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Edith Elting Pattou (1870-1940)

Edith Elting Pattou - Photo Courtesy Brace PattouBy: Brace Pattou

This wonderful biography is reprinted with the generous permission of Brace Pattou.

To her family, depending on each member’s vantage point, she was Edith Hulbert Elting Pattou, Gamma Edie, Grandma Edie, or Muz. To me, her grandson, she was Gamma Edie.

I like best this evocative recollection of her, recounted to me by an Elting relative, Roger Smith, in 1992, the year he died.

It was 1938, he said, and Gamma Edie, then 68, came for Christmas dinner at the Yonkers house of Leon Smith, Roger’s father.

Roger, an observant 15-year-old, remembered:

"She had on a huge French hat, wore rouge to the eye-balls, walked in carrying two bottles of wine under her left arm and greeted my father with the announcement: ‘I think Mr. Roosevelt is just great.’"

The lady had style. She had the ability to adapt to people and events in her life that weren’t going her way. One was her relationship to younger-by-a-year brother Victor. From his autobiography and from family lore, we sense he didn’t much like her, though she did him. He was compassionate about her setbacks and helped her financially, but brother and sister were not close.

Here in his memoirs, "Recollections of a Grandfather," is Uncle Victor’s first reference to his sister:

"They (their parents) were married in April, 1869. Their first born was my sister Edith, who inherited something of her mother’s flair for language and writing, and something of her Grandmother Hulbert’s excitable temperament, with a disposition toward tantrums in early years." He goes on: "From the very beginning my stepmother gave me great devotion, and I loved her in return. As between my sister and me I was her favorite. Edith was a difficult child, and she and her foster (sic) mother had many trying times.

"Father hated the trouble and so did I, but I could run away from it while he could not.

"When my sister’s temper would be roused he would say, ‘Here comes the little girl from Jersey,’ and we would all await the storm.

"I have always thought that there was a great lack of understanding and intelligent training of my sister during that youthful period…

"Finally my sister Edith grew up as a most attractive girl, with many talents. Born with a brilliant mind and a flair for language, she mastered the German language in less than a year and wrote at the end a notable book for the study of it.

"Then she went on to Paris for a year, and equipped at first only with a schoolgirl’s knowledge of French, she produced a similar book which has gone into many editions and revisions.

"She has acquired a real standing as an author, of which we are very proud. Her important books are ‘Causeries en France’ and 'French a la Mode.’"

I am deeply grateful that brother and sister liked to put pen to paper, and I will later draw upon her diary, known in the family as the Baby Book. It gives a touching account of her years as a single parent in the U.S. and in Europe. But first, what happened that brought Gamma Edie a step-mother?

She was just four years old when her mother, the former Catherine Bevier, died in 1874 at the age of 30. Five years later her father re-married. In 1882 Edith was presented with a half-sister, Laura, my father’s Aunt Daisy. During the five-year period of their father’s singleness, Gamma Edie and brother Victor were uprooted from their Yonkers house and sent to live in the house of their father’s brother, Jesse Elting, in New Paltz. According to the temper of the day, they needed a woman’s care and they got it from Aunt Elizabeth Elting, an unmarried aunt who lived in Jesse’s house.

Upon their father’s re-marriage, they returned to Yonkers. Thus began what Victor called "the trying times" for Gamma Edie and her stepmother.

At age 22 she was married to Albert Brace Pattou. Their wedding on April 28, 1892, is exhaustively described in a society news story in the Yonkers Statesman. What is not described is how they met, but the families of Ange Albert Pattou and Ezekial J. Elting, both living in Yonkers, must have been in the same social circle. From letters Gamma Edie wrote: "Tennis was a shared interest." Zeke Elting had his own court and she wrote of doubles games with "Bert, who is now a ‘Frosh’ in Columbia."

One wedding news account headed "Hymen Reigns" identifies "Two Social Stars" and then, surprisingly, says they were to settle in Chattanooga where "the groom practices law." Pop a lawyer? Never once do I remember Dad saying his father was a lawyer. Columbia records show no evidence of this professional degree.

My cousin Diane Pattou Wright says she heard as a girl that he was a mining engineer. But this, too, suggests family wishful thinking more than reality. The news clipping gives a typical 1890s account of the wedding with mountainous detail on the flowers, weather, music and dresses. The bridegroom, then a few months his bride’s junior, is identified as "of Chattanooga." The young couple’s plans reportedly called for a tour of Washington, D.C., Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley before spending the summer at Lookout Mountain, near their future home in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Why was Pop in Chattanooga? From what my father has told me, Pop’s vocation, if anything, was that of giving voice and singing lessons. Evidently in this he followed in the footsteps of his father, Ange. In New York and perhaps in Yonkers my great grandfather Ange taught singers and was author of two books, "The Voice as An Instrument" and "The Art of Voice Production" (G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1882).

So the couple settled in Chattanooga, where their two sons were born - Dad in December, 1893 and Victor in February, 1895. Then in 1896 they moved back East to a house in Flushing, Long Island, New York, where they spent 5 ˝ years with occasional summers "in the mountains."

From her Chattanooga young bride days to the fall of 1903, when she was living at " a comfortable family hotel" in Crawford, New Jersey, Muz in her diary focusses lovingly and almost exclusively on her two sons. One of the few diary mention made of her husband, their father, is a notation that he "is often absent."

Then, dated October 25, 1903, her diary entry tells why. "On Sunday, August 30, they (her sons) lost their father out of their lives… it is very, very sad for me, but the boys in the innocent ignorance of childhood were touched more lightly by it all."

One Elting chronology dated the divorce in 1898. But what is probably most likely is that Pop drifted off soon after Victor’s birth in 1895, prompting Gamma Edie’s move back East the following year. Why it took until 1903 to become official is hard to say. What is clear is that Pop did a real vanishing act as far as his family was concerned. My parents said his expressed reason for leaving Gamma Edie was that he didn’t like children.

Strong family support is evident in a letter dated September 24, 1903, from her brother Victor to her cousin Nettie in New Paltz. He writes: "Was it not splendid the way that the court matter was handled and the way in which Edith was relieved to hear that it is all over."

On June 27, 1906, Pop re-married. The bride was one of his voice pupils, Elizabeth Jerome, and the wedding took place in Jersey City, New Jersey.

From all accounts, Betty, as the Pattou family called her, was sweet-natured, waited on Pop hand and foot and was unassertive, unlike the first Mrs. Albert Brace Pattou. It went beyond that. Betty, married to Pop when he was 35, was forbidden to have children. Sister Mardo said our mother told her Betty confided that she’d had seven abortions at Pop’s insistence. Didn’t I say he didn’t like children?

Edith clearly married the wrong man. A 1890 graduate of Columbia University, he liked opera and was an unpaid super, a "spear carrier," in Metropolitan productions. He drifted into his father, Ange’s work of giving voice and singing lessons.

Although "Pop," as we called him, took a light-hearted view of his family obligations, his parents did not. His mother, born Emily Brace, was a member of the Hartford, Connecticut, Brace family, founders of the giant Aetna Life Insurance Company. Time and time again she was to reach into her purse as the kindly "Aunt Pattie" helping her son’s family.

With her singleness now confirmed, her boys became her life. Gamma Edie moved back home. Home meant New Paltz, New York, which she described as a pleasant but very quiet country village. With her sons, aged eight and nine, she settled in "The Wigwam" for the winter of 1903-4. New Paltz had been her father Zeke’s boyhood home. In her diary she writes "my uncles, aunts and cousins vied with one another in kind attention."

By the fall of 1904, Gamma Edie clearly wished to leave the rural confines of New Paltz for something a little more glamorous. She was planning a three-or four-month stay "near Chicago and St. Louis." In Chicago was her brother Victor, and in St. Louis "in a beautiful house" lived cousin Howard Elting.

But that was not to be. News came that brother Victor was soon to marry Marie Winston in Switzerland and thus would not be on hand in the midwest to welcome his sister and her sons. She told her diary: "It was a great disappointment."

As it happened, a very different move was taken by this resilient 35-year-old single parent of boys nine and ten years old.

"Instead," she wrote in her diary, "we shall go to the Adirondacks, and in October (1904) the boys and I shall sail for Europe. We expect to spend the first year in Germany and then to visit Switzerland, France and Germany."

Roger Smith recalled to me in 1992 that a Dr. Bell in New Paltz originally advised Gamma Edie to live in Europe, at least until her sons were of high school age. Money was one reason; European currencies’ exchange rates strongly favored the U.S. dollar. Her father undoubtedly helped her. But Gamma Edie couldn't have felt her stepmother, Laura, welcomed the Pattou trio in Yonkers. She viewed New Paltz as rustic and limited. Her brother, Victor, newly married, was building his own life and family in Chicago.

So Europe it was, a faute de mieux undertaking that opened a wonderful cultural experience to my father. The Pattous were in Europe for three years, living variously in Munich, Cologne, Paris, Lausanne and Nevey. They lived for a while in Paris in a sixth floor walkup. The three of them had lunch at a famous Paris restaurant for a total bill of 75 cents. The boys had mumps, and Edith read to them by candlelight.

Proudly she tells how Dad beat the exam odds against an American by qualifying for study at the Maximilian Gymnasium, Munich. When he was discouraged after the first day of the exams, she comforted him by saying: "Leave the rest to God to decide." In Paris, she wrote, son Albert did well at the Lycee Montaigne but came home one day with a note from the principal saying sternly: "Il persiste a battir." Family history has it that Dad persisted in fighting because of the need to protect his younger brother from Gallic bullies.

Gamma Edie was sorry to leave Paris after just a year there. "But," she noted, "as future American citizens they (the boys) must, of course, be educated in America."

So "after three years of other languages," they sailed Red Star Line from London to New York in August, 1907 in time to register at Yonkers High School. For a while they lived in a small house on Staten Island. In May, 1908, they took an apartment in Yonkers.

I’m sure the boys delighted their mother with renditions of the memorable high school fight song:

"Baby in a high chair
"Who put him up there?
"Ma, Pa, Siss-Boom Bah
"Yonkers High School
"Rah, rah, rah."

In 1912 Gamma Edie’s first book was published. It was An American in Germany, a German conversation book by E.E. Pattou. It was published by D.C. Heath & Co., Boston, 184 pages, price 75˘.

Then in 1914 Heath published her Causeries En France, a 187-page conversation guide for visitors to France. Judging by its occasional availability in used book sales, I think Causeries probably had the biggest printing and biggest sales of any of Gamma Edie’s five language books.

Published in the early months of World War I, Causeries had a wide circulation in England and France, as well as the U.S. Used by colleges and universities, its format of facing pages gave the English-French equivalents of what to say at the doctor’s, at restaurants, at the railroad station and even "in society, amongst women."

Causeries remained in demand for years, and in 1938 Heath published Nouvelles Causeries En France, a revised and updated edition of the 1914 book. The author introduced the latest French idioms, as well as new American words such as air-conditioning and sit-down strikes. In her preface, Gamma Edie said she wished to help "the stammering tourist who travels over the smiling lands of France incapable of carrying on a simple conversation in the native idiom."

I search used book sales for copies of the original Causeries and have been rewarded several times. Above all, I prize a copy cheerfully inscribed to my father by his mother on his 21st birthday, December 14, 1914, the year of the book’s publication. She wrote: "Tout hommes a deuz pays; le sieu et Paris La France."

Her third book, published in 1917 by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, was a solid 227-page volume that addressed a World War I need.

Titled Pattou’s French-English Manual, the book was subtitled "for the use of physicians, nurses, ambulance-drivers and workers in civilian relief." Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, the book was well timed when Yanks in 1917 were in France in full force, it was the only book of Gamma Edie’s without an E.E. Pattou personal preface.

Possibly Dodd, Mead used the respected Pattou name but enlisted other writers to help rush this special purpose book into print. I have trouble thinking it was Muz who penned the lines:

"He is severely wounded in the abdomen and head. He is riddled with bullets. (Il est grievement blesse au ventre et a la tete. Il est crible de balles.)

"Have you vomited blood? (Avez-vous crache du sang?)

"My poor friend, you must have your leg amputated in order to save your life. (Mons pauvre ami, it faut vous amputer la jambe pour vous sauver la vie.)"

But maybe our Yonkers lady could as easily write about trauma and surgery as a bout drawing room chit-chat. If so, she was a versatile pro. She is credited also with the book, Conversations Militaires, published in 1917. In a 1938 newspaper interview touting her revision of Causeries, the interviewer wrote that Muz "after much research work surprisingly authored" these two blood and guts language guides. Family members have told me that Edith was awarded a medal by the French government for her timely World War language manuals.

The same news reporter noted that Gamma Edie’s nome de plume, E. E. Pattou, was purposely aimed to make readers believe she was a Frenchman. Her disguise behind initials also acknowledged that women travel writers had less authority with the reading public than men.

French a la Mode, subtitled "The Right Things to Say and Do in France," came out in 1931 and was published again in revised form in the late 1930s. According to newspaper accounts, Gamma Edie’s 1931 version was praised by William Lyon Phelps, Booth Tarkington, Christopher Morley and other literary lions. The book, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, had a snappy red print dust jacket proclaiming it "the sophisticated handbook for travel in France."

To me, her most important book is what the family called "the Baby Book." It was Gamma Edie’s diary kept for the years 1893-1913, when she was 23 to 43 years old.

References to her sons are frequent, loving and perceptive:

Albert - "behavior during christening could not have been worse." (1893).

Victor - "behavior at christening, of the very best possible." (1895).

"Both children call me mother now entirely, and I am so glad for it is the sweetest name on earth." (1896)

"Victor has the better nature of the two in regard to yielding, to correction, but sometimes he carries this easy acquiescence too far." (1897)

"I was motherless myself for many years and know what it is not to have a hearty birthday kiss. It makes me want to do so much for my children." (1899)

"Albert seems suddenly to have given out mentally. He is not doing at all well in his studies, especially in arithmetic. Victor, on the contrary, stands as he did last year - at the head of the class - and evidently with very little effort." (Crawford, N.J., 1903)

"Albert feels his responsibility as the little man of the family to be a help and comfort to his mother and a protector to his little brother… Albert is doing as well this winter as he did poorly last winter." (New Paltz, October, 1903)

"Victor is now the most popular one in his class and has gone from as rather a too girlish child to a most boyish kind of boy." (Munich, 1906)

"Boys are finding it a pleasant thing to inhabit a city where mother knows everybody." (Yonkers, 1909)

"Victor is still growing very fast and is now considerably taller than Albert who stopped last year." (1912)

"Albert looks so manly and grown-up with his moustache." (1913)

"Victor lost out on his military commission at officers training at Plattsburg because of nervousness." (1917)

Gamma Edie lived at a time of diary and journal keeping, as well as pre-telephone letter writing. Fortunately preserved are some of her letters to an adored Elting cousin, Lanetta "Nettie" Elting. Nettie, two years older, lived in New Paltz. Gamma Edie was about 20 years old when she wrote her country cousin about the doings in Yonkers where she lived.

Edith’s letters have a Jane Austen tone. She complains of too many beaux being away at school, adding "without dancing school I should have died." She muses about the march of time; "when a set reaches a certain age, its gaieties stop until young ladies are old enough to ‘come out’."

She described a time in her late teens of canoe regattas, croquet, dress makers, balsam pillows, picnics, boat rides on the Hudson, bicycle races and the Buffalo Bill circus. She tossed in some French phrases; "there, some French for you." She signed letters "your loving Edie or rather Edith."

If Gamma Edie was having trouble with her stepmother, there were no complaints in these cousinly letters. The letters were supplemented by, perhaps, fortnightly every two weeks visits to New Paltz.

In the end Gamma Edie returned to her native Yonkers. Her beloved boys were then grown and scattered. In the late 1930s this independent woman had lived briefly in Paris (found it changed, with new governments every month), then in the Marquery Hotel in New York. Just as Roger Smith remembers her rouge, his older brother Elting Smith remembers not just red hair but "flaming red hair."

Of course she hadn’t been untouched by her mother’s early death and her husband’s abandonment. In my own meeting with her I sensed my mother’s unease with her mother-in-law. Cousin Diane recalls "my mother told me she (Gamma Edie) was a difficult person, rather self-centered, who doted on my father (the late Victor Pattou) and only liked little boys."

My late cousin Ruth Elting Winter firmly believed in a family tradition of "strong Elting women." In the company of these Elting daughters and wives, Gamma Edie clearly belongs. It’s a tradition that goes back at least to 1663, when Indian captive Catherine DuBois, our ancestor, yelled so loud that a rescue party got to her just as the indigenes were about to burn her on a pyre. Such drama aside, you strong Elting women know who you are.

The strong, lively, cigarette-smoking, wine-loving subject of this essay had a longer life that her beloved Albert and Victor, both of whom died at the age of 65. Up to her death at age 70 in St. John’s Hospital in Yonkers, she had been living in the Glenwood Lodge in Yonkers. Her beloved brother Victor, then living at 7 East 54th Street in New York City, supplied the information for her death certificate and arranged for burial in New Paltz.

She died July 4, 1940, about two months after France’s surrender to the Germans. France’s fall must have been heart-breaking for this woman who could say with Josephine Baker "J’ai deux amours; mon pays et Paris."

Brace Pattou, Chicago
December, 1996

Photo of Edith Elting Pattou courtesy Brace Pattou.
This article copyright © Brace Pattou.

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