Chapter 1—Part II
His Tennessee roots ran strong and deep. Both the Gumms and the Baughs, his mother's family, had lived there since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, when it was still pioneer country. That was when John and Mary Baugh were born, and they were already middle-aged—Mary was in her early forties and John was over fifty—when Frank's mother Clemmie was born in 1857. Clemmie was the last of the Baughs' six children, and the fact that Mary Baugh was past the ordinary time for child-bearing may have contributed to her daughter's lifelong infirmity: Clemmie was an invalid from infancy.
By contrast, John and Martha Gum—some, even some in the same family, spelled the name with one "m"—were young when Frank's father William Techumseh Gumm, the first of their seven children, was born in 1854. Will married Clemmie in 1877, but instead of taking her away to a home of their own, as most husbands do, he moved into the Baughs' large and handsome house in Murfreesboro, on East Main Street, the address of most of the town's gentlefolk. Built in the Federal style, with thick brick walls, a fourteen-foot-wide central hall, and ceilings twelve feet high, the house had enough room for Clemmie and her new husband, as well as for the three boarders Mary Baugh was forced to take in after John Baugh died in 1870.
During the years to come, it was also to be home to the five Gumm children. Invalid though she was, Clemmie gave birth once every three years. Mary, the only girl, came first in 1880; then Robert in 1883; Frank in 1886 (March 20, to be exact); William in 1889; and finally Allie in 1892. Although money was scarce, life on East Main Street seems to have been pleasant enough. The five children were apparently close, and one relative remembered a parlor that reverberated with song. Like the Milnes, the Gumms were devoted to music.
Situated in the geographic heart of Tennessee, astride a vital rail line, Murfreesboro had been a strategic, much contested prize during the Civil War. Though it had never regained the wealth it had enjoyed before the cyclone of war whirled through, it was, when Frank was growing up, a pleasant place to live nonetheless. With a population of only five thousand, half of which was black, it was small enough to retain the friendliness of a village—pigs and cows wandered freely through the streets—yet large enough to offer such urban pleasures as a theater.
Many traced their ancestry back to Virginia, and they liked to think that they also retained the refined manners of the Old Dominion. Conversation was the common currency, and by universal custom, houses were built close to the street so that residents, sitting on their porches, could gossip with passersby. Everyone knew who was up, who was down, and whose husband was sneaking off for some illicit pleasure in Mink Slide, the red light district. People were allowed few secrets in Murfreesboro.
Money was admired but not venerated, and the Gumms remained people of respectable standing even as their financial situation descended from bad to desperate. Two years after Mary Baugh's death in 1892, her big house was sold, and Will and Clemmie had to move their brood into a cramped brick cottage nearby, one of three or four dwellings Clemmie had been left by her mother. Worse followed. Clemmie herself died in October 1895, when she was only thirty-eight. Then, three months later, fire partially destroyed the overcrowded brick cottage. With no home, no money and no prospects, Will asked the Rutherford County Chancery Court to give him permission to use most of his children's slim inheritance to buy another house, a larger and more comfortable one four blocks away on Maney's Avenue.
It was only one of several trips Will made to the court, which officially pronounced him insolvent. His children's sole support was the tiny income that Clemmie's properties brought in. No mention is made of an illness or a handicap that would explain Will's inability to hold a job—he testified only that he could not find one—and it seems likely that he had been dependent on his wife's family from the day they were married. Whatever the reason for his fecklessness, it caused hardship for his children. He did not have money to educate them beyond public school, and after using up most of their legacy to give them more space in the new house, he was forced to crowd them together again to make room for a paying boarder, a young doctor from Mississippi.
For Frank, rescue came, as if by divine intervention, from the richest man in town, George M. Darrow. Darrow and his wife Tempe lived in the town's finest house, Oak Manor, a graceful Italianate villa in which they entertained with lavish seven-course dinners. Tempe, whose family owned plantations in Alabama and Mississippi, had always been rich; it was her money that had bought Oak Manor and that paid for all those fancy dinners. But George had grown up poor in Nebraska, and he liked helping young people who were in the position he himself had been in.
Armed with Tempe's money and his own determination, Darrow, whose nickname was "the Boss," always got what he went after. When he could not find American workmen who could restore Oak Manor the way he wanted, he imported craftsmen from Europe. When he could not find a church of his own Episcopal faith in Murfreesboro, he proceeded to establish one. Its modest frame building on South Spring Street looked downright puny by comparison with the stately structures of the long-dominant Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, but St. Paul's had something the others could envy: it had Frank Gumm, whose voice had so captured the Boss's ear that he had recruited him to sing in his choir. Darrow's church could not match the numbers of its bigger rivals; but with Frank singing solo, his boy's soprano as pure and sweet as childhood itself, it surpassed them all in its musical devotions.
Just two years younger than Will Gumm, Darrow became Frank's godfather, a role he fulfilled, as he did all others, with unrestrained vigor. In June 1899, three months after Frank's thirteenth birthday, Darrow plucked him out of poor Will's beleaguered household and sent him off to an Episcopalian boys' school, the junior adjunct of the University of the South, or Sewanee, as it was usually called. Frank's voice had been his deliverance, and Darrow had procured him a scholarship to sing in the Sewanee choir. "I am sure neither you, or any of those interested will ever have cause to regret helping this bright boy along," Darrow wrote the school's head, Lawton Wiggins. "He knows that he is taken for his services in the choir, and that he must be ever anxious to render service to his benefactors." On the morning of June 13, a few days before the start of the summer term, godfather and godson journeyed by train to Sewanee, which was about sixty miles southeast of Murfreesboro. Darrow personally presented his young charge to his new benefactors, thus beginning what Frank was later to call "six of the happiest, the most beautiful years of my life."
Not much known outside the South in those years, Sewanee inspired the fanatical devotion of all those associated with it. Set high on the Cumberland Plateau, about 1,800 feet above sea level, it was often referred to simply as "the Mountain," an academic aerie that had little to do with the troubles of the world below. It was "in the middle of woods, on top of a bastion of mountains crenelated with blue coves," wrote Frank's friend and schoolmate, William Alexander Percy, in his richly-brocaded autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee. "It is so beautiful that people who have once been there always, one way or another, come back. For such as can detect apple green in an evening sky, it is Arcadia...."
Along with a rigorous dose of the classics, Sewanee taught manners and style, how a gentleman behaves. Small and friendly, it was, as Percy noted, "a place to be hopelessly sentimental about and to unfit one for anything except the good life." It suited Frank exactly, and he suited it exactly, doing what Darrow had promised he would do—he filled the chapel with glorious song, a voice that eventually matured into a brilliant tenor. Writing of the Easter services of 1900, the student newspaper, the Purple, said that such beautiful music had never before been heard at Sewanee, and it singled out Frank's solo for its purity of tone.
"Hurrah! Hurrah! Sewanee boys are we," went the words to the college song. "Away with melancholy and let care and trouble flee, while we are at Sewanee...." But at the end of 1904, his second year in college, Frank's carefree youth ended abruptly. With two years left to go before graduation, he ended his academic career and returned to Murfreesboro, probably to help support his impoverished family. Will Gumm died in 1906, and for the next four years Frank worked as a stenographer and court reporter by day and at night performed at a theater owned by an uncle, Walter D. Fox.
In 1909 he left those familiar surroundings for the town of Tullahoma, a resort and health spa about forty miles to the southeast. His Uncle Walter, who was the state secretary of a fraternal organization called the Knights of Pythias, was building a home there for the widows and orphans of deceased Knights. Ovoca he named it, and he took Frank along as his secretary. Joining Frank in Tullahoma were his sister Mary, who was still unmarried at twenty-nine, and his sixteen-year-old brother Allie. All three lived in a small frame house on East Lincoln Street, half a block from St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church. In this new setting Frank's voice once again opened doors. He sang in the church choir, he joined a quartet that was much in demand for parties and weddings, and before long he was associating, as one prominent Tullahomian said, "with our best people." Universally admired, he seemed to have as bright a future as any young man in Tennessee. But by the end of 1910, or possibly the first part of 1911, he was gone—gone from Tullahoma, gone from Tennessee, gone from the South itself.
In those days most American towns had at least one theater that offered live entertainment. In all probability Frank traveled from stage to stage, along a third-string vaudeville circuit. By September 1911, the date of his next documented appearance, he knew the business well enough, in any event, to buy his own small theaters. In the most unlikely of spots, the logging town of Cloquet, Minnesota, he became a show business entrepreneur, purchasing both the Bijou and the Diamond. "Mr. Gumm impresses one as a very capable young man in his line of endeavor and most desirous of pleasing the theatre-going public of Cloquet," said the Cloquet Pine Knot. Yet within weeks after he had taken them over, this very capable young man inexplicably handed over his Cloquet theaters to his older brother Bob and moved twenty miles to the east—to Superior, the Orpheum Theater and Ethel Milne.
Frank and Ethel first approached the altar in 1912, not long after they had met. Ethel was so convinced of the certainty of their marriage that she boldly—and rashly—invited Frank's singing partner, Maude Ayres, to a between-shows wedding supper on the Orpheum stage. Ethel had an enviable knack for making a little seem like a lot, and she transformed a card table into a festive board, covering it with a crisp white tablecloth on which she placed fried chicken, salad, rolls, glasses of champagne, even a wedding cake. With no other company than the rows of empty seats staring at them from the darkness below, the three of them toasted their friendship and peered happily into the future. But Ethel had celebrated too soon. Before they could make their vows official, Frank had skidded off, leaving Superior as abruptly as he had left Tullahoma and Cloquet.
By his own count, Frank was in twenty-eight states during the months that followed, once again, it seems likely, traveling the vaudeville circuit and performing in out-of-the-way towns like Cloquet and in theaters like the Bijou and the Diamond. Eventually he landed in Portland, Oregon, where, for a year or more, he managed the Crystal on Killingsworth Avenue. But Portland, which was then a bustling, rambunctious port city much like Superior, did not keep him either. By the autumn of 1913 he was back in Superior itself, singing at the Parlor on Tower Avenue and resuming his romance with Ethel, whose determination to marry him apparently had never wavered during the many months he had been away.
Since leaving Tennessee, Frank had moved around the country at a dizzying pace, like a bullet that had missed it mark and ricocheted aimlessly from place to place. At times his behavior—his sudden departure from Cloquet, for example, which was followed by an equally hasty exit from Superior--seemed like that of a madman. But Frank was not crazy, and actions that appeared to be irrational were in fact eminently sane. For Frank had a secret that explained everything: he was basically homosexual, and his advances to young men and teenage boys sometimes made him unwelcome in the towns in which he took up residence. Cloquet was one of them. He had been forced to leave. "He was accused of being a pervert and he had to skip town and get out fast," said Ayres.
When the news reached Superior, he found it expedient to leave there as well. "Everybody in Superior was talking about it," said Ayres. "I was shocked because I had had no idea that there was anything like that going on." What Ethel thought no one can know, but when he returned at last in the fall of 1913, she was ready to say yes to his proposal. Their marriage, on that cold afternoon in January, was indeed a victory for the god of love, just as the Superior newspaper had said it was. What the paper did not say—what it did not know—was just how impressive little Cupid's triumph had been.
© 2006 Gerald Clarke
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