Canadian journalist and prolific writer, Blodwen Davies personally hand-set and printed her book, A Study of Tom Thomson: The Story of A Man Who Looked For Beauty and For Truth in the Wilderness, in 1935. Perhaps, that explains why the book lacks footnotes, references and bibliography – too much detail work. The highly-prized copy I bought for $252.00 in November 2003 is No. 62 of a special edition of 100 personally signed by Ms. Davies.
In Chapter III called “The Boy” she tells what she learned from Thomson’s family and friends about the three years he spent in Seattle, Washington, from 1901 to 1904. Ms. Davies never personally identifies any of the family and friends who provided information and she offers no clue whatsoever for the source of the brief mention she makes of Tom’s first girlfriend, who only later biographers would identify as Alice Elinor Lambert.
“One more event occurred that completed the cycle of experiences that Seattle had in store for him. He fell in love. Friends and relatives knew next to nothing of the significance of that brief and tragic romance,” she wrote. “Thomson was endowed with a depth of feeling that would have been incomprehensible to the inexperienced young woman he would meet in a west town coast thirty-odd ago (sic). Nobody knows exactly what happened. Some say the lady laughed.”
When I first read this brief description, I was especially puzzled to understand why Ms. Davies had concluded that, despite the fact that his friends and relatives knew enough to “say the lady laughed”, they “knew next to nothing of the significance of that brief and tragic romance” or even her name. Was that her awkwardly condescending way of saying that she recognized what they failed to appreciate? A paragraph later, Ms. Davies answered part of my question.
“This shadowy love affair was a very important event. Of the quality of the woman’s love we know nothing, but the significant thing was Thomson’s love for her. It was the sort of experience that might have turned him into an embittered man, if his love had been selfish and possessive.”
In a following paragraph, Ms. Davies ends a particularly ethereal discussion of “love as a cosmic force often used as a means of personal gratification rather than as intended for the evolution of man into a creative being” by concluding, “Because of the results in Thomson’s life, we know the quality of his love. He did not waste its force by blaming the woman but to set to work to alter the currents of his life.”
This essay I am publishing here, re-written ninety-four years after Tom Thomson drowned in Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917, asks and tries to answer what significance this 1904 romance had for Tom Thomson, age 27, and Alice Elinor Lambert, age 18. Much of what is known today comes from the extensive research of Joan Murray, author of numerous books about the painting and life of Tom Thomson. Today, she is expecting publication of her major Thomson work this fall.
While waiting page proofs of Algonquin Elegy, in the fall of 2005 I found a website, which re-published an article about Alice Elinor Lambert from the Skagit River Journal of History and Folklore, written and edited by Noel V. Bourasaw called and “Alice Elinor Lambert and Elizabeth Poehlman and their quest for history and a special guest — painter Tom Thomson.” I had learned much researching Lambert family history. Adding to my understanding was additional genealogical work on the family of Pitt Pill and Mabel A. Shaw.
I knew from my research and U.S. Census data that Tom’s younger brother, Ralph, and a Thomson friend, Horace Rutherford, boarded at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Pit Pill Shaw in Seattle, where 18-year-old Alice had come from Portland to stay on weekends over the summer of 1904 while she work as a sales clerk in a millinery shop owned by her aunt’s family. I had also learned that Alice would finish high school in Seattle the following year. Finally, I’d read parts of her romance novel, Women Are Like That, which was published by Dell in 1934.
Some earlier biographers said Tom, too, was boarding with Mr. and Mrs. Shaw, when Alice arrived from Portland. Others said he stayed at the home of Charles C. Maring, a friend of his older brother, George Thomson. Joan Murray reported that Tom and Horace Rutherford returned to Owen Sound in 1904. U.S. Census records verified that Ralph Thomson married Ruth Shaw, older daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Shaw, in 1906.
In November 1971, when Alice was 85-years-old, she corresponded with Joan Murray, telling a brief tale of her romance with Tom Thomson. Little of what Alice wrote is possible to verify. “I recall him standing by the piano, while Mrs. Shaw . . . played . . . . One of his favorites was ‘In the Shade of the Sheltering Palm.’ He would stand there tall and dark and slender, singing in his clear tenor, and the other boarders, the family and I would sit around and beg him to sing.”
Now, I thought, there’s something I should be able to double-check. All of the popular songs that I found while researching the book that were written before 1904 simply did not strike me as in anyway romantic or memorable. I decided that she was mistaken and wrote the scene with another song.
While preparing notes for my summer book tour in 2005, I stumbled on a tune from a musical comedy by Leslie Stuart, “Floradora” performed in London and New York at the turn of the century to adoring audiences. Dolores, the beautiful and flirtatious heroine, is being pursued (and spoiled) by a host of men, including the nasty villain. At the end of Act One, the male hero sings “The Shade of the Palm.” The refrain is particularly romantic and memorable.
“Oh my Dolores, queen of the Eastern sea, Fair one of Eden look to the West for me, My star will be shining, love, When you're in the moonlight calm, So be waiting for me by the Eastern sea, In the shade of the sheltering palm.”
In my earlier research I first found two old drinking songs ill-suited to the Chapter 13 scene I was writing. The first is “Down at the Old Bull and Bush,” the first line of which is “Talk about the shade of a sheltering palm” by Harry Von Tilzer. In 1903, Von Tilzer and Andrew B. Sterling wrote “Under the Anheuser Bush.” It uses the same first line. These I rejected.
I considered the possibility that Alice was remembering good times she enjoyed to several songs not written until years later. They include “Down Among the Sheltering Palms” by Abe Olman, James Brockman and Jack Yellen. Tommy Dorsey’s 1935 hit, “On Treasure Island” includes the exact line, “In the shade of the sheltering palms.” Harold Arlen wrote lyrics for a musical comedy, “Down Among the Sheltering Palms.”
I provide this excruciating detail not to illustrate whatever skills I have in using Internet search engines but the extreme difficulty its depth, breadth and lack of context create for historical period research. I was impressed to learn that a line from "The Shade of the Palm" was used by James Joyce in his book, Ulysses. Moreover, the results I found illustrate how a catchy phrase from a popular song can long survive its original writing.
I confidently conclude that Alice’s memory of the scene she described for Joan Murray was not only factual but lovingly recalled. In her 1971 letter to Joan Murray, Alice describes the last time she saw Tom Thomson. “. . .[I]t was at Alki Point. The street car stopped a mile away from the settlement on Alki, and we walked hand in hand, seldom speaking, my heart bursting with love – I have never felt toward anyone on earth as I did toward Tom. We had ESP, hardly needing words, and I know he felt the same toward me. . . .The thing that sent him East concerned me. A fellow boarder, I forget his name, told Tom I was engaged to him. Tom packed him up and himself and went East to save me from whoever that was.”
Chapters 13 of Algonquin Elegy fictionally re-creates their first meeting with a spontaneous duet performed by Tom and Alice with Mrs. Shaw at her piano. The song I chose was recorded for Victor Records by Irish tenor Frank Mcdonough in 1904. Sheet music for the song was published in 1905. It was perfectly suited to what I was trying to do – write a compressed version of what might have happened, which illustrated their character and talents.
The song I decided upon, “I Love You All the Time” was used in some road productions of the 1903 Broadway musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” Now, I grew up watching NBC’s annual broadcast of the Judy Garland film. That original production is nothing like the movie. I was hooked during a Sunday morning writing and research session at which I first heard the recording of Mr. Mcdonough performance of the song that I found.
Chapter 13 of Algonquin Elegy also tries to re-create their last meeting with emotional fidelity, at least, to what Alice said happened as well as a starkly different story told in a 1971 letter from Ruth Wilkins, daughter of Ralph and Ruth Thomson, to her cousin, Elva Henry, a copy of which Joan Murray obtained in researching her 1994 book, Tom Thomson: The Last Spring. In her letter, Ms. Wilkins said Tom, indeed, proposed to young Alice. The effervescent Miss Lambert nervously giggled, she said, causing the very sensitive Thomson to abandon marriage ambitions and return home to Owen Sound.
Considering who she was makes this latter scene certainly plausible. Alice came from a highly educated and well-regarded family – her father had been president of Oregon’s Willamette University. She was sent by her parents to Seattle to finish high school. She was 18-years-old. Thomson was 26-years-old. In assessing what to make of this I should disclose that I considered my own experience with four daughters and three step- daughters, all 19 to 32 years old.
It struck me as remarkable that anyone except a very naïve young man with no female experience would have expected any other reaction from such a bright and confident girl, who was bound by her upbringing to work for her aunt’s family, graduate from high school and pursue lofty educational goals before considering marriage in 1904. Moreover, Tom Thomson, I thought, lacked any experience with adolescent girls.
While Tom had three older sisters, Elizabeth, Louise and Minnie. He probably barely experienced the turning from adolescence to young adulthood of Elizabeth, eight years older. Louise and Minnie were four and two years older than Tom. The historical record suggests that he may not have attended high school with either of them because he was sickly and stayed at home.
I concluded from what I knew that Tom fell into his romance with Alice Elinor Lambert knowing next to nothing about wily adolescent girls. A brief story about Tom Thomson is reprinted in More than a Cookbook published by The Friends of the Leith Church in 2005. Pete Telford writes:
"My great-aunt, Euph (Telford) Fleming once regaled us with a story about the young Tom Thomson. She said, 'Tom was five years ahead of me in school and never paid me much attention. However, in the spring of 1901 when I was eighteen, Tom had just returned home after attending the Canada Business College in Chatham and he invited me on a date. Our evening out was the Wonderland Theatre on 8th Street in Owen Sound. Now, I admire Tom for painting; but on a date he was a dull fellow -- he uttered not a word during our walk to the theatre, nor on our walk back to my house!''
Therefore, his proposing marriage still strikes me far-fetched going hard up against Tom's shy character. I stick to my conclusion that Tom never made a marriage proposal but nobody will ever know. Alice made no such admission and nobody ever quotes him as mentioning her again.
Noel V. Bourasaw’s article for the Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore traces Alice Elinor Lambert’s later life and broadly confirms all of the conclusions I earlier drew about her. He and I disagree whether she might have dated promiscuously before marrying Joseph E. Ransburg in 1912, with whom she had two daughters, before divorcing in the early 1930s.
I agree with him that Alice was an intelligent, vivacious, unaffected and determined woman, who today would certainly consider herself a leading feminist of the time. She worked as a newspaper writer on the east and west coasts, lonely hearts columnist for the Heart San Francisco Examiner, radio host, romance novelist and Depression era activist. An important part of her struggle as a writer that is more than can be readily explained today is all that she did during the Depression of the 1930s. Mr. Bourasaw touches on this period of her life:
“Alice wrote a book during her New York time called Hospital Nocturne (Passion in San Francisco), which was published by Vanguard Press. Vanguard was a ‘vanity publisher,’ which printed books by self-published authors and then the author was responsible for promoting it. She wrote two more books, Lost Fragrance and Women Are Like That, also published by Vanguard in 1933 and 1934.
All three were republished by Dell and can be found on the Internet and in used-book stores. They are what would be called pulp romance novels today. Linda Achimore quoted from Alice's divorce decree that the principal reason for the divorce was Ransburg's disrespect of her writing and possible derision, at least from Alice's point of view. We now know that her ex-husband helped support her financially during the Depression years, as did her daughters.”
Since Alice self-published her books, as I did with Algonquin Elegy, I especially identify with her struggles during the Great Depression. My own daughters have yet no full understanding of what NBC’s Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” My experience is from Depression-era parents, who vividly and often described to me and my brothers what Asian children lacked at meals as we grew up.
Mr. Bourasaw said that Alice settled in Darrington, Washington, where she died at age 95 in 1981. In Chapter 19 of Algonquin Elegy, I conclude that “[n]either Alice nor Blodwen Davies probably reached the true story – these two artistic souls simply passed, mingled, and departed on their separately destined paths of life.”
From what I have learned since writing the book, I stand firmly by those words. I do believe that Alice and Tom enjoyed a very special summer romance, which sparked deeply sensuous and physical feelings of love in them both but Tom, however, was driven by the passion of an artistic genius whose creative desires ached for release, which he would never find in the arms of a woman but rather, beginning eleven years later, in painting the Canadian wilderness of Algonquin Park.