"Papa" by Geraldine Clarke Kravis
(Date unknown, presumed to have been written
in the 1960's)
Thomas Aloysius Clarke was born November 3, 1878 in a little coal mining
town, Morris Run, PA. His father, Joseph Clarke had married Mary Gilmartin
in 1874. She was a pink cheeked, blue-eyed colleen from Dublin.
Young Tom left the dreary mining country and traveled to Brooklyn before
1900. At the turn of the century he was established there and working in
an office for an iron manufacturing firm. There he met John H. McCooey,
who was to become Brooklyn Democratic boss and a life long friend.
One day at a Democratic outing he met a lovely young lady,
Nora Desmond, the youngest child of Matthew Desmond.
Grandpa Desmond had five sons and two daughters. Nora was the youngest and
her eldest brother, Dan, was twenty years her senior. ( click this
link for notes on the errors contained here)
The family lived at 449 Columbia Street in the Visitation Parish, Red
Hook, where Matthew Desmond had a coal delivery service. I've seen a photo
of 449. It showed a brick building with a pony and trap before the door.
Across the street was the stable where the Percheron horses were stabled.
They pulled the delivery wagons.
Family tradition says that Tom and Leonora met at a Democratic party
picnic in Prospect Park. Uncle Dan had hitched up the trap and drove the
two girls. He was old enough to be their father and was a stern
disciplinarian. They chose a shady spot near the bandstand and spread a
blanket on the grass and unloaded a picnic basket. Soon they were joined
by a crowd of young people, and Uncle Dan knew them all. One of these
young men was Tom Clarke. He was invited to join the girls for lunch. That
was the beginning. They were married on June 2, 1900 in the Church of the
Visitation and honeymooned on the Jersey Shore where they went by
excursion boat down the East River.
Their first home was an apartment in St. Cecilia's Parish, Greenpoint,
where Monsignor Edward McGolrick was pastor. Papa was now a contractor and
built all the parish buildings at St. Cecilia's.
I was born at 176 Seely Street, the big old fashioned house that grew and
grew down the hill. Beside it on Seely Street was the concrete bridge
which spanned Prospect Avenue in a great leap and continued west to
That year Papa took the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica and a horse and
buggy to Northport where bought the house at 158 Woodbine Avenue. It was
set on a hill with a splendid view of the harbor to the west, with
Centerport beyond and Long Island Sound to the north. Tall locust trees
dotted the steep hill which led down to the private beach and it's bath
houses, pavilion and boat basin.
It was in Northport that we all learned to swim, row a boat, paddle a
canoe and, later, sail. We had two large boats, the "Idler", a bog clumsy
sailboat and the "Leonora", a cabin cruiser. Papa also added two wings to
the house as the family grew: after Des, El and Gerry, Lee and Mary. There
was a small cottage in the rear where the gardener, Mike, lived with his
family. Further up the hill was another large house, "the rear cottage",
where Jim Byrne (a future borough president of Brooklyn) and his family
lived in the summer. Donald Byrne, the second son, was my age and my first
In 1916 Papa made his first trip to Palm Beach. Flagler had laid down the
Florida East Coast Railroad not long before and built the "Royal Poinciana
Hotel" on Lake Worth and the "Breakers" on the ocean. Papa was entranced
with Palm Beach, and over the years bought acres and acres of land in the
area. Salt water bathing was his delight. Built like Diamond Jim Brady, he
bounced like a cork in the briny deep, his blue eyes the color of the Gulf
Stream, his wavy hair curling in the sun.
Every winter we all went to Palm Beach for "the season", Christmas until
Easter. We stayed at the old Palm Beach Hotel on Lake Worth in the same
rooms overlooking the clock-golf course. Eleanor and I had started school
at St. Francis Xavier's Academy on Carroll Street, Brooklyn, and then
Marymount in Tarrytown. No matter if we missed school for three months! It
was "for our health". Mother always reminded that Papa's sister, Elisha,
had died of TB at 37, leaving six children.
In 1925 when El and I were in boarding school at Marymount, Mother, Papa
and Lee were staying at the old Palm Beach Hotel. A careless smoker tossed
a cigarette out the window of the Breakers Hotel. The frame building was
soon blazing merrily away. The sparks were carried by the ocean breeze to
the old Palm Beach Hotel and within a short time both wooden structures
were smoldering ash heaps. Fortunately, it was mid-afternoon. Mother
grabbed her sable cape, jewel box, Papa's papers and she and Lee ran
outside with the other guests. When Papa returned from his daily drive in
the Everglades with the chauffeur driven Cadillac touring car, the smoking
ruins were sad to see.
It must have been then that Papa decided to build his own hotel. Luckily,
he owned a nice piece of land on Sunrise Avenue. That's where he would put
it! His architect, Mortimer Dickerson Metcalf, designed a suitable Spanish
style building, and since there was a fine piece of property next door and
no Catholic Church in Palm Beach (you had to take a ferry to West Palm
Beach or cross Lake Worth by bridge to St. Ann's) a group of Catholics
banded together to raise funds for a church. So T. A. donated the land,
and the architect designed the church to blend nicely with the hotel.
Joseph Kennedy and Colonel Bradley, who owned the Beach Club (a gambling
casino), all contributed.
To this day the Palm Beach Hotel still stands next to the church with tall
coconut and royal palms grown tall before it while bougainvillea vines,
lavender and mauve, climb up the Spanish columns.
Papa had a good friend, Billy Finley, who was a paralyzed victim of polio,
so the whole building was accessible to the handicapped with ramps and
After Papa's death in 1935, his estate was handled by Chase Bank. The
hotel was kept in the estate, and we children were allowed to spend "the
season" there, gratis.
In 1935 Papa's doctor sent him to the hospital for tests. In ten days he
was dead. It was May, 1935 and he was 57.
I remember him for his generosity. He loved people and could not bear to
eat alone. He invited everyone to the hotel. Priests and bishops flocked
there. The nuns at Marymount knew well his openhandedness, as well as the
convent at Béziers, France, where he donated money for central heating and
bathing facilities for the nuns where they had only medieval plumbing.
When I was a novice and he asked what I wanted for my first feast day,
Rev. Mother answered for me, "a grotto". It still stands behind the old
buildings of Marymount Academy with Bernadette kneeling in the grass
looking up at the beautiful lady dressed in white. Beyond are the blue
Tarrytown lakes and the rolling Pocantico hills.
Canon law says the "dot" or dowry which each postulant brings into the
convent must be returned to her after leaving. After I left the convent in
1935, Rev. Mother sent a letter to Papa asking if the convent could keep
the $5,000 dowry which I had brought with me. I opened the letter and
wrote to her for Papa saying that she might not keep the money. She sent
it to Papa, and he gave it to me.
When I broke my wrist, Dr. McGuire pulled and yanked it to no avail, and I
was sent home. The next day Mother took me to the Post Graduate Hospital
in New York where I spent the night and where they attempted to set the
wrist again. The results were ugly. Back in school, my wrist in a cast, I
had to dictate my final exams. I flunked geometry, but did half the class,
so I didn't feel too bad.
I graduated from the Academy in 1928. I was 18. My dear friend was Mme.
Loyola, the most beautiful, talented and sainted nun I have ever known. I
told her I would like to be a nun. She guided, counseled and encouraged
me, and Mother and Papa were delighted. After a beautiful summer in
Northport where I walked to daily Mass at St. Philip Neri (Papa had build
(sic) the parochial school) I collected my trousseau, sewed on innumerable
name tags and packed a steamer trunk with linen to last a lifetime. On
September 8, 1928 Mother and Papa drove me to Tarrytown. It was a three
hour trip. Jericho Turnpike to the 59th Street bridge, up Broadway to
Tarrytown. There we met Mother Butler in the parlor. Tea was served and
finally I said good-by to Mother and Papa. They were tearful and proud. I
was escorted to the Novitiate where I received the black postulant's cap
with a dozen other girls and began a new life.
In those days Canon Law prescribed the number of visitors for postulants
and novices; few indeed and none during Advent or Lent. Writing home was
also severely limited. After six months postulancy we received the holy
habit and our name in religion. Mine was "Marie Delores". Parents were not
present for the reception of the holy habit but came to visit in the
afternoon. The habit was of heavy blue serge with a coif of starched white
linen which, stiff as a board, griped the face in a vise, cutting off
one's vision to "port and starboard". A white linen pellerine covered
one's bosom. Thankfully, this medieval habit has been discontinued
following Vatican II.
Papa was mesmerized by the nuns and completely so by Mother Butler, the
General. Before my first feast day, when he and Mother were visiting me in
the formal parlor, Her Reverence breezed in and joined us. "So what do you
want for your first feast day, Gerry?" said Papa. I paused modestly,
racking my brain. My first thought was "steak and mushrooms". Mother
Butler announced, "I know just the thing, Mr. Clarke. A grotto of Out Lady
In due time the grotto was built, and for the dedication ceremony Papa's
friends: Monsignor McGolrick from St. Cecilia's parish in Greenpoint and
Father William Duffy of the "Fighting 69th", whose statue is in Times
Square, where there for the dedication. The grotto was a towering stone
wall, the Virgin perched in a niche looking down on the little peasant
Bernadette, kneeling below. The college choir, all the nuns and novices
were present and I carefully placed in the back row. There were prayers
and songs. Finally the clerics were ushered into the front parlor with the
other guests where the lay sisters served tea and cocktails. The nuns sat
modestly without partaking.
After an hour when the clerics had imbibed well, it was time to leave.
Papa and Mother embraced me; they and Monsignor moved to the door. "Where
is Father Duffy?" we asked one another, mystified. Eventually we
discovered him prone on the front lawn, fast asleep.
After the year of Novitiate we took our first vows and the white veil of
the novice was changed to the black veil of the professed nun. The we
received our marching orders: some to the classroom in various local
schools. I was sent with several others to the Mother House in Béziers,
Papa offered to pay my own way. We sailed, second class, spent several
days in the Paris house and eventually arrived in Béziers, Hérault, a
mediocre town noted for inferior wine, where the foundress had started the
first house. I spent two years there. It was grim… we baked in summer,
froze in winter and ate poor food with an inch of inferior red wine,
watered, at dinner. We bathed in porcelain basins beside out beds,
screened by curtains.
After several months I approached the Mistress of Novices and said "My
father gave my elder sister $1,000 for her 21st birthday. He would do it
for me, too, and we could put in a bath tub--!" After much deliberation
between the Novice Mistress and the local Superior, it was finally decided
that I should write to Papa with my request. In due course a local banker
arrived with a check for $1,000. A bath tub with water heater was
installed near the dormitory, and once a week water was heated and each
novice was allotted a half hour to luxuriate in a warm bath. Money was
left over to install a heating system in the novices wing. Never had money
been so well spent.
After two years in the Mother House I was sent to the new house in Rome,
355 Via Nomentana, which had just been opened - an elegant palazzo for day
and boarding students. Those were beautiful days, and I began teaching:
English, French, American history, anything; we were a small community of
Mother and Papa came to visit me during the summer via a ship to Naples,
before the days of air travel. Mother stayed at the convent, but Papa had
to be content with the Hotel Excelsior. He hired a town car with an
English speaking chauffeur, and they saw all the sights.
One evening he walked with me on our roof where we strolled after the sun
had set over the Apennines. He must have thought I had the wisdom of
Solomon. He asked, "What am I going to do with Desmond" (my older brother)
"he has broken every commandment except 'Thous shalt not kill'." There was
a long silence while I tried to think of something to say. I was at a loss
for words. I mumbled something about God and mercy. I even thought of St.
Augustine and his mother, St. Monica. We watched the sun go down and heard
the bells of Rome ringing out.
Soon it was the day of their departure for Naples and the return voyage.
All the nuns gathered to say good-by in the anti camera. I kissed Mother;
she was stoical. I kissed Papa, and he started to cry. Big sobs shook him.
I was speechless; I had never seen him cry. He was so proud of me. I felt
very small. They got into the big town car. The chauffeur drove away. The
big iron gates clanged shut.
Three years later I was on my way to the U.S. when the nuns decided I did
not have a vocation to the religious life. I went back to the house on
Seeley Street to Mother. Papa was in Palm Beach and asked me to come to
meet him there. I went by train and met him at the Hotel in Palm Beach. He
looked old and tired. He had suffered financially during the Depression.
We motored to New York with a chauffeur. He doctor sent him to the
hospital for tests. I went to see him there and asked him if he wanted to
see the Catholic chaplain to make his Easter duty. This done, he seemed to
lapse into a coma. He died May 29, 1935. In his will, he did not forget
me. He was generous to the end.
Mother died six weeks later.
When I went back to Ireland, I always remembered Papa and Mother. Although
they had both been born here, their roots were in the Old Country.
What was memorable about T.A.? As his child I remember first his
extraordinary generosity to me. He was a gold mine. I had only to ask to
receive. Perhaps he was touched by the idea that I had become a "Bride of
Christ" - the Irish always fall for that!
Note: Geraldine refers to her
mother's father as "Matthew Desmond". This was an error, her mother's
father was Timothy Desmond, not Matthew Desmond, who was her mother's
brother. Geraldine refers to her mother as "Nora". Her proper name was
Honora Desmond. Daniel Desmond, her mother's brother, was actually 21
years older than her mother, Nora.