Saturday, August 9, 2008

Eleonora Randolph Sears

By night (and on selected afternoons), Eleonora Sears was a beautiful and popular young society woman in Boston (and New York), frequently mentioned in the "Table Gossip" column in the 1905 Boston Sunday Globe.

But by day she was a talented, energetic, and daring athlete, playing golf, swimming, riding horses, walking great distances, and winning tennis singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Her first appearance in "Table Gossip" in 1905, on January 1, noted her presence at a dinner dance in New York over the Christmas holidays, celebrating the debut of President Roosevelt's niece, Corinne Douglas Robinson. She sat at a table presided over by Miss Eleanor Roosevelt (who would go on to marry Franklin later that year), and, according to the Globe, Miss Sears was "one of the most attractive girls" there.

Eleanora Randolph Sears by Alexander John WhiteEleo had been born in 1881 into a well-to-do Boston family: Thomas Jefferson was her great-great-grandfather and her father was a shipping and real estate tycoon. The Sears lived in a townhouse at 122 Beacon Street, and they were a tennis family. According to the website of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, her father, Frederick Sears, was one of the first to play tennis in the U.S. in 1874, and her uncle, Richard Dudley Sears, was the original U.S. champion (winning the first US open in 1881 and every year thereafter through 1887).

Later in 1905, on a rainy Monday in early June, Eleonora wore white dotted French muslin over white silk and a white hat with pale blue plumes, and carried daisies as a member of the wedding party at the union of Grace Dabney and Robert Wrenn at Nahant.

On August 13, 1905, the Globe reported that she was deferring her visit to Newport as she is “having a very good time in riding, driving, swimming, and tennis with her own friends on the North Shore.” But by August 15, she was playing both singles and doubles at a lawn tennis tournament on the Casino Courts in Newport arranged by Mrs. John Jacob Astor and others. (Mrs. Astor would be divorced from her husband within five years, and therefore would not accompany him on his fatal Titanic journey in 1912.)

By the end of 1905 she was planning a visit to her friend Alice Roosevelt at the White House, and then expected to be off to Europe in early 1906 to visit friends in London.

1914 Rolls Royce Eleanora Sears ownedThe fact that Eleo was on full duty in society, attending the weddings, balls, debuts, and other events that were considered de rigeur for a woman of her day, seemed to give her the license to do what she wanted the rest of the time. She was one of the first women in Boston to learn to drive a car, and was frequently seen driving fast and skillfully around the city. (A 1908 Boston Evening Record tidbit notes that Eleonora Sears and Marie Lee had both "been seen driving through the congested parts of the city with the coolness of experts." Apparently there was some heated discussion among their friends about which of the two was the better driver, and "the champions of Miss Lee wanted to arrange a competition. . . . [T]here may be some wild driving through the city by two very good-looking lovers of the motor shortly.")

Sometime in 1905 or 1906, Eleonora started "being seen with" the young Harold Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, who shared many of Eleo's sporting proclivities. (He would go on to take the America's Cup three times in the 1930s.) They denied their engagement for some years (though Eleo's mother announced a "trial engagement" in 1911), and eventually drifted apart.

Eleanora Sears, TennisEleo would go on to an incredible career as a sportswoman--the first great multi-sport woman of the 20th century. In 1910, when most of her accomplishments were still to come, she was proclaimed in a magazine article as "the best all-around athlete in American society." She would win 240 trophies in a variety of sports during her career.

Eleo continued to play tennis, winning the US women's doubles title with Hazel Hotckhiss Wightman in 1911 and 1915, and again with Molla Bjurstedt in 1916 and 1917. She was a finalist for the women's singles title in 1912, won mixed doubles with Willis Davis in 1916, and would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1968, shortly after her death.

She also continued to walk! She frequently walked from Boston to Providence, with her best time coming in 1926, when she walked the 47-mile trip in 9 hours and 53 minutes. (My father, who was born in 1920, recalls seeing motion picture images of this walk of Eleonora's on a primitive movie player he had as a child.) During a visit to France she walked 42.5 miles from Fontainebleu to the Ritz Bar in Paris in eight and half hours. She once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours.

She continued to swim--a 1908 Globe article reported that she would be “glad to accept the swimming race challenge” of Miss Vera Gilbert, the belle of New York’s 400. She was the first (not just first woman) to swim the four and half miles from Bailey's Beach to First Beach in Newport.

She bred and trained show horses for most of her adult life--and rode horses until she died in 1968. She took up polo (a favorite sport of her male society contemporaries), shockingly riding her horse astride. She was the first woman known to have worn trousers for sporting purposes when in 1909 she appeared on the polo ground of the Burlingame (CA) Country Club in breeches and a cutaway coat and asked to be allowed to participate in a match. She was promptly ordered to leave the field. In 1912, when she was seen frequently around Burlingame in her riding breeches (only on "occasions when I had just returned from riding" she claimed), the "Burlingame Mothers' Club" passed a resolution against her behavior. (While this resolution was posted all around town, Eleonora later found out there was no such organization.) Staying the course, she became the first woman to ride astride at the National Horse Show, in 1915.

She started playing squash in 1918, and in 1928 helped to found the US Women's Squash Racquets Association. She was its first singles champion that same year (at the age of 46), later served as its president, and was captain of the US national team.

She also would participate in baseball, field hockey, and auto racing. She would pilot planes, skipper yachts, and race power boats.

And she would continue to play her role in society. In 1924, when he spent a packed day in Boston hunting by day at Myopia, and dancing by night with the debutantes, Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales (although 13 years her junior) was said to be so charmed by her that he spent much of the evening as her dancing partner. (Edward would of course go on to marry Wallis Simpson, and abdicate the British throne.)

Another male admirer wrote a letter to Time magazine, published on February 22, 1963, which sums up Eleo's dual life:

Sir: I am amazed by the amount of publicity given to the announcement that Attorney General Robert Kennedy and some others managed to walk 50 miles. In December 1925, Miss Eleonora Sears walked from Providence to Boston, a distance of 47.8 miles, in 10 hrs. 20 min.

I know because I walked with her. Miss Sears entertained me for dinner that evening, and I took her to the theater. Miss Sears knows her age better than I do, but she was then in her 40s at least, and could probably outwalk the New Frontiersmen today.


Nothing like a brisk 10 hour walk to get you warmed up for an evening of dining and theatre. Way to go, girl!

Illustration Credits and References

The painting of the young Eleonora (entitled Young Girl in Rose (or Portrait of Eleonora Randoph Sears)) was painted by John White Alexander in 1895 when Eleonora was 13; the image appears on the Art Renewal Center website.

The auto is a current photograph of a 1914 Rolls Royce that was owned and driven by Eleonora (presumably when it was new!)

The photograph of Eleonora with her racquet appears on the Tennis Hall of Fame website.

The information about Eleonora was culled from numerous sources including the Boston Daily Globe, several other regional US newspapers, the Tennis Hall of Fame website, the Hickok Sports website, and many other websites devoted to women and sports.


Anonymous said...

I wanted to know why you selected this topic. My friend and I have done similar research

SantaFeKate said...

Sue--thanks for your comments. I honestly don't remember how I first heard about Eleanora--I am focusing on 1905 in Boston and when I first read a tidbit about her I was so intrigued! I am particularly interested in women of the era--especially women with significant accomplishments.

Cynthia's diary mentions very few people by name, except her close friends and family, and she didn't travel in those society circles.

I only know about Grace Dabney from the Boston Globe article that described their wedding.

What prompted your and your friend's interest in these women?

And do you by any chance have any unpublished journals, diaries, or letters from 1905 Boston that you would be willing to share with me?

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your wonderful account of America's greatest sportswoman! I have recently completed a biography of Eleonora Sears which will be published in the spring of '09. My father worked for Eleo Sears for many years as her financial advisor and Vice President and Treasurer of her racing stable.

SantaFeKate said...

I'm so glad Eleanora is getting the attention she deserves. I was so shocked to read what I read about her and find out that no one (except my father!) knew who she was. I will look forward to reading your book! FYI, I am working on a book about 1905 Boston (though I'm in the early research stages)--do you have any unpublished letters or journals describing that year in Boston that you would be willing to share? My email is catherine dot hurst at comcast dot net.

eleo carson said...

I am fascinated by this correspondence. Eleo Sears was my godmother and I am named after her. My mother Margot Lumb was a agreat athlete as well and met her when she went over as a young squash tennis player in the 1930s. My mother won the Squash Championships five years running in the 1930s and in those years became close to Eleo. Eleo provided her with a home from home and great friendship. They played all games together, went hunting (astride!) together, went to grand parties etc. They kept close all their lives. When Eleo came over to England my grandfather and my mother entertained her and the US team at their home in London. I met her numerous times.

SantaFeKate said...

Eleo--thanks for your post! It's so exciting to me to hear from those of you who knew Eleo make that connection to the past. And it seems as if your mother was also a tennis player? Another multi-sport athlete! How wonderful that she and Eleo stayed close throughout their lives!

One of the things I find fascinating about some of the interesting people from 1905 is that they have connections into the present. I have a 1968 photo of Cynthia (whose 1905 diary was my inspiration for this blog) with her son, her grandson, and her great-grandson (my son).

SantaFeKate said...

I just found another blogger who did an extensive post on Eleanora--including the image of a sketch that John Singer Sargent had done of her in 1921.

Click here to read.

Kihm Winship said...

This is spectacular. Thank you so much for alerting me to your piece, and especially for that painting of Eleo as a young child. Great stories, great woman.

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know some of the missing letters taken by the Goldblatts in the late 70's are showing up on e-bay. I found one today. Also one correction about 4-5 Byron St. When her Grandfather gave her the property, it was two, one and a half story buildings that she demolished and built the Ballroom on both lots. I found the records at the BPL.

Eleo Carson said...

Dear all, I haven't been on this site since October. Sorry. Anon - that is interesting about the Goldblatt letters. What a shame they disappeared in the first place. Reply to SantaFeKate - sorry I didn't get back to you. Yes my mother was an astounding athlete and loved Eleo. Eleo was a mother figure to her on her many trips to the US. She came regularly over to England with her teams and stayed at our home, entertaining the various athletes. On my mother's trips to America Eleo took her under her wing - hunting, sailing, socialising, dancing you name it. My mothere was equally energetic.

SantaFeKate said...

PKM and Eleo--thanks for your updates. Eleo--sounds like your mother was a wonderful woman--what a great friendship that must have been!

SantaFeKate said...

PKM--after reading your post I went and checked on eBay and found a letter from Tallulah Bankhead to Eleo in 1940. Interestingly enough, there is a long description of who Eleo was, which quotes from my blog post at length, verbatim. (Unacknowledged of course--that's how it goes here in the blogosphere!)

Maureen said...

I have just finished reading the biography of Eleanora Sears mentioned in a previous post. It was wonderful! so well researched and documented.
Most of what I had heard about Miss Sears since I moved to Beverly in 1967 centered around her horses, fondness for walking and eccentricity. The book paints a vivid picture of Eleo, her friends, family and the times she lived in with respect and candor. She was an amazing woman.

SantaFeKate said...

Maureen--I am in the process of reading the book as well--fascinating to learn more details about Eleo's life! It's always interesting to read about someone that you knew, or knew of, when they were much older and then find out what a different life they lived when they were young!!

SantaFeKate said...

In my original post and comments, I inadvertently misspelled Eleonora's first name (with an extra "a"). I want you all to know I've seen the error of my ways and have corrected the post, but can't edit the comments. According to Peggy Miller Franck, Eleonora hated it when people used too many or too few a's in her name!!

Anonymous said...

Our family owns a 1912 Simplex 50 HP touring car that was originally purchased by Mr. Harold Vanderbilt and soon after given to Miss Sears who kept it until the late 40's at which time she gave or sold it to a Mr Samuel Elliot who,in turn, sold it to Mr. Charles Chayne of General Motors fame. Several years later, he donated it to the Larz Anderson Museum in Brookline, Ma.where is was displayed along with the Anderson family vehicles before being offered at auction sometime during the late 1970's and purchased by the Collings Foundation of Stowe, Ma. We purchased the vehicle in 1992,enjoyed it for many years and approximately five years ago sent it to Mr Fred Gonet of G&G Restorations in Proctorsville, Vermont where it was fully restored. Interestingly, many of the vehicles Miss Sears owned are still in existence having been kept by her until the late 40's and early 50's. She'obviously, liked her cars. We are interested in any material pertaining to this vehicle-photos,articles etc. Thanks. Charles Lemaitre Hardwick, Ma. 01037

SantaFeKate said...

Thanks for your interesting post, Charles! I don't have any information about the vehicles but perhaps someone will find this post who does!

Sadie E Pegnato said...

I grew up on Brookline Ave,Brookline and saw Eleo on her walking tours on many a Saturday. I would sit on front stairs and wait for her to pass by, always walking in the gutter and facing the traffic at a nice steady pace and never turning her head. Just looking straight ahead. She wore, as far as I remember,a dark grey walking outfit, what we even them called "old fashioned and a brimmed hat. The skirt was to the top of her shoes and the top about 3/4 length. I always assumed that she was walking from family property in Brookline to a home in Boston.But until right now, never knew what an athlete she was.

SantaFeKate said...

Sadie--so wonderful to hear from you about your memories of watching Eleo walk! She was a remarkable woman. You should read Peggy Franck's biography (Prides Crossing) to learn more about Eleo's life.

Eleo Gordon said...

That's nice Sadie. She was an extraordinary athlete and close friend of my mother. I am called after her - and no athlete!! Eleo

Alexi Horowitz said...

Hi Kate,

My name is Alexi Horowitz, and I'm a history student and research assistant at Reed College in Portland, OR.
I'm currently working on a project that relates to Richard Dudley Sears, (early US tennis champion and Eleonora's uncle) who you mentioned in your blog post, and was wondering if you either knew of any materials, or any living descendants that might help to further elucidate his character, biography etc.
(I am also, strangely enough a native and current summer resident of Santa Fe. Small world.)

Thanks very much and nice work with the blog, research etc!



SantaFeKate said...

Alexi--thanks for your nice comments! I really don't have anything, but I would suggest you contact Peggy Franck who authored the Eleo biography, Prides Crossing.

Unknown said...

My name is Ashley Deemer. I am currently at the Kentucky Horse Park where I saw a hall of game plaque about Ms. Eleanora Sears. I sent a photo of it to my close friend back home in Southern Pines who owns Valleyfield Farm. I have seen the deed record of Valleyfield Farm and it was once owned by Ms. Sears. It was a hunting retreat she purchased to hunt with the Moore County Hounds. I am going to purchase a copy of the Biography but can any of you confirm her ownership of this property? I would love any information please!!!

Unknown said...

The property is located in Southern Pines, N.C.

Unknown said...

Please email Ashley Deemer

SantaFeKate said...

Ashley--thanks for your post. I know that Eleo, when she was 73, decided that she wanted to breed and own the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby. She started her business in 1954 with the purchase of 3 horses from the Aga Khan's stables in Ireland, paying $75,000 for one of them. In December, 1954, she bought Burrland Farm in Middleburg, VA to serve as a training stable. Her horses raced for 10 years; in 1964, she announced that she was quitting the racing business and would begin closing down her stable--most of her 39 horses at Burrland were sold over the next few months. (That's from Peggy Franck's bio of Eleo; I couldn't find anything about the other property you mentioned.)