MY LIFE 1
My grandmother Dorothy Gordon Whyte née Hibbard (1899-1979) left us a large number of typescript files of her memoirs, as she used to call them. More than fifty years after she wrote them, I’m finally putting them online as a potentially useful resource for other researchers. I have supplemented them with my own notes, in red.
In December 1965 I am starting to write down what I can remember of my life. Perhaps no one will ever read it but once I have got things down I can destroy all my old papers, diaries etc. and thus have less rubbish to keep; these few pages won’t take up a great deal of room.
I was born on April 8th, 1899. I had one brother living, Lyman Charlton [Hibbard], born January 8th, 1894. Either one or two other children had been still-born between us. Another child was born later, when I was six, and that killed my mother, so I hardly remember her. I know I loved her dearly and that she was gentle and loving; I have some of her letters and it is evident that she was devoted to my father and to us children. In her letters she sounds so happy; perhaps she was lucky to go when she did. All of her children were very large at birth. I weighed 11 pounds, my father told me. The last baby was probably equally large and that was what killed her; she started haemorrhaging and that was before the days of blood-transfusions.
I myself was born in Philadelphia, I think because the doctors there were supposed to be very good. We were living at the time at Highbridge, New
Jersey York Jersey, but later we moved to Plainfield and were in a little house on Sixth Street until Papa bought a house at 144 East Seventh Street.
In the typescript, the word “Jersey” is crossed out and the word “York” written in above it; and then “York” is also crossed out and “stet” written in the margin. There are localities in both New York and New Jersey with the right name. Highbridge, NY, is part of the Bronx and so on the wrong side of the city for a family with links to Philadelphia. High Bridge, NJ, on the other hand is 90 km west of New York and 100 km north of Philadelphia; still a long way to go to give birth, but more likely than going there from the Bronx.
By the time of the 1900 census, two months after Dorothy’s first birthday, the Hibbards were already living at 115 East Sixth Street in Plainfield. I visited Plainfield in 2009, and found that the Sixth Street house was derelict but still standing.
I can just barely remember moving; I think I was three at the time. The new house seemed big and spacious. It was also very ugly, though I didn’t realise that till I was much older. It had wooden clapboards, painted grey, and its one beauty was a huge wisteria all up the front. There was nothing but grass in front, two little lawns on either side of the paved “sidewalk” leading up to the front door. There was also a drive to the left which led out to an old coach-house shared with Mrs. Newhall, an old lady who lived alone in the next-door house. Later my father was to have a small garage put up for the car, but he got his first car in 1909, I think. We were not far from the station, so he could walk there easily.
Again, the house at 144 East Seventh Street was derelict but standing when I visited Plainfield in 2009. I don’t think it is all that ugly! In fact it has a certain charm, to my eye at least. But the wisteria is long gone, and so is the coach house. Both the Sixth Street and Seventh Street houses are within an easy ten minutes’ walk from the railway station.
Here’s another photograph, taken by Lyman Hibbard in 1940; you can see that the trees, since gone, give it a much more pleasant ambience. The wisteria is there, but it is not huge, at least compared with a Virginia creeper that I know elsewhere.
However my grandmother is mistaken about the neighbours. Mrs Newhall’s husband was very much alive when the Hibbards were living next door, and the Newhalls would have been only in their early 60s which is not so very elderly. He was Henry Borden Newhall (1846-1918), originally from New Hampshire, like Dorothy’s father’s parents. She was born Anna Frances Barrie Kimball (1846-1924), in Worcester, Massachusetts. They ran a hardware store in Plainfield, and appear to have had one son.
I was very happy then, I think. In the evening when my father came home Mamma would send me to meet him and I would race across the lawn and he would catch me up, always saying: “Have you been a good girl?” I think I must have been, as I can’t remember his ever being annoyed with me. Once my mother asked me which I loved best, her or Papa, and I answered “Papa” and then realised she was hurt and added “Because he’s bigger”. I meant by that there was more of him to love, but I still knew I had hurt my mother. She really shouldn’t have asked me, I suppose.
I think Lyman was rather a worry to my parents then. Once he and I had been playing at the top of the house and a clock got broken; I think Lyman had broken it but he told me I mustn’t say. Later my mother asked how it had happened, and like Lyman I denied knowing anything about it, and my mother looked very sad and I was sorry. But at that time I would have done anything that Lyman told me to do. I adored him. Sometimes he was nice and played with me, and I remember that always on my birthday he would carry me downstairs pickaback. But he also teased me a good deal and often made me cry; I cried very easily.
I had a nurse, Delia, whom I loved, but who left to be married before my mother died, I think. I remember once standing with her at the library window watching my mother going away down the street and crying bitterly, and Delia telling me I mustn’t be so selfish. It meant nothing to me, I just couldn’t bear to see my mother walking away from me.
At the time of my mother’s death I knew nothing about the new baby – children were never told such things then, but years later a girl called Pauline Sanford told me that my mother had died having a baby, and I hotly denied it, saying that she had just had a headache, and Pauline said that people didn’t die of head-aches.
Pauline Sandford, with a ‘d’ in the middle, was born in Minnesota in 1897, and died in Florida in 1957, but grew up in Bridgewater near Plainfield and is buried in Rochester NY. She eventually went to Vassar and married an army chap, Frederick W. Fenn. She left a son and a daughter.
I don’t remember anything except my mother lying on her bed and being allowed to go in and kiss her good-night or good-morning. Then one day I was sent to spend the day with friends called Legaré who lived quite near in the country. [The Legarés will return in 1927.] I wasn’t to see Mamma before going; I think she was already dead, or perhaps that was the day of the funeral. I had no idea anything was wrong and I picked wild-flowers to take back to her. Years afterwards my aunt told me they were buried with her.
At that time Lily Wickersham, my mother’s sister whom we called “Aunt Ninnie” and my grandmother were staying with us. The two sisters were devoted to each other and Aunt Ninnie was my godmother. Years later Zora, as I called Aunt Ninnie after I grew up, told me that before the baby came my mother was restless and couldn’t sleep. She came into her sister’s room and wanted to talk but Zora was very sleepy and said to her:
“Darling, you look like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said ‘Cannot you watch beside me one little hour?’”
My mother went away then, but afterwards Zora knew she had really felt like that.
Zora lived another fifty years and must have long regretted her unthinking sharpness with her sister who had, perhaps, only a few hours to live.
Zora / Ninnie / Lily lived from 1870 to 1956; she was the ninth of her father’s ten children, the third of her mother’s four, three years younger than Dorothy’s mother Rebecca / Ruby. She never married. She will feature repeatedly in the memoirs, as she gave Dorothy an allowance until her marriage. She is buried in the same grave as her morther, her sister, her brother-in-law and her niece Dorothy in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey; I tracked it down in September 2022, on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
When I came back from the Legarés I ran up to the door with my flowers. Cousin Katie Belt appeared and I said: “Can I see Mamma?” Cousin Katie put her arms round me and told me she was dead. I didn’t really understand, but I began to cry and Cousin Katie tried to catch the cat to comfort me. The cat struggled away and in doing so broke the long necklace Cousin Katie was wearing – I have a vague idea it was of lavender quartz heads, but I’m not sure.
“Cousin Katie” was Catherine Dulaney Belt (1851-1923), Dorothy’s mother’s second cousin. She was born in Frederick, Maryland, but (like most of that branch of the Belts) lived most of her adult life in Philadelphia. She never married. She owned a stunning portrait of her own great-grandmother and namesake, Catherine Belt nee Dulaney (1764-1830) which I believe is still in the family somewhere in Maryland.
Aunt Libby, my mother’s much older half-sister, was staying too, and slept in my room. That night, or another night, she was kneeling by my bed in tears and I said:
“You didn’t love Mamma, Aunt Libby, you were never nice to her.”
The fact was that Aunt Libby was not kind in words; someone said of her that she did the kindest and said the horridest things Still it was brutal of me, but I didn’t realise.
“Aunt Libby”, Elizabeth Oakford Wickersham (1846-1920) was more than twenty years older than Dorothy’s mother Rebecca; she was the second of her father’s ten children, and the oldest surviving in 1905. Two brothers had died as young children, a sister as a young woman and another brother in the Johnstown Flood in 1889.
When I was still a baby I had Bell’s Facial Paralysis. My father told me that one morning when my mother went in to the nursery I smiled up at her but only half my face moved. The doctor told them later that he had not known if I would ever get over it, but it gradually wore off though even now I cannot close my left eye by itself. My father said that my mother used to sit by me with her hand over my eye until I went to sleep, but I don’t remember that. It must have been terrible for her.
I was delicate anyway, in an old letter from one of my aunts to my grandmother the aunt said she was so sorry for my mother, as I could never live to grow up. Yet I had very few of the ordinary childish complaints, only chicken-pox, though Lyman had mumps, measles, whooping-cough, everything possible. I suffered a lot from eczema but had outgrown it by the time I was 14. I wasn’t supposed to eat sweet things, and wasn’t allowed the yolk of eggs except at Easter. I revelled in the hard-boiled eggs we had then.
In later years my grandmother declared that she was allergic to eggs.
I think Nama, my grandmother, and Aunt Ninnie just stayed on in the house after my mother died. I have an idea that they contributed to the household expenses, as Papa wasn’t very well off. Nama had her own maid and I imagine that Bunnie paid for that. [More on Bunnie later on; she was the oldest of the three daughters of Dorothy’s grandmother, the other two being Dorothy’s mother Rebecca / Ruby, and the younger aunt Zora / Lily / Ninnie.] We had at that time a cook and another maid. They both slept in a room at the top of the house, up the steep back stairs. They had to go all the way down to the cellar to wash in the laundry tubs there; there was also a w.c. which stood all by itself out in the middle of the big cellar room where the laundry was done.
Once when my mother was still alive there was a fire in the house. Lyman smelt smoke and went to tell Mamma. She glanced out of the window and saw a big coloured woman standing in the midst of a group of children looking up at the house.
“What are you looking at?” Mamma asked.
“Why, Ma’am, yo’ house is on fiah!” the woman said.
The fire brigade came and soon put out the fire, which had been caused by men thawing out pipes in the basement and setting the wall round the pipes on fire. I have the impression that that sort of thing happened quite often in those days. [handwritten note: The men moved the china cabinet. – presumably an anecdote that was never inserted in full.]
To go back to the maids, they had to share a bed, I think, and the room had only one small window and was so stuffy in summer, but cold in winter, and always smelling of slops. Awful conditions, but not unusual then. My grandmother’s maid, Margaret MacConnell, who had been my nurse after Delia left, had a tiny room at the very back of the second (American 2nd, English 1st) floor. There was only one bathroom in the whole house.
On the ground floor there was the entrance hall, with the drawing-room on the left and behind it Papa’s study or “den”; on the right was the library, behind it the dining-room, and behind that the pantry and then the kitchen. Off the dining-room to the left as you went in from the end of the hail there was a very small room with a wash-basin and flower-vases were kept there and flowers arranged there. Lyman and I often made fudge there on Sunday afternoons – really he did it, I just watched admiringly. [Good for Lyman.]
On the second floor (English first floor) there were two big bedrooms at the front over the library and drawing-room; the latter was my parents’, the former my grandmother’s when she was living with us. A small room over the ‘Den’ was my room. Then there was another room behind my grandmother’s which Aunt Ninnie had, and beyond that the bathroom, the one and only, and beyond a door and short passage the little room my gandmother’s maid had. From the landing stairs led up to a very large attic which was Lyman’s and my playroom, fitted with a trapeze on which we could do all sorts of tricks. A swing could be hooked onto the trapeze, but I scorned that as I got older, and just used the trapeze. More stairs led back towards the front of the house where there were three more bedrooms, one of them a spare room, one used to store trunks etc. and the one Lyman had, over my room.
Another of my few memories of my mother – how I wish I had more! – is of staying in a hotel, I think in Philadelphia, and being put to lie down on a bed, and hearing my mother say to Delia: “Now if we must go you pick up Dorothy at once and carry her downstairs, I’ll see to everything else.” Years later when I told my father that I remembered this he said that the house next door to the hotel had caught fire and they were afraid the flames might spread, but luckily they didn’t.
Once I remember cutting my knee and someone trying to bathe it, but I screamed for Mamma and she came, though I was made to feel it was very selfish of me to want her, as she wasn’t well at the time. Perhaps it was when she was going to have a baby, I don’t know. I can’t remember what she looked like, but of course I’ve seen many pictures of her. She wasn’t really beautiful, but she had lovely eyes and must have been very charming. Bunnie, her elder sister, once said to Zora:
“Every man adores Ruby, and of course they do; if a man said to her: ‘The moon is made of green cheese’ she would look at him with those enormous eyes and say: ‘Is it really? How wonderful of you to know that!’ where you or I would say: “Don’t be silly, of course it isn’t.'”
Her name was Rebecca but most people called her Ruby though Zara preferred Oodie, her own childish attempt at saying Ruby when she was very young – she was two or three years younger than my mother.
This is the only photograph that I have of my grandmother, Dorothy, with her mother, Rebecca. It was sent to me by Edward Wickersham “Wick” Hoffman, whose grandfather was the youngest of the ten Wickersham siblings.
With her death in August 1905 my life changed greatly, though for long I didn’t realise it. Aunt and Nama stayed on, and I still went to the Hartridge-Cooley school on the same street as our house, East Seventh Street. Lyman went there too and walked there with him in the mornings, I have an idea he altogether like having a baby sister tagging along. Later it became the Hartridge School and moved to much larger quarters still on the same street, but in the other direction, across Park Avenue, and I think it was then that Lyman was sent to Leal’s, the private school for boys, while I stayed on at Hartridge.
The information here about the school is mostly wrong. The Hartridge School, originally Miss Newton and Miss Scribner’s School, but renamed in 1903 shortly before Dorothy started going there, was always for girls only; Leal’s School took boys from all grades in elementary through high school. The two schools were close together, so Lyman would have walked Dorothy to Hartridge before himself going on to Leal’s. Leal’s was later renamed as the Wardlaw School; it formally merged with Hartridge and the Wardlaw+Hartridge School today has moved out of Plainfield to Edison, the next town to the southeast.
I could already read quite well when I first went to school. My father told me I used to carry a book round with me and if I came across a word I didn’t know I’d ask the nearest grown-up. I can remember – I suppose when there was no grown-up available – just putting in any sort of word that began with the same letter as the one I didn’t know, quite unperturbed by the fact that it didn’t make sense. So much of what I read was incomprehensible anyway! But I dearly loved reading. I wonder what would have happened to bookish people in countries where they had no chance of learning to read? I just can’t imagine what it would be like.
But in spite of the fact that I was able to read when I went to school, I was kept in the class for my age, I think because I was always so delicate.
The great thing that changed in my life was what one might call the background atmosphere. Whereas my father and mother had been very happy together and had loved us dearly, Lyman and me, Aunt Ninnie was of course only Papa’s sister-in-law and though they were fond enough of each other it was by no means uncritical affection that they felt. Anyway Zora was strange in a way. She was very beautiful, tall with creamy skin and dark hair and very blue eyes, and she always wore blue, or nearly always; sometimes she wore green. She had always had many admirers, and once when she was very young – 19 1 think – she was engaged for a few hours, but her mother found her in floods of tears and she said she couldn’t marry the man and Nama had to tell him for she wouldn’t! But she had an odd antagonism to men though once they married someone else she was very happy to be a good friend, and godmother to a child. She was so lovely, and charming and fascinating, that no one could ever understand why she didn’t marry. I adored her and thought her so lovely – I remember once running to meet her meaning to fling my arms round her, but somehow I didn’t dare, she was so beautiful. She was wearing a white dress with a turquoise-blue tunic and a big white hat, I remember.
She adored my mother, and when my mother was dying she said: “Lily, remember,” and Zora always thought that she meant “Remember your promise to look after Dorothy.” So she gave up her life with Bunnie, her elder sister, who was married to Robert Hadfield – later made a knight and then a baronet – and came and settled in the not very exciting town of Plainfield, N.J. Bunnie was furious; she wanted me to have a governess and for Zora to go back to her, but nothing would shake Zora. When she was determined on a thing she could never be moved an inch. So Bunnie gave in and made it possible financially – or rather Uncle Bobby did.
Sir Robert Hadfield (1858-1940) was a British metallurgist based in Sheffield, who invented both manganese steel and silicon steel. He married Frances Belt “Bunnie” Wickersham (1862-1949) in 1894; they had no children, but informally adopted Dorothy in her teens after her father remarried. She wrote at much greater length about them elsewhere.
As Zora was still quite young – in her early thirties and looking much younger than that – it wouldn’t have been respectable for her to be unchaperoned, so my grandmother lived with us too. My father was devoted to her – “Little Mother” – was his name for her. She w as gentle and lovable but I can never remember her when she was active. After the birth of her youngest child – who weighed 16 lbs at birth (my Uncle Morris) I think she was always more or less of an invalid, and later she had several strokes, and grew very stout. She also lost her memory to a great extent, but she was always gentle and loving.
Zora was never very energetic, when she was a girl she often fainted, she told me, and I imagine she was always anaemic. She slept badly too; she told me that she used to lie awake crying as a child with my mother sleeping peacefully beside her. I never remember her being really full of vitality, and I think she rested far more than most people, I seem to remember her lying on her bed a great deal. But she was so lovely to look at, and so charming even when she was feeling very tired that no one realised.
My father was a very intelligent, energetic, forceful man. He taught me to play chess when I was very young. He would often play games with me, and make me toys – he was good with his hands. Zora never played with me, but she didn’t care for games anyway. I don’t think she ever played cards in her life. She didn’t read much either. She never came down to breakfast, and it was then that my father and I used to have most interesting conversations and I picked up all sorts of bits and pieces of general knowledge. I don’t know why Lyman didn’t have breakfast with us – perhaps he had to go early to school. Or perhaps he was there after all, and I’ve just forgotten.
Much more on Henry Deming Hibbard here.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. Zora sometimes lost her temper completely and terrified me at the time, but she got over it quickly and I forgot all about it till the next time. But once I remember it upset Papa and I think he must have been angry with her. Anyway I found her in tears saying she would have to go away, and I was in tears myself and went to find Papa and they made it up. Papa himself had had a very hot temper when he was young. He told my step-mother that he had once nearly killed a man and had determined then never to lose his temper again, and I don’t believe he ever did.
Of course I had lots of friends of my own age, girls at school with me or daughters of friends of my parents or Zora’s. Louise Earle and Kathryn Borden and Carol Iredell were the main ones – though Carol was a good deal younger. I remember my own mother calling me to come and look at the dear little baby in the pram, and that was Carol. I must have been nearly four then.
Louise Earle (1898-1993) was born in Utica, NY, to an English father and American mother. She lived most of her life in the greater Newark area which includes Plainfield. She married Arthur Vreeland Youngman (1900-1973), an insurance broker, and had three children.
Katharyn Yates Borden (1898-1923) was born in Plainfield and died of typhoid aged only 24, poor thing, leaving two young children and her much older husband, Allen Butler (1879-1960). Both of her sons died relatively young too, the older in a drowning accident aged 10, and the younger of a heart attack aged 44. My grandmother says elsewhere that she died in childbirth, as did the baby, but the official records don’t confirm either point.
We will hear a lot more of Carol Iredell (1902-1988); she was the youngest of three sisters, and never married or had children as far as I can tell.
But when I was six I made friends of my own. Some people moved into a house at the back of ours, and I saw them over the fence and went to investigate. They were a family called Benton; there were two little girls, Elsbeth, seven, and Carol, four, their parents and their father’s parents. Soon after they bought a big house at the corner of Park and Crescent. The grandparents lived on the second floor and the younger Bentons had their bed-rooms there too, but young Mrs.Benton’s sitting-room and the children’s playroom were on the floor above. The ground floor was usually deserted except at meal times.
Elsbeth and Carol’s father and grandfather, Morris Fuller Benton (1872-1948) and Linn Boyd Benton (1844-1932), were both very significant figures in the history of printing font design. The long list of fonts designed by Morris includes many that are still in frequent use today. Linn Boyd Benton himself was born in Little Falls NY, and his wife Jessie Elizabeth Reid Donaldson (1846-1930) in Wisconsin. Morris was their only son; he was also born in Wisconsin and his wife Mary Ethel Bottum (1877-1920) in Saratoga, NY. There is more information in this nice article by Patricia A. Cost, which also includes a photograph of the Benton girls and their mother, taken at the time that Dorothy would have known them best.
My grandmother’s two friends both lived to advanced ages. The older daughter, formally Elizabeth Boyd Benton (1898-2000), married Winthrop Chester Swain (1891-1987), had two daughters and died in Plymouth MA aged 101. The younger daughter, formally Caroline Everett Benton (1902-1997), married Gordon Collingbourne Gregg (1900–1983), had a daughter and a son, and died at 95, back in Wisconsin where her grandmother came from.
I met them very soon after my mother died and it was a great help to me. I think they were the first friends I had made entirely on my own. I used to go there a lot; Mrs.Benton was never far away, she usually sat sewing in the next room, and listened to all we were saying. She didn’t altogether approve of me as a companion for her children. I used to tell them ghost stories and Carol had nightmares afterwards. Years later Mrs Benton told me that once she determined that she wouldn’t let them play with me any more, but they were so upset when she told them that she had to give in and let me come as usual. [Hardly surprising that the little girl whose mother had died was in the habit of telling scary ghost stories.]
We had one game we loved; I was a boy, Ted Gordon, Carol was my younger brother Jack, and Elsbeth was our cousin Elizabeth Boyd. We had all sorts of adventures but I don’t remember just what they were. [Plenty of material for psychoanalysis there! But perhaps it is simply that boys had all the fun.] They had wonderful toys and on Sundays when their father was at home they built mammoth castles with their building bricks. They also had a shallow tank in the garden where we could sail boats and play with celluloid animals that could float. In the winters once it was covered with snow they had a toboggan slide put up and we could “coast” down it on our sleds. We could play in the barn too. It was a wonderful place for children but they were always watched over, much more than I ever was.
Still I liked it there and I played with them more than with any other children knew.
From a letter my father kept I see that I went to Lenox Mass. in October with Aunt Ninnie but I can only just remember pine trees and rocks and the smell of the pines.
[end; posted 18 July 2023]