won’t know you. You will certainly be captured.” Kenner had been one of the leading turfmen in the South for a generation. “I am not afraid of that,” said Kenner. “There is not a gambler who knows me who would betray me. I am going to New York.”
Being a very bald man, Kenner provided himself with a brown wig as his chief if not only disguise, and proceeded on his journey. By hook and by crook he finally reached New York and drove to the Metropolitan Hotel. Discovering that the waiters were colored, and that there were too many chances of some of them knowing him, also that ex-Senator Foote of Mississippi, who had deserted the Confederates, was residing at this hotel, he succeeded in getting a note to Mr. Hildreth, then managing the New York Hotel, and an old and trusty friend, asking that a certain room on the lower floor and north side of the hotel be made ready for him, and named the hour that he might be expected, adding that he could not sign the letter, but was a friend. At the time named he went to the hotel and directly to the room he had ordered. The fireman was preparing a fire. While at his work at the grate the door opened, and in walked Hildreth to see who his ‘friend,’ and new lodger might be. Upon recognizing Kenner, he exclaimed, “Good God!” He was checked from continuing by observing Kenner’s fingers on his lips.
They talked upon indifferent matters until the fireman left, and then Hildreth asked Kenner, what could have brought him to New York at such a time. “Do you know,” said he, “that it is as much as your life is worth to be found here?”
“I am going to sail in the English steamer on Saturday, ” said Kenner, and I wish to stay quietly with you until then. You can denounce me to the government if you choose, but I know you won’t.”
Kenner did not leave his room till he left it in a cab for the steamer. His meals were served in his room by Hildreth’s personal attendant. As soon as Kenner arrived in London he sought an interview with Palmerston, to whom he unfolded his mission. Palmerston said that his proposition could not be entertained without the concurrence of the Emperor of France.
“With the Emperor’s concurrence would you give us recognition?” asked Kenner.
“That,” replied Palmerston, “would be a subject for consideration when the case presents itself, and may depend upon circumstances which cannot be foreseen.” Kenner went to Paris and had an interview with the Emperor, who told him he would do whatever England was willing to do in the premises, and would do nothing without her.
Kenner then returned to Palmerston to report the Emperor’s answer. During his absence, the news of Sherman’s successful march through the South had reached London.
Palmerston’s answer to him was, “It is too late.”
o My grandfather was not without humor. Attending an Episcopalian convocation where retired bishops were given a voice, but no vote, he remarked, “They made a mistake. Retired bishops should have a vote, but no voice.” Most of the time, however, he moved through life like a minister through communion. Sunday was the most somber day at my grandfather’s house. Houston refused to take a Sunday newspaper and as a child my mother was allowed only three religious records that she could play on the Sabbath. There were hymn-sings and Bible cards and letter writing and walks and that was about it.
One of my strongest memories of my grandfather is of him standing outside the Chestnut Hilll church where he had been rector’s warden for 63 years and which his father had built, upbraiding me for having half-knelt with my butt against the pew. In his black suit with the little Legion d’Honeur red rosette on the lapel, he looked down at me and said, “In the old prayer book, young man, it says ‘And take your humble confession devotedly kneeling ON YOUR KNEES!”
The sobriety of my grandfather was mitigated by the Irish good cheer of his staff, led by Stephen St. John Gilmore, his butler of 40 years. Were it not for his white tie and tails, Stephen, with his dignity and good looks, could easily have been mistaken for one of those he served. He had been a water-boy in the Boer War serving under various young officers including Winston Churchill. He became the best swordsman in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and my mother recalled him demonstrating his skill on horseback at Druim Moir — at full gallop he could slice a potato in half as it hung on a clothesline. Stephen’s duties were innumerable, including keeping peace between the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants under him, filing new railroad timetables from every line in the country in a big red notebook, and jumping out at my mother to scare her as she wandered through the dark of the cellar. Stephen also made the salads. In fact, he wrote a book of salad recipes. He began the preface with two quotes. The first was his own: “Experience is the master jewel of any movement.” The second was from Confucius:”To know what you do know and not to know what you do not know, is true knowledge.”
In his preface, Stephen wrote:
One of the most trying problems today, especially to the family of moderate means is the Servant Problem.
And those who will follow closely the pages of this book will find an easy method of entertaining a number of guests in the absence of a servant.
He praised “the increase in the number of Canning Factories throughout this vast land” as providing clean and nutritious food, noted the “great importance” of government inspection “especially to the individual who cannot protect himself,” and warned against the food poisoning danger posed by amateurish home canning. He probably would have applauded the microwave oven had he but known of it.
The blend of Houston money and good works provided the core of the family myth. The sea captain, the bricklayer of Independence Hall, the Philadelphia mayor, the Louisiana gambler, the slave-owner, the first governor of Spanish Mississippi were simple genealogical facts, lacking the stories, the words, the loving detail that was lavished on the Houstons.
In reality, by the third generation both money and works were in serious deterioration. Above average fecundity ravished the treasury and what it failed to accomplish was achieved by the Depression, the Internal Revenue Service and the lassitude encouraged by inheritance.
Not that there was any remarkable profligacy, although my grandfather did provide a regular allowance to one of his sons in law, gauging that a subsidized life of horseback riding would be cheaper than risking the consequences of the equestrian trying his hand at business. Another uncle committed suicide on a railroad track, a third was a drunk killed after being struck in anger by yet another uncle, a deed so well concealed that I didn’t learn about it until my late sixties. There was depression, a cousin badly deformed by drinking unpasturized milk who spent her life writing letters to the New York Times, and another cousin who drove an ancient electric car and regularly made the list of best-dressed women but who did so with such remarkable excess that she was more the subject of humor than of censure. Even in her 80s Julia Rush Biddle Henry could be found jogging in her purple jump suit. On her husband’s gravestone, her name is considerably larger than his.
The relatives this family produced ranged from the soberly godly to beer loving. Uncle Charlie who had fought in three wars and was a great ragtime piano player. He was the son of my grandmother by her first marriage and was said to consume a case of beer a day.
After Uncle Charlie died, my father’s partner at the radio station, Ray Green, bought his house. My brother would later tell this story:
A member of the Green family told me that a mysterious something would get up in the middle of the night, go to the bathroom and flush the toilet. In 2001, the wife of Ray Jr. denied that story but said that a mysterious something would rock in a rocking chair on the third floor, when no one was up there.
In January 2002, I visited [my son] and family [who were now living next door]. By that time Green Sr. was in the hospital, and the house had been vacant for some time, so the neighborhood kids dared to go up the hill and play around the house. As soon as we arrived, Ryan told me that these boys had seen the ghost of an older man around the house.
I said nothing but in January of 2003, I showed Ryan a picture of EHS, LMCS and their wedding party. He said that Uncle Charlie looked somewhat like the ghost, except that the ghost was fatter and bald on the top of its head. “
o In the end, when the Houston machine was all over there was nothing unusual left to remark about the clan as a whole other than its receding relationship with Cubie. At a reunion of more than a hundred Henry Howard Houston descendants I asked a younger cousin what the family still had in common. Without hesitation he replied, “Money and religion.” I couldn’t argue; it was only the first day of the affair and already I had come across a bunch of relatives standing around a piano – belting out hymns.
Geography was also a tie, but in an unexpected fashion. Reflective perhaps of Houston vacations being far more enjoyable than the rest of the year, only a fifth of HHH’s descendants lived in the Philadelphia area anymore; an equal percent lived in Maine and a full forty percent lived somewhere in New England.
In aggregate, the Houstons, like much of proper Philadelphia, were mainly tied together by what they once were. And one other thing. As I looked around the room at the merchant marine captain, the MTV cameraman, the ex-surfer and rock musician now propagating a new religion called Vineyard, the corporate pilot, the American history teacher from Paris, the carpenter, forester, the ex-actor turned anti-drug missionary following his near fatal car crash, the bookstore manage, bankruptcy bond salesman, sports journalist, social worker, YMCA program director and computer parts wholesaler, I realized that I was in unique company. We were almost all third, fourth, and fifth generation downwardly mobile Americans.
o What Quaker influence there had been in my mother’s family had been exorcised long ago, probably about the time in the early 19th century when one of her ancestors was kicked out of meeting for having been married by a “hireling priest.” My father, on the other hand and to an extent he seldom mentioned, had come from a long and orthodox Quaker tradition. One of my older cousins recalled going to school on Christmas, a day Friends then considered like every other. The tradition lasted through my grandfather who wrote his son stern letters using thee and thou. My father hardly ever spoke of his father and this respected but distant and rigid Quaker attorney died long before my time.
Because of the overwhelming presence and aura of the Houstons, my father’s family usually took second place in ancestral mythology. After my father died, my mother seemed to be sorting things out in her mind. As the youngest, and perhaps unexpected, child whose siblings were much older, she had been both princess and orphan. There was ambivalence and bitterness and hints of anger and pain that were never articulated, only sensed. Most of the time she still lived up to the description of one of my cousins: “Your mother is the only person I know who managed to live successfully by denial.” As time went on, though, her nostalgia for her own good old days became less convincing. And she seemed to become much more interested in her husband’s past, even at one point organizing an extended family bus tour of Smith historic sites in Delaware County. Thus the Smith side of the family became a mythical late bloomer, providing a welcomed counter-balance that helped to explain certain things, like why my parents sent their children to a Quaker school long before such schools had the social cache they do today.
Until the restoration of the Smiths to the family pantheon, much of what was known of the Smith side came from a typescript history written by my grandmother. This history told the story of the Ogdens from upstate New York and the Morris’ and the Merediths of Philadelphia. My grandmother lived in Strafford, Pa., in a large but not too large house. She enjoyed discussing world events and reading mysteries. She was kind to young children, which was the only way I ever knew her, and had magnificent shrubbery you could hide in while making forts and other imaginary figments.
She was the daughter of a man who was both an Anglican minister and a skilled cabinetmaker. A voice defect, however, limited him to small parishes and so my grandmother grew up in what my older brother has described as ‘erudite poverty.’ She was, he said, “a sweet and considerate person. She was fearless in debate, no matter how many academic degrees her opponent had.”
Eight generations earlier, her family’s story in America had begun with the arrival of John Ogden in New Amsterdam in 1640, where he and his brother, Richard, convinced the Dutch governor to let them build a church. The project, however, was stalled by a war between the Dutch and the Indians, from which Ogden eventually removed himself to the relative calm of Long Island, eventually founding the English colony in Northampton.
The Dutch were not only having trouble with the Indians, they also didn’t care for all the “singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabatarians, anti-Sabatarians” as well as “Waldensees, Huguenots, Scotch, Presbyterians, English Independents, Moravians, Anabaptists and Jews, Swedish, Dutch and Lutherans and Anglicans.”
John Ogden, on the other hand, didn’t like the way the Dutch were beating and imprisoning the Quakers and Baptists and offered his land without religious restrictions. He also didn’t like the way the Dutch treated the Indians and, unlike many settlers, actually paid for the land he purchased from them.
All this is described in the family history masterfully written by my grandmother (and later edited and republished by my sister, Mary Minor). In it, she displayed proper scholarly ambivalence, writing of her ancestor’s later move to what is now New Jersey, “Either he disliked his countrymen’s attitude toward the red men so much that he could not endure it, or he saw a greater opportunity in the proposed settlement . . . for a man of his proven ability. Perhaps both motives mingled inextricably.” In any case, he helped lay out Elizabethtown and became a deputy governor.
Ogden’s independence was echoed by his grandson Josiah who was publicly censured by the Presbyterians for reaping wheat on a rare clear day one summer which just happened to also be a Sunday. He responded by becoming an Episcopalian.
With the Revolution, family friction mounted. While Josiah’s son, a judge, and two of his grandson remained loyal to the crown, two other sons joined the rebels, one of them, Abraham Ogden, being a friend of George Washington who would visit from time to time and even used his home as a headquarters for several weeks.
It would not be the last struggle to divide the family. During the Civil War Isaac Ogden vainly argued with his young son Ludlow not to join the Confederates. Ludlow had lived in the south and was opposed to slavery but supported secession. He wrote his father, “I cannot in the hour of danger desert the friends of so many years” as he went off to join a Louisiana regiment and later the Texas Rangers. He was killed near Murphysburg, Tennessee, while on a scouting expedition.
When it was clear that Ludlow was joining the South, his mother Sarah faced another fear: her younger son Morris – only 17 – might be drafted and end up in battle against his own brother. She arranged to have her own brother, a brigadier general in the Union Army, take Morris onto his staff. He survived the war but only barely, once escaping from a hotel moments before it was attacked by using a sheet as rope to reach his horse and once on a boat raided by Confederates thanks to his location being kept a secret by a young woman southern spy he had earlier befriended. My grandmother reported, “They shot and stabbed all the paymasters and Union men, but Morris, shivering in his berth, was untouched. Morris went again into the saloon. The girl was still sitting coolly at the piano surrounded by the bodies of the men who had been killed. . . He went quickly away. He said he never wanted to see her again.”
Isaac and Sarah were my grandmother’s grandparents. Of them she wrote, “There was about both Isaac and Sarah an antique simplicity. Their children, affectionate as they were, were of the sentimental and softer generation. Sarah’s affinity was rather with her husband. Like him she had been taught in a stern school to endure all things. Life for them was a battle. They must fight the best they knew. Their mistakes as well as their successes were part of the campaign and they presented both with complete confidence to their Great Commander.”
My grandmother concluded her family history saying, “I am sure they were much as we are, good and evil, advancing and relapsing and that many individuals fell by the wayside. But one might, I think, justly say that whatever their failings, as a family they had kept alive from generation to generation a sense of the unseen. Of active minds and adaptable temperaments, they rose easily in the world. But in all, even in the apparently worldly ran a deep mysticism. Faced by a choice between things temporal and things eternal, by some deep inner compulsion, they chose the latter.”
Although a Republican, my grandmother had been an active suffragette, driving around Philadelphia in a yellow, sign-bedizened car. My older brother Lewis remembered her fondly:
Neither she nor her cooks are remembered as gourmet, by her standards One of her favorite expressions was “There’s always more bread and jam in the kitchen”. . . She was a sweet and considerate person. One of her main concerns was that everyone have enough to eat. . . She sought to have “a sumptuous plenteousness”. She also had a big vegetable garden, flower gardens, bees and an apple orchard on the two-acre plot where she lived most of her life. . . My grandmother was a women of character. She was fearless in debate, no matter how many academic degrees her opponent had. If necessary, she would drive herself down to the jail house to rescue a drunk and disorderly employee from the toils of the law.
She had three sons. One was my father. Another was lost near Lisbon while serving as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey’s first command. The then Commander Halsey wrote my grandfather:
Your son was in charge of the forecastle and with the men was busy all the way down the river securing things for sea. As we got to the entrance it was seen there was a large sea running, so we slowed barely to steerage way. We finally ordered all hands off the forecastle. Your son requested permission to stay and secure a hatch. As the safety of the vessel depended on this hatch being secured, permission was granted. . . Scarcely three minutes later a high white wall of water was seen bearing down on us. There was no time to yell more than ‘hold on’ when the sea hit us. When it cleared, even high up on the bridge where I was, I was gasping for breath from the effects of the water. Life buoys were let go and searchlights were turned on, but your son and young Arthur were never seen again. . . We loved your son dearly and his loss has made a void impossible to fill.
The third son was Ludlow, who gained early folk hero status for me because of his acquisition of the entire family attic for a large-scale train layout. By the time I found it, the rolling stock was down to an engine and several cars, but Ludlow had made his own rails and switches and had covered all the attic floor with them in the manner of a major freight marshaling yard. His passion continued throughout his life and included being caught playing hooky from elementary school so he could go watch workmen laying some real track.
As if this were not honor enough for one uncle, Ludlow had also been married to Katherine Hepburn, a marriage that soon proved incompatible with Hepburn’s stage and movie career. They were divorced three years before I was born.
My father always seemed annoyed at the mention of Hepburn, perhaps out of loyalty to his brother, and I felt tension when my mother would speak fondly of her and of the lively dinners at Granny’s house when she was present. Granny also liked Hepburn. The three strong women had much to talk about. And as Susan Mansfield describes it, one of the least reported facts about Hepburn is “her lifelong relationship with Ludlow Ogden Smith, the ‘boy next door she mar;ried when she was 21. Most of her biographers have glossed over her marriage as an impulsive mistake that quickly ended. In fact, her relationship with Ludlow was one of the most enduring of her life” Even Ludlow, it would turn out, remained fond of his ex-wife. Ludlow would show up at Hepburn events. In later years, very quietly, the two would see each other and, after the death of Spencer Tracey, spend time together. Once – only once when I was young – I met her. My father reluctantly took his family backstage at a Philadelphia performance. She looked down at us and explained how she really loved Lud but had loved her work more. It sounded reasonable to me. A cousin of mine recalls as a youth being seated in the front row during a performance and noticing that Hepburn seemed to be playing directly to him. He was flattered, but not completely surprised. After all, Hepburn had lived for a time at his grandmother’s house when his mother was young. Afterwards, he was taken backstage to meet the actress. Hepburn remarked that she had noticed him in the audience. My cousin was delighted until she added, “You were the only person in the audience chewing gum.”
Ludlow would go on to become a proto-computer expert working with banks. My older brother Lewis described him this way:
Like many people in the high tech community today, my Uncle Ludlow was a college dropout who was also a whiz at electricity and systems analysis. . . By the mid 1930’s, [he] had remarried and was applying electro-mechanical card-processing machines to banking. During World War II he did the same thing for US Navy inventories. As a result he rose from Lieutenant junior grade to Lieutenant commander and became a well-paid consultant after the war. The machines which he introduced into banks and Navy warehouses were the direct descendants of those used to “computerize” the US census of 1890 and the direct ancestors of our present day computers. They moved the famous “punch cards” over slots in a conveyer where brushes made contact through the holes and dropped the card into the correct box, past a counter which ran up a tally. As we used to say of the cards, “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.” Such machines continued in use well into the 1950’s.
Over the years my father and Ludlow saw little of each other. It became too late for me to get to know this charming and bright man. I saw him only a few times, always with a sense of denied discovery. So there were many stories I never heard. Like the one Hepburn told in her autobiography of Ludlow and a friend renting a stone hut near the Bryn Mawr campus, where among other things Luddy, as she called him, took nude photos of Kate. Like the time Luddy, before they were married, accidentally set himself ablaze while lighting a fire with kerosene with Hepburn leaping from the tub and directing their housemates, in the nude, as they saved both my uncle and the house. Or like the fact, according to a cousin, that when she visited her home, she refused to talk to the younger girls and used up all the hot water, just like a real actress.
Hepburn by her own account lost her virginity to my uncle at a friend’s apartment: “Luddy and I were alone in the apartment and there was a bed and there didn’t seem to be any reason not to . . . And that was the end of my virtue. He was my beau from then on. But – and that the biggest but you’ve ever heard – he was my friend!”
A story in the Scotsman after Hepburn’s death gave some more details:
In Hepburn’s autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, published in 1991, she describes Ludlow as “tall and skinny and fascinating-looking … He was an odd-looking man – dark hair, dark eyes far apart. He was foreign looking. Pink cheeks. An odd nose, long with a hump in it … He was a fine musician, and could pick up any language in a few days.”
In December 1928, Hepburn quit her job as an understudy on Broadway to marry Ludlow at her family home in Hartford, Connecticut. She wore a dress of crushed white velvet with antique gold embroidery. She was 21. Ludlow was 29 and working as a stockbroker. They honeymooned in Bermuda.
Afterwards, they began to look for a house in Strafford, Pennsylvania. It seems that for a brief time, Hepburn considered becoming what her society expected of her – an upper-class wife and mother. However, this lasted, by her own admission, “about two weeks”. Soon, she had her old job back, and the couple were beginning their life together at Ludlow’s apartment in New York – he later bought the townhouse on East 49th Steet which she kept most of her life.
“So,” she writes, “it was December 1928, I was married. I quit. I went to live in Pennsylvania. I came back to New York and got my job back. Poor Luddy. A proper wife for two weeks. Oh, Luddy! Look out.” . . .
In Me, Hepburn makes another important admission: “I guess that I knew that Luddy was in love with me,” she writes. “But you see, my hitch was that I was in love with myself. I wanted to be a big star.”
Gertrude Gouverneur Clemson Smith [Ludlow’s mother] demanded that Hepburn write a lengthy letter taking the full blame for the breakdown of the marriage. Nevertheless, Hepburn held no grudge against her former mother-in-law. She seemed to have recognised in her a strong woman like herself whom she loved and respected.
In her autobiography, Hepburn regrets her treatment of Luddy, saying that “the truth has to be that I was a terrible pig.” She then describes the uncle I never knew:
Luddy could make anything work — my life — the car — the furnace — the this — the that. Carpenter – mechanic — plumber. It was great. But mostly–from the beginning– he was–what shall I say? –he was there…I could ask him anything. He would do anything. You just don’t find people like that in life. Unconditional love.
I think I, too, would have liked him very much. Love in my family always seemed conditional.
After the breakup, Ludlow wrote my father saying, “It would help tremendously if when I see you and Mother, you refrain from discussing the subject. Mother doesn’t realize that intellectualizing doesn’t help a very painful situation.” Still, when my grandmother died years later, one of my sisters recalled, Katherine Hepburn called Ludlow to talk about his mother, because she still loved her so much.
My father was angry over what had happened, as my sister Eleanor Morris would recall to the Scotsman after Hepburn’s death:
One day – aged 13 – [Eleanor] undertook to visit her uncle’s film-star first wife, who was in Philadelphia appearing in Peter Pan. “My friend Barbara and I went to see the show, and afterwards we went to the stage door and asked to see her. She was very sweet, just wonderful, we thought she was divine [in the show] and we told her. It was all very charming and cordial.”
Things were much less cordial the next day when, at Sunday lunch, she told her family about her adventure. “My father’s reaction was pure anger. He had a Teutonic temper and let me know that I had done the most terrible deed. I was put on probation for six months, not allowed to go anywhere except to church or to school, and the rest of the family were served notice that no one but no one was to have anything to do with Katharine Hepburn.”
Ironically, the injured party, Ludlow, thought otherwise. After my father died, Ludlow and Kate made several visits to my mother in Maine, usually in the fall after children and visitors had left. On the first, she stopped by the home of an older neighbor to ask for directions. Mrs. Nason, every bit as comfortable in her being as the stranger, said, “Why you’re Katherine Hepburn. You must come in and have lunch.” Hepburn settled for directions.
Ludlow and Kate traveled with Hepburn’s aging secretary and carried a toaster oven so they could avoid eating in public. Visiting my mother, however, had other risks, in 1978 verging on the mortal as my mother, who drove with overexuberance on the back roads, sideswiped a truck coming the other way, totaling her car and in the process nearly killing herself, Hepburn, my sister and the aging secretary. Hepburn wrote my mother enthusiastically about the visit and the “adventure to which of course you added by the traumatic incident on the highway of Wolf’s Neck. I do hope all is well. And let’s face it. If you disliked the car, it was a most direct way of getting rid of it.”
Katherine Hepburn and my mother shared a fascination with each other, the actress once telling a friend, “If someone would write a play about Eleanor, I would take the part.” I would have enjoyed seeing that play.
Ludlow, by marrying Hepburn, and my father by moving out of Delaware County, were exceptions to the Smith family norm as established over a period of almost three hundred years. One of the first to arrive in America was an indentured servant named Thomas Massey. He settled in Delaware County outside of Philadelphia in 1683, worked off his indenture, and received 50 acres from his master and 50 from William Penn. The house was subsequently built on the land is now an historic site in Delaware County along with an ancient farmhouse in Upper Darby and a log cabin that housed other Smith ancestors. Elsewhere in the county are contemporary homes that house Smith and Massey descendents who never found any good reason for moving any place else. The Smiths in Delaware County included Benjamin Hayes Smith, a botanist who did Audubon-like drawings of flora, and Dr. George Smith who wrote a classic history of the county.
Dr Smith also got into politics, as described by the local historical society
In 1831, just two years after marrying Mary and inheriting her family’s farm, George was elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate representing both Delaware and Chester Counties. When his term began in 1832, George was appointed to the committee that would first make him a well-known figure in Pennsylvania politics-the Education Committee. As a committee member, George dealt with the problem of the Pauper Act of 1809. The Pauper Act provided a free education to the poorest members of Pennsylvania society. Because of the stigma attached to attending the pauper schools, the Pauper Act was not very successful. The Education Committee then came up with [a law] which guaranteed all children in those districts in Pennsylvania that did not opt out, a free education paid for by tax dollars. While the law passed easily in the legislature, powerful opponents, including the wealthy land owners, who paid most of the real estate taxes that would fund the public schools, and religious schools that felt threatened by the competition, insured that most school districts across the Commonwealth opted out of the new system. When George rose to the position of chair of the committee he was able to craft the Act of 1836, which . . . overcame most of the opposition to the 1834 act, thus paving the way for universal public education in the state. Following the bruising battle for public education, George resigned his office as state senator on December 8, 1836
Dr. Smith also helped to found the Delaware County Institute of Science, whose headquarters became a rumored stop on the Underground Railroad. According to Bill McDevitt in the newsletter of the Upper Darby Historical Society, “the men were never caught harboring fugitive slaves, althugh there is indeed a mysterious subterranean room under the basement of the building whose small entrance was hidden by a large chest of drawers.”
The Smiths were teachers, clergymen, lawyers and doctors, and farmers, mostly in and around Upper Darby, Pa. They never made too much money and left their heirs the sort of quiet pride that comes from being so long rooted in a place. I never got to know many of them — we always seemed too busy with the Houstons — but the ones I met mostly exuded a pleasant, placid decency that one associates with the tradition of the Society of Friends, even those who have turned into Episcopalians.
According to my older brother, “One of my chores as a child was to help LMCS wind the clock. It was one of the few occasions on which he spoke to me personally about his family and that not very much. I gather that he did not care for his family very much, with two exceptions: his mother, whom he admired greatly and did talk a lot about, and his Uncle Bill Easby, husband of Aunt “Bessie” Smith, who lived most of their lives at Collenbrook, except for five years in the 1920’s, when the farm was rented to someone else.
“I used to accompany him on his visits to Uncle Bill and play in the abandoned barns while he sat on a bench on the front porch and talked to Uncle Bill who sat in a wheel chair. Uncle Bill was an engineer, a professor of engineering and a fine cabinet maker. He carved by hand a complete set of choir stalls in one of the churches which we visited at some point in our lives.”
o The second-place status of the Smiths in family mythology was brought home some years after my mother’s death when I stumbled across an ancestor of whom I had never heard despite his obvious utility as a role model. Richard Hayes had been in the early 18th century the Official Peacemaker of the County of Philadelphia, a remarkable job established by William Penn “to prevent law suits, act in the manner of arbitrator and end strife between Man and Man.” Another Smith ancestor, Lewis Morris, even signed the Declaration of Independence, but no one talked much about him either.
Of course, part of the problem with the Smiths and their forebears was that so many were Quakers, lacking entrepreneurial flash or missionary zeal. Sociologist Digby Baltzell, somewhat tautologically, compares the Pennsylvania Quakers (or Quakers turned Anglican which is more commonly the case) unfavorably to the Boston Puritans because of the former’s failure to produce greatness of the Puritan variety, e.g. steamship lines, strong political figures, and huge housing developments. To be sure, in Philadelphia continuity has been carried to a fault, for which the stolid Friends deserve some blame. On the other hand, the withdrawal of the Pennsylvania Quakers from their dominant position in the Pennsylvania legislature — and from politics in general — due to opposition to the French & Indian Wars was an early landmark peace movement of the sort that would repeatedly moderate the nation’s militaristic and imperial instincts. In every movement for social change — abolition, women’s rights, labor reform — the Quakers have been at the forefront despite a membership of only about 100,000 adherents, roughly the same as in the 18th century. This, it could well be argued, is a form of greatness at least equal to operating steamship lines. Besides, the Quakers didn’t place much stock in conventional notions of power. Someone said to an early Friend, “I understand that you have abolished the clergy.” “No,” the Quaker responded, “we have abolished the laity.”
The Quakers also seemed to have a more natural and realistic understanding of the relationship between money and power and morality. The joke is that the Quakers came to this country to do good and did very well. The joke is often said by those of the Calvinist impulse dominating this country’s values. To a Quaker there is no conflict. Money and morality are two different things. One is moral because one is human; the obligation does not rise and fall inversely with one’s bank account. Nor is money a sin that must be expiated by good works any more than sexuality is a sin to be compressed ritualistically into its barest procreative function. Thus it is not surprising that by the late fifties at my Quaker high school a realistic sex education course had been introduced.
The Quakers are far more adaptive to human existence and change than would appear at first glance. Money, sex and sin are all a part of the world. One does not fear or avoid them. One simply meets them, as one does all the other phenomenon of human life, with morality, simplicity, moderation and understanding. Calvinism is often driven by fear and duty, Quakerism more frequently by tolerance and personal witness.
To be sure, this can drift into priggishness, and self-righteousness and hypocracy, and even Quaker folklore takes note of the hazard. Hence the Quaker story of the woman with a pistol confronting a burglar: “I do not intend to shoot thee but my gun is going off where thee is standing.”
My father was not a religious man. He went to church to please his wife, dozed during, and offered critical analysis after, sermons, but otherwise commented little on matters of faith. Still the Quaker approach to finance rubbed off on him. James Rowe, advisor to five presidents and former New Deal colleague of my father, once said to me, “The thing I never understood about your father was that he never seemed to be trying to make any money but he always did.” I had no good response at the time but thought later that my father, as much as he would not have admitted it, had enough Quaker in him to understand, unlike much of America, that money should not define one’s being, whether you had a lot of it or not much at all. “Seeming” to make money was not only ostentatious, it constructed an artificial wall around his individuality. A friend once reported meeting my father at a party and being asked, “What do you do?” He had replied with his job title and my father said, “No, what do you really do?” My father wanted to know what he would have called my friend’s “character,” not his title or salary level. They talked about books and history and politics and my friend was impressed.
o When my mother died, I became administrator of her estate and all the businesses, real estate, and affairs that went with it. It took more than seven years to sort it all out. It was not a happy business. As Price Waterhouse accountant John Stine told me at our first meeting, “You mother left a very simple will and a very complicated estate.” Even after the estate was closed, it would sprout again from time to time like some weed that refused to die. Such as the note I received from Ted Carter, librarian of the American Philosophical Society, where my parents’ papers had been given. He had not received some letters one of my siblings had promised to copy and send him. I wrote Carter:
If there was anything I could do to help I would, but I barely got out of the estate alive myself. The trouble with family history is that it doesn’t stop when you want it to. Just look at the bright side: you’ve gotten a field promotion from being archivist of the Smith papers to being a primary source. Feel free to add your correspondence to the collection.
o Go back nine generations in any family and one has a total of at least one thousand and sixteen direct ancestors to revere, ignore, be embarrassed about, or lose entirely. Go back a few generations in any family mythology and that number will have been reduced to a handful of successes, failures and oddities.
In the end, the myth has more power than the reality. In a family in which ultimately two whole rooms were devoted to its unusually well-documented history, in which predecessors stared at you in every hallway, in which one bumped repeatedly into memorial plaques and statues, in which one heard over and over again the alleged lessons they had left for your benefit, these ancestors begin to haunt one’s house and one’s life. Some of my nephews and neices call it “the curse of the Houstons.” The past and the present drift together. The doorbell rings. Is it the plumber or just another ghost?
To be sure, the past did not, as in some old families, dominate. It was only in constant, cacophonous dispute with the present and the future, like TV panelists vying for airtime. But even when there was silence, the ghosts were still there.