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Robert Coolidge

Oral History Interview with Robert Coolidge, undertaken by James Carder at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on May 26, 2010. Robert Coolidge is the godson of Mildred Barnes Bliss.

JC: I’m James Carder and it’s May the 26th 2010. I am here in the Guest House of Dumbarton Oaks with Mr. Robert Coolidge. Mr. Coolidge’s grandmother was a close personal friend of Mildred Bliss, and his mother was her goddaughter. He also was a godson of Mildred Bliss, and so we should start by your telling us a little bit about your family and their relationship with the Blisses.

RC: Okay. Actually the relationship with a godmother usually doesn’t involve much personal involvement, but in my case she was more like my grandmother because my actual grandmother died on that side, died in 1928 and my grandfather in 1913, so I didn’t have any grandparents on that side of the family during my lifetime. Now, my relationship with Mrs. Bliss only started when I was six years old but my grandmother’s relationship with her started back around 1900, when they first met. I don’t know where, but the relationship is documented in well over a hundred letters, which eventually will be published somewhere. But I’ve given them to Dumbarton Oaks, lent them for the purpose – any of the letters they would like to keep on the condition that they not be published without permission. But this relationship was a very, very intimate one. It was a very sort of – sentimental, I suppose, and it can sometimes go into quite intimate personal details. And then I gather that Mrs. Bliss – Aunt Twin – one thing that – I guess I’ll talk about the Aunt Twin – the relationship, because that’s what we called her, and he was Uncle Robert. I remember my mother told me, or gave me the impression that it was because of a physical resemblance between the two ladies, and I can see that from portraits that I have of both of them together, not on the same portrait, but two separate portraits. But I later learned from the letters – which I received only after Aunt Twin’s death, so I didn’t have a chance to question her about any of them – that the relationship was based on the fact that they had the same birth date, which was discovered at a fairly early stage, although they weren’t the same age. My grandmother was about four years older than Mildred Bliss – well, Mildred Barnes, as she was then. But they basically came from the same background though. They were both New York women and they went to different schools, so they didn’t meet at school. But they seemed to hit it off very well, at least from my grandmother’s point of view, at that first meeting because she was the one who wrote to Mildred and asked if – invited her to be with them in Maine in Northeast Harbor, and that was where they first met as recorded in the letters, and the meetings are described. But so they called each other or, actually, I don’t know whether Mildred called my grandmother “Twin,” but my grandmother always called her “Twin” and signed her, “Your Twin,” signed herself, “Your Twin” and – almost all of the letters too have that. Again, very, very, well – I gather that my grandmother always wanted Mildred to come and visit. When she was married, of course, she was usually abroad with her husband, who was a diplomat. But even before they – my grandmother had a house, you know, when she married my grandfather in 1903 they built a house in Tyringham, Massachusetts, which is in the Berkshires. Now this is – Barnes family, actually, did have a place in Sharon, Connecticut, which was only about twenty or thirty miles away. And Sharon is mentioned quite often in the letters, so they must have done some visiting there in the early days. They did – my grandmother did travel abroad. She once stayed in Paris with the Blisses, in the Blisses’ apartment there and the – but she spent most of her time in the Berkshires and they didn’t meet that often. But there was this correspondence back and forth. And then I know from that correspondence that Mildred – or Twin – Twin was very supportive when my grandmother lost her husband, my grandfather, and also supported her in her marriage to Senator McLennan, a Canadian senator, and also in her divorce from that senator. It took place around 1925. And she also actually arranged the first meeting between my mother and my father in 1931 in New Hampshire. And so, she’d been staying with the Blisses in Argentina and the Blisses decided to send her up to New Hampshire to visit with my grandmother there and it’s actually – I should mention that Twin was my mother’s legal guardian at one point because her mother died and she was only nineteen years old when her mother died. And then for two years Mrs. Bliss – and I think also her sister, whose name was Mildred. She had an older sister named Mildred named for Mrs. Bliss. And Mildred died in 1936, so I never knew her but the two of them did live together until my mother got married – in Washington, the house at The Anchorage here in Washington. So, they continued during the years when – after Mr. Bliss retired, there was a period there from 1928 to 1932 when my mother and Aunt Mildred were living in Washington and must have visited Dumbarton Oaks quite often. Okay, my parents were married in Washington Cathedral in Bethlehem Chapel, which at that time was the only part of Washington Cathedral which had been built and the reception for them I think was held in the Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks. And there is a picture or photograph of that engagement in the files. I may possibly have visited or actually seen Aunt Twin in my early years because she did come occasionally to New England to visit with my mother. I will always remember being told that – when they arrived they would take the Federal, of course, the train from Washington to Boston which ran at that time. And then they hired a car and a chauffer to drive them to our house. And I remember my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks. I was six years old. One thing that impressed me about the place was, in the first place, its size. I’d never actually stayed and slept for any length or period in a house that large. And it also had not only a chauffer but a butler and a housekeeper and valet for Mr. Bliss. And also a masseur, whose name was Siposs. He was Hungarian, I was told. And I remember meeting him, his sort of bald head and handlebar mustache as I recall. And I have a memento of him which was given to my mother, a sort of silver coil stamp dispenser which, actually, it has Mr. Bliss’ initials on it, RWB, but it is also engraved from Siposs and the fact that my mother had it must have been – Siposs must have given it to her. And I didn’t see that much of the Blisses when I was here, being only six years old. I knew the Blisses didn’t have any children and I sort of got the impression that they were the – at least young children – children are seen and not heard, which was very common in those days. And so my mother – well, actually she hired a nurse to take care of me, named Mrs. Garrett and I think I felt I didn’t really need a nurse when I was six years old but I did have two younger brothers and one of them actually was six years younger than I, and he was a small baby when we first – on our first visit. And we used to go for walks in Montrose Park with the nurse and the baby carriage. Then I remember being very impressed by the gardens. I’d never seen gardens like that and I used to love to wander around. And there was also a swimming pool. I knew about swimming pools because my parents had a number of friends who had swimming pools but – when I was just learning to swim at that time and I remember in that pool was the first time that I actually learned to swim without touching the bottom. And I only remembered that recently as a matter of fact but it’s always made me want to go swimming in that pool again before I’m no longer able to. But so, that was a very special place for me. I also made friends with the housekeeper, whose name was Mrs. Foster. She had a canary and my – I liked the canary – I liked the idea of having a bird singing in a cage and my mother actually agreed to get me a canary. And actually one died, but a year I had a canary in my bedroom at home. And actually I now have a mechanical canary which belonged to Mrs. Bliss in my kitchen. One of those ones you wind it up and it’s a bird which chirps and waggles its head. I also have a snuff box which has a music box inside with a bird that comes out. It was hers too – which also belonged to Mrs. Bliss. So, I have mementos from Siposs, I have mementos from Mrs. Foster in a way. And I didn’t like Mrs. Garrett. I’m afraid I was rather nasty to her but anyway she must have taken care of my brothers very well. And another memory which was not pleasant but no fault of the Blisses – must have really inconvenienced them. I caught measles. I think it was in my first visit and I was in bed for at least a week with a temperature of a hundred and six and the doctors had to come in everyday and of course the shades had to be drawn because the light was bad for my eyes. And I remember it was a very unpleasant experience, but I recovered. And I was well taken care of. But thinking back on it, the Blisses’ lifestyle did not really deal very well with sick children so they must have been wondering what – anyway.

JC: Do you remember what room you were in?

RC: Yes, it was – well, the bedrooms were all on the second floor, and I had windows that went from the outside. I think it’s where the library – well, I think there’s a reading room or something on that floor now. And that’s where all the bedrooms were. On that floor and the Blisses were on one end and the servants on the other end. There was a long corridor between the two. And I remember William, the butler, who was – he had a – wore a coat with tails and I don’t know whether he also was the valet, but I remember – only I think once or twice I did get a peek into the Blisses’ quarters and one thing I could recall is that there was straight – it was sort of – how conservative in style they were. Actually, I knew they had separate beds – separate bedrooms, actually. They didn’t sleep in the same bedroom. And they were a very, very devoted couple and very supportive of each other, but evidently they didn’t consider that as part of their relationship. They – I can remember asking my mother about this because I knew that my parents did not have separate bedrooms. But it was quite customary in Victorian times, at a certain point in their lives, anyway, for married couples to live in separated bedrooms so it didn’t bother. But I did find that out in my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks and they were always very pleasant to me when we were together. Which – well, breakfast time I remember occasionally they’d share with us, with my mother and my father – well, my father being there too. I remember my father and mother played tennis in the court, the tennis court that was right next to the swimming pool at the time. And I used to watch them playing tennis. I don’t think that the Blisses played tennis but – at least I don’t remember seeing them doing that but there was a court there. And now – I’m trying to gather together what I recall from my actual visits, because I distinctly remember sort of wandering around in the gardens by myself. I was allowed to do that. I didn’t have to have Mrs. Garrett with me. And I remember feeling very grateful to be able to do that and admiring the flowers and the – this great bank of forsythia, for example, down at the bottom of the garden that for all I know is still there. I don’t know. I remember that. I think there were about forty acres of gardens. But – okay. Also, when Mrs. Bliss moved out of Dumbarton Oaks she first went to Montecito in California to the house there, which had been built by her mother. And actually I have a spoon, a small spoon I got from one of Twin’s breakfast sets. It’s a spoon that went along with it, with the initials A.B.B. That must be Anna Barnes Bliss, of course. She married Mr. Bliss’ father and so she was Mrs. Bliss even though Mildred’s name was Barnes. But she did build this house in California which in 1941 my family went out to visit her there. She was living there for at least a year or two and I remember seeing the house and my – of course, I was – my first train journey across the continent and that was a very memorable occasion for me at the age of eight. One time I was allowed to ride in the cab of the locomotive with the engine driver, engineer, but that was just because my father happened to be a director of the Southern Pacific Railroad, but I do remember being with the Blisses there and of course when they came back. Mrs. Bliss had a house here in Georgetown near Dumbarton Oaks, in easy walking distance. I can’t remember exactly where it was at the moment, but we used to visit her there. And I was a teenager by that time and we used to come to teas at Dumbarton Oaks with the Fellows. I remember some of them, Father Dvornik, I remember particularly and I remember Mrs. Bliss didn’t use – used sucre menthe in her tea. She didn’t take sugar. And she kept her sucre menthe pills in a little oval sized pillbox, which I have. That’s another one of my mementos. But teas were always pleasant occasions. At one point she even invited me up to her attic to watch her do her exercises. She had a gymnasium up there like the one she had in Dumbarton Oaks with the dancer’s bar along the edge and she would hold on to the bar and wave her legs around. And I was very flattered that she – to see her do this. She was very – she was acknowledging the fact that I was growing up and I was no longer a child. And I remember Mr. Bliss had a silver thing, which would – to put pencils in – some silver coverings to stick the pencils in and I have one of those as a memento. And one thing I always envied too, although I didn’t get that, I don’t know what happened to it – to dial a phone he used to use a little stick with a ball on the end of it, a silver ball which he used that to work the dials because he didn’t want to do it with his fingers. I always admired his elegance of dress and demeanor, you know, all very, very proper. There was one incident that I wasn’t there for but that occurred later in her life. When she met the Duke of Edinburgh and it was recorded in the San Francisco Chronicle and I was in Berkeley at the time, in graduate school, and I read this and she was introduced – Prince Philip said, “Oh my, Mrs. Bliss. You’ve been in a lot of wars, haven’t you?” And she wearing all her medals – I and she said, “What woman my age hasn’t?” Interestingly enough, a few years later when I was out in California I read another instance of a woman meeting the Duke of Edinburgh and of the same exchange going on in Herb Caen’s column in San Francisco Examiner. And I wonder whether Herb made it up or – but he did describe Aunt Twin as a – with lots of medals, auburn hair, and eighty, which she was then about. So, I think he must’ve actually – it must have been genuine incidence in her case, but he obviously made it up for the second interview. But then – what was I saying? About Mrs. Bliss – and the Blisses did come up to visit on occasion in later years as well. I think I remember the car that they hired was actually the last time they visited – they hired a Boston taxi cab with this driver to drive twenty-five miles into the country side. And this is one they had known, they engaged it before. But then we didn’t see that much of the Blisses in later years. Again, it was occasional visits. But I do remember I had another – I had an uncle who also lived in Washington, so we did come down to Washington quite often to visit him as well as the Blisses. And I remember on one occasion, which could be recorded for posterity, is really historic – I’m probably one of the few living persons who has entered the Pentagon by myself and walked all round the circumference in the outer ring of corridors without ever having been stopped. And I was fourteen years old and the Pentagon had just been finished. And I remember my mother and I would come down and visit my uncle and also the Blisses and we decided to go out to Mount Vernon. Actually I don’t think I’d ever been there, that was George Washington’s place. And of course, the road out to Mount Vernon goes right by the Pentagon, so I noticed this and I’d read about the Pentagon, and so on our way back I asked my mother to allow me to enter the Pentagon. It was all I wanted. And I told her that I wanted to do it. Actually, I did plan to walk around the circumference inside because it was a mile and I was told it would take me about twenty minutes. But so, we parked in the parking lot next to the entrance to the parking garage. I walked in, I opened the door; it was open. I walked up the stairs and the door there, it was open and found myself in the corridors of the Pentagon. I was very careful to take note of the number on the door that I came in and I started walking and the first office I came to said, “General of the Armies, John J. Pershing.” I thought, “Oh my god.” He was the Commander in Chief in the First World War, and he’s still alive and he has an office in the Pentagon. It was true, he was still alive at that time. And I thought, “Well, why don’t I go in? Sort of see if I can meet him.” And then I said, “Uh oh. I can’t do that, because I would be keeping my mother waiting.” And so I walked all around, at one point I ran into the office of the Secretary of the Army, so I had to go up a floor. But I did walk completely around. It took me three quarters of an hour and then I got to the door that I came in and I walked down the steps and there was my mother coming into the building to look for me. Well, I did it. But I don’t think many other people have been able to do that. So, now one minute – another thing, when my father died, I want to emphasize this because some of the time I was with the Blisses for an extended period of time. When my father died in 1950, I was sixteen going on seventeen, the Blisses took us, my mother and my two brothers and me on a trip to Jamaica. And I had a very, very good time with them at that time. Then again I wasn’t a child, I could relate to them as adults. And Mr. Bliss actually began sort of giving me hand-me downs of clothes of his, including a half a dozen silk shirts. I don’t know what a seventeen year old boy is going to wear silk shirts. So anyway, they languished in a drawer for a while. And I remember he gave me a very good watch, which unfortunately didn’t work, I couldn’t wind it. But we did have a very good time in Jamaica touring around, and the two trips that I remember particularly, and I think and the Blisses came with us on those trips. The banana boat, sort of steam freighter arrived, which belonged to the United Fruit Company, which one of my cousins was chairman of. And evidently either my mother or the Blisses had been in touch with the captain because we were invited out to the ship. We also saw all the bananas being on the boat, and it was the first time I heard a calypso: “Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana. Daylight come and I want to go home.” They actually were singing that, a calypso band. That was the time before Harry Belafonte. But we did go out to the boat and had lunch with the captain. And I wasn’t told how this could be arranged but I did know that my family did have connections with the United Fruit Company. And we also went on a ride on a bamboo raft in a rapidly running river. The Blisses were with us, there with us on the raft sitting on seats they had. But imagine the Blisses on a bamboo raft on a rapidly flowing river at their age. They were well into their seventies by that time. But – I also, well, I don’t know – okay. I didn’t actually get to go to Mr. Bliss’ funeral. Oh, yeah, okay, before that I’ll put in I guess – Mr. Bliss, Uncle Robert, did get an honorary degree from Harvard and he made a practice of walking in the commencement procession without his gown on as you’re supposed to if you have an honorary degree. And when I actually graduated from Harvard I saw him in procession between the lines of graduates, of graduating seniors which were lining the procession room, and I realized that he didn’t know I was graduating. And my mother had intended to tell him but somehow I didn’t feel badly about that but I sort of respected him for doing that. I mean he just came up from Washington to Boston for this one purpose and then went back. He didn’t stay, he didn’t have any social engagements, but this was his acknowledgement of his relationship to Harvard. And at his funeral I was in England doing graduate work at Oxford. And so I didn’t – I was also married and we just – well, I think I wanted to but I wondered whether Aunt Twin was really expecting me but I gathered she understood, too. And she sent me a ring which she said actually belonged to my grandfather but my grandfather when he died left it to Mr. Bliss. And Mr. Bliss in his will said that that ring, he was leaving that ring to me. And she said she would send it, that she considered sending it by diplomatic pouch but instead she asked one of her garden students that was coming to England anyway to bring it. And so he brought it and delivered it to me to my apartment in Oxford and this is it here. And I’m wearing it. So, Mr. Bliss actually sent me something that I could use and enjoy. When I came back to Canada, let’s see – I may have seen Mrs. Bliss once or twice, but she died when I was living in Canada. And I did come down with my mother and I stayed in her house and attended the funeral and my mother, and I and Bill Tyler and his son Royall Tyler were the only mourners sitting in the front pew. And the honorary pall bearers including the President of Harvard, Nathan Pusey, or former President actually as he was at that time. And in the seat behind me, when we got up to leave, I looked around and there was Alice Roosevelt Longwood, who was another very close friend of Aunt Twin’s. I’d never met her but I knew it was her. I didn’t introduce myself but I was very glad to see her because I’d heard so much about her. So – basically that’s what I have to recall about my relations with Aunt Twin. She did do lots of things for me. I mean she sort of gave me an example of sort of proper behavior, good manners, and old fashioned values that – I mean, I can’t say that I followed her example but in a way I’ve been somewhat rebellious over the years, which is probably – I may have felt, as the oldest in the family, that I wasn’t bound by these things. But I’ve always looked back on Aunt Twin as a valued relation who, as I say, was not just my godmother but also in a very real way a replacement for my grandmother whom I never knew. And I will always remember her with affection. Okay. I think that’s enough.

JC: By chance, did you ever hear Mrs. Bliss play the piano or attend any musical events?

RC: I knew she was interested in music. I think I have before – I’ve seen a photograph of her playing the piano. I don’t think I recall – of course the Music Room was – I think I heard about her giving sort of musical evenings in the Music Room, but I suppose I never got to attend one of them. She gave them when – after she moved out, or – ?

JC: She took a piano to the other Georgetown house.

RC: Yeah.

JC: And –

RC: Yes, I remember seeing that piano. She may have played a bit there. Was she a good pianist?

JC: Well, very few people have heard her play apparently, and so she may not have played for company.

RC: Yeah, so, if I did hear her play it was “clinkity plunks” and that sort of thing. I don’t remember.

JC: Your maternal grandfather, I believe, was greatly interested in archaeology and Egyptology.

RC: Yes.

JC: Did she, Mildred Bliss, ever speak to you about him and his interest in things Egyptian?

RC: I don’t recall.

JC: Or about collecting in general?

RC: Yes, of course. I knew about it. I have some things from him. I mean he was an artist himself and he actually painted a picture of the Valley of the Kings, which I have in my kitchen. It was a sort of rough oil painting on a piece of cardboard or something but it is – I have a number of books and – I don’t in fact, I don’t know how much Aunt Twin knew about that particular side. I mean of course she was interested – she and her husband were interested in archaeology in a different area. Pretty much is known about this but – they – my grandfather knew Howard Carter and went on an excavation with him back in 1902. They excavated the same tomb and they both left accounts of that excavation written and I have both accounts. And it’s very amusing to read the two accounts by people doing the same thing but describing it in entirely different ways. And I mean Howard Carter’s account was published but – there is quite a lot of material that the Trustees of Reservations, which owns Ashintully now, which was my grandmother’s house. And there’s quite a lot about my grandfather in their archives. And I also have a travel diary written by my grandmother describing a trip to Egypt where she met her future husband, I think for the first time, and they were married about a year later. But I don’t think she again saw her future husband until a month before their wedding. He was in Egypt for the whole time. So, that’s another – it’s like my mother meeting my father and getting engaged within a few days and then marrying him, well, just six months later. Some sort of whirlwind romances I suppose. Of course, Mr. Bliss – Aunt Twin had the same thing with Royall Tyler. I read about that in that book you gave me. Because I read that she was supposed to marry Royall Tyler, and it was called off so she married her stepbrother instead.

JC: I suppose she never spoke of Royall Tyler to you?

RC: No. In fact, I found out about him when I came to visit Dumbarton Oaks when he was here as director –

JC: When his son –

RC: Yeah, Bill Tyler. Yeah, I think – I only met Bill Tyler like once when I was here. And I remember visiting here when he was here. And I knew Giles when he was a graduate student and I was an undergraduate at Harvard. And of course I became a medievalist but – I mean the one mention in these letters of – was that, I think in the last one or two, she mentions the Oaks and she does congratulate Aunt Twin for not tearing down the house, letting it stand and working around it, improving it and of course at that particular time they probably weren’t even living in it. But she did know about it and I know she did visit – actually, I have another travel diary form my other grandmother which records a visit to Dumbarton Oaks for Robert and Mildred Bliss and Mrs. Grace Tytus McLennan. And I know, as I said my two grandmothers did know each other – it was I think the first time they met was just after the First World War. In March of 1919 when my grandmother came up to visit my grandmother who then was married to a Canadian senator, Senator McLennan, and they were living in Ottawa. And this diary records being shown around the sites about Ottawa, and at that time the Senate was meeting in the Museum of Natural History because the department buildings had been burned down and so they were just being rebuilt. And someone had put up a sign on the room in which the Senate was speaking and it said, “Room of the Fossilized Invertebrates.” But – I don’t know, I mean, I’ve been wondering whether my two grandfathers ever met each other. The only – there’s my grandfather and my grandmother were both avid horsemen and they went on fox hunts and they – but I know – and so is my other grandmother, but I think my grandfather Coolidge did not approve of fox hunting. So, they didn’t share that interest. But one time my grandfather Tytus ran for the State Legislature, of course, in the general court as a Democrat. And yet he was nicknamed “Croesus” because he lived in a large mansion in the Berkshires and he represented the local town and neighborhood. Of course, my father was a Republican, and one thing – when they were married in Washington Cathedral, the tomb of Woodrow Wilson was there, and my grandfather commented to my father., “Son, one thing I don’t like about this wedding is that you’re being married within the tomb of that man.” But they could’ve met because I know my grandmother cut quite a swath socially. I mean, she was very striking. I mean, if you can imagine Mrs. Bliss about a foot taller with – also with auburn hair. And she was very, very well dressed also. They always complimented her. I have a scrapbook of – the reason why I know a lot of this is because I have a scrapbook of five volumes with newspaper clippings about my grandmother and there’s nothing about Dumbarton Oaks in it though. So, I’ve never sort of suggested that you’d be interested in those. But it does go right up, well, after my grandmother’s death. I think it was collected by Aunt Mildred and so it has material on what happened after, and also you know it’s got the letter that you sent me now, which some of them come from that period too. The first one you said was from 1928. Actually, there’s no date on it but I gather – you could gather from the context, from the letter itself, that it was written right after my grandmother’s death. And I think there were a few other letters from that period in which they were moved into this – The Anchorage, I think they called it. It’s just – I think it’s quite close to here, which is furnished apartments for single ladies or something like that. And that’s one – that’s the period when the Blisses were living here fulltime and so they – I think there’s probably a lot of material about Dumbarton Oaks in that. I’m going to have to see if I can persuade my transcriber who did all of these letters – I have a friend who likes to do this sort of thing. And I think he told me that he would be willing to do any selections of letters that I can find. And I have other ancestral material that he has done too, including the travel diary that I mentioned. He did that. Because my grandmother’s handwriting is far more difficult than I imagined. It just takes so long to figure out. I have a bit of – when I was at Oxford I did take a sort of course in medieval paleography and it’s useful even. I learned lots of tricks if you have a letter that you can’t – a word you can’t decipher, special letters you can look up whether it is other words that have that same letter and see how it’s written in that word. But anyway, it seems to be what I’m mainly involved in now.

JC: Okay. Well, should we stop?

RC: Yup.