Sears by Sargent

eleonora-sears.jpgEleonora Randolph Sears by John Singer Sargent (1921)

John Singer Sargent and Eleonora Sears are both favorites of mine, and so I was delighted to discover their paths crossed in 1921, when Sargent wrote to Sears asking her if she would sit for a drawing, and she accepted. Ethel Barrymore, the actress, wrote of her friend Eleo, “She has more charm than anybody I ever met and a devastating smile that Sargent caught so marvelously in his drawing of her.”

Sargent had sketched Barrymore as well, and she described the session: “He was delightful, humming around the room while he worked. He would sit down occasionally while in the midst of the drawing and play little snatches on the piano and then come back to his work again.”

Sargent was a great artist and a lucky guy. Eleonora Randolph Sears was a fitting subject and a remarkable person.

She came into the world in 1881, the daughter of a shipping and real estate tycoon. Born into wealth and the highest strata of society, she could pretty much do whatever she wanted to do, and she did a great many things that others felt she should not do.

She rode, bred and trained show horses all her life. She rode in steeplechases. On a bet one winter’s morning in 1912, she drove a four-in-hand coach down Fifth Avenue, shocking the fraternity of coachmen. During a 1912 stay in California, she won a quarter horse race in San Diego and fielded a women’s polo team at the Hotel Del Monte on the Monterey peninsula.

At the Burlingame Country Club, south of San Francisco, she rode out onto the “men only” polo field and asked if she could join in a practice session with the visiting British international team; she was rebuffed, and almost lost her membership because of this outrage. And because she was wearing breeches and riding astride at the time, a local mother’s club passed a stern resolution: “Such unconventional trousers and clothes of the masculine sex are contrary to the hard and fast customs of our ancestors. It is immodest and wholly unbecoming a woman, having a bad effect on the sensibilities of our boys and girls.”

On the water, Miss Sears skippered a yacht that raced Alfred Vanderbilt’s Walthra, and won. She also raced speedboats. In the water, she was the first person of either gender to swim from Bailey’s Beach to First Beach in Newport, Rhode Island, a distance of 4½ miles.

With two different partners, she won the U. S. women’s doubles tennis championships in 1911, 1915, 1916 and 1917. She won the mixed doubles title in 1916. It is said that she scandalized the crowd every time she rolled up her sleeves to play.

In 1928, at the age of 46, she won the first national women’s squash title. (The first time she ever picked up a squash racquet, in 1918, she beat the “ablest male player in Rye, New York.”)

She was an excellent golfer. She played baseball. She played football (as the fullback). An accomplished skater, she played hockey. She also tried boxing, and was one of New England’s best trap shooters.

She was one of the first women to fly in a plane (in 1910 with pilot Claude Grahame-White) and to race a car. In the summer of 1913, she was summoned to appear in court for driving a “high-power roadster” on the roads of Massachusetts. The police presented the summons at Miss Sears’ home, presumably because they could not catch her on the open road.

One might think, given this recitation of athletic prowess, and her more than 240 sporting trophies, that Miss Sears was a tomboy, or even a tad mannish, but in fact, she was a great beauty and, after dark, every inch the socialite. She was unfailingly popular among the elite of Boston and New York, and frequently topped the Best Dressed list. (In 1909, she was known as “the best-gowned woman in America.”) During a visit to Boston in 1924, the Prince of Wales was so charmed by Sears that he spent most of the night as her dancing partner.

Ethel Barrymore wrote about a time she stayed with Eleo. “In the evenings at Beverly Farms when I had to stay indoors and play the piano for Mr. and Mrs. Sears, Eleo would be on the porch with a beau. I never knew anybody who had so many beaux and such nice ones, but she never married anybody.”

Some have suggested that she preferred the company of women, but one must consider the possibility that she simply never met a man who could keep up.

Along that line, she was known for her walks. Her “customary walk” was from Providence to Boston, a distance of 44 miles, which she covered in about 10 hours. She once walked from Newport to Boston, 73 miles, in 17 hours. During her California visit of 1912, she walked from the Burlingame Country Club to the Hotel Del Monte, 109 miles, in 41½ hours. In France, she walked 42 miles from Fontainebleu to the Ritz Bar in Paris in 8½ hours. In 1934, in her fifties, she walked 35 miles to call on one friend, and 23 miles to call on another.

I have suggested that no man could keep up with her, but there was an exception. Usually when she walked, she was followed by her chauffeur, who drove along behind with a thermos and sandwiches.

Eleonora Sears died in 1968. She could have lived a life of pampered indolence, but she would have none of it. She blazed a trail for women in sports; she epitomized the spirit of independence.

John Singer Sargent’s sketch of Eleo, charcoal on paperboard, survives her. In 2005, it sold at auction for $96,000. What a steal.


50 thoughts on “Sears by Sargent

  1. I have written a biography of Eleonora Sears which I hope will find a publisher soon. My father worked for Miss Sears for many years. You have provided an excellent synopsis of her life here. Do you know for a fact that Sargent invited Eleo to sit for him. I have been trying for a while with no success to get some background for that portrait. Thank you.

  2. I will have to check my notes, which are either in a pile of paper here at home, or in a folder at work. I can’t recall exactly where I learned that, but I will let you know by Monday.

  3. A note for Ms Franck – I have been interested in Ms Sears since I was boy. My grandfather, Albert F. Simms worked for her as head gardener on her estate in Beverly Farms, MA, in the ’50’s and ’60’s. He lived on the estate in the gardener’s cottage below the stables, and as a boy I visited often, amazed by the gardens and stables, and occasionally slipping out onto Ms Sears’ tennis courts for some play! I also enjoyed tripping around the estate with Grandpa in his Sears-issued maroon truck (as I recall all her vehicles were maroon!). She was quite elderly by then, and I only met her a couple of times, but she was a striking woman even then. What role did your father play in working for Ms. Sears? I’m sure he must have known my grandfather. I am very interested in your manuscript – please let me know if you succeed in finding a publisher (I hope you do!). F. N. Simms,

  4. Dear Mr. Winship,

    Eleo Sears sounds like a truly compelling figure; courageous, independent, fun-loving, stylish. Has Peggy Franck indicated to you whether she has found a publisher for her Eleo Sears biography? Please respond to my email address and/or feel free to provide my contact info to Peggy Franck.

    Thank you,

    M. W. Nugent

  5. My mother, Sandy Glynn, rode show horses for Miss Sears in the late 50’s and 60’s. She adored her and has wonderful stories about her. I am sending this picture to her as she is a great fan of Sargent’s in addition to Miss Sears! Thank you for this.

  6. Thought you might like to know that I spoke to my mother tonite and she was thrilled to received the drawing of Miss Sears — she told me how she remembered her wearing her hair swept up like that, all the time, even in her later years. That she was the most marvelous dresser – always sporty, not formal – but would wear beautiful jewelry every day. My mother said Eleo’s jewelry was always immaculate – her pearls and diamonds, everything was perfect and clean. And that she wore Chinese pajamas as evening wear. My mother said “she was the real deal!” Her tales of driving with her in Boston though are terrifying – she said the rules of the road did not apply to Eleo!

    My grandfather played polo in Skaneateles – I have no idea where, but it was a place he mentioned often when he told his polo stories. Perhaps they still play polo there? I traveled with him much as a kid – because of polo – we went to Saratoga, Westchester, Greenwich, and Long Island, but he never took me to your town.

    Okay, enough said. How funny to find a fan of Eleo, she is such a rare being and my mother was truly surprised and pleased that people were still talking about her.

  7. Thank you so much for these additional stories. I so wish I’d known her. Indeed, polo is still played in Skaneateles, Sunday afternoons in July and August, and the Skaneateles team plays in Aiken and in Florida. I wish I knew more about its early history here.

  8. Hi Kihm: I just found your blog post and was intrigued since I had done similar research on Eleanora Sears for my blog. (I’m working on a book about Boston in 1905, and Eleanora was one of the interesting characters I turned up.) I enjoyed reading your post, and the comments of Peggy Franck and others. You can read the comments on my post for input from some others who knew (or knew about) Eleanora.

  9. We honored Eleo “ä tiny bit” at first ever woman’s snow polo tournament in world history.

    FEM Snow Polo
    iP polo history .. .Aug. 25, 2007

    St Moritz – Bariloche – Aspen are the three official Sister Cities. Three elite, jet set destinations. Three world class cities with three of the world’s best ski slopes. Three Sister Cities united by style and now snow polo. Exactly, 160 days after Aspen’s 2007 winter ski and snow polo season, Bariloche, just like her other elegant sister city St Moritz, will write a chapter of snow polo history.

    Bariloche, by invitation only, is hosting a roaster of international polo glamour. Women from Kenya, South Africa, Spain, Hawaii, Galapagos, Colombia, USA , Italy, and France will join the Bensadon Heguy sisters , Maria and Ines , who will play for El Paraiso and represent Argentina at FEM Snow Polo.

    Only one talented player will win the special ELEO 2007 award named after Eleonora Randolph Sears, the first woman who dared break the rules by playing on a man’s polo team in 1912,. The honor and an important gift will be awarded to the woman polo player who scores the World’s Very First Goal in a FEM Snow Polo Tournament.

    Eleonora deserves much more recognition in women’s, sport’s, and 20th century history books. I can’t wait to read the book !

  10. My biography of Eleo Sears will be published in July. Its title is “Prides Crossing: the Unbridled Life and Impatient Times of Eleonora Randolph Sears.” It will be well illustrated and the cover, still in the design phase, will feature the Sargent charcoal portrait.

    (To Dan Sears–My apologies for not replying promptly to your post. I missed it.

  11. Dear Ms Franck,

    I would be interested to know if your research on Eleonora Sears turned up any information on her brother, Frederick Richard Sears.

    I look forward to reading your book when it is available.

    Thank you.

    Eleanor Lonske

  12. I see on Amazon the I can pre-order your book which will be available in Sept. 2009. I will look forward to it.

    My mother grew up in Beverly Farms. Her father Matthew Smith worked for Ms Sears as the head groom (at least that is what I have been told.) Matthew was a handsome man who was born in Ireland but no one knew when. The word was that he was older than he said and looked much younger than his true age. There was some intimation that he was helpful to Ms Sears in many ways — only gossip.

  13. Hello Jane-
    So neat to hear from you. It so happens that I have a tale about Matthew “Gus” Smith in the book. I know he had a place at 33 Hale Street. He was a groom for Henry Clay Frick and trained horses at Myopia and polo ponies for Frederick Prince. I also understand he was a sextant at St. John’s church.

    I’m curious about the “helpful” part. I greatly doubt any intimations of intimacy. The book will explain why.

  14. Imagine taking a trip along memory lane and finding that my cousin Fred Simms was blogging in the last year of his life! Figures he’d remember Miss Sears’ trucks – seems that most of the old photos of Fred and my dad, Bob Simms were taken with some vehicle they were proud of! I remember the gardens and greenhouses, along with the wonderful doll house our grandparents lived in. Pocket doors to the living room, with it’s built in book cases and bay windows, the ivy wallpaper in the dining room, the claw foot tub and pull chain toilet, the cool veranda… I still dream about being there! Guess it wasn’t perfect from a grownup point of view, though. Grandpa used to grouse about “the French woman’s” insistence that the green beans be picked when they were ridiculously tiny and Grandma resented the sink being set so low in the kitchen. It was just right for me.
    I only caught a glimpse of Miss Sears once as a kid, but it’s fun to learn about her – thanks for researching and writing.

  15. What a fascinating piece of history furnished by the authors and the column’s responders. It’s great to get a researched and informed glimpse of Eleo’s life and those close to her. I look forward to getting a copy of the book when it comes out!

  16. I remember Ms. Sears with her driver Tom on Byron Street. There was a truck blocking her driveway. The driver of the truck refused to move. Eleo got out of the car with Tom still in the front seat, after a few choiced words from Eleo, the Truck moved. Another funny moment was Tom washing her 1954 4door Mercedes convertable outside 4-5 Byron Street. It was pouring rain. I asked Tom why was he washing the car in the rain, all he said Ms. Sear told me to”I understood.
    After the estate was settled I purchased the “Ballroom” 4-5 Byron St.
    In the wine cellar we found all her personally papers l. The First National Bank of Boston who handled the estate didn’t want them. There were letters from Churchill informing her that she needed a safe place to live in during the war. Byron St was built about that time with 3 foot concrete floors and a huge sub level wine cellar. She closed all her other houses at that time and moved into Byron. There were many personal letters from Eleaner Roosevelt, which I loved.
    Plus all her checks stubs. She kept a running balance of $100,000 in her checking account.
    A writer from NYC who was writing about Ms. Sears arrived and asked to see the papers. After many a week of going through everything he asked to borrow everything for research. That was the last time I saw or heard from Burt Goldblatt and the suits cases. I was in contact with Mrs. Gendron, the “Madame” who had no interest what happened . I’m so happy to see the Ms. Sears will live on.

    • I am sorry to hear about the loss of th papers? You mention a Mr. Goldblatt – is he still in NYC? Have you seen the papers show up anywhere on the web? best, tricia moody, manchester

    • Do you have any more stories about Tom? He is a distant relative and I would love to tell my grandmother these stories. Thanks for sharing!

      • Hi Carley, It’s so good to hear from people who had a personal connection to Eleo Sears and to Thomas Greene. A while back I had some enjoyable correspondence with one of his grandsons. All the stories I gathered about Tom, and there are many, are in the book, Prides Crossing. I think he was a very fine man and was very good at his job.

  17. Mr. Goldblatt has passed on. I am in contact with his wife, but she has yet to unearth most of his research material, which he began collecting in 1985 when many more of Eleo’s friends were still alive. The more I hear about what is lurking unseen in his files, the sadder I get. Mrs. Goldblatt was able to find and send me some photos, and one especially nice one made it into my bio of Eleo.

    I also have a lot about 4-5 Byron Street in the book, which will be out at the end of September. The publisher is Commonwealth Editons. I’ll have a website up in a few weeks which will have Eleo Sears-updates, photos, and more. I’ll be doing a “lecture” on Eleo and a book signing at the Boston Athenaeum on Oct. 7.
    If anyone will be in the area at that time and would like an invite, let me know.

  18. I would love to come to the lecture. You you be kind of enough to send me the web address.

    On the subject of 4-5 Byron St. The building was built as a bomb shelter. One of the letters Mr Goldblatt took was from Winston Churchill suggesting that she build a building the would withstand air attacks. I know during the war she closed all homes and moved into the “Ballroom” (4-5 Byron) When I moved from the ballroom, the new owner threw everything out. Since the main room was 40 x 40 ft and the ceiling 28 ft high, all the furniture was custom made. The great 7 foot chandelier, with the Sears crest was chopped up and thrown out the window. When I lived there everything was as Miss Sears left it. The only thing I kept was Tom’s driving cap.
    If you ever get hold of the suitcase Mr Goldblatt stole, you will also find some very personal letters from Eleanor Roosevelt. Also there were letters from the British Royal family.

  19. Hi Peter,

    If you would like to contact me through my website , (the site is still a bit of a work-in-progress), I’ll arrange for my publisher to mail you an invitation. It would be wonderful to get to meet you. You might come wearing Tom’s cap so I’ll know you instantly. Re: the suitcase, I believe that where there is life there is hope, so I remain hopeful that it will eventually see the light of day.

  20. It is with shock and dismay that I read Peter and Peggy’s correspondence. I did so after I was taken aback about reference to the suitcase at Peggy’s wonderful book signing event at the Boston Atheneum on October 7th

    Where this assertion that my late husband Burt Goldblatt “stole” that suitcase, described by Mr McNamara came from, I do not know. I do know that it is not true and that the story of that case was very different.

    I worked with Burt on this biography. He worked terribly hard on this with my total involvement. I clearly remember the issue about that suitcase, an item which Burt would have loved to have but, could not afford to purchase. This item was not loaned or given to him. He never saw it. He just knew it existed for a hefty price. He had enough material without the letters. All researchers want to see more but, he had to do without this. If anyone wishes to discuss this further, I will gladly do so.

    My husband author and co-authored a large number of quality books for major publishers. It is very hurtful to have to deal with this. I cannot ignore this.

    Bravo to Peggy for a job well done. The book is really impressive for it’s thoroughness and honesty

    Katherine Holzman-Goldblatt

    • I’m Letting you know I have contacted the Boston Police and getting the Police report plus have retained a lawyer. After these statements you have made I plan on taking you to court.

  21. I want to thank Kathy H-G for her help and enthusiastic support for my work on Eleo’s story–Prides Crossing. Completing the book feels like a culmination of the efforts of all the people through the years, including Kathy and her husband Burt, who fell under Eleo’s spell. About 450 people came to my talks and book signings in Boston, with more on waiting lists. I bet Eleo was looking on and smiling.

  22. I was a little taken back by the comment from Goldblatt. Burt Goldblatt came to Boston, I met him and he asked to borrow the suitcase. I was not alone, at the time, and the person who was with me at the time now lives on the Cape and remembers him taking the case also. One thing I forgot he gave us each a Coffee Table size sports book that he published for letting him him borrow the papers.
    What I wanted to let you know these stolen letters are showing up on e-bay. I found another today. Type in Eleo Sears and you should find them. I police report was filed, when calls were not returned. The person who is selling the letters stated that he heard these were stolen.

  23. I did some research today and talked to three neighbors who stiill live on Byron Street and remember me talking about Burt’s visit and how he was lent the papers. I was very excited that finally someone was finally giving Ms Sear her credit.

  24. I am a journalist/author/editor in Albany, New York and…..a descendant of Eleanora Sears–so says my father, Herbert Sumner Sears and his father, Herbert Victor Sears, both of Saugus, Massachusetts.

    I am writing a series of books about the Sears Family and would be very interested in corresponding with any and all of you who have a connection with Eleanora and any other member of my family, past, present or future.

    My father is soon to be 84 years old and has always regretted the feud between his father and Eleanora, that apparently split the family apart, never to associate with one another again. As a writer–and one of the first women journalists of the Boomer Generation, I am especially perturbed that I never got to know–or even meet–Eleanora. I was 13 when she died, an age when she would have made a big impression on me.

    Relatives and friends, please write to me–I really want to know you!

    Pat Sears Doherty

  25. Was William Braun the one who purchased 4-5 Byron st from Eleanora Sears Estate? William Braun also owned 71 Beacon Street as well as other buildings in the neighborhood. I would consider Mr. Braun, a pack rat, who never disposed of any thing. Mr Braun packed the basement storage area of 71 Beacon St. floor to ceiling with all kinds of “junk”. Would it have been possible that it was not a suitcase, but a Camphor Wood trunk that contained materials that once belonged to Eleonora Sears?

  26. Braun did purchase the building from the estate. In the wine cellar there was a light brown leather suit case with the Sears papers. Braun showed me the papers one day and told me that a writer from NYC was coming to look at them. He asked me what I thought they were worth. The Boston City Clerk at that time lived at 71 Beacon was also there when the writer arrived.
    He claim he had no money to buy the papers so Braun lent them to him.

    Braun contacted me, since I was living in NYC, to see if I could find him. His number had been disconnected.

    All I remember about the guy was that he had written a book on Baseball and I believe his first name was Bert.

    The former City Clerk did confirmed this.

  27. Hi all,
    Jim Patrolous lived at 4-5 Byron Street for a time and while there came into possession of numerous items that had belonged to Eleo–draperies, sheet music, photos, letters, etc. He established a website as an Eleo-tribute/ advertisement for what he had. I know he put some of the items on eBay. He and I were in contact for a while, as I hoped to get access to the material for my book, but he has dropped out of sight. He had told me he was quite ill, so he may have died.

  28. Peggy
    I purchased the property at 71 Beacon that included the storage area in which Braun and Patrolous packed floor to ceiling. Braun had moved out of 4-5 Byron St and lived in one of the upper floor units in 71 Beacon St. I would guess that he used this basement area to store articles from 4-5 Byron St. I do remember an unframed graphite sketch by Sargent, that was in with a bunch of papers. these papers had some correspondence between Eleanora Sears and John Sargent.
    I did change the locks upon purchasing the property from the Bank of Boston. I know that Braun and Patrolous had tried to gain entry to the building on occasion, and were unsuccessful in there attempts. Let me look around a bit and let me see what i can find.

  29. Peggy
    I started to sort through some of the things, about 2%,
    that were stored in the basement of 71 Beacon St.
    I did manage to find some stuff relating E. Sears.
    Do you know how to get in touch with Bill Braun?

  30. Dear Dr. J,

    I remain ever interested in all things Eleonora. I was never in touch with Bill Braun through all the years I worked on her biography and I’m sorry that I don’t know how he might be contacted. Do keep me in the loop about what you turn up. Eleo’s cousin John Sears in Boston has an ‘Eleo’ archive that he opened to me, among other researchers, and he is always interested in adding new material. I believe that there would be some tax benefit attached to material contributed to the archive, as it is church-related .

  31. I Google Imaged Eleo by Sargent because of a book, “The Eighty-Dollar Champion – Snowman, The Horse that Inspired a Nation” by Elizabeth Letts. She describes Ms. Sears in some detail – many of the items mentioned on this site. Snowman, the subject of the book, competed against some of Eleo’s horses. The book is a good read about life in the 50’s (for the haves and the have-nots).

      • Diana,

        I came by way of this blog after reading “The Eighty-Dollar Champion – Snowman …” – my book club read for January (2013), which first took me to Peggy Franck’s blog. I was initially intrigued with Ms. Sears but I can now say, I’m truly fascinated with her. I’m also a fan of John Singer Sargent and I too, Googled both Ms. Sears and JSS to view the drawing. Just an aside, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had a spectacular exhibition of JSS’s work back in 1999 which introduced me to the painter. I’m anxious to read Peggy Franck’s book on Ms. Sears, which I just reserved from my local library – thank you all for your interesting posts … and I’ll be curious to read how the “borrowed suitcase” unfolds.

    • Diana, That’s exactly how I came to this blog via Peggy Franck’s. I’m in the part of the book describing Eleo Sears at the Piping Rock Club horse show. How interesting!

  32. Ms. Letts states in her fine book that prize money was “irrelevant” to Eleonora Sears, as she didn’t need the money and particpated for the love of the sport. True, Eleo Sears loved horse sports, but she most definitely enjoyed receiving the purse money won by her horses, which offered a concrete measure of victory.

  33. Walk West Beach in Beverly Farms quite often. Recently found a well worn metal tag within view of Eleonora’s estate at the Prides Crossing end of West Beach at the low tide mark. The information stamped on the tag is:
    148 BEACON ST.

    • I, too, had seen that estate auction of ERS items. Months earlier many bills and receipts, mostly for purchases she made in Europe, had been put on sale. I don’t know who the consignor/consignors are, but I do know that it is not a family member and that the family is not at all happy about it. They did acquire the travel diary kept by her brother, but the other items have gone to unknown bidders.
      Peggy M. Franck

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