For the first fifteen years of my life, until we moved, I was able to admire a certain 8″x10″ framed photograph on a daily basis. This photo was of radio actress Bess Johnson and it always sat on my mother’s sewing machine, which resided in the corner nook of our dining space. The picture of Bess, shown below, is not the same one referred to above, which I still possess but could not locate it in time for this posting.
This blog piece will be the first part of a three-part series focused on Bess Johnson. I will begin the series with some background on the friendship that developed between Bess and my family. The second piece will provide more details about her own family history background and the final piece will focus on her career highlights. Unfortunately, I cannot pinpoint exactly when the other two pieces will be written, but I will try my best to complete them in the very near future.
Bess was born in Keyser, West Virginia, in 1901, and grew up in Elkins, West Virginia. She died in 1975, in New York City. She had attended drama school in New York. Her radio work began in 1930 and she became known as the “Queen of Daytime Radio” on serial soap opera’s such as the Hilltop House and Lady Esther. In my third part of this series, I will explore her career in greater detail.
Bess was married in 1923 to Dr. Solomon Perry. They had a daughter, Jane Orr Perry. They were divorced in 1936. Bess was granted custody of their daughter Jane and she waived alimony, stating she earned more than her husband.
Though not blood related, in our home she was fondly known as Aunt Bess. Through the years, I had been told that she was my eldest brother’s Godmother. To the best of my determination, it was about 1932 when my grandmother “Gra Gra” had sent a fan letter and it began a warm friendship between she and Bess. The letter had been sent to Bess via the National Broadcasting Company in New York City. In the letter, Gra Gra had expressed concern of why Bess had not been making her daily appearances on the Hilltop House program–for which she was known at the time. Bess had been confined by illness in her apartment when the letter reached her.
To learn more background about Gra Gra, you might like to read my previous post: Intro to Gra Gra & Volunteering at Kent Hospital.
Around 1940, Bess invited Gra Gra to be her guest in New York, which she immediately accepted. My grandmother was not a traveler, only doing so on a couple of occasions–this weekend visit to New York being one of them. Many times, as we sat at the breakfast table during my weekend visits, I would hear Gra Gra tell the story about her visit to see Bess and the lasting friendship that developed.
On June 24, 1940, my grandparents (T. Wm. and Bertha Watts) celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. At the time, they were still living in the Carr-LeValley homestead on Fairview Avenue, in the Phenix section of West Warwick, RI. According to a later newspaper article, Bess had been among those who attended the celebration. The picture shown above I believe was from a different occasion at a later date. To read more about the Carr-LeValley homestead, please see my previous post: LeValley Homestead, Fairview Ave and Moore’s Motor Service Postcard.
My grandparents moved from Fairview Avenue shortly after they celebrated that anniversary and lived for a short time on Maple Avenue before purchasing their home on South Street.
In 1941, while residing on Maple Avenue, Pop Pop got a surprise phone call on his birthday which would have been February 20th. At the other end of the line he heard a birthday-greeting song that Bess had recorded for him via a special disc. At first, he thought someone was playing a joke on him.
Over the years, Bess and Gra Gra continued corresponding and I have found some of the postcards that Bess had sent while traveling. For each of the three pieces I write in this Bess Johnson series, I will feature a different postcard received.
In March of 1941, Bess sent this featured postcard to Gra Gra when she traveled to Indian River Ranch, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. This linen postcard was published by Curteich, Chicago, it is a “C.T. Art Colortone” and was distributed by Doubleday & Co., Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The handwritten message reads: “Dear Bert, Will try to write a letter soon. Its lovely here. Jane and I are having a grand time. Its been so nice and warm. We came by train and were sore all the way. Give my best to the family. Bess.”
Later in 1941, my grandparents purchased their home on South Street, in West Warwick, where they would live out the rest of their years–pictured below, before there was a garage addition.
Bess would come to visit them at the South Street home at least twice that I have found documented, possibly more. When daughter Jane was gearing up to graduate from school in Norton, Mass., they spent several days. My mom, Marian, was noted to have accompanied them while attending a play presentation “Twelfth Night” at the school in which Jane appeared in the role of “Sir Toby”.
Here are some pictures taken during that visit, showing the large backyard garden and goldfish pool. Gra Gra and Jane are looking at the pool and Bess is relaxing in a chair for one photo while picking flowers in the other.
Below are pictures taken during a later visit, about 1952, showing my eldest brother, Mark, with the two poodles that belonged to Bess.
My mom, Marian and Jane (with the flower in her hair) are pictured below.
More pictures will be shared in the next two postings. Please be on the lookout for my second-part in this Bess Johnson series, when I explore a bit of her family history.
Until next time…