The Women Behind the Memorials: A Postscript

The Women Behind the Memorials

Reporter’s Note: The Chautauqua Women’s Club’s 125th celebration this season offers the opportunity to illuminate and celebrate the remarkable women who have made Chautauqua what it is. These women brought intelligence, energy and leadership to every project they touched. Testimony to their achievements remains in the buildings that bear their names, the organizations they created and the words they wrote. This series served to recall their individuality, their interests and finally a suggestion of who they were as people — a sense of the women behind the memorials, of women who cast a long shadow.

Writing the “Women Behind the Memorials” column this season, I relearned that history is not tidy. It is sprawling, unexpected, and a singular incident bumped into me in an almost — dare I say it — ghostly way. There are missed facts, the person I didn’t interview and the source I learned of after the story was published. This is the hazard and joy of writing stories that rely on archives, photos and memory. This postscript waves farewell to these exceptional women who influenced Chautauqua and shares what I learned about them after.

Someone mentioned Mary Frances Bestor Cram’s story about Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure enough. Cram shares her memory of one of Roosevelt’s early visits in Chautauqua Salute: A Memoir of the Bestor Years that demonstrates how indifferent to position and comfortable Roosevelt was at Chautauqua.

According to the memoir, Cram, the daughter of Chautauqua President Arthur Bestor, was responsible for whipping cream for the luncheon that Roosevelt was attending at her home.

“The whipping paddles flung gobs of it upon the walls and ceiling and all over me,” she wrote. “I rushed into the living room to show Mother the results of this debacle, only to find the room unoccupied except for Mrs. Roosevelt herself. She had arrived a little early, and with characteristic thoughtfulness had walked in without knocking so as not to disturb anyone. As I went upstairs to change my dress, too embarrassed for more than a mumbled apology, I saw her walk into the kitchen, where she offered her assistance to the maids working there.”

Cram’s memoir answered a question that Anna J.H. Pennybacker’s biography didn’t. I wondered how President Bestor, who hired her to be president of the Chautauqua Women’s Club, viewed his indomitable peer. And I am convinced that Pennybacker thought of herself as his peer.

Though Cram devotes a paragraph to listing Pennybacker’s positive qualities, it is a list that Cram developed. Her father’s opinion is remarkably brief.

“Working closely together, she and my father held to a high standard and he felt deeply indebted to her,” she wrote.

Nina Terrill Wensley was the only woman to serve on the board of the Chautauqua Reorganization Corporation. In 1968, she received the typewritten copy of David L. Starr’s report of those years when the Institution avoided bankruptcy. The report, titled “Lest We Forget,” is in the Oliver Archives.

But her granddaughter Nina Joyce’s phone call from California on Aug. 8 brought Wensley to life in a way that print could not. Joyce spoke of the 10-year period from 1939 to 1949 that she spent with her grandmother at Chautauqua; love clearly heard a continent away.

“Grandmother was an awesome lady,” Joyce said. “When she called you for breakfast, you came. Her influence is very strong in my life.”

Joyce said that Wensley had hand-painted china that the family still had, a fact that didn’t appear in the Daily records. She also spoke of her mother Jeanette’s devotion to Wensley, who adopted Jeanette when she was a small child. Joyce remembered asking her mother if she wanted to learn who her birth parents were.

Jeanette answered, “It doesn’t matter, your grandmother is my mother.”

Joyce’s remarks are included in the online comment section of the July article.

I apologize to Alfreda Locke Irwin’s spirit. The fact that her play, Stone Against the Heart, is in the Library of Congress collection slipped past my review. Oliver Archives research assistant Marlie Bendiksen’s memory of Irwin atones.

“Years ago, I met her outside Smith Memorial Library and asked, ‘How can I find out about Mrs. Clifford, the storyteller who performed at Smith Wilkes Hall?’ ” Bendiksen said. “Irwin said, ‘Come with me.’ She took me downstairs to the archives and taught me how to do my own Daily research.”

It’s a task Bendiksen is still performing.

Irwin would have appreciated the Chautauqua coincidence, which introduced me to her daughter Ruth.

On Aug. 7, I attended the morning worship service. The slender woman beside me shared the hymnal. We sang together and at the service’s end, began chatting. She asked me what I did.

I replied, “I write for The Chautauquan Daily.” She smiled and said, “Really? My mother was editor for many years.”

Her mother was Alfreda Locke Irwin.

Is Alfreda smiling?