Contributed by Joyce H. Munro

 

When two society ladies from Philadelphia spend the season at Lake Placid during the 1920s, exactly how do they spend it? And what if one lady is in her fifties and the other in her seventies? Knowing the older lady’s inclination to motor through the gardens of her summer place rather than stroll around, they probably don’t hike up Cascade Mountain or go swimming in the 65-degree lake. And what if these two ladies are not related, do not hold similar religious views and have only known each other a few years?

The younger lady was reared in an Episcopalian church whose Rector was a proponent of Christian socialism; the older was Quaker. Friendship would appear to be unlikely. But they were close enough to go on vacation together—several years running—at the lake-side resort famed for its “desirable social environment,” the Whiteface Inn.

By now you’ve surmised the older lady was Lydia Thompson Morris of Compton. And the younger? Bessie was her nickname, Elizabeth Herbert Stark her maiden name and Mrs. William Pierre Robert her formal name. Bessie married Captain Robert in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1902 and sailed right after the wedding reception for the Philippines—not exactly an ideal honeymoon spot. But the up-and-coming Captain—who by the way, graduated first in his class at the United States Naval Academy—had just received orders to take charge of ship repair at the Cavite Naval Station. When Robert’s tour of duty ended, orders took the couple to New Jersey, on to New Hampshire, Maine, Washington, DC, Virginia, then to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1920.

Postcard courtesy of the author

And immediately upon arrival, Bessie was accepted into Philadelphia society, thanks to some impressive connections. Perhaps not to any lady of social standing per se, but to families who could trace their lineage to colonial days—and that was a connection dear to Lydia’s heart. They were both members of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America. In fact, Lydia was a co-founder of the Pennsylvania society and had signed the charter in 1891, she being a seventh generation descendant of Anthony Morris of Philadelphia. Bessie traced her family line to Dr. Richard Starke of the Virginia colony.

And from that colonial kinship, other connections could be made; in particular, connections to the Acorn Club, the first women-only club in the United States. And a friendship could be built at events like the luncheon for Bessie at the clubhouse on Walnut Street in 1921, and at afternoon tea at the Colonial Dames house on Latimer Street.

By the mid ‘20s, the Acorn Club had become a popular location for luncheons and dinner-dances, especially during debutante season in December. One such luncheon was given in 1927 in honor of Bessie’s daughter, Elizabeth Stark Robert, a student at Smith College, hosted by Mrs. Edward Stalker Sayres. Two weeks later, Elizabeth was the guest of honor at a dinner at the Bellevue-Stratford given by Mr. and Mrs. Francis Reeve Strawbridge. To top off Elizabeth’s debut, Lydia threw a dinner-dance for her right after Christmas.

Exactly what year Lydia and Bessie began going to Lake Placid together is unclear; but in 1926 their arrival made the local newspaper. That was the year the innkeeper hired a new orchestra and a new French chef. The inn’s weekly schedule provided Lydia and Bessie plenty of options for spending their time—Saturday evening treasure hunt, Sunday afternoon concert, formal tea every afternoon. If they played bridge, they could join the Monday night bridge club. Then there were cruises around the lake, occasional masquerade balls in the Wigwam, jaunts to the Kismet Shop for gifts imported from Turkey, Persia, Egypt and Kashmir (I bet Lydia couldn’t resist shopping there, given her penchant for imported goods).

And during free time, they probably read a lot—I’m guessing the latest historical novels like Mistress Nell Gwynne. Or maybe they took a break from all things historical and binge-read Agatha Christie mysteries. On rainy afternoons, they could take in a movie at the Palace Theatre—“The Little Snob” with Vitaphone sound or “Stage Struck” starring Gloria Swanson in two-color Technicolor.

In 1929, Bessie’s daughter, Elizabeth, joined them for a week or two and then she headed to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. I’d bet a dozen tea cakes that Lydia hosted a bon voyage party in the inn’s tea room for Elizabeth before she sailed.

The following year, Bessie’s husband was ordered back to Washington, D.C. and Lydia went to Whiteface Inn without a companion. At the end of her six-week stay, Lydia was honored at a musicale with solos by guest artists and selections by the orchestra.

Then in 1931, as a two-year economic downturn worsened and international relations degenerated, Lydia managed to return to Lake Placid. But work undoubtedly kept Captain and Mrs. Robert close to D.C. as he began to modernize the nation’s naval fleet, in case war came.