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Friday, September 20, 2013

Researching Mary Zimmerman Again

With this year being the fortieth anniversary of The House with a Clock in its Walls we thought we’d revisit again the life and times of Mary Holoubek Zimmerman. Does that name sound almost familiar but not quite right? It should. Here’s some of our initial research from a decade ago.

Off-and-on this year we’ve dug back into the trenches for grins to see if anything new could be found. We did feel a bit foolish at the get-go of the hunt if only because we realized that we have had a street address for her all these years. Sort of. During our initial research a decade ago, the fine folks at the Wisconsin Historical Society sent us what amounts to an autobiographical sketch that includes her birth (Chicago; September 18, 1905), martial status (wife of Louis P. Zimmerman, married 1934), children (two), and an address.

The address was 801 Pratt Street in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Our search quickly hit a dead-end as there is no such street with that name in Whitewater. Somehow we got in touch with a woman named Debra Ketchum who provided the missing link: “Pratt was renamed Starin after the Starins donated land for a park.” And what exists at 801 Starin Street? We found a parking lot for the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater’s Innovation and Technology Park. Any lingering sights from Mary’s time have undoubtedly long been wiped away by progress.
Encouraged by our research abilities thus far we thought we’d try to discover when Pratt was renamed Starin. Strangely enough we think we found an answer to that, too. A February 1962 edition of the Janesville Daily Gazette featured an article about a program put on by the Whitewater Historical Society that discussed the early years of the community. The article quoted society member Mrs. John J. Dorr reflecting on the Pratts:
The next arrivals [presumably to Whitewater], according to Mrs. Dorr, were Norman and Freeman Pratt and their "pioneer wives," affectionately known as "Aunt Melinda" and "Aunt Jane." Crediting the Pratts with making many fine contributions to the new settlement, Mrs. Dorr expressed regret that in 1952 the city council deemed it necessary to change Pratt Street to Starin Road. She said that if the street had to be renamed, it should have been in honor of some other early resident since Duane Starin, contrary to popular belief, did not donate the land for the city park but was paid $700 for it. She said he donated a smaller parcel of land for the water works.
It would seem to us then that if the name change from Pratt to Starin occurred in the early 1950s then the address provided on Mary Zimmerman’s autobiographical sketch means one of two things: either it was originally written prior to the change (making it older than we thought), or Zimmerman was adamant that the street be referred to as Pratt. It also proves that we don’t know when Mary Zimmerman moved from Whitewater to Milwaukee.

Ms. Ketchum also provided some information Mary’s death, particularly that it was 1974 and in Arizona. Find-a-Grave provides a record for a woman named Mary H. Zimmerman, born in 1905 (a match from above) and who died in January 1974. It seems very likely then that this is the grave of the former Wisconsin poet but we can only a wager a guess as to the whereabouts of Louis P.  We have to wonder if in her final months she discovered John's book...and we can't help make the connection between her late husband's name and the name of the main character in that book.

Finally we uncovered a couple autographed copies of Mary’s books of poems. A Gallery of Women's Portraits is a 48-page book published in 1950 by Dierkes Press in Chicago, probably some sort of regional or vanity publishing house.  The inner flap of the dust jacket reads:
This first book of poems, as its title implies, is a collection of studies of women as seen through the discerning eyes of the poet. They are pleasant portraits, for the most part - amusing and clever - and even the more critical are sympathetic and tolerant rather than caustic. The volume as contains the author's Village Sequence, a group of eight poems.
Book collector Russ Bernard provided us with scans from one such autographed edition and guesses additional copies could be found in Wisconsin or even Chicago second-hand book stores if one looked close enough. We dare say it's one of the more remotely obscure and marginally connected Bellairs-related collectables we’ve seen.

The dust-jacket also clears up the confusion we had back in 2003 when we were told Mary was, in the early 1960s, the poet laureate of the state of Wisconsin. That was confusing as research at the time quickly revealed Ms. Ellen Kort was nearing the end of her first four-year term as the first ever Poet Laureate of Wisconsin, named to the position in 2000 by then-governor Tommy Thompson. Area poet Peter Sherrill explained to us at the time that individual cities (such as Milwaukee) and certain counties (such as Door) have had more-or-less official poet laureates. That angle never was clear so we didn’t pursue it; however the dust-jacket notes that Zimmerman was "Poet Laureate of the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs."  That is, she was by 1950 - who knows what happened in the next quarter century. 

We thought we’d end with some words penned by Mary Zimmerman (lest we decide to begin a blog dedicated to her life and work called Zimmermania):

Grande Dame

She built a world around herself
Of lavender and lace.
Whenever she moved cashmere bouquet
Lingered in her place.
Nothing of toil her soft hands knew;
Her feet were richly shod
In perfurmed cenotaph she'll lie
Of lift her fragrant ash to God.

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