My mother, Barbara Cotter, or "Bobbi," and I often sat around the kitchen table late at night after everyone else had retired, just talking. She would tell me stories of her life, but many other stories came to light in the lengthy letter she left at her death.
Mother often told me of an incident to which she had more than just an attenuated connection. It was, from a public point of view, a small matter -- as run-of-the-mine unsolved Chicago gangland killings go. Thanks to the deathbed letter, I now know that it occurred some time in the late 1940's. My best guess, as I piece together a time line from the letter, is that it happened between 1947 and 1949.
I was by the time the episode begins about two or three years old. By that time, my mother had ended her war time marriage with Walt Delong and was just finishing her undergraduate work at the State University of Iowa, as it was known in those days. She was singing weekends with a territorial band -- the Larry Barrett Orchestra (headed by the man whom I would later know as my father) – and working weekdays at a low paying job with a local ad agency known as Economy Advertising.
I’ll let her letter tell the story:
I finally quit at Economy with an idea of “seeking my fortune” in Chicago. I needed someone to take care of you while I tried to make it in the big city. Meanwhile, you began calling Barrett “Daddy Larry” – he was around us a whole lot – gave you your first tricycle on your 2nd birthday. He was not particularly in favor of my going but I felt I had to do something. We had made one recording at Woodburn’s – “Lover Man”– with the big band. It was an impressive record.
I left for Chicago with my record of "Lover Man." I didn’t have much money so I couldn’t stay there very long, I knew.
After two weeks of hitting agencies, getting nibbles but no bites, I was out of money. I still had a return ticket to Iowa City so decided I had better go back. I had all my luggage – and record – and was in a taxi on the way to the train station. The taxi driver had the Dave Garroway show on the radio. I suddenly got an idea – told the driver to take me to the radio station instead. I got there just as Garroway was going off the air. You know the story, I think. He played my record, picked up the phone and called Taye Voye, then working at the Hollywood Club on Randall St. And I had a job. I was to rehearse with the group while they completed a booking at that club and I was to open with them at the Argyle Show Lounge, which I did.
On opening night, Barrett came – as did Dave Garroway & Dick Hines (Downbeat Magazine). I was on the way! Then Taye Voye offered me a contract. Barrett said it was a lousy contract. I got my first paycheck – $ 35!! I couldn’t survive on that.
Meanwhile, because I was broke I had to borrow from the guys in the group. I was supposed to earn $100 a week, but the club owner deducted a lot of items – such as dry cleaning I never had done etc. – it was a kick-back proposition I never really understood and still don’t, but I, at least, understood there was something very “fishy” about it. The manager of the club was Rudy Davis – a few months later he was shot and killed in his own club. Barrett read about it in a newspaper back in Iowa City.
Anyhow, after that first pay-check & a 3-way conversation with Rudy Davis & Taye Voye, I discussed it with Barrett. In those days I had great respect for Barrett. I thought he was (& he was) one of the greatest musicians going. Added into this great confusion – Taye Voye begging me to stay, Dave Garroway promising me fame & fortune, & Barrett insisting the set-up was crooked (as it was) – was my great longing for you. I missed you so much I would cry every night before I went to sleep. When I added up everything, all the weight was on the side of leaving and going back to Iowa City to sing with Barrett’s band. So I turned in my notice and Barrett and I took the “Rocket” (Rock Island Line) back to I.C. It was on the train that he proposed to me.
There is more to the story. As I have said, my mother’s deathbed letter is more than 75 pages. But this is the gist of the first Chicago historical mysteries I hope to unravel. What I am hoping to do is find anyone alive who recognizes those names – Taye Voye, Rudy Davis, and, of course, Dave Garroway – and who might recall the incidents she describes. At a minimum, I’m hoping to pin down the dates and determine if there is more to the story my mother may not have known.
Although, as it turns out, my father was not my biological father – and in any event he and my mother divorced when I was in my early teens – Lawrence Eugene Barrett remains for me a towering influence who had an enormous effect on who I am and how I think. Walt Delong was my biological father, but to my dying day Larry Barrett will be my “dad.” He died of a heart attack exacerbated by alcoholism just a year after cancer claimed my mother.
Dad was born in Fremont, Nebraska, where his own father had begun a career in the dairy business, more or less as a milkman, or so the family stories claimed. My dad’s father, who was born in 1892, also was named Lawrence. But his middle name was “Horatio.” That could be important to this last of the Chicago mysteries I am trying to unravel.
As a child, my dad moved to Rockford with his parents when Lawrence Horatio Barrett was promoted into management of the National Dairy Co. The family moved, again, to Chicago when “Grandpa Barrett,” as he was known to me, became president of the Sealtest Ice Cream Co., which then occupied the Hydrox Building in Chicago.
The family had roots in Galena stretching back to before the Civil War. If you wander down the main street of Galena today, you’ll see two buildings with brass historical markers bearing family names. There is the Barrett Store, once a dry goods establishment where, so family legend has it, a great-great-uncle of my grandfather (or some such relation) employed U.S. Grant as a clerk while he trained local volunteers before joining in the Civil War. Just a few doors away is the Coatsworth Building, now a modern rebuild on the site of the original Coatsworth Building. The original was a rambling, multi-storied structure that burned in a spectacular fire some time in the late 1950's. I know the approximate date because an AP dispatch reprinted in Illinois newspapers in 1968 describes it this way: "The Coatsworth building, largest of the six buildings and the original homes of the J.R. Grant leather store, owned by President Grant's father and run for a time by Grant, has been vacant for over 11 years."
Coatsworth was the maiden name of my Grandmother, Lucille Barrett. Her father, Joseph H. Coatsworth, was a jeweler and a bank trustee for a Galena bank. The bank’s name is still engraved above street level in the building that is now the Log Cabin Steakhouse. After every family funeral I attended in Galena, the ever-diminishing number of our family would gather there for a memorial dinner. For the black humor of it, we usually reserved the room that once upon a time was the money vault.
Enough with the genealogy. Here’s the mystery. There has been in my family for at least four generations a small graphite drawing signed and dated in pencil by Eugene Field and dedicated, "Affectionately yours, Dear Barrett." The date, though badly faded, still clearly reads “March 24,1893.”
Eugene Field was a popular Chicago newspaperman, amateur artist, and poet in the latter third of the 19th century. He is best known today as the author of the children’s poems “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” and “The Duel” between “the gingham dog and the calico cat.” I vividly remember that my grandfather had this drawing framed and on the wall of his den in the years after he retired, along with all the other furniture, photographs, and accessories from his Sealtest office. It seems reasonable to speculate that the drawing probably was on the wall of his office before that. It passed to me when my father died.
The family story which I recall being told is that Field was friends with a stage actor named Barrett who was prominent – or at least active – in the Chicago area in the latter third of the 19th century. This Barrett, too, was a great or great-great uncle or something like that. I do not remember ever being told anything more specific than that. For a very brief time, I assumed that the drawing by Eugene Field depicted the Barrett to whom it was “affectionately” given. The maddening thing is that Field doesn’t mention the first name of the Barrett to whom he dedicated the drawing.
There was in the last half of the 19th century a very famous Shakespearean actor by the name of Lawrence Barrett. He was a close friend and professional collaborator of Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, along with most of the other great stage actors and actresses of his time. Moreover, I have discovered from recent biographies that Field and the actor Barrett became good friends after they were introduced to each other by William Dean Howells. But the actor Barrett, as it turns out, was born “Lawrence Brannigan.” The history books tells us, too, that he was by no means confined to the Chicago area. Finally, this famous actor died March 20, 1891-- two years almost to the day before the date of the drawing (March 21, 1893).
I have recently had the leading living biographer of Eugene Field, Prof. Lewis O. Saum, more or less verify that the drawing is a self-portrait of Field, not of any Barrett, done in Field’s hand. Because Eugene Field was so prolific (he tossed off hundreds of sketches for friends and strangers, so I was once told) in itself I doubt the drawing has any particular value. But if it can be done, I would like to verify just who the specific "Barrett" recipient could have been. Prof. Soam, who is now retired, also cautioned me that Field was “a great kidder.” He would play jokes on all sorts of people. It’s a stretch, I suppose, but that leads me to wonder if it’s possible the drawing was a joke Field played on my grandfather, who in 1883 would have been about one year old. Among other roles, the great actor Lawrence Barrett apparently was known for his stage portrayal of Horatio in the great Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet. If so, is it reasonable to wonder whether the jokester Eugene Field made the drawing expressly for my grandfather when he learned that the one year child’s middle name also was Horatio? I tend to doubt it.
Consistent with family legend, there must have been another actor Barrett who was prominent in the Chicago area. Just who it may have been, what connection he had to Field, and why Field would have given him his own self-portrait remain mysteries.
One last mystery: As I have said, my father's given names were "Lawrence Horatio." My dad’s given names were "Lawrence Eugene." To my shame, I never thought to ask either dad or Grandpa Barrett if their first and middle names were in any way connected with Eugene Field or the Shakespearean actor known for his role as Horatio.
So, what do you think? John is looking for information on the jazz club murder and the possible identity of the Barrett named on the Field drawing. As you probably might guess, he is writing a family memoir and would like to fill in the gaps of the family history. If you have any thoughts, you can contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone else have a Chicago history family story they would like to tell?
Photo Credits: J.C. Barrett