September was traditionally a month of celebrations for Marjorie Van Wickle Lyon, beginning with Labor Day when Blithewold was the gorgeous setting for Marjorie’s annual Labor Day Party. The party gathered its own reputation and became known as the last hurrah of summer for family and friends, when Marjorie’s famous martinis were liberally served. This was followed by Marjorie’s birthday on September 12th, when a smaller group would gather at Blithewold for a birthday dinner, the occasion often shared with Marjorie’s friend, Bristol architect Wallace Howe, who shared the same birthday. The blue and gold Royal Doulton “birthday china” was brought out, and during dinner the guests would read their hand-written poems in celebration.
Marjorie Randolph Van Wickle was born 130 years ago, on September 12, 1883, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Bessie and Augustus Van Wickle, were delighted. Bessie’s mother, Anna Maria Pardee, was on hand to help, along with Bessie’s older sister, Anne. Anne wrote to Bessie’s brother Frank and his wife Kate that the baby was perfect — a lovely little girl. Bessie’s brother Izzie teasingly nicknamed the new baby “Miss RanDickles,” a name that stuck throughout her childhood.
On Marjorie’s seventh birthday, in 1890, a party was held at the Van Wickle home on Madison Avenue in Morristown, New Jersey, and in 1903 Marjorie celebrated her birthday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Munich, Bavaria, on her 11-month tour of Europe.
There are few further references to birthdays until 1904, Marjorie’s 21st birthday. By then her father Augustus had died, and Bessie was happily remarried to William McKee. Sad times were over, and the glorious years of Blithewold were beginning. Bessie was already establishing her reputation as a gracious hostess, and she put all her efforts into making Marjorie’s party one that everyone would remember for a long time. Blithewold and the Gardner House were full to overflowing with houseguests. The guest list included aunts and uncles, favorite cousins, friends from school and from Boston, and at least 3 of Marjorie’s suitors. George Lyon’s name appears on the original list, but his name is crossed off — presumably because he was unable to attend. A few days after the party, George Clarke wrote to Bessie to thank her for
“a delightful visit replete with pleasure from start to finish. I shall long remember your daughter’s birthday and the charming hospitality of Blithewold.” Bessie’s old friend, Belle Grier, wrote “We shall none of us ever be able to forget all the beautiful things crowded into the days around the 12th of September, and I’m glad to have these beautiful memories to keep and go back to. I do hope you are getting rested and that you will not collapse now that it is all over. But I’m sure you must feel that it was all the greatest success possible.” Mac Sturgis, who would spend the next 10 years trying to persuade Marjorie to marry him, wrote “Didn’t we have a splendid time in Bristol? Every moment of my visit was so delightful. With kind regards to all your household and again thanking you for permitting me to share in such a joyous celebration…” Bessie’s sister Anne congratulated everyone, thanking Bessie especially for “The beautiful dinners, the tennis and golf, the delightful picnics, and ‘The Party.’ “ Gertrude Keller, Bessie’s younger sister, wrote of the many pleasures and Bessie’s kindness, “I am sure Marjorie’s birthday, the 21st, will never be forgotten.”
In 1916 Marjorie spent her birthday with her husband George on board the Canadian Pacific Railway from Lake Louise to Vancouver, at the start of their 8-month trip to the West Coast, Wyoming, and Hawaii. On September 12th they traveled through Kicking Horse Gorge, where the railway wound through tunnels and crossed the Kicking Horse River three times on its way to the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Marjorie wrote to William McKee,
“It certainly was wondrous. Going through the Kicking Horse Canyon, with the Rocky Walls sheer on either side; the river roaring beside us, and the train clinging to the side of the precipice – I’ll surely never forget it!”
September 12, 1917 found Marjorie in Columbia, South Carolina. George was at Camp Jackson helping to train new recruits for the war in Europe. Marjorie decided to look for accommodation and a job in the town, in order to be with George in his meager spare time. She arrived on September 10 and checked herself into the Jefferson Hotel. On the morning of her birthday, Marjorie found a large bouquet of flowers in her room, and when George arrived after lunch he found the room a bower of roses, “thanks to his thoughtfulness” wrote Marjorie. Later, they went to the Country Club for a special dinner and enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the pines. When Marjorie told George that it was a lovely end to her birthday, he was shocked – for he had not remembered that it was her birthday.
In September 1919, with the war over, Marjorie and George were camping with their friends Gay and Tom Pierce, hunting and fishing at Bathurst Lake, New Brunswick. On the twelfth it poured with rain and Marjorie did the family washing! She went swimming in the lake and played poker with their guide in the afternoon. Gay made fudge and a “monstrous chocolate cake with candles, ferns, and daisies round it,” and there were letters and presents from home.
In 1921 Marjorie and George were hunting in the wilderness of northern British Columbia. On September 12, Marjorie celebrated by shooting a “huge grizzly,” the biggest their Indian guide had ever seen at 9’ 4” tall. The birthday dinner that evening was ptarmigan and groundhog and, as a special treat, roasted porcupine.
Birthdays were commemorated over the following fifty years, with celebrations and dinners but few references in letters and diaries. Until September 1973, that is, when friends and family gathered together to celebrate Marjorie’s 90th birthday at Blithewold.
Marjorie Lyon on her 90th birthday at Blithewold
They came with cards and gifts and the traditional poems that had been written specially for the occasion that were read aloud during dinner. Forty five guests contributed to a tree fund to enhance Blithewold’s arboretum, and Marjorie read aloud her thank-you poem at the dinner table:
Here’s to my friends and relatives
Who’ve come from near and far
To celebrate my ninetieth,
Tell Birthdays what they are.
Thank you for your gifts to me
Those beautiful rare trees
Are just what I really wanted
My thanks on bended knees.
Here’s to my dear godchildren,
Five out of seven are here.
I struggled hard to bring them up
And my success is clear.
To those who couldn’t make it,
I’m thinking of them all.
Another time, another place,
I’ll hope to see them all!