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.

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