Sunday, July 04, 2010

Uncle Herman's World-- Key Players

Key Persons In Uncle Herman's Life During His Shaker Hollow Years, written by Cousin Richard Orton and I:

Herman Smith: 1881-1951. Herman was the youngest brother of my great-great grandfather Fred C. Schmidt (1858-1931). He was born Hermann Georg Ludwig Schmidt, the last of 7 children, grew up in Niles, Michigan, and was an orphan at 15. After inheriting his parents' property, he sailed around the world. He settled in New York City and worked for Paramount Pictures in Astoria in the 1920's. Later he became a minor radio personality and author of magazine articles and two small cookbooks.

Miss Rena Harrell is she whom Herman was corresponding. She was a librarian at Queens College in Charlotte, NC. It is not clear how Herman and Miss Harrell met but it is clear that there was never a romantic involvement, though there did appear some affection, if not somewhat one-sided. It also appears that they never met personally, or, if they did, it was brief.

Juliana Force was the first Director of Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1931.

Born in 1876 in Pennsylvania to German immigrants, Juliana Preiser had to make her own way, as did Whitney, a sculptor, struggling against social restrictions to pursue her work. Force, hired as Whitney's secretary and manager shortly before WW I, became a legend for her aid to artists via Whitney funds and as principal author of the policies of the Whitney Museum.

Juliana married Dr. Force in 1912 and they lived in Manhattan. Both making good money and in need of a retreat in the country, they bought Briar Sheaf Farm in Bucks, County, Pennsylvania near where Juliana had grown up. Juliana began acquiring Shaker furniture, widely available in the area, to fill the house, but the house was too far away to get to regularly, so she bought a second house closer to Manhattan. Eventually she moved her collection of Shaker furniture to this 18th century farmhouse and named it Shaker Hollow.

It is not clear how she knew Uncle Herman but during the Depression he was going through hard financial times, having trouble making his rent at London Terrace Apartments. Juliana was not immune to the impact of the Depression and faced with an indifferent caretaker couple she was paying to look after Shaker Hollow, made it available to Uncle Herman in late 1932.

Geraldine Farrar: There were famous prima donnas before Geraldine Farrar.  Maria Malibran, Jenny Lind, Melba and Tetrazzini, but none reached a wider audience than this American soprano. Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, the daughter of Sidney Farrar, a professional baseball player and his wife Henrietta Barnes. She studied voice in Boston, New York, and Europe, creating a sensation in Berlin with her debut as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust in 1901. She was introduced to the Kaiser and among her fans in Berlin was Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor August Ernst, Crown Prince of Prussia, with whom she conducted an affair beginning in 1903. A later affair with Toscanni caused him to be removed from the Met.

After appearing at Monte Carlo for several seasons, she made her debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1906. She developed a popular following in such roles as Carmen and Madame Butterfly and she knew personally many of the music greats of her day, including Saint Saens, Massenet, and Puccini. She appeared with Caruso in over 150 performances.

Later, between opera seasons, she began starring in silent films, beginning with "Carmen," directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Filmed during the summers in California, she made 6 films with DeMille, including one about Joan of Arc.

During her 16-season reign at The Metropolitan Opera, Farrar commanded higher fees and appeared in more new productions than any other leading soprano. She sang 671 performances of 34 roles in 29 operas, a record matched by no soprano in the eight decades since. She retired from opera at the age of forty and moved to a fine house near Ridgefield, Connecticut, but appeared in recitals until 1931, and was briefly the commentator for the radio broadcasts at the Met.

During her years in Ridgefield she did volunteer work for the Red Cross and the Girl Scouts, and during the war served on the War Price and Ration Board. She died at 85 and was buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Farrar seems to have been great friends with Uncle Herman as he mentions her often in his letters, but it isn't clear if they met after he moved to Shaker Hollow or during her hey-day at the Met. In any case, she seems to have been his entrée to meeting Lily Pons and the very wealthy Gilmore family.

Lily Pons: Lily was another great Soprano of The Metropolitan Opera.  She was French-born, studied at the Paris Conservatory, and made her debut at The Met on January 3,1931.  When she married conductor AndrĂ© Kostelanetz, she was married secretly at Shaker Hollow and would have none other than HMK cater the affair for her.  HMK's letter describing the day is found herein.

Shaker Hollow: 18th century farmhouse bought by Juliana Force. When she moved her collection of Shaker furniture there, she named it Shaker Hollow. Uncle Herman was invited to live there in late 1932 as an economy move for both of them. He opened a popular tea room there, meeting and entertaining the area's affluent residents in high style.

After about 4 years, circumstances changed for both Juliana and Herman. Hard times hit her and she needed to sell Shaker Hollow to save Briar Sheaf Farm in Pennsylvania. Herman lost some of his help with the tea room and couldnt manage it on his own. Ultimately, Juliana sold the Pensylvania property to George S. Kaufman, the playwright, and kept Shaker Hollow. Herman moved to a nearby property in Connecticut owned by other wealthy benefactors, the Gilmours.

In 1940, Juliana still owned Shaker Hollow and was using it on weekends, always calling the new caretaker couple from Manhattan to prepare for her arrival. But one day, while visiting friends in nearby Connecticut, she stopped by unannounced and knocked on her own front door. Her housekeeper answered and immediately slammed the door in her face. Running around to an unlocked side door, Juliana walked into her living room and saw it covered with swastickas, Nazi flags, and pictures of Adolph Hitler. Her "couple" were part of the German Bund and used the house for meetings and a Nazi mail drop.

She never felt comfortable in the house again and sold it soon after. Still lived in, it sold in recent years for $1,000,000.00.

Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon (wife of Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon): A leading British fashion designer in the late 1800s- early 1900s with branches in Paris, Chicago, and New York, whom Herman managed for many years. She was a Titanic ship-wreck survivor. Lucile is credited with training the first fashion models (then called mannequins) and the creation of the catwalk-style fashion shows.

Elizabeth Weber-Fulop:  One of the greatest of contemporary Austrian/American painters. Moved to New York. She painted a portrait of the apricot and black Shaker Hollow Tea Room, however it has yet to be located.  She and husband Emil Weber were late owners of the historic King Caesar House in Duxbury, MA, selling it to the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society.

Richard Hall: Roommate and close friend of HMK

Charles Vincent Mullen: Roommate and close friend of HMK.  Worked for General Motors in Manhattan.

H.H. Brickell, aka Herschel Brickell, Ill-fated Editor and Critic: When he was a child, Henry Herschel Brickell was an omnivorous reader, consuming one or two volumes a day during summer vacations. He was, he later stated, "unwittingly preparing myself for the book reviewer's life in New York." The Mississippi native fought in the Mexican War in 1916, was a newspaper reporter and editor in the south, and came to New York in 1919 to work for the New York Post as a news editor, and shortly thereafter as book review editor. He later became General Manager of Henry Holt & Company, and in the 1930's, wrote book reviews for the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, and the Saturday Review of Literature.  Known as a famous literary critic, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939, Brickell is said to have launched Margaret Mitchell's career with his review of Gone With The Wind beginning their close friendship

At some point Brickell became acquainted with Margaret Mitchell, and following publication of "Gone With The Wind" in 1935, her life was hell. People knocked on her door day and night, books in hand, asking for autographs, asking for answers to questions, and asking for money. In July of 1936, she traveled to New York to sign the contracts for the film rights.

When the contract was signed, her lawyer returned to Atlanta, and Brickell took Mitchell to his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. When they arrived, Mitchell was suffering a "stroke of blindness." She was "in a bad way" and stayed with Brickell and his wife Norma for about 2 weeks, in seclusion in a dark room before returning home.

In 1941, Brickell became editor of the annual O'Henry Memorial Short Story Anthology. An assignment in Spain in the 1930's left him with a love of all things Spanish, and he became Senior Cultural Relations Assistant to U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden, and later was Chief of the State Department's Division of Cultural Cooperation for Latin American. He continued to write and edit stateside and to travel to South America until one day in 1952, when, at the age of 63, he took his own life at his Branchville home. Police and medical officials attributed his suicide to "hard work and a tendency to despondency."


Unknown said...

I found a letter by Herman Smith, dated jan. 12th 1947 to a Miss Harvey several years ago, tucked inside a used book. I just ran across it. Let me know where to send it.

Susan said...

Could you email me privately please at I don't want to give my address out to someone I know nothing about. Thanks.

WynsumShe said...

Thank you for this information. Our Grandparents knew Herman and some of his friends. It is great to see this article connecting them.

Richard Adkins said...

Hi, I am the collections manager at the Hollywood Heritage Museum in Hollywood. Our building-is the Lasky-DeMille barn which later became Famous Players-Lasky and finally, Paramount Pictures. I got to your blog through a very circuitous route. I was looking for information on David Cox and found a period article in which he was identified as H.M.K. Smith's assistant at the Paramount Astoria studio. All the internet timelines are a little fuzzy, but I would like to be able to confirm that your great-great-uncle worked at FPL Astoria from 1920 through 1930 or 1931. David Cox left Astoria to work at M-G-M in 1927, and left M-G-Mm for Fox in 1930. Do you have any idea when and how David Cox got his job with Mr. Smith?

Richard Adkins, Hollywod Heritage Museum