A Note to My Readers: A number of fellow researchers have asked lately…any family secrets? “Oh, well, how many days have you got?”, I replied. My mother’s mother was an enigma to me. She died eleven days before I was born. And my mother loved her so terribly much that even as a child, I knew how deeply she felt by the emotion in her voice as she spoke of her mother. What was behind the tender pity and the purposeful incompleteness of my grandmother’s history. And what did I learn years later as I used records to piece together her life…and death?
Florence Leora Curtis Purdy
Daughter of George Downing Curtis, a entertainment mogul…a flashy, flamboyant rogue and his petite and savvy wife, Kate C. Curry Curtis.
Florence was born in 1883 in Port Byron, New York…in the days when her father began his career. George owned a billiard parlor and “eating establishment” in 1881. At the time it was a hot spot for travelers along the Erie Canal system and it wasn’t long before George made enough money to take his family to Canandaigua where he expanded his business dealings owning a market and ice house. He had a failure or two along the way…went bankrupt and Kate took control of the family’s finances. She gave George an allowance and kept tight control on his activities. He was a drinker, a gambler and a ladies’ man, but he had the gift of making money as much as losing it. When the Curtis’ landed in Ithaca, George once again had a billiard parlor and eating establishment. A men’s clothing store, Slocum & Co. came up for sale and George purchased it with cash. He was booking entertainment in the theater he rented…recruiting in the trade papers in New York City. George rode the trains, pockets full of cash doled out by Kate and went from town to town booking theaters…along with some gambling and drinking and dallying. Eventually he opened one of the first moving picture theaters in Ithaca in the old Cornell Public Library building. Life with George guaranteed excitement…but of the kind that a young girl turning 15 found unpleasant enough to elope with the handsome 23 year old, flawed young man who worked in her father’s men’s clothing shop.
My mother spoke of my grandmother as a raven-haired beauty with an eighteen inch waist when she married my grandfather. I sensed my mother’s story-telling left out a painful reality of her family life as she almost exclusively spoke of her parents in terms of their physical beauty. I knew “Mama” as a tragic heroine…by tone mostly, but by the fact that she lost two children and that “her hair turned white overnight” when her nine year old, Ruth was crushed to death by an out-of-control automobile. And she made the best lemon meringue pies. “Papa” was a “tailor’s dummy”-my mother’s term- who wore only the best hand tailored clothes and derby hats despite the family’s ongoing money struggles. Neither Florence nor Burt’s parents’ wealth spared the couple from a life of severe financial ups and downs. In 1908 Burt was given the Curtis theater interest in Ithaca…which he promptly sold for a tidy sum…and ten years later went bankrupt. He sold men’s clothing and during World War I, worked at Thomas-Morse aircraft making and painting airplane frames. After the war, he managed another clothing store in Ithaca and spent the latter part of his life as a house painter. The Purdys never owned a home. In fact when others in their generation with much less resources were upwardly mobile, they were curiously immobilized. So many of their family members went to Cornell…my grandmother’s brother graduated as an engineer and the ladies played piano and held teas. Grandma Smith’s niece, Libbie Van Dorn was a genteel and educated young lady…gracing her aunt’s parlor with teas and young gentleman callers and piano recitals.
The more I learned, the more questions I had. It was as much a personal, psychological and spiritual journey of discovery as it was a genealogical one.
I had been piecing together the tapestry of my mother’s family cobbled with my mother’s brief bits of sentiment, the family bible that belonged to Grandma Smith, census records up to 1930 and newspaper articles. I had only known that my grandfather had gone into a nursing home on Geneva Street and my grandmother lived on her own and had a gentleman friend in her later years. Burt had developed thrombosis…from climbing up and down ladders painting the big houses in Ithaca according to my uncle. Though he outlived my grandmother and died when I was three, I only remember standing in front of the nursing home waving to a darkened window…that was grandfather to me….a darkened window with the reflection of sunlit leaves from the Dutch elms that lined the street.
What the Directories Told
And then the Ithaca city directories became available for research online via the Tompkins County library. Up to that point I had no idea that Burt and Florence had parted ways as man and wife long before his residence as a nursing home patient. By 1932 Burt lived with his eighty-four year old mother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith on 307 Eddy Street. Grandma Smith had dominated Burt’s life…and Florence’s…never approving of their marriage…and taking their first born, Elizabeth to raise as her own. I guess that made three children lost to Florence. My mother did leave a note on a legal yellow pad that was tucked in her bedside table at the time of her death.
“Papa was a spoiled young man. Spoiled by his mother.”
Florence was on her own living at 401 North Aurora Street working as a “domestic”. After 33 years of marriage and six children, 49 year old Florence took her 13 year old son, Bill and walked away. Or perhaps Burt simply went home to his mother and Florence refused to go.
Meanwhile her sisters and her brother had lovely homes in Rochester and Philadelphia…traveled and enjoyed an active social life and a very close relationship with one another. The Curtis estate was worth a tidy sum. Florence cleaned other people’s houses. In 1940 she rose up and sued her siblings when they entered into a lease agreement with a large entertainment group. The dispute seems to imply her siblings made a deal to lease the theater which included their interest…and hers…for less than it was worth and then receiving stock in the leasing company of H. G. Carroll. Florence had been shut out. But then I don’t see any more reference to it in Rochester newspapers. Perhaps Florence was given a settlement. Which may explain why on earth our mother never told us of her aunts and uncles. Had Florence and her siblings struggled with one another about family money in the past? They were certainly given the responsibility of managing the estate interests over the years. Florence was managing her life with Burt and her children in the meantime. The fact that George and Kate had provided Burt with the gift of the initial theater interest in Ithaca…and employment as well in the early years and it went nowhere, may explain much about the later family dynamic. Did that create a gap…or widen one already present?
Burt was listed as living with his mother in the 1934 Ithaca City Directory and Florence was living on South Aurora. So I was pretty sure that was that. During that time, my grandmother had learned to drive. She bought a Ford coupe and would visit my mother often. My brothers said she had a boyfriend whose name was Ducky Drake. It occurred to me that I should search the directories to see if she and Ducky shared an address. What the heck, I wasn’t going to be shocked now. The obvious problem is that no self respecting man was going to be listed in the directory as “Ducky Drake.”
I found “Ducky”…Deforest Gaylord Drake and started tracking him and eventually found my grandmother living with him…listed as his wife, Florence L. Drake, in the Ithaca Directory in 1940 on 202 Dey Street. But nothing in the 1940 census for her…until I decided to dig in and find Deforest Gaylord Drake. There they were…still on Dey Street and she was listed as his wife, Louise…which explains why my mother thought her mother’s middle name was Louise and why Florence L. Purdy did not show up in the search. I had been searching for my maternal grandmother’s listing as Florence Purdy in the 1940 census for months. I never considered my timid grandmother would ‘live with a man’ and call herself “Mrs.” to boot. And “Ducky”…well….
Another phone directory in 1942 has her still working as a housekeeper and living as Mrs. Florence Drake on 310 Farm Street. Ducky was not listed in the directory at all in 1942…could have been in service during WWII. In 1944 I found them again living on South Meadow Street. She was not listed as his wife, but as Florence L. Purdy. So I could keep the term boyfriend intact. My grandmother did not divorce my grandfather or remarry. She simply…ah…what’s the modern day term…oh yeah…cohabitated.
What is very interesting is that Ducky was the same age as her eldest daughter, Elizabeth…born around 1901. My grandmother was a ‘cougar’! She was almost 15 years old than Ducky. As my cousin, Chris said, when I revealed my findings….”Go Grandma”.
And that brings us to the Purdy burial plots…there they lie…side by side…Burt Purdy and his wife Florence with their two young daughters, Kathryn and Ruth in a beautiful, serene family plot anchored with a huge granite stone and overlooking Cayuga Lake. I suppose that was the last thing that bound the two together. For eternity.
The directories and a bit of interviewing my brothers who knew my grandmother provided the last bit of information about my grandmother. I certainly know she suffered struggles with her family and she was a bit of a loner after her children were grown…driving the little coupe around Ithaca…sitting by the streams in the shade while Ducky fished…indulging in French lingerie which she proudly showed off to my mother. She let her grandsons climb in the front seat of the coupe warning “Don’t meddle, dolly,” when they reached out to tweak the dashboard knobs. Florence was crippled with arthritis and rarely left the coupe. My mother would bring them each an iced tea and sit in the cab of the car that was parked under a tree in the driveway and visit for long afternoons. But she had Ducky and she had enough chutzpah to face down her siblings for her share of her parent’s estate…which appears she did not get by the way. The deal was business savvy and complete. But in an uncharacteristic flash of ego, she fought anyway. What was that? And there was the French lace fetish. And her beloved, shiny black Coupe that sat in my parents’ garage for years after her death.
I think I would have liked my grandmother very much. And the rest of her secrets will remain hers.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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