Love Letters, Chapter 9

The final chapter…

I apologize… it’s been a long time since my last post about the set of love letters I purchased on ebay. (New here? Start from the beginning.) Today, I plan to wrap up all the loose ends so I can start the first installment of my own “White Charley and Over-the-Wall-Fred” saga. I decided after all the time I’ve spent digging into other people’s family histories, it was probably time to share a little of my own. I think you’ll enjoy it.

But first… a few final words about my ebay love letters. In Chapter 8, I introduced you to the Leavenworth Mansion of Syracuse, New York. This is where Dr. John Van Duyn and his first wife, Janet, lived with John’s parents (Dr. Edward and Lucy Van Duyn), and his younger sister, Constance. It was also where they raised their three children.

Back in February, I managed to track down John and Janet’s youngest daughter, Barbara. I emailed her and told her about the love letters that had been addressed to her father, and asked if she would mind answering some questions so I could wrap up my story. She very graciously agreed.

First of all, I told Barbara how much I enjoyed her mother’s book, I Married Them. It’s a fictional account of the very funny and eccentric Maclean (Van Duyn) family, as told by the newest member of the fold, John’s wife Janet (the author herself). The men were second and third-generation physicians who were brilliant surgeons, but had little time for bedside manner. Carrie (Lucy) was the matriarch of the household and my favorite of all the characters. She reminded me a lot of my own mother, and I can easily picture her with a snow brush in her hand, fending off would-be parking lot hooligans (see my previous post, “Happy Mother’s Day.”)

In Janet Dunning’s book, I Married Them, the entire cast of characters enjoyed gathering for cocktails each evening in Doctor Mac and Carrie’s (Dr. Edward and Lucy’s) boudoir. It was here where the story really started to come to life.

“The Boudoir was the most lived-in room of the Maclean mansion. It occupied the sunniest corner of the house, across the hall from the bedroom of Carrie and Mac, who used it as a combination dressing room and living room. Nobody ever sat around in any of the downstairs rooms, which were cold and forbidding, definitely unsuited to the Maclean way of life. Visitors were always brought immediately to the Boudoir, and refreshments were served here daily at five. Those refreshments might range anywhere from tea and sandwiches on a silver tray, to lukewarm highballs made from another bottle of Bourbon hidden behind Doctor Mac’s dresser, tap water from an adjoining bathroom, and mixed in a bathroom glass which was cloudy and tasted of toothpaste. No one ever complained about the highballs though, except when they were not available.”

The Boudoir also contained the most unique and important piece of furniture in the house… a chaise lounge that the Van Duyn’s lovingly referred to as their “shay-ZEE.”

“The Shazey, as a matter of fact, was so comfortable it was always in demand. Aunt Grace who was technically an outsider [she was the family’s resident artist and semi-permanent boarder], and therefore had a certain perspective on the life of the family, said that if you drew a diagonal line across the Boudoir, all the people in the house would be found in the Shazey corner, like cattle keeping each other warm in a blizzard. With careful arranging, the Shazey had been known to accommodate five people, the best seats awarded to the first comers. Late arrivals had to content themselves with drawing up chairs and getting as close to it as possible.

After finishing her mother’s book, I was curious whether Barbara Van Duyn had grown up in the mansion, and if so, what it had been like to live there.

Q. Did you grow up in the Leavenworth Mansion?

A. Yes, I lived there until I was seven. After that, we moved to Westport, Connecticut to live with my mother. She wrote the book to make money after my parents divorced. Nana was a lot of fun. She got bored easily and was the type to swing from the chandelier at every Christmas party. Often times, because we lived close to the railroad track, bums would show up on our doorstop asking for food. Once, a bum showed up during a party and shoved his way into the house, begging for a cup of coffee and something to eat. It turns out it was Nana, dressed up like a bum! Another thing I remember is the story of “old man Harold.” He was there at the house every morning by 5am. We all thought it was so wonderful that he would arrive so early every day to stoke the fire so everyone would have warm showers and heat by the time we woke up. As it turns out, he had found a little place to live within the mansion… a hole in the wall with his own little cot. No one even knew he was there! I also remember the lions along the front walk. I used to play on the left lion and would put food in a crack in its base, just in case he came alive.

Q. Why was your father, John Van Duyn, living and practicing in Duluth, Minnesota in 1949? How did he end up here?

A. My father was trying to find a situation to pay alimony to my mother. He had a practice in Syracuse with his father, but after the divorce, he needed to make more money, rather than trying to build up a practice. So, by 1949 he had decided to switch to plastic surgery, and was working for a clinic in Duluth.

Q. Did you know Ruth Ives? Did she and your father ever end up getting married?

A. We loved Ruthie Ives, and we wanted our father to marry her. She was so sweet! As it turns out, my father ended up marrying another woman he met while living in Duluth. They had another child together… a girl named Patti. She was in my life long ago, but we lived so far apart and our lives were so different that we never stayed connected.

Q. I noticed that Paramount bought the rights to your mother’s book, I Married Them. Was it ever made into a movie?

A. No. Paramount paid $500 for the movie rights, but it never went anywhere. Apparently the Irish servants in the community didn’t like how the character Cleary was depicted in the book, so my mother was disappointed and didn’t write anything more until the 1970s. Then, she wrote a series of books for young people about the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

Q. Are your parents still alive?

A. No. My father died in 1986, and my mother died in 2003.

After a bit more research, I was able to determine that Ruth Ives died at the age of 57, while living in Maine. I’m not sure that she ever married, because she’s listed under her maiden name in the Social Security Death Index. At any rate, I do know that she had a loving brother named Edward (“Sandy”) Ives who lived in Bangor, Maine. Like Ruth, he was a talented musician and a college instructor. He especially loved the folklore and songs of Maine’s north woods, and eventually this became his lifelong work. In 1971, Sandy founded the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History (now known as the Maine Folklife Center) where he served as its director for 22 years.

At the beginning of this story, my goal was to track down the people mentioned in these ebay love letters and return them to their rightful owners. I have now done that, and the letters have been mailed to John Van Duyn’s daughter, Barbara. My secondary goal was to find a mystery that would result in a happy ending. Unfortunately this story doesn’t have the happy ending I had originally hoped for, but you may be interested to hear that I have since tracked down Barbara’s half-sister, Patti, who still lives in Minnesota, and perhaps they can get together and make their own happy ending.

Here’s hoping.

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Love Letters, Chapter 8

I Married Them by Janet Dunning Van Duyn

New here? This is the eighth chapter of a story that began with a pair of love letters I purchased on ebay. Start from the beginning….

Happy Valentine’s Day! I have lots to report this week, including a phone call with Dr. John Van Duyn’s youngest daughter. I also have an update to my Villa Am Meer story, which I’ll (hopefully) post later this week.

But first! A book report on I Married Them, a humorous novel by Janet Dunning Van Duyn.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering how to pronounce the name Van Duyn. Is it Van-Doo-Win or Van-Doo-Ween? Well, the answer is neither. The actual pronunciation is Van-DINE.


A few things first… just to recap. Janet Dunning was the first wife of Dr. John Van Duyn (see Chapter 6 for full details). They were married December 21, 1935 in Syracuse, New York. After they were married, John and his new wife Janet moved into the Leavenworth Mansion at 607 James Street. They lived there with John’s parents, Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn and his wife Lucy (Leavenworth), as well as John’s younger sister, Constance. I Married Them is a fictional novel that depicts the real life of the prominent but eccentric Van Duyn family.

I first learned of this book’s existence when I found a biography of Janet Van Duyn in a 2002 book called Contemporary Authors (Publisher: Tom Gale). I did a search online and found a used copy for sale on ebay. I won the auction and paid $1.00 for the book, plus shipping.

I Married Them by Janet Van Duyn, ©1945

The book starts like this: “The train moved sluggishly across the New York Central trestle on East Hall Street, throwing up little puffs of smoke which hung depressingly in the morning sky.”

Aboard the train is Cleary, the eighty year old Irish seamstress for the MacLean (Van Duyn) family. She’d been the family seamstress for over sixty years, coming to work by horse car, cable car, “or whatever the current conveyance may be” to do the sewing (and whatever else had to be done) for the MacLean family.

“Most of East Hall Street is wide and beautiful, with great arching trees and venerable houses. The houses ranging along it in dignified rows from the trestle all the way up to the hill are solidly built painfully respectable, and appallingly homely.”

“The house on the corner of East Hall Street ad Sullivan Hill was no exception; there was plenty of smoke and soot with which to woo the Greek Temple that was the home of the Doctors MacLean.”

General Leavenworth Mansion as depicted in "I Married Them" by Janet Van Duyn

As Cleary arrives at work, she recalls how fearful she was of the bronze statues that guard the front walk.

“Cleary wasn’t the only one who had been frightened by these austere creatures. Many of Parthia’s small children had dashed tearfully into their parents’ arms at the sight of them. Older children were braver, of course, and sometimes downright impudent to these twin guardians of the MacLean family seat. They kicked them, rode them, used them as targets for sling-shots, and even went so far as to knock them from their pedestals regularly every Halloween.”

Leavenworth Mansion 1934 South Elevation Front

As Cleary arrives at work, she asks Binnie, the cook, for a cup of weak coffee. Binnie tells her they’re out of cream and asks Cleary to run over to Viglione’s to get some.

“Viglione’s was the Italian grocery on Sullivan Hill. It was used by the MacLeans as a kind of auxiliary ice box, for it seemed impossible to keep enough food in the house to satisfy the various appetites of all the family and their friends. The problem was neatly solved by never having much of anything on hand and letting people run over to Viglione’s when they wanted something to eat. The MacLeans lived off Viglione’s by a sort of symbiosis, a fundamental and easy arrangement. It was just a step across the hill from the side door, and what was the use of loading up pantry shelves when one had a grocery store practically in one’s own kitchen?”

By page 15, author Janet Van Duyn had set the scene so well, I felt I already had a strong sense of who this family was, even though none of the main characters had even been introduced yet.

Chapter one, “The Toast is Burning,” introduces the characters one-by-one in a chaotic breakfast setting, which appears to be just another “day in the life” of the eccentric MacLean family. Cleary begins the day by preparing a tray for “Doctor Mac,” the elder of the two doctors living in the mansion (the eldest, Dr. MacLean Sr., has already died at this point). As she climbs the stairs to his bedroom, the author gives this description of the historic Syracuse home:

“The hall was very dark, since it ran straight through the center of the house and was blocked off in the middle by a double door separating the front from the back. At the front were two parlors on each side of the hall, called the Red Room and the Green Room. They were high and spacious affairs, containing huge carved antiques which Colonel Davenport had had made to order. The Red Room had a red carpet and long red portieres; the Green Room had the same in faded green. In each room hung an elaborate crystal chandelier, and each had a marble fireplace over which gaped an enormous gilt mirror. These mirrors were so large they almost covered the side walls, making the rooms seem twice as spacious as they really were. When the doors were wide open the hall was flooded with light; when they were closed, as they were now, one groped his way through nubian blackness, hoping for the best.”

Click this link to see real photos of the mansion, including scans of the original blueprints

Leavenworth Mansion, first and second floors

Leavenworth Mansion, first and second floors

As the breakfast scene progresses, we learn that Doctor Mac often had his breakfast in bed because of a chronic cough he inherited from his service in World War I. On this particular day, however, he decides to join the rest of the family in the breakfast room, “the small bright cubicle behind the Green Room which the MacLeans used for all family meals because it seemed cozier and more convenient to the kitchen than the large state dining room across the hall.”

Here’s how Janet Van Duyn describes each of the characters, in order of appearance:

Dr. George MacLean – (Dr. John Van Duyn in real life, the recipient of my ebay love letters.) “There was a commotion on the stairs that sounded like the noise of several people descending rapidly. It also sounded like the special noise my husband, George, made whenever he had a tilt with stairs. He came bounding into the room looking like an Arrow collar model gone wrong. Like Doctor Mac, George was also a physician and was making impatient preparations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Someday he’d become one of Parthia’s leading surgeons.” (George is a high-energy, fiercely-competitive, absent-minded professor. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, especially with this line, “Aw, just leave me Dick Tracy, won’t you Binnie? I’ll take it up to him later.”)

Pim MacLean – (Constance Van Duyn in real life, John’s younger sister. She attended the same boarding school as the author and was the maid of honor in John and Janet’s wedding. She was also an actress, puppeteer, and fortune-teller in her day.) “The seductive Levantine Princess—at least that—paused in the doorway, fluttered a hand condescendingly in Binnie’s direction, then advanced into the room with a dignity which remained impressive despite the clack-clack of common flapping mules. She was arrayed in a brilliant Japanese kimona and the large orange poppies embellishing it flashed and danced as she swayed voluptuously over the table. Stately and perfectly poised, with slanting green eyes, and an aggressive chin gallantly supported by a firm jaw, she gave the general impression of being what a Levantine Princess loos like before breakfast—until you noticed that her neck was draped with what appeared to be a string of freshly caught fish—silver perch.” (Pim is easily bored, especially with her frequent male suitors.)

Doctor Mac – (Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn in real life. ) “He was a short, stocky man with thinning white hair. On his face was a perpetual scowl, but it denoted absorption in what he was doing, not ill-humor. When he walked he bent over slightly, as if he thought that by doing so he would arrive at his destination more quickly. At the moment his destination was obviously breakfast, and no more fuss. He stumped over to the table and began to cough. The toaster had started to smoke again. He flipped out a slice of blackish toast and burned his fingers as he did so.” (Doctor Mac is a curmudgeony old coot who plays a mean hand of bridge, but has very little patience and even less bedside manner.)

Carrie – (Lucy Leavenworth Van Duyn in real life.) “Carrie now came into the breakfast room. She’d taken the time to dress, a good three minutes at the outside. Her dress was on wrong side out, her hair was combed and arranged in front but hung in long, gray locks down her back. My mother-in-law was a handsome woman, with straight, prominent features and flowing light brown eyes. Her body was thin and wiry and she had the kind of slimness that makes clerks in specialty shops say enviously: “Madame does not need a corset; the Lord has given her one.” (Carrie is the tie that binds this family together, yet she’s as funny and eccentric as they come. She’s loves to entertain and jumps at any opportunity to swing from the chandeliers, even if she’s entertaining heads of state.)

Next time… a few more of my favorite excerpts from the book, as well as my conversation with Dr. John Van Duyn’s daughter.

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Love Letters, Chapter 7

The General Leavenworth Mansion – Syracuse, New York

New here? Start from the beginning….

This story started with a pair of love letters I found for sale on ebay. They were written in 1949 by a woman named Ruth Ives of White Plains, New York, and addressed to a Dr. John Van Duyn of Duluth, Minnesota. I bought them with the intent of finding the original owners (or their families) and returning them. Easy… especially since I live in Minnesota.

Or so I thought.

As it turns out, Dr. John Van Duyn wasn’t from Minnesota at all. I’m still not clear exactly how he ended up in Duluth, Minnesota in 1949 (still working on that), but I’ll get to that later. What I did learn from the 1920 U.S. Census and other data available on, is that Dr. John Van Duyn was a third generation surgeon from Syracuse, New York. He belonged to a prominent family there, and lived in a historic mansion at 607 James Street.

(A mansion, you say? Oh yes, a mansion.)

Leavenworth Mansion

Leavenworth Mansion, 1934 - Syracuse, New York

It was known as the Leavenworth Mansion, named after Dr. John Van Duyn’s maternal grandfather, Elias Warner Leavenworth. Leavenworth was born in Canaan, NY in 1803 and graduated from Yale in 1824. He went on to study law, and was admitted to the bar in 1827. In 1850, he moved to Syracuse and married the daughter of Judge Joshua Forman, the founder of Syracuse. In 1836 he was appointed Brigadier General of Militia, and in 1849, served Syracuse as the city’s second mayor.

Work began on the Leavenworth Mansion in 1839, while Leavenworth was President of Syracuse Village. It was designed by architect Deacon Elijah Hayden, one of the first architects in Syracuse, and was completed in 1842. You can read much more the Leavenworth Mansion on the “Syracuse Then and Now” web site.

On September 2, 1945, the Leavenworth Mansion was featured on the front page of the Syracuse Herald-American. The article was the first in a series concerning historic houses in the Syracuse vicinity.

Syracuse Herald American, 1945

The Leavenworth Mansion was featured in a 1945 article in the Syracuse Herald-American

“A sacred spot – in the sense of beauty – to Syracuse, and for that matter, to the world, is a noble mansion which stands at the corner of James and North McBride Streets…”

“Technically, it is known as the General Leavenworth mansion; colloquially it is called the Van Duyn house…”

“From a home standpoint, it might be well to consider that this is where Dr. Edward Seguin Van Duyn makes his residence with Mrs. Van Duyn. He is the present head of a family internationally famous, but “Who’s Who in America” states simply that he is a surgeon, born in Syracuse, Aug. 20, 1872, the son of John and Sarah (Faulks) Van Duyn. He was graduated from Syracuse University with an M.D. degree in 1897 and married Lucy Leavenworth Ballard on Feb. 4, 1903. Their children are listed as Mary L., John and Constance.”

The article goes on to talk about Janet (Dunning) Van Duyn’s book, I Married Them, which was published the same year as the article.

“Now comes the version in a book entitled “I Married Them,” by Janet Van Duyn. On an introductory page is the warning: “This is a work of fiction. While certain aspects of its background and its characters are drawn from experience, it is not intended as a factual or biographed report in any sense.”

“Then the author, described on the publisher’s jacket as ‘blonde, blue-eyed, cool, detached,’ has this to say in her opening chapter, called “The Toast Is Burning:”

“The house on the corner of East Hall Street and Sullivan Hill was no exception; there was plenty of smoke and soot with which to woo the Greek Temple that was the home of the Doctors MacLean.”

“This mansion of an architecture known as ‘pure Greek’ – from which the American Colonial is said to have been adapted – crowned the top of three ragged terraces and was approached by a flight of irregular stone steps guarded, half way up, by two ferocious bronze lions. Built in the eighteen thirties by Col. Jonas Davenport, the maternal grandfather of the man I married, its high Ionic columns and gabled roof gave it a purity of line and dignity which neither the ravages of time nor the onslaught of soot has been able to destroy. A century ago the house had been beautiful and imposing; now even though the blinds sagged and the lawn was unkempt, it still retained a certain grandeur.”

Next time… my favorite excerpts from Janet Van Duyn’s book (it’s very funny)…

Read next chapter…

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Love Letters, Chapter 6

Author Janet Dunning’s extraordinary glimpse into “the life Van Duyn”

New here? Start from the beginning….

I’m back! As promised, I have much to share about my Love Letters story. As you recall from my last post, the Van Duyns of Syracuse, New York were a prominent family known for three generations of physicians: Dr. John S. Van Duyn (1843-1934), Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn (1872-1955), and Dr. John J. Van Duyn (1905-1986). The set of love letters that I purchased on ebay were addressed to the youngest of the Dr. Van Duyns, a well known surgeon who was living and practicing in Duluth, Minnesota at the time. (Why? I’ll get to that in a bit.)

Ruth Ives, the author of the letters, was living in White Plains, New York at the time she sent the letters to Dr. John Van Duyn in September of 1949. She’d grown up in White Plains originally, but had spent the previous several years as a faculty member at Syracuse University, which is, presumably, where she met Dr. Van Duyn (also a faculty member there).

My obvious question was (still), did John and Ruth ever get married?

In Ruth’s second letter, she gives a hint that, if they were to get married, this would not be John’s first marriage. She says, “Sunday must have been very difficult for you without the kids; I thought about you lots.” I wondered who his first wife was, who the children were, and what they were all doing living in Duluth, Minnesota in 1949.

I started Googling.

On the front page of the Society section of the December 22, 1935 issue of the Syracuse Herald, the headline reads:

Young Syracuse Physician Marries Daughter of David M. Dunning, Jr. of Auburn

…Dr. Van Duyn 2d Takes Bride in Home Ceremony
…Member of Widely-Known Syracuse Family Marries Janet H. Dunning
…Rev. Dr. Charles F. Thwing, President of Western Reserve University Officiates

One of the most important of the weddings of the holiday season was that of Miss Janet Hutchinson Dunning, daughter of David Montgomery Dunning, Jr., of Auburn, to Dr. John Van Duyn, 2nd, son of Dr. and Mrs. Edward S. Van Duyn of James Street, which was solemnized Saturday afternoon at 4 o’clock at the home of the bride’s grandfather, David Montgomery Dunning, in Auburn.

The Rev. Dr. Charles Franklin Thwing, president emeritus of Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, and an uncle of the bride, read the service. Mrs. Charles Kruger of East Orange, N.J. attended the bride as matron of honor, and Miss Constance Van Duyn of Syracuse, sister of the bridegroom, was maid of honor.

Now that I had a name, Janet H. Dunning, I was able to do some more Googling. It turns out, Janet H. Dunning (aka Janet Van Duyn), is a published author. I found her biography in a 2002 publication titled Contemporary Authors (Publisher: Tom Gale):

Family: Born September 23, 1910, in Auburn, NY; daughter of David Montgomery and Ruth (Bartlett) Dunning; married John Van Duyn (a surgeon), December, 1935 (divorced, 1949); two daughters. Education: Vassar College, A.B., 1932. Politics: “Registered independent.” Religion: “Also independent.” Memberships: British Museum, Egypt Exploration Society (London, England), Browning Institute (Florence, Italy). Addresses: Home: 135 Lyons Plain Rd., Weston, CT 06883.

Writer, beginning 1968. Janet Van Duyn told CA: “I have done some teaching of English and writing. I have done library work (research), storytelling in the New York Public Library (my first job). I stayed cooped up in many types of worthy offices until the children grew up, but I confess I never really enjoyed any job until I was able to pursue my interests in research and writing. That has all happened recently.”

I Married Them (humorous novel), Howell, Soskin, 1945.
The Egyptians (for young people), McGraw, 1970.
The Greeks (for young people), McGraw, 1972.
Builders on the Desert (children’s history), Messner, 1973.

Looking over the list of Ms. Van Duyn’s published works, I wondered about the title of the first book on the list, I Married Them. I wondered if it was, by any chance, a reference to life with the Van Duyn family in Syracuse. On a whim, I did a quick search for the novel, and found a rare copy for sale on ebay. I paid $1.00 for it, plus shipping.

I can truly say, without a doubt, that this $1.00 was the best investment I’ve ever made in my entire life. This book was such a great read! It was published in 1945, ten years after Janet Dunning’s marriage to Dr. John Van Duyn, and four years prior to the couple’s divorce. Although the first page claims that the book is a work of fiction and that “while certain aspects of its background and its characters are drawn from experience, it’s not intended as a factual or biographical report in any sense”, it’s clear to even the casual observer that this is a page-by-page account of daily life with the eccentric Van Duyn family.

I should make it clear that this book isn’t a slam to the Van Duyns by any means… at least that’s not how I perceived it. (In fact, they remind me a lot of my own family.) Instead, Janet Van Duyn is a very talented and witty author who is spot-on at character development and actually made me LOL at several points during the book.

I Married Them tells the story of the “MacLean” (Van Duyn) family of “Parthia” (Syracuse), New York, who lives in a Greek-revival style mansion on the corner of “East Hall Street” (James Street) and “Sullivan Hill” (North McBride Street). The “MacLeans” were a prominent family with three generations of physicians, starting with “Gramp” (John Van Duyn, 1st), his son “Doctor Mac” (Edward S. Van Duyn), and his grandson “George” (John Van Duyn, 2nd). The novel is told from the point of view of “Janet” (Janet Dunning), the new/young wife of Dr. George MacLean who moves in with the family and lives at the mansion after the couple is married. Also living at the house with them are “Pim” (the Van Duyn’s youngest daughter Constance, mentioned in the wedding announcement above… Janet’s maid of honor), “Aunt Grace” (not sure exactly who this is, but she’s a semi-permanent boarder/artist who comes and goes during the story), and “Brunch” the dog (who’s real name is Ted-dee-boop and even makes his own appearance on the Society pages in a photo with Constance at a dog show for the local Kennel Association. See below).

Constance Van Duyn with Ted-dee-boop
CAPTION: “Among the dogs and exhibitors to take part in the show at the Coliseum next Sunday are: Miss Constance Van Duyn of 607 James Street with the chow, “Ted-dee-boop, upper left…”

I have much more to share about this novel in my next post (including photos of the real life mansion and some my favorite LOL moments in the book), as well as news from one of the Van Duyn’s daughters who knew Ruth Ives and has agreed to answer my questions!

Stay tuned…

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Love Letters, Chapter 5

New here? Start from the beginning

Dr. John Van Duyn – third in a line of prominent Syracuse physicians

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season, filled with family, friends, peace and celebration. We had a great Christmas and are looking forward to New Year’s Eve when my husband and I will attempt to prepare our first-ever Crown Roast for a small group of friends. (Seriously, how hard can it be?) More on that next time.

Since I blogged last, I have attempted to contact Ruth Ives’ niece who currently lives in California. So far, no luck, but I’ll keep trying. In the meantime, here’s some more background on the recipient of Ruth’s love letters, Dr. John Van Duyn of Duluth, Minnesota.

Edward Seguin Van Duyn, M.D. (1872-1955) Administrator of the Syracuse State School and the middle of three generations of prominent Syracuse physicians.

As it turns out, our Dr. John Van Duyn seems to have been just “passing through” Duluth in 1949. He is actually a third generation physician from the prominent Van Duyn family of Syracuse, New York. Like his father, and his grandfather before him, he attended Princeton University and went on to serve as a physician and faculty member at Syracuse University. Today in Syracuse, there is a county-owned skilled nursing facility named after the family: Van Duyn Home and Hospital.

The following excerpt details the life of Dr. John Van Duyn’s grandfather, also named John Van Duyn, and is taken from the book Encyclopedia of Biography of New York: A Life Record of Men and Women of the Past, Volume 4 by Charles Elliott Fitch.

VAN DUYN, John, M. D.,
Civil War Veteran, Physician.

One of the foremost members of the medical fraternity of Syracuse, Dr. John Van Duyn, in whom the public has long reposed trust and confidence of his skill, was born in Kingston, New York, July 24, 1843, a son of Abraham and Sarah Van Duyn.

His early education, which was of a literary and classical nature, finally led to his graduation from Princeton in the class of June, 1862, and thus broadly equipped, he undertook the study of his profession, having paved the way to success by first learning the power of expressing himself.

His degree of M. D. was received from the Kentucky School of Medicine. At that time he enlisted his services in defence of his country, was a member of the medical cadet corps, and upon receiving his medical degree he became assistant surgeon in the United States Volunteers, and continued as such until the fall of 1865. After the war, Dr. Van Duyn turned his attention to building up a practice, locating at first in the State of New Jersey, where he remained until the year 1868, when he removed to Syracuse, New York, this move being due to his relations with Dr. Wilbur, the founder of the State Idiot Asylum, who offered him the position of physician to that institution, in which capacity he served for a short period of time. He then engaged in private practice in Syracuse, which in due course of time became both extensive and important. He has also taught in the Medical School of Syracuse University since its establishment, and his ability as an educator has found no fewer encomiums than his ability in the art of healing. Many are the scholars who will pass along the secrets of his vast knowledge, for as a teacher Dr. Van Duyn has given as freely of his gifts as he has received them. He was one of the originators and founders of the Syracuse Free Dispensary and of the Hospital of the Good Shepherd, serving the latter institution in the cacapity of surgeon. He is also surgeon for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. He is a member of the Syracuse Academy of Medicine, of the American Ophthalmological Society, of the American Otological Society and of the New York State Medical Association. He is president of the University Club of Syracuse, president of the Princeton Club of Central New York, a member of the Hospital Association, of the Onondaga Country Club, of the Ka-Noo-No Karnival Company, of the Automobile Club, of the Loyal Legion, and of the Grand Army of the Republic. In Masonry he has taken all the degrees of the York Rite and has attained the thirty-second degree in the Scottish Rite. He has, moreover, given of his time as commissioner of education and as health officer, in both of which offices he rendered valuable service. In February, 1915, the Syracuse Academy of Medicine and the Onondaga County Medical Society gave an entertainment in honor of the completion of his fiftieth year in the practice of medicine.

Dr. Van Duyn married, December 1, 1866, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Sarah Faulks, who bore him two sons and one daughter, namely: Edward Seguin, Wilbur, and Gertrude, who became the wife of E. F. Southworth, of Syracuse. Edward Seguin Van Duyn was born in August, 1872; graduated from the Syracuse High School, class of 1889; Princeton University, class of 1894; Syracuse Medical College, class of 1897; Rhode Island Hospital, 1899, and studied in New York and abroad during the years 1900 and 1901. He is professor of clinical surgery at the Syracuse University Medical School, surgeon of the Hospital of the Good Shepherd and of the Syracuse Free Dispensary, consulting surgeon of the Ogdensburg State Institution, president of the board of managers of the Syracuse State Institution for the Feeble Minded, and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Professor Edward S. Van Duyn had conferred on him the degrees of B. S., M. D. and F. A. C. S. Mrs. Van Duyn died December 21, 1915. For many years she was prominent in social circles of Syracuse. She was a member of the Fortnightly Club, of which she was one of the founders, and the Social Arts Club. She was widely known in church circles and took an active interest in causes of religious and charitable natures.

The Rev. Dr. A. H. Fahnestock, pastor of the First Ward Presbyterian Church, a cousin of Mrs. Van Duyn, officiated at the funeral services and interment was in Oakwood Cemetery.

The demands made upon Dr. Van Duyn by his profession have left him little time to lead what might be generally termed a social life. But this man, to whom so many have come in time of need to profit by what he has learned through wide study, research, investigation and experiment, can claim undoubtedly more of a place in the hearts of the people than one who has striven merely to be socially popular.

Next time… more on Dr. John Van Duyn’s first wife, author Janet Dunning Van Duyn

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Love Letters, Chapter 4

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An introduction to Dr. John Van Duyn

I’m hunkered down at my parents’ house this weekend, waiting out a big Minnesota snowstorm. I’d driven in yesterday, with plans to make 25 pounds of Swedish meatballs today with my mom. The meatball extravaganza will start later this morning; then it’s anyone’s guess whether I’ll be able to make the two hour drive home again. Guess we’ll cross that snowdrift when we come to it.

A word to all the Minnesota Christmas tree farmers and retailers out there… we feel your pain! For those of you who don’t know me, my family has been growing and selling Christmas trees my entire life. In Minnesota, this is the third weekend in a row we’ve had a Friday-Saturday snow storm, and when you only have those three weekends each year to make a living… well, you see the dilemma. Make a tree farmer happy and go buy a real tree on Monday.

Now… a brief recap of my Love Letters story.

Last month, I purchased a lot of two love letters on ebay, postmarked 1949 from White Plains, New York. They were written by a woman named Ruth Ives, and addressed to a Dr. John Van Duyn who was living/practicing in Duluth, Minnesota. Being an avid genealogist myself, my hope was to find Ruth Ives, or her family, and return the letters. I’m still working on that.

In the meantime, I wanted to know more about Dr. John Van Duyn, and whether his family was still living in Duluth. I had previously done a quick search for John Van Duyn on, using 1920 as an approximate birth date, and Minnesota as a birth location. I found some Van Duyns living in South Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio, but nothing looked promising. I restricted my search to U.S. census data only, and noticed there were no Van Duyns living in Duluth on the 1910, 1920, or 1930 census. That told me he’d probably been born somewhere else and moved to Duluth sometime after 1930.


You may be wondering why I didn’t bother checking the 1940 census, since these letters were postmarked in 1949. To protect the privacy of living U.S. residents, there is a 72 year privacy mandate on all U.S. census data, so it’s not yet possible to check the 1940 U.S. Census for John Van Duyn. Of course, if you’re a genealogist, the date April 2, 2012 is especially significant to you. That’s when the 1940 census is officially released to the public. (Hoo ahh.) I’m assuming will be experiencing some serious server crashes on that day.


However, now that I knew more about Ruth Ives, I was able to narrow down my search for John Van Duyn a bit more. First, I knew she’d been born in 1917, so instead of using a birth date of 1920, I tried 1915, plus or minus 5 years.

I scrolled past several records for Van Duyns living in South Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio, and then I recognized something… an odd word I’d seen somewhere before… “Onondaga.” It was the name of a county in Syracuse, New York. I clicked on the record, and it took me to a page from the 1920 U.S. Census, showing the Edward and Lucy Van Duyn family, with children Mary, age 16, John, age 14, and Constance, age 9. They also had a 51 year old servant living with them, and a 37 year old boarder named Alice David. Sounded like the Van Duyns were pretty well-off in 1920.

I went back to my original search results, and noticed something else that jumped out at me… a John Van Duyn from Syracuse, New York listed on the U.S. School Yearbooks Index. I clicked on the record, and there was that word again… Onondagan… I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. That’s the name of Syracuse University’s yearbook, the one where I’d found a photo of Ruth Ives from 1947.

This record took me to a page from the 1932 Onondagan Yearbook, showing the current members of Nu Sigma Nu, a medical fraternity. Though he wasn’t included in the photo, John Van Duyn was listed, along with his father, Edward Van Duyn, as “Members in Faculty” of Syracuse University. So, there you have it. Our Dr. John Van Duyn was a member of the faculty at Syracuse University… the same school where Ruth Ives (the author of the love letters) was also a faculty member.

I went back to my search results once more and found a 20 year old John Van Duyn listed in the 1929 volume of the Bric A Brac Yearbook from Princeton University. I knew it was the right John Van Duyn since his address matched that of the 1920 U.S. Census – 607 James Street, Syracuse, New York.

I still hadn’t found a photo yet, but I was building a timeline. John Van Duyn was born sometime around 1909. In 1929, he was attending Princeton University for his undergraduate work, and by 1932, he was a member of the medical faculty at Syracuse University.

I scrolled down a bit farther in my list of search results and found two more records for John Van Duyn. The first one was on the New York Passenger Lists. On June 13, 1922, John Van Duyn, age 16, arrived in New York City from Cherbourg, France. His birth date was listed as July 24, 1905, address 607 James Street in Syracuse. Interestingly, he was traveling with another John Van Duyn, presumably his grandfather, who shared the same birthday as young John Van Duyn, July 24, 1843. He was 78 years old, living at the same address as young John, and born in Kingston, New Jersey.

The next record was a listing of Georgia Deaths from 1919-1998. John Van Duyn, age 80 years, died on January 10, 1986 in Muscogee County.

So, I now knew that both the author and the recipient of my love letters had passed away. In order to return the letters, I’d need to re-focus my search on living family members.

Well… it’s time to make the meatballs. I’d like to wish everyone who reads my blog a very Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. I’ll try to blog again soon, though I’m hopelessly behind on “all things Christmas” this year. I’ll try to squeeze in a few lines in the next few days… in between shopping, baking, shipping… etc.

Next time… much more about Dr. Van Duyn (and I don’t just mean John!), and my progress on trying to track down Ruth Ives’ family.

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Love Letters, Chapter 3

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An introduction to Ruth L. Ives

In 1949, Ruth Ives was 32 years old, living in Syracuse, New York. A native of White Plains, near New York City, I was curious how/why she’d ended up in Syracuse… a city in Central New York, about 150 miles east of Buffalo. I started Googling.

Syracuse Herald Journal - January 8, 1947

I found a few mentions of Ruth Ives in the Syracuse Herald Journal where I learned she served as the director of the Opera Workshop at Syracuse University. In an article dated January 8, 1947, which included a photo, the paper reported that Miss Ruth Ives would be singing five folk songs for an alumni gathering at the Syracuse Hotel. She would also be directing her students in a production of a playlet titled, “The Frantic Physician.” Click the thumbnail at right to read the whole article.

I found another photo of Ruth Ives from the Syracuse University yearbook, dated 1947. Miss Ives was also mentioned in the 1949 yearbook (the same year the love letters were written) in this description of the Opera Workshop, for which she was the director:

Ruth Ives, Onandagan Yearbook - 1947

Ruth Ives, Onandagan Yearbook, 1947

“The Opera Workshop, under the direction of Miss Ruth Ives, was started at Syracuse in 1946. The main goal of the Opera Workshop is to develop an American musical theater in the medium between grand opera and musical comedy. When the Opera Workshop sponsors a production it tries to appeal to present-day American audience by presenting the opera in english. Most of its productions are written by contemporary composers and it goes a step further by encouraging students to write original operas which are produced by Opera Workshop.”

I found one other mention of Ruth Ives, in the 2009 obituary of her brother, Edward “Sandy” Ives. You may recall in Ruth’s second letter she referred to her brother Sandy when she was asking John Van Duyn about his new car: “Do tell me more about the car. What color is it? Is it four door? Dad and Sandy say that 4000 miles is practically brand new.”

It turns out Ruth’s younger brother, Sandy, was a respected English professor who took up an interest in folklore and folksong history while he was teaching at the University of Maine. He became a respected author, historian, performer, and recording artist of northeast/northwoods folksongs. Heres a snippet from Sandy’s obituary, published in the Bangor Daily News on August 4, 2009:

Edward D. “Sandy” Ives passed away peacefully Aug. 1, 2009, at his home. Sandy was born Sept. 4, 1925, in White Plains, N.Y., the son of Warren L. and Millicent (Dawson) Ives. In addition to his loving family, he leaves behind a legacy of songs, stories and cherished memories among the countless people whose lives he touched as teacher, researcher, writer and friend. He was predeceased by his parents; an infant brother, Baby John; and his beloved sister, Ruth.

By now, I had a pretty good idea of who Ruth Ives was. From her letters, we know she’d moved back to White Plains from Syracuse in 1949 and was working at Altman’s Department Store in the cosmetics department. She was a fairly good tennis player, a terrible bridge player, and she was very much in love with a doctor by the name of John Van Duyn, working at the Arrowhead Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota.

So, who was this mysterious Dr. John Van Duyn? How did they ever meet? Did they ever work out their differences and get married? More next time…

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Love Letters, Chapter 2

Who’s “Poul”?

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Both of the letters I’d purchased were signed “Love, Poul” and I was curious to know who “Poul” was. The return address on the envelope said “R. Ives,” so I figured “Poul” must be some kind of nickname. I’d never heard it before, so I ran the word through Google Translator, and when I clicked “detect language,” it gave me Danish for the origin of the word. Unfortunately, the English translation was also “poul,” so I still have no idea what it means. However, it may stand to reason that it would be a Danish/Dutch term of endearment, since the recipient’s last name is Van Duyn… a Dutch name. (Incidentally, “mon poulet” is a French term of endearment and means “my chicken.” Probably similar to that.)

I assumed the recipient of the letters, “Dr. John Van Duyn” of Duluth, Minnesota, would be easy to find on Not so. I found a few Van Duyns living elsewhere in the state, but none in Duluth. So, I put that name on back burner for a while and concentrated instead on “R. Ives” living in White Plains, New York.

I tried looking for “R. Ives,” gender female, with a keyword of “White Plains,” but no luck. Too many hits, and none with a first name starting with “R”. I tried restricting my search to just Census records, but still no luck… too many hits, and no “R” first names. Then, I tried taking a stab at her birth date. This letter was sent in 1949, so I assumed she was about 25, give or take 5 years. Still nothing. Finally, I went back to my original search and checked the box that said “Exact” next to my keyword phrase “White Plains.”


I found 12 year old “Ruth Coes” on the 1930 census living in White Plains, New York with her father Warren, mother Millicent, and younger brother Edward, age 4. They had misspelled the family’s name. In brackets under the search results, it said [Ruth Ives].

I still didn’t know for sure that this was my “R. Ives,” so I opened up the file to look at the original census document.


As luck would have it, in 1930, the Ives family was living at the same address as the return address on the letter (sent nineteen years later): 107 Ralph Avenue, White Plains, New York.

I’d found my Poul. But… now the next question… was she still alive?

I went back and edited my search again. First name: Ruth. Last name: Ives. Birth: 1918 (plus or minus one year). Birth Location: New York.

I found a record on the U.S. Public Records index for a Ruth L. Ives living at 107 Ralph Avenue in White Plains, New York. Birth date: October 1, 1917.

I ran my search one more time, this time with the middle initial “L,” and the exact birth year of 1917. I found a record for Ruth Ives on the Social Security Death Index, born October 1, 1917. Died August 1975 in Maine.


I took a look at her birth date again, and wondered how close in age she was to Elena Duke Benedict. I checked back through my Villa Am Meer blog posts and discovered the craziest thing. Elena Duke Benedict (originally Elena Amaducci) was born September 11, 1917, also in White Plains, New York. They were born 20 days apart.

Now really, what are the chances of that?

They were probably schoolmates; maybe even friends. Now that I had a name, Ruth L. Ives, I’d be able to track down a lot more information, and potentially some living family members. And of course, there was still the mysterious “Dr. John Van Duyn” I would need to track down.

Color me giddy. My “happy mystery” is starting to get fun.

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Love Letters, Chapter 1

My darling…

New here? Start from the beginning…

In my quest to find a “happy mystery” (hopefully with a happy ending) I happened upon a set of love letters on ebay that I bid on and won. There are two letters, postmarked September 30, 1949 and October 4, 1949. (If you missed my previous post with pictures of the letters, view them here.)

I chose this particular set of letters (remarkably, there are many more for sale on ebay) because they’re from a woman in White Plains, New York, addressed to a doctor in Duluth, Minnesota. If you followed my Villa am Meer story, you’ll recall that Elena Duke Benedict, the owner of the Villa Am Meer property, was also born and raised in White Plains, New York, just like the author of these letters. And because I myself live in Minnesota… well, it just seemed like these were the letters I was meant to buy. Hopefully I can return them to their rightful owners.

To respect the author’s privacy, I am not including the full content of the letters. Suffice it to say, it seems the game of love was the same in 1949 as it is today. He loves me? He loves me not? I love him? I love him not? The author of the letters, “R. Ives,” questions John Van Duyn’s love for her, and seeks his reassurance. She views their relationship from every angle, analyzes past conversations, considers their future together, reads into every single word John Van Duyn says, and plots how she can change him into the perfect man. (Like I said, the dating game hasn’t changed much.) He, on the other hand, just wants to end the “word vomit” and tell her what she wants to hear. If only he could figure it out. Poor, simple soul.

We learn some clues to their personalities from these letters. The woman, “R. Ives,” was a tennis player and had just started working in the cosmetics department of Altman’s Department Store in White Plains. She was also a new Sunday School teacher at her church and trying to learn how to play bridge. It seems John Van Duyn was an avid bridge player and, in hopes of improving her game, had even given Ms. Ives his “Culbertson” (an instruction book written by world famous bridge player Ely Culbertson). His love of the game and her general lack of skill seemed to be a running joke between them.

By the second letter, it’s obvious that John Van Duyn had grown impatient with his girlfriend’s constant doubts and analysis. The couple appears to be on the brink of a break-up. Ms. Ives ends her letter by saying, “I think I’m beginning to accept you as you are, and I couldn’t love you more.”

So, who are these two people? Why was one living in White Plains, New York, and the other living in Duluth, Minnesota? Do they ever resolve their differences and get married?

Stay tuned to find out.

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My new “happy mystery”

For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a quest to find a new “happy mystery.” I wasn’t sure if I could actually find such a thing, but I knew right where to start… ebay.

For those of you who know me, you know that I’m an avid genealogist. I’ve done extensive research digging up the backstories of my own German, Swedish, and Norwegian ancestors. For me, finding names and dates isn’t good enough. The real meat is found in the stories of the people themselves… their dreams, their struggles, their tragedies, and their passions. The best finds are primary sources like letters, journals, and… the Holy Grail of all genealogy quests… a family Bible.

Edling Family Bible

Edling Family Bible

If your family is lucky enough to own an antique Bible showing the births, marriages, and deaths of your fellow family members, consider yourself blessed. For one thing, these beautiful books are true works of art. I’ve run across two such Bibles in my own family research, and in both cases, the craftsmanship of the cover, binding, illustrations, and printed pages is truly impressive. “They just don’t make them like they used to,” so to speak. The other reason these family Bibles are such a great find is that they often give a complete genealogical record of all births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths of family members whose records weren’t tracked in the days before hospital births, newspaper announcements, and the Social Security Administration. In these cases, finding a family Bible is like hitting the ancestry jackpot.

So, imagine my surprise when, a few years ago, I happened-upon a family Bible for sale on ebay. I can’t remember how I ran across it exactly… it must have shown up in a random Google search that I was doing at the time. However, after a little more searching, I learned there are a LOT of family Bibles for sale on ebay. I couldn’t believe it. How did these historic family relics end up on the auction block? Surely the family members would want them back, wouldn’t they?

I decided my new “happy mystery” would be to purchase one of these Bibles and return it to its rightful owner. That all sounded very valiant and fun until I was outbid on every item I tried to purchase. It turns out that being a do-good-Bible-returner is an expensive franchise.

So, on a whim, I decided to do another ebay search… this time for “love letters.” Again, much to my surprise, it turns out ebay is full of antique love letters for sale. How exciting! These would be even more fun to return to their rightful owners!

I took some quick glances at a few of the descriptions, and immediately saw the letters I wanted to buy. They were written by a woman from White Plains, New York and sent to a doctor in Duluth, Minnesota. (Remember White Plains, New York? That’s where Elena Duke Benedict was from.) I decided it was a sign… so I hit the “Buy It Now” button and shelled out $12.49 for both letters.

Here’s the description included on ebay:

SEPTEMBER 60, 1949
OCTOBER 4, 1949

Of course, I was curious about all kinds of things. Did they ever end up getting married? How did they know each other? Why were they living so far apart? What differences were they trying to work out? Sounded like a good, happy mystery to me… or so I hope.

I’ve already done some preliminary research and am busy piecing together the story of these two people who were in love in 1949. Much more to come in my next few posts… stay tuned!

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