Friday, October 23, 2015

Janet Sabine

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 Fran├žais 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.

32 comments:

  1. I find this so interesting. Thanks!

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  2. PB: Thx for the update on the Sabines. Such a sad story, really, after such a beautiful childhood. Makes it much harder to leave your condo there.

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  3. It was very interesting to read your story of Janet Sabine. For many years I've had the book her family published of her sister Ruth Sabine's childhood writings. It was published in 1924, dedicated to what would have been her Winsor School graduating class. It was titled "Fugitive Pieces". Memorial books are always poignant and this one, with photos, poems, stories and school essays is a fine example of this genre. Ruth Sabine died, age 16, in 1922.

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  4. Paul Darby again - I perhaps should let you know that I have just listed the book by Ruth Sabine - Fugitive Pieces - on ebay (June 22, 2016)

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  5. Ran out of space last time. Francis H Cummings graduated Harvard and Harvard Law School. Accord to the obits, he was employed as an investment adviser by Gardner-Preston & Moss of Boston. He had two other wives -- probably why he's not buried with her ...

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    1. Hello, Charles. I don't see to have another comment from you, but thank you for this one! Are you a member of the Cummings family?

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    2. Having some problems posting from Firefox, so switching browsers. Apologies in advance for any duplicate inquiries. Sorry! Guess it evaporated into the ether. Francis Hathaway Cummins b. 22 April 1899, Boston, d. 7 June 1977. One of his wives was Elanor Goodwin, the other Evelyn Alice Lancaster. Having some difficulty making the timeline fit ...

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    3. Francis Hathaway Cummings ... my wife is a distant relative. "husband of wife of husband of great-aunt of wife". One thing I'm trying to figure out is if there were two of him born in 1899. Trying to figure out if he was both an attorney and a Naval Reserve Officer ...

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    4. Think I found my "proof" via a web article, that he was both a Navy man and then a lawyer. Is there a way (email/contact page?) where I can provide it to you? Still trying to get to the bottom of when he married / divorced his other wives ...

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    5. I hope you saw my message below. Most likely he was a lawyer/financier who joined the armed services during the war, as so many men and women did. But law school happened in 1924, right after college. You can paste the link in this box or, if that doesn't work, let me know....

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    6. "Eleanor Goodwin, daughter of Mrs William H. Goodwin of 150 Commonwealth Ave, was married yesterday afternoon at 4 o'clock in the First Church in Boston, Marlboro and Berkeley. to Francis Hathaway Cummings, son of Mr and Mrs Charles K. Cummings / 6 Joy St", newspaper notice indicating a marriage on / about June 15, 1915 ...

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    7. http://freepages.military.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cacunithistories/radnor.htm

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    8. "During 1918 the Radnor’s Paymaster was Asst. Paymaster A. P. Roos, USN. Around the middle of October Radnor is at Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, while there she adds to her crew Seaman Francis Hathaway Cummings who is an Radio Electrician’s Mate 3d Class. Seaman Cummings would go on to graduate from Harvard with the class of 1921 when he was discharged from the Navy. Cummings had enrolled in the Naval Reserve Force on April 28, 1917 and assigned to the Naval Radio School in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 5, 1917. Once finished at the Radio School Cummings was sent to the Boston Navy Yard on June 24, 1917 until September 1, 1917 when he was released from active duty to attend college. Recalled to active duty on June 18, 1918 with the rating of Quartermaster 3d Class, Cummings was then assigned to the USS Dyer where he sailed on July 9, 1918. Once released from the Dyer he was sent to U. S. Overseas Naval Base 9 at Gibraltar where he picked up the Radnor. In the third week of November 1918 Radnor is back in New York and Cummings is then transferred to the Receiving Ship at the New York Navy Base on November 18, 1918. On the 25th he is sent to the 1st Naval District at Boston and then subsequently released from active duty with the navy on December 23, 1918.

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    9. It threw me, but in this case it appeared that he joined the Navy first and was then released for school later. So do you have a date of marriage for Janet Sabine? I Did see that Evelyn Alice ("Eve") Chenowith Lancaster was his last wife. Thanks for the info on the kids; I'm still working on that ...

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    10. Elanor Goodwin goes on to re-marry another Navy officer after the conclusion of WWII in November 1945, Francis Douglas McCorkle, who reached the rank of Rear Admiral, Upper Half. It's just a guess, but perhaps Cummings divorced her because the union produced no issue ...

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    11. OK, wrong again: It was June 15, 1925 for the wedding. Eleanor would have been a true child bride with the other date.

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    12. Thank you for the "Janet" information. Daughter: Janet Wallace Ley, 2nd wife: Janet Upton. The story about Janet and Ruth has such a sad ending for two very lovely and talented young ladies. The only thing I saw for Janet Sabine was that she "died suddenly". Any idea as to the cause of death?

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    13. See my replies to you below, I mistakenly put them in the wrong spot!

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    14. My earlier error on marriage dates is still throwing off my timelines. His marriage to Elanor Goodwin now appears to have been very short. Please put the 1915 date in the rubbish bin. CUMMINGS-GOODWIN WEDDING IN CHURCH, Boston Daily Globe, Boston, MA, June 16, 1925, p 16. The marriage was so short that it couldn't have produced much. Ms Goodwin had no children to my knowledge, however.

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    15. The other thing that tipped me to my mis-reading of the wedding date. If I were his age and got married that young, the last thing I would have done would have been to run off and leave my child-bride on an adventure.

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    16. More about the Navy and Mr. Cummings. He had more than one stint in the Navy. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander during WWII. 1899, same year of birth as our guy. No indication as to his military specialty. It would have made sense for him to be in the Judge Advocate General's corp, given his education and work experience.

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    17. Apologies for filling your in basket. So find a grave Navy Lieutenant Cummings marrying Janet Sabine on 3 February 1945. He marries Eleanor on 15 June 1925. I have no idea when they divorced or why. Then he marries, on 13 October 1948, a much younger Evelyn Alice Lancaster Chenowith. But there's a child I'm having a problem fitting in between two marriages ...

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    18. Did Janet Sabine and Mr. Cummings have any children? Findagrave thinks he had a daughter ("Heather Anne Cummings") with someone in 1943, (Evelyn, but that looks wrong) and that she then passed in 1954 ... see if you can make sense of this: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=113232696&ref=acom thanks. And great picture, BTW.

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    19. Some states publish detailed information from marriage certificates as well as divorce decrees. Massachusetts (my current residence!) is not one of them. How do you find out about how these various marriages ended -- the ones not ending from death, that is ...

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    20. I also discovered Heather when I was researching FHC a while ago. He and Janet had no children; they were married less than a year when she died. She died of natural causes but I don't know what they are. A relative would have to request that info from the state of NY. I think Heather Anne may be Eve's daughter from her first marriage, and FHC adopted her. Depending on when her husband died — I'm assuming in the war — Heather may never have known her father. That makes sense, at least.

      I'm not sure if divorce decrees are sealed documents or not. You'd have to inquire at the court house. What an intriguing idea! Good luck!

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    21. David MacPherson Chenoweth was Evelyn Alice Lancaster's first husband. They married 17 August 1940 in Montreal, and she was granted a divorce on 17 July 1947, on grounds of adultery. Finally found the Canadian court document for this. So I'm assigning Heather to that union. It's the only timeline that fits for now.

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    22. I think you've done some good detective work! It's interesting that there is no mention of Heather's birth father in her obituary. He was still living when she died:
      http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Chenoweth&GSfn=David&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GScntry=10&GSob=n&GRid=143825226&df=all&

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    23. That's what I had found. I can only hope that she knew her biological before she passed. And you've been a great help in all of this. With what you provided about Janet, she seems to be a character so full of life. Thank you for that.

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  6. I have a Boston Herald wedding announcement for him from Oct. 13, 1948, when he married Eve Lancaster Chenoweth (widow, if I recall correctly). He was Harvard class of '21 and law school '24. That's the same info that's in Janet and his engagement announcement, which also describes him as a USNR lieutenant. That's from the Boston Herald, Feb. 4, 1945. He was still married to Eve when he died: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=113231371

    Another wedding announcement I have, which I foolishly neglected to annotate, but which looks like the NY Times, mentions Janet's first husband but says nothing about a previous Cummings wife. So I have thought he only married twice.

    If you're finding this confusing, consider that Janet Sabine first married Fred Ley, and they had a daughter, also Janet. They divorced. Fred married another Janet, and she also had a daughter named Janet. So there were three Janets in that household. And there were two Janet Leys. Okay, so then "my" Janet married Cummings, and died. And eventually her daughter Janet married and changed her last name, too. Fine, less confusing. But then that daughter Janet married a second time, and she and her new husband decided to take her maiden name. So she became Janet Ley again, and he became... Fred Ley, just like her father.

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  7. Okay, I think I'm getting it. Francis graduated from Harvard in 1921, when he was 21 or 22, so could have been in the Navy, having enlisted as a teenager, very heroic. But I think it would have been crazy for him to have married in 1915, when he was around 16. However, on BackBayHouses.org (https://backbayhouses.org/150-commonwealth/) it gives their marriage date as 1925, which makes more sense. Are you sure of your 1915 date?

    Another wedding announcement I have for Janet and him says, "Before entering the Navy, he was a partner in Naess & Cummings, 61 Broadway." But it could be that since his initial military service was as a teenager, it wasn't mentioned anymore than his first Boston wife was.

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  8. Here's Eleanor in a colonial costume: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:xp68kq53b

    If you want to know more about that 1925 date, you can contact Tom High via backbayhouses.org. He can tell you what he knows about that.

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