As you can see, these are very old photographs. If the little blonde girl with the Mary Jane shoes sitting at the left end of the front row is four years old then the date is 1920. Her name is June Williams and she was my mother. She was named for June Tolliver, the heroine of a Broadway play that my grandparents saw at the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine had been adapted from the wildly successful novel (1908) of the same name by John Fox, Jr. Florence Williams, or Billie as she was affectionately known, decided that if she ever had a daughter, June would be her name. (Florence is the woman standing at the left end of the back row in this picture.)
Billie was an apt nickname for Florence; she died before I was born so I never think of her as my grandmother. She had her own kind of insouciance and her daughter adored her for it. She knew what forms of birth control could be found in the city, she liked to make gin in the family bathtub during Prohibition, and she sent Norman, her husband, scrambling around a movie theater to search for bugle beads when one of her sheath dresses popped a thread. Her friend Kay married a wealthy bootlegger named Ray from the north shore of Long Island, a location that allowed rum runners to ply their trade with relative impunity and lots of nice chateaux to be had, especially after the movie industry migrated to Los Angeles.
The tennis courts in the background were part of the summer home at Lake Success, in the Town of Great Neck. The name Lake Success is not a descriptor as I once imagined; it is a corruption of the name Sukut, taken from the Lenape Indians along with their land by people like my ancestors. The lake is a 'kettle hole;' in geological terms it had been gouged out of the ground by the retreat of a glacier during the Ice Age, the resulting pile of rocks and soil is called a moraine.
Lake Success lies about sixteen miles east of Manhattan: it is one of the nine villages that make up Great Neck in northern Nassau County. It became a village in 1927; before that is was part of the town of North Hempstead. The area is known for its lakes, Success being the largest although to outsiders its several acres look like a glorified pond.
There are no men in this picture because they were back in the city working during the week while the women and children enjoyed a respite from the heat, a custom of the time before air conditioning among the fortunate classes.
Speaking of whom, William K. Vanderbilt purchased the land around Lake Success in 1902 for a summer home for himself and his new bride. Vanderbilt was an enthusiastic yachtsman but by 1904 he had become smitten with anything motorized, be it bicycle, motorcycle, or racing cars, and he set a land speed record at Daytona Beach. He infuriated his Island neighbors with his noisy drag racing ways. One of my mother's uncles was killed in an automobile accident; newly married in 1904, he was thrown from a car he was driving on Christmas Eve of 1905 and hit his head on the curb. Such accidents were not yet common when most people didn't have cars; his bride Rose never got over the shock. To put this in the perspective of that time, by 1908, there were still no more than 200,000 automobiles in the entire United States.
The Commodore donated some of his land for a Naval Training Center during World War II. The Sperry Gyroscope Building was used as temporary headquarters for the fledgling United Nations before it moved to its permanent home by the East River.
Something about the children in this next photograph has always reminded me of John Singer Sargent's painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Yes there are four children here and only two in Sargent's painting but for me the two children bookending the group, June at right holding a bouquet of wild flowers and her cousin Ruth at left, a year older and taller are the story in this picture. Both girls would narrowly escape death from thyroid cancer as adolescents and their relationship was so close that Ruth, who died first, was the last person my mother called for on her own deathbed. This early summer day must have meant something special to the girls; all the photographs taken that day are precisely dated Tuesday, June 28, 1919.
Although this last picture is not dated, the visual evidence suggests June was about eight years old at the time. It was taken at home in West Orange, New Jersey, in a house built by Norman for his family, and these are Billie's younger sisters, Lottie and Lillie posing with their niece.
Lillie was the caboose baby of the family and the story is rather sad and typical for its time. After begetting two daughters, their father deserted the family for eleven years, indulging his wanderlust for sailing around the world, while knowing that his wife and children would have to return to her parents' home for support. When he reappeared, they made her take him back and there are no photographs taken after that show a smile on her face. Her daughter Lillie was, by all accounts, a delightful person and her niece's favorite relative. June was nicknamed Chick for her yellow hair; I still have an envelope of it and after all this time the hair still glows like spun gold thread. As for me, I still hope to learn someday what kind of touring car that is parked in the driveway.
Images: from the personal collection of Jane Librizzi.