Tag Archives: Ayer

Snippet: Like birds on a telegraph wire

A gentle knock on the hotel room door awoke Second Lieutenant and Mrs. Patton, who had been married for less than twenty-four hours. In walked Ellen Banning Ayer, the bride’s mother, carrying a rose, followed by the bride’s brothers and sisters carrying the breakfast tray.

The seven Ayer siblings—the first four from the union of Frederick Ayer (1822-1918) and Cornelia Wheaton (1835-1878), and the last three from the union of Frederick and Ellen “Ellie” Banning (1853-1918)—were so devoted to each other that Ellie accused them “of behaving at parties like birds on a telegraph wire.”

George Patton knew that when he married Beatrice Ayer, he married all members of her close-knit family. He loved her parents and siblings “as though they were the nearest people on earth to me,” secure in the knowledge that his wife and children would be well-taken care of when he went to war. Not only did the Ayers influence and support him throughout all the ups and downs of his career, they always brought out the best in him.

Ellen Wheaton Ayer Wood (1859 – 1951)

Ellen was a free-spirited woman who spent six months studying at Les Ruches, a young ladies’ school in Fontainebleau founded by Marie Souvestre—she later founded the Allenswood Academy in England and became a great influence on Eleanor Roosevelt. She continued her education at Radcliffe College, but nursing her mother through her final illness scarred the eighteen-year-old Ellen for life.

Left with a delicate constitution but blessed with the heart of a lion, Ellen married William Wood, a dashing man who transformed her father’s company into the premier textile factory in the world. She survived one tragedy after another—her mother’s illness, the death of two of her four children, and the suicide of her husband—becoming a valuable source of comfort to her sister when Beatrice lost both their parents in the span of one month in 1918 and her husband in 1945.

James “Jamie” Cook Ayer (1862 – 1939)

Jamie was the only Ayer who left the North Shore area, moving to New York after graduating from Harvard to pursue a career in medicine. He was a well-respected surgeon at Bellevue Hospital until management passed him over for a promotion, which should have been his based on seniority. He was never the same after he lost the lawsuit against his former employer, despite continuing to run a successful private practice and becoming quite “distinguished as a painter.”

Married to May Hancock Boyd in 1907, Jamie enjoyed an active life sailing and hunting. He frequently hosted his brother-in-law at Shadowland, his Long Island estate, during the 1910s and 1920s when George participated in the local horse races. Dedicated to his family, Jamie traveled wherever someone needed him, whether Egypt in 1897 or England in 1922.

Charles “Chilly” Fanning Ayer (1865 – 1956)

Chilly was a quiet and sensible man who enjoyed the simple life of sitting around the fireplace telling stories. Even though he wanted to go into forestry, he attended Harvard and followed his father into business. A prominent industrialist in the textile and mining business who also ran the family trust with his brother Fred, Chilly was known to be extremely honest and upstanding.

Married to Sara Theodora Ilsley in 1904, the Ayers divided their time between a townhouse on Boston’s Back Bay and Juniper Ridge, their country estate in South Hamilton, where they were prominent members of the Myopia Hunt Club. Chilly was master of the hunt for several years, and both his wife and daughters, who enjoyed being taught by Uncle George, were notable riders. During WWII, Chilly often lent Beatrice a helping hand in South Hamilton and offered an eyewitness account of life on the homefront to George.

Louise Raynor Ayer (1876 – 1955)

Louise never outgrew the shyness caused by the loss of her mother when she was just two years old, and she always preferred a life of simplicity. When she married Donald Gordon—who met Louise tutoring her brother Fred while working his way through Harvard Law School—she settled at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Widowed and left with two young children, she married Conrad Hatheway in 1925, only to be widowed again twelve years later.

Strong of character and sensible like all the Ayers, Louise was the only one of Cornelia’s children still living at home when Beatrice was born, and she became a devoted sister and friend for life. Louise spent most of her time on her farm, educating children about nature and focusing on organic and sustainable food. She left Drumlin Farm to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which continues to run it to this day.

Beatrice Banning Ayer (1886 – 1953)

Frederick “Fred” Ayer (Jr.) (1888 – 1969)

With a long, illustrious list of directorships across various industries and a manager of the Ayers’ trust and the Pattons’ finances, the Harvard graduate was president of Beverly Hospital. As honest as his brother and as courageous as his brother-in-law, Fred was an accomplished equestrian who didn’t shy away from risking life and limb on the polo and hunting field. He married Hilda Proctor Rice, an equally fierce equestrian who never had any problems standing up to her brother-in-law whenever he behaved outrageously.

Not only was he Beatrice’s “joy and delight,” Fred was one of the few people George trusted implicitly and one of his closest friends. Besides his wife, his brother-in-law was the one George asked to come to Heidelberg after his accident in December 1945 and the only other family member present at his funeral. One of the few entrusted with George’s papers, Fred spent many evenings at Green Meadows—the Pattons’ home in South Hamilton, MA, within riding distance of all the siblings—helping Beatrice transcribe the thousands of letters and diary entries.

Katharine “Kay” Ayer (1890 – 1981)

Fun-loving and fashionable Kay was a willing accomplish throughout the Pattons’ courtship and a frequent guest at Army posts until she married Keith Merrill at the outbreak of WWI. She was as helpful to her husband’s career in the Foreign Service as her sister was to George’s in the Army. A graduate of the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY, Kay was always socially engaged—for one, she was a founder of the Planned Parenthood Association of Washington.

A great source of strength to Beatrice and her daughters—especially Little Bee when her husband became a POW—Kay was the glue who held the family together. She took over Avalon, the family estate in Pride’s Crossing, MA, when Frederick and Ellie died, and her home in Washington, DC, became a home away from home for Beatrice during WWII. After George’s death, Keith helped organize his brother-in-law’s papers and helped Beatrice fight the proposed (second) move of the General’s grave at the Luxembourg American Cemetery.

Pictures taken from the following sources (in order): Before the Colors Fade, Andover Center for History and Culture, Memories of an Unplanned Life, The Button Box, Find a Grave, Private Album, Light and Life.

Spotlight: The Ayer-Tiffany Mansion on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue

It was said that men who came face-to-face with the Tiffany Chapel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. the World’s Columbian Exposition) doffed their hats in reverence. Whether the chapel’s mosaic columns and stained glass windows had that effect on Frederick Ayer is unknown, but his wife Ellie–a famed horticulturalist in the Boston area–undoubtedly would have been equally impressed with Tiffany’s ability to showcase the diverse flora of the United States in a vase. The Magnolia Vase, also shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition, depicted pinecones and needles to symbolize the North and East, cacti to symbolize the Southwest, and magnolias to symbolize the South and West.

When the Ayers moved from Lowell to Boston at the turn of the century, they commissioned Alfred John Manning and Louis Comfort Tiffany to build their dream home at 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Neither Frederick nor Ellie “made any pretense of being ‘Proper Bostonians,’” and the five-story mansion was a slap in the face of the Boston Brahmins, the traditional upper class who ruled Commonwealth Avenue. The home was “unusually progressive for turn-of-the-century Boston,” not surprising since Frederick’s “thoughts were always of the future.” Commissioning Manning and Tiffany to build an Art Nouveau-influenced home inspired by the family’s recent travels to Europe and the Orient came as easy to him as investing in Alexander Bell’s telephone and the New York subway.

The Ayer-Tiffany Mansion lies west of Massachusetts Avenue, and its white-marbled exterior with colorful mosaics and stained glass windows still stands out among the red brick townhouses prevalent along Commonwealth Avenue. Tiffany specified almost every detail of the house, from walls to light fixtures, and even designed custom furniture. His favorite motif throughout the house was the lotus, a detail that blended well with the Ayers’ exotic decorations they brought back from their grand tour. Ellie’s style and personality were reflected throughout the house, nowhere more so than in the foyer staircase, which doubled as a stage. The wall was a mosaic trompe l’oeil of an ancient Greek temple, the columns “composed of semi-transparent glass backed by gold foil.”

Forty-three years later–on the day General Patton returned victorious from the war in Europe and Boston welcomed him as a hero–Beatrice Ayer Patton’s mind filled with memories as the motorcade drove by 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Her family had sold the home a long time ago, but the memories remained: the living room with the grand piano she played with remarkable skill; the foyer, which acted like a stage; the library where George had finally admitted his love; and the third-floor bedroom in which she had locked herself when her father was reluctant to give his permission to marry.

Snippet – A Magical Place Called Avalon

Thirty miles from Boston, in the Pride’s Crossing section of Beverly, stood the Ayer family’s majestic country home. Avalon was a magical place along the rocky Massachusetts’ North Shore George Patton described as “almost more beautiful than it is possible to imagine.” Completed in 1906 in a mere eight months, Avalon was named after the little town on Catalina Island, California, and the mythological place where King Arthur’s legendary sword, Excalibur, was forged.

The entrance foyer of Avalon – Beverly Public Library

The ten thousand square foot Renaissance Revival mansion featured a three-story main building flanked by two-story wings. The elliptical hallway was three stories high with a striking spiral staircase, its black-and-white marbled tiles leading to the living room which faced the ocean and measured 65ft in length and 30ft in width. A mezzanine gallery, where musicians would play regular afternoon concerts and dances, flanked the walls of the living room which contained a fireplace big enough to roast an ox. There was a library with “handsomely finished bookcases… their shelves filled with numerous rare volumes” and a room for flower arranging which included a trash-chute leading down to the basement for dead flowers.

The grounds were designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted and included a rose garden, two greenhouses, three vegetable gardens, a garage, and stables. Avalon’s most striking feature was the terrace which ran from one side of the building to the other, flanked on either side by covered verandas. When the living room windows were opened, guests were treated to unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean, which could be reached by walking down the terrace’s set of stairs and down the grassy hill.

A Garden Party at Avalon – Banning Family Collection of Photographs at the Huntington Library

In the summer of 1909, Beatrice and her family would be on the terrace breathing in the salty air when they noticed a horse approach in the distance. It was a beautiful white charger, the kind of horse the cavalry would ride into battle, mounted by Second Lieutenant George S. Patton Jr. Already a master horseman who often advised Beatrice on her riding skills, he rode up the twenty-six steps to the terrace, stopped in front of his sweetheart, and doffed his cap as he made his horse bow in front of her. 

Family holidays were spent at Avalon, where Uncle George and his brother-in-law Keith Merrill enjoyed setting off fireworks on July 4. George’s first attempt at teaching his daughter Ruth Ellen to swim was at Avalon when she was four years old. He threw her into Salem Harbor, exclaiming to an enraged Beatrice that “all little animals” swim naturally. It soon became obvious that his daughter was one little animal who did not swim naturally, so he was obliged to jump after her, ruining his new flannel pants, a horror he lamented for years to come. He repeated his performance a few years later when he threw four-year-old George into the water in front of the shocked Merrills, but his son calmly swam to shore, having learned to swim while in Hawaii.

Rear view of Avalon – Beverly Public Library.

General Patton’s Second in Command

Beatrice Banning Ayer looked like a child standing next to George S. Patton Jr. when they met in the summer of 1902. She was only so in appearance, though, because the worldly sixteen-year-old was mature beyond her years and exuded an air of confidence which dwarfed her unsophisticated seventeen-year-old escort. Unlike George, who only read about the military battles of Napoleon, Xenophon, and Caesar, Beatrice “studied history in the land where the events took place.” Her parents were avid travelers and made their home in Paris for two years — 1896 to 1898 — while they toured across Europe and the Orient. They took along their children, cultivating in them an openness to new experiences, different cultures, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Embarrassed to be seen spending the summer with a “little girl,” George tried hard to shake his charge. Beatrice, however, relentlessly followed him across Catalina Island, showing no apprehension at taking any of the risks he did and setting the tone for the rest of their lives. Underneath her frilly dress was a true tomboy with a determination which would only grow stronger over time. Her quiet composure hid a perceptiveness which easily saw through George’s boastfulness as a way to cover up his insecurities. By the time he entered West Point in 1905, Beatrice supplanted his father in offering advice and words of encouragement. Somehow she knew the perfect combination of compliments, criticisms, and suggestions to make him not feel offended, even when she stood up to him.

The Patton Family: Beatrice, George, Little Bee, Ruth Ellen, and George IV

The Ayers were capitalists and military life was alien to them, yet Beatrice never tried to rein George in even when he admitted he was “desirus [sic] of an early and glorious death.” Instead, she continuously festered the flames of his ambition and unflinchingly stepped into the unknowns of Army life. It took her a long time to learn how “to take it,” but once she did, she was able to channel her worry into worthier causes. From that point forward, a certain reputation preceded Beatrice from post to post, one which commanded respect, not because she was wealthy, but because she was kind, showed interest in others, and always stood ready to help those in need without drawing attention to herself. On the other hand, she was high-spirited and could be as unpredictable as she was sensible. Her temper was legendary — she physically had to be pulled off a Reserve Officer who insulted George — and she never forgave a slight nor forgot a grudge.

Beatrice approached life with a gusto that matched her husband’s. No one who saw the Pattons hunt together ever forgot the occasion. George would “pass by the low spots in the fence, in favor of a high place with an unknown landing on the far side,” calling out to his wife, “Come on, Bea! Do you want to live forever?” She was an accomplished sailor who twice placed second in the Woman’s National Championship, she went swimming in shark-infested waters off the coast of O’ahu, and she “nimbly” climbed into the turret of a small whippet tank when seven generals refused “with cold superiority” to join Major Patton for a demonstration. The confidence she possessed from a very young age strengthened the courage of her convictions. Pretense or underhandedness was not in her vocabulary; honesty and straightforwardness were traits possessed by all the Ayers.

Beatrice at the wheel of the Arcturus

Beatrice was devoted to her husband and kept his life in order so he could focus all his energy on reaching his destiny. She corrected his spelling, translated military papers and books from French, and taught him the art of diplomacy. He depended on her advice to make important decisions and was “apt to make mistakes of judgment” without her. Everything they did was to prepare for a moment that might or might not come; riding on the Kansas prairie, they were “disposing of imaginary troops in the folds of the hills,” on O’ahu they “made landings on beaches where the surveys told us landings were impossible,” and in 1913 France, they “reconnoitered every hill and hedgerow in Brittany and Normandy.” Beatrice turned “right-square-out-of-this-world with enthusiasm” every time she heard of another one of George’s WWII exploits, yet she was “not just an appendage of the Great Man,” but “a person in herself, with a great deal to offer.”

When Beatrice threw a cluster of ʻōhelo ʻai berries into the erupting Halema’uma’u crater on the Island of Hawaii, a gust of wind threw a branch back at her feet. Her friend Emma Ahuena Taylor, an expert on Hawaiian anthropology who was a Native Hawaiian high chiefess, explained that Pele wanted to share with her, but the Goddess of Fire was not the only one who wanted to do so. While the Native Hawaiians were reluctant to open up to foreigners out of fear of being ridiculed, they recognized in Beatrice a kindred spirit whose interest in their culture was genuine. Friends like Hamana Kalili — a local fisherman who is said to be the originator of the Shaka sign — shared with her the stories of their past, invited her to attend ancient ceremonies, and took her to hidden archaeological sites. All her research eventually led to the publication of two books: Légendes Hawaiiennes, a collection of Hawaiian legends which she translated in French as a challenge to herself, and Blood of the Shark, “a romance of old Hawaii in the days of Kamehameha the Great.”

During WWII Beatrice worked for the War Department Public Relations Women’s Interest Section. She quickly gained a reputation for being a “direct and purposeful speaker,” one who was doing “as fine and as well” in her sphere as George was doing in his. She spoke anywhere from women’s clubs to factories, packing her days “full to the brim… with every opportunity for usefulness,” “jumping around the country so constantly” that Chilly had a hard time keeping track of his sister. She urged women to get a job outside the home, part of the “ten-point regimen” she lived by in wartime, a “practical philosophy” gleaned from years of experience. Even though Beatrice only reluctantly spoke to the press, she was the perfect PR woman for her husband. She was as “magnificent in adversity” as she was “in success” and “behaved with wonderful tact and devotion” when George slapped two soldiers in Sicily.

General Patton’s homecoming on June 7, 1945

Upon his untimely death in December 1945, Beatrice was responsible for shaping General Patton, the legend. She returned to the US from his funeral in Luxembourg with the portrait he intended to give her for Christmas, his beloved bull terrier Willie, and a staggering amount of papers. For months on end, Beatrice and her brother painstakingly transcribed George’s letters and diaries and completed the manuscript he wrote in the months leading up to his death. After careful consideration, she went ahead with the publication of War as I Knew It in November 1947. Living up to the example set by George, Beatrice’s driving power increased as she grew older. She traveled the world attending ceremonies in his name, became a vocal proponent of Universal Military Training, and fought tooth and nail to prevent her husband’s grave being moved.

Beatrice Ayer Patton never wanted to be known. All she ever wanted was for people to remember her husband, “the finest, bravest, most gallant, and best-looking man who ever lived… destined for unimaginable glory.” It is undeniable, however, that she did not walk behind George Patton on his path to glory, but right next to him. There would “be no Taps at the Army wife’s funeral,” yet Beatrice was a true soldier in all but combat experience.

Snippet – The Birth of Beatrice Banning Ayer

Beatrice Banning Ayer (left) was born in one of the upstairs bedrooms at the Ayer Mansion in Lowell on January 12, 1886. She had blue eyes, blonde hair, and a little dimple in her chin just like her mother. Ellie named her daughter Beatrice not because of a family connection, but because of its meaning. Derived from the Latin Beatrix, “she who makes happy,” the Italian Beatrice was most commonly translated as “the bringer of joy and blessings.”

Frederick Ayer Jr., named for his father but known henceforth as Fred or Freddie, was born on May 7, 1888, and Mary Katharine, named for her aunt but known henceforth as Kay, was born on September 3, 1890.

Beatrice’s cosmopolitan childhood prepared her exceptionally well for life in the army. Beginning in 1896, the Ayers made their home in Paris, traveling most of the time around Europe and the Middle East. Six months were spent on a dahabiyeh sailing down the Nile, creating in Beatrice an openness to different cultures that would one day allow her to be one with the Native Hawaiians. It also awakened in her a sense of curiosity and adventure that would match her husband’s, giving her the impetus to follow him across the hunting fields of Massachusetts and the Pacific Ocean on a schooner.

“We studied history in the land where the events took place,” Beatrice remembered later, and the same went for languages. These experiences allowed her to develop into a confident and independent woman capable of thinking for herself. It enabled her to adjust to the peripatetic nature of army life and made her flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances easily. The Ayers might have been industrialists, but they raised their children in a progressive environment, free from the trappings of wealth and open to new experiences beyond the confines of Commonwealth Avenue.

Picture: Private Album