XXIX – I Dream of Fanny

Vidaud, Fanny - Rochambeau Manifest - 1914Let’s just say it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a young lady without a husband or children, but with some money, has nothing better to do than to cross the Atlantic — many times. From a certain angle, such seems to have been the destiny that Fanny Georgiana Vidaud crafted for herself. Of the seven other children descended from Étienne Octave Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait — who was born in Bordeaux and migrated via Santiago de Cuba to Brooklyn in the 1840s — and his American wife, Mary E. Scott Boyd — also known at least briefly (and strangely) as the Countess de Pomeray — none seems to have journeyed abroad as much as Fanny. As I described in that earlier post, Fanny G. Vidaud was a traveler. Her digital afterlife comprises records of multiple arrivals in New York from various European ports — Le Havre, Liverpool, Rotterdam — on ships whose names, decades later, sound impossibly romantic: the Saxonia, the Rochambeau, the Westernland… She was an immigrant’s child reconnected to her father’s birthplace, if not to the island where he had spent some time, and I wonder what went through her mind as she sailed back to the United States on each of those occasions, on ships that also transported new immigrants. Did Fanny feel at home as she beheld the growing skyline of her hometown? Or was she a stranger, at home elsewhere, on the other side of the ocean? Or where there many places worthy of being called home? Or was she essentially an unhoused soul, with no place truly to call hew own? And can we have any insight into any of this, after all these years?

If Fanny’s ghost lives on in the digital universe, her spirit is virtually gone by now. There might be letters waiting somewhere to be read, but mostly what remains are cold official documents that don’t allow us to retrieve her mind transparently. Then again, soul, ghost, spirit, mind — what are these things, anyway? At least we have some hard facts. We know about her professional vocation. She trained to be, and went on to work, as a kindergarten teacher. On 24 May 1890, the New York Times reported on the commencement exercises of the Workingman’s School of the Society of Ethical Culture, held the evening before in its building at 109 W. 54th Street. The school had been founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, born in Germany, the son of a rabbi, and eventually the chair of political and social ethics at Columbia University. The Workingman’s School is now the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. On its website, children narrate the school’s history on video, and we’re reminded of ECFS’s founding principles: “Compelled by charity, idealism and pedagogy, Adler emphasized moral education, psychological development and integration of the creative and manual arts with academics.” Indeed, the Times article described such a scene: “In the various rooms of the building were displayed specimens of the works of the pupils, including designs for fancy work, models in wood, metal, and plaster, which reflected great credit on the methods of teaching employed in the school.” Among the fourteen graduates of the Normal Kindergarten Class was Fanny G. Vidaud. What prompted her to attend the Workingman’s School is a mystery. But, born as she was in 1862, she was in her late twenties when she graduated, which makes me think it was her own decision, a turn of events — I wish to think — connected to deeply held beliefs in the promise of education to effect social reform. Perhaps it was also her own sense of independence — the notion that a woman ought to have not just a room, but a profession of her own. Perhaps it was also the need to ensure a livelihood.

There is much written on Professor Adler, but very little on Fanny. The records I find online are reticent and intermittent. Yet they testify to her long career as a teacher and her continued thirst for learning. More than a decade after the note in the New York Times, she is listed in the Harvard University Catalog of 1890-91 as a kindergarten teacher taking a summer course in Physical Training — everything from calisthenics to fencing and swimming: “Fanny Georgiana Vidaud, Kindergartner, Mrs. Scribner’s School, New Brighton, N.Y.” (New Brighton, I learn via Google, is on Staten Island.) In 1903, as I noted previously, she is a student in the Section des sciences historiques et philologiques of Paris’ École des hautes études pratiques — one of the few women registered there. And there she is again, Fanny Vidaud, now 61, in April 1924, arriving in Plymouth, England, from New York on the Cunard Line’s Ausonia, described in the passenger manifest’s column for “Profession, Occupation or Calling of Passengers” as a teacher, while most other women are listed as housewives. And there she is, yet again, in 1928, sailing from Greenock, Scotland, to Montreal on the White Star’s Doric: Fanny G. Vidaud, 55 ( but wasn’t she 66 by then?), listed in the alien passengers’ manifest as a citizen of the United States and a teacher. But finally, in 1930, as she arrives on the Red Star Line’s Pennland from New York once again in Plymouth, her profession is now recorded as “Nil.”

We don’t know the specific reasons for all those transatlantic journeys, but it is easy to imagine that Fanny would visit her numerous Vidaud relatives — uncles, aunts, cousins — in Bordeaux and Pau, and tour the multiple sights of the various cities in which she spent time. It may have been the Gilded Age in wealthy America when she started crossing the Atlantic, but Europe still possessed the cultural capital one was expected to cherish. But I think — maybe I know — that wasn’t all.

Vidaud, Fanny - Passport Application - 1915A citizen of the world, as I envision her, Fanny chose to play an active role in the Great War. Three passport applications obliquely tell a story of concern for others regardless of borders. On 17 April 1915, well before her own country entered the war, Fanny Vidaud, “a native and loyal citizen of the United States,” applied for a passport to travel to France for the explicit purpose of conducting “relief work among refugees.” Tellingly, the name of a second country, England, and the intended reason for visiting it — “pleasure” — are crossed out, almost as if she had realized at the last minute what really mattered in a time of emergency. Also crossed out are those patriarchal phrases that all single and childless women like Fanny needed to contend with at the time: “accompanied by my wife;” “minor children.” But as much as I would like to find out, I don’t know exactly how Fanny spent that period of time — over a year, it seems — in France. Did she stay with her family in Bordeaux or Pau, or was she elsewhere? In August 1916, as the war rages on, she ventures across the Atlantic on the Saxonia from Liverpool back to New York. I don’t know why. But then, on 18 May 1918, before the war is over, Fanny applies for a new passport to return to France. This time she plans to engage in “war relief work.” She stays there until 1920; on 17 January she applies for yet another passport, at the United States Passport Bureau in Paris, to travel back home, or “home.” This third application affords a tiny glimpse into her life abroad. We learn she had arrived in Bordeaux in August 1918, and that she now lives at 144bis, boulevard Montparnasse, in Paris. Filling in the application’s blank spaces, she also states that she has been residing in France “for the purpose of Relief Work, on behalf on Independent.” Six months later, in July 1920, just as she had done in January 1914, she sails back to New York from Le Havre on the Rochambeau, an ocean liner of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, named after the French nobleman who had taken part in the American Revolutionary War — a Franco-American figure of sorts, I suppose, like Fanny herself to some degree, or the Statue of Liberty, greeting those arriving from other lands.

In the next ten years or so, Fanny would return to Europe a few more times. A fourth passport application — the last one I have found — is dated 2 March 1922 in New York. It tells a story of peace regained. Fanny states that she plans go to France and England (“Visit to Relatives”) and to Italy (“Travel”). Like the other passport applications she has completed before, this one also requests that she tell the immigration story of her father. Once again, Fanny must write down that her father’s name is E.O. Vidaud, that he was born in France, that he died on 2 June 1888, and that “he emigrated to the United States from the port of Santiago, Cuba, on or about 1845; that he resided 45 years uninterruptedly in the United States, from 1845 to 1888, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; that he was naturalized a citizen of the United States before … ” She knows the year, 1858, of the naturalization ceremony, but ignores the court in which it was held, so she impatiently scrawls the word “Unknown” across the blank space. There is only so much one can know, or there is only so much one can be bothered to recall. Or am I imagining things? Am I seeing a rebellious mind where there was none?

Vidaud, Fanny - PictureThere she is, Fanny in her late fifties, wrapped in furs for her passport photograph in 1922. The Description of Applicant affords a few specific details about her physical appearance. She is five feet one inch tall; her hair is white; her eyes, hazel; her complexion, fair; her nose, large. Her eldest brother, Robert, is the witness, and the passport, once issued, will need to be delivered at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn. At the time, I believe Robert is living in New Jersey, so it’s arguably not altogether surprising that he would be staying at a hotel in New York. But what about Fanny? Where does she live? There is much that I don’t know about her last decade. I have a feeling that she, an expatriate of sorts, may not have had a permanent home of her own anywhere. Her addresses change, and she appears to move to other parts of the city and even other states, apparently to stay with family members. In 1928, returning from Scotland to the United States on the Doric, her address is listed as 15 Hubbard Woods, Illinois, with a note specifying that this is where her sister, Mrs. J.R. Montgomery, lives. Indeed, Marion Vidaud had married John Rogerson Montgomery, a lawyer from Chicago, in 1912 and moved to that city’s northern suburbs. In 1930, Fanny returns to New York from Antwerp in 1930, and the ship’s manifest has her living at 609 W. 51st Street. Yet that building, it appears, was not anyone’s home, but the address of the Brambach Piano Co., for which her brother, Edward E. Vidaud, had been working for since 1919. Three years later, in 1931, Fanny is back in Europe and, upon her return to the U.S. from Southampton, her address is again her sister’s house near Chicago. And then, in 1938, suddenly, we have a record of her death in Braintree, Massachusetts. How did she end up there? Was she living alone, or was she lodging in someone else’s house? To me, all the years I lived in Boston, Braintree was simply a name, the end of the Red Line in the opposite direction from Harvard. Had I known about Fanny, had I known that she died there, I would have taken the T to Braintree and … Perhaps I’m looking at all this too dramatically. The past, such as it is, may be partially regained, but it often remains illegible and must be performed on an oneiric key.

I dream of Fanny because the patterns of her life resound with some of the stories of the Vidaud family that I find most compelling. Like Fefa, whose third cousin she was, Fanny cared for children; like Bebé, she embraced the world beyond her native shores. But I dream of her because she moved from place to place as if borders did not exist, embracing, it seems, life elsewhere, everywhere. In dreams, I see her sailing across the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas, neither here nor there nor anywhere. Nowhere.


IX – Brooklyn

We, the people who descend from the Cuban Gauls, reside now in not small numbers across these United States. As an extended family of sorts, we cover the land from sea to shining sea, from California all the way east to Florida and north to Maine, and then Massachusetts and New Jersey and Maryland and Kentucky — not to mention New York, where Étienne Octave Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait migrated to from Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century, and where many of his descendants, I imagine, are probably still to be found. Born in 1826, Étienne was the third son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, born in Port-au-Prince, and Anne-Joséphine Tardy, born in Santiago de Cuba. (She, in turn, was a granddaughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français.) Étienne was a half-cousin (it’s complicated) of my grandmother’s grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet. What prompted him to leave Cuba for the United States — instead of France, as most of his siblings did — is a mystery to me. Why he settled in Brooklyn is yet another mystery. Described by M. Vallantin Dulac as a “négociant armateur” (a shipowner entrepreneur?), Étienne actually appears to have engaged in less glamorous occupations upon first arriving in the United States. In the 1857 edition of Trow’s New York City Directory, he is listed as a “clerk” working at 18 Beaver St., New York, and living at 298 Union St., Brooklyn; in 1872, he has risen to “imp.” (importer, but of what?), working at the same place, but now living at 349 Union; in 1880, he is a “mer.” (merchant). Then again, in Trow’s 1879 edition, in the section titled “Wilson’s New York City Copartnership Directory,” Étienne O. Vidaud (as he is now called) is listed next to Frederick Barnstorff of Barnstorff & Co., located on 34 Broadway. As several mentions of it — variously related to the arrival of a ship from Bremen, Germany, or the importation of honey and molasses from Cienfuegos, Cuba — in the Marine Intelligence section of the New York Times reveal, Barnstorff & Co. was indeed a shipping-related concern.

In New York, Étienne married Mary E. Scott Boyd, who, in C.H. Browning’s Americans of Royal Descent (1883), styles herself as the Countess de Pomeray — which I don’t quite understand, since her husband had two older brothers, Pierre-Paul (the real count, according to M. Vallantin Dulac), who died in Paris only in 1907; and Ernest, who was a medical doctor in Pau, where he died in 1912. Who knows, maybe Étienne told Mary he was a French count, and she fell for the glamor of a European nobiliary title. In any event, he and the fausse-Comtesse had eight children, the eldest of whom, Josephine Susan, was born in Brooklyn in 1854. Our first American, Étienne died on 2 June 1888 and is buried in Orange, N.J.

The second of Étienne’s children was Robert Pomerait Vidaud, born in 1860. He married one Florence Wheelock at her parents’ residence on 161 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, on 26 April 1883, less than a month before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. They were married by Henry Ward Beecher, which makes me wonder what, if anything, the famous preacher knew about the Vidauds’ links to slavery in the Caribbean. The New York Times saw fit to print a description of Miss Wheelock’s wedding dress — “Her costume was of white satin en train, with high corsage trimmed with duchesse lace; her veil was caught at the side with orange blossoms” — as well as of the house’s look, where “the parlors were tastefully decorated with flowers and tropical plants.” (Ah, botany, you again!) Were the tropical plants chosen as a reminder of Robert’s father’s birthplace, or were they just in vogue at American weddings in the 1880s? I suspect the latter. There must be a picture somewhere of the happy couple, perhaps posing by the exotic blooms, but I haven’t found one. A successful businessman — a broker in hatter’s fur — and member of the Rembrandt Club of Brooklyn, among others, Robert P. Vidaud, as he came to be known, died in Glen Ridge, N.J., in 1936. Only one tragedy darkens his life’s digital record.

R.P. Vidaud & Son - AdRobert and Florence had two children. The oldest was Erving Wheelock Vidaud, born in 1885. As recorded in the Secretary’s Third Report for the Harvard College Class of 1906, Erving “prepared for college” at the Hackley School, in Tarrytown, N.Y. Given that his second great-grandfather was an architect, I like the fact that Erving went to Hackley, the same school from which the great Philip Johnson would also graduate two decades after him. After Harvard, Erving returned to New York, and in 1910, according to The American Hatter, Robert, who by then had become “the well-known broker in hatters’ fur,” admitted his son Erving to partnership. The firm, known henceforth as R.P. Vidaud & Son, was located at 13 Washington Place in Manhattan. This is all NYU territory nowadays, I believe, but in the 1910s it must have been the hatter’s fur district, given the number of similar firms located on that one street; one can see their ads in The American Hatter. How did Robert, a man whose paternal side of the family hailed from tropical Saint-Domingue and Cuba, end up as a broker in wintry furs, of all things, is a mystery to me. And what took Erving eventually to Philadelphia and Washington, when he was his father’s partner in R.P. Vidaud & Son in New York — that too is a mystery.

Vidaud, Mary - WeddingSo many mysteries! But at least the press recorded a few things that shed some light into the lives of these ghosts. According to the New York Times, Erving was an usher at his sister’s wedding. Mary Vidaud, Smith College Class of 1911, married Heermance Montague Howard, Williams College Class of 1910, on 18 April 1914 at the Church of the Savior in Brooklyn. A reception was held at 161 Joralemon, the same house where Mary’s parents, Robert and Florence, had been married. Mary’s paternal grandfather, Étienne, was surely baptized a Catholic in Cuba, but her father, Robert, according to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 8 December 1936, was a “life member of the Unitarian Association” and held several important positions at the Church of the Savior. So Mary was now married in a Unitarian church. This departure from Popish ways makes sense also if one considers that Mary’s mother was a Wheelock, an old Massachusetts family who had crossed the Atlantic and arrived in what is now the United States more than two centuries before Étienne sailed north from the Caribbean. Indeed, Florence Wheelock’s fifth great-grandfather was Ralph Wheelock, born in 1600 in Shropshire, England, and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he obtained both a bachelor and a master of arts degree. The Wheelock Family genealogy site describes the university at the time as “the center of the dissenting religious movement that gave rise to Puritanism.” Sans blague. In 1637, Ralph Wheelock and his wife, Rebecca, sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arriving in a still very new New England. Boston had been founded only in 1630, and Harvard itself was just one year old. “A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard, / The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,” is how Seamus Heaney would put it some 350 years later — but I digress.

Vidaud, Erving - Death N.Y. TimesLess that six months after Mary’s wedding to Heermance Howard, war broke out in Europe and tragedy struck in the Vidaud family. Once again, my main source is the ever reliable Times. The house on Joralemon St. had been empty for the summer when the newlywed Mary and a servant returned from Garden City, N.Y., where, according to the New York Tribune, the Vidauds had a summer home. Upon entering the house, they smelled gas and then, in what must have been a horrible shock, found Erving, the family’s only son, lifeless in his bedroom. At the time of his premature death on 30 September 1914, Erving was a member of Brooklyn’s Hamilton Club, the Harvard Club of New York, and the University Club in Washington, D.C. — a successful young man, it seems. But was it that cold in Brooklyn that early autumn day that all windows in the house on Joralemon St. were closed? What really happened is yet another mystery. In any event, Erving was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Lot 3073, Section 25, to be joined by his father and mother only in 1936 and 1946 respectively. (Incidentally, must one be Cuban to find the Times headline announcing the death somehow terribly funny?)

R. Vidaud DiesAfter his son’s death, Robert P. carried on with his trade. In its August 1918 issueThe American Hatter describes a meeting of business leaders held after the war: “One of the most important gatherings ever held in this country took place at Atlantic City, December 2nd to 7th, when all of the War Services Committees representing the nation’s industries came together at the call of the United States Chamber of Commerce for a War Emergency and Reconstruction conference.” Standing for the Hatters Fur Industry — as opposed to the Fur & Wool Felt Hat Manufacturers or the Straw and Panama Hat Industry — was “R.P. Vidaud, of the American Hatters & Furriers Co., Inc.” No more R.P. Vidaud & Son, after the tragedy; in fact, Robert went to work for someone else’s company. Or perhaps the firm had ceased to exist even earlier. Perhaps Erving, uninterested in his father’s fur business, had gone to Washington D.C. to start a new job as a salesman for the Firestone Tire Company. Automobiles and tires were a new thing; I suppose it must have been exciting to be a part of the new industry. Or the job may have taken him to Philadelphia, where the Harvard Club of New York lists him as living in 1913-14, at 615 North Broad Street. All this too, at least for now, remains a mystery.

Did the Vidauds of Brooklyn ever think of Cuba? Old Étienne must have, of course, since he was born there, but I don’t know what kind of relationship his children or grandchildren had with the faraway island. They surely heard of José Martí, a New Yorker of sorts, and his struggle for Cuban independence, but did they ever read “El puente de Brooklyn,” his essay on American technological might in which he also enumerates immigrants from all over the world? But there’s no mention of Cuba in Robert’s obituary — or in any other document pertaining to him that I’ve seen, for that matter.

One of Étienne’s children, Fanny Georgiana Vidaud, born in 1862, appears to have been a passionate, even fearless, traveler, but her trips, from what I can see, where consistently Europe-bound. Ship manifests from Ellis Island show her arriving back in New York from various European ports on at least eight occasions: 1903, on the Noordam from Rotterdam; 1910, the Madonna from Marseilles; 1916, in the middle of the war, the Saxonia from Liverpool; 1920, the Rochambeau from Le Havre; 1924, the Suffren again from Le Havre; 1927, the Providence from Marseilles; 1930, the Westernland from Antwerp; and 1931, when she was 69, the Pennland from Southampton. Through all of these sea voyages, the ship manifests also show that her marital status remained resolutely single. I suspect Fanny may have visited her transatlantic Vidaud cousins — the children of Étienne’s various siblings who left their native Cuba to settle “back” in France — in Pau, where most of them lived, and surely those in Paris, where she spent a substantial amount of time. The 1903 Annuaire of the École des hautes études pratiques lists her as a student in its Section des sciences historiques et philologiques. Most other students were French men, but there she is: “Vidaud de Pomerait (Fanny), née à New-York le 18 août 1862, Américaine.” And there too is her address, rue de l’École-de-Médecine, 4. I shall visit that street soon, and I shall return to Fanny G. Vidaud in this blog, for I detect in her a kindred spirit.

As for Cuba, could there still have been any meaningful connections for the Brooklyn Vidauds? Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, my grandmother’s aunt known as Fefa, loved the Vidauds of Barcelona, but I think she must have regarded her more remote North American cousins — those English-speaking Protestants — as nothing but strangers. Then again, there is an Ellis Island record from 1912 that has Erving returning to New York on the S.S Sixaola, a passenger and cargo ship. The digitalized document is virtually illegible, so I cannot really tell where the ship sailed from, but various websites indicate that the Sixaola normally traveled from New York to Jamaica, Cuba, Central America and back. Let’s therefore imagine that one fine day in the spring of 1912 Erving Wheelock Vidaud, our distant French-Cuban-American relative, sailed into Santiago de Cuba and slowly made his way to the tree- and flower-rich Sierra Maestra and reached La Reunión, redolent of coffee and cacao, and there he met Alberto Vidaud Caignet, his grandfather’s half-cousin, and chatted with Carmela, my shy and perspicacious seven-year-old grandmother, whose own brother, Fernando de Granda Vidaud, would die in old New England, where I too would spend nine years of my life.

Étienne and his descendants were not the first Vidauds in these United States. Albeit not permanently, people surnamed Vidaud were present in this country as early as the turn of the nineteenth century, and I will soon try to retrace their footsteps. But, for now, I am strangely comforted by the ghostly presence of Étienne & Co. as they walk in some of my — their, our — old haunts. My brother, a student at Pratt Institute and a Williamsburg pioneer in the 1980s, lived in Brooklyn for years, not that far from Joralemon Street, and I often visited him there from Cambridge, where I was a graduate student. Also in that preternaturally remote era, my sister was an undergraduate at Boston College. We would meet downtown, do some shopping perhaps, and say good-bye at the Park St. T station; she’d take the Green Line back to B.C. and I the Red Line to Harvard Square. I would then walk across the Yard — autumnal, or snow-covered, or radiantly verdant — back home to my apartment. I didn’t know it at the time, but Erving W.V. had lived in Holworthy Hall during his senior year. That red-brick building was, or is, just steps from another red-brick building in the Yard, Thayer Hall, in whose basement, eighty years after Erving’s time, I would spend an entire summer editing a student travel guidebook to “Europe,” a sentimental abstraction to which I was as devoted as Fanny G.V. seems to have been several decades before me. All that is past now, but when I think of our tutelary digital specters, the past is not dead at all.