The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirty-Six

October 4-11, 1917

The month of October 1917 began with Kate Roosevelt moving her platoon of employees back to her home at 301 Lexington Avenue in the moneyed Murray Hill section of Manhattan from their tranquil summer sojourn at Merdlemouth in Hightstown, New Jersey. The small farm located just outside of Princeton was where Kate and her widowed daughter, Dorothy Roosevelt Geer, and grandsons, Shippen and Langdon Geer, spent long, quiet days picking strawberries, pottering in the greenhouse, collecting eggs from their chickens and taking tea under the evergreens that towered over the property.

Picnic near Merdlemouth in Highstown, New Jersey

In order for the Roosevelt-Geer Families to have such a restful vacation followed by a smooth move back to the city required a bit of help. “Maude and Bella, the maids, move into 301 Lexington Avenue. Dorothy and her new maid, Wendela and baby nurse, Mrs. Alice Mack, went to New York City. Wendela to clean Dorothy’s apartment. Geer Family trunks are packed and ready to be shipped back to the city.”

Household help

Moving up to the city from the country back in 1917 was quite an undertaking that required both an indoor and outdoor staff as noted by Kate’s entries for October 4, 1917. “George put winter top on motor. Charles Matthews, the boy from Hightstown, here to put up no gunning signs at entrance to farm in time for hunting season. Mr. and Mrs. McKnight here in morning and afternoon to see about closing house up. Sent final load of linens and laundry to the laundress, Sarah Greer’s house yesterday. Maude came back to help with last minute chores. She and I left for New York at 1:00 p.m.  We had Weenie, the dog and endless valises and parcels. Flora and Wendela, have decided to stay with Dorothy for the winter as maid and cook.”

On October 9th, 1917 Kate reported, “Two waitresses here to see about job. Engaged Anna Tracey.  She comes tomorrow. She had been for two years with Mrs. Zimbalist, Alma Gluck, the singer.”

Not only did Kate Roosevelt hob-nob with the upper crust of New York City society, she also employed their former servants.

Alma Gluck and Ephram Zimbalist, Sr.

Alma Gluck was a world-famous soprano. Born in Romania, she immigrated to New York and gained star-status singing at the Metropolitan Opera. She became a recording artist, singing under the Victor Talking Machine label. Her recording of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny was the first recording by a classical musician to sell one million copies and earned her the “gold disc,” the forerunner to today’s gold record award.

Born Jewish, Gluck and her husband the world-renowned violinist, Ephram Zimbalist, Sr., converted to Christianity and were active in the Episcopal Church. Their son, Ephram Zimbalist, Jr., was the actor best known for his role as Stu Bailey on the television series, 77 Sunset Strip, and their granddaughter is the actress, Stephanie Zimbalist, who starred alongside Pierce Brosnan in the NBC series, Remington Steele.

Louise Homer

Gluck often recorded spiritual duets with Louise Homer, an operatic contralto who also sang at the Metropolitan Opera and on Victor and Columbia recordings.  In 1924, Homer was listed as one of twelve greatest women living by the League of Women Voters.

Gertrude Robinson

In addition to Gluck’s singing career, she was also involved civic endeavors.  She helped found the American Women’s Association. An amalgamation of various clubs and societies, it supported the advancement and efforts of women in both the professional and cultural spheres by providing safe lodgings, social outlets and financial stability for underpaid women.  Kate Roosevelt’s cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and some of Eleanor’s feminist friends jumped on the bandwagon when it was established in 1911, calling themselves the “Vacation Committee,” with a mission to offer help to women who did not receive salaried vacation time, find female-friendly lodgings for a moderate fee. Their clubhouse was located at 353 West 57th Street. The silent screen actress and philanthropist, Gertrude Robinson, was the group’s first president.

In 1922 the name was official changed to the American Women’s Association. It was disbanded in 1974 because according to a former member, “It had served its purpose.”

From its description, the American Women’s Association’s beginnings were similar to those of New York City’s Cosmopolitan Club founded by a group of civic-minded socialites as a place for their family’s governesses to enjoy a day off in sedate surroundings.

The singer, Alma Gluck, and the socialite, Kate Roosevelt, were both members of the Cosmopolitan Club and I could just picture the two having luncheon and discussing how hard it was to find good help and asking each other for references.  Apparently, Anna Tracey was given a glowing one by her former employer, Anna Gluck. She was soon employed as Kate Roosevelt’s newest waitress.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Kate Roosevelt on her farm
Sam Chapin Photo

Photo Two:
Picnic near Merdlemouth in Highstown, New Jersey
post card, public domain

Photo Three:
Household Help
public domain

Photo Four:
Alma Gluck and Ephram Zimbalist, Sr.
Library of Congress

Photo Five:
Louise Homer

Photo six:
Gertrude Robinson, silent screen star
Library of Congress

Photo Seven:
Clubhouse, American Woman’s Association
353 West 57th Street
postcard, public domain