Spence School for Girls, 22 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128
Corner Club, 18 Grove Place, Rochester, NY
2 (now 32) Oliver St, Rochester, NY 14607
Charlotte Whitney Allen (1891 - April 24, 1978) was one of the grandes dames of Rochester society. She was an independent woman, a quality that got her expelled first from Spence School for Girls in New York City, and later, from the Century Club of Rochester, of which her mother was president. Charlotte had lit up a cigarette. "Very well, Mother," she replied upon being inforned that ladies were not permitted to smoke. "I'll found my own club." She did. Rochester's liveliest minds and most ambitious cosmopolites would gather at the intersection of Grove Place and Windsor Street to drink and dine at the Corner Club. When in town Fletcher Steele would drop in and amuse his listeners with anecdotes from his latest trip, and catch up on the local gossip. The heady, self-involved group was enlivened by frequent scandal. Charlotte's best friend, Clayla Ward, had found a passionate admirer in the figure of O'Donnell Iselin, eventually one of Steele's clients and a close friend. Clayla also had George Eastman and E.E. Cummings vying for her attentions.
Mrs. Frank Hawley Ward was known as "Clayla" to the city at large, to the newspapers and television, and to the priest who elided her Christian names at her funeral in Christ Church Cathedral. In her early letters from abroad -- now in the University of Rochester Library and central to this memoir -- Clara Louise Werner's alternate nursery contraction is "Clarlie." Her friend Charlotte Whitney is "Chuck." Both girls grew into ladies who transcended a class no longer extant. They fostered music and art, promoted social tolerance, and catalyzed good talk in a town that must have disheartened less robust natures. Just before the First World War, when the Ward archive begins to fill out, Rochester, New York, must have looked like "Woollett Massachusetts" in the novel by Henry James that Mrs. Whitney Allen reread every year until her last illness.
Charlotte Whitney was the daughter of Warham Whitney, named for a miller-distiller-farmer grandfather who came to Rochester from Massachusetts in 1820, the son and nephew of James M. and George Jay Whitney, major figures in the flour and grain trade here and in the development of William H. Vanderbilt's New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. Like many a boom-town fortune on the near frontier, theirs so quickly turned into old money that by 1912 Mrs. Warham Whitney, the former Fanny Palmer Arnot of Elmira's leading family, reigned as the unchallenged doyenne of early arrivers. An invitation to her annual New Year's party at the house on Goodman Street South (later the Columbia School for Girls and now the property of the Rochester Museum and Science Center) was at once a command and a visa for the coming year in polite Rochester. Eighty-six years had passed since the stonecutter and Freemason John Whitney, a witness to Burgoyne's surrender and the father of the original Warham Whitney, had helped the kidnappers of the journalist William Morgan to tie and weight his flailing, biting body and drown it in the Niagara River.
In the first 21 years of her life, Charlotte Whitney not left the Rochester area, except for a term or two at the Spence School for Girls in New York City. Her expulsion from this toniest of finishing academies, with a long and wealthy waiting list, belies Miss Clara B. Spence's reported boast that she could make a lady out of anyone, if it were not for the Christmas and summer holidays. In a letter no longer extant, Miss Spence told Mrs. Whitney that her daughter was too "independent," which meant among other things that Charlotte had rebelled against chaperonage, as restrictive as Chinese bound feet for girls of the respectable classes before the Great War. The assessment was prophetic. Afternoons in the house on Goodman Street would soon be given over, alternately, to meetings of Charlotte's suffragists and her mother's anti-suffragists. And on a legendary day in 1921 or 1922, Charlotte lit up a Camel in the Century Club. Mrs. Whitney, the president, informed her that ladies did not do that there. "Very well, Mother, I'll found my own club." Thus, or so the story goes, was born the Corner Club, at the intersection of Grove Place and Windsor Street, in a house owned by the family into which Clara Louise Werner Ward had just married.
In 1917 Charlotte, Clara Louise, and their friends decided to produce a musical comedy. The result was Betsey Abroad, with a book by Elizabeth Granger Hollister and music by John Adams Warner (a son of J. Foster Warner, George Eastman's architect), who would later head the New York State Police under his father-in-law, Governor Alfred E. Smith. This too was done for charity (Rochester General Hospital) in Uncle Mart's Lyceum: "Exclusively High Class Attractions," his program cover boasts. The local press extolled the "bright" dialogue, the "dash and swing" of the music, and went out of its way to commend the show as "a delightfully refreshing tonic" to "the commonplace folderol of the present day musical comedy." Even when one concedes that the critics wrote with an eye to the sold-out, socially "brilliant" houses for the four performances in November, 1912, there seems little reason to doubt that it was in fact "the best-staged, best-acted and most elaborate amateur theatrical entertainment ever put on in this city." Between the matinee and final evening performances, Mrs. Warham Whitney gave a dinner in the ballroom of the Hotel Seneca for the cast of 300. That cast featured Hildegarde Lasell as the "unfortunate heiress" of the title and a trio of Werners: Clara Louise as "a pessimistic aunt," Marie as "an ambitious mother," and Lillie B. herself as "Countess de Berenstoff, a visitor at Hotel Axenstern." Charlotte Whitney played "Florette, Queen of the Nymphs." Atkinson Allen, whom she would soon marry, was "Sir Nigel Rutherford." They became the Prince Street Players, a resident and traveling company that lasted six seasons (1917 to 1922). Their repertory included one-act plays or single acts of full-length plays by Oscar and Percival Wilde, Masefield, Schnitzler, Lady Gregory, Synge, Granville-Barker, Henry Arthur Jones, and writers forgotten today. Caroline Werner joined them, as did Roy Ellis Bartlett, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Beardsley, Andrew Jackson Warner, and the architect Herbert Morland Stern. They put on benefits for the American Ambulance in France and for the Soldiers' and Sailors' Tobacco Fund, and twice they performed a "saynette" in French: Georges Courteline's Gros Chagrin, with "Mlle. Clara Louise Werner" and "Mme. Atkinson Allen."
Hildegarde Lasell married James Sibley Watson, Jr., co-publisher ofThe Dial, and the Watsons recruited "Herbie" Stern and Alec Wilder as actor and advisor for two classics of the late silent cinema, The Fall of the House of Usher and Lot in Sodom. Charlotte and Clara Louise devoted much of their energy and limited means to such emergent institutions as the Civic Music Association, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, and the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Clayla (as she is henceforth decisively known) had also found time during the First World War to teach French and German to soldiers leaving for the front and to drive trucks transporting the wounded.
The custom of the country dictated that proper girls get married in St. Paul's, so Charlotte Whitney had her wedding held at home, with Clara Louise Werner as bridesmaid and, without precedent, a Jew, Herbert Stern, as an usher. The groom was Atkinson Allen ("Rap" or "Rappy"), vice-president of the Allen Woolen Mills and later an employee of the Manhattan Storage Company. The childless union lasted 20 years, from September, 1914, until their Mexican divorce in 1934.
The Whitneys built them a house on a 90- by 200-foot lot at number 2 (now 32) Oliver Street, and in 1916 Fletcher Steele submitted the first drawings for the city garden that he considered his masterpiece. Although it could have fitted many times within his celebrated Naumkeag Gardens in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, it was, like its owners, elegant and compact. Work went slowly; both client and architect were perfectionists. Mrs. Allen banished all but a few flowers, not on the reported sentimental ground that "they always die," but because in doing so they make a clutter. Money, or rather the lack of it, also delayed construction. Charlotte Whitney Allen did not come into her full share in the Arnot family trust until her mother's death in 1936, and Steele put a high price on his talent and time. Gaston Lachaise was commissioned in 1926 to sculpt the heroic nude that dominated the garden from its roofed niche on the fountain terrace. In 1937 Steele completed his designs for the chain-mail Saracen tent that he called the "swimming pool shelter" and Mrs. Whitney Allen called "the drinking pit." On his way home from Chicago in 1935, Alexander Calder looked in on the work-in-progress and took an historic step in his own career: "On the return trip I stopped off at Rochester to see Mrs. Charlotte Allen, who had been introduced to me by Fletcher Steele, the landscape architect -- he had been interested in my show at the Galerie Vignon in 1932. Mrs. Allen wanted a mobile for her garden which Fletcher Steele had designed -- this was the first object I made for out of doors. As I remember, it consisted of some quite heavy iron discs that I found in a blacksmith's shop in Rochester and had them welded to rods progressively getting heavier and heavier. Fletcher had laid out the garden so that it made a zigzag labyrinth round three sides of a pool and then back again, and ended up behind a hedge. By the pool was a large oak tree, and we were very much amused when Charlotte told us one day -- Louisa [Mrs. Calder] and me -- that she once had a bill from Fletcher: $50, Concentration on tree." Three years later Calder sold her the delightful "Flat Cat" (remembered by him as "The Flattest Cat") that sat on a table in the drawing room, flattened perhaps by boredom with the muddy Matisse landscape that hung on a nearby wall. He made jewelry for her, too, and other minor, impromptu objects: during conversation, his restless hands would fish wire from one pocket and pliers from another.
Charlotte and Clayla remained traveling companions and lifelong confidantes. In June, 1921, they sailed to England on White Star's Celtic, where Clayla "had some parleying with Einstein who is homeward bound after his meteoric career. He found it bewildering since he speaks no English. . ." The single extant sheet of this letter breaks off here, but we may assume that it was America, not the trilingual Clayla, that disoriented Einstein. Three days later the women crossed the Channel by airplane. Near the end of their lives Mrs. Ward would insist that they had been bounced somersault out of their wicker chairs upon landing in Paris, and Mrs. Whitney Allen would insist that they had not been. (The Ward archive corroborates Charlotte.)
Although leisured, they both kept busy, not only with their numerous philanthropies, but also at actual jobs. With the boys away -- Hawley in the Navy and Addison at prep school -- Clayla in 1944 joined Sibley, Lindsay and Curr as a public relations consultant. Sibley's would eventually name its fifth-floor Ward Gallery in her honor. In 1936 Charlotte inherited a bookstore from her stepfather, Clarence W. Smith, whom Fanny Whitney had married after Warham's death in 1929. For many years, a sight to see in Rochester was the chauffeured Ford touring car, then the Daimler, and at last the Checker that carried the self-styled "working girl" down East Avenue to her shop in the basement of Woodside, the Rochester Historical Society.
Reserving lifetime tenancy, Clayla gave 18 Grove Place in her husband's memory to the Landmark Society of Western New York. It is now leased as the headquarters of the Civic Music Association, of which she was a founder and long-time officer. Charlotte gave 32 Oliver Street to the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, with the same lifetime provision, three-sixteenths of her fortune, and the wish that it become the permanent residence of the Director. That did not happen. The pictures and sculptures were removed to University Avenue, and the premises were sold.
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