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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New Publication: Baseball Pioneers 1850-1870

Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870


I have a chapter entitled, “Olympians of Beloit College,” in Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870, a lovely oversized paperback recently published by McFarland Books. While the history of baseball after 1870 has proven fertile ground for exhaustive scholarship, we know much less about its earliest period, as teams sprang up and popularized the sport across the nation. Founder of the “Pioneer Project,” Peter Morris, asked me to write about the Olympian Base Ball Club of Beloit College, a highly successful but short-lived congregation of battle-toughened Civil War veterans and fresh-faced youngsters. I delved deep into the Beloit College Archives, uncovered vivid accounts in diaries, letters and newspapers, and pieced together the story of a dynamic club from a tiny Wisconsin school on a bluff above the Rock River. The scholars of Greek and Latin somehow lived up to their Olympian name by becoming the champion base ball team of Wisconsin in 1867 before fading away. Along with coverage of their activities on the diamond, I included biographies of each player. It was a time when baseball had not only become a national pastime, but a national passion, as one Beloit College student noted in the college newspaper: “The Base Ball mania has prevailed quite extensively during the year, but has proved fatal to none except visitors. The Olympians have met all of the principal clubs in the State the past year, and not suffered a single defeat. This would not seem to indicate that the students of Beloit are a puny race. No, we develop muscle as well as brains.”

Olympian Club of Beloit College. Courtesy Beloit College Archives

For those interested in baseball’s pioneering days, I highly recommend dipping into Base Ball Pioneers, which features detailed and colorful accounts about teams from all over the country. The book is available at bookstores and online. Here is a link to the McFarland Press page for the book:
Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870

A Writing Family Pt.2 – My Grandmother, Eda Hoode Sadler (aka: Ida Fingerhut)

Ida Fingerhut, skating at Central Park in New York, circa 1910.

“Grandma, tell me a story.” I was six years old. My mother’s mother, Eda Hoode Sadler, sat in her comfy chair, reading. She looked up, distracted for a moment and then smiled. She placed her book on the coffee table, took her glasses off and then gave the familiar pat on her lap. I climbed up and heard her groan as I settled in. How many times had I asked her for a story? How many times have I wished I could go back and hear her words that are lost forever? Within a year and a half, she was gone.

Eda Hoode Sadler with grandson, Fred Burwell. Note pad on grass and pencil in hand, ready for a writing session.

My grandmother’s life included more twists and turns than most plot-driven novels, but she didn’t talk about her eventful childhood. She told tales of magic and mystery. I remember an underwater world visited by two children – my age, of course – and populated by clever porpoises and other wild creatures. As much as I craved her stories, Grandma always made a deal. “I’ll tell you a story and then you tell me one,” she’d say. And so, from early on, I had the notion that you could pluck a story from the air.

At first glance, Grandma’s early life seems hidden behind an impenetrable bank of fog and yet there are tantalizing scraps, half-remembered stories from my mother, confusingly inconsistent “facts” from census records and naturalization documents, and autobiographical accounts in her unpublished novel, Jessica Brown, and in short stories. Ida Fingerhut was born in Poland in 1888 and traveled with her family to the United States just a few years later. Her father Abraham was a rabbinical student who contracted consumption while selling Christmas tree ornaments on the streets of New York and died soon after. In a letter to my mother, Grandma described him as “the quietest man imaginable,” and yet he, too, told stories. “My mother just absolutely adored him,” my mother Nancy told me during an oral history session. “One of the things she used to tell about him was, she had this fantastic doll, well, the only doll she ever had. And it was given to her, and the doll fell and broke and it didn’t seem reparable, so her father gave the doll a really grand funeral and told her all about the imaginary, wonderful place the doll was going to, and he consoled her.”

Her mother Mary, with five children in tow, went to work as a milliner. In order to make ends meet, she placed Ida and her brother Herman in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, a place that included many “half-orphans” of poor Jewish immigrants. My mother recalled Grandma’s tales of the orphanage: “She got the nickname of ‘Princess’ because she wouldn’t eat the thick yellow gruel…She remembered they had a fence around the orphanage and the parents had to be on the other side of the fence to see their children. There was a playground of sorts. My mother remembered seeing her mother outside the fence, watching the children at play.”

Eventually, after her mother had opened her own establishment, Ida returned home. She loved learning, but like so many others of that era, her schooling ended after eighth grade graduation, when she received a prize, a two volume set of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass that she kept all of her life. She had no feeling for the millinery business and after a year working in a factory, she got a job at Brentano’s, a famous bookstore. “She used to spend an awful lot of her time in Brentano’s, when she wasn’t busy, curled up with a good book, a Brentano’s book, and she read up a storm,” my mother told me, also noting something true of more than one member of my family: “In fact, her mother really got very annoyed with her because she always had a book at every meal, open at the table, whatever the meal was, and Mother was reading and paying no attention to anything that went on.”

Ida Fingerhut 8th grade graduation, circa 1902

Even in her mid teens she knew that to get ahead in the world, to get out of the tenements of the lower east side of New York, she would have to hide her background, even change her identity. While at Brentano’s, she learned to type, and she learned the old-fashioned Pitman method of shorthand. She became a topnotch stenographer, working her way up through jobs at banks to a position with New York City Chamberlain, Henry Bruere, a charismatic man who helped mold the new Ida, teaching her proper deportment and even helping her shave off all traces of a New York accent. She became involved in some of the issues of the day, helped found a stenographers union and hosted a suffragist tea.

Ida Fingerhut plans a union for stenographers, 1915

She also married Dr. Herman Seidler, a troubled man with a voracious passion for the arts – music, theater and books. Their marriage ended in separation and divorce and Grandma brought up my mother on her own, making a good living as a career woman. She also changed her name. From Ida Fingerhut to Eda Hoode to Eda Seidler, to Eda Hoode Sadler. She followed no religion and rarely if ever brought up the fact that she was Jewish, although she had Jewish friends. “See, Mother went a whole different way,” my mother commented. “She became something else completely than what she might have, because she didn’t follow any of her background.” She claimed that she didn’t know any Yiddish and yet in unguarded moments she’d drop a Yiddish word or phrase into conversation. Tucking my mother into bed at night, she’d sing songs from the old country, remembered from childhood.

And she’d tell my mother stories: “Mother was wonderful at storytelling. I never could tell a damn story in my life. You know, you have to make it up? But I used to love my dolls and she’d make the most wonderful stories up about my dolls. She was really full of all kinds of imagination and used it. There were two fairies that she made up, Peeps and Conundrum who took my doll Annabelle-Lee around the world. Imagination, yes, tremendous. Her stories were delightful.”

Eda Hoode Sadler with her daughter Nancy, mid-1920's

At some point Grandma began to write. Perhaps her success writing advertising copy spurred her on. Or perhaps Peeps and Conundrum had something to do with it. She took courses on the short story and attempted to tailor her pieces for the slick women’s magazines of the day, without success. By the 1950’s she was working on Jessica Brown, a long novel based on her own life. She entitled a shorter version, Lamplighter Days, which focused on rich details of her childhood. Her literary agent and friend, Bertha Klausner, sent them out and they received “positive rejections.” Publishers found them “charming” and “delightful” but too old-fashioned for changing times and so the aging manuscripts sat for decades in a desk drawer and then in cartons. They moved whenever we moved and today they reside in my Wisconsin study, awaiting rediscovery.

In loving tribute to a spirited member of my “writing family,” I post the following excerpt from Jessica Brown, a work by Eda Hoode Sadler which shows that Ida Fingerhut, an identity so long discarded, wasn’t so far below the surface after all.

Ida Fingerhut in 1911, age 23

Jessica Brown

The employment office was crowded with men and women whose faces showed worry, hope or resignation – anything but expectancy. For the older ones, with their firmly pressed lips that had thinned and puckered with the rancid taste of their lives, Jessie felt pity rise in her and a vague sense of guilt for her own advantage of youth.

The printed application blank appalled her. So many questions, so many vacant lines like hungry mouths that she must fill with bits of herself. The print swam in a jumble before her apprehensive eyes, and to steady herself she looked around, then back to the shabby long oak table at which she sat. A girl opposite her was writing industriously, with no hesitation, as if it were all a familiar process, her dark hair neatly coiffed under a small-brimmed blue hat that matched the color of her short tightly buttoned jacket out of which billowed a white frilled jabot. She saw the girl suddenly hesitate, lift the paper in well-kept square-tipped fingers as if to tear it, her dark face taking on an angry frown.

What made her angry? Jessie wondered, and glanced over the form before her.

“Why did you leave your last place of employment?” caught her eye. Because – stop it, Jessie, she warned herself. Stop it or you’ll cry. Get to work. Begin at the beginning.

“Name.” Jessie (No, Jessica is more dignified) Brown. Fill in the easy things first.”

“Age.” She hesitated and glanced up. The girl opposite her was at least twenty-five. Everybody seemed older. If she said seventeen they would think she was a beginner. Nineteen, she decided.

“Experience.” Think of the experience and see how it adds up. Four jobs in the first six months. No, that would give an impression of instability. Just the last job would be better. Two and a half years on the last job. She could be truthful about the job.

Her eyes followed the girl as she rose and went over to the clerk. What a lovely suit she wore, how trim and business-like she looked.

“Mmm.” Jessie saw the clerk appraise the girl, her smooth black hair, the sloe eyes and highbridged nose. “You’ve had nice experience, but the only job I have I’m afraid wouldn’t suit you…”

“I’ll take anything,” the girl interrupted.

“No,” the clerk shook her head. “The bank won’t take Jews. You’re the kind of girl they want, but – your name, and – well,” she shrugged, “there’s no use sending you.”

Jessie averted her eyes from the girl’s bitter face as if she had been caught peeping into the privacy of her room.

Surprise and fear, like a sudden spasm, cramped her stomach. Names made a difference! She looked down at the application blank. Jessica Brown. The name she had been given in school by some indifferent clerk suddenly seemed fraudulent. But lots of foreign names were changed in school, were accepted as the first step in Americanization. That’s the way even mama had taken and used the name. Now Jessie felt a sense of disloyalty to her father, a sense of shame as if she were being dishonest. And yet she felt grateful for its anonymity, as if it were a shield against an enemy.

“Religion?” The question leaped up at her challengingly. Religion…Once she had answered that question she would be discarded like the girl before her. She remembered her father’s words on that long ago Christmas Eve. “In America you are free…to be what you want to be…to take your place anywhere…Freedom and opportunity – they are your birthright.”

Saul’s voice echoed in her ears while she stared at the word “Religion” until each letter formed iron bars closing her in, imprisoning her. Saul’s words beat at her with hammer strokes. “Be what you want to be!” He had believed in the freedom of America. “Freedom and opportunity are your birthright!” He had been willing to starve for that belief. If she let herself become a prisoner of prejudice, she would betray all his hopes for her, his faith in the country of his adoption.

And mama. Mama’s eyes were afraid. Remembering the fear in mama’s eyes, desperation filled Jessie. Shutting her eyes for a moment as if she felt the impact of the word as a blow, she wrote “Protestant,” then sat frozen and grieved.

“Are you ready?” The clerk’s voice cut sharply into the fog of her distress.

Jessie nodded.

“Let me have it,” the clerk said. “There are others waiting, you know.”

Others waiting…Mama waiting, frightened, remembering the early days after papa died. Mama must never know such need again. Stiffly, Jessie handled over the application blank, and waited. It seemed to her that the clerk glanced at one item only.

“Don’t be so nervous,” the clerk said. “You’re just the type of girl they want. And it’s a large bank, lots of room for advancement…You didn’t put down any salary.”

“I…”

“They’ll pay seventy-five a month to start.”

Jessie nodded. It was more than she had hoped for. It would take care of mama and herself. Mama would not have to draw on her last few dollars. She would no longer be haunted by fear. But Jessie found no satisfaction in the thought. Her throat was parched. She felt empty of all emotion save a sense of shame for herself and for the country she grew up in.

“All right. Here, take this card. You’ll like the people, and you’re just the kind of girl they want,” the clerk repeated.

I’ll hate the people, Jessie thought savagely. I’ll hate them. I’ll never be happy with them. And I’ll never forgive them.

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