Monday, May 10, 2010

Teh Google is Wunnerful but Still Not Enough

After my cocktail party post on Friday, regular commenter Kidspeak and I had an email conversation about other information that was available about Clara Bell Walsh.  Yes, Google research is, sometimes, addictive.  I discovered that years ago when I was helping my dad with genealogical research.  I also found that not everything a person needs to put together a complete picture is available on the web and even when available it is sometimes hard to find.  Sometimes it was necessary to trudge off to the real library.  Sometimes it was even necessary to look at … gasp … microfilm. 

More and more data is being put on the web these days so things are a bit easier than even five years ago.  But you still have to figure out how to access it. Sometimes what you find is a result of tenacity, sometimes it is the result of luck and sometimes it is the result of inside knowledge.

For instance, Kidspeak found a picture of Clara Bell Walsh when she was eleven years old.  It is from the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, KY. Kidspeak says: “I figured they'd have some info about Clara Bell.”  That’s using your knowledge as a way to narrow your search.  Here is the picture:

Clara D D Bell 11years

It was a surprise to see she had short hair.  We were speculating about it.  The result of head lice maybe?  Or something else?  

The Filson Historical Society also had old newspapers.  Kidspeak found this:

Richmond Climax, Richmond KY: October 21, 1903. Publishing of the Red Book of American Wealth. Lists persons worth more than $300,000. Local persons listed include Miss Clara D. D. Bell, Lexington, KY.

As she said to me, $300,000 in 1903 is the equivalent of many millions of dollars today.  Clara, as the sole child of her deceased father, was a very wealthy person.

The other thing Kidspeak found was an article in the Kansas City Star about the famous cocktail party:

30 March 1917, Kansas City (MO) Star, section 2, pg. 10B: 
The Home Before Sunday Dinner Was 
Devoted to the Drinking of Appetizers at the Private Bar 
of a Boulevard Home. 
Positively the newest stunt in society is the giving of “cocktail parties.” 

The cocktail party is a Sunday matinee affair which originated in St. Louis. 

Mrs. Julius S. Walsh, jr., a leader in social activities there, is responsible for the innovation. 

Mrs. Walsh introduced it last Sunday, with the first cocktail party in society’s history. Invitations were issued to fifty. The guests were divided into two classes—those who went to church in the forenoon and those who devoted their time to motor promenade of the boulevards. Then at high noon they gathered at the Walsh home on Lindell Boulevard for the hour’s “interregnum preceding 1 o’clock dinner.” 

The party scored an instant hit. Mrs. Walsh’s home is equipped with a private bar. Around this the guests gathered and gave their orders in a white coated professional drink mixer who presided behind the polished mahogany. If a woman guest who had been driving all forenoon in her limousine, and was a little chilled in consequence, felt the need of a drink with an extra kick in it, she ordered a Sazarac cocktail. Others, of course, preferred a Bronx or a Clover Leaf, and a few who had been to church were old fashioned enough to order a martini or a Manhattan. 

And as long as the professional drink mixer was there to fill all orders, other beverages than cocktails were in demand. Highballs, some with Scotch and some with rye or Bourbon whisky, gin fizzes—ordered because the spring morning hinted of coming summer—and at least one mint julep for a former gentleman of Virginia, were handed out over the private bar. 

That the cocktail party already is a St. Louis institution, filling a long felt Sunday want in society circles there, and that the party at which Mrs. Walsh was hostess was so merry and so jolly as to approach in hilarity the famous early morning eggnog parties popular in the same city a decade ago, is vouched for by the St. Louis newspapers. 

In the meantime Mrs. Walsh, because of her innovation, has become more of a social celebrity in St. Louis than ever. 

This article makes it sound as if it is Clara’s home on Lindell Avenue.   And yet Clara supposedly moved into The Plaza Hotel in New York long before the famous party.  And some sources said she gave the party at the home of her father-in-law’s house.  That sent me to do more Googling.  In Google Books I found “The Book of St. Louisans” published in 1906 and the follow-up book published in 1912.   All the male members of the Walsh family are listed including Julius Walsh Sr. and Julius Walsh Jr.  In both books Julius Jr. has an address of Pine Lawn Missouri while his father and brothers have addresses in the City of St. Louis. 

Pine Lawn is now part of the metro St. Louis area but at the time it was the country.  I found a source that stated that in the 1800s many wealthy St. Louisans had country estates in northwest St. Louis County, including in Pine Lawn (PDF).  There was a train that ran that way and it was possible to commute.   But I could find no information about an estate owned by Julius Walsh Jr and Clara.  I knew that it couldn’t be the estate owned by his father on Brown Road because that wasn’t in Pine Lawn.   The fact that Julius Jr. didn’t have a city address might mean that he and Clara simply liked country life or it could have meant that they spent much of their time in New York and didn’t need a St. Louis City address.  I suspected that they used St. Louis as their “main” address due to Julius’ involvement in his father’s business but that they spent a great deal of time in New York.  I did a search of “Mrs. Julius Walsh” in the New York Times and many society columns mention her in the time period around 1910.  She was evidently a fine horsewoman, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about Lexington, Kentucky.  In any event both of the directories I was looking at were published before the house on Lindell was purchased in 1917 so they weren’t dispositive. 

A local newspaper article states that the house on Lindell was built by William Nolker in 1891 and sold to Julius Walsh in 1917, “who, with his wife, hosted that famed cocktail party, which was defined by the New York Times as having drinks standing up rather than sitting down.”  (There is a picture of the house in the article if you want to see it as it looks today.)   It says that Walsh kept the house until he died in 1923 and a year later his heirs sold it to the archdiocese.   The year of death wasn’t right for Julius Jr. because Time Magazine had said he died in 1922.  Maybe it was the father who died in 1923?  An online database put together by a local St. Louisan gave me some information but I couldn’t be sure if it was correct without some backup information. Google also gave me “Find a Grave” which gave me information on the burial of Julius Sr. at Calvary Cemetery and pictures of his gravesite.   So far all of this was tenacity and luck.

Then I recalled that the burial records of Calvary Cemetery are online. I knew this from my prior genealogy experience.   I checked and sure enough both Julius Sr. and Julius Jr. were buried in the family plot (Josephine Dickson, the wife of Julius Sr. is buried there in 1909 but Clara isn’t in the plot.)  Julius Sr. died in 1923.  Bingo!   But Julius Jr. didn’t die in 1922, he died in 1929.  So Time Magazine was wrong.   Then I remembered that some death records are also online and I found the death certificate of Julius Sr.   He was 80 years old.   And he died at his residence at 4510 Lindell.   The reporting party was Mrs. William Maffitt, his daughter, who lived at 4315 Westminster (about a mile or so away).  

Of course, I could get myself downtown and look at the real estate records for that address and find out for sure, but based on the above information I’m willing to bet that Julius Sr. owned the house on Lindell Avenue.  And it doesn’t sound as if Julius and Clara were living there if they weren’t the ones who reported his death.

There is no death certificate for Julius Jr. which probably confirms the information I found in the online data base that says he died out of town.  That database has him dying in Hot Springs Arkansas but I think that’s wrong.  The New York Times social pages regularly report the entire family vacationing in Hot Springs Virginia.  But I can find no announcement of his death.  But Clara did become a widow in 1929.  At that point she would have have had no reason to return to St. Louis, she had no children to “bring home”.  And the Plaza Hotel would have become her sole home.

I was thinking about all this Google searching today as I watched this fascinating short film about the “semantic web”.   Can we transform the web into a data base where enough connections and links between data will give context and allow better expression of information?

This includes interviews with: Tim Berners-Lee, Clay Shirky, Chris Dixon, David Weinberger, Nova Spivack, Jason Shellen, Lee Feigenbaum, John Hebeler, Alon Halevy, David Karger, and Abraham Bernstein.