Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Girl Next Door( to the Sabines)

I was digging around online late the other night, looking for things relevant to the Sabine family, who lived at my address when it was still a single-family house, from 1909 until 1950. On eBay I searched for "Smith College," hoping I'd find something that mentioned Dr. Jane Sabine, class of 1888. I was imagining a bound volume of her class's annual letters but instead I found this photo:


This is Mary Chute, who grew up next-door to the Sabines and was a close friend of Janet, and perhaps Ruth, too. Here, Mary is throwing a baseball at Smith in June, 1926, shortly before she graduated. She did not throw like a girl. (I bet Janet and Ruth didn't, either. They rode horses "like Valkyries" and were good swimmers, sailers, and ice skaters.)

Mary's father, a urologist, had his office in their house, just as Dr. Sabine did. Mary and Janet were in the same class at the Winsor School for girls in Brookline. Both had been born in October, 1903. I like to imagine the three girls going back and forth to school together, but I'm not sure if they did this on foot, by carriage, or by automobile. Since the school was a mile and a half from their homes, they probably did it all three ways, depending on the year and the weather. (It's hard to imagine horses and cars driven simultaneously on Boston's streets but it went on for years. And I suppose bikers were as crazy then as they are now.)

At 18, Janet and Mary made their debut into Boston society, as almost all girls from prominent families did in those days. For many, it was a golden opportunity to find a suitable husband and marry soon after. For others, it was a rite of passage that occupied a "gap year" before college. It was common for girls to marry at 18 or 19, but many Proper Bostonians preferred to send their daughters to Radcliffe, Wellesley, and the other women's colleges, where they would meet college boys — especially Harvard boys, and ideally Harvard boys from good Boston families. 

Both Mary and Janet spent their year out of school traveling and being alluring, vivacious flapper social butterflies. How I would love to see their collections of party dresses. The 1920s were a great time to dress up. Clothing was beautiful and often ornately embellished, but teddies had replaced corsets and hemlines were rising to the knee. Young women could move freely and dance like maenads despite the shocked disapproval of their Victorian-era relatives.

On October 27, 1921, Janet was presented to her mother's friends a tea party, probably held in the room where I'm writing this. The house would have been filled with flowers (including many tributes sent by friends), musicians, and catering equipment in addition to the guests that afternoon. The next evening, Dr. Sabine and Dr. and Mrs. Chute hosted a dance for Janet and Mary at the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill, one of a few time-honored venues for such events. The dance must have been a popular success for both girls were invited to join the Junior League and the Vincent Club, the two chief, coveted measures of social triumph for Boston debs. 

In 1921, it was possible for even a nice girl to have a surprisingly good time drinking and dancing at the endless round of parties for fellow debs in private clubs and hotel ballrooms from autumn to spring. Teenagers then appear to have been identical to teenagers now, at least in terms of biological drives and aptitude for mayhem. There was plenty of kissing and so on in dark ballroom corners and Ford Model Ts. 

I know this because I recently had the pleasure of reading Upside Down in the Magnolia Tree, a memoir by Mary Bancroft, who lived on Beacon Street and was in Janet and Mary Chute's class at the Winsor School. Mary B. spilled a lot of beans in her book, not only about her strategies to become a popular deb but also her difficulties at the Winsor School, her tomboy childhood in Cambridge, and her rather sad family history. She was raised by her grandparents, who continually referred to her as "Precious Doll." If you ask me, that alone entitled her to do whatever she wanted.

I hope Janet and Mary C. had a swell time being flapper debs — as Mary B. most certainly did. I would love to know how well-behaved (or not) they were. Mary B. tells a few tales but never ratted about her friends by name. (She was so good at keeping secrets that she became a spy during World War II.)

In the fall of 1922, Mary Chute went to Smith, her mother's alma mater and also Dr. Sabine's. Mary played basketball and baseball, among other activities. In the picture above, she's the senior catcher for the team. 

Janet started her freshman year at Bryn Mawr in the fall of 1922, too, but she returned home after only three weeks because her 16-year-old sister Ruth had died unexpectedly on October 23 (Janet's 19th birthday). Janet didn't want her mother to be alone in their house, so she began commuting to Radcliffe in the fall of 1923. She graduated with a degree in French in January, 1927, and a few weeks later she and her mother embarked on a long, intrepid world tour. Other women would have joined a group tour, but Jane and Janet traveled everywhere by themselves, going wherever the spirit moved them for more than a year. They sailed to Europe, but much of that continent was familiar to them so they spent most of their time exploring in the Middle East ("Christmas in Cairo"), India, Japan, and other parts of Asia, returning to America via Hawaii, and then touring cross-country, visiting friends.

From reading Dr. Sabine's annual class letters from 1889 to 1949, it's clear she cherished her years at Smith and made many close, lifelong friends. I wondered why her daughters were expected to attend Bryn Mawr instead. At 15, Ruth had already been studying for Bryn Mawr's entrance exams, considered the most demanding of all the women's colleges. And I suppose that's the answer — Bryn Mawr was the most academically challenging, prestigious women's college in those days. Janet and Ruth were highly intelligent, studious girls, and their parents wanted only the best for them. From reading her Smith class letters, I know that Dr. Sabine imagined that Janet might follow in her footsteps and go to medical school, or become a scientist like her father. It wasn't to be. 

But Mary Chute went on to earn a master's degree in architecture from MIT. In 1932, she married a fellow architect and MIT grad, Samuel McMurtrie. They had an intimate wedding, witnessed only by family and a few friends, in the new and fashionable Leslie Lindsey Chapel* at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. The reception was held at home. I hope Dr. Sabine was at least invited to join the celebration from next door. 

Here's Mary leaving the chapel with a big fur coat over her wedding dress, her filmy veil blowing in the wind. Mr. McMurtrie looks like a millionaire from the Monopoly game in that hat. 


Janet met her future husband, Fred Ley, on her world tour. They'd had a similarly quiet service in the Leslie Lindsey Chapel, in September, 1929. (I hope someone took photos; I hope they still exist.) Both young women moved to Manhattan with their new husbands. 

I wonder if they saw anything of each other there; I suppose I could find out if I went digging.



* Leslie Lindsey Chapel was built for Emmanuel Church by William and Anne Lindsey between 1919 and 1924, in memory of their daughter Leslie Lindsey Mason, and her husband, newlyweds who drowned in the shipwreck of the Lusitania on their honeymoon in 1915. You can read about them and the chapel here. I've heard that Leslie's body washed up on the Irish coast still wearing her wedding jewels, which her father sold to purchase a memorial gift to the Museum of Fine Arts — the Lesley Lindsey Mason Collection of Musical Instruments. 
     A lovely Gothic Revival "lady chapel," the Lindsey Chapel is perfect for smaller weddings and I wonder how many brides today are aware of its history and the doomed couple for which it was named. My wedding and reception were at The Castle at Boston University — the Lindsey family's romantic, Tudor-style home on Bay State Road.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating history! Wish there was more info to be found out about my old house (built in 1890's), but I have only found deed transfers and telephone listings so far. My husband's family (including us) have owned the house over fifty years now, but think of all the cool stuff that must have happened before that.

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