Where Were They in 1906?

This installment was part of my blog, Gypsy Teacher: A Yank Searches for a House in Brum, about our quest to buy an Edwardian house in Erdington, part of Birmingham, UK. It’s no longer posted, but it was a follow up to my blog, A Yank in Brum, about our relocation from Miami. It’s available as a ‘blook’ at http://www.lulu.com/shop/kathleen-dixon-donnelly/gypsy-teacher-a-yank-in-brum/ebook/product-17507455.html.

A Yank Searches for a House in ’Brum


Sunday, 15 April, 2007

By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

Our house purchase is moving along at the glacial pace common to transactions in these British isles. Drivin’ me fughin’ nuts.

So while agents and solicitors were doing what they have to do, we went back to Oliver Road again, bringing a house gift of champagne and chocolate for The Happy Seller Family, to measure and chat and take pictures (not nearly enough pictures). We still love it.

While we’re waiting, I decided to find out what was going on in 1906 when the houses on Oliver Road were built. I dug out my research on early 20th century writers’ salons and found that it was a momentous year.

In Dublin, William Butler Yeats, 41, and Lady Augusta Gregory, 54—the poet and playwright, not our cats—were having problems in their Abbey Theatre. One of the founders, Douglas Hyde, 46, was in Pittsburgh [my hometown] on his American tour to raise money for the Gaelic League. Another founder, John Millington Synge, 35, had read them his new play, The Playboy of the Western World, but the premiere had to be postponed. They revived his Riders to the Sea, but eventually fighting among directors, actors and playwrights led to a splinter group setting up a separate theater company. That summer Yeats and Lady Gregory met at her house in Coole Park in the west of Ireland to restructure their Abbey under a new director.

In London, Virginia Stephen, 24, confessed in a letter to a friend, “I went to a dance last night and found a dim corner where I sat and read ‘In Memoriam’!” Later that year, she traveled to Europe with her sister Vanessa, 27, and their brother Thoby, recently graduated from Cambridge. On their return Thoby fell ill with typhoid but was misdiagnosed and died. Two days later, Vanessa agreed to marry her persistent suitor Clive Bell, 25. In Ceylon, Thoby’s Cambridge friend, British civil servant Leonard Woolf, 26, was properly diagnosed and treated for typhoid. But his life there had made him so depressed, he wrote in his diary, “I took out my gun the other night, made my will, and prepared to shoot myself.” Fortunately, an affair with another Brit in the ex-pat community soon perked him up.

In Paris, Gertrude Stein, 32, was sitting for her portrait. Frustrated with his progress, Picasso painted out the head and went on vacation in Spain. When he returned and finished the painting; their friends commented that it didn’t look like her; Picasso said, “It will.” And it does.

On April 18th, San Francisco was rocked by a major earthquake. Gertrude’s brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sarah Stein, decided they had to return to their hometown to check on their property. To impress her friends, Sarah brought with her three paintings by their new Paris friend Henri Matisse, who had recently caused a furor at the Salon des Independents. One young San Franciscan, Alice B. Toklas, 29, who came to see the paintings and hear Sarah’s stories, decided that she had to move to Paris. She wrote later in her “autobiography,” “This led to a complete change in my life…The disturbance of the routine of our lives by the fire followed by the coming of Gertrude’s older brother and his wife made the difference.”

In Illinois and Minnesota, Ernest Hemingway, 7, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, 11, were discovering girls. Dorothy Rothschild (13, later Parker) was sent to Miss Dana’s school in Manhattan; she claimed later she had been expelled from Catholic school for stating that the Immaculate Conception was the result of spontaneous combustion. Her future Algonquin Round Table members were beginning their careers. Robert Benchley, 17, was planning to attend Yale; Heywood Broun, 18, was already studying writing at Harvard. Harold Ross, 14, future New Yorker founder, quit school to become an apprentice reporter at the Salt Lake City Telegraph, and Alexander Woollcott, 19, was appearing as “Mabel the Beautiful Shopgirl” with Hamilton College’s Glee Club.

And back in Erdington, UK, the foundation stone was laid for a new library, funded by a Scottish-American industrialist from Pittsburgh, Andrew Carnegie, 71. And construction was completed on a row of houses on Oliver Road.

Fingers crossed.

Read more about the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

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