My aunt Frances lived her whole life in the family house in Rhode Island. After she died in 1991, we took all the personal papers we could find back to our house. Among these papers was a curious set of books, photographs, letters, etc. that had belonged to Frances’ friend Robbie, most of which were associated with continental Europe. I put them in a briefcase.
Fast forward 25 years, and I’m finally going through the family material. The briefcase contained writings by an American woman named Clare Benedict, who lived most of her life in Europe. Miss Benedict in turn was the daughter of Clara Woolson Benedict, who was the sister of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a well-known popular novelist in the 19th century, whose stories were almost forgotten until very recent times. Miss Woolson was a grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper and, again recently, considered to be the female counterpart (as a novelist) to Henry James.
So how does Robbie connect with that family? It’s a fascinating story that I’ve accidentally stumbled into. Perhaps it’s best to tell it chronologically.
Constance Fenimore Woolson was born in 1840 and grew up in Cleveland. She began creative writing around the age of 30, mostly short stories. After her mother died in 1879 (her father had died in 1869) she moved to Europe, living in hotels in several different countries, and wrote her successful novels, with subjects including the American South and American expatriates in Europe. She died in 1894, committing suicide, scholars think as a result of severe depression.
After a century of neglect, this author is getting belated attention. There is a new biography of her, and within the last five years most of her books have been republished in paper or ebook form.
Her sister Clara Woolson was born in 1844 also growing up in Cleveland. She married George Benedict in 1868, and they had a daughter, Clare, born in 1870. George Benedict died accidentally in 1871, and at some point Mrs. Benedict went abroad to join her sister, bringing Clare. There is a photograph in the Western Reserve Historical Society archives in Cleveland showing all three women on camels visiting the Pyramids. Mrs. Benedict inherited everything from her sister. She probably spent most of the rest of her life in Europe, dying in 1923.
Clare Benedict probably lived the rest of her life in Europe after moving there with her mother. She appears to have been quite wealthy from the inheritance. She was a creative writer in her own right, publishing a few novels and a volume of short stories. She wrote a “Family Trilogy”: Voices Out of the Past, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and The Benedicts Abroad, to preserve for the public what she considered to be a family legacy.
In one of her writings Miss Benedict says that she and her mother moved to Lucerne, Switzerland to escape the consequences of World War I – they may have lived in Rome previously. I believe she lived in Lucerne for the rest of her life. Among the materials in Robbie’s possession is a series of large photographs in an envelope titled (in Robbie’s handwriting) “Miss B.’s rooms”. These rooms show a vast collection of fine art and artistic objects. She left generous grants to cultural and archival institutions throughout Europe, indicating that she thought they were underfunded compared with modern developments. She died on October 31, 1961. All three women are buried together in Rome in the Campo Siesto cemetery, the “Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners”.
In January 1960 Robbie sent a letter to her friends stating that she was leaving Rhode Island because “new fields look rosy”. She was going on a “Mediterranean cruise to Genoa, with stops at Santa Cruz, Gibraltar, Palermo and Naples. From Genoa to Luzerne for a visit with a cousin”. She planned to stay in Lucerne from February 15 to March 1, then proceed to England to a place called the Manor House in Oxfordshire to enjoy the countryside and work in their gardens. After a three-month stay there she would return to the States. Her cousin in Lucerne was Katharine.
Katharine was said to have “traveled extensively in Europe”. She lived in Lucerne from about 1949 until 1962. Her decision to return to the United States coincides with the death of Clare Benedict, who was a good friend.
Robbie made another trip to Europe from December 1961 through March 1962, partly to assist Katharine to pack up her possessions for her return to the States. She stayed a while in Lucerne, after which she and Katharine travelled to Bern and Geneva, through Italy and then to Rome, then returning to the United States.
Katharine lived in Rhode Island until she died in 1966. In a letter Frances says that Katharine left her personal possessions to Robbie, and these were undoubtedly the source of the materials I found. A book of Miss Benedict’s short stories titled XII has the frontispiece inscription “For Katharine with much love, from Clare, Lucerne, 1951.” Also one of Miss Benedict’s novels, The Love Saint, was inscribed “For Katharine”.
Robbie died in 1980.
I found that there is a Clare Benedict collection at the Western Reserve Historical Society, contacted them and sent them the materials that they wanted, namely those directly related to her. What remained are many large vintage black-and-white or sepia tourist photographs of Egypt, Rome, Venice, Geneva, Bern, among other places, and a collection of prints and drawings also centered on Europe, all from (I guess) between 1900 and 1950. These I assume are mementos of travels by Clare Benedict and/or Katharine. I decided to keep these in a portfolio; below is one of them.
The above is an interesting story of American women of means during the late 19th and early- to mid- 20th century, remaining single, traveling through Europe, enjoying the life and culture there. The documents in the briefcase were the gateway that led me to research these lives on the Web and in Robbie’s and Frances’s letters in order to write this story.