A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Lettersby Penelope Rowlands
Carmel Snow, who changed the course of our culture by launching the careers of some of today's greatest figures in fashion and the arts, was one of the most extraordinary women of the twentieth century. As editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958 she championed the concept of "a well-dressed magazine for the well-dressed mind," bringing/i>… See more details below
Carmel Snow, who changed the course of our culture by launching the careers of some of today's greatest figures in fashion and the arts, was one of the most extraordinary women of the twentieth century. As editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958 she championed the concept of "a well-dressed magazine for the well-dressed mind," bringing cutting-edge art, fiction, photography, and reportage into the American home.
Now comes A Dash of Daring, a first and definitive biography of this larger-than-life figure in publishing, art, and letters. Veteran magazine journalist Penelope Rowlands describes the remarkable places Snow frequented and the people whose lives she transformed, among them Richard Avedon, Diana Vreeland, Geoffrey Beene, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cristobal Balenciaga, Lauren Bacall, and Truman Capote.
She chronicles Snow's life on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning in nineteenth-century Ireland and continuing to Paris, Milan, and New York City, the fashion capitals of the world.
Snow was the daughter of an Irish immigrant, who was herself a forward-thinking businesswoman, and she worked in her mother's custom dressmaking shop before being discovered by the magazine publisher Conde Nast and training under Edna Woolman Chase, the famous longtime editor of Vogue. From there it was on to Harper's Bazaar which, with the help of such key employees as Avedon, Vreeland, and art director Alexei Brodovitch, Snow turned into the most admired magazine of the century. Among the disparate talents who worked at Bazaar in the Snow era were Andy Warhol, the heiress Doris Duke, Maeve Brennan, and members of the storied Algonquin RoundTable.
Overflowing with previously untold stories of the colorful and glamorous, A Dash of Daring is a compelling portrait of the fashion world during a golden era.
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A Dash of DaringCarmel Snow and Her Life In Fashion, Art, and Letters
By Penelope Rowlands
AtriaCopyright © 2005 Penelope Rowlands
All right reserved.
Chapter One: Chippendale and Cottage
Out of Ireland we came...
-- W. B. Yeats
"It could be happening" is the time-honored way that the Irish stories begin, and the story of Carmel Snow, who just may have been the greatest fashion editor ever, begins in a way that is about as Irish as any story could possibly get -- at least one that played out in New York and, crucially, in Paris, far more extensively than in Ireland. It could be happening that in Dalkey, a coastal village eight miles southeast of Dublin, one evening in 1887 -- August 27, to be exact -- labor pains caused a respectable matron named Annie White to rise up, as majestic as an ocean liner, from the table where a convivial, family-packed dinner party was taking place.
Dressed in one of the tentlike, floor-length gowns of the day, her habitual train sweeping behind her, this huge-breasted, amply built woman climbed into a waiting carriage, her youthful-looking husband, Peter White, in tow, and headed home to Saint Justin's, their large house overlooking the slate-blue Dublin Bay, where she gave birth to a spritelike creature, their third child and younger daughter, whom the couple piously named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The infant was baptized a week later at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dalkey, a tiny, picturesque town that would be later known for its artistic inhabitants, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw among them, but was then a fairly sleepy place, ancient in origin, and home to not just one castle but two.
The child's earliest years were spent in a constellation of six children in an atmosphere that a relative described as "both Chippendale and cottage." Carmel's parents had married in September 1883, in yet another Dublin suburb, Rathmines. Their union had been quickly blessed with a child -- Tom was born just over a year later -- and from then on others arrived in quick succession. Christine Mary came next, in July 1886, and then Carmel, whose middle name was also Mary, the following summer. Three other children -- Peter Desmond (known as Desmond), Victor Gerald, and James -- followed, all of them male and spaced about a year apart. The last was born in 1892.
Annie White's branch of the family was the more prominent one -- "Chippendale," if you will; her father was a prosperous merchant named Thomas Mayne who later served as a member of Parliament for eighteen years. Peter White's side, the "cottage" one, was literally more down to earth: his late father, also named Thomas, had been a farmer. From both directions, the children were inescapably Irish -- never an uncomplicated thing to be.
Ireland had been a "lordship" of the English crown since it was conquered by that country in the 1100s. Over the centuries, the extent of its Englishness had waxed and waned. By the time the young Whites were born, Irish nationalist feelings were running strong. Charles Stuart Parnell and other leaders were campaigning for home rule, which called for increased autonomy from Britain. It was a cause that Thomas Mayne, Annie White's father, whom an American newspaper described as belonging "to the old guard of Irish patriots," vehemently supported. His son-in-law, Peter White, born of the soil, was also a Parnellite, And he counted a prominent activist of the era, Michael Davitt, among his friends. (Davitt was, in fact, the Whites' landlord in Dalkey.)
A photograph, probably taken in the early 1890s, shows Peter White to be a handsome, solidly built fellow with light eyes, a long mustache -- almost a requirement of the era -- and a deep cleft in his chin, something he seems to have bequeathed to many of his male descendants. He was Irish to the core. In his work for the Irish Woolen Manufacturing and Export Company in Dublin, he aimed to resurrect a once-thriving national industry that, thanks to stiff tariffs and competition, notably from Scotland, had been in danger of dying out. Harris tweed had long eclipsed Donegal.
Ironically, by building a reputation for reviving dying industries in a country that seemed full of them, White ensured that his children's lives would unfold outside of Ireland. But none of that was clear, of course, when he was asked by the viceroy of Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, and his wife, the former Ishbel (the Gaelic variation of Isabel) Maria Marjoribanks, to be honorary secretary of the Irish Industries Association. (Lady Aberdeen was its president.)
It was once again, as it had so often been, a desperate time for Ireland, and the Aberdeens were determined to help. Together, they came up with a plan to use the small, craftsy things -- from lacework to bog wood ornaments -- that had been produced forever in Ireland's far-flung cottages and convents to turn the country's fortunes around. Besides reviving the country's traditional crafts, they wanted also to provide training in their production, thereby ensuring that some of its desperate citizenry had at least piecemeal work. Along the way, it was hoped, Ireland's image would be enhanced. "Irish goods were not sought after by the people who wanted the best things" is the delicate way the New York Times phrased the matter (in a 1911 article), "but in 1886, with the coming to Dublin of the Earl of Aberdeen, a movement for improving and extending the sale of Irish products began to take hold."
A Scotsman, Lord Aberdeen had recently been appointed to his post by the English Liberal prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. Newly in love with Ireland, he and his wife went straight to work on the seemingly intractable problems of their new country. For Ishbel, it was second nature to throw herself into a cause. Like her husband, she was the product of an aristocratic Scottish family. Born in 1857, she possessed a first-class intellect (she was said to have taught herself to read at the age of three) that, sadly, can't quite be described as irrepressible. While she longed to go to Girton College, Cambridge University's only school for women -- in truth, the perfect place for her -- she was prevented from doing so by her very traditional father. After her marriage, in 1877, Ishbel began what would become her life's work, aiding the poor. There seemed to be no limit to her charity.
The Emerald Isle was "still in the grip of poverty such as America has never known, not even in a depression," as Carmel later described it. It was rife with struggle of one sort or another. While the great famines of earlier in the century had subsided, the country was still reeling from an agricultural crisis that had climaxed in the 1870s. Much of its population was desperately poor. And the home rule struggle seemed perpetual; anarchy, or at least violence, flared up intermittently, notably after the Land League was banned in 1881. "Ireland is laid on us to do all in our power for her forever," Ishbel wrote in her diary. Before long, she and Peter White were putting in time on the country's unpaved, back-country roads, tirelessly scouting out both crafts and workers.
Peter White was perfect for the job. He was charismatic and hardworking, and he didn't hesitate to deploy his considerable charm in the service of the mission at hand. Before too long, he was making frequent trips to the United States, something he'd first done in the name of Irish wool. An article in the Citizen, a Chicago newspaper, gives an indication of how breathlessly this dashing Irishman -- still in his thirties -- was received in the New World. "Ireland never selected a more fortunate representative than Mr. Peter White," it reads. "His amiable and sensitive manner wins confidence everywhere."
For all their love of the place, the Aberdeens didn't last long in Ireland. They were just one domino in a row of them, and they all toppled over, one after another, in a long, jagged line. First, home rule lost in the House of Commons. Then Gladstone's Liberal Party collapsed. Its prime minister was out. And so, of course, were the Aberdeens. But in their time across the Irish Sea, they'd won over the desperate populace. As they headed back to England, people lined the streets, some weeping extravagantly; at one point, the couple's horses were unhitched and their carriage pulled along, ecstatically, by the crowd. "The scene in Dublin on his leavetaking after the fall of the Gladstone cabinet is said to have been such as never before witnessed since the days of O'Connel," the Chicago Times reported. The Aberdeens returned this loyalty by continuing their various pro-Irish endeavors after they'd returned home.
In 1888, when announcement was made that the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 -- soon to be known universally, if not correctly, as the Chicago World's Fair -- was being put together, the Aberdeens seized the moment, heading to the United States with both Whites in tow to raise money to finance an exhibit of Irish exports at the fair, which Peter White would organize and oversee. For the next few years, he and Lady Aberdeen traveled all over Ireland, visiting workers and meeting with officials, including the lord mayor of Dublin, to build support for the project. White made several visits to Chicago, and by 1892 had acquired the fairly grand title of Irish commissioner to the World's Fair.
The Aberdeens hoped to return to Ireland if Gladstone returned to power. But when he did, in 1892, some last-minute political maneuvering resulted in someone else being named Ireland's viceroy instead. As a consolation prize, the prime minister awarded Aberdeen the post of governor general of Canada. The Irish Pavilion would go forward, but with much less involvement from the Aberdeens.
In February 1893, just a few months before the fair was to open, White and Lady Aberdeen set out for one last tour, this time to the South "to pick the 'colleens' who would represent the Irish industries," as Carmel wrote. But then, as it so often does in Irish tales, death played its hand. White had already had lung trouble -- the whole family tended toward the tubercular, as his oldest child, Thomas White, later recalled -- and the travel, by rail and carriage, including an open-air version called an "outside-car," was grueling. As they were finishing their trip, "Mr. White felt himself seriously ill, but his love for the cause he had espoused and his indomitable spunk prevented him from giving in," an Irish paper wrote. On March 15, the Chicago New World announced that Mr. White would be late arriving at the fair. And then, quite suddenly, word came that he wouldn't be coming at all. "He caught pneumonia," Carmel wrote, "in those days a desperately serious illness, and a few weeks later he was dead."
His death, at the age of forty-three, on April 7, 1893, was reported in papers in both Ireland and the United States. "In the township of Dalkey there was universal evidence of the sorrow of the people," one Irish paper reported. Telegrams and letters flooded into Saint Justin's, and hundreds turned up for his funeral and burial in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery. It was a fitting place for a nationalist, having been founded earlier in the century in response to England's repressive penal laws, which had sharply curtailed the practice of numerous Catholic rites, even those involving the burial of the dead.
White left six children. His third born, Carmel, was only five. For the rest of her life, this toughest of magazine editors would attribute her own thick hide to the sight of her father "laid out like a waxen image" on the drawing room table. It was a vision that would haunt her for years: "The very thought of death was something I had to put out of my mind, and it may be that my ability to concentrate, to turn my mind, quickly and entirely, from one subject to the next, is the earliest lesson I learned."
She learned a thing or two, too, about strength from her mother, who, upon finding herself a widow with six children, made a daring decision. In a letter written on April 11, 1893, Ishbel wrote to Annie White on crested notepaper, acknowledging a suggestion from this very recent widow that she take her late husband's place at the world's fair. (He'd died only a few days before.) Lady Aberdeen responded with enthusiasm: "I believe this may prove best for you, as well as best for the enterprise. But you must not hurry yourself to settle anything -- just lie fallow while you can. But if you do decide on going, please believe how I shall personally rejoice...."
No "lying fallow" took place. Instead, the new widow moved with lightning speed, taking Saint Justin's apart, storing its contents among friends and family. She first sent her daughters to live at Loretto Abbey, a girls' school run by the Loretto order of nuns, whose convent, built in 1842, was just next door to the White home. The girls were too young for school, in their mother's estimation (Carmel was not yet six, Christine just a year older), so the convent functioned as a kind of holding pen. Even so, Carmel learned to read there and always remembered writing out her first words, "Loretto Abbey," in a tentative scrawl. Her other siblings were billeted among other relatives in and around Dublin.
Whether Annie White agonized over her decision to cross the Atlantic without her family can only be guessed; there's no evidence that she worried unduly over anything. Instead -- "a feminist before feminism" in one granddaughter's words -- she tended to plow assuredly ahead. The girls and their youngest brother, James Mayne White (later known as Jim), were next sent to live with their grandfather, Thomas Mayne, and their "darling grandmother," as Carmel called her, Susannah, at the couple's stately home, Cremorne, in the Dublin suburb of Terenure.
Reached by a long tree-lined driveway, Cremorne was a Georgian house with a limestone facade and a regal, stepped entranceway. Set on acres of land, it had an unmistakable grandeur and was as hivelike and full of intrigue as a dacha in a Chekhov play. Its shifting population included cousins, endless aunts and uncles of varying degrees of benevolence, and "the terrifying, Jove-like figure" that was grandfather Mayne himself. As for Carmel's three other siblings, Tom, Desmond, and Victor, they were sent to stay with Peter White's sister, Lizzie, who owned a shop in Clonalvy, and was forever complaining that the Maynes were grander than the Whites. To the horror of her nephews, this manifested itself in an almost obsessive attention to comportment. "She pounded 'good manners' into my brothers until they were sick of the thought of them," Carmel recalled.
With her children squared away, their tough, fearless mother set forth. She had work to do, a figure to cut, and she was certainly not going to resign herself to an Irish widow's fate, living under the wing of her domineering father, or any other man for that matter. A photograph of her taken at about this time shows her to be tight-lipped and determined. While she looks severe, even plain, by anecdotal accounts she was lovely -- otherwise sensible American journalists seemed to swoon, at least verbally, in her presence. "And a mighty pretty woman is she," one reporter wrote (quite unnecessarily, I might add) as the fair began. The Chicago Herald commented rapturously on that "sweet-faced woman with her dimples and her Irish bloom."
Carmel's more sober description was of
a very magnetic woman, with hazel gray eyes, a dimpled smile, and auburn hair braided around her head like a crown. She was vain of figure (in my childhood she always had a train sweeping behind her) but it was her wit, which lost nothing in the telling, that made her all her life the center of an unusual group of friends.
From her first weeks in the United States, when Annie befriended the great Canadian stage actress Margaret Anglin, then on a national tour, she attracted people who mattered.
"The Maynes were all beautiful," one relative, David Sheehy, reports. "They were tall and dark and very good looking." Both Carmel and Christine felt their looks compared unfavorably with their mother's. Their hair was limp, by comparison, and Carmel recalled her mother cutting the eyelashes of both girls in the hope that they might grow back thicker. (They didn't.) By contrast, White's hair, piled on top of her head in one photograph, is indeed luxuriant, as is her almost unbelievably complicated-looking lace-and-silk gown. (At some point, she began wearing a wig; Irish relatives recall her visiting the Old Country with a whole trunk of them.) But mostly it's the extraordinary hourglass figure one notices -- the waist not tiny, exactly, but trim enough, especially relative to the enormous bustline straining above. White looks centered, hardly a concept floating around in her day. You sense that she could take on anything. She came, as Sheehy reports, "from very determined stock."
The voyage she made was simple enough, traveling by boat westward across the Atlantic, but in fact it was a radical act "in that period when women, particularly upper-class Irishwomen, seldom ventured beyond the protection of their families." The odds against her were daunting, yet she bulldozed ahead, gathering so much momentum that failure scarcely seemed possible. Accompanied by her sister Agnes, White sailed on May 4, 1893, from Queenstown (now more commonly known by its Celtic name, Cobh) in County Cork. Given the era, it was only natural that her father, the family patriarch, would keep an eye on his widowed daughter by sending one of his four then-unmarried daughters along. The wonder is that she was allowed to go at all.
By the time the sisters sailed into New York Harbor, then caught a train to Chicago, Lady Aberdeen was already at the Irish Industrial Village, also known as the Irish Village, readying things for the grand opening less than a week away. Situated off a long boulevard grandly called the Midway Plaisance -- a hugely popular feature that seemed to contain all the known world in the form of African towns, mosques, medieval villages, Polynesian huts, pagodas, and more -- the Village had "the best and most prominent position in the fair," in Countess Aberdeen's estimation.
It, too, was exotic. Lady Aberdeen had loaded on the Irishness. To enter it, you passed through a reproduction of the doorway of a chapel that had been built on the Rock of Cashel by Cormac, a twelfth-century Irish king, then through a copy of the ancient cloisters of Muckross Abbey in Killarney. And that was just the beginning. Beyond, there lay a vast, circular lawn with a Celtic cross at its center that was surrounded by a ring of cottages -- some transplanted from Ireland, others just copied, most of them thatched. In the distance lay the showstopper: Blarney Castle, or rather a copy of it on a two-thirds scale. It was Ireland in miniature, and "visitors were enchanted with it," Carmel reported.
Lady Aberdeen had moved into the first cottage near the entrance, a replica of Roseneath Cottage in Queenstown, which she and Peter White had visited on one of their last trips together. It had a deep thatch and latticed pillars and a sign over the front door reading "Cead Mile Failte," Gaelic for "a thousand welcomes." Inside, its walls were as green as the Old Country itself, and it was full to the brim with Irish antiques. The other dwellings around it, similarly charming, contained examples of traditional Celtic crafts. One was devoted to lacework, another to jewelry, yet another formed a concert area where Irish music was played.
According to the Chicago Post, a fourth structure was filled "with Irish rich bog turf which looks, as our Irish Americans put it, fit to eat." (To each his own.) This dirt, to name it for what it is, was actually for sale -- for a princely dollar per square -- along with such other native Irishisms as blackthorns and shamrocks. There's something unique about the Irish love of their country's earth, the "ould sod," as they fondly call it. The rest of us may not understand it, but customers with cash, mainly nostalgic immigrants, certainly did. And business was brisk. Yet another cottage took the bog further; here, young men whittled ornaments out of its famous oak trees, offering them for sale along with Galway marble and, endlessly, more lace.
The Irish Village was formally dedicated on May 11 in what the Irish Times described as "a brilliant scene." A few weeks later, Countess Aberdeen transferred its management over to Annie White, before crossing the Atlantic to join her husband, who was soon to assume his Canadian post. From then on, the village was hers. Peter White may have been "the guardian angel of the Village," as one paper called him, but his widow was the one who "made it the hit of the fair," as Carmel wrote. Annie had a hand in everything, revising things constantly, restlessly seeking perfection when others might have given up. No detail was too small. When it occurred to her that she'd forgotten to include wonderfully intricate Carrickmacross lace in the exhibit, she telegraphed back to Ireland "to get all the cottages of County Monaghan to work making lace," a relative, Helen Sheehy, recalled.
White's first home in America was a comely thatched-roof cottage that she and Agnes shared. It was full of antiques, shipped by the elder Maynes from Ireland so that their daughters might feel at home. The stories Agnes brought back from the fair delighted her Irish relatives for years. She recalled meeting Buffalo Bill, giving rise to an oft-repeated rumor within the family that Annie and the American frontier scout and showman, whose real name was William F. Cody, had had a romance. (Curiously, Buffalo Bill allegedly also crossed paths with another larger-than-life female -- Diana Vreeland -- many years later. "What chic old Bill had! With his beard he looked like Edward VII....")
Stories about the Irish Village took up a disproportionate amount of space in the press. White was mediagenic, as were many of the hundreds who worked for her, most imported from Ireland to dance jigs, spin yarn, and more. The young girls, in particular, were notoriously fun loving, and their pranks -- pouring water on sleeping tramps, imitating roosters so that most of the fair reported early to work -- were covered, with scant amusement, by the local papers.
And then there was the little matter of the big rock. The Blarney Stone has long been reputed to make "anyone who kisses it a great talker," according to Carmel, "so no Irishman is going to miss an opportunity like that if he can help it." When it arrived, the stone provoked enormous excitement in Chicago. "Blarney Stone Here," a headline in the Chicago Post blared on June 16, adding that the rock measured one foot square and was being kept in a safe. Carter H. Harrison, the city's distinctly non-Irish mayor, duly kissed it -- how could he not, if he ever hoped to be reelected? -- which was solemnly reported in the press. ("Mayor on His Knees" was the Toledo News's mischievous headline.)
But there was increasing evidence that the so-called Blarney Stone was exactly that, a bit of blarney. In mid-June, the New York World referred to "an alleged piece of the Blarney Stone." A month later, on July 15, the heat was turned up: the St. Paul Dispatch reported that Sir George Colthurst, owner of the original Blarney Castle, as well as its namesake stone, was considering a trip to Chicago to out the impostor stone. Before long, the Boston Globe was reporting that in fact the original rock hadn't budged an inch from Ireland, no less made it to the Midwest. Some papers reported that the Chicago stone was there in part -- a chip off the old block, you might say. Rumors swirled, every article in the press seemed to contradict the next, yet no one from the Irish Village quite clarified the matter, not even the saintlike Lady Aberdeen.
Whatever its origin, the thing was referred to as the Blarney Stone, and, mainly, people wanted to believe it. Hordes came to kiss it, paying ten cents each for the privilege, so many that it turned greenish from tobacco juice. One commentator put the whole thing in perspective by pointing out that wasn't the original Blarney Stone itself unrepentant nonsense? (Not, I conjecture, to a certain kind of Irish.) There is no record on whether he was run out of town....
What is recorded is that Lady Aberdeen's village, so recently at risk after the death of Peter White, was a "wild success," in Carmel's words. Ireland could be found there, distilled, and that was enough for Chicago's vast immigrant population, Hibernian or not. The cozy thatched dwellings, the lace-making demos, the turf fires burning beneath pots of boiling potatoes, all evoked something so powerful that nothing as tacky as a faux Blarney Stone could threaten it at all. Later in life, Annie White, never modest, sounded positively coy as she described her unexpected success. "Well," she told her family, "there I was in my widow's bonnet, and the newspaper gentlemen were very kind to me." One of her most slavish fans was the Irishman Peter Finley Dunne, who, writing as Mr. Dooley, was one of the most famous -- and opinionated -- Chicago journalists of his day.
After the fair closed, and with the backing of the Aberdeens, White took on a new project -- a Chicago shop dedicated to bringing Irish crafts to the public. But first White had to sail back to Ireland to face her father, without whose permission she could never manage to stay. Their argument was long and protracted. Thomas Mayne, who had visited Chicago for the fair -- "where every cab driver did him," as Carmel put it -- knew firsthand that the United States was a terrible place. And besides, a woman's place was in the home. But White was a steamroller, if not a Mack truck, and in the long run she prevailed, although not after agreeing to leave all six of her children in Ireland, at least for a time. The boys would receive an Irish education and the girls at least a partial one; they'd join their mother once it became clear that the shop was a going concern.
So White returned to America alone. For the three of her children who lived there, life at Cremorne was crowded, but always entertaining. Ireland is full of "sons and daughters waiting to marry until their mothers release them by dying peacefully in their arms," as Carmel wickedly described the phenomenon, and the Mayne family home was no different: a full six unmarried aunts and uncles, of Annie White's thirteen siblings, still lived at home. The White children scampered about the house and grounds, puncturing the tires of their grandfather's "high bicycle" -- an old-fashioned penny farthing -- and stopping the pendulum on the elaborate dining room clock. For young Carmel, it sounds like a nice enough childhood, particularly since "like many girls it was my grandmother I loved. Her temperament, like her birth, was gentle (she was born a Verscoyle, which means something in Ireland), and since I have much of my mother's determination in my character, it was far easier to get on with someone who never wanted to dominate me." And perhaps, given her mother's "determination," as she discreetly calls it, it was a blessing to have been raised, at least for a time, beyond her sphere of influence.
To her relatives, White's decision to run a shop was a scandal. But it turned out to be a canny move. She hit the deck running, socially and in every other way, hosting tea parties at her Michigan Avenue apartment and attracting the artistic crowd she always favored. And the store was a triumph. The Chicago Evening Post heralded what they called "a first class shop" in a story entitled "Beautiful Things on Sale in the Irish Industrial Store." The store burst with Irishness in the form of linens, handkerchiefs, silk and wool underwear, hosiery, pottery, and the inevitable carvings of bog oak. The sales staff included some of the same lovely, mischievous colleens who had caused such a sensation at the fair. "Our object in establishing this depot is to help the thousands of poor women in Ireland who have nothing to do and know not what to do with themselves," White said. "We desire to help them to an opportunity of employing themselves in a work that will give them a living and will at the same time give the world something that is worth having."
Within the year the store had expanded, moving to newer, larger quarters just down Wabash Avenue, from number 268 to 179. By now almost a year had gone by since Peter White's death. On the anniversary, Ishbel Aberdeen cabled his widow from Ottawa, saying: "How glad he must be if he has been permitted to watch your noble life this year." If he was thinking at all, he was no doubt astonished at how much his wife had pulled off in his absence.
As the business prospered, White began to send for her children. Carmel and Christine came first, sailing together, each with one piece of luggage, from Queenstown on the Lucania, a large Cunard Line ship that had been built the year before, and arriving in New York on October 27, 1894. In making this trip, they followed a well-worn trajectory: by 1890, a full 39 percent of Irish-born people -- about three million in all -- lived overseas, according to historian Roy Foster. And 84 percent of Irish emigrating at the time headed for the United States.
They were young to make the voyage, very young. The ship's manifest lists Carmel as being only six at the time, although in fact she was seven, while Christine -- recorded here as "Christina" -- was eight. They were just thirteen months apart, near enough to qualify as "Irish twins," as the old joke goes, and about as close as two sisters could possibly be. Even so, Carmel recalled the experience as daunting. "It was two frightened children who traveled alone on the big boat to New York. People were kind to us -- I remember playing round games with an elderly man who took pity on us -- but our arrival in America was too overwhelming to be remembered." After their boat pulled into New York Harbor, they were met by a friend of their mother's who placed them on a Pullman train headed for their new home in the Midwest.
Carmel recalled the train's arrival in rapturous terms:
Then Chicago at last and our mother meeting us. As we drove through the streets she felt she must prepare us for our new life. "Now you won't be living in a big house like Cremorne," she warned us. "It'll seem to you tiny after what you're accustomed to." We drew up before the apartment house where she lived, got out, and gaped. This was a bigger house than we'd seen in all our lives! Even when we were shown our small part of it, it still seemed tremendous -- drawing room, dining room, bedrooms only for us!
By then, the Wabash Avenue shop had evolved. Since much of its business involved the sale of Irish fabrics, handspun linens and the like, it seemed only natural to offer dressmaking services, too. From the start, the White girls had custom-made clothes -- their mother dressed them alike in garments that, designed to last for two years, were invariably huge. "We felt too small for our clothes, and this huge building, and this strange new world."
When White went off to work each morning, she left her daughters behind in the apartment building on Michigan Avenue, considering them too young for school. Forbidden to play with the janitor's children -- the only potential playmates around -- the girls were desperately lonely. So education, at last, was allowed. Their first school was a convent in Davenport, Iowa, where they settled in nicely, adoring the nuns. Carmel spent Sundays, their one day away from classes, buried in one book or another. "We were still shy, different, foreign children," she recalled. And there they might have stayed, quite happily, had their mother not learned, to her infinite horror, that the father of one of Carmel's classmates was in law enforcement.
"Descendants of the McGuillicuddy of the Reeks would never associate with a policeman!" she's said to have huffed at the time. (If such a claim were true -- and it's scarcely possible to confirm -- it would position Carmel as one of the descendants of the original kings of Ireland, true Celtic royalty and more impressive, in its way, than the watered-down, largely Teutonic lineage of those monarchs across the Irish Sea.) It was made abundantly clear to all within earshot at her daughters' school that, while White might have lowered herself to the point of being in trade, she had no intention of loosening her standards any further. So the girls were shipped off to Dearborn Seminary in Chicago, which catered to the Windy City's genteel classes and was presumably unpolluted by the presence of children of blue-collar workers. It was here that Carmel learned for the first time that there were non-Catholics in the world, when one of her teachers shocked her by saying she'd never heard of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The girls spent three years at Dearborn, returning home for holidays, where life was always exciting. Mrs. White entertained all sorts of people, including Margaret Anglin, who stayed with the family when she was starring in a play in Chicago. "With her beautiful carriage, eyes lifted to heaven when she spoke in a pose copied by a generation of schoolgirls, she lit up our house when she entered it," a starstruck Carmel recalled.
She dated her visit to this unnamed play as
the beginning of my delicious involvement with what I see in the theatre, just as my devouring of Dickens at this time was the beginning of my emotional engagement when I'm absorbed in a story...together with my lifelong involvement in the personal affairs of everyone around me, it planted in me the seed of romance.
She was so wrung out by the play's tragic end that she crawled over to the great thespian's bed (to Carmel's rapture, the actress was sleeping in her room) and whispered, "Margaret, if I'd been that man, I'd have married you, dear." A diva who cheerfully agrees to share a child's room? It's hard to imagine a modern star taking such accommodations in stride. But Anglin was a family friend, and besides, actresses -- those wanton creatures -- were held in about as low social esteem as possible at the time. Grand hotels were for grander divas.
Other visitors to the White household included Josephine Sullivan, a celebrated harpist whose performances had been one of the highlights of the Irish Village. Stagestruck as she was, young Carmel could scarcely tolerate the presence of Miss Sullivan, who was the daughter of A. M. Sullivan, an opponent of Parnell's. "Our family was passionate Parnellites," she explained, admitting that even the presence of the young woman's gilded harp (a "coffin-like object when traveling that required a cab to itself, and that stood in our drawing room like a baleful presence") was a "nightmare" to her for this reason. As such comments indicate, Carmel was an intense child, funny, observant, sheltered in a wide-eyed way. Her slightly detached way of seeing things seems decidedly foreign: this world was new to her, and she wasn't going to miss a thing.
Chicago felt even more like home after another sibling, Tom, graduated from Clongowes Wood College, in the southeastern Irish town of Naas (where one of his older schoolmates was James Joyce). Annie brought him over first, "because he was the oldest," his daughter, another Carmel, recalls. He arrived in the Midwest in 1900, at the age of sixteen, ready, in the time-honored way, to seek his fortune in the United States, happy to find himself in the company of his mother and long-absent sisters.
Tom was an impressive young man, bright and hardworking, and his career in the States -- most of it spent in the publishing empire of William Randolph Hearst -- would truly be meteoric. But, for now, he was also just a kid, a funny one, who had a wicked verbal wit, in the Irish manner, and delighted in tormenting his young sisters. He loved shooting pats of butter up on the dining room ceiling then waiting until they, inevitably, rained down on a sibling's head -- "preferably mine," according to Carmel, who, of all her brothers, was exceptionally close to Tom. "We spatted like Kilkenny cats (I've always had a touch of 'the Irish' in me), but we adored each other, and at home we were always clowning." When things got too wild, she'd pack a suitcase and announce that she was going to Bloomingdale's (then a lunatic asylum in New York, first in Manhattan, then in Westchester County -- not the clothes emporium).
After a few years, White declared formal education to be over for her daughters -- in truth, it had hardly begun -- and they were moved into the next phase, that of being finished, like furniture. It was time to be transformed into ladies. Their first stop was a boarding school in Winnetka, Illinois, of all places -- "our happiest school years," Carmel reports, although the two exceptionally close sisters scarcely made other friends. The center of their lives remained their Chicago home: "our mother's circle of theatrical and artistic friends was fascinating to us."
Then, at some point in 1903, it was on to another finishing school, this one in Brussels, which, Carmel quipped, "compared to Paris is like the sister of the girl you're in love with." Although she would be admired all her life for her "eye" -- her sense of exactly how things should look -- her ear was another story. Blame it on the convent in Brussels, the Soeurs de Sainte-Marie, where Carmel mastered her famously idiosyncratic French, which she spoke with a pronounced, almost comic Irish accent. She learned the language "on the pillow," as the French say, but not in the sexy way that expression implies. Instead, she absorbed it involuntarily after her bed was placed between those of two Belgian girls -- best friends who had been separated for quietness's sake -- who chatted to each other as she tried to sleep. "They talked to each other continuously over my head and I remember the sensation of distinguishing first words, then sentences, then this strange language was suddenly comprehensible to me." Although some in later life made merry with Snow's French, it would serve her for the rest of her life. "I could always make a compliment or have a row," as she put it. What else would one need?
It was also in Belgium that Snow experienced the first of many defiant fashion moments. Told to wear an underslip in the bath (a standard antisin ritual), she demurred, bathing naked instead, then swishing the undergarment around in the water to make it seem she'd obeyed. It was a small rebellion but a telling one, and one that she would always remember. "For all my shyness then, modesty has never been one of my afflictions," she noted. Later, Carmel and Christine, still teenagers, were allowed to leave the convent for a week to accompany their mother to the Paris fashion shows, which then mainly featured floor-length dresses, some with bustles, and all requiring enormous swaths of cloth. White put her daughters to work memorizing the fashions they saw -- Carmel was assigned the top of each outfit, her sister the bottom -- so that she could copy them later in her shop. "I found that I could remember the details exactly, that I actually had a photographic eye for fashion when I focussed it," Carmel wrote. It was an ability that would serve her all her professional life.
Back in the United States, White was going from strength to strength, her business booming, her social circle expanding. If there was a stigma to being Irish -- and there certainly was -- it was one she chose to ignore. Hers is an immigrant's story without pain: there was no loneliness or poverty in even her earliest weeks in the New World. And if you factor out her childlessness in those first years, a temporary condition, her new life was an immediate improvement over the old. She'd left a domineering father behind, not to mention a society that would have kept her in widow's weeds -- with all the isolation that that implies -- for many years to come.
Success came almost as soon as she touched down on American soil. For a time, everything was put in service to her shop. And then, suddenly, it wasn't. Or at least not that one. In about 1903, White attended the Paris openings with the four sisters who were the proprietors of T.M. & J.M. Fox, Inc., a custom dressmaking establishment in New York. Founded in 1885, their firm was -- "One of the oldest and most exclusive dressmaking establishments in the United States," according to the New York Times. By now, the Foxes "had all become wealthy out of it and were ready to retire," the paper added. After watching White in action in Paris, scouting out fashions to reinterpret (some might say steal) in her Chicago boutique, it was clear to them that their business would be safe in her hands. Before long, they'd offered it to her for sale.
Manhattan can be notoriously charmless and cruel to newcomers. And White was just about as much of an outsider -- an Irishwoman, of all unmentionable sins! -- as you could get. But she was also unafraid. Her Chicago life, clearly, had run its course. She decided to close the Irish Industrial Store "for good and always," as the Times recounted in 1911, in a breathless-sounding article about White's life in the unforgiving canyons of Manhattan. "She did not care to have any one [sic] else in charge of what had been so intimate and personal a venture." Instead, she opted to move to a new, vast city, where such adjectives scarcely applied. "Anonymous" and "impersonal" would be more apt.
Copyright © 2005 by Penelope Rowlands
Excerpted from A Dash of Daring by Penelope Rowlands Copyright © 2005 by Penelope Rowlands. Excerpted by permission.
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