My grandfather and grandmother, Joseph F. Gatins, Jr. and Eglé de Villelume-Sombreuil Gatins, initially approached their new lives in the United States as any normal newlyweds, disembarking in New York in early October 1914. Eglé was introduced to the rest of the Gatins family, which received her warmly.
“The Gatinses were so affectionate. Mrs. Gatins was wonderful and so was Mr. Gatins,” Eglé said of her new in-laws, although her husband’s parents would have preferred and had expected an expansive wedding ceremony and reception. The nuptials in Paris had perforce been very small, Eglé said, because of the war [World War I had officially erupted five days before the wedding.]
My grandparents then stayed a “little while” in New York, a bustling business and cultural center of more than two million residents, many of them new immigrants from all over Europe. Manhattan was known to both of them. He had moved there in 1901, even before leaving the University of Georgia and she knew it well enough from the years 1909-11, when, as a 17-year-old teenager, she had steamed past the Statue of Liberty to accompany her mother there following the separation of her parents. Her mother, a vivacious and gregarious Parisiènne, had opened a highly successful millinery store at the corner of East 30th Street and 5th Avenue, which sold dresses and hats to that era’s fashion mavens. Mother and daughter (and, briefly, brother Charlic) had lived nearby at 523 West 31st, not far from what was then a new Penn Station.
The new couple then joined James C. Brady, the New York moneyman who had counted Joseph F. Gatins Jr. in his entourage in Paris the previous summer, and his wife Victoria Perry at Gladstone, their property at Monmouth Beach, New Jersey. There are two versions of what happened next. Eglé recorded the first, a raw version of events, on audiotape in 1976. That recollection bluntly presages the distress and rejection she was to experience from a bad-tempered, whiskey-besotted husband. The second, more sanitized version was captured in her written memoir about 12 years later.
Here’s the first: “We went to see Jim Brady and then Joe got very drunk one day and left for Atlanta. He did not agree with his friend Jim Brady and so he said, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta. I don’t want you. Stay wherever you want, stay with my mother if you want – you get along very well. Stay with my aunt.’ And I stayed with my mother-in-law in New York, who was very sweet.”
Here is the second version, well sanitized: “Joe was in a hurry to return to Atlanta, but my mother-in-law wanted to keep me [in New York] for a family reunion. He thus left alone. I rejoined him several days later.”
Indeed, her oral and written recollections tend more to describe the life of a dutiful, loyal and concerned wife than the concerns she might have had over her husband’s behavior. While still in New York and New Jersey, she had received a telephone call in which it was suggested she had better come to Atlanta quickly. Her husband had gone on such a bender that he’d been hospitalized.
Yet, the worry over her husband’s state seemingly was offset by her first experience of the deep South, an experience that foreshadowed a long love affair with Atlanta and its people and the many women friends she made there, if not with the man who had brought her to this brave new world. Outwardly, her new home could not have been more different than Paris: Its population approached a mere 155,000 compared to the French capital’s three million-plus residents; recorded Paris history began in the 3rd Century A.D., while Atlanta did not exist as a metropolis before the 1800s. Yet, the social milieu she moved within was remarkably similar: Society in both cities was consumed with maintaining appearances of propriety and class and, for Eglé in particular, putting on a brave public face.
“It was a 22-hour trip in those marvelous Pullmans,” she recalled. “Upon waking up in the morning, I was won over by the feeling of the South, the cotton fields, the Negroes coming home from work with a song on their lips.” If she was cruelly disappointed upon her arrival at Atlanta’s old Terminal Station “to not find my husband there,” she simultaneously found herself embraced by the upper crust of a little railroad crossroads state capital down in the middle of nowhere, whose denizens then, as today, appreciated a class act.
Grandmother was met at the station and picked up by two of her husband’s aunts, Julia Gatins Murphy, nicknamed “Dearie,” and Mamie Gatins, a spinster, who brought her to her apartment at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in a big Packard. “I had never seen such a long car in all my life,” Eglé said. The Georgian Terrace had been built in 1910-12 by her father-in-law, the Wall Street financier whose fortune sustained his children and eventually, his grandson. “I learned that he [her husband] was really sick and in a clinic,” Eglé recalled – an event turned into a fanciful tale in The Atlanta Journal. Here’s the contemporary headline and article:
Jos. Gatins Jr.
Helps to Nurse Him
The countess Eglé de Sombreuil, wife of Joseph Gatins Jr., is at the bedside of her husband in the Georgian Terrace Thursday helping to nurse him through a sudden illness that has alarmed his friends.
The Countess, who was one of the best-known figures in the social life of Paris before she became the Atlanta man’s bride, hurriedly packed a grip and cut short her stay at the palatial home of James C. Brady in Monmouth Beach, N.J. to be with her husband. She has been at his bedside constantly since her arrival Wednesday and has turned down scores of pressing invitations from Atlanta society eager to honor her.
The countess has expressed herself as extremely pleased with Atlanta, and surprised and delighted with its metropolitan character. Even if it were not for the illness of her husband, she would be indulging in little social gayety, as she is consumed with anxiety over the fate of her brother, Captain Sombreuil, who has been reported killed in the battle of the Aisne.
As it turned out, Charlic had not been killed, only taken prisoner. As it also turned out, Eglé was forced into accepting one social engagement immediately upon arrival in Atlanta, the memory of which was indelibly imprinted upon her psyche. “They [the two sisters, Dearie and Mamie] had gotten me a reservation in a nice apartment [at the Georgian Terrace Hotel] – you know that apartment, the one with the round turret where we all lived – full of flowers. I told them that as soon as I’d taken a bath, I would go see Joe. They wanted to drive me but I told them I could manage to find a taxi to go see him. Dearie then told me, ‘You must meet Atlanta society. We’ll come get you at 5 o’clock to bring you to the Thé Dansant at the Driving Club. They know Joe, it doesn’t matter. But they must see you.’” [The Piedmont Driving Club officially had been established only 20 years previous, but had already attracted much of Atlanta society to its membership rolls by 1914.]
“I explained that this could wait until Joe felt better, but they insisted: ‘No, you must come. So, I then participated in the most ridiculous scene of all my life. Dearie, holding me by the arm, took me around to most of the tables, saying as follows: ‘I present you my niece, the countess.’ I tried to tell her that in France women only receive such titles from their husbands, after their marriage. But there was nothing doing. ‘Your father was a count, thus you’re a countess.’” She also was assigned an escort, a friend of her husband’s named Joe Brown Connelly. “He was the nicest thing.” Many others also asked her to dance, “but I told them with my country at war, I don’t feel much like dancing. If I live to be a hundred years old, I’ll never forget the Thé Dansant.”
She begged off having dinner with the aunts and then was dropped off at the Terrace. Her husband was discharged from the clinic the next day and began to introduce his bride to his many friends, as life returned to some semblance of normalcy. It was in many ways a life of ease and grandeur, much as she would have had in France had her father not committed suicide, and brought down the stigma of disapproval on the Villelume-Sombreuil family from both society and members of its rigid Catholic faith.
“Atlanta was a charming place, very much … Southern, you know, from the Sacred Heart [Church] to the Georgian Terrace, lovely homes there. You’d see all your friends rocking on their porches … and up above 14th Street, further up Peachtree, there was nothing. It was really in the country to go to Paces Ferry Road. You really thought you were going to the end of the world,” she said in the 1976 interview.
Excerpted from Chapter 2, “I Don’t Want You,”
We Were Dancing on a Volcano:
Bloodlines and Fault Lines of a Star-
Crossed Atlanta Family, 1849-1989
© Joseph F.M. Gatins
The Glade Press
325 pages, including 34 pages of photographs
Release expected by late September, 2009
The photo by Charles Seabrook at the top of this story shows the author eating an apple at the top of Rabun Bald.
The head shot of the author below was taken by Honor Woodard.
More excerpts at: http://josephgatins.blogspot.com/