What I know about this remarkable young woman I pieced together from online newspaper and document research and her father's biography. It's amazing how much you can find if you keep digging.
Janet Sabine was born in Boston on October 23, 1903. Her parents were Wallace Clement Sabine, professor of physics at Harvard, and Jane Downes Kelly Sabine, a doctor. They moved into the townhouse where I live now (just on the second floor) when Janet was six. You can read more about her family, including her little sister Ruth, here. The photo above is from a passport application I found online from 1916, when Janet was 13. She looks bright and charming in her schoolgirl pinafore, doesn't she? She was everything a little girl should be in those days, and now — smart, sweet, accomplished, disciplined, brave, and kind.
She and Ruth were carefully educated both at home and in school, and both excelled in drawing, needlework, and athletics. They figure-skated in charity shows, and they could swim, sail, ski, and dance. They were also fine equestrians and took music lessons.
The rooms where I live now were once filled with the voices of their parents reading aloud for hours as the girls drew or sewed — from Tales of the Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and other classics in several languages. There was also a phonograph, so the girls could listen to opera (following along with the libretti) and classical music. Music was important — their father was the also the father of the science of acoustics. Wallace Clement Sabine was the genius responsible for Boston Symphony Hall, the first building ever designed according acoustic formulas and principles, which he'd worked out painstakingly at Harvard over several years, often laboring in his soundproofed, sub-basement lab between midnight and 5 am (before a full day of teaching), since he needed absolute quiet to do his tests and take his measurements.
Both Professor and Dr. Sabine made significant voluntary contributions to the Great War, holding important advisory positions throughout Europe, sometimes risking their lives, working on a variety of medical and military projects. They left their daughters in Paris, where they attended a French school and lived with a local governess for about 18 months. By that time, Janet and Ruth were fluent in French and German, having had foreign governesses at home from early childhood. They were also seasoned travelers; their mother took them to Europe nearly every summer. (She visited medical clinics and attended conferences in France and Switzerland while the girls played, made friends, and practiced their languages.) But during the war, their time in Paris was lonely and stressful. They worried about and longed for their parents and were grateful when they were all reunited and sailed home together in 1918. Theirs was a close, mutually adoring family, and the girls doted on their parents as much as they were doted upon themselves.
In January 1919, Wallace died of kidney cancer at age 50. He had ignored his failing health for years, throwing himself into war work (for the U.S., Britain, France and Italy) with a zeal that was obsessive. He had stood on battlefields and seen the carnage, and I believe it made him think he should be willing to sacrifice his life for the cause as well. From what I've read, I believe he knew he wouldn't survive his illness, so he refused to give into pain and weakness until his war work ended, and it became impossible to him to stand. Then he finally agreed to an operation (after surviving the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic, which everyone, including the servants, survived in his household, nursed by his wife). But it was too late. He died days later. Janet was 15 and Ruth 12.
Both girls attended the exclusive Winsor School in Brookline. I think Janet graduated in 1921, and I believe she is the in back row of the graduation class photo below, sixth from the left (between the tallest girl and a girl in glasses), with a halo of crimped dark hair.
On Janet's 19th birthday in 1922, her sister Ruth died at age 16. I've read that Ruth never recovered from the death of her father and had been unwell for some weeks before her death. Ruth wanted to grow up to be a writer. (The sisters probably shared one of the two large third-floor rooms above my apartment. One has a charming, built-in dressing table with a mirror between the two tall windows.)
I can't imagine what birthdays must have been like for Janet after 1922.
Below is her graduation photo from the Radcliffe yearbook. She graduated cum laude in three and a half years, in the class of 1927. Between the Winsor School and Radcliffe, she distinguished herself at the Sorbonne, taking the annual exams and earning a degree there, too. She also studied botany at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, near Cape Cod.
I am guessing that Janet began developing her distinctive "chic" style during her long stay in Paris during the war and also during her time there after Bryn Mawr.
Janet was descended from a Mayflower ancestor on her mother's side, which meant a great deal in Boston society in the early 20th century. She made her social debut at a small tea party on October 27, 1921, hosted by her mother in what is now my living room. Her friend Mary Chute, who lived next door, made her debut at the same time. The next day a dance was held for them at the Somerset Club.
Along with her studies, Janet did what Boston society girls did in those days: she volunteered for the Junior League and the Vincent Club. She starred in the French play that Harvard's Cercle Français put on in 1924, an exclusive event attended by the Francophile cream of society. She also went to countless parties, dances, dinners, weddings, and charity events with her fellow debs. I found her name throughout the Boston social pages along with descriptions of her evening dresses, which were often severely styled in black chiffon or velvet. (I wonder if she sewed them herself since she was handy with a needle. I also wonder if her family continued to be financially comfortable after her father died.)
Below is what must be Janet's engagement photo in 1929, in one of those black dresses she favored. She married a Frederick Ley, a wealthy and socially prominent civil engineer and building contractor who worked for his father, a developer. They built many of the finest apartment buildings in Manhattan. Their wedding was described as a "quiet" celebration, owing to an illness in the bride's family. At that point, Janet had few close relatives left, only her mother and an aunt and uncle who lived out of state.) The Leys lived in Manhattan and had a daughter, Janet Wallace Ley.
Janet was divorced a few years later. She worked in retail, specializing in women's and girls' fashions. She worked for Hattie Carnegie, and was also a buyer in department stores. She may have had her own business or shop for a while, too. At some point, she worked as a fashion editor for Glamour magazine. I believe she divided her time between New York and Boston, where her mother lived alone in the family house. Below, inexplicably, is a photo of Janet modeling a lace gown in 1940, which ran in papers around the country via the Associated Press.
That's my last glimpse of her. In February 1945, she got married again, to Francis Hathaway Cummings, a Harvard lawyer with a good Boston pedigree. Her mother gave her away in marriage. And less than a year later, Janet died suddenly, in January 1946. She was 42. She was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Her stone gives only her name and dates, with plenty of space above for another inscription. But her husband is buried elsewhere.
I can't help but wonder if she might rather have joined her parents, sister, and grandfather in the family niche in Mt. Auburn's Bigelow Chapel.
Happy birthday, Janet. Your story is not forgotten in the house where you were once a happy, beloved child.