Friday, September 12, 2014

THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE WOMAN I EVER MET - Ailzia M. Drake - Part One

The phone rang at a few minutes after 5:00 AM on the morning of October 28, 2004 - never a good sign.  I answered with a sleepy "Hello" and the voice said "Mr. Craig, this is Lincolnwood Place.  We are calling you about Ailzia Drake.  We had a report from her caregiver that she passed away a few minutes ago."  "But she was doing better last night when I called," was my response.  "Oh well, I'll call her nurse."

I dialed the number and the nurse answered, "Jim?" "Yes," I responded, "what's up?"  "It's Mrs. Drake.  I think she's dead," the nurse replied.  "You think she's dead???," I said.  "You don't know for sure?"  "No," the nurse replied, "but I think she's dead."  "I'll be right over," I said as I hung up the phone.

When I entered her apartment at Lincolnwood Place in Lincolnwood, Illinois, I could see why her nurse made the comment she did.  Mrs. Drake looked like she was sleeping.  Other than the fact that she wasn't breathing she looked calm and peaceful.  

With that, the long and storied life of Alizia McElroy Drake came to an end, 102 years after it began.  Looking back now, almost ten years after her death, I can say that she was a dear friend, but more than that she was a very interesting woman.  In fact, I can safely say that she was the most unforgettable woman I ever met.  So settle back and let me tell you a fascinating 102 year story about a fascinating woman.

Ailzia Lathrop McElroy was born May 6, 1902 in Chicago to Robert Hemmington McElroy, Sr. (1877-1938) and Florence Queen, nee Dascombe (1876-1967):


R.H. McElroy
Florence McElroy


 
She joined her big brother Robert Hemmington McElroy, Jr. (1898-1969)  The first interesting fact about Ailzia was her name.  Her father, who chose her name, said that years before he had been on a trip to Canada where he saw a professional swimmer named Ailzia Frank.  He liked the name so much that he said if he ever had a daughter he would name her "Ailzia" and he did.  Her middle name "Lathrop" was because she was a direct descendent of Wisconsin pioneer William Henry Lathrop.  She used to say that Lathrop Hall at the University of Wisconsin was named for her family.

Lathrop Hall

Her big brother Robert couldn't get his mouth wrapped around the name "Ailzia" so from the very beginning he called her "Babe" and that's the name that stuck.  And so, for the rest of this article, except where it is not appropriate, I will call her Babe.

When Babe was born, the family was living at 602 (now 1750 W.) Pratt in Chicago:


1750 W. Pratt

By the 1910 US Census the McElroy family was living in Wilmette, Illinois at 1607 W. Lake Street:


1607 W. Lake Street, Wilmette

Robert McElroy Sr. lists his job as "Traffic Expert" with the Standard Oil Company.  Robert McElroy Sr. is a success story in his own right, and will be featured in a future article in this blog.  He started his long career with Standard Oil in 1906.  Florence, Robert Jr, and Ailzia were all listed as not having an occupation.  Babe used to say that her family moved to Wilmette "right after the Ouilmette Indians moved out."

To say that Babe was a hellion as a child is an understatement.  She used to laughingly say years later that she was kicked out of some of the finest schools in Chicagoland.  She told me that among the many schools she had attended was Evanston Academy, the prep school division of Northwestern University. 



The Evanston Academy closed in 1917, so her father then decided to send Babe to a school where she would experience a little discipline:  St. Mary's Academy, Notre Dame, Indiana.



Although Babe was not a Catholic her father decided that the structure and discipline of a Catholic girls' school would be good for her.  Robert McElroy had been raised a Scots Presbyterian; Florence Dascombe came from a High-Church Episcopalian family.  Neither Babe nor her brother received any formal religious education after their baptism as infants.

Although Babe chafed at the structure of St. Mary's, she loved it there.  Back in those days there were so many nuns that each student had a nun assigned to her as a mentor/guide/buddy.  Babe's assigned nun was Sr. Clare Assisi, who she came to love like a blood sister.  Those were the days when nuns wore full habits but that did not stop Sr. Clare Assisi from playing tennis or golf, or many other of the athletic activities for the students.  Babe said that Sr. Clare Assisi had come from a very well-to-do family and was very highly educated.  She had given up a life in Society to become a nun and teacher.  Babe said that she used to love the long talks that she and Sr. Clare Assisi used to have as they strolled around the beautiful campus at St. Mary's.

While Babe was still at St. Mary's, Sr. Clare Assisi died suddenly.  As was the custom then, she was waked in the school chapel.  Coming from a non-Catholic background, Babe had never been to a wake before that featured an open casket.  Babe said that all the girls were to line up and file slowly past the casket.  When it was her turn, Babe took one look at Sr. Clare Assisi in the open casket and fainted dead away.

Although Ailzia McElroy is prominently featured among the graduates in the 1920 St. Mary's yearbook,


 
that is not exactly what happened.  Babe was kicked out of St. Mary's prior to graduation because she had been caught smoking a cigarette and had "bobbed" her hair.  In 1920 long hair was considered the sign of a "good" girl; whereas if a girl had short hair she was called a "flapper" and the implication was that she was a person of loose morals.  And, of course, "good" girls did not smoke cigarettes.  So Babe topped off the list of schools she had been kicked out of, with St. Mary's of Notre Dame.

(An interesting side note:  When she was in her 80s, Babe returned to St. Mary's for a visit.  She was ushered into the office of the principal who asked her what year she graduated.  She replied that she was Class of 1920 but that she had been kicked out prior to graduation.  "What did you do to get kicked out?", the nun asked.  "I got caught smoking a cigarette and bobbed my hair," was Babe's response.  "Oh my goodness," the nun said, "the nuns here today do worse things than that.")

It is interesting, however to take a look at Babe in the 1920 St. Mary's yearbook.  I did not find this yearbook until after Babe was dead, so I was never able to ask her anything about it, but it does provide an interesting insight into the Babe McElroy of 1920.  Here is an essay she wrote on Booth Tarkington that was included in the yearbook:






         
From the yearbook Class Prophesy:



In about 1915 her father bought the beautiful home at 704 Sheridan Road in Wilmette:

704 Sheridan Road, Wilmette

Babe had the front bedroom and during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 she used to sit in her bedroom window and watch all the horse-drawn hearses bringing the dead soldiers back from Fort Sheridan. 

If she looked in the other direction from her bedroom window, she could see the Bahai Temple being built:

Bahai Temple, Wilmette, Illinois

So now it's the spring of 1920 and Babe is back home in Wilmette with nothing to do.  According to her she spent each day at the parks and beaches with her friends.  Gilson Park in Wilmette had not been built yet, so Babe could walk out her back door about 1/2 block and be at the shore of Lake Michigan.  Babe was very athletic and an expert swimmer.  She spent her days with her friends swimming, playing tennis (more about that later) and dancing.  And her love of dancing would take her into the next phase of her life.

(Another side note:  It's about this time that Babe became one of the original "Polar Bears" a group that would break the ice and go swimming in Lake Michigan on New Years Day each year.) 

The February 27, 1921 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune featured the following article:


The Tribune notwithstanding, that's not exactly how it happened.  According to Babe, Phil Harper was part of the crowd she hung around with.  Phillip Francis Harper (1899-1980) came from a well-to-do French Canadian lumber family.  The Harpers had a big home on Sheridan Road in Chicago and undoubtedly Babe and Phil's paths would have crossed as they moved in the same social circles.  

Years (75 years to be exact) later, one day Babe and I were talking about her marriage to Phil.  "What made you marry Phil Harper?"  I asked.  "He was a good dancer," was her response.  She admitted to me then that when she married Phil she really didn't know him very well.

Anyway, they decided to "run away and get married" on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1921.  The Tribune said they had gotten married on a Sunday.  In those days Catholics would not have marriages on Sunday and February 14, 1921 was a Monday.  I suspect this was a story the families came up with for public consumption.  

I used to tease Babe every Valentine's Day with a hearty "Happy Anniversary."   To which she would respond, "There's nothing happy about it."  She snuck out of the house early that morning in 1921 and met Phil at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Wilmette. 

St. Francis Xavier Church, Wilmette.

Babe wasn't a Catholic so they could not be married (in those days) in church with a Mass.  They had to be married by the priest in the rectory.  Then they went off on their honeymoon and cabled the news to their respective families.  

The families were not all that happy about the elopement.  Their first questions was "Why so fast - do you "have to" get married?"  (They didn't).  Robert McElroy Sr lamented that his only daughter would not have the big church wedding he had always planned.  "And what about all those gifts I have given to everyone's children over all these years?" the pragmatic Scotsman asked.  "This was my only chance to tap them for a generous gift in return."

Babe admitted that they eloped for the adventure of it.  But then life caught up with them.  They moved in with Harpers in the big house at 6821 N. Sheridan Road and Phil had to give up his dream of going to college.  (6821 N. Sheridan was razed in 1964 and an apartment building built on the site.)  Phil had a wife now, so he would join the family lumber business.  Babe always felt that Phil's parents never really liked her (they probably didn't).  Mr. Harper, Phil's father, insisted that only French be spoken at every meal because he was afraid the family would lose their French-Canadian roots.  Babe did not speak a word of French and had a very hard time at meals.  But, young people are resilient and she quickly became fluent in conversational French.

Mr. Harper decided that the best thing to do was to get the newlyweds out of town, so he sent them to Mexico City where Phil would oversee the Mexican lumber operations of the Harpers.  Phil spent all his time in the small towns and rural areas of Mexico; Babe was stuck in Mexico City.  She did not know a soul, and did not speak a word of Spanish (she had enough trouble with French).  To keep her company Phil bought her a beautiful collie dog which she used to walk all over Mexico City.  The dog was so well behaved that she started walking him off the leash, thinking it was not necessary.  One day the dog ran out in front of a car while chasing something, and that was the end of the dog.  Babe felt like she had lost her best friend (she had).

On a happier note, Babe found out in the Spring that she was going to have a baby.  She was due in December.  To all the nosy people who were counting (including her own parents) she passed the test.  She had not been pregnant when she and Phil were married.

Unfortunately she had a very difficult pregnancy.  She had terrible morning sickness compounded by the gastric problems many people have in Mexico.  She was alone, thousands of miles from home,  and horribly sick.  She begged Phil and her parents to let her come back to Chicago and they finally relented.  

Babe gave birth to her son Phillip Harper on December 8, 1921.  He died December 10, 1921 from a congenital heart defect.  The walls between the chambers of his heart were not fully developed and therefore his heart could never function normally.


Because the Harpers were Catholic, Babe had agreed to raise any of their children as Catholics, so little Phil was baptized shortly after his birth. 

After the baby had died, the chaplain from St. Francis Hospital came in to see Babe and Phil.  The priest said that they were lucky that the baby had been baptized before he died otherwise his soul would not have gone to heaven.  Although as a cradle Catholic this would not have been news to Phil, he was so enraged that he vowed never to set foot in a Catholic Church again, and as far as Babe knew, he never did.  

Babe told me Phillip Harper (the baby) was buried "in the Harper Family Plot" at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.  Years later when the Harpers moved to California they sold the big plot at Calvary and had little Phil's and one other grandchild's body moved to another section of Calvary.  They are there in an unmarked grave to this day.

When Babe and Phil moved back to Chicago before the baby was born, they did not want to move back in with the Harpers, so they rented an apartment at 6004 N. Paulina Street in Chicago:

6004 N. Paulina, Chicago

Life went on for Babe and Phil.  For awhile Phil worked for his father in Chicago but in about 1922 Mr. Harper transferred Phil to the Harper offices in Rochelle, Illinois.  It is here in Rochelle, that their daughter Florence Dascombe Harper (1923-2012) was born:

 
In accordance with the vow he made when little Phil died, Florence was not baptized, and received no formal religious training. 

Babe actually liked the rural, small town atmosphere in Rochelle.  She had never experienced life in a small town and she liked the fact that all the neighbors looked out for each other.  Years later, Babe and Florence were reminiscing about their days in Rochelle and their neighbor lady who raised chickens.   

But life was not all idyllic in Rochelle.  Phil Harper developed a gambling problem.  It got so bad that Phil would not come home on payday.  He would disappear, and then turn up days later, once he had gambled all the money away.  Every time, Phil would vow that he would never do it again, and the next payday the episode took place all over again.  Babe knew that her parents wouldn't help, so she got in contact with Mr. Harper and asked him for money so Babe could "feed his granddaughter."  Mr. Harper was unsympathetic.  He reminded Babe that she and Phil had run away and gotten married and that neither set of parents were too happy with news of the elopement.  Mr. Harper said he would help Babe just once, and after that she was "on her own."  His exact words were, "You made your bed, now you can lie in it."

The only bright spot was that the Harpers had a winter home in Pasadena, California and every year the Harpers would send Phil, Babe and Florence train tickets to come to Pasadena for the winter.  Babe said that she loved those days in Pasadena. 

Babe told me that Phil had a lot of friends in Los Angeles and once they were invited to an infamous "Hollywood Party."  There was a casket of cocaine sitting on the mantelpiece and anyone who wished could help themselves.  Neither Babe nor Phil partook of the cocaine.  Babe said she was too afraid of it.  At one such party Babe was feeling so good she called out "I feel like such a fairy tonight," and Phil slapped her.  He said she embarrassed him in front of all his friends.  

Life back in Rochelle was getting worse and worse.  Phil was disappearing for longer periods, and Babe had to beg, borrow and steal to get money to feed herself and Florence.  By the fall of 1928 Babe decided that she had to take action. 

In those days, the place where you could get the fastest divorce was Reno, Nevada, but you had to establish residency there.  During one of Phil's disappearances the train tickets to Pasadena from the Harpers arrived.  Babe cashed in the tickets and bought a ticket for her and Florence to Reno, and by the time Phil finally returned, his wife and daughter were gone for good.

Ailzia McElroy Harper filed for divorce from Phillip Francis Harper on October 26, 1928 in Reno.  Here is the notice from the Reno Evening Gazette:


The decree of divorce was granted October 29th.  Phil Harper's sister Helen Harper Graf (1897-1987) actually came to the trial in Reno and testified on Babe's behalf.  When he granted the divorce, the judge said that he had never had a case where the husband's sister testified on behalf of the wife.  Helen and Babe remained lifelong friends until Helen's death in 1987.

After her divorce was granted, Babe participated in the custom of throwing her wedding rings into the Truckee River in Reno from the Virginia Street "Bridge of Sighs."

Now Babe and Florence were free to enjoy life.  One day when Babe went to play tennis, little did she know that her life and Florence's would change for the better starting that very day.

We will take up Part Two of the story of Ailzia McElroy Harper Drake next week in this blog.  Stay tuned!

3 comments:

  1. You write such great stories about such interesting people. I wonder if Babe knew my grandmother who was born in Chicago in 1897... Looking forward to next week's installment!

    ReplyDelete