A Tale of Two Harriets

One was from Detroit; one was from Pittsburgh. One attended Kingswood School; the other attended the Academy of Art. One was a writer and women’s rights activist; the other was a sculptor, photographer, and social worker. Both were named Harriet Cooper. Both were on Cranbrook’s campus in 1940.

This was the unusual story I uncovered working recently with the Archives’ digital collections. While tagging images with the names of Cranbrook’s staff photographers, who were responsible for the majority of photographs taken at Cranbrook between the years 1931-1970, I came across the name Harriet Cooper. As one of only two female photographers, I attempted to find out more, and in the process discovered a second Harriet Cooper who was also at Cranbrook around the same time.

What were the odds? And more importantly, which was my Harriet? I had to find out, not only for the sake of photographic description, but to satisfy intellectual curiosity about the lives of two seemingly individual Cranbrook women, who shared the same name and once lived in close proximity (temporal and geographic) to each other.

Senior picture of Harriet Cooper in the 1940 yearbook Woodwinds. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Harriet Cooper Alpern was born in 1923. A Detroit native, she grew up on Chicago Boulevard in the Boston-Edison District. Attending Kingswood School (her twin brother attended Cranbrook School), she was active in theater and served as a reporter for The Clarion, graduating in 1940.  According to the yearbook, Woodwinds, she was the senior voted for having the perfect speaking voice and known for splitting sides with her “unconscious humor.” After Kingswood, Harriet attended the University of Michigan, where her future husband E. Bryce Alpern also attended.

Poem appearing in the 1940 yearbook Woodwinds. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Aptly quoted in the Kingswood yearbook sighing, “Women’s work is never done,” Harriet spent a lifetime of active involvement in feminist social, economic, and political issues. Among her many accomplishments, she co-founded the Detroit chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1969. A freelance writer throughout her life, Harriet used those skills to establish her own media company promoting the women’s movement.

She was not, however, a photographer.

Harriet “Betty” Cooper, 1938. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Harriet Elizabeth (Betty) Cooper Lundquist was born in Valencia, Pennsylvania in 1916. She grew up in Pittsburgh, daughter of social workers and directors of Kingsley House, a settlement house. Betty attended both Antioch College and Yale University School of Fine Arts before coming to Cranbrook Academy of Art to study sculpture under Carl Milles from 1940 to 1942. While here, she also took classes in metalcraft, modeling, and design.

Untitled entry by CAA student Betty Cooper for the War Department Sculpture Competition, May 1, 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

And, she also took a job with Cranbrook Foundation as a photographer!

Although unknown whether she’d had any previous experience, Betty kept the Photography Department afloat on her own for several weeks during February and March 1942, and then stayed on for another seven months as assistant photographer. After graduation, Betty continued to work as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C., where she met and married Oliver Lundquist.

Unattributed, this photograph of the interior of Milles House featuring Carl Milles’ sculpture collection was likely taken by Betty Cooper in February 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

While raising three children during the 1950s and 1960s, Betty was active in civil rights causes, including being a founding member of Women Strike for Peace in 1961. In the early 1970s, she went back to school and earned a graduate degree in social work, practicing her parents’ profession for the next thirty years until retirement.

It just goes to show that even while performing routine (but necessary!) archival tasks, fascinating stories reveal themselves, which provide new depth and understanding of Cranbrook’s people.

– Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Harriets

  1. Deborah, curiosity followed is its own reward. Thanks for sharing yours in this well written piece. Fascinating story about female trail blazers.

    Like

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