The Scrapbook

An accidental encounter with two briefly famous lives

By Cullen Murphy

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"Charlestown 6." The road sign came as a surprise, and stirred a memory. I had ventured into New Hampshire in order to pick up a child at camp; unexpectedly, the route now offered a collateral opportunity. There was time to spare, and I turned off the state highway and headed into town. The detour was only for about a hundred years.

Charlestown was familiar because of a scrapbook that came into my hands one afternoon three decades ago, when I worked a summer job at a sprawling flea market in Connecticut. Some boxes of books had just been taken off a truck—the residue of an estate sale. They contained mostly a collection of bound volumes of The Harvard Crimson from 1893 through 1912, which for some reason I needed to have. The owner of the flea market didn't really deal in books, and he sold the boxes to me for $12.

The most important volume in them was one I hadn't seen and discovered only later, buried at the bottom. It was a scrapbook, as big as an old Bible, compiled in 1898 by a man mourning the death during childbirth of his wife and newborn son. The scrapbook opens with an inscription in pencil on the flyleaf:

Words kindly meant, sweet in thought, softening the sorrow if they could not remove it.
They were and are gratefully appreciated by me.
Chas. Hoyt.

And then, on page after page, carefully pasted down and sometimes annotated, come all the telegrams and letters and calling cards and newspaper clippings that accumulated in the days after his loss.

Charles H. Hoyt was the proprietor of the Madison Square Theater and a writer of farces—one of the most successful playwrights of Gilded Age New York. Hoyt's wife, Caroline Miskel Hoyt, was a rising young star of the stage, renowned for her beauty and charm. Charles Hoyt's name means nothing to most people now, but two songs from one of his shows, A Trip to Chinatown, are still widely familiar—"The Bowery" and "After the Ball." Charles and Caroline lived on Thirtieth Street, near Madison Avenue, and moved in the highest theatrical and artistic circles. When Caroline died, on October 2, 1898, at the age of twenty-five, the event was given prominent coverage in all the New York newspapers—the Times, the Daily News, the Journal, the Sun, the Tribune, the Herald, the Press, the World, the Telegram, the Telegraph: "END CAME SUDDENLY." "SHE WON GREAT SUCCESS IN 'A CONTENTED WOMAN.'" "WAS ONE OF MOST BEAUTIFUL OF YOUNGER ACTRESSES." "MADE A SENSATION IN 'A TEMPERANCE TOWN.'" "WAS SOON TO REAPPEAR IN A NEW HOYT FARCE." "HER CHILD ALSO DEAD."

Hoyt saved everything. He received scores of telegrams—beige rectangles of cheap paper bearing the classic logo and promotional apparatus of The Western Union Telegraph Company ("21,000 Offices in America. Cable Service to All the World"). Most of the messages are printed in blue or purple teletype; some of them are handwritten, displaying the varied but fluid penmanship of the clerks who rendered dots and dashes into English. Florenz Ziegfeld, the theatrical manager and producer of the Ziegfeld Follies, sent a telegram, and so did his wife, Anna Held, the diminutive, hourglass-waisted French comedienne who was famous for bathing in milk. (Her message was transcribed, "Receiver mes condoleances les plus sympatigues.") Sam Shubert, one third of the theatrical Shubert Brothers, who would die in a train wreck a few years later, sent a telegram, as did the theatrical manager Charles Frohman, who would go down with the Lusitania. There is a cable from James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, who wrested the heavyweight boxing title from John L. Sullivan, and one from Charles G. Dawes, who would win a Nobel Peace Prize (for the economic reconstruction of Germany after World War I) and serve as Calvin Coolidge's Vice President.

From the archives:

"The Stationery Self" (May 2001)
There is no substitute for engraved writing paper. By Corby Kummer

When he had finished mounting the telegrams, Hoyt moved on to the personal letters, affixing one to a page, sometimes using the envelopes as pockets. He received condolences from the great Broadway impresario David Belasco and from the distinguished actress Minnie Maddern Fiske. ("My dear sir," she wrote, "It was not my good fortune to know your lovely wife but even so I have been sorely grieved at her death and wished deeply to tell you so.") The notepaper and envelopes are often thickly edged in black, a form of stationery once standard in the repertoire of bereavement. Personal calling cards were once standard too—left on a tray after a sympathy call, or sent along with flowers. Hoyt pasted them into the book when he was finished with the letters, several to a page. The cartoonist Thomas Nast left his card.

Newspaper clippings fill out the scrapbook, yellowing and brittle; for reference Hoyt preserved the names and datelines of the newspapers and pasted them above the stories, which report the sudden onset of calamity and offer admiring assessments of Caroline Hoyt's brief career. "It has been a long time," the New York Journal observed, "since a death in the theatrical profession has created such a profound sentiment of sorrow." The newspaper stories often end with some variant on the following (from the New York Press): "The burial will take place near Mr. Hoyt's home in the granite hills of New Hampshire, close by the quaint old town of Charlestown. A special car will take the body there to-morrow."

Charles Hoyt, for all his success on Broadway, was at heart a New Hampshire man. He was born in Concord, and served a term in the state legislature. Charlestown, where he maintained a large house, lies on the Connecticut River, roughly halfway between Keene and Hanover. There, in the village cemetery, Caroline Miskel Hoyt was laid to rest, the baby boy in her arms. Among the abundant tributes of flowers was a bouquet with a white ribbon bearing the words "Last Act." The newspaper article relating this fact is the last item in Hoyt's scrapbook.

But it was not the last act. Over time I have collected some information about what happened to Hoyt. It turns out that he survived Caroline by little more than two years. He had lost his first wife, Flora Walsh, in 1892; the loss of a second, together with a child, seems to have unhinged him. Press accounts make reference to his condition with a baroque and circumventing delicacy. For a while Hoyt was confined to a sanatorium in Hartford. Then he returned to Charlestown. He died there in November of 1900, at the age of forty-one. Friends from New York came up by train for the funeral; theaters in New York that night went dark. A local newspaper, The Claremont Advocate, preserved the scene at the mausoleum.

Mr. Lane, the undertaker, with assistance, placed the casket in the niche reserved, between Flora Walsh and Caroline Miskel Hoyt, and the numerous floral tributes were then placed at the further corridor, between the walls ... As the western sky was tinged with the lowering gleams of the sun, the Mausoleum was lighted up with a beauty never to be seen again, for all that remained of this line of Hoyts were enclosed within the walls.

The mausoleum in the Charlestown cemetery was not hard to find—a granite structure with a slate roof and HOYT chiseled on the lintel. The ornate bronze doors were sealed tight. I asked a groundskeeper if the mausoleum meant anything to him. He replied with a shrug of genial helplessness and went back to work. The place where Hoyt's mansion once stood, on Main Street, is now occupied by a bank.

The article in the Advocate a century ago was probably correct in one respect: that the tomb's interior would never again see the sun. But I'm not so sure that the monument holds all that remains of "this line of Hoyts." The scrapbook, after all, has continued to circulate in the outside world. To whom it was entrusted under the terms of Hoyt's will I have not discovered; perhaps it went to the primary heir, a man named Frank McKee. Somehow it passed safely down the generations until a brief moment of peril at the flea market, when it was accidentally rescued. Over the years I have shown the scrapbook to many people, all of whom have been drawn in and touched by the tragedy it distills. The scrapbook is now in the custody of the Charlestown Historical Society.

Charles Hoyt wrote some of the most successful farces of his era. He might have appreciated the irony that it is his grief that remains most palpably alive.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/11/the-scrapbook/302334/