Last Call for Belle Beach!


By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles
  Patricia 

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It was in Kansas City in 1904; Miss Beach and Lady Bonnie defeated Tom Bass and a horse named Paris, about whom we know nothing else. She would have been 29 then and Bass, whose birth date we probably can never be sure of, was at least in his 50s, at the top of his game. This had to have been a significant win for her and perhaps it gives us a good clue as to why Bass's finest mare, Blackbird Belle, in that year, became Belle Beach. Perhaps Bass foresaw Miss Beach's later being called "greatest equestrienne of her time."

Margaret Cabell Self, in her book The Horseman's Encyclopedia, said that Miss Beach was probably the greatest female rider of all time.

Now is the time for all readers who have data about Miss Belle Beach (1875-1927), of New Haven, Conn., New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, to come forward. At last the long proposed book, Belle Beach and Belle Beach, is well and truly out of the research-only stage. Though some facts remain to be found, we are staggering through a first draft. Title of the book has been changed to include And Tom Bass, because his role is so huge and vital to that of the mare and because we now can document the above mentioned show ring meeting between him and Miss Beach.

Here are some of the things we most need to know at this point about the human Belle Beach, who was born in New Haven. Did she attend elementary school there? Did she go to college? If so, where and for how long? (Writers of her time called her "well-educated" and her own work certainly suggests better than average education.) What were the circumstances of her 1912 divorce from William Charles Bain? Had they had any children, perhaps one or more who died in infancy? Was Bain, who is listed as being from South Africa, a member of one of that country's most prominent and prestigious families? What did he do after their divorce besides work as a rep for publishers of The Blue Book? (We're told that records of their divorce proceedings are stored in Newport, R.I., accessible to researchers.) How often and for what reasons was Miss Beach in England? What made Miss Beach controversial" despite her great achievements and prominence among horse people of her time? What happened to a plan she had for moving to northern Virginia to occupy the ancestral DeButts estate, presumably for a live-in riding school? What other great disappointments did she suffer in her life that may have had a part in her suicide at about the age of 50? Why did it take years for her ashes to get from Long Island to the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven? Why, despite the reverence in which we're told the horse world held her, was almost no notice taken of Miss Belle Beach's passing? Where are whatever Beach "papers" ever existed, any collection of clippings about her work, any copies of her apparently many published articles?

A whole other mass of questions exists about her sister, Frances "Franky" Beach Trombley whose very early marriage led to a lifelong rift with her mother and produced a son named Robert. He was alive - age unknown - at the time of Miss Beach's death, but one magazine tells us they "were not on terms." He would be aged now, if he still lives, and the last account we had of him was that he probably was in Ontario with his remarried father who had two other children, quite young.

This little group of questions is among our most-desired answers because they could lead to some most-needed information. It would be a long shot if anything came from this connection, because of Robert Trombley - if he is the one we want - being so young when his mother died. If anything exists in the hands of relatives, their names may not suggest any kinship with Belle Beach. The same with her friends.

Bit and Spur referred to someone - unnamed - who was taking her ashes to the Beach burial plot in New Haven, but there we've found no references to any of Miss Beach's friends.

The preceding paragraphs sound as if we are asking readers to totally research Belle Beach for us, but actually we have masses of data about her. Here are some of the things readers can dismiss, knowing that we already have them: Miss Beach's own book, Riding and Driving for Women; several of her magazine articles (one called "Show Ring Perspectives" and one called "Proper Hunt Attire for Women" though we'd like to hear the titles of any readers may know of); a book called Those Good Old Summer Days which describes life at the Newport, R.I., resorts during Miss Beach's lifetime, and is one of only a few sources which admit that she was a suicide; pictures of her on horses named Warwick, Petroleum, and Lady Bonnie; jumping sidesaddle, studio shots of her as young woman and as an older woman, arms crossed against her waist; shots of her mother, Emily Sperry Beach, sidesaddle on a horse named Beauty.

We have many short clippings from the NY Times about: her bankruptcy in 1912; the launching and success of her book, participation in a survey to find out how many needy horses lived in the city of New York, her serving a charitable event by driving a shuttle vehicle; an account of her injury, trying to stop a pupil's bolting horse. We have a NY Times report of her marriage to Bain and notice of her divorce. We have a complete genealogy of her mother's family, the Sperrys. Evergreen Cemetery gave us notations made when her ashes were received there; records from a Fish Kill, N.Y., institution tell us that her father lived there for several years and died there. Newspapers told us of the extremely tragic death of Miss Beach's brother, Walter, at 21, in the explosion of a munitions plant.

Canadian census records for the very early 1900s show the whole immediate family in Ontario, Franky with her husband and son. Another shows a Robert Trombley with a son named Robert who would be the right age to be Franky Beach's, but Trombley (if it is indeed the same man), is then married to somebody else and the father of two small children besides Robert. One genealogist told us he'd he had a forebear named Robert Trombley who had a son named Robert and two younger children by a second wife, the first having died in childbirth. So had the Beaches assembled in Ontario to be near Franky who was in a difficult pregnancy and then died there? It's something to pursue. So is a book called The Private Stable, written by James A. Garland, which we've read contains some chapters by Belle Beach on Saddle Horses. Does anyone have that book?

The most mysterious thing about Belle Beach is how she disappeared with so few traces. We've repeatedly asked readers for help and have asked every horse world elder we ever interviewed and almost none had heard of her. There has to be, somewhere, in some attic, a scrapbook about the doings of Belle Beach. There have to be some almost-elders among us who could say, "Oh yes, Belle Beach. My great, great, grandmother took riding lessons from her and she always said...,"

Our own limitations in research must be acknowledged, for they are many and great. For instance, even single copy of Horse Show Monthly, where we found some of our best data about Miss Beach, (including an almost profile which is one of our most valued sources), are hard to find. The only complete file we have located is in the Kansas City library, understandably beyond gleaning unless one can afford a lengthy stay in that city. Both time and finances prevent that from being an option for us. Traveling to the Eastern states is not possible for the same reason. We will be able to access more census records than we've now seen, and get death certificates and locate researchers in certain places where we believe data exists. We have friends who are good researchers on the internet and some genealogists who can tell us possibly fruitful places to go, but we can never say we are presenting the whole story of Miss Belle Beach. Tom Bass and the equine Belle, are other matters entirely, having been so much written of and with what exists about him centered mainly here, in Little Dixie.

Belle Beach would probably be grateful for every detail we do not find. She was by all accounts a proud and private person, who would greatly resent our delvings. We doubt that she would accept our argument that her life was so admirable and inspiring that others have a right to know about it. Maybe all we will accomplish is to stimulate deeper delving, from people better situated and equipped for it than we are. That would make it all worthwhile.

It's irresistible at this point - on the chance that our book never flies - to give readers the beginning and ending we have planned for Belle Beach and Belle Beach and Tom Bass:

The setting could not have been more perfect for relaying a mystery of the first order. We were sitting - not quite warm enough for real comfort - on hay bales near the open door of his big old barn. The bleak scene before us could have been a painting titled "Late afternoon: October." I don't know how John T. Hook was feeling, but I was sad, for I knew the interview just past would be the last of a series he'd granted in the interest of having his memoirs written. Remaining work could be done mainly by phone and letter. Though a couple more trips to Mexico might be necessary to get copy Hook had read for errors, our talks were mainly over. This was the end of something significant.

"Daughter*," he said to me, "You must be getting on. Dark will close in early tonight. But there is one thing I've planned to tell you before we ended all this, a good article idea for you. Tom Bass's famous mare was named for a far more famous horsewoman. Belle Beach was called the greatest we've ever had, past and future, at showing gaited horses and harness horses of various kinds, jumpers too. She was from a wealthy, important family in one of the Eastern states. Her ancestors had done big things in medicine and in publishing. She came from wealth and prominence, but by some means, she lost all that and was left with no resource but horses. She went into the world with only the one card and what she did with it has always seemed almost spooky to me. Her story should be told, because she was outstanding at all of it, teaching, training, exhibiting, and writing. She showed for some of the richest and most important people in this country...the Vanderbilts, Astors, Wanamakers and others who were important then, but forgotten now. When she was about 50, she killed herself. I'm sorry that I can't tell you any more than that about her, but you should research her before everyone that remembers anything about her is gone." He got up, dismissing me with a pat on the shoulder and the admonition, "Drive careful now, Daughter."

I got in my car and went home, my mind on the work I needed to do that night and the assignments that had waited while I worked with Col. Hook. He and several decades passed before I got to Belle Beach. His prediction came true: it has been almost impossible to find anyone who remembered her.


(*Hook often used this flattering endearment to me and I was much impressed until a friend laughed and said, "Don't take it too seriously. It's just one of those sweet old Southern things...doesn't mean you should ever go knocking on his door, suitcase in hand!")
***
And here is deathless conclusion I plan for my book on the Belle Beaches and Tom Bass: In his column, after Tom Bass's funeral, Will Rogers gave us an image to remember of the great trainer riding through the pearly gates on his beautiful mare, the sun's rays reflecting blindingly off her mirror-like black hide. Only a few years ago,Naida Garret, in her poem about Will Shriver, described the thunderous hoofbeats heralding his approach over the streets of gold and then his slow-gaiting past the throne. My contribution: We must acknowledge that for some of us, Heaven would not be Heaven without a nightly horse show and that the most popular pairs riders will be Tom Bass and Miss Belle Beach. They will be on the mares Belle Beach and Lady Bonnie, two glorious blacks around whom shimmers a dense radiant haze shooting out little blasts of every color in the spectrum.


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