Just recently I had an email conversation about Peggy's suicide and Agnes' issues. One of the exchanges contained a question about what could have possibly damaged these two sisters so very much. I decided to look through some of the the notes I've made and articles I've read to see if I could provide any insight into the situation. I found that there is more illusion to Agnes' childhood than there is reality.
It starts with this fallacy:
"Mollie met John Moorehead while she was studying voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1898. He was a seminary student in Xenia. Much to Mollie's parent's consternation the two fell in love and made plans to marry. Mollie's parents didn't think that John Moorehead was a good and able man, who could provide a good home for their daughter. He was nearly twice her age. They married on August 30, 1899, five days after Mollie's 16th birthday."
None of this could be further than the truth. I cannot find any record of Mollie ever attending the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the age of 15 or younger. Neither could I find any record of John still being in the seminary in Xenia in 1898. What I did find is that Mollie was living at home outside of Scottdale Pennsylvania in 1898. I also found that John H. Moorehead was pastor of the United Presbyterian Church at the corner of Mulberry and Grant Streets in Scottdale Pennsylvania from January of 1896 to November of 1898. They did not meet in Cincinnati or Xenia they met in Scottdale while John was pastor of the Presbyterian Church there. When they first met Mollie was just five months past turning 15 and John was 27 going on 28 years old. I'm sure Mollie sang in the choir. I know she played the cello and the piano. But the Ohio version given in Charles Tranberg's biography is pure fiction. Mollie was quite probably the center of a controversy that involved a 15 year old girl having a romantic relationship with a 27 year old church pastor. It may have been that John was transferred to Massachusetts as a result of this indiscretion. But it is well documented that he was pastor of the Scottdale church for two years before he went to Boston. He was 30 when he married Mollie she was just 5 days past 18 and only 19 when Agnes was born. Any disapproval on her parent's part would have been moot because she was of age when she married John. I have no doubt that her parent's opinion of John not being "a good and able man" probably had more to do with the fact that he was a pastor preaching righteous behavior while he was wooing their underage daughter.
Mollie was herself a highly complex woman. Mollie was choir director and Sunday school teacher but apparently thought little about how she twisted the truth herself She was loud, opinionated and had a flair for the dramatic. It was often said that Mollie was the only person who could upstage Agnes. She was described by a gentleman who knew her in Reedsburg as "an imposing lady of strong opinions and very outspoken. In many respects I had great admiration for her and held her in high esteem. However, like many fundamentalists she could demonstrate a lack of sensitivity and love for others. Despite some deep flaws her life, for the most part, was lived for the glory of god." Deep flaws that reflected themselves in the emotional damage done to both of her daughters. John Moorehead was often described as shy and retiring unless he was in the pulpit. Mollie was his polar opposite. He punished Agnes by making her read and Mollie punished Agnes by smacking her. Agnes would recall that Mollie's "tiny hand could smart." Mollie seems to have been adept at punishing by using words as weapons having once told Agnes that "the wrong daughter died." In addition I've found that both children were routinely shipped off for extended periods of time. The girls spent the entire summer with their paternal grandparents. Margaret was shipped off at the age of 8 to spend the summer with a family not even related to the Moorehead's in Hamilton Ohio. Agnes lived for an entire year with a brother of her father and his wife in Denver supposedly due to whooping cough. Margaret remained in St. Louis when her parents went to Reedsburg and when she did finally live with them full time she ended up killing herself after a mere 9 months of life with them.
It appears that most of Agnes' life was made up in one way or another. She acted out fantasy scenarios in part, I think, because her life was not the rosy wonderful upbringing she wanted all of us to believe it was. Much of her life was fabricated. We are all familiar with her adopting the birth year of her sister and the fact she said many times John Lee was dead when he was very much alive. What we aren't familiar with were her mother's acts of outright sabotage. During a birthday party given by Agnes at her Cheviot Hills home Mollie went right up to Agnes' friend and publicist Peter Opp Jr. and told him how old Agnes really was. Opp said, "Mrs. John once told me A's correct age at a birthday party Madame held in Cheviot Hills." I was utterly dumbstruck at the next sentence Opp recounted. He states Mollie said," I don't know why Agnes twists the truth." Opp also said after Agnes' passing that "A pretzel has less twists than our departed friend possessed."
She was such a complex woman in ways that defy logic.
One way her complexity demonstrated itself was her willingness to take physical, emotional and mental abuse from her first husband Jack Lee. The following is part of a trial transcript from their divorce proceedings in 1951:
April 3 1949 Struck her at their Monte Mar Terrace home.
April 27 1949 Threatened her with bodily injury
May 5 1949 Threw a table at her
May 17 1949 Told her he no longer loved her and threatened to get a divorce.
June 14 1949 He struck her.
We are also advised that the following was typical behavior:
Lee forced Agnes to sleep in his room despite her fear and did so at gun point.
Lee fired pistols from his firearms collection.
Lee was drunk practically all the time and had been heard to "browbeat" Agnes.
His drinking got so bad he hid his bottles in bushes and a grandfather clock.
Agnes also testified that Jack struck her at "other times."
All in all very odd behavior for a woman so outwardly strong. Her self esteem must have been so low to allow anyone to do this to her for 19 years. She states that Lee began drinking heavily around 1933. Which means she endured a mean, battering drunk for 16 of their 19 years of marriage. I think, from Agnes' own admittance that she was not pretty, that she was told she wasn't the pretty one and she would have to deal with whatever she had to because she wasn't the "pretty one."
Another indication of the damage done to Agnes was highlighted in her relationship with Sean. From Charles Tranberg's book I've copied the following pleading notes to Agnes from Sean when he was a child:
Letters from Sean
I miss you. I love you. I will give you some of my toys. Come home. I am a good boy and I have my lesson every day. I want to send you a kiss.
I miss you very much. I love you and want you to come home.
I am very happy about all the gifts you gave me. Thank you very much. I am sure I will have a lot of fun with my bicycle. I like my gun and punching bag and all the presents you gave me. I love you very much. Your son Sean.
Paul Gregory observed that " What Sean needed and wanted was a loving mother and I think Agnes failed him on that count, not that she didn't love him in her own way, but she didn't demonstrate it, poor Sean, she acted like she was a general in the army and he was some little grunt." She did not know how to demonstrate love and was so afraid to open herself up. She had once with her sister and then she was unable to save her sister from killing herself. Unfortunately she really did the same thing with Sean except she did not express her love to him. Sean, just like Peggy, left her permanently without ever reaching out for the help or love he needed. Twice in her life people she loved either died or became dead to her.
Agnes was lively, loud, witty with a flair for the dramatic. Margaret shy and retiring. Both were victims of their upbringing and only one survived it. Again and again as I pick this mystery apart I reminded of how much pure internal strength Agnes had. She survived and went on to become one of the most well known and beloved performers in entertainment history.
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