Monday, January 30, 2012

Agnes In Wonderland

Did you ever have a moment when you found that all the things you thought you knew were true suddenly began to mutate into something you didn't recognize, didn't know?  Well kids, you aren't alone!  Color me stunned, immediately!

No doubt you've read the previous post about a mysterious college "flame" who was brought to light by an innocent anonymous post on Find A Grave.  I did track down his name, John Collins Ballentyne, but today I looked into his past with my magnifying glass.  What I have discovered has totally left  me scratching my head, no seriously, scratching it to the point of actually yelling out "WHY." 

In a past post mention was made of an alleged remark quipped by Reverend John Moorehead about Agnes' penchant for attracting gentleman who were truly unworthy of her.  Personally I don't believe he ever made the remark but that aside I would have to actually agree with him had really he said it.  All due to the events of the last three days.  When looking at the man Agnes left behind and the men she actually married made me weep with aggravation and a desire to bang my head against the wall.  It has left me searching for meaning in the "Wonderland" that Agnes wove around herself over the years as protective cover.

Down The Rabbit Hole
I find, when doing research, that facts contradict themselves with great regularity.  You literally have to Sherlock Holmes your way into a solution by eliminating things until only one thing is left and it, however improbable it may seem, is your solution. 

So little is known about Agnes' youth outside broadly known competing statements and snippets expressed by Agnes herself in interviews or documented conversations.  We know she played a "hot" ukulele courtesy of password.  We know she taught school courtesy of herself, former students, and the great state of Wisconsin.  We know she had a burning desire to act, that she was highly intelligent, that she sang, that she was athletic and so forth.  All these things are widely known.  What we didn't know was kept, quite successfully,  behind the veneer of her personality.   It seemed for many years that we would never crack that veneer.  We have begun that process courtesy of anonymous.

Agnes had a beau her final year in college.  A "flame" as it were,  His name was John Collins Ballentyne.  He was born in India to American parents.  In the 1924 Muskingum year book he is identified as having hailed from Xenia Ohio.  He was born on the 11th of October 1899 in Punjab.  He graduated from Woodstock high school in India.  This was a boarding school in the Himalayan mountains geared toward college preparation.  He graduated from Muskingum in 1924 with a Bachelor of Arts in oration.  His blurb in the yearbook says he was interested in either teaching or attending seminary school.  He enlisted in the National Army during the first world war but never saw action and was discharged honorably in 1918.  He was the class vice president his sophomore year.  He was class president during his junior year.  He was president of the "M" club, was a debater, an orator and he played football.  He was tall, according to his draft registration card, with black hair and blue eyes.  I've been an academician for many long years and I can tell you this is the kind of young person who succeeds.  He pinned Agnes, which was the early twentieth century version of "going steady."  In every way he absolutely did not fit the description attributed to Agnes' father of being a man unworthy of her.  The type that she typically attracted and the type she actually married, twice.  This is the part where I grab my hair and scream "WHY!"

"What was going to happen next."
In the story of Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll  offers the following;
"Either the well was very deep, or she fell slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and wonder what was going to happen next."  Agnes, like Alice, had plenty of time to wonder what was going to happen next.  Sadly enough it appears she actually had so much time she chose to engineer her life straight into emotional disaster.  What follows is mind boggling, so prepare yourselves.

John C. Ballentyne left Muskingum with his degree.  Agnes left with hers.  He falls off the radar for a few years between 1924 and 1927.  During this same period of time from 1924 to 1927 Agnes teaches in Soldier's Grove, Wisconsin.  She completes a Masters Degree in English and Public Speaking.  Agnes leaves Soldier's Grove to live in New York and study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  John C. Ballentyne is a student studying for his Masters Degree in English Literature at Columbia University in New York at the same time that Agnes was studying at the AADA.  Columbia is on 116th street and Broadway and AADA is at 120 Madison Avenue.  They were there at the same time and given his fondness for Agnes, whom he called his "First Lady" according to anonymous, it is more than likely she was aware he was there.  Still standing?  I wasn't believe me!  Agnes claimed years later to have known not one single person in New York when she went there in 1927.  That is the sound of glass breaking folks, the veneer is really cracked this time.  The screeching sound you're hearing is me still screaming "WHY."

John Ballentyne was every bit the capable man Agnes' father was and then some.  By 1929 he was a published author.  The book entitled "John Taylor-the water poet" was published under the name John Collins Ballentyne the year the stock market crashed.  For those of you who don't know John Taylor was the first poet to mention the death of Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont in print in 1620.  This is not a book one would take up writing on a whim.  I think it was probably John Ballentyne's masters degree thesis.  The topic is heady to say the least, actually positively cerebral.  This man was a thinker, an accomplished thinker.  John Ballentyne had his sights set on an academic career that much is very plain.  He also taught at the Julliard School of Music during his tenure in Manhattan.  So what in the name of heaven happened?  Why in the name of all things holy would you turn your back on a man like this and marry Jack Lee?  Jack Lee, whose claim to fame amounts to :
1. Being an outstanding corpse on stage.
2. Being an outstanding clerk in a candy store.
3. Being an abusive alcoholic smart enough to stay married for an insanely long time to Agnes Moorehead.

Do we see the problem yet?  Do we?????  Tall, blue eyed, raven haired, cerebral, athletic, dramatic (forgot to mention in his list of accomplishments earlier he acted in the Senior play at Muskingum), educated, world traveler, musician versus tall, dark haired, blue eyed, pseudo actor, candy store clerk from a wealthy California family, who thinks you have a straight back and enjoys liquor.  Seems a wee bit out of balance to me does it not?

The Pool of Tears
Lewis Carroll describes Alice's falling into a pool of saltwater by saying she fell into a pool of tears she had cried when she was nine feet high.  Alice offers this:
`I wish I hadn't cried so much!' said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out. `I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears! That WILL be a queer thing, to be sure! However, everything is queer to-day.'  Agnes was punished alright and it was self inflicted punishment to boot!  I would think that we could safely say she drown herself in her own tears.  The only difference is nobody saw her pool of tears.

The year 1929 was a pivotal year for Agnes.  She graduated from AADA.  Her career lay ahead of her but then the stock market crashed.  Most importantly her sister died.  This was a year that would change her life in more ways than she had ever imagined.

Agnes wrote this note of anguish a notebook about a week after Peggy's death. 
“A week later so many things have happened and my own dear sister where are you? Where can you be? How brave and courageous you are to face death so young—how you know our maker—the secret of life and death you know…How I wanted to see you and yet the thought of seeing you was beyond my strength. I loved you—I love you know—you asleep in a cold little bed in a tomb like the good father who created you. And you were beautiful. I only wish you could talk to me sometimes. I know you are alive and well and even so much better off than we. If only you could have come to us. Men are so heartless so cruel. Poor dear little girl your words of last year ring in my ears, “ you never loved a man like I have.” Now you know, your spirit will know how I feel toward Jack. My little sister I loved you so. I have always loved you and prayed for your happiness. I dreamed of you last night—I love you.”

We have all seen this and all read it.  We've wept with her at the loss of her sister.  But there has always been a portion of this letter that has struck me as odd.  What comparison does Agnes have for the statement "Men are so heartless, so cruel."?  What is she basing this decision on?  If you believe the biographies Jack Lee was it as far as men went outside of her father.  The likelihood of Agnes using her father as a basis for this statement is nil, nada, zip, zero.  The likelihood of Agnes using Jack Lee as a basis for this statement is on the high side but why marry someone you know is going to be cruel to you?  It may be a blanket statement about the man "Frank" who, according to Mollie, dumped Peggy without notice.  I really don't think so.  I think if it had been about "Frank" Agnes would have used his name.  She would have called him out as being responsible for her sister's demise.  She generalized the statement to include all men.  Something else was at work here.  Something we know nothing about with someone we knew nothing of.  Agnes continues in the note to her sister talking about Peggy's words of last year ringing in her ears, "you have never loved a man like I have."  What does that mean?  Is Peggy referring to her sister's dual nature?  Had Agnes claimed to have fallen in love with Jack Lee that quickly?  Remember we are referring to 1928.  Agnes came to New York in August of 1927 and according to her one of her professors at the Academy began forcing Jack Lee on her by deliberately seating her next to him in class.  Doesn't sound like love at first sight to me.  I think the topic of conversation may have been John Ballentyne not Jack Lee.  Perhaps the disagreement was a result of Peggy pointing out the obvious, John Ballentyne was dream come true, well at least in Peggy's opinion he would have been.  Words of frustration from Peggy to Agnes "you have never loved a man like I have."  Makes way more sense to me.  Whose to say the reference to Jack is even about Lee in any case.  Jack is a very common nickname for John and I'm sure a published author who was also teaching at Julliard wasn't about to roam around using "Johnny" as a moniker.

Curiouser and CuriouserSuffice it to say that whatever the cause was John Ballentyne was not married to Agnes.  I suspect that it had more to do with the disproportionate nature of their feelings for one another.   He had deep feelings for her as opposed to her less passionate feelings for him.  He cared very much about her.  He cared so much that he told his children about her and described her to them as his "First Lady."  He was married to their mother and still talking about Agnes.  Unusual to say the least. 

By April of 1930 John was married.  His wife was a woman named Aileen Campbell.  Aileen was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.  They were living in Washington City Pennsylvania while John taught at the Pace Institute.  At the time of the census they were literally newlyweds.  Daughter of a Presbyterian Minister.....I'm sensing a small pattern here.  I found a photo of Aileen and she actually strongly resembles Agnes.  Dark haired, high cheek bones, slender, but without any of the glamour, without the "Actress."  Aileen is Agnes as she might have been if she hadn't gone to New York or been a natural actress. 

In June of 1930 Agnes married Jack Lee in New York.  By doing so she forever altered her life in more ways than she could possibly imagine.  She left behind the brilliant mind of John Ballentyne settling for the somewhat unremarkable mind of Jack Lee.  We will never know what prompted her to do what she did.  Perhaps John loved her too much and she was uncomfortable with that.  There's a big difference between college "flame" and the rest of your life.  I think it intimidated her because she did not share the passion that John felt for her.  Perhaps she felt she would be short changing him and he didn't deserve that.  Jack Lee was an expendable commodity in the end in any case.  The unremarkable candy store clerk come actor remained just that unremarkable. An unremarkable, abusive drunk who beat the living tar out of Agnes on several occasions.  It's okay to be totally confused because her behavior doesn't seem logical.  I trust in her ability to "know what she was about", a statement she used with great alacrity, to understand what she needed to do in order to get where she wanted to be.

John Ballentyne returned to Ohio.  In 1945, he moved to Dayton with his wife and children where he joined the ranks of the Aeroproducts company, a division of Allison Engine, General Motors Corporation.   He died on April 25th 1959 in the same hospital as Peggy Moorehead had in 1929.  He was described as an "honest and moral man, one who cared very deeply for his family."  He never forgot his "Fist Lady" though and he's buried in the very same mausoleum as Agnes.  Not very far at all  from where she was laid to rest, according to anonymous.

I am certain of one thing at the end of this discourse.  Agnes was literally like an onion, you peel back a layer and there is another one underneath ever so slightly different from the one above it.  At the heart of it all lays the soul of a real human being...protected, camouflaged, fragile and oh so full of a light nobody has ever seen.

By wondrous accident perchance one may

Grope out a needle in a load of hay;
And though a white crow be exceedingly rare,
A blind man may, by fortune, catch a hare.

 A Kicksey Winsey (pt. VII)
John Taylor
The Water Poet

John Collins Ballentyne

Aileen Campbell Ballentyne

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