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An Era That Has Gone III

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The Henshaw siblings, with the matriarch and grand matriarch of the family. From the left, G. Herbert Henshaw, Sarah Henshaw Childs, Cornelia Middagh Henshaw, George Henshaw Childs, Sarah Middagh Gracie, Cornelia Gracie Henshaw, and Walter Percival Hensha
The Henshaw siblings, with the matriarch and grand matriarch of the family. From the left, G. Herbert Henshaw, Sarah Henshaw Childs, Cornelia Middagh Henshaw, George Henshaw Childs, Sarah Middagh Gracie, Cornelia Gracie Henshaw, and Walter Percival Hensha
(Image by Museum of Brooklyn Art and Culture archives.)
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The sudden passing of Frederic under less than gentile circumstances elicited from surviving family members the full range of mixed feelings and conflicting emotions. Left with the task of writing an obituary, Herbert, who for somewhat over a decade had been editor of Brooklyn Life, a weekly publication serving the Brooklyn Heights community, penned only a brief missive, which spoke mountains for what it did not say. In stark contrast with traditional custom, it failed to mention Frederic's familial connections to the Brooklyn Heights patrician class, including his father's graduation from Princeton in the mid-1800s. There was an air of nonchalance in its brevity, as if the death was of only passing consequence. Although no teetotaller himself, Herbert must have known about his brother-in-law's drinking habit, and could not have reacted well to it, as his sister bore the brunt of its consequences.

On the other hand, Esther herself, having been married to the man for some 18 years, could not but have been broken-hearted, and memories of the past, the weight of which urged many a tear to flow, must have accompanied her preparations for Frederic's funeral. Memories of their wedding day, the birth of their first and only child, their outings on Long Island at the beaches, and excursions on the family yacht, must have balanced some of the less auspicious events they endured together.

Esther Holt Henshaw, later Middlebrook, Nancy's mother, around 1895.
Esther Holt Henshaw, later Middlebrook, Nancy's mother, around 1895.
(Image by Museum of Brooklyn Art and Culture archives.)
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Even among the close relatives and friends of the deceased, there was, no doubt, a shared sadness. Frederic, for all of his problems, had been a man of some accomplishment. For that life to have ended at a relatively early age and so unexpectedly must have been greeted with at least as much pain as relief.

Surviving her son must have been a source of pain to Emily Congdon Middlebrook. No mother worth the title wants or expects to survive her children. The matriarch of the Middlebrooks, who had already outlived her husband by some 15 years, must have felt the loss deeply. And observing as her somewhat frail and sensitive granddaughter was suddenly exposed to the shock of losing a parent, Emily must have thought of the affection daughter and father shared. Nancy herself must have harbored some affection for Frederic, beyond the resentment she is said to have expressed from time to time when provoked by her father's habitually inebriated state. At least she must have contemplated her father's many lost opportunities to to create more positive and intimate family ties, thoughts that any adolescent, emerging into young adulthood, would be apt to harbor about their parents.

Grieving over, but resigned to, her husband's passing, Esther started to pick up the pieces of her life as soon as the last funeral guests bade their farewells. In spite of the challenges she had met in trying to make a comfortable home for Frederic and the Middlebrook family, she may have at times felt like the odd person out, surrounded as she was by three Middlebrooks -- Emily, Eleanor and Frederic--besides her daughter, who was half a Middlebrook. As with many of life's challenges, the church - in this case Grace Church in lower Manhattan, of which she was proud to claim membership - lent strength to Esther. She was not from stock that was accustomed to surrendering to adverse circumstances. She would be strong, and carry on the family legacy of ambition and endurance.

Esther's first concern was most likely how to pull Nancy through this tragedy. Nancy was a playful, intelligent child who loved her father, in a manner, in spite of his weaknesses and failings. This sudden breach in the armor of her relatively comfortable reality could turn into a major trauma if it were not handled properly. For support in this respect, Esther would lean more heavily on the side of the family that she was closer to--her own blood brothers and sisters. It was the family she had been raised with, and the one with which she continued to have close ties. And except for one sister, Sarah Middagh Henshaw Childs, who, with her husband, Clarence Childs, split their living situation between Florida and Minnesota, Esther's brothers and sisters all lived in the New York metropolitan area, the farthest of them only an hour's trip into the outreaches of suburban New Jersey by commuter rail.

Another of Esther's priorities was to see to it that Nancy could continue her education. In spite of the loss of Frederic's income, the Middlebrooks would remain at their West Side apartment, at least for the time being. Having tucked away a tidy sum from the inheritance she received at the deaths of her parents, Emily would be in a position to bankroll any shortfall in the family's standard of living. Frederic's income had already fallen over the years, but being a woman who was as economical as she was well educated and astute, Emily was not one to throw her money around carelessly. Having received the impulse of a virtuous thriftiness from her businessman father, she would parse and dole out only what was needed.

Fortunately for young Nancy, she had a number of close friends from school who were a source of support for her. With this reassurance, she was able to continue her studies without any major interruption. Close associations among their upper West Side neighbors, including the parents of Nancy's school friends, were a source of comfort for both mother and daughter. In times like these, there was a greater tendancy to generate a supportive fellowship than one might expect in today's society. Neighbors and relatives would hover around the grieving parties and showering them with love and affection in a myriad of ways. In spite of the encroachment of a technological nature that radio, telephone, mass transit and the automobile had brought to American culture, the traditional values accompanying the slow-paced era of horse and buggy just passed, still held sway in many respects.

With her husband gone, Esther's brothers and sisters took upon themselves a greater role in Esther's and Nancy's life. Herbert and his youngest sister, Cornelia Gracie, neither of whom were married, and both of whom lived in the family brownstone in Brooklyn, were the most influential and helpful among the Henshaw siblings, in spite of their living a borough apart from the Middlebrooks. The then-recently completed improvements in the New York City subway system had made it possible to travel between the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights in as little as 30 minutes. This ensured continual exchanges among the syblings and their children.

As the editor of Brooklyn Life, Herbert's time was mostly taken up writing several pages of opinion, along with an extensive column on the week in sports and an occasional theater or book review. Born in 1862, Herbert's earliest childhood memories streched back to the time his father was building rail systems in Denmark in the early 1860s. An elder brother, Levy, had died as a youngster under mysterious, and undoubtedly tragic, circumstances, and this put a strain on Herbert's parents that had to have affected the entire family. His mother, Cornelia, had destroyed practically all the early correspondence between herself and husband George, an action she regreted, but that may have been a response to this tragedy, for which each parent very likely blamed the other as well as themselves. Nor did either appear to consider theirs a match made in heaven, as the saying goes. Their engagement was originally called off by Cornelia's family, who feared that the life of the wife of a civil engineer would be too strenuous for her. But being in the continual presence of one another in back-to-back social engagements that were prevalent in their youth, the affection between the two had grown so intense that it was no longer possible for either of them to contemplate life without the other, or so it seemed at the time. In later years, George intimated that his marriage to Cornelia may not have been the wisest decision in his life. And an examination of Cornelia's correspondence with George from the 1860s expresses some equally tell-tale signs of marital stress.

In the late 1870s, when the family moved to Ste. Anne de Bellvue in Canada where George directed canal construction, Herbert and his younger brother Fred were plunged into a cultural clash with the Canadian French boys, who seemed intent on harrassing them about their strange accents and ways. The Henshaws were Episcopalian, while most of the local boys were Catholics, and shouts of "heretics" were often followed by an escallation to some rough-and-tumble altercations. But the Henshaw brothers learned to defend themselves and their outsider English heritage with fists, thus earning the respect of their peers.

As the family remained in touch with their Brooklyn relatives, travel between Montreal and New York was a frequent occurrence. Herbert himself moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1880s, and by degrees gained a reputation as an accomplished amateur sportsman. The types of activities he would undertake in this connection are instructive, if not amusing. We have an account of one sporting event in which he participated, this one sponsored by the Williamsburg Athletic Club three days after Herbert's 23rd birthday in July of 1885:

The men lay with their backs flat on the ground. At the signal they jumped to their feet and ran fifteen yards backwards. Then they turned about and ran at full speed fifteen yards, ran up an embankment, leaped over a bridge, plunged into a pond of muddy water, swam and floundered to the opposite bank as fast as possible, crawled out, rushed to a flat net suported on high poles, tumbled and rolled over it, dropped to the ground and then ran up a pyramid of boards and down the other side, slid under a horizontal beam only a foot and a half above ground and worked their passage through flour barrels, then gave another jump over the bridge and took another ducking and ran home.

On the professional side, Herbert adopted a career in journalism, and by the late 1880s, played a sometimes controversial role as a notable writer for the magazine "Sport". By then, his talent had come to the attention of two young entrepreneurs--Frederick Munroe, a newspaperman who had been on the staffs of several New York newspapers, and John Angus McKay, a former reporter for the New York Sun. In 1890, these two young upstarts pitched the idea of an upbeat weekly magazine that would chronicle the happenings of Brooklyn society, much as another weekly, New York Life, did for Manhattan. The pair launched Brooklyn Life on a shoe-string budget, and as the new magazine outgrew its meager beginnings, the skeleton crew that put it out was deemed inadequate to the task at hand. Herbert, with his editorial experience and extensive social connections in Brooklyn, was a natural choice for associate editor, joining the team in the mid-1890s.

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Born in New York, March 14, 1949. Staff writer for the New York City Tribune, Economic Growth Report, Register-Star. Presently publish on OpEd News. Mr. Duveen heads up a project known as "The Museum of Brooklyn Art and Culture,' which explores (more...)

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