Sophie, We Hardly Knew Ye

Washington College Alumni Magazine - Spring 2017

By Shane Brill '03 M'11

While the impact of the Sophie Kerr legacy is well known, details of Sophie Kerr's life have faded like the embroidered silk pillows plumping the sofa of her New York brownstone. Here's a glimpse of the woman who continues to surprise us.

We at Washington College know the trappings of her legacy. We know the Sophie Kerr Prize, the SK Scholarships, the SK Lecture Series, the SK Room, and Sophie's Cafe. We recognize her initials as readily as GW – an indication of the esteemed company in which we place our namesake.

Yet for all that we celebrate Sophie, each year obscures her beyond another layer of literary lore. "Who was Sophie Kerr?" a future student might inquire. Cats everywhere would gasp in dismay. Let's venture into her world, reappraising her gift to the College in the context of her life. And in the style, of course, of Sophie Kerr.

A map of Paris, dated 1731, hangs on the wall of her study. Rows of pine bookcases flank a solitary desk, where she sets a sheet in her typewriter. The din of New York's East 38th Street motorists can scarcely be heard through her concentration as she writes, as she has, every morning since resigning her position as managing editor of Woman's Home Companion.

At the height of her editorial career, days stretched into evenings with phones ringing, staff meetings, messenger boys, and pressmen seeking her input. With her own writing compressed to weekends, Sophie still managed to publish dozens of short stories in magazines from Collier's to Woman's Day – as well as her first three novels. And with 20 more novels to come, she enlisted a succession of cats for companionship. None particularly cared for her writing, except for Useless and Worthless, "My discreet, disdainful, decorative and delightful cats," to whom she dedicated the novel Tigers Is Only Cats.

Peerless Percy Perkins purred at Sophie's side next. Then Thomas Hardy, who has offered to guide us, gentle Reader, through her spacious brownstone while she completes her 19th novel. Finding her lap of less interest than the needlepoint chairs in the drawing room, he saunters down the circular mahogany staircase to sharpen his claws. Cellophane jackets! He sulks past the French chocolate pot that holds her after-dinner coffee and proceeds to the first floor dining room, bedecked with a collection of silver cups and plates of royal provenance, and antique silver perfume boxes once sniffed by fine ladies across Europe.

Our brief tour with Thomas Hardy ends at an expansive window overlooking an evergreen garden. From this vantage he can observe not only the occasional fauna, but visiting literati who savor Sophie's conversation as much as her epicurean meals.

He thinks absently of Spain. Why? Sophie recounted the best bread of her life at the inn of Ribadeo on her way from Oviedo to Coruna. Such gourmand proclivities she began cultivating not in her travels abroad, but as a child on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where she is about to return to receive an honorary degree from Washington College. The year is 1942, the 50th anniversary of coeducation at the tiny school.

To Chestertown by train, Sophie finds herself honored at Commencement alongside Mary Adele France – the first president of St. Mary's College – and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Among Sophie's accolades are a play produced on Broadway and subsequently made into a film, several screenwriting credits, best-selling novels, and hundreds of short stories, including a coveted O. Henry Award.

Afterward, when the honorees gather with dignitaries for a photograph, Sophie spies something out of frame that no one else sees, her eyes sincere in their amusement. Perhaps she feels lighthearted, being so close to her childhood home on a day reminiscent of long ago meadow picnics – ah, spring asparagus and strawberries with early peaches and young fryers.

As a girl on her family's homestead in Denton, she meandered along the banks of Poor Man's Run until it emptied into the Choptank River. She accompanied her father on the Joppa – the noon steamboat to Baltimore – where he sold plums that she packed in baskets so they wouldn't shake or crush. She helped him nail up small crates and stencil labels, and savored the rich smell of the fruit mixed with the smell of the new wood crates. She learned how to fasten bud grafts and tend truck crops. She discovered where to forage for wild persimmons and paw paws, where the southwest breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle through the osage orange hedge.

Evenings Sophie read by lamplight, indiscriminately voracious for all manner of books and magazines. Only 14 years old, she enrolled in the new Woman's College of Frederick, soon to be renamed Hood College. The summer before she graduated with its first baccalaureate class, her mother taught her how to bake bread on the family's wood stove with yeast extracted from grated raw potatoes.

After college, with a secondhand Underwood typewriter, Sophie wrote the first short stories she sold to Country Gentleman, Ladies' World, and Truth.

She enrolled in the University of Vermont for a year of graduate study with Professor of History Samuel Emerson, who partly blamed the admission of women to college for the declining "ideals of Culture and Humanities." At once humbled and inspired by his fierce opinions and intellect, Sophie praised the man for profoundly sharpening her mind.

From grad school she wrote correspondence pieces for the Pittsburgh Gazette, which led to a position on its staff. "No shamrock was ever half so green as I," or so she felt as she learned to maneuver through the disorder of the newsroom. Mentored by veteran staffers, by 22 she was editor of the "Woman's Sunday Supplement" of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times.

After a four-year marriage to civil engineer John D. Underwood, Sophie relocated to New York to begin her career as a magazine editor. Before quitting the job, she purchased the townhouse where she would spend the duration of her writing career.

By 1964, Thomas Hardy no longer sleeps on the satinwood furniture. Sophie has published the last of her 23 novels, a collection of Eastern Shore stories entitled Sound of Petticoats, and a cookbook. The World's Fair is in town, along with Washington College First Lady Helen Gibson and her daughter Jill. Sophie invites the pair to Murray Hill for lunch at her home.

They met a dozen years earlier when Sophie accepted Helen's invitation to address the Women's Literary League, which provides scholarships for Washington College students and materials for Miller Library. They remained friends with a shared appreciation for literature, arts, food, travel, and a deep fondness for trees – indeed, Helen was instrumental in creating the campus arboretum.

We do not know what the women discussed in the last year of Sophie's life. Nor do we know why Sophie chose to endow scholarships for Washington College students and materials for Miller Library. And the Sophie Kerr Prize, who knows?

But we can feel confident – absolutely confident – that they spoke of one thing. Sophie introduced her Chestertown guests to the last cat of her life: Zuzu.