A piano lesson?

29 Jul

Huntington, Pennsylvania, Daily News, July 14, 1938

Before there was Rupert Murdoch and Wendi, his pie-spiking wife; before the celebrity sphere was all a twitter about  51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison marrying a reportedly 16-year-old Courtney Stodden,  there was Herbert David Boutall, 63, and his 16-year-old bride, Ann

Dubbed a “hot weather item,” in my father’s column on July 16, 1938,  the item wasn’t about the temperatures  at all. It was about a May-December romance that made headlines across the nation.

“Both of the characters in this February-December drama are white, but what of it?” my father wrote.  “One newspaper carried a picture of the elderly Romeo lifting his youthful bride-to-be, just to show his retained strength.“

Boutall,  a widower from Athol, Mass. is quoted as saying: “The only ones in the neighborhood who object to the marriage are a couple of old maids who think I should marry someone nearer my own age. My answer to them is that when I buy a piano I don’t want an antique. I want one that plays.”

“Boutall should be careful about making assertions about purchasing antiques,” Ebenezer wrote. “His young bride might awaken some fine morning to realize that she has done just that.”

In hindsight, Ebenezer might have taken his own advice about making assertions. Ten years later, he would end up in his own May-December romance. My mother, certainly no child, was only 22 years my father’s  junior,  which doesn’t come close to the Boutalls’ 47-year age difference. Still, it’s a reminder that you never know when your own words will come back to bite you, especially when you are talking about “old” people. .

I followed the Boutall marriage in the archives of the Boston Globe. More than 5000 spectators lined the streets for the wedding on July 11, 1938.  The church only seated 120.  In August, a subsequent Globe article intimated that the couple was thinking of selling their New England farm and moving to England, where Herbert was from.  A year later, they were still in Athol, according to the Globe headline: “Farmer, 64, wife 17, will mark first year of marital bliss today.”

Then in May 1940, the Globe announced that the “May–December couple proud parents of a girl.”  They had a son the next June, but, alas, on April 10, 1943, the Globe announced, “Gap of 47 years too much for Athol pair, so they’ve separated.”

The paper quoted Herbert as saying, “If she wants a younger man she can have one.”  According to that Globe article, Herbert was headed to England to work in a war plant.  His wife and children moved back in with her parents.

Perhaps she got a new piano. Continue reading

‘Lift Every Voice’ 2.0

25 Jul

After I posted that last piece on “Lift Every  —  or is it Ev’ry? — Voice and Sing,” a friend sent me a video of jazz singer Rene Marie’s rendition. You’ll notice that the person who introduces her  — he calls her Rene “Martin” instead of  “Marie ” — announces that she is going to sing “our” national anthem.

When I first watched the video, I was unaware of the context, so when he said “our” I didn’t know which “we” he meant.Turns out that the occasion was the State of the City address in Denver in 2008 and the audience was expecting a straight up “Star Spangled Banner.”

Apparently, Marie’s rendition caused quite a stir, to put it mildly. WARNING: If you venture into the comment thread that accompanies the video, you might need an antacid.

One might argue that Marie should have at least given city officials a heads up. In her defense, she says no one would have complained had her offering included another traditionally patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful.”

I think it’s a brilliant mash-up. What do you think?

I’ve also included a rendition by Talisman, a Stanford University a capella group.  Enjoy this one too.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

23 Jul

On July 16, 1938, my father devoted most of his column to James Weldon Johnson, a true Renaissance man who died in a car accident in Maine on June 26 of that year.

“Mr. Johnson’s demise marks the end of a brilliant and varied career. During his lifetime he had wrought in the capacity of lawyer, author, educator and diplomat,” my father wrote. “As a diplomat he represented the United States in Venezuela and at Nicaragua. As author he gave us several interesting books on the life of the Negro. As educator he was instructor on creative literature at Fisk University and New York University. As a composer, he gave us amongst other numbers, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ otherwise known as the ‘Negro National Anthem.‘

After posting the lyrics, Ebenezer wrote: “The late Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the Negro in the form of an anthem clearly reveal the depth to which his thoughtful soul travelled. In it he bade us rejoice, he bade us hope, he bade us pray and, none the least, march on!”

Preach, Daddy!

“Set to music by his brother Rosamond Johnson, its melody lingers in your ears. The only ‘blue note’ is that it is not heard more often from the lips of persons for whom the author wrote it,” he added.

By the way, Cameron McWhirter, has an excellent column on James Weldon Johnson on The Root.

Continue reading

Julian Marshall Williams, pioneering journalist, scholar

16 Jul

My cousin Julian and I had just begun to get reacquainted. We hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, but we were new Facebook friends, fellow bloggers and journalists.

“I need your advice on something,” Julian wrote in an email last spring. “What do you think of my creating a blog designed to post news about our wonderful aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.? There is so much talent in our family, and we are doing so many great things.”

In another, he wrote to say that he liked this blog. “I am so proud of you, my dear cousin! Keep up the good work.”

“It’s so great to reconnect with you,” I wrote back. “When Zuri gets back to Atlanta, we’ll have to meet somewhere, maybe Savannah.”

Tragically, Julian is being laid to rest in Savannah today. His sudden death on July 6 at a young 58 makes no sense to me. Frankly, it makes me mad. Continue reading

That ‘threshold’ business

4 Jul

“So we married,” my father wrote in his column a couple of weeks after he said, “I do’ to Lucille Manning, his first wife. In an April 29,1939 New York Age article describing the wedding, there was not a hint of sarcasm. But even as a newlywed, Ebenezer could not resist.

“Irrespective of what one hears and knows, yet something gets by you,” he wrote in his column on May 6, 1939. “We hadn’t heard of this ‘carrying your bride over the threshold’ business until very recently. What strikes us is, suppose we had married that hell-cat with plenty of pois — avoirdupois. ‘What strength can’t do art and resolution will,’ they tell us. Art would have failed. Resolution would have gotten us a piano-mover.
“We carried our 120 pounds over. She smiled broadly. We grinned. Who said a man isn’t born a chump?”

I’m sure we will never know who the “hell-cat” was. I trust Lucille appreciated his sense of humor.

Continue reading

Lucille Manning Ray: A wife from another life

30 Jun
Newspaperman Marries Beautician

The New York Age, April 29, 1939

About a decade before my parents tied the knot, another woman took the name of Mrs. Ebenezer Ray.  Her name was Lucille. For a long time, that’s all I knew. My mother had told me my father had had a first wife. And after my mom  died, I found my dad and Lucille’s divorce papers in my mother’s dresser drawer. When I told a friend that I’d thought  it curious that my mother would save  the divorce papers from her husband’s first marriage, but none of his writings, the friend suggested that it was by design. My mother wanted to make sure my father was free to marry. Knowing my mother, that is exactly what she was thinking. But knowing my mother, if she’d  had copies of his columns, she would have kept those too. Continue reading

James Browne’s weekend love

17 Jun brotherspic7_fullsize

It’s the late 60s, and I’m in the backyard of our Pittsburgh home. My mother’s brothers, James and John, and their brother-in-law Frank are back there too.  We’re busying ourselves with summer chores my mother has assigned. But Uncle John and Uncle Frank aren’t having it.  After all, none of this was their idea. One minute they were out carousing somewhere between Newark and the Bronx. The next thing they knew they were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike headed for Pittsburgh, my Uncle James behind the wheel. Continue reading


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