25 January 2017

The Life of an Aspiring Young Actress - New York in the 1930s

From its founding in 1902 to around 1952, the Three Arts Club in New York City served a noble purpose – to house young women who were pursuing careers in the arts.   The three arts referred to music, art and drama, and the Club provided dormitory style housing, meals and an environment in which these young women would be among people experiencing the same struggles and frustrations (and sometimes success).
The Three Arts Club
at 340 W 85th St, NYC in 1910.
This building was replaced in 1927.

According to an article about the Three Arts published in the Los Angeles Herald newspaper in 1909, there were four rules of admission (quoted):

  1. All applicants must be studying with a view toward self support or working in one of the arts.
  2. They must be under 30 years of age.
  3. They must furnish at least two satisfactory references.
  4. Admittance only by application card.[i]

Patricia Bunting's head shot
In 1909 the charge was $7 per week for room, meals and “use of the laundry two days of the seven.”[ii]  There were resident chaperones and the management and direction of the club was taken on by New York society matrons.  The young women in residence shared the household work and provided one another with support – it was challenging for young women to break into the arts and they could rely on one another for a sympathetic ear or word from the street about opportunities for work.

In July 1930, at the age of 17, my grandmother, Patricia Bunting, joined the Three Arts Club and began to pursue a career as an actress.  Born in Manitoba, Canada, Patricia was the daughter of a banker from Toronto and a socialite from Montreal.  She had older twin brothers and one younger brother.  The family moved about, due to her father’s job, but he progressed and did well in the bank and outside financial investments, settling, finally, in Montreal.  They built a large house, had servants and all the children went to various prep and boarding schools in Quebec.  However, their lifestyle changed significantly with the Stock Market crash.    

To quote Patricia’s notes, written years later: 
“Came the crash!  1930!  The family fortunes collapsed completely.  The house was rented – positions were found for the servants & we moved into an apartment in Drummond Court.  From there, in July ’30 I moved to New York.”
A young socialite in her own right, Patricia suddenly had to make her own way – college was now out of the question and her new goal in life was to earn a living as an actress.  And so, no doubt through family contacts, she obtained a space at the Three Arts Club at 340 West 85th Street in New York, obtained her visa and immigrated to the United States.

Patricia's entry VISA
One young woman who lived there in 1931, Virgina Condict, was studying drawing at Parson’s and described the atmosphere and experience of the Three Arts: 
“It was close to Parson's [and] to a subway station. It was only half a block from Riverside Drive and a short walk to Central Park. There was a big studio on the top floor of the Three Arts Club, and that is where I did my assignments. That big studio room at the Three Arts Club was used for meetings as well as art projects. Professional artists would come to give talks to the art students. It was a thrill to meet well-known artists and illustrators whose work we admired in current magazines. One evening, the famous muralist, Diego Rivera, came with his tiny wife, dressed in her native costume. There were other cultural advantages to living at the Three Arts Club. Sometimes we received free tickets to Broadway plays or concerts. The theater managers wanted to keep the seats filled. The tickets might be just for a dress rehearsal, or they might be in the topmost balcony, but we didn't care when we could see stars like Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina and Mary Martin in Peter Pan!”[iii]
We don’t know when my grandmother left the Three Arts Club, but she was certainly there in 1931 when this account was contemporary.  According to my Uncle Robert, her youngest son, she was so poor that she couldn’t afford to eat out, so she went on dates to socialize and get a good meal.  She told Uncle Robert stories of dating Howard Hughes, who took her to the 21 Club wearing dinner jacket, bow tie and sneakers.  And of a newly-arrived actor just off the boat from Britain whom she had to fight off at the door after their date (David Niven).  She told the story of having a non-dating male friend who was a wine distributor who had to eat at various restaurants in New York that carried his wines, so he often took her as his dining companion.  She arrived in New York in 1930, but Prohibition ended in 1933, so her dinners with her wine merchant friend clearly took place between 1933 and 1936, the year of her marriage.  It’s tough to know if she would have patronized any of New York’s famous speakeasies during prohibition – she arrived in New York at the age of 17 and Prohibition ended when she was 20.

Skiing on Mount Royal in Quebec
five months before moving to NY.
She did have calling cards made up (they were an ubiquitous accessory to any young woman of the time) at Lord & Taylor and she found success, not as an actress, but as a model. Again according to Uncle Robert, she was a Dunhill girl for the Dunhill fashion house and further family legend has it that she participated in the opening ceremony for Rockefeller Center as a figure skater on the new ice rink – they must have been thrilled to find a model from Canada who was adept at winter sports!

In 1936 she married my grandfather, Bud Woodruff, and she began married life, leaving the high glamour, impoverished world of her time at the Three Arts Club behind her.  She retained the poise and bearing of her modeling days throughout her life.  She always dressed strikingly, and when I knew her, in her late 40s and young 50s, she was rail thin, ramrod upright and she always struck me as tall and elegant.  She died at the age of 53, my grandfather Bud having pre-deceased her by eleven years. 

Patricia’s experiences in New York in the early 30s were emblematic of a young woman raised in a household of moderate wealth who had lost everything (as so many did during the Depression).  She maintained her poise and social awareness throughout her entire life, but she also adapted to her new circumstances.

Patricia Bunting Woodruff as I remember her, in her young 50s
This story was pieced together from numerous sources over the years and is a classic example of writing a family story from multiple types of information.  Patricia herself left notes that she wrote about her life, which provided some of the key information.  She talked about her life in New York with her son, my Uncle Robert, who provided more detail.  But she never mentioned the Three Arts Club – I found that information in her immigration record, which specified that was where she would reside in New York.  I then found a few references to Three Arts online, but not as much as I would like.  I can’t help but think that the Three Arts Club was the source of inspiration for the Footlights Club boarding house from the 1937 classic film, Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball.

The Three Arts Club information fills in the blanks of how my grandmother lived from her arrival in New York to the time of her marriage, six years later, and I would not have know about it but for her immigration records.  I didn’t know how to go about locating her records, so I called the experts at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.  They sent me in the direction of the Immigration Services website, where there is an entire section on genealogical research.  There are several steps to requesting your ancestors’ immigration and naturalization information:

You must provide them with the file numbers for the records you want, so the first step is to request a search of their index to obtain the file numbers.  Because the index information is confidential, it is not searchable by the general public.  You make the request in writing, providing as much relevant information as possible and they send you a letter providing the detail of the records they were able to locate.  In my case, the search took about six weeks and revealed that there were two available records: Patricia’s immigration record in 1930 and her naturalization record in 1948. 

The next step is to submit a request for the records you want, along with a fee for each record.  See their website for the current fee structure.[iv]  They state that the turnaround time is about 90 days, but it took just over 12 months for my records to arrive in the mail.  I had given up hope that I’d get them, but they were well worth the wait!  They provided me with photographs of my grandmother I’d never seen before and all the detail that allowed me to complete this story.  Patricia was my only recent immigrant ancestor and I was very pleased to have such great detail of her move to this country.

Patricia Bunting's extended family network, showing all the descendants of one set of her great-grandparents as of 1985 


[i] “Three Arts Club Is New York Home for Stage Novices,” by W. Herbert Blake, Los Angeles Herald, June 25, 1909, p. 8
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Beer, Virigina Condict von Phul, http://www.lifescapesmemoirs.net/beer/memories1/beer10.htm
[iv] US Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Page: https://www.uscis.gov/genealogy

No comments:

Post a Comment