Major Bowes, 1930s Radio King

Have you ever noticed how many plaques you can find in stone gateways in this area?  I’ve see these ones all within about three miles of each other:Bowes
At the corner of Allapartus and Spring Valley Roads.

 

Lichstern
On Spring Valley Road

 

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On Cedar Lane 

Well, settle in, because I’m going to tell you the story of BOWES.  (I’ll save the other two for later posts.)

My regular-I-just-need-to-get-out-and-run run goes right past this particular plaque.  What does “Bowes” mean, I wonder each time I pass it.  Then I just keep running and forget about it until next time.

Now, thanks to writing this blog, I’ve finally taken the time to research it and discovered that it’s the ghost of the Ossining estate called “Laurel Hill” once owned by Major Edward Bowes.

Bowes was best-known as a radio star who hosted an American Idol/Gong Show-type of talent show called “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour” in the 1930s and 1940s  (You can buy CDs of it here.)

Major Bowes at NBC

His Sunday night show was tremendously popular – according to a December 1, 1935  article in the New York Times, its popularity was “reported to be the highest ever attained since telephone surveys in 40 key cities was first tabulated.”

The format is something we’re very familiar with now, but at the time it was ground-breaking —  amateurs came from all over the country to audition and the lucky few appeared on Major Bowes’ show.   The gimmick of the show was in its audience participation — the performances on the show were voted on via telephone for each episode.   Many of the winners then went on to tour the dying vaudeville circuit in “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hours” units for a pittance and thence into obscurity.

The show began in 1934 and ran until the early 1940s, when wartime restrictions on telephone usage cut into Bowes’ reliance on the audience vote.  Soon after, the show went off the air.

His New York Times obituary noted that:

“The possibility of success attracted ambitious amateurs from all over the country, from one-man bands to singers, from tap dancers to harmonica viruosi.”  The pilgrimage soon became too popular, and in 1935 the Emergency Relief Bureau put up the storm signals disclosing that each week more than 300 penniless would-be radio amateurs were stranded in this city. Major Bowes stemmed the cityward trek by establishing quarter-annual auditions in the hinterlands, winners of which were brought to New York.”

A few contestants did go on to fame and fortune, like opera singers Beverly Sills & Lily Pons.  Others on that short list include Robert Merrill, Redd Foxx & Glady Knight.   Frank Sinatra made an appearance in September of 1935, singing with a group called the Hoboken Four.  They received over 40,000 phone calls, the most of any act in the history of the show up until then.  (They then went on to make a couple of short films for Major Bowes, one called “The Big Minstrel Act” in which they all wore blackface.  Things were different back then . . .)

By 1937, according to a US Treasury Department report to Congress detailing the salaries of  the 15,000 wealthiest Americans, Major Bowes was making $427,817 from his radio show and its spin-offs.  (The man with the highest salary was movie producer Louis B. Mayer, with $1,161,753. But our very own Major Edward Bowes was sixth on the list – behind the likes of Frederic March and Greta Garbo, among others.)  Just FYI, Bowes’ salary equals about $7.2 million in 2016 dollars.

But radio wasn’t his first, or even second, successful career.  No, Bowes got his start in San Francisco real estate, apparently amassing quite a personal fortune which was decimated by the 1906 earthquake.  But he bounced back quickly, finding opportunity in the rubble, and then moved to New York where he ventured into theatrical real estate and producing.  By the 1920s, he was managing director of the Capitol Theater, one of the first movie palaces in New York City.

It was then that he started insisting on be addressed as “Major” Bowes, a rank he apparently attained in the US Army Reserves.

“The Original Amateur Hour” grew out of his interest in the Capitol Theater. In the early days of radio, as a promotion feature for the theatre, Bowes started a Sunday noon hour broadcast over local radio station WHN. By 1934, the idea of the Amateur Hour had evolved and the program was presented nationally as “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour.”

In the middle of the Depression, Major Bowes did very well for himself.   In addition to his princely salary, I found stories on the Internet about his 61-ton yacht called the Edmar, which he donated to the US Navy in 1940.  Then there was the story of his “specially built car with a dining space for six persons” that had been burgled in its garage on West 53rd Street in 1941, and various gold rimmed glassware, gold cutlery and gold corkscrews were stolen, in addition to a fox fur automobile robe. My, my!   An art connoisseur, his collection was sold at auction after his death, to the tune of $121,399, not to mention the Andrea del Sartos and El Grecos he had previously donated to the Catholic Church.  A former real estate man, he also amassed quite a real estate portfolio, the details of which didn’t really interest me enough to Google, but you should feel free to.

Major Bowes married the actress (and Daniel Frohman’s ex-wife) Margaret Illington in 1910 (more on her in a future post.) At some point, they purchased Laurel Hill and it became famous for its 14,000 laurel bushes and large, old trees.  At its height, it boasted a main house of ten rooms, several guest houses and a swimming pool. Sadly, the main house was destroyed by fire in 1937.  I suppose Bowes did some rebuilding, because in 1940, he donated his estate to the Lutheran Church for use as a retreat and it is still in use today.  (See link.)

Bowes died at the age of 72, and it was reported that his last rites were performed by none other than Francis Cardinal Spellman.  Widowed in 1934, he had no children, and left most of his money to the Catholic Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeanne Eagels, the original Sadie Thompson

Okay, first, if you are under the age of 95, you might ask, who is Jeanne Eagels?

1918 Daddies
Jeanne Eagels, as a war orphan in the 1918 play “Daddies”

Well, she was a big Broadway and film star in the 1910s and ‘20s.

And she owned a 22-acre country estate right here in Ossining, described by the NY Times as situated “in the hill country north of Briarcliff and east of Ossining with a six-room house and outbuildings.”

In those days, Ossining was quite the place for the gentry to land.  Eagels’ Ossining connection was oddly strong — not only did she maintain a country house on Cedar Lane in the 1920s, she had also previously owned an estate called Kringejan at 1395 Kitchawan Road. According to Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks in their biography “Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed” [buy it here if you’re interested] she fell in love with the Ossining area when she was making films at Thanhouser Studios in New Rochelle. (Who knew that there were silent film studios in Westchester? Not I!)

Her house is still standing at the intersection of Cedar Lane and Stormytown Road.  It has always caught my eye because it is completely out of character with the more modern and unassuming houses on either side. But I didn’t really think much about it until my friend Guy Cheli happened to mention that some silent film star named Jeanne Eagels had lived there.

And then I got a little obsessed.

Jeanne Eagels was born Amelia Eugenia Eagles (or Jeannine Eagels) in Kansas (or in Boston), in 1890 (or somewhere between 1889 and 1894.)

The story goes that she ran off with the Dubinsky Brothers Stock Company at the age of 15 (or 17 or 21.)   Starting off with a few small parts (and possibly by marrying one of the Dubinsky brothers) she clawed her way to the top.

Arguably, her most famous role came in 1923 as Sadie Thompson in the play Rain. Whether you know it or not, I can guarantee you’ve heard of it somehow, or at least of the character of Sadie.  Based on the scandalous 1921 short story by Somerset Maugham about a prostitute named Sadie Thompson and the missionary who rapes her (okay, I’m taking gigantic liberties with the intricate plot,) Rain first premiered on Broadway in 1923 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Sadie Thompson. Lee Strasberg, (the father of Method Acting) called her Sadie “One of the great performances of my theater-going experience . . .  An inner, almost mystic flame engulfed Eagels and it seemed as if she had been brought up to some new dimension of being.”  Clearly, she was no slouch in the acting department.

1924 Eagels in Rain

In 1928, Gloria Swanson produced and starred in the silent picture version called Sadie Thompson. Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth also starred in later iterations of this story. And, in 2016, the Old Globe Theater in San Diego premiered a musical version also called Rain.  It’s a story that continues to fascinate.

Anyway, Jeanne Eagels was as big a star as you could be back then on Broadway and in film.  After her death, the NY Times reported that she left an estate totaling over $88,000 (that’s $1.1 million today) that consisted of her Ossining home, and nearly $12,000 in jewelry and furs. The Times also noted that she owned a Hispano-Suiza autocar, which sounds fantastically antique.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.16.36 AM 1927 Hispano-Suiza. Imagine living in Ossining when cars like that were on the road.

Eagels’ story was still bankable in 1957 when Columbia Pictures made a biopic called “Jeanne Eagels” starring Kim Novak.

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She was, however, considered to be temperamental and unreliable. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from May 6, 1928:Eagels article

The article goes on to describe how her reputation was cemented when she starred in a 1926 play called “Her Cardboard Lover,” and she simply disappeared when the show moved from Chicago to Milwaukee:

Days passed, the theatre remained dark, the company idle, the management began to tear its hair, already made gray by the erratic star. Towards the end of the week, the lady of mystery turned up with the simple explanation that “She hadn’t been feeling well.” It was too late to do anything in Milwaukee, but there was a fine advance in St. Louis. So the manager bought flowers for the star and the company took turns petting and pitying her and asking no questions.

But the newly formed Actors’ Equity Association (of which Eagels had been unsupportive and refused to join) brought her up on charges, levied a $3,600 fine equal to two weeks’ salary (or $48,000 in 2016 dollars) and banned her from appearing on the stage for a year. (Imagine AEA doing such a thing today!)

In response, Eagels just went off and made films.  Here’s a link to a scene from her last film, “The Letter.”   It’s her only talkie, and she chews the scenery so magnificently that she was posthumously nominated for a Best Actress Oscar Award (it went to Mary Pickford instead.)

The Letter poster

And now you know who Jeanne Eagels was.

 

The Heady Family Cemetery

Did you know that one of the very first African-American landowners in Westchester County lived on Spring Valley Road?

And that he was born a slave in Scarsdale in 1751?

And that he and his descendents are buried in a cemetery located on what was once their family farm?

I had no idea, and I think it’s fitting that this is my first blog post, because this story was the first one that made me aware of the depth and breadth of the history that lines the roads along my runs.

Lazarus Heady was one of seven illegitimate children of Thomas Hadden of Scarsdale, and his slave, Rose. According to “The African Presence in Scarsdale, NY” by Phyllis C. Murray “Thomas Hadden (1691-1761) was a resident of Scarsdale. His holdings in Scarsdale included two houses, a barn, cider mill, out buildings and a 150-acre farm that extended from the Post Road to the Bronx River. The bequests in his will suggest that at his death, Thomas Hadden had fathered a mulatto family by one of his female slaves. All but the last few sentences of his will are dedicated to providing for his female servants and his seven mulatto children, ensuring their well-being after his death:  ‘All my Negroes [shall] be Exempted from Slavery, and Wench Rose shall be given a house on the north side of my farm.’”

 Exactly how Lazarus Heady came to live and own a farm on Spring Valley Road is still a mystery to me, but he did, and he had a very long life, dying at the age of 99 in 1850. He also seemed to have had a very large, extended family as evidenced by the size of the cemetery itself.

Though many of the headstones have aged to point where their inscriptions are illegible today, you can click on this link and find a list of headstones and epitaphs as they appeared in the 1960’s.   Copied down for posterity by a lovely lady named Irene Scase Summerville, she clearly shared my obsession with history.

I run by here all the time and never knew the cemetery even existed until some major landscaping was done a few years ago and I saw the uncovered headstones a little way off the road. I asked around and discovered that there is an often-ignored law that mandates that the upkeep for an abandoned cemetery falls to the town in which the cemetery is located. Thanks to the efforts of Gray Williams, former Town Historian for New Castle, the cemetery was cleared of weeds and headstones were repaired and righted.