Part 1: Introduction and Childhood
Part 2: Roberta in School
Colored by the times and the power of the literature, you might be forgiven if, looking at the pictures and stories of the young couple Redmond Farrar and Roberta Becker, you think of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. That is my strong bias, and it colors my impression of them as a young couple. F. Scott Fitzgerald was exactly the same age as Roberta and Redmond. Their young adulthood coincided with the emergence of the Jazz Age (and Redmond participated at least on the edges of the jazz scene in New York as a song composer through the 1920s).
But that line of thought probably warps my thinking about Granny, who, when I knew her, didn’t come across in any way like Zelda Fitzgerald. And of Redmond, I only have second-hand impressions.
Meeting and courting at Lake Mahopac
Roberta’s family stayed at Lake Mahopac for portions of their summers. So did Redmond Farrar’s family. We know they were both there at least as earlier as 1915. The Mahopac resorts had athletic contests, dances, dinners, and other social activities. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported much of each summer’s goings on in its society column.
Lake Mahopac was a summer resort community near Carmel, New York, in Putnam County, fifty miles north of New York City. Vacationers could get there by train. Some hotels sent horse-drawn coaches to fetch their guests.
Redmond may have stood out to Roberta there for his prowess in swimming, sailboat racing, foot races, and his violin playing—he was classically trained. When there was dancing, she likely would have stood out to him. Their families lived in different parts of Brooklyn, but through their schools and places in Brooklyn society, they were often at the same social events. From Joan Farrar’s picture album, we see that they were a couple by 1915 when each was still in high school and about 17 years old.
Meanwhile, Roberta had a first cousin, Lester Brion, who wanted to marry her. Lester was five years older. His sister Estelle was one of Roberta’s close companions. Roberta had lived with the Brions for part of her childhood. Lester was her first cousin, and while there are sometimes marriages between first cousins, Roberta didn’t believe it was acceptable. And given her childhood spending time and living with the Brion’s the two were near to siblings. It’s possible too that she simply didn’t care for Lester, or that she was already interested in Redmond.
Late in and just after high school, Roberta and Redmond courted for several years, during which he participated regularly in the alumni shows of Brooklyn Poly Prep, and she helped organize society events. Redmond was also away attending college for parts of two years during that period.
They married on November 26, 1919. Roberta was 22, and Redmond just shy of that age. Roberta’s father, August Becker, had died the previous autumn. She was escorted down the aisle by her uncle Frederick Becker. Redmond’s sister Grace Farrar was her maid of honor.
Here is a description of Roberta’s wedding outfit: “The bride’s gown of white satin was embroidered in pearls, her tulle veil was arranged in fan effect and held in place with a coronet of Dutchess lace and orange blossoms and she carried orchids and lilies-of-the-valley.” (From Brooklyn Life, December 12, 1919).
The wedding was at the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, a prestigious place to get married. The hotel is still there. With its Italian Renaissance decor recently restored, it operates as a high-end, boutique hotel.
The wedding announcement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle society column raises two mysteries about Redmond. It notes Redmond “is also well known in the tillery and recently returned from 18 months foreign service.”
First, military service. In the Fall of 1918, at age 20, Redmond registered for the draft, but before long he was enrolled in courses at Columbia University that were part of the war effort. The students were enlisted in the U.S. Army. But Armistice was declared during that Autumn, and he did not serve in the Europe. Redmond was discharged from military service in December 1918. So according to military records, the newspaper account was simply wrong. The newspapers of the time routinely included things that were simply wrong, misheard, and misspelled, but for plenty of details, they are all we have.
Second, I cannot discover what a “tillery” was. The word may relate to his work in banking and finance. There was a Tillery Building in Brooklyn, but it was headquarters for the Department of Education. And there is Tillary Street in Brooklyn (the name spelled with an “a”), but it’s not clear if that is what “well-known in the tillery” referred to.
Redmond Farrar led an interesting life. He was drawn to first the music business having scored and performed in a number of musical shows as a teen and young adult, he found his way to work, off and on, as a song composer. I am not certain whether this was, for periods, full-time work. He also worked as a stock broker and later a film maker. His varied careers, centered on Manhattan, meant while the family lived in Riverside, he commuted to the City.
Roberta and Redmond’s children
Redmond and Roberta had three children, Robert (born 1923), Joan (born 1925), and Judith (born 1930). Joan, not too long into her childhood, developed disabilities that would shape the rest of her life. She lived with her parents, then with Roberta, through her life, dying at age 41 in 1966.
By 1930, the Farrars had moved from Brooklyn to Meadow Road in Riverside, Connecticut. Redmond would have commuted by train to Manhattan for work, while Roberta raised the children at home, a common pattern for the time. They enjoyed suburban life there and were members of the Riverside Yacht Club.
At about 18 years old, the oldest child Robert went off to become an Army Air Corps navigator, serving in Europe in World War II. He flew on B-24 Liberators with the 392nd Bomb Group rising to 1st lieutenant. He married Emily Ober and they were drawn west, moving to California. Robert stayed in the West after he and Emily divorced and after some years moved from Los Angeles to Bullhead City, Arizona, where he lived until his death in 1992.
At this YouTube link is a 40-minute compilation of home movies, digitized from old magnetic media, showing Roberta, Redmond, their children and friends in their Riverside, Connecticut neighborhood. The quality is poor, and there is no sound, but some flavor of their lives and times there comes through. The first part is film from a neighborhood pageant of some sort from the early 1930s. The video also includes later footage of the family, and the last portion is in (badly faded) color. Redmond was, for a time, a filmmaker, and may have had early access to color film.
Robert had six children: Robert, Jennifer, Victoria, Phyllis, Polly, and Constance. Constance at age 3 went to live with her Aunt Judith.
Judith was the only one of the three to enter and complete college. Meeting and marrying Charles D. Mahaffie, she settled with him in Bethesda Maryland after Charles’ service in the Navy in the late 1950s. They raised seven children, including their niece Constance.
Redmond and Roberta’s marriage was troubled, and it worsened. They separated by the late 1950s. Redmond died in New York City in 1957 at age 59.
Roberta was a quietly sociable senior, living near her daughter and grandchildren in Bethesda after her daughter Joan died. She made good friends at the Westwood Apartments in Bethesda, playing bridge and going out to lunch. She entertained her Mahaffie grandchildren there, sometimes having them to lunch. She attended Little Flower Catholic Church.
One highlight was a time when she was clocked on the Beltway driving too slowly in her Dodge Dart. As her grandson Matt Mahaffie remembers it:
I do remember her getting pulled over for driving too slow in the Dodge Dart. Mike and I leaned over the back seat and reported to the two ladies in front on how the policeman seemed to be getting frustrated at Granny’s failure to stop. “He can’t mean me” said Granny, “I’m only going forty.” (This on the Interstate.) And Mike and I suggesting that he probably did indeed mean her, as his pull-over-NOW! hand signals and facial expressions got angrier. I also remember Grandma (Isabel) enjoying the whole episode immensely.
The penalty included attending traffic safety classes. I recall her complaining that the other miscreants were long-haired teenagers who of course had driven too fast, not too slowly.
Granny died on September 25, 1972 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. I remember Dad waking us the following morning and telling us that Granny had died of a massive heart attack. She was just shy of 75 years old. She had been a smoker for much of her life, leading to the common cycle of atherosclerosis that can afflict a smoker when they don’t succumb to lung cancer.
Granny is buried in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, alongside her daughter Joan and son Robert, in the Farrar family plot.
Granny had three children, twelve grandchildren, twenty great grandchildren, and, so far at least six great great grandchildren. It might be time to do a survey to find out how many of them can wiggle their ears, each one independently.