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Redmond Farrar goes to college, 100 years ago

Roberta Becker and Redmond Farrar 1915

Roberta Becker and Redmond Farrar 1915

As I went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall of 1977, my mom, Judith Mahaffie, said, “Oh, my father attended Penn, at least for a time.” So before long, when I had settled in at the college, I went to the Registrar’s office, dug through a card file of alumnae, and found his name. He had attended from 1916 to 1918. The clerk at the Registrar’s office was pleased that I was pleased to find something.

He was John Redmond Farrar, whom everyone called Redmond. And though we don’t know much about his time there, we know a few facts about him and a great deal more about the college in those years.


On Thursday, September 28, 1916, Redmond left his Brooklyn home to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1920s and into the 30s, Redmond, spent time composing “hot  dance” songs, but as a young fresh graduate from Brooklyn’s Polytechnic Preparatory Institute (Poly Prep),  he was headed to college to prepare for a career in business.

Redmond was 18 years old. He was the son of a prominent Brooklyn judge, John Redmond Farrar, Sr. He was enrolling in Penn’s Wharton School of Finance and Commerce.

Redmond’s father was among those listed in a 1914 edition of “Empire State Notables”: “Lawyer, member of Assembly of N.Y. 1980-09, Elected Justice Municipal Court of City of N.Y. for Full Term of Ten Years Beginning January 1, 1910, Brooklyn, N.Y.” John R. Farrar, Sr. did not attend college, and it’s likely Redmond was the first in his family to do so.

Redmond likely rode by cab (which may have been horse-drawn) or streetcar from Brooklyn to New York City’s Penn Station and took a Pennsylvania Railroad parlor car to West Philadelphia. Campus was a short walk or cab ride from there. He would have passed the massive Croft & Allen Chocolate Works, which produced chocolates and “breakfast cocoa.” It’s delicious aroma probably mixed with sundry light industrial smells as he passed through the West Philadelphia neighborhood now taken up largely by Drexel University and a much expanded Penn campus.

Redmond moved into Morgan House in the Penn Quadrangle dorms. A few days later, he started classes. The required curriculum was:


  • Political Economy
  • Economic Resources
  • Accounting
  • Government
  • English
  • Chemistry or Business Law
  • Physical Education


  • Nineteenth Century Novelists (of course, the 20th century was too young to be required)
  • Composition
  • Physical education

All freshmen took Phys. Ed. twice a week. And Penn’s Professor of Physical Education, R. Tait McKenzie, had a grand theory of exercise, all about the learning and the physical abilities that young men needed in their educations. Exercise was a preventive. Gentlemanly competition was the route to good mental and physical health. So two days each week the freshmen got their physical training to learn to be refined men of good health.

Redmond’s room was no. 15, Morgan, in one of several dozen connected dorm houses in the Quadrangle. Likely he had a single room—the majority of rooms were singles, and the student directory doesn’t seem to show anyone else with the same room number.

Penn's Quadrangle dorms, Morgan House just right of the archway at the center

Penn’s Quadrangle dorms, Morgan House just right of the archway at the center (Image: WestCoastivies, via Flickr CC license)

Tuition that year was $150 plus a $10 general fee. Room and board depended on your room, but ranged $220 to $350 for the year. Text books ran between $10 and $25. A moderate budget for a private college today, 100 years later is $48,000.

In the Summer of 1916, England was already at war with Germany, and Italy joined the fight late that Summer. The University emerged in a war fever by the following spring, but that Fall activity was only quietly building, with some students engaged in military drills on Franklin Field.

Penn was a modern university by then, growing from a small, elite college a few decades prior, to a full university of multiple buildings, a hospital, Franklin Field stadium, a gymnasium, and the University Museum. There were nearly 8,000 students enrolled. And the student body was diverse, it included Jews, Chinese and other foreigners, and even women.

One source noted, “women could enroll in the University in a course in biology, which was primarily premedical in character, courses in fine arts and music in the School of Fine Arts, and teacher preparation courses in the School of Education. A woman had to enroll in the College Courses for Teachers, the predecessor of the College of General Studies, in order to gain a liberal arts degree. Many women earned the bachelor of science degree in the School of Education as an alternate way of getting a degree at the University even if they did not expect to teach.”

Roberta Becker and Redmond Farrar 1917

Roberta Becker and Redmond Farrar 1917

We don’t know if Redmond did much at Penn outside classes. A near perfect fit for him, with his experience in musical theater, was Penn’s Mask & Wig Club, which had men-only casts perform musicals. By high school he had become talented at not only appearing in musical theater, but composing some of the songs. Continuing as an alumnus of Brooklyn’s Poly Prep, Redmond starred in and helped write musicals, often playing female characters. His daughter, Judith Mahaffie, expects he had a band while at college. “He always had a band,” she said.

Redmond only studied at Penn for two years. It’s not clear why he might have left, but World War I, may have been a factor. So might the pull of Brooklyn where he was already courting Roberta Becker, whom he married in November 1919. And he was busy with the PolyPrep musicals starting in the Spring of his freshman year, and may have found that more compeling than his studies.

Based on his registration for the draft, in 1918, Redmond enrolled in the Students Army Training Corps, established at Columbia University to support the war effort. Students were required to study “Issues of the War,” mathematics, physics, and topography and map making. The Corps program was disbanded with Armistice that Fall.

Redmond had registred for the Draft on September 12, 1918. He was then working as a clerk at Farmer’s Loan and Trust Co., 22 William Street, near Wall Street. He is listed as entering NY State National Guard service on October 1, 1918.

There is more to Redmond’s story. A future post will look at his “hot dance” composing career.

Charles D. Mahaffie goes to Washington, 100 years ago

Charles D. Mahaffie

Charles D. Mahaffie, 1916: “A good mixer”

On Monday, September 18, 1916, Charles D. Mahaffie was sworn in as the Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Solicitor’s office provided legal services to the entire Department.

The Oregonian newspaper wrote, “Twenty-Six attorneys under his direction are today telling him what his duties are.” [Oregonian, September 19, 1916] He was now a Federal bureaucrat, serving a department now overseeing the brand-new National Park Service, and managing land issues including those involving Native Americans. The Solicitor would be a busy man.

Charles was 31, a graduate of Kingfisher College, Oklahoma and a Rhodes Scholar graduate of St. Johns College, Oxford. Still a bachelor, he moved his lodgings from the University Club, Portland, Oregon, to the University Club, Washington, DC, taking a residence with other single men in a club that had dining, commons spaces, and plenty of camaraderie. The Club was at 15th and I St., NW, on MacPherson Square.

Another paper said Mahaffie was a “bachelor and a tennis enthusiast” and a “public land specialist … much interested in the conservation of the natural resources of the country.” [The Oelwein Daily Register (Iowa), November 17, 1916]

2016-09-11-17-40-38Interior was a good fit for the talents and interest of this young man who as a toddler was in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, was raised adjacent to Indian Territory, and was now steeped in matters of land use. [Note: those that remember him may struggle with the idea of Charles as a “toddler”.]

Charles had settled in Portland in 1911 to start a law practice. Over five years there, he had become enmeshed in city politics and other civic and professional activities. It’s likely, had he not been called to Washington by Woodrow Wilson, that he would have made his life in Portland, and perhaps entered elective politics there.

The sort of man he was
Three or four of Charles’ seven grandchildren are old enough to remember him as a gruff old man. In his marriage to Isabel Cooper, an energetic, creative, busy, people collector, he seemed just a quiet backdrop. But his younger adulthood as a bachelor, rising in Portland City politics, shows a different side.

Earlier that Summer, Charles’ Oxford alumnae magazine gave his perspective on Portland:

The report from Charlie Mahaffie, Oklahoma and St. John’s, glows with an optimism truly Pacific. “We’re strong here,” he says of Portland, Oregon, “for preparedness. Preparedness to welcome the ‘prosperity wave’ which we hear is now just east of the Cascade Mountains. We have sentries out to locate it. Otherwise the coast is very ‘Pacific’; and Wilson looks like a good bet in this part of it. Prohibition seems very effectual, and sociability speaks in a subdued tone. But we are getting used to it gradually, and if it does all that we were promised, everybody will be pleased.” [The American Oxonian, July 1916]

He complained about Prohibition. (Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 for the U.S. overall. But Oregon had voted to ban all alcohol in 1915). He told The American Oxonian that it would create financial issues for the University Club. [The American Oxonian, January 1916]

Some other of Charles’ Portland activities

  • Served as assistant secretary of the Oregon Conservation Commission
  • Was advisory editor of the National Municipal Review, editing the department of Judicial Decisions Affecting Municipalities
  • Served as Director, Douglas County Fire Patrol Association
  • Served as Treasurer, Oregon Bar Association
  • Served as secretary, University Club, Portland
  • Played competitive tennis

Politics and opinion

Charles wrote an article in a Portland paper in favor of presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson, focusing on his brave reforms when President of Princeton. Charles had joined the faculty of Princeton University following his Oxford education, as an instructor in jurisprudence.

The issue in higher education as Charles reported it was, “so all-pervading has the craze for social honors become that the public itself wants to know of the recent graduate, not if he led his class or was a high honor man, but what fraternity or club he ‘made’.”

“Universities founded and supported for the purpose of preparing men for life in America were, consciously or unconsciously, coming to put the chief emphasis on matters destructive of the best ideals of American life. Most men not directly concerned saw the process with regret. Many of the keener academic authorities appreciated the danger by saw no effectual means of combating it. Woodrow Wilson was one of the first to diagnose the situation.”

Democracy and the Suffrage by Charles D. MahaffieAmong the steps Wilson had taken: eliminating fraternities and raising academic standards, despite strong pressures against those changes. [The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland], September 5, 1912]

Charles also authored and presented a paper, published also as a pamphlet, called “Democracy and the Suffrage,” [links to full article] supporting the vote for women. He wrote, “In no important line of human effort, except politics, is the sex of the thinker considered of importance in estimating the value of brain product.” [Charles D. Mahaffie, “Democracy and the Suffrage,” 1912.] Women’s voting rights were on the ballot that year in Oregon, and the referendum passed with 52% support. The United States didn’t give voting rights to women until 1920.

“New solicitor is called a good mixer”
The Day wrote about Charles under the headline “New Solicitor is Called Good Mixer”.

“Charles D. Mahaffie, of Portland, Ore., has arrived in Washington, DC. To take up his new duties as solicitor of the Interior Department. Both Senators Lane and Chamberlain of Oregon warmly urged the appointment of Mahaffie. He is popular throughout his native state, is known as a prominent attorney and is declared to be a good mixer.” [The Day, October 6, 1916]

Illustrating the story was the photo above, showing Charles, the good mixer suited, wearing a homburg, and striding along what might be Pennsylvania Avenue or F Street, in Washington.

Komalty: down on the old homestead

My son Robert and I passed through Kiowa County, Oklahoma on our way by car from Washington, DC to Colorado Springs in late May. We stopped to explore the country for a few hours, short to get a feel for the old home grounds of my Great Grandparents and their family.

Along a section road, Komalty, Oklahoma
The Komalty crossroads

The Komalty crossroads

The ranches today are mostly in wheat, the late winter crop during our visit was mature and some farmers were harvesting. The land also supports cattle, some oil and gas is pumped from the shale deposits under the ranchland, and now, in places, there are clusters of enormous wind turbines.

George B. “Doc” Mahaffie and Mary Frances Williams “Molly” Mahaffie, each at age 34, homesteaded in Oklahoma, at Kingfisher, just northwest of Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma Land Rush which started April 22, 1889, opened 2 million acres for homesteading, and 50,000 people lined up for the High Noon start. It was one of several openings and rushes in the late 1800s.

As best we know, the Mahaffies were not “Sooners.” They waited for the proper time to move in and find a homestead. George and Mary had begun their family 300 miles away in Olathe, Kansas where George’s father, James Beatty Mahaffie, had built his farm and stage coach stop.

Rose, Mary, Charles, Beatty, George, and Bart Mahaffie about 1903

Rose, Mary, Charles, Beatty, George, and Bart Mahaffie about 1903

In 1901, land further west that had been a Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation, in what become Kiowa County, opened to homesteaders. And the loss for Native Americans became the gain of thousands of homesteaders, including the Mahaffies. They moved one hundred miles further west and took claims at what became Komalty, Oklahoma. The county seat, Hobart, formed as a tent city with that 1901 land opening and before long the new homesteaders built the town.

Both land rushes were part of a wave of late 1800s/turn-of-the-century land confiscations by the U.S. Government which took treaty-promised plans from native peoples. Oklahoma, which had been Indian territory, became far less in the control of Native peoples, though there are still reservations spread through the state.

My grandfather, Charles D. Mahaffie, Sr., was about 4 years old when the Oklahoma land was opened to settlers. The family included his sister Rose who was 6. Their brothers George Barton “Bart”, and Oscar Beatty were not yet born, though Bart arrived that winter. Charles D. Senior was, if I recall right, with his father in a wagon for the Land Rush, and recalled hearing shots fired by homesteaders tussling over claims.

With each generation, the Mahaffies had homesteaded their way westward. Doc was born in Indiana, grew up in Olathe, Kansas where his father had settled. His father preceeding him was born in Pennsylvania and lived also in Indiana, before settling in Kansas. Picking up the pattern, Doc sought his fortune with his young family, further west, claiming his land in Kingfisher and then Kiowa County. The family prospered in Kiowas County, growing their holdings and becoming leading members of the community.

Robert Mahaffie deploying his drone

Robert Mahaffie deploying his drone

Robert and I explored the fields and section roads around Komalty, where the Mahaffie homestead was. Robert flew his drone out over the wheat fields towards Rainy Mountain and took in the scenery.

Komalty isn’t really a town now, if it ever was. The ranchers have assembled the old homesteads into larger parcels, and likely more often than not, they manage them from a home in town. Justin Krieger, who tenanted the land Charles D. Mahaffie, Jr. inherited and now owns it, lives in Hobart where he also has an insurance business on Main St.

Here is a little of the aerial video Robert shot:

The Mahaffie Headstone, Hobart Rose Cemetery

The Hobart resting place for George, Mary, and Bart Mahaffie

There are still scattered oil pumps in the Kiowa County fields, but there are also long arcs of wind turbines, adding power to the yield the area gets from wheat and cattle. Doc Mahaffie surely would have gone for turbines, anything to add to the productivity of his farm.

In Hobart, “town” for the Mahaffies, we saw a worn-out downtown, and not much in the way of commerce or energy. It is a big town, the county seat. There are fewer people in the county now than there once were, it takes far fewer to farm and ranch. Hobart shows the signs of a smaller population. There were 27,500 in Kiowa County in 1910. Today about 9,300 people live there.

A gravesite at Hobart Rose Cemetary has a Mahaffie headstone, and three small stones, for “Father” George, “Mother” Mary Mahaffie, and the youngest, which simply reads “Bart.” Bart is there because he died young, succumbing in 1919 to the influenza that killed millions. In his obituary, he is remembered as one of the favorite young men ever to live in Kiowa County.

George and Mary’s children kept up the established pattern of moving onward to find their own way, but now higher education shaped their prospects. Charles had gotten all the way to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and initially moved westward to Portland, Oregon, before taking a job in Washington, DC with the Federal Government. Rose married and also moved west. Oscar completed college and also took a government job. And Bart had started his ranch in southeastern Colorado when he died of the flu.

By the 1940s, no Mahaffie’s were left in Kiowa County, though Doc’s descendents still held land there until recently. Ranchers still thrive there, but much fewer in number.

“Mr. Mahaffie comes on from Washington Tues. midnight”

Dorothy Binney Putnam and Charles D. Mahaffie in May 1927

Dorothy Binney Putnam and Charles D. Mahaffie in May 1927

Dorothy Putnam wrote Isabel Cooper on December 20, 1924, inviting her to her Rye, New York home, and announcing that Mr. Mahaffie would be arriving that next Tuesday (December 23rd) at midnight. Mr. Mahaffie was clearly a topic of prior conversation. Isabel’s friend Dorothy, whom she called a “festive lady who loved people, giving parties, and matchmaking,” was determined that Isabel should meet Mr. Mahaffie.

Dorothy was to see Mr. Mahaffie in New York City on Wednesday, Christmas Eve, for lunch and a matinee. She urged Isabel to join them for the lunch and show, or at least join Charles and Dorothy to make the 5:35 pm train to Rye. Everyone was headed, ultimately, for a Christmas Eve party at the Putnams.

Isabel was a fascinating, adventuring young woman in the early 1920s, at the beginning of her thirties. And she was single. Hints in things she wrote later suggest tries at romance, but perhaps her exotic life as a scientific expedition artist, and perhaps also her temperament, left her unattached.

But Dorothy was inspired to match her great friend Isabel with her husband’s friend Charles Mahaffie. It’s hard to imagine why. Perhaps Dorothy fixed on the idea that opposites attract.

DBP to IC re CDM

Dorothy Putnam’s invitation to Isabel Cooper. A Red India ink outline was Isabel’s habitual way to highlight the signficant in old papers

Dorothy Binney Putnam was a daughter of Edwin Binney, who founded and co-owned Binney & Smith, Inc., the maker of Crayola crayons. She was married to George Palmer Putnam, a grandson of the founder of Putnam & Sons, the publishers. A few years later, George would drift to a new interest, Amelia Earhart, who fascinated him as a project–a woman aviator he could use to drive book sales–and as a lover. And Dorothy had her own affairs.

For at least a few years, Isabel and Dorothy were best friends. In 1925, Isabel wrote Charles from the Canal Zone, where she and Dorothy were together, “It is so nice to see her. I can’t get along without her for long, and her intelligence and lovableness and her knack of telling things so your diaphragm aches for hours with laughing.i

She said also, “Dorothy stands as a most excellent example of the sort of equable and valuable person I would like to be.”

Charles was forty, an established bachelor who lived with other unattached men in the University Club in downtown Washington, DC. He was a hard-working, Oklahoma-farm-raised Rhodes Scholar. A gruff government lawyer, working in the Federal Government’s Interstate Commerce Commission on the then-vital matters of railroad regulation.

The Putnams knew Charles from the 1910s in Portland, when George and Charles had both been connected to city politics and business affairs in the 1910s. But the Putnams had moved east for George to work in the family publishing business. They came to know Isabel from New York Society. Isabel and Charles were, separately, recurring visitors at the Putnam’s estate at Rye, New York.

George and Dorothy supposed that this mis-matched pair would take to each other. They arranged a Christmas holiday at Rye and invited Isabel and Charles.

So two people, world’s apart in temperament, background, and experience, got on a train for Rye on Tuesday, December 23, 1924.

Fifty or more years later, Isabel told me how she and Charles met before they were supposed to, on the train to Rye, so perhaps Dorothy didn’t take the same train after all. The two hit it off and realized they were the pair intended to meet at the Putnams. They got a laugh out George and Dorothy when they showed up at Rye, already acquainted. George, Isabel told me, remarked that since they’d already met, there was really no reason to go through with the festivities. But they spent at least a few days together as guests of the Putnams. And Dorothy’s matchmaking proved spot on.

“You do explode some grenades, you know”

ICM and CDM in Oct 1928

Isabel and Charles Mahaffie, 1928

Charles wrote Isabel when their acquaintance was only a few weeks old, “It was nice of you to come by yesterday. I’m glad to have had another chance to see you, even it it was for only a few minutes. You see, I’ve seldom seen anyone half so direct, downright, and stimulating a you, and I’ve liked having you wake me up a bit. You do explode some grenades, you know. Which comes, I suppose, from using an active brain as it was meant to be used. Altogether you are a most delightful person, and while Dorothy did not tie it up with nice Santa seals her introduction on December 24 was the nicest Christmas present I’ve had.ii

Charles and Isabel were married in August 1928. Isabel moved with Charles into an apartment in Washington and began a life very different from what she lived. She became a housewife and mother, though never typical at either. She continued her painting, soon forgoing paid work for doing art that pleased her. Her years of exploring the tropics were over.


i Letter, IC to CDM, from the Canal Zone, March 27, 1925.

ii Letter, CDM to IC, January 8, 1925.

“Dad, can I get a monkey?”

“Dad, can I get a monkey?”
“Why not?”
“Monkeys are awesome!”
“It could be my service animal”

Versions of this echo in homes everywhere. And Dad or Mom keeps saying no.

But in our house, there was a hitch. On our living room wall are watercolor portraits of two monkeys done by Isabel Cooper, my grandmother, both from her visits as a scientific artist to British Guiana. One is a marmoset, named Sadie Volvisch, painted in 1921. The other is a spider Monkey, named Mishkin, painted in 1922. Russia, or maybe immigrant New York City, was the go to place for pet monkey names for the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research staff.

Mishkin, by Isabel Cooper

Sadie Volvisch, by Isabel Cooper

My son didn’t just ask for a monkey once, it became a refrain. At some point he started, when he said it, to glance over at the pictures. And in a moment of failed parenting, I mentioned, “your great grandmother had monkeys, those are some of them.”

Sinbad, by Isabel Cooper

Sinbad, by Isabel Cooper

Monkeys entertained Isabel and her colleagues in the jungle camps of the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research, and on the ships they sailed on. One, Sinbad (sometimes spelled Sindbad), was especially a star.  He was a black spider monkey, acquired in Panama by the 1923 Harrison Williams Expedition to the Galapagos. William Beebe bought Sinbad in the streets of Panama, where he had found the monkey being mistreated by locals. Sinbad proved to be affectionate, smart, inquisitive, and fun-loving. He was the first monkey that she ever knew that laughed, wrote the expedition historian Ruth Rose.i

William Beebe also bought Chiriqui, a cebus or capuchin monkey–the type used by organ grinders, when the 1925 Arcturus expedition visited Panama on its exploration of the Galapagos.

And it turns out that Isabel kept a monkey, a red spider monkey, possibly Mishkin, pictured above, in her New York City apartment. This was likely when she lived at 136 West 65th Street, now the site of Lincoln Center.

Isabel Cooper with Sinbad

Isabel Cooper with Sinbad

But her spider monkey proved a bad fit as a house pet. Before long, Isabel’s apartment house neighbors complained about the “fog horn” they were hearing. It was the monkey, and it was late at night. She had to evict him to go live at the Bronx Zoo. I like imagining Isabel stepping out on Columbus Avenue and hailing a cab, the monkey at her shoulder.

I’ve tried to be clear on this last point my son, but I don’t think he’s convinced a monkey can’t be a good pet. His great grandmother had monkeys, and besides, monkeys are awesome!


i Ruth Rose, quoting a book by William Beebe, Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, Vol. 27, No. 1, January 1924.

It pays to go to parties

In the mid-late-1910s, Isabel Cooper was living in Greenwich Village and working at artistic odd jobs, looking for something different.i [For that part of her story, see: “Resisting the homely snout of commercialism“]

Chance led her to find her way to entirely new experiences. And her story carries a lesson: you don’t know whom you’ll meet who might deliver you opportunity, adventure, or love. People Isabel met socially and through her work led her to all of those. It pays, it seems, to go to parties.

IC with Ruth Rose British Guiana about 1922

Isabel Cooper (r) with Ruth Rose in British Guiana about 1922

Isabel Cooper (r) with Ruth Rose in British Guiana, about 1922

Isabel was an artist, raised well-off and well-educated by Victorian aunts on the Upper West Side of New York City. At 21, she set off to make her own way, and worked in different design and art jobs in the city. But by 25 she was living for months at a time in jungle camps, painting reptiles for the naturalist William Beebe’s scientific expeditions.

How did this happen? Isabel recalled “an odd assortment of men and women to be instruments of fate” in her memior she wrote when she was in her 80s. William Beebe is part of that chain of seven who led her to meet her future husband, Charles Mahaffie on Christmas Eve, 1924.

The memoir gives thumbnails about of these drivers of fate, but she does not name them. Here is the sequence. Some we can identify, and their names are here:

  1. “A quaint little painter…who couldn’t paint” — likely Alon Bement, who taught at Columbia and led summer art institutes at Old Lyme, Connecticut. He also taught Georgia O’Keeffe.
  2. “A flighty young woman with one blue and one brown eye,” whom she met in the summer art class.
  3. “A visionary–a philosopher way ahead of her time, incomprehensible, whom I came to appreciate and understand as the years went on.”
  4. A man “notable for one thing,” he introduced her to:
  5. “A debonair character who seemed to have no special occupation or means of support
  6. “A famous biologist, part scientist and park faker…” “Faker” is a strong word, but William Beebe was more adventurer than credentialed scientist.
  7. Dorothy B. Putnam, “a festive lady who loved people, giving parties, and matchmaking.” Dorothy and her husband George P. Putnam introduced Isabel to Charles Mahaffie, who became her husband.
William Beebe

William Beebe in 1925

But first, Isabel had nine years of adventures in the tropics, living a life nearly unique for her times, let alone for young, single woman. Isabel met Beebe just as he was mounting the first his Department of Tropical Research scientific expeditions. Experienced with nature exploration, he knew the value of a gifted artist to his work.

Isabel knew of Beebe’s incredible knowledge of nature and was fascinated with his globe-spanning exploration. And “he was an enthusiast, and he cared nothing about money,”ii  So he could help her move her are clear of excess commercialism.

Isabel had told an American Magazine interviewer, “You must be enthusiastic,” she says; “it’s the enthusiasts who do things.”iii She saw that in Beebe, and surely he saw it in her.

Having met him, “one word led to another,” and Beebe hired Isabel to bring her skills along on his 1917 expedition to British Guiana. She ultimately traveled as scientific artist with Beebe on nine expeditions, including seven to British Guiana and two to the Galapagos. The adventures she had colored her interests and her art from then forward.


i John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

ii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

iii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

Isabel Cooper and Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village in New York City was where you went in the 1910s if you were eccentric, gay, radical, or artistic. Pioneering activists, artists, and writers began settling there in the early 1910s. They set a tone for free-thinking and free-living that, along with cheap housing and cheap restaurants, and good light for art studios, seeded the quickening growth of a creative community. And the magnetic pull drew Isabel early in the emergence of America’s Bohemia. She began to work in Washington Square, and live nearby by about 1912.i

The Village offered a counterbalance to the more proper, staid uptown neighborhoods, and its residents thought of it that way, as is clear from John Reed’s poem, “A Day in Bohemia.”

Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,
We dare to think as uptown wouldn’t dare,
Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;
What care we for a dull old world censorious,
When each is sure he’ll fashion something glorious?
Blessed are thou, Anarchic Liberty
Who asketh nought but joy of such as we!
–Excerpt from “The Day in Bohemia,” 1912, John Reed, journalist, poet, communist

The Village drew mostly unmarried men and women for the chance to live “unencumbered by family obligations.ii” It’s easy to think of Isabel seeking to be so unencumbered; to at once free her self to do the creative work she loved and to find the freedom that only some young women were exercising in the early part of the 20th century.

The people of the Village came to be called “Bohemians.” The word means someone with unconventional social habits and lifestyle. But Isabel used to say that a bohemian is a person with an art studio who doesn’t really do art.

The Benedict Studios, Washington Square, where Isabel Cooper worked in the 1910s

The Benedict Studios, Washington Square, where Isabel Cooper worked in the 1910s

In this rich mix of eccentricity and creativity, she found work in an interior decoration shop in Washington Square, and lived nearby.iii The community brought her plenty of chances to try her hand at art and design. She continued to live and work there into the early 1920s.

Isabel had moved far from the staid Victorian parlor of her aunts’ home to be a part of the raucous scene of Village tea rooms or all-night parties of artists, winding down only as the sun came up. Aunt Mary and Aunt Harriet must have grimaced at the thought of what their niece had become.

Isabel came to know other Greenwich Village artists and writers including the radical journalist John Reed, who was buried in the Kremlin, a reward for his coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Sinclair Lewis, who based at least one character on aspects of Isabel.

Along the way, her social circles led her, by 1916 or 1917, to meet William Beebe, the naturalist-explorer, who liked parties, especially dances, and was well connected in the Village. And he opened a new stage for her adventurous life.


i In her scrapbook, Isabel noted, on a picture, a Washington Square studio she said a Dorothy Randolph “bequeathed” her in 1912.

ii George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, Basic Books, 1995.

iii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

Resisting the homely snout of commercialism

In the 1910s there was no training for scientific illustrators in New York, and Isabel Cooper didn’t know she was destined to do that kind of work. She loved art, and wanted to be an artist. Newly independent, she saw that she needed work that would satisfy her but also pay her a living.

Isabel Cooper at 25

Isabel Cooper at 25

Isabel had done a freshman year, 1909-1910, at Bryn Mawr College. By her account she was a lackadaisical student.i Those who knew her later saw a wide-ranging and powerful mind that could have taken her deep into almost any kind of scholarship. But art drew her most.

After freshman year, she returned to New York. She enrolled in Fine Arts at Columbia Teachers College, and began studies at the Art Students’ League, then and still an independent art school in Manhattan. And she found a mentor, taking summer classes with the painter Alon Bement at Lyme Connecticut.

In her training, she tracked close to the path of Georgia O’Keeffe, who also studied at Columbia, at the Art Students League, and with Alon Bement, all at about the same time.

Isabel gravitated toward design classes, and began to work in interior design, perhaps as a surer way to make a living. Paid and unpaid, she tried: drawing from life, rug and tapestry design, clay sculpture, pottery, metalwork, interior decoration, and stage costuming.ii  It is unfortunate we don’t have any examples of Isabel’s craft or design work from this time. Somewhere rugs she designed may still survive.

Isabel was good at interior design. It’s likely she worked in the early 1910s for Anton Hellmann, who had a interior decoration practice and school at the Benedict Studios on Washington Square.iii

But she found interior decorating too commercially demanding.iv Then she tried costume design. She was good at that too, and creating distinct costumes and stage hangings, each time something unique, satisfied her. But then a theater manager, liking a particular costume she had done, demanded fifty more just like it. As she must have conveyed carefully to her interviewer, “commercialism continued to poke its homely snout into her artwork.v

Something was still not right. She was built for novelty and adventure, not commercial toil. In fact, later in her life, after she was married and didn’t need to support herself, she resisted selling paintings. In gallery shows, she’d price her work high to ward off buyers. Only a few paintings got away from her in shows, and she tried more than once to buy paintings back.

Once launched in her career as a scientific artist in 1917, Isabel looked back at these years as “going bleakly about my various occupations, such as assisting at the legerdemain of interior decorators, or degrading oriental perfections to terms of modern rug factory…vi” She was ready for something more interesting.


i Letter, Isabel Cooper to Charles D. Mahaffie, October 17, 1926.

ii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

iii The Upholsterer, June 1916, Vol. 55, p. 83.

iv John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

v John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

vi “Alumnae Activities,” Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, 1924.

A young woman’s declaration of independence in the 1910s

Isabel Cooper a few years before her independence

Isabel Cooper a few years before her independence

In November 1913, Isabel Cooper went before a Kings County New York Commissioner of Deeds and signed a “General Release,” freeing her Aunt Mary Cooper from guardianship and any financial or legal responsibility for her. This was not an act of rebellion, it was the accepted legal move for a ward, reaching majority, when there was money or property involved in a guardianship.

With her signature, Isabel may have gained control of a small inheritance, but much more importantly, she became a free-acting adult. She was just past 21.

Isabel’s first taste of independence was freshman year at Bryn Mawr College. But she had come home after a year. Then she spent several years studying art at Columbia Teacher’s College and in summer courses in Lyme, Connecticut. She was meeting interesting people and ranging further and further from the staid life she led with Aunt Mary and her aunts Harriet and Joanna.

The aunts were Isabel’s father’s sisters. After James Cooper died in the Klondike, when Isabel was five, the three raised Isabel and her younger brothers Jim and Leslie. The aunts were single, Victorian women, and devout Christian Scientists. Isabel’s two hard-to-manage brothers were mostly off at boarding school, leaving her home with the aunts, and attending a nearby day school.

Isabel's childhood home, 40 West 96th St., NYC

Isabel’s childhood home, 40 West 96th St., NYC

Aunt Mary was, Isabel wrote later, a martinet. It was Mary who sent her to Bryn Mawr, and then who decided, for Isabel, where she would attend art school. Mary’s choice replaced the one Isabel had made. Isabel wrote later that she agreed,  but “with rather bad grace.” None of the three aunts was a mother figure. Isabel remembered later that even from her closest Aunt Joanna she got “no embraces or gestures of tenderness”.

In 1911, the family moved from their large row house at 40 West 96th Street, just west of Central Park, to an apartment in Harlem, renting out the house. What had been close quarters with three middle-aged aunts became even closer quarters in just a few rooms for a free-spirited 19-year-old.

Then in July 1913, Aunt Joanna, the only one Isabel was close to, and the one who nutured her artistic interests, died at 53. It was time for independence, and she arranged it about as soon as she could.

Site of Studio House women artist residence, 35 East 62nd

Site of the Studio Club, a residence for single women artists, 35 East 62nd Street, Manhattan

Around the time she signed the General Release, Isabel moved away from her surviving aunts to the Studio Club, a YMCA residence for single women artists, at 35 East 62nd Street. She lived there from from 1913-1915. At the Studio Club, though under the watchful eyes of a house matron, and subject to regular lectures on Christian propriety, Isabel got a further taste of freedom and independence. She was with other young women artists, not older ladies. She could come and go freely (within curfew hours), and she was immersing herself in art. It was the start of a remarkably modern, adventurous life for a woman raised in a Victorian, Christian household by middle-aged aunts.

It’s easy to imagine her folding closed the General Release and putting in her handbag. And she preserved it from then on, and placed it in a glassine sleeve in the scrapbook she made to give highlights of her life and career. Her declaration of independence.

Shipboard work for a scientific artist

Isabel Cooper wrote a long article, “Fish Portraits,” on her work illustrating fish, hoping to get it published in Asia Magazine. It was not published. This post offers excerpts of that article, focusing on the work and working conditions, and leaving aside her colorful observations on the different kinds of fish she worked with. The full article manuscript is here: Fish Portraits by Isabel Cooper 1925 in a PDF.

What follow are Isabel’s words.


The ship as a workplace

Our ship was exceedingly sturdy and staunch, and broad-beamed, and well adapted to the requirements of an ocean laboratory.

On the upper deck of the laboratory-proper, neatly wedged between a chart table and the ship’s laboratory, was my ‘studio’. This may sound a bit cramped and crowded; studios are supposed to be reasonably spacious, with plenty of swinging-room for brushes, at least. But I assure you that the more tightly a floating studio is wedged, the [more] beneficial for the work and nerves of the artist! These boundaries fore and aft, together with the wall on the port side, made three directions in which I could not roll.

Isabel Cooper at work on ship_Arcturus Adventure

Image from William Beebe, The Arcturus Adventure. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1926

Possibly the most remarkable feature of my sea-going studio was the fact that it never remained quietly in one plane of space for longer than an instant….

By which mild and rather negative statement I really mean the gruesome fact that, in open ocean, the studio and its entire contents oscillated violently and almost continually through one, two, or three dimensions. This activity became really astounding at times. When the ship was merely slanting about, objects on my desk would develop the most interesting and intricate sorts of rhythm all their own. So you can see the necessity of keeping things as compact as possible. …

My immediate surroundings on the “Arcturus” were not bad at all, – if unusual. … To the starboard of my work-table was an open space which collected chairs and people, towards evening, and which was nightly rent asunder by the stress of arguments and discussions, – always the breath of life to me. And out of my wide, salt-splashed port there was continually to be seen the sea, – stormy Atlantic, or sparkling Caribbean, or slow, beautiful Pacific, with the comforting level of the horizon to furnish a refuge for my thoughts, at least, on tumultuous, busy days.

I had a great deal of trouble with my paints and inks and other rolling stock on board the ‘Arcturus. All these things would tend, in rough weather, to merge gradually into an indistinguishable mass, right before my eyes, – no matter how many new and fantastic tethering devices and halters and barricades I invented.

Imagine a desk which slants in almost any direction, or else revolves with a strange, shuddering corkscrew motion. And a working light which shines indiscriminately from east or west or north or south. And models who are mostly alive and swimming. And you will have a faint picture of my “Arcturus” studio. I am thinking especially of a wild morning in Mid-Atlantic, when I had definitely made up my mind that the elements were not to hinder me from finishing a special portrait. My desk had been long since hooked firmly to the deck. And I had worked out a complicated system of paddocks for microscopes, ink bottles, brushes, etc. My model was a very small and unprepossessing deep-sea fish, whose tiny aquarium was wired to the microscope slide. As far as I can remember my paints were safely sliding about in [a?] drawer. I was sticking to my chair in much the way that a rider sticks to a frisky horse, – a matter of knee pressure. But we struck a wave whose trough just fitted the wide sides of our ship. Which means that you roll as far as possible without actually turning over completely in the water. Whereupon I was projected across the room, several of my tools jumped the traces, a whole section of heavy scientific literature moved forward in a mass, and caught me amidship. A funny moment. I suppose the microscope must have looked like the Campanile in an earthquake, with a strange pale little fish spinning off through space like a lost soul.

I was obliged to study new phases and phenomena of gravitation which had never before troubled me. And not the least of these concerned the control of my subjects. In order to achieve sketches to suit the scientists’ purposes the fish had to pose alive. And they happen to be the most difficult models in the world. You cannot hold them still with any degree of comfort or success. They are nowhere near as easy to manage as my jungle models, the snakes and lizards and frogs of Demerara. Once you had a good firm grip on a snake’s neck the problem was solved. And some of the lizards and frogs would even sit still of their own accord and and look you angrily in the eye for minutes at a time.

Dealing with fish as subjects

There are just three ways to deal with fish. You can let them swim around in a glass tank, and regard them through the glass sides. Or you can have them flopping about in a pan of water. Or you can hold them up by the tail. If they swam, I considered myself lucky if they moved slowly and peaceably, allowing me a glimpse now and then of the pose which I wanted. But they were much more likely to whirl about in a panic, stirring up a terrific surf in the aquarium, and gulping great gulps of fear and dismay. Or they jumped right out of the water, and landed, slime and all, in the middle of my drawing or my face.

Arcturus Adventure IC plate vi yellow tailed surgeon fish

Yellow-tailed surgeon fish by Isabel Cooper. From The Arcturus Adventure

The most becoming pose a fish can take is in profile, – so that you may catch the full, charming contours of his deficient brain-case, the backward sloping forehead, and the definitely receding chin. But this profile view is almost impossible to get. They prefer to gaze at you head on, concentrating all the sadness and distrust of their bulging, jeweled eyes upon you through the glass, and biting feebly at nothingness, with their strange skeleton mouths.

A fish model who is reclining upon his side in a pan of water is far from satisfactory. He either flops appallingly, or else dies, which is just what must be carefully avoided. When you find yourself with a really adaptable and congenial fish you may be sure it is dead! I arrived long ago at the point where I was willing to hold a fish up by the tail, through they are damp, slippery handfuls at best. But it is not often that I have been able to keep a firm hold upon a living fish. They have the most slithering of contours, as well as a violent power in their flat tapering muscles, against which the strength of the most capable human hand would not function.

The element of speed enters into almost all my work from living creatures. There is always some very good reason why the sketches must be completed as soon as possible. This enforced absorption in my work is an excellent thing, particularly at sea, where it serves to keep my mind off some rather pessimistic reflections upon the activity of the ocean itself, and the very comparative pleasure of working on ships.

The pleasure of the scientific artistic work

Parti-colored bumpheads by Isabel Cooper. From The Arcturus Adventure

Parti-colored bumpheads by Isabel Cooper. From The Arcturus Adventure

I wonder whether I will be understood when I remark that the satisfaction of turning out accurate drawings of these diverse and beautiful creatures of the sea was only enhanced by the rather exceptional difficulties involved. This is quite true. There was an extraordinary pleasure in bringing the precision of fine pen and brush work to the many problems presented by silver scales, and transparent fish finds, and weird iridescence of sculptured fish faces. And all this amid wind and rain and tossing salt spray, in a tiny studio that swung and eddied through space, entirely without benefit of gyroscope!

Art for work, art for play

Isabel was ever the artist, so even when she was not doing her work, she drew and painted. She wrote about this to Charles:

“Island of Indefatigable, alias ‘Santa Cruz’.

My procedure in this harbor is to go ashore early and mess around with feeble landscape sketching ’till it gets too hot even for my sun-helmet, then return to the ship and work all day, except when I play hooky and read or talk or just keep cool in a bathing suit.”i

i Letter, IC to CDM, from Indefatigable, April 10, 1925.