Mildred Bliss and the Fox-Trot (January 2014)
James N. Carder
Mildred Barnes Bliss had a considerable collection of musical scores and sheet music, much of which is preserved in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. Many of the classical scores are for either the piano or the violin—instruments that she had played since her youth—and have fingering and other markings in her hand. Some of the published scores and a few holographic manuscript scores in this collection bear the composers’ signatures and inscriptions to Mildred Bliss.
Interestingly, this collection also has sheet music of popular and patriotic songs, mostly from the 1920s. Included in this group is the 1925 French edition of the fox-trot, “If You Knew Susie.” This popular song was written by B. G. deSylva (George Gard “Buddy" DeSylva, 1895–1950) and Joseph Meyer (1894–1987) and was an American bestseller for five weeks in 1925. The French edition owned by Mildred Bliss proclaims the song to be “The Great Success from America” (Le Grand Succès d’Amérique). (Buddy deSylva is also known for his popular songs “April Showers,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” and “California, Here I Come.”)
Apparently, Mildred Bliss knew how to fox-trot, a ballroom dance developed in the 1910s that reached its height of popularity in the 1930s. Her godson and the second director of Dumbarton Oaks, William R. Tyler (1910–2003), amusingly recalled the time he first met Mildred Bliss at his parents’ home in Burgundy, France:
In 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss came to stay, and I was awed by her: a vision of elegance and mystery, with furs, a large hat, long gloves and exotic perfume, who swooped down on me and asked me if I would like to see her do a fox trot. Confused by this abracadabra, I merely hung my head, whereupon the vision turned on its heels and started taking short jerky steps with little turns around the room, holding its arms half extended before it. I suffered extreme discomfort and embarrassment from all this, but the present of a silver pen-knife, my first, restored my composure.
William Tyler’s reminiscence is found in typescript in the Tyler Papers at Harvard University Archives, HUGFP 38.1 box 1.
Other dance sheet music in Mildred Bliss's collection include:
Moe Jaffe and Nat Bonx's 1925 "Collegiate," "un Fox-trot qui fait fureur à New-York et Londres" ("A fox trot which is all the rage in New York and London"), and J. L. Johnson and Cecil Mack's 1923 "The Original Charleston," "Nouvelle Danse Américaine" ("New American Dance").