The better part of valor

Courtesy of

I grew up surrounded by my father’s family, but at something of a distance. Looking back on it, I trace my parents’ incuriosity about these relatives – generally described as “Oh, he’s a cousin … somehow” – to my grandfather’s self-protective stance when he married into the sprawling Ayer family: he focused on his own friends (and a handful of his relatives) while maintaining a cool remove from his in-laws. (The one exception was his wife’s uncle, General George S. Patton Jr., a near neighbor and a man it was hard to ignore.)

So it was something of a surprise one summer’s day, out sailing with my father and a friend, for my father to point out a house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as belonging to “our kooky cousin the Countess.” Even as a child, a keen reader of histories and romances, the word Countess – applied to a resident of Essex County, Massachusetts – piqued my interest; and I was still of an age where adult foibles (particularly those noticed by other grown-ups) were fascinating glimpses into adult life.

This childhood interest in identifying and classifying my relatives led me to start a notebook on the Ayer family. Over time this became a short pamphlet (published by my father), and some years later the pamphlet became a book, The Sarsaparilla Kings: A Biography of Dr. James Cook Ayer and Frederick Ayer, with a record of their family (1993).

Along the way I collected stories on the Countess and her family, but in 1993 – and for some years after – many published accounts remained inaccessible. Who was this Countess Guardabassi?[1] My grandmother’s first cousin, as it turns out, and almost twenty years her senior, the former Rosalind Wood also outlived my grandmother by a quarter century.

By the time my father was growing up, there was evidently little sense of connection to these Italian cousins…

For my grandparents’ generation, the peripatetic Guardabassis – who lived part of the time in Perugia, sometimes in Massachusetts, and frequently in winter resort towns – were seasonal curiosities. (I gather that Rosalind’s difficult personality, no doubt affected by wartime internment in Arizona, contributed to her cousins’ standoffishness.) By the time my father was growing up, there was evidently little sense of connection to these Italian cousins who once sent Christmas greetings from “Mussolini’s New Italy.”[2] It was much easier to focus on General Patton’s war heroism, since we drove by his house on the way to school.

Over the years, though, I have picked up bits and pieces of the story, some of it relating to Rosalind’s father, William Madison Wood (1858-1926),[3] and some of it to Rosalind and her husband, the polymath Mario Guardabassi (1867-1952)[4] – portrait painter, opera singer, war hero, restaurateur, and lover of famous women.

While the Wood family was based in Andover and Boston,[5] they also kept an apartment in New York City, where Rosalind’s sister Irene was married in 1918. Following the Great War, Rosalind established herself in the city, and it was there that she became engaged to Cousin Mario in 1928. She was nearly forty, while he was already over sixty – the New York Times engagement announcement[6] quietly lops six years off his age – so both had already had full lives. The marriage would last another 24 years.

According to the engagement announcement, Rosalind ran a Red Cross convalescent hospital at the family’s summer place on Cuttyhunk Island during World War I; following the war, she was a founder of what is now the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard, and Airmen’s Club.[7]

Mario had first come to America from Perugia in 1893, to exhibit his portrait of Pope Leo XIII at the World’s Columbian Exposition. While in Chicago, he was encouraged to focus his attention on singing; following a return home to study music he became an opera singer of some note, first as a baritone (as Silvio opposite Enrico Caruso in Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903) and later as a tenor based mainly in Chicago and Philadelphia.[8]

“With his scornful eye ashine!/How he stood and stemmed and stormed them/”

He appeared to advantage during the Great War, according to an exuberant poetic outburst by Clinton Scollard, published in War Voices and Memories in 1920.[9] With a nod to Lord Macaulay’s Horatio at the Bridge, Scollard tells “how Captain Guardabassi/Tall and muscular and massy,/Held the bridge at Latisana from the dawning until the gloam…

“There was peril of a panic; there was danger of a rout./Then the gallant grenadier, he/A Perugian stanch and cheery/Faced the streaming troops that jostled at the tidings/’Hold,’ he cried, ‘and hark to reason!/There is treachery; there is treason.’

“…Then with other souls undaunted,/How he flouted, how he flaunted/At the faltering and fearsome/With his scornful eye ashine!/How he stood and stemmed and stormed them/Till he rallied and reformed them,/And they marched in steady columns to the safe Piave line!”

For New Yorkers of a certain vintage, Captain Guardabassi’s Lido-Venice restaurant at 35-37 East Fifty-third Street was almost too much of a good thing. When it opened in April 1924, it quickly became “as much a lunch habit as Pierre’s or Sherry’s or the Marguery.” Cataloging the Lido-Venice’s charms in Arts & Decoration, Ruby Ross Goodnow noted the “charming” back room, painted by Allyn Cox in pink and white and grey, “very pale and refreshing, a lovely background for women’s clothes.” She added of Guardabassi that “Certainly an artist and an epicure [he was known for his spaghetti dinners] should be able to make a restaurant successful.”[10]

The Lido-Venice certainly became fashionable: it was the setting for a thank-you dinner hosted by the popular Prince of Wales on his American visit in August-September 1924, with Will Rogers and the Dolly sisters providing the entertainment.[11] It did not prove an especially stable venture, as may be glimpsed in Ate van Delden’s book on the bandleader Adrian Rollini, which indicates that Guardabassi might only have been the front man, and that the Lido-Venice closed and reopened and promptly closed again during the Champagne days of the mid-20s.[12]

As an attractive Bohemian with an exotic pedigree, Cousin Mario – who did not stop painting as he pursued other interests – was very attractive to women. Tongues wagged about his relationship with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose papers hold correspondence for the period 1914-42, or well after his marriage. Whitney’s standing figure of Captain Guardabassi (1917) was admired in the Stam Gallery Whitney retrospective of 2018.[13]

To bring it full circle, my grandfather – who shied away from his wife’s family – was an usher at the wedding of Joan Whitney (Mrs. Whitney’s niece) and Charles Shipman Payson in 1924, four years before Cousin Rosalind wed Cousin Mario. Was he at all aware of the connection?

Discretion likely meant he knew … and forgot all about it.


[1] Rosalind Wood (1889-1971) was married to Francesco Maria Guardabassi 1928-52. Another account of her activities may be found here.

[2] It would seem that Rosalind’s money bought her husband the title of Count Guardabassi during the Mussolini period.

[3] William Madison Wood deserves his own book – and has one, in Edward G. Roddy’s Mills, Mansions, and Mergers (1982), the title of which accurately describes his enthusiasms. Rather less a feature of the Ayer and Wood families’ history is Uncle William’s central role in the Bread and Roses Strike. Today one can turn to Wikipedia for a more nuanced historical view of William M. Wood and the American Woolen Company, where the unprecedented success of Wood’s cost-accounting must be balanced against low wages, long hours, and brutal methods of doing business – even before the strike.

As a genealogist, it is interesting to note that William Wood’s ethnic background – he was three-quarters Portuguese, the son of parents born in the Azores – would today be a selling point. In his own time, he did everything he could to accentuate his English quarter, courtesy of his maternal grandfather.

[4] Francesco Maria Guardabassi (1867-1952).

[5] And Cuttyhunk Island and Palm Beach, Florida, where Addison Mizner built the Woods the aptly-named “Towers,” later torn down to make way for the industrialist Robert Young’s extant house on North County Road.

[6] “Capt. Guardabassi to wed Miss R. Wood,” The New York Times, 15 June 1928, 29. The sub-head reads “Artist and Opera Singer Will Marry Friend of Sailors Next Monday.”

[7] In 1928, it was just the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club.

[8] See, for instance, Dixie Hines and Harry Prescott Hanaford, eds., Who’s Who in Music and Drama, 1914 edition.

[9] Clinton Scollard, “Of Francesco Mario Guardabassi,” in War Voices and Memories… (New York: James T. White, 1920), 65-66.

[10] Ruby Ross Goodnow, “New York Talk: Fine and Applied,” Arts & Decoration 21: 2 [1924]: 21. Guardabassi’s sketch of Mrs. Vincent Astor (Helen Dinsmore Huntington) appears in the same issue on p. 29. Mrs. Goodnow’s second husband was my cousin Chalmers Wood (unrelated to Rosalind or the Ayer family).

[11] Ted Powell, King Edward VIII: An American Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 109.

[12] Ate van Delden, Adrian Rollini: The Life and Music of a Jazz Rambler (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2020), passim.

[13] “The first image in the show is a powerful figure of Captain Guardabassi (1917), Gertrude’s very close and intimate friend of many years, dressed in his military uniform with a focused gaze bravely moving into the future. The work created in 1917 soon after their meeting near the front in the first world war, is full of emotion reflecting the artist’s great affection and respect for her subject.”

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

12 thoughts on “The better part of valor

  1. Very interesting, Scott. You gave me several good chuckles. What’s the story with Rosalind’s “wartime internment in Arizona”?

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece ! It presented material for research (1) Gertrude’s under appreciated talent and (2) the “Piave” which, indeed, was a decisive Italian victory against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yes, I, too, would like to more about the AZ confinement; as well as more about Gen Patton’s house. Thank you very much.

    1. Thanks, Beverley!

      Gertrude’s talent is well-documented, but her Vanderbilt name and the museum she founded tends to overshadow her artistic accomplishments. (Oh, and the Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial!) It’s perfectly easy to check, but I find America’s fondness for Italy in World War I intriguing — friend of a friend?

      The internment was something a mutual cousin told me about, as an explanation for the family dynamics, but I haven’t checked that, either. The Patton house, on the Hamilton/Topsfield line, is just up the road from my grandparents’, and when the Stewards moved to Asbury Street there was just one house (a large one) between the two families.

  3. Ah, Pride’s Crossing! Now, long ago, visited former in-laws (by marriage only) there as well as an Episcopal Church service. The Beckwiths. Clicked through to Wyner Center item. Hhmm. Hadn’t seen stuff about the Birch Society in years. Even now, of course, there are still many well-off widows of deeply right-wing sympathies ponying up major dollars for proto-Mussolinis. The web site has that $10K in 1968 at $73,675 today. Much of those widows’ dollars going into Dark PACs now, but Rosalind was proudly up-front about it. But, oh, in a NM internment camp! How THAT must have rankled.

    Great piece, Scott. What a cast of characters, and DRAMA, to boot!

    1. Thanks so much, Robert! I labored over the sources and notes and links — and of course there is much more implied. I do think that Rosalind belonged to a different generation than my grandmother; R. was just 8 years younger than my great-grandmother, and 19 years older than my grandmother. But the polite disengagement was real: it was said, at about the time my grandparents were married, that North Shore parties featured the Ayer siblings and their spouses “sitting like birds on a telephone wire,” chatting away — even if, as was often the case, they had just seen one another earlier in the day. My Steward grandparents kept out of a lot of it — not all, since everyone liked to ride and breed dogs — but they tended to gravitate to my grandfather’s friends in Boston and New York.

      Beatrice Patton, Fred Ayer, and Kay Merrill were very close, and quite long-lived, and I remember a stately visit to Aunt Kay at “Avalon” (her parents’ house, across the driveway from “Woodstock”) — a faintly embarrassing event, as my cousin Ruth Ellen had to yell everything into Aunt K’s ear (ear trumpet? it felt like it), and much of it was dry genealogical detail.

      Ruth Ellen did have a great story about Aunt Kay that allows a glimpse of Victorian moeurs: Ruth Ellen’s mother (Aunt B) had given Ruth Ellen some dish towels made by the American Woolen Company, the “woolen trust” founded by Frederick Ayer and William M. Wood. Ruth Ellen mentioned their provenance to Aunt K — “the family business,” or words to that effect — and the reaction was “I really don’t think so, dear” — to be in trade! The idea!

  4. Really enjoyed your article. Thanks to your note #8 I also found a relative in the same edition of “Who’s Who In Music and Drama”.
    Many of my ancestors were involved in the music, drama and art world of New York City from about 1850 to 1920. Probably the most famous of them was Walter Hampden (Dougherty) 1879-1955, my grandmother’s first cousin, and the book you mention includes a nice article about him.
    Walter Hampden was well known on the Shakespearean stage in England before he moved to Broadway, where he had his own theater. He then moved on to Hollywood and was featured in Marilyn Monroe’s first movie. He was on the cover of TIME magazine March 4, 1929 and in 1949 he made his TV debut at the age of 69 – as Macbeth.
    It is interesting to think that Mario and Walter might have known each other. Thank you for the additional source material.

    1. Thanks, Lou! I also collect photographs, and I have several of Walter Hampden (by James Abbe, Ira L. Hill, and Strauss-Peyton Studio). If you have other relatives in Broadway or film circles, I might well have photos of them, too!

  5. Indeed! The thought of it!! Not only the Devil, but more importantly, the Stories are in the Details. There was a 1950s/1960s comic novel in all that North Shore drama–the last of the Victorians colliding with the young people of Updike’s Couples. But, alas. No Peter DeVries.

    Note of Correction: The Beckwiths lived in Pride’s Crossing but the church was the Holy Name in Swampscott (the Rev (& later a lawyer) Winslow F. Beckwith was its 7th rector, 1950-1970). And there my memory and Google drew a blank. But the partial obit at Ancestry gets the Beckwiths back to Surry, Hancock, Maine, and, thus, to clamming on a raw fall day story of my own. Took awhile for that to surface, but mucking around here and there will do that.

    Whether those Beckwiths have any relationship with Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, two public Ancestry trees suggest not. Thought there was a titled article in the Register but search isn’t giving me anything. For a quick genealogical note on RTLB, see TAG 52(1976): 179-180. There’s a much longer article in The New Yorker on Lincoln’s Last Living Heir (likely not, but the court records were sealed by both parties).

    Oh, right! Just read somewhere (here?) that American women who married to non-citizens before a certain date lost their American citizenship, taking on that of their husbands. So, despite being inarguably an American heiress, Rosalind was officially an Italian.

    And here’s the link to that camp:
    and a more detailed one, which mentions an art professor from Milan:

    See, what you’ve done, Scott. Two young married couple memories recalled and then down the rabbit hole. Don’t do it to me again too soon!

    1. Yes, I think Rosalind happily embraced her Italian connections. The villa the Guardabassis bought in Perugia was so magnificent I wonder that they ever left it — but of course people did, in those days, traveling restlessly from place to place…

  6. Scott,
    I just read your story from May of 2020. I had saved it for a later read and I just got to it. My family is part of that “sprawling Ayer family.” My mother’s maiden name was Ayers. Rosalind was my 8th cousin 2X removed. Beatrice Ayer Patton was my 7X cousin 3X removed. I have been diving into all the information you provided here and it is fascinating to me. Thank you for sharing it. I also have Lowell and Saltonstall family in my tree. So I guess that we are distant cousins as well. I am currently looking for the book Sarsaparill Kings. But I believe it is only available in digital form now. Can’t wait to read it.
    Hopefully you will keep posting interesting things about the Ayers family.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.