A Mad Dash to the Library: Researching Familial Connections

The story below has been shared with Family Pictures USA by Guenevere Crum. Her journey to find her family history led her through libraries, across the country, and over the Atlantic to track down photos and family members. Her efforts spanning decades, we present to you a snippet of her findings:

(l to r) A framed photo advertising Paul Eisler's music followed by three black and white photos of family members posed in various locations
Four images hanging on the wall at her mother’s house

I started asking questions about my grandfather, my mother’s father, in 1987. My grandparents had divorced long ago and our grandfather hadn’t played any role in our lives. Just four items from that side of the family hung on the wall in our home.  That hallway set had three photographs and one ornate cover of composed music. Great Grandfather Paul had been an orchestra conductor, his wife Edith an Opera singer. My grandfather, Stefan, was one of their children. One photo showed the family in front of their apartment in Vienna, my young grandfather sitting alongside his sister in a carriage pulled by a pony. Who was everyone?  Why didn’t we still live in Vienna? How come we didn’t speak German? When did the music stop? What became of all those people?

When I asked my maternal grandmother about her family she would talk animatedly about growing up in Panama.  She could describe her own American father Robert vividly; a tenacious character who landed in the Panama Canal Zone in 1905 after applying three times for the job. With ease she could recount how he contracted every extant tropical illness and emerged each time fortified. He worked hard; met, courted and married a lovely young lady named Aura from Barranquilla, Columbia; had a family there in the “Zone”, and lived to be 100 years old. 

Robert and Aura pose in front of a car with straight faces while wearing a suit and day gown
Robert and Aura (parents to maternal grandmother)

My grandmother, the eldest of four, lived a life split between the warmth of Panama and the more chilly Northeast U.S.A. But when I inquired about the family of her ex-husband, her face radically changed, her mouth turned down in disappointment and her words came out angry. “They’re all dead!” she exclaimed. “It is all gone! There are no photographs, no music, no dresses!  All of it! Went in the trash!”, She blazed. 

“My family is enough”, she challenged.  Indeed, they were amazing. But I also didn’t believe her. 

I remembered the framed set of pictures in my mother’s hallway. I was convinced that “where there are four, there are more”.  So my Quest was reshaped as a generational jump. The focus shifted towards my great-grandparents. My Grandmother viewed this sedition as Panama vs. Vienna and as an unexpected second act to her divorce decades before.

In the time since, I have found my Grandfather’s family and it began in reference books at libraries. As I learned more about their careers, I looked into special collections, museums and newspapers and found them. As the internet grew I increasingly was able to search special archives with ease, even worldwide. 

Paul sits at a piano surrounded by eight men in tuxedos and Rosa Ponselle resting her hand on the piano
Magazine clipping with Paul Eisler

Ebay played a role in finding cited musical program scores and autographs up for bid.  I purchased a magazine clipping from 1923 that showed my Great Grandfather, Paul, seated at the piano at formal “unveiling” of German composer Richard Wagner’s piano in New York City.  Musical elites fanned around, including statuesque Met Opera Soprano star Rosa Ponselle, wearing the largest hip bouquet I have ever seen, her right hand grandly taking possession of the piano edge while Paul sits comfortably on the piano bench ready to play.

Paul Eisler stands facing photographer with his hand on a chair the photo is inscribed with a personal message
Paul Eisler

Sharing photographs and stories is an amazing way to get to know each other better and in a meaningful way.  By listening to each other and looking at each other, we appreciate both our uniqueness and our common values.  Thank you for encouraging such dialogue across communities.

The archival papers of Paul’s friend and fellow conductor, Alfred Hertz, housed at the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library at the University of California, Berkeley yielded a stunning portrait signed in 1907.

An online catalog of London’s Royal Academy of Music library noted the institution had an autograph of Paul Eisler in their collection. After some inquiries, signed forms and £6 I had my own copy of a 1905 San Francisco autograph moment preserved via archival efforts in London, England.

Edith poses with her arms outstretched in a white, embroidered gown in black and white
Edith posing in an elegant dress

My tracking down far flung family items has also yielded “new to me” cousins, some of whom do have family pictures.  This one of Edith I just received about two weeks ago, 33 years after I started this journey. I like to think her costumed presence embodies the sometimes bold and wide approach I have taken to this project.

And it all began in libraries.

, , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply