Green Book, Don Shirley, and Henry Booth: Because There’s Always a Cranbrook Connection

It was the morning after New Year’s Day. No sooner had I reached my office and turned on my computer than I saw that I had just missed a call from long-time Cranbrook friend and Kingswood graduate, Jeanne Graham. Always eager to speak with Jeanne, I immediately returned her call. Jeanne, who had not even taken time to leave me a message, already was in the processing of dialing the Center’s archivists. She had a question and was eager for an answer.

Like Jeanne, one of the movies that I saw over the holidays (one of the best, I might add) was Green Book. Masterly cast with Mahershala Ali as the legendary African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as the Italian-American bouncer-cum-driver and bodyguard “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, the film tells the story of a road trip (a concert tour) through the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s and the unlikely friendship that develops along the way. While I was watching the movie, Cranbrook was the furthest thing from mind; while Jeanne was watching the movie, she could not get Cranbrook out of her mind. “Was it my imagination or did I attend a concert by Don Shirley in Kingswood Auditorium while I was a student at Cranbrook in the 1950s?” Jeanne asked.

Admittedly stumped, I did what any good director would do—I consulted my knowledgeable staff. Within minutes, tantalizing facts were speeding their way to me from Associate Archivist Laura MacNewman: articles in the Clarion and the Crane, Kingswood’s and Cranbrook’s student newspapers; a concert announcement in the Birmingham Eccentric; links to nineteen Kingswood negatives; and references to thirteen letters sent between Shirley and his agents and Henry Scripps Booth, the youngest son of Cranbrook’s founders. Finally, Laura calmly announced that she had found black and white photographs of Shirley swimming and riding a bike at Henry’s and his wife Carolyn’s home near Cranbrook, Thornlea. I, meanwhile, yelled out in excitement!

Who knew? Well actually, there are a few people that did know. Before I could even begin to sift through the materials in Cranbrook Archives, I received a call from Carolyn Scripps, Henry and Carolyn Booth’s granddaughter. Carolyn also had seen Green Book and wanted to make sure that I knew about the story of her progressive grandfather and Shirley.

Scene One. Shirley did, in fact, perform in Kingswood Auditorium on Wednesday, March 2, 1955 (and yes, it was while Jeanne Graham was a student). Shirley, who was twenty-seven years old at the time, was accompanied by bassist Richard Davis. They performed nine songs that evening, many of which the two musicians recorded on Shirley’s 1955 album Tonal Expressions, including one of my favorites, “No Two People Have Ever Been So in Love.” What does a rendition by Shirley of a popular song like “No Two People” sound like? In the words of Henry Booth: “While the concert was labeled ‘Jazz,’ the music was a subtle rendering of the contemporary, having a classical quality which should appeal to the devotees of classical music—that is if they will condescend to listen.” Five days after this classically inspired, popular jazz concert, Henry wrote his first letter to Shirley (at least the first one that survives in Cranbrook Archives). With regards from his wife Carolyn and their daughter Melinda (Carolyn Scripps’s aunt), Henry invited the pianist to consider a second performance at Cranbrook sponsored by the nascent Cranbrook Music Guild.

The Clarion, March 11, 1955. Collection of Cranbrook Archives.

Scene Two. While it took numerous letters from Henry to both Shirley and his agent—and some convincing of the Music Guild members who Henry described to Shirley as not very “’Jazz’ minded”—the pianist and bassist returned to Cranbrook in December. Thanks to clippings from the Birmingham Eccentric and the Crane, we know the concert took place on Saturday, December 3, 1955, and, like the first concert, it took place at Kingswood. And thanks to a page in the Thornlea Guest Book, now in the collection of Jeffrey Booth (Henry and Carolyn’s grandson), we also know that Henry and Carolyn hosted an Afterglow for the musicians that evening in their home on Cranbrook Road.

Thornlea Guest Book, Detail of Guest List for December 3, 1955. Collection of Jeffrey Booth.

Scene Three. Henry Booth was a documentarian. Included in the Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers, which are preserved—and accessible—in the Cranbrook Archives, are a series of photo albums that chronicle and illustrate Henry’s and Carolyn’s lives. The 1956 album includes seven black and white photographs of Shirley. While they were processed in July, another entry in the Thornlea Guest Book more precisely places both Shirley and Richard Davis at Cranbrook on June 20, 1956. Three of the photographs were taken by Henry at a night club, presumably Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit where the Don Shirley Duo performed no less than twelve times that June. One shows Shirley on stage, while the other two show Carolyn and Melinda Booth in the audience, including a photograph of Carolyn and Shirley sitting together at a table. The other four show Shirley relaxing at Thornlea—sitting in a wicker chair, swimming in the pool, riding a bike in the courtyard, and posing with the Booth’s youngest child, Melinda’s sister Martha (Carolyn Scripps’s mother). Henry, ever the Cranbrook publicist, dutifully followed up the visit by sending to Shirley “a selection of Cranbrook catalogs and booklets.”

Scene Four. There is where it gets interesting. While Green Book has Shirley and Tony Vallelonga departing from Shirley’s Carnegie Hall apartment and beginning their 1962 concert tour with a stop in Pittsburgh before immediately heading south, the actual route also brought them to Detroit. During the road trip, Vallelonga wrote letters to his wife Dolores. In an excerpt from one of the letters, published on Cinemabuzz.com, Vallelonga wrote:

Dr. Shirley decided to stop off in Detroit for a day to visit some people he knows, you remember I told you he knows people wherever he goes and he knows all big people (millionaires). We went over some guy’s house, I’m sorry I meant a mansion, it was really a castle. His name was Henry Booth, he lives in a place called Mich Hills, it’s like Riverdale Yonkers, but the place makes Riverdale look like the Bowery. Dolores, I never saw such beautiful and fabulous homes in all my life.

I’m guessing this visit to “Mich Hills” took place in April 1962. In a letter dated April 25, Henry wrote to Shirley, referencing a visit that took place “a week or so ago.” Eager for another concert at Cranbrook, Henry proposes that the Music Guild bring the Don Shirley Trio to Cranbrook that summer for a week of concerts in the Greek Theatre. But he also references “Carol’s original idea” (Henry referred to Carolyn as Carol): she wanted Shirley to be their guest at Thornlea on August 11, which would have been Henry’s sixty-fifth birthday. In his letter Henry was emphatic: “This is a definite date — put it down please!” In the only letter in the Archives from Shirley to Booth, Shirley references their telephone conversation and offers a very business-like reply to the concert requests: “Although our usual contract fee for an evening concert by the Trio is $2500.00, we would be delighted, for various reasons, to play at Cranbrook during the evening of 12 August 1962 for a special all-inclusive fee of $1250.00.” Alas, even the comprehensive records of Cranbrook Archives contain no evidence that the summer concerts or birthday party guest appearance transpired.

Letter from Don Shirley to Henry Booth, Summer 1962. Collection of Cranbrook Archives, Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers (Box 40: Folder 9).

Final Scene. In April 1986, as Henry Booth approached his eighty-ninth birthday (he would live to be ninety), Henry reached out to Shirley one more time. Reminiscing about the first concerts in Kingswood Auditorium, one of which Jeanne Graham attended, Henry wrote hopefully about one more concert:

I hope a concert by you can be arranged for next fall or winter, although a summer concert in Cranbrook’s Greek Theatre would be a fine location except for having a good, well-tuned piano at your disposal rather than rain or a shower! Will you put me in touch with your agent? Please do! Meanwhile a big hug for Don Shirley.

The trail in the Archives ends with Shirley sending Henry a flyer of his upcoming concert in Carnegie Hall (where Shirley still lived in an apartment). At the very bottom the pianist simply drew an arrow pointing to the contact for his agent noting, “It’s all here.”

It is, indeed, all preserved here in the Cranbrook Archives. Because there will always be a Cranbrook connection that needs to be researched and a Cranbrook story that needs to be shared.

Gregory WittkoppDirector
Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

 

Photo Friday: Division of Days

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the calendar originated by the Mayans included 260 days. The “tzolkin” or “division of days” displayed in today’s photo are described as ceremonial or mythological. The calendar pages are part of a series of Mayan glyphs collected by Robert Hall Merrill (1881-1955). Merrill, an engineer and businessman, was a member of the Board of Trustees at Cranbrook Institute of Science from 1944-1953, as well as a consultant in the Anthropology department from 1948-1949.

Tzolkins 6 and 7 from the Robert Hall Merrill Papers, ca 1922.

Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute, describes the Mesoamerican calendar as the oldest and most important calendar system (earliest evidence dating to 800-500 BCE). The original purpose of the 260-day calendar is unknown, but there are several theories. One theory is that the calendar is based on the mathematical operations for the numbers 20 and 13 (important numbers in the Mayan culture). The calendar combines a cycle of twenty named days with another cycle of thirteen numbers to produce 260 days. Each named day has a corresponding glyph as seen in the photo above.

The glyphs are part of a series sent to Merrill by Edith Gates McComas, sister of Maya scholar, William Gates. This extraordinary material was transferred to Cranbrook Archives in 2016.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

 

The Peacock in the Hallway

On the second floor of Cranbrook House is a very lovely painting I’ve appreciated since I started here, but never knew much about.

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Jessie Arms Botke, The Mirror, 1926. Oil on Canvas. 32×26 in. Bequest of George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth to The Cranbrook Foundation.

I can confidently say I now know much more about the painting, even if I still know frustratingly little about how it got to be here in the house.

I wasn’t familiar with artist Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), even though in her lifetime she was considered the greatest decorative painter in the American West. Botke was prolific, painting six days a week and sketching on Sundays. She had a predilection for white birds (including pelicans, geese, ducks, and cockatoos), and our white peacock is a motif she returned to many times in her career.

Jessie Arms was born in Chicago and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Modeled after Paris ateliers, students at the Art Institute were responsible for setting their own goals and objectives and worked among many teachers and classes to develop their individual skills. She noted that the basic curriculum was “practice, practice, practice.” In the summer of 1903, she enrolled in John C. Johansen’s outdoor painting classes in Saugatuck, Michigan.

summer school class

John Johansen’s Summer Art Class at Saugatuck, Michigan, 1903. Courtesy of the Botke Family Archives/William A. Karges Fine Art.

After training in Chicago, she began producing wall decoration and book illustration. Taking a grand tour of Europe in 1909 provided even more artistic influence and inspiration. Following her year aboard, Botke applied to work at the Herter Looms in New York. She applied and was rejected, however, determined to work for the firm, she reapplied directly with Albert Herter. Hired on her second attempt, she produced tapestry cartoons and decorations for the firm. Discussing her experience working for Herter in 1949, Botke reflected:

“Thus began what was a most educational experience. Mr. Herter could have imported trained tapestry cartoonists from Europe, but he wanted to make American tapestry and he filled the studio with young artists just out of school, untainted by stereotyped traditions, with ideals and enthusiasm. We all had to learn the technique of making the tapestry cartoon by doing it. When we were stuck, we were free to go to the Metropolitan and study the tapestries there [and] try to figure out how they did it and apply our conclusions to our modern problems.”

I find this insight into the workshop of Albert Herter fascinating, as Herter Looms would produce its masterpiece, The Great Crusade tapestry, for Cranbrook House Library in 1918 (four years after Botke left).

At Herter Looms, Botke also produced decorative interior schemes and painted panel decorations. A commission for the dining room of actress Billie Burke (famous for her later role as Glinda the Good Witch) led Botke to a lifelong interest in birds. As she recalled, “Mr. Herter came to me with the scheme for the dining room, it was to be in shades of blue and green and he wanted a peacock frieze using the same colors, with white peacocks as notes of accent. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white peacock and went up to the Bronx Zoo to find out, and they had one. It was love at first sight and has been ever since.”

mural painting herter menu

Reprint of one of seven paintings by Albert Herter in the Mural Room of the Hotel St. Francis, San Francisco, with border attributed to Jessie Arms Botke. 1912. Courtesy of Tavistock Books.

Botke was also an activist, marching up New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1911 and 1912 in the suffragette parade. She also strongly advocated for the rights and representation of women artists.

In late 1914, Botke left Herter Looms and New York, moving to Chicago to marry Cornelis Botke, a Dutch artist and architectural renderer. They settled first in Chicago and then California, where they moved to the artist community of Carmel in 1919. It was at her Carmel studio where Botke likely painted the peacock now in Cranbrook House, in 1926.

botke-cornelis-jessie-website

Jessie Arms Botke and Cornelis Botke, n.d. Courtesy of Carmel Art Association.

In 1928, the couple relocated to Los Angeles and then Wheeler Canyon. They continued to paint, with Jessie’s income providing the bulk of the couple’s wealth. In her California home, Botke kept an aviary with peacocks “where I can enjoy and paint peacocks to my heart’s content.” Cornelis died of diabetes in 1954, and Jessie continued to paint until a stroke in 1967. She died in 1971, aged 88, with an enormous body of work and awards to her name.

So how did this Botke peacock come to Cranbrook? After looking in the object records we keep for all of Cranbrook’s art objects, as well as through photo albums, slide albums, record books, and receipt books, I cannot find any records pertaining to when the Botke painting was purchased! On the back of the painting is written the title of the work, the artist, and “Price 750.00.” There is also a stenciled “CF” for Cranbrook Foundation. This might mean the work was purchased by the Foundation for use at Cranbrook, or, more likely, was accessioned by the Foundation directly from Cranbrook House at the time of the George Booth’s death.

Although I’m currently unable to pin down who bought the painting and when, it was probably purchased by George Booth as a decorative piece for the home rather than part of the collection for Cranbrook Art Museum. This would explain why the painting isn’t in the Museum’s records (it is a Cultural Property, not a work in the Art Museum). Botke sold many of her pieces at Gump’s in San Francisco, from which Mr. Booth regularly purchased art, decorative objects, and furniture (and for which we have many receipts, none of which include the peacock).

Detail of The Mirror

In the 1980s, the painting was stored in the Cranbrook House attic. Was it moved there from one of the second-floor bedrooms, which were converted to offices in the 1970s? Sometime later, it was moved to Tower Garage, where the House and Gardens Auxiliary is located. In 2012, it was hung in its current location after the removal of the Cranbrook House vending machine.

I do love that the work features a peacock, as the bird was a favorite motif across Cranbrook and is found all across campus in gates, andirons, tapestries, and inlays. Although Saarinen (frustratingly) never wrote about why he loved the peacock, Jessie Botke did:

“My interest in birds was not sentimental, it was always what sort of pattern they made, and the white peacock was so appealing because it was a simple, but beautiful white form to be silhouetted against dark background, and the texture and pattern of the lacy tail broke the harshness of the white mass without losing the simplicity of the pattern.”

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

For more information on Jessie Arms Botke, see Patricia Trenton and Deborah Solon, “Birds, Boughs, and Blossoms: Jessie Arms Botke, 1883-1971” (Los Angeles: William A. Karges Fine Art, 1995).

 

Using Archives—The Quest for the Gold Ciborium

The pursuit of historical truth, from national heritage to community identity or individual biography, depends upon archives—the portion of records selected for permanent preservation. In the west, recordkeeping emerged within the development of justice and administration—the earliest English law code is that of King Aethelberht of Kent, c.600, following the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury and the encouragement of peaceful dispute resolution. Henceforth, a fundamental and enduring feature of legal process comes to us from the Anglo-Saxons: the writ and the charter. Yet, throughout the early middle ages, grants and other legal deeds were made in public ceremonies where the attendant witnesses were the ‘memory’ of the act, not always supplemented by a charter. But, by the thirteenth century, documentary evidence had become necessary to prove ownership of land or other grants of the king, and records began to constitute the activity itself.

Over time, the type, format, and number of records has proliferated but those that are preserved, as archives, are the critical vestiges of ancient and recent memory—individual memories, institutional memories, national memories. They are primary sources essential to historical method to evidence claims of historical fact based on a reasoned interpretation of the records—these are the tasks of historians and scholars whose published research is found in secondary sources. Both types of sources are necessary when greeted with the archival FAQ, “I want to know more about this person, place, or thing—what do you have?” A recent request related to a church vessel, the “gold ciborium” at Christ Church Cranbrook. As is the case with any research, the starting place is to discover what has already been done. The first place to look for information on the art works at Christ Church Cranbrook is the Pilgrims’ Guide, first published in 1939, which guides visitors through the church with details of its artworks and craftsmen.

The Pilgrim’s Guide (4th Ed.), Thistle [Henry S. Booth], 1956

While the Guide is full of meticulously researched information, there was no mention of a ciborium. The reference files were similarly silent, except a photocopied memo from George Gough Booth dated 1927, listing a ciborium made by Arthur Stone (1992-01 5:2). And, sure enough, in the George Gough Booth Papers (1981-01, 22:7), there is correspondence with Arthur Stone about a gold-plated ciborium. Voilà! Well, not quite… it was not the right one. So, we found a photograph of it in the photo files, though it had no date, photographer or artist details, only the words “silver gilt ciborium”.

Silver Gilt Ciborium
Copyright Cranbrook Archives, photographer unknown.

An inventory written by Henry Scripps Booth in 1960 (1981-01 20:6) has two ciboriums listed—that of Arthur Stone and another one with blanks for the creator and date of creation. But, taking a step back to the contemporaneous records for the building of the church, there are detailed ledgers for its construction and decoration. If the ciborium was purchased by George Gough Booth, there would most certainly be a record of it. Looking closely at the ledger pages, it is clear that a ciborium was commissioned from three separate artists: A. Nevill Kirk, Arthur Stone, and Helen K. Mills. These have certificate numbers which can be matched up with the ‘Cranbrook Church notebook’. So, we know that a third ciborium was purchased from an artist called Helen K. Mills, and the notebook gives us the date, February 7, 1928.

There is correspondence with Kirk and Stone in the Christ Church Cranbrook series of George’s papers but none with Helen Mills. But there must be some elsewhere. When we are processing archives, we must carefully consider three things: content (who created the documents and what is in them?), context (in what circumstances were they created and why?), and structure (how do they relate to other documents in the collection and the institution?). These things can also be applied in using archives. So, in looking for correspondence with artists regarding artwork at the time of the construction of the church, there is another place to look—the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts correspondence. Here we find correspondence between Helen Keeling Mills, Helen Plumb, and George Gough Booth.

While records might initially be kept to evidence an activity, over time they are of historical value. They can help us understand a person, provide knowledge of an organization, contribute to knowledge of a craft or a culture, they inform us of the creation of an object so that it may be maintained and preserved in its most beneficial environment. Last, but not least, a document becomes an artifact in itself because of who wrote it, what it says, and because it is simply beautiful. This correspondence was kept initially to document his transaction with Helen as part of the wider collection of records for the church. But we can learn much more from it. We know something about the creative process of the ciborium—what it is made of, the saints depicted upon it, that it was sent to another artist after which it was damaged. We know the importance that Helen placed in her work and her regret of the damage. We can see George’s gracious response and understanding—his appreciation of her devotion to her work and the joy that will be taken in the object she created.

This research query helped to draw information out of the archive that was hitherto not expressly known. There is now a reference file to aid future researchers so that the knowledge is accessible with references to the records that document it, and the research process need not be made again. And so, just as teachers learn from their students, the archive and archivists learn from their researchers.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

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