APRIL A-Z CHALLENGE: GRANNY

Betsy Caroline Doughty, known as Bessie, was born in 1866. She was a concert pianist who gave up her promising career to marry watchmaker Sylvester Watkins. Her only son, Stanley, was my father. Perhaps because she was reduced to giving piano lessons, and discovered her husband was perhaps not what she had hoped for, she poured all her frustrations into smothering Stanley.

Bessie was a strong woman; in 1902, leaving Syl behind, she took her 15 year old son with her from London by ocean liner and train to San Diego where her brother, Will, had been offered a lemon ranch. For a year, before deciding that ranching life wasn’t for her, this small, intrepid woman kept house (and a piano) in the Cajon Valley, literally thousands of miles away from her elegant life in London where she had famous Victorian artist, Arthur Wardle, as a neighbor.

When my father was hired by the Bell Labs in New York in 1911, Bessie joined her son in Rye. Her husband was again left behind in London, though he did visit once, and eventually moved to Rye where he died in 1926.

Stan met and fell in love with a young dancer, Frances Cowles, who was determined to marry him “because Mrs Watkins was so against it.” That marriage didn’t last very long, perhaps partly because of pressure on Stan by his mother who didn’t like his new wife.

When Stanley’s work took him back to England, Bessie went too. She must have liked my mother, because Stan and Molly were married in London, November 14, 1930, and a few years later my sister and I were born. Mother never talked about having difficulties with Bessie, but I have heard her describe her father-in-law as “Poor Syl.” Bessie was often a guest at the dinners Stan and Molly held.

She was a small woman who wore a long skirt all her life, and sensible black shoes. When she was young her hair was dark and abundant, and she wore it bouffant; in later life her white hair was like a bowler hat, smooth over her head with a roll all around just over her eyes. That’s how I remember her. That and her black dresses, sometimes with a different neckline, and a long silver chain that held her glasses, but always the long skirt.

And she was always darning Daddy’s socks. I looked through the photo albums recently because I couldn’t remember many pictures of Granny. But there they were, from her early married days (although no wedding picture?), in San Diego, then London, then Rye, and back again to England.

She lived with us in the States and taught we three girls to read music, if not to become great pianists. Mary Ann complained she was not allowed to get beyond The Harmonious Blacksmith, and I often hid in our woods when I knew it was lesson time. She gave piano lessons to several local young people; Bunny Ferris bartered ballet lessons for the three of us from Aunt Bessie for her times at the keyboard.

Eventually her mind started failing. Granny was living on the converted porch of our big house on Forest Avenue. She began to (falsely) accuse my little sister of stealing from her cookie box. For some reason I was her favorite (despite avoiding my piano lessons) so I escaped her anger and eventually I inherited her baby grand piano.

Finally it was becoming too difficult to keep her at home, then she fell and broke her hip; after her recovery in hospital, Daddy reluctantly had her admitted to a home. As her senility got worse they couldn’t handle her either and Granny was transferred to the State Hospital in Poughkeepsie. It was about an hour’s drive away and every Sunday Daddy would drive there, often with me for company, to see Granny. When it was obvious she was dying, now totally mindless and bedridden, I heard the

doctor say “We’re doing all we can to keep her alive.” I don’t remember Daddy’s response, but on the way home he pulled over, stopped the car, and, saying “Poor Mother,” he just sobbed. Bessie died in 1942.

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APRIL A-Z CHALLENGE: FRANNIE

Frances Cowles was a dancer, and a member of the Neighborhood Playhouse. Stan met her there, fell in love (as he did with many of his girlfriends) and married her in 1923 in the Little Church Around The Corner in NYC. They worked together on the Vitaphone shorts including Al Jolson, but his business took him away too much, and then he got the London posting. Frannie didn’t like the weather over there and found the people unfriendly, so finally their marriage ended. At her 100th birthday party, she said she had been married to “The King of England.” I wrote The Ballad of Frannie & Stannie to the tune of Frankie & Johnny, and sang it to her that day. She was quite a character and wrote rather good doggerel verse in her later years. Here’s the one I wrote for her:

FRANNIE & STANNIE
(With apologies to Frankie & Johnnie)

Frannie and Stannie were lovers.
Their affair went very fast.
They courted and married and parted
Then, remembering good times past
Each went his own way, but friends they would stay.

Frannie she was a New Yorker;
Mercy me how she could dance.
She was small, she was dark haired and pretty,
Stannie knew that he hadn’t a chance.
So he married Fran, he became her man.

Now Stannie he loved folk music,
But science was also his thing.
He worked days at the Bell Laboratories,
And when he came home he’d sing
The same damn songs, the whole night long.

While Frannie was at a performance,
And Stannie was recording sound,
They neither had much time for romance,
Travelling all around
Each to his or her art, and they grew apart.

Stan went to Europe on business
To introduce Talkies there,
While Frannie she carried on dancing
In the follies, around Times Square,
And in SoHo; they were both on the go.

Well, they finally knew it was over
So fondly they murmured “Goodbye.”
Frannie she started a dancing school
And Stan stayed on in Rye.
They had had a blast, but it just didn’t last.

Frannie and Stannie were lovers.
Their affair went very fast.
They courted and married and parted
But, remembering good times past
Each went his own way, and friends they did stay.

April A-Z Challenge: ERPI

In 1928 a company had been formed as a subsidiary of Western Electric to handle the record and talkie end of the business. It was called Electrical Research Products and was familiarly known as ERPI. Stan Watkins’ work for ERPI meant commuting from NY to Hollywood teaching the sound men at Hollywood studios how to use the Western Electric equipment.

April A-Z Challenge: DON JUAN

All the major Hollywood studios having been shown the Bell Labs test films with sound, only the Warner Brothers were interested. Sam Warner and Stan Watkins took a Warner Bros silent film in production, Don Juan, and added sound. John Barrymore played the swashbuckling, womanizer Don Juan, but you heard no dialog, only the sound of doors shutting, swords clashing, people falling down stairs, and a musical score played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra led by Herman Heller. It opened in 1926 and was the first successfully synchronized sound film, with Stan Watkins as head of Vitaphone.

April A-Z Challenge:The Central

The Central was what the students called the London college Stan attended in the early 1900s (now known as the City and Guilds Engineering College of the Imperial College of Science and Technology), and The Centralians was the organization the alumni belonged to. When he moved to New York to work, he became a member of The Old Centralians, along with other students who also moved across the Atlantic to work. Stan kept up his membership until the year of his death, l975.

April A-Z Challenge, AT&T

AT&T is now a cell phone company, but in 1885 it was a subsidiary of the Bell Telephone Company, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. The manufacturing department was the Bell Labs, and British electrical engineer Stanley S A Watkins worked for them from 1911 until 1948.

When he was retired and was living in London, he told me “I think the telephone is a good idea because it keeps people at home.” He wouldn’t say that these days when the first question on most cell phones is “Where are you?.”