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Roberta Becker Farrar, Part 2: Roberta in School

This post is the second of three on the life of Roberta Becker Farrar.
Click here for Part 1: Introduction and Childhood
Click here for Part 3: Courtship, Marriage, Family, and Old Age


As a child, Roberta went to a school known as “Knapp Mansion” at 554 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, quite close to her home (537 Bedford). Old directories note Knapp Mansion as a non-sectarian day school. The promotional description below suggests the school is all about dancing, posture, and deportment.

“At the Knapp Mansion School ‘especial attention is given to dancing and physical culture… Both sexes and ages can get at this institution instruction in all kinds of dancing, and the principal makes a point of being posted and able to teach all of the newest things in this form of diversion. The absolute necessity of knowing how to dance is of course apparent to persons who go much into society, but not a little of the pleasure to be derived from this exercise by all who participate in it is dependent upon proper instruction, not only in the movement of the feet but in the carriage of the body, and all of the other details which insure grace and confidence. Careful instruction in these details and also in the etiquette of the ball room is given by Professor Rivers. Thorough training in physical culture is included with the course given at the Knapp Mansion.”  –From: The Director, Volume 1, 1898.

Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn

Entrance of Packer Collegiate Institution, June 2019

Before long, August sent Roberta to a more conventional private school, Packer Collegiate Institute.

When August enrolled her at Packer in September 1908, the school placed Roberta, then almost 11, in the second preparatory grade. Packer may have given her a what we now call a social promotion after that first year. The records show her next in the fourth preparatory grade.

Through the Packer Collegiate Institute archives, which I visited at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the summer of 2019, I got two views on who Roberta was as a girl. From her earlier years there, when she was about 10 to 12, she was not just an undistinguished student but a lousy one.

Roberta surely had an emotionally-tough childhood, losing her mother when she was one and a half years old. She was the third but only surviving of three siblings. ON the other hand, she had a prosperous and loving father, and they lived with his sister and her family with relatives that Roberta was close to then and later.

Her prior schooling, at the Knapp Mansion School in Brooklyn, could have been a factor in her lousy school performance. Knapp Mansion emphasized dance, perhaps leaving its pupils less-prepared for traditional curricula.

Packer Collegiate girls in gym class on the school’s roof, 1910s

A lousy student

Grades from Roberta’s fourth preparatory transcript

Initially at Packer, Roberta seemed to get on track, with her scores through the Fall and Spring in the 80s (in percent, with 100 being perfect). Best of all was spelling, where in her first year she got 97.

But as she continued there, her performance, which moved to letter grades, deteriorated. Her best subjects were drawing and, again, spelling. Her worst, grammar and Latin.

She was now a C student. Among her contemporaries there were far more As and Bs. I did not see her grades from later years—the archive librarian would not allow access to those, in case the same carton of documents had papers relating to still-living students.

Voted most attractive

Roberta, when I knew her, was elegant, poised and sociable, with all the social graces (plus the ability to wiggle her ears). It’s clear these qualities were present and served her well in school and her social late teen age and young adulthood.

By the late 1910s, when she was in her late teens, Roberta was active, social, and had an advanccd talent for dancing. She was often on the school committees that threw dances and parties. She was part of Brooklyn society and the social columns of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle listed her among the guests at society events, routinely noting what she and the other young women wore at dances and socials.

With repeated joint social events between Packer Collegiate Institute, her school, and Brooklyn Poly Prep, his, she met John Redmond Farrar, Jr., of Brooklyn, the son of a well-off Brooklyn judge. Both their families went in the summer to Lake Mahopac, New York, fifty miles north of New York City, so Roberta and Redmond had ample chances to notice each other and get acquainted. According to the dates on some pictures, they had done so, and were likely engaged, by 1916, each of them were 17 or 18.

Senior year

I learned from the Packer Collegiate school records, especially the yearbooks, far more about Roberta in her senior year of high school. The records are in the library of the Brooklyn Historical Society. I spent about four hours there looking for all I could find about Roberta.

At Packer, she was vice president of the French club and involved in planning a number of school social events. Some of the clues to who Roberta was in high school don’t jibe with the proper lady I knew.

Roberta’s page in the Packer class of 1917 yearbook

The little couplet reads: “Oh, bed! Oh, bed! Delicious bed! That heaven upon earth to the weary head.” What about her did this refer to? We will never know. Bottom left reads “Censored!!” which has to have a story behind it.

The Packer Collegiate Institute’s Class of 1917. Roberta is likely in the front row, center, just behind the “K”

“Knocks”

On the “Knocks” page of the class of 1917 yearbook, the class laid out their views of each girl’s “Present Occupation” “Future Occupation” and “Needs”. For Roberta, these were “Cataloguing her beaux,” “Keeping them busy,” and “A secretary”. In this Roberta was not a standout. Other girls’ entries were funny, played on apparent inside jokes and reputations, and included double meanings and general naughtiness.

For example, Dorothy Cummings: Present occupation: “Thrills”. Future occupation, “More thrills”. Need: “A chaperone”.

The Senior Class Ballot

In the spring of their senior year, the girls met to vote the class ballot. Roberta was voted “Most attractive”. There was also a “Prettiest” and a “most beautiful” and the distinctions among those are not clear to me, but what those words most precisely meant 100 years ago is likely different from what they mean now.

Designations for other girls included “most dignified,” “wittiest,” “brightest,” and “most self-possessed,” “noisiest,” and “class baby”.

Glory on an outing of automotive engineers

Roberta’s Uncle, Adolph Brion, was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers. He was an executive at Peter A. Frasse and Co., Inc., a steel company that sold materials to the automotive industry.

In the summer of 1916, he joined the Society for its annual meeting and Great Lakes cruise, taking his wife Lina, daughter Estelle, and niece Roberta along for the journey. Roberta was 18 years old.

The automobile, and therefore automotive engineering was just a few decades old and the profession was in a white-hot growth mode. The Society had been founded in 1905.

The S.A.E. Bulletin from that summer assures us that “every minute [of the cruise] was filled with pleasure and profit.” By day, the men attended arcane lectures about ball bearings and carburetors, and met to established standards for their industry.

“Though it was 10 o’clock when the entertainment of the Cleveland section came to an end, there was still another feature on the day’s program, namely, the dancing contest for the S.A.E. championship. This contest was won by Miss Roberta Becker, of Brooklyn, her partner being W. J. Cohalan a member of the Detroit section.” (He was ten years her senior). From: “Mixing Acting with Engineering,” Horseless Age: The Automobile Trade Magazine, Vol. 38, July 1, 1916.

 

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