A Writing Family Pt.4 – My Great Aunt, Florence Beckett Bennett

Florence Beckett


Although I never knew my great aunt Florence Beckett, who died before I was born, over the years I heard intriguing tales about her career as a professional musician and about her mouth-watering New England-style cooking skills. After my father died in 1997, I began the process of sifting through the mountainous heaps of manuscripts and papers. One day while rummaging, I pulled out a creased and tattered manila folder labeled “Auntie Flo Memoir.” The folder revealed a stack of brittle yellow pages filled from top to bottom with her neat, flowing script, which had the look of a schoolgirl’s, even though Florence wrote it in her 70’s. Sometime later I turned up a typescript entitled The Sharp, the Flat and the Natural (An Autobiography) by Florence Beckett as told to Basil Burwell. The typescript sample, stamped with the imprint of my father’s literary agent, Bertha Klausner, must have made the rounds of publishers, only to reside for the next 60 years in its decrepit folder.

Florence Emeline Beckett was born on August 24, 1876, in Portland, Maine. Her mother, Antoinette Schnare, hailed from St. Margaret’s Bay, in Nova Scotia, while her professional musician father, Edward Parry Beckett, emigrated from Cambridge England to Canada, where according to legend he worked as “bandmaster to the Queen’s Own.” After the eldest, my grandmother Amelia, was born, Edward took his young family to the United States, where eventually he and “Annie” had three more children, all of whom performed as professional musicians, although other than Florence, only the youngest, Alice, persevered in show business. Alice worked for years with Allen’s Western Minstrels. The Beckett family traveled, but spent much of their time at Crescent Beach (now Revere), Massachusetts. The children grew up in a colorful world of performers and met famous people like General Tom Thumb, Peter Tchaikovsky, John Philip Sousa, and their father’s friend and mentor, composer and conductor, Victor Herbert.

Florence fell in love with the flute, her father’s primary instrument. She became proficient at an early age and then far more than proficient. At 14 she joined the Marietta Sherman Orchestra, played in smaller units at society functions and that winter debuted as a soloist with a full orchestra. Over the course of the following 15 years she worked with numerous women’s orchestras and played in concerts all over the United States, performing alongside opera stars, famous orchestra conductors, and theatrical luminaries such as Lillie Langtry. She also toiled in summer resorts, vaudeville theaters, and honky-tonk music halls. The locations ranged from cosmopolitan cities to small town America, from the World’s Columbian Exposition to rowdy frontier towns and isolated Indian reservations. Newspaper publicity sometimes billed Florence as the “leading lady flute player of the world.” Although she sometimes played in mixed orchestras, there were clearly fewer opportunities for fame and fortune if you were a woman musician at the turn of the century.

Florence [top, second from left] with the Boston Ladies Orchestra at Mt. McGregor, 1893

Florence met Myron Bennett in Sanford, Maine. They married in 1903 and had one child, Dorice, and for a time lived on a houseboat, but the marriage did not work out. To be closer to her mother and sister Amelia, Florence moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where as Florence Bennett, she lived in the 1920’s and 1930’s, playing flute in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and to make ends meet, she also gave private lessons and led orchestras in moving picture theaters during the heyday of silent films.

Accolades from a Madison newspaper, 1930

She must have retired by the 1940’s, but much of her life after leaving Madison remains a mystery, even the date of her death.

Florence Beckett Bennett in 1941

In oral history interviews, my parents recalled her visits during the 1940’s and 50’s. Dad remembered details of her phenomenal cooking: “In her later years, she would travel about from one branch of the family to another, taking her special cooking tools, her pie crinkler, her cake tester, and so on. She always had to have the right tools as well as the right ingredients. She would make her delectable potato starch – kind of sponge cake and turn it into a Washington cream pie or Boston cream pie, as the case might be, and make fabulous pies of all descriptions. Of course I’m particularly fond of apple pie and this was a fantastic thing to watch her make. The tender loving care with which she would lay apple slice upon apple slice in a really geometric way was something I’ll never forget.”

My mother reminisced about a visit from sisters Florence and Alice when she was just a “shy young thing,” not long after she’d met my father: “Florence had a loud voice. She was very jolly…I met them at a restaurant in New York City and I’m sitting in the middle and here’s Alice and here’s Auntie Flo and they’re talking over my head – ‘Oh! You remember that time? Oh yes…ha ha ha ha!’ Oh God was I embarrassed, but it was very funny. They were theatrical. Extrovert. Dear people. But oh my, was I embarrassed. I’m in the middle and the whole restaurant is hearing wild conversation with loud, loud voices. But they were delightful.”

I wish I’d known Great Aunt Florence, yet another member of my “writing family.” Her passion for music continues to run through the family veins. Perhaps one quiet night, if I close my eyes and think about her and listen as hard as I can, I’ll hear the sweet notes of her flute.

Excerpt from Florence Beckett’s memoir, as edited by my father, Basil Beckett Burwell. From the first chapter, entitled “The Magic Flute.”

“Girls should learn to be ladies; and no lady every plays a flute,” said Father, glowering at me across the music stand in the parlor and tapping his foot. The foot gave him away. He wasn’t as angry as he was pretending. The foot tapping was a trick he had learned from some actor at the Boston Museum. Now he raised his eyebrows as if he was reaching for a high note. “No, Fodie. The flute is the noblest of instruments and the most ancient; it is to be found in every land where man has dwelt; the Greeks played it on the slopes of Olympus and the Indians before their council fires; but to my certain knowledge it was not played by women.”

“But Father, I love the flute and I can’t stand the violin. I want to play the flute like you.”

“If only you had been a boy,” he said with a sigh. He had just finished his finger-limbering exercises and in a few minutes he would be on his way to Boston to play a matinee at the Boston Museum. It was the best time to speak to him. I watched him now as he stood his flute up in a corner to drain out the moisture. He straightened up and stood looking at me meditatively as he stroked the tuft of hair that grew Louis Napoleon fashion from his nether lip. “Fodie,” he said, “the violin is also a noble instrument. With the tail-hairs of a horse tones of incredible beauty can be drawn from the stretched gut of cats. What is more miraculous? My father used to talk to me by the hour about Paganini, the great virtuoso. He had heard him once in London between voyages. The man was a magician; he could play anything. Sometimes he would be annoyed at the audience and he would stop playing and make the instrument baa at them like a sheep or grunt like a pig. But when the audience was right and the spirit was on him he could outplay an angel. Hearing about him made me determine to play the violin. Unfortunately, circumstances caused me to enter the army and become a bandsman. In the British army, at least, one cannot march and play the violin. I chose the flute. I have, perhaps, a shade of regret. That is why I should like you to learn the violin.”

“But Father, you never even heard Paganini, but I have heard you. I want to play the flute.”

“No, Fodie. You cannot flatter yourself into a flute,” said Father, rolling up his music and preparing to go. “You will obey me and continue with the violin.” He looked at me hard. He had brilliant blue eyes and sometimes they could be very cold, but they were not cold now. There was something queer about them as if he was secretly laughing. He called goodbye to Mother and to my sister, Millie, who were in the kitchen, and then hurried off. I watched him go past the front of the house with his chin in the air and his lips puckered as he whistled a snatch of the overture he had been practicing. There was something dashing and military about him with his turned up waxed moustache and I was proud to have such a handsome father. I was only fourteen in 1890 and, as yet, had not been attracted by other men. I adored my father but I was not in awe of him the way my mother and my sister, Millie, were. I had a temper which I had demonstrated more than once in the past two years since Father had insisted that I learn the violin. Millie had to study the viola and she didn’t like it any more than I did the violin. She wanted to play the cornet. But while she obeyed orders philosophically, I had tantrums which could be heard all over Crescent Beach, Revere. The tantrums hadn’t accomplished anything so now I was trying “sweetness and light.”

When Father passed out of sight down Garfield Avenue I turned around and saw his flute standing in the corner. He had never left a flute at home before. He always took both his flutes with him. I went over and picked it up, holding it as I had watched him hold it, putting my fingers in the same places, and pressing it against my lower lip just as he did. I blew and it made a sound.

“I can do it,” I thought. “I can do it.” I blew hard. A sound like that of a factory whistle at noon shrilled through the house. For a moment I froze, half fearing that that tone might penetrate as far as the narrow-gauge railway station and bring Father hurrying back to reclaim his flute. Then, delighted with myself, I blew again, pressing a different key. A new sound, fuzzy and blurred and less loud presented itself. I began with many false notes and new beginnings to pick out the scale. At first, not all of the notes were in the same octave, and I discovered that the firmness of the mouth and the pressure of the lip against the flute seemed to affect the pitch. A somewhat slack mouth made a low note and a tense mouth a high note. That was the trick. The fingering scarcely troubled me at all. I had watched Father often, even sitting with him in the pit at the theater. How thrilled I had been when he played a solo! It was this experience, I think, which was at the bottom of my longing to play the flute. Now, with the instrument in my hands, I felt happier than I had ever felt in my life before. Time did not exist, nor place, nor family, only the flute and my swiftly growing knowledge.

No doubt the sounds I made at first must have sounded outlandish to Mother and Millie in the kitchen. They must have wondered what had brought Father back to the house and what was causing him, the master of the flute, to bring forth such incredible and discordant sounds. The door opened behind me and Millie looked in at me. “It’s Fodie!” she called back to the kitchen. Mother came at once, wiping her hands on her apron. “Land sakes,” she said, “so you’ve got a flute in your hands at last. I thought someone had stepped on a cat’s tail.”

“Father left it behind,” I said, defensively. “I couldn’t help myself.”

“Well, you did help yourself,” said Millie, “and Father isn’t going to like it.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Mother, her eyes bright with humor. “I have an idea he left the flute on purpose. It’s his way of giving in. Men are just too stubborn to give in without pretending that they’re not. Fodie, if you can’t play something for him by the time he comes home after the matinee, you are not the girl I think you are.”

“I will, Mother, I promise.”

“That’s my girl. Millie, you come with me. If Florence is allowed to give up the violin for the flute there’s no doubt you’ll be allowed to give up the viola for the cornet. Meanwhile we’ll make apple-dumplings. They always put your father in a good mood.”

After supper, as Father scraped up the last of the lemon sauce that had covered his dumpling, I excused myself from the table and went into the parlor. Picking up the flute, I stood nervously, listening for a pause in the conversation in the dining room. When it came I blew a wobbling note on the flute and, gathering courage, continued to play a fairly acceptable version of “Yankee Doodle.”

As the last note dwindled, Father came into the parlor. “Is that how you practice the violin?” he asked, his face blank and non-committal.

I didn’t know what to say. Tears came into my eyes. “I do so want to play the flute,” I said.

He came over to me and put his arms around me. “Then you shall,” he said and kissed me. I looked up and there were Mother and Millie smiling in the doorway.

Florence Beckett in 1894

[Postscript: Florence practiced the flute nine hours a day. After three months, Edward brought home a difficult flute part from an overture and told Florence that once she mastered it, she’d be ready to join an orchestra. She played it right through perfectly, auditioned for Marietta Sherman and then joined her Beacon Orchestral Club. My grandmother Amelia (“Millie”) became a prize pupil at the Boston Cornet Conservatory.]

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Christina Wilsdon
    May 18, 2012 @ 20:08:59

    What a wonderful story! She sounds delightful!

    Reply

  2. J. G. Burdette
    May 19, 2012 @ 10:20:26

    Nine hours a day is a long time. Makes my practice time look puny!

    Reply

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