Monday, March 24, 2003

[3/24/2011] Thurber Tonight: Part 3 of "Lavender with a Difference" -- Tea at the Algonquin (continued)



We left Mame Thurber at "a lecture given by a woman mental healer whose ability and sincerity," Thurber wrote, "my mother held in lower esteem." She and her friend George Marvin hijacked an unattended wheelchair, and he rolled her down the aisle, and as "the lady on the platform had reached a peroration of whoosh, during which she chanted that if you had done it before, you could do it again, whatever it was . . . my mother leaped from the chair, crying that she had walked before and could do it again." At which point, her coconspirator George "increased the confusion by bulging out his eyes, dropping his jaw, and mumbling that what he had done before he was now doing again; namely, losing his grip on reality."

Lavender with a Difference
Part 3 of 3

THE CAREER OF ALMOST ANY ACTRESS is marked by open dates and, in the end, a long period of retirement. Who heard of the late Julia Marlowe in her last twenty years? But my mother's crowded calendar shows no season of repose, and the biographer is overwhelmed by instances and can only select a few more.

There was the time she went back to Washington, in her sixties, wearing a red rose so the woman she was going to meet could identify her; they hadn't seen each other for thirty years. The train being early, or her hostess late, she pinned the rose on a sleeping dowager, twenty years her senior, who was sitting on a bench in the railway terminal, and watched at a distance the dismay of her friend when she finally arrived and the irritability of the sleeper awakened by a cry of "Why, Mame Thurber, how are you? You're looking just fine."

And there was the occasion, not long ago, when she deflated a pompous gentleman, overproud of his forebears, who made the mistake of asking her how far back she had traced her own ancestry. "Until I came to a couple of horse thieves," she said with a troubled sigh. "Do you mean a father and son?" the shocked man asked, "or was it a couple of brothers?" My mother sighed again. "It was much worse than that," she said. "A man and his wife. You see, it runs in both sides of the family." A hundred other hours and moments I leave to the record of another year.

With all this to take up her time, Mrs. Charles Thurber nevertheless managed to run her home like any other good housewife, hovering over the cook when we had one, following the cleaning woman around with pail and cloth of her own, and rearing three sons who were far from being mother's helpers. She was famous for her pastry and, after long study and practice, learned to make the best chocolate creams in the world. Two or three professional candy men tried to catch her secret, watching her at work like a child watching a magician, and with just about as little profit. She made her last twenty pounds of chocolates when she was eighty, and then turned to writing a cookbook of her own recipes, which she still works at, dropping it now and then to tinker with her play, whose plot and personae and provenance are another one of her secrets.


SHE STILL WRITES ME, as she always has, fifty letters a year, and I found, going over them, that time hasn't dulled their sparkle. In one, dated December 26, 1949, she told, in fine full detail, the story of her 1933 search for Miss Bagley, which has become a family saga.

Miss Annette Bagley, known to her intimates as Anna, wandered from her home in England more than sixty years ago to become a home-to-home sewing woman in Columbus. She and my mother became great friends, and then, one morning in the spring of 1895, Miss Bagley, at the age of thirty-four, took a train to Boston, where she planned to open a dressmaking shop. For several years my mother's fond letters were promptly answered, but about the turn of the century, two of them were returned by the Boston post office.

Miss Bagley had dropped out of sight, leaving no forwarding address, and it wasn't until 1913 that she was heard from again. The floods of that year had inundated Columbus and she sent a worried telegram from Boston. My mother replied, by wire, that all her friends were safe, and Miss Bagley apparently received this telegram at the Western Union office in which she had dispatched her own, but a letter my mother instantly sent to the old address was returned, like the others. Twenty silent years went by.

In 1933, Mary Thurber took up the quest again, writing to the postmasters of Boston and surrounding towns, and inventing a story about the settlement of an estate. "Money," she wrote me in the 1949 letter, "always increases people's interest." It greatly increased the interest of an Anna Bagley in Maiden, Massachusetts, who turned out to be the wrong one, and with whom my mother exchanged a brief and cloudy correspondence. Then she came East to take up the search in person. She was sixty-seven and she knew that Miss Bagley, if she was alive, was seventy-two.

In Boston my mother set out on the old, dim trail like a trained researcher, looking up outdated phone books and directories at the Chamber of Commerce. The most recent record of Annette Bagley she could find placed her friend in Maiden in 1925, so she went to Maiden. Miss Bagley was not at the address listed, and the woman who lived there had never heard of her. My mother did what any good reporter would have done; she looked up old residents of the neighborhood and called on the older druggists and grocers. She learned that Annette Bagley had left that Maiden house about seven years before. Someone seemed to remember that the old lady had moved to Everett Street. This street turned out to be only a block long, and my mother rang all its doorbells without success. Nobody knew anything about Miss Bagley.

Then a druggist suggested that her quarry might have moved not to Everett Street but to the town of Everett, which is only a few miles from Maiden. My mother transferred her pattern of search to Everett, and it was in that Boston suburb that the trail became warm. She found Annette Bagley listed in a three-year-old directory, but the elusive dressmaker was no longer at the address given. Neighbors, however, thought she had not gone far away, so her tracer continued her questioning of druggists and grocers and elderly people she stopped on the street.

At twilight of the second day of her search, she came upon a small dressmaking shop on a side street. "I looked through the window," my mother wrote, "and there she was, sitting and sewing with her back to me." Thirty-eight years had made a great difference in the two friends, and it wasn't until my mother asked the old lady if she had ever lived in Columbus, Ohio, that Annette Bagley recognized her.

The reason for her years of hiding was simple enough. She did not want her Columbus friends to know that her dream of a big and flourishing dressmaking establishment of her own had failed to come true. "I took her to dinner in Boston," my mother wrote, "and then to a movie. It was hard for her to believe that my oldest son, William, was forty, for when she had seen him last he was only two. I'm not sure about the movie, but I think it was 'It Happened One Night,' or 'One Sunday Afternoon,' or something like that."

It isn't often that my memory outdoes my mother's, but I have always remembered the name of that movie since she first told me the story of her celebrated search for Annette Bagley eighteen years ago. It was called "I Loved You Wednesday."

Miss Bagley was ninety last year, and my mother still writes to her, and the letters no longer come back. The little sewing shop on the side street was closed years ago, of course, and the dream forgotten, but my mother is sure that, big establishment or no big establishment, Annette Bagley was the finest dressmaker Boston and its suburbs ever had.


IN NEW YORK, which my mother visits often, she likes to escape from her sons and see the sights of the city on her own. One morning some twenty years ago, she reached the second floor of the famous Wendel house, on Fifth Avenue, but her tour of inspection was interrupted. "I was just going by and I thought I would drop in," she told me. On that visit she made a tour of Greenwich Village by herself, but asked me to take her to what she called "the Tony's" and "the 21," whose fame she had somehow heard about.

At "the Tony's" she was fortunate enough to meet one of her idols, the late Heywood Broun, and she enchanted him by casting an offhand horoscope for him that turned out to be a recognizable portrait, done in the bold colors of both virtue and shortcoming. She has always had a lot of fun monkeying around with the inexact sciences -- she corresponded with Evangeline Adams, and once had Professor Coue out to dinner at our house in Columbus -- and I am sure that she has already dipped into Dianetics. She embarrassed my father one time, in an impish numerology phase, by making him return a set of ominously numbered automobile license plates and exchange it for a safer one.

Twelve years ago, when she entered Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center for a major operation that she took in her stride, she demanded to know the date of birth of her distinguished surgeon before she would let him operate. He solemnly gave it to her, and was pleased to learn that he had been engaged for thirty years in a profession for which his signs clearly fitted him. Later, he was astonished by her familiarity with medicine and surgery, and told her one day that she had the sound implementation of a nurse. "Of course," my mother said. "I'm Capricorn with the moon in Sagittarius."

The day she was discharged from the hospital, she decided to visit the World's Fair, and she did, in spite of heat and humidity. In a bus on the way back, she found that she had exceeded her strength, and she asked the bus driver to take her pulse. He took it with one hand, continuing to drive with the other, and reported that it was a little high but nothing to worry about. I have no doubt that she found out his birthday and still remembers it, for she rarely forgets a name or a date. She once sent me a clipping of an Earl Wilson column in which he had given Dorothy Parker's birthday as August 23rd. "Dorothy Parker's birthday is August 22nd," my mother wrote. "August 23rd is Helen Gude's birthday." A few days ago I phoned her in Columbus and asked her if she remembered her surgeon's birthday. "Why, certainly," she said. "He was born on the 30th of March. My Columbus surgeon is also Aries -- April 1st."

In the recollections of a woman in her eighties whose mind and memory are as sharp as they ever were, the years are sometimes greatly foreshortened. When she came to New York in 1947, I found that she had made a date for tea at the Algonquin with an old friend of my father's, Charles Dewey Hilles. She said that she herself hadn't seen him for "a long time." Mr. Hilles, a celebrated Ohio Republican, died two years ago, and his long obituaries told of his having been, among many other things, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Taft, Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1912 to 1916, and a member of dozens of boards of directors.

I had the good luck to be asked to the Ohio tea party, along with one John Aloysius McNulty, for many years a reporter on Columbus newspapers. We had a jolly time, and various ancient facts and forgotten dates were brought up. It came out that my mother was a year older than Mr. Hilles. "When was it," I finally asked, "that you two last met?" My mother thought about this and said, "Well, Mr. Hilles was secretary to the superintendent of the Boys' Industrial School at Lancaster, Ohio. Let me see -- yes, it must have been in 1888." My mother was twenty-two in 1888, and Mr. Hilles, of course, was only twenty-one. Now, no elderly man of high and varied achievement likes to be reminded of his juvenile beginnings, and it was obvious to us all that my mother's grasp of her friend's later career was tenuous. McNulty saved the situation. "Eighteen-eighty-eight," he said, "was the year the owls were so bad."


WHEN I WAS IN COLUMBUS a year ago, my mother said, "Would it be possible for you to take me to lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria the next time I'm in New York?" From the tentative way she put it, I could see why she had never asked me before to take her to lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria. She was afraid that I couldn't swing it, and she hadn't wanted to embarrass me. I had taken her to every place I could think of, from the old Lafayette to Tony's and "21," but the Waldorf had never crossed my mind. I have made a conspicuous note about it on a memorandum pad, and the next time she comes to New York, I will take her to lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria, in a Hispano-Suiza if she wants it that way. It is little enough to do for Mary Agnes Fisher Thurber.


SUNDAY NIGHT in THURBER TONIGHT: The full Thurber obituary of that "one John Aloysius McNulty," as it appeared in print, and the letter Thurber wrote to New Yorker editor William Shawn about that published version




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