In retrospect, it makes absolutely no sense that we decided to leave out a woman known to have crammed her Fortuny gown into an overnight bag and tossed it into the rumble seat of a pea green Lincoln to motor up to Minneapolis for a party. She considered the tightly pleated silk dress to be eminently practical because it collapsed for packing into something akin to a short length of mooring rope and expanded for maternity wear.
During the thirties, Ellen and husband Gregory also liked to close down Manhattan's Stork Club on a Sunday night, where she and the other women would jostle one another on the dance floor, hoping to catch one of the red balloons released from a net near the ceiling. One time, her balloon contained a slip of paper giving her the grand prize, which she picked out herself from a shelf of real jeweled bracelets.
Steiglitz photo of his sister in a Fortuny looking much as Ellen (inset) would have.
In 1975, Ellen Douglas Williamson donated her Air Post Stamps of the World collection to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Two years later the college sold the collection at auction for $77,643 to augment an endowment she had started. Her Inverted Jenny—position 93 previously owned and apparently manhandled by Phillip Gillette Cole (who is in Stamp of the Century)—sold for $21,000; she’d paid $7,250. Given that the sale contained 357 lots, many of which included numerous individual stamps and sheets, she seems to have been at least a semi-serious collector.
The frustrating thing about searching the Internet for women is that they were often known by their husband’s name. After growing up Ellen Douglas, she became Mrs. George J. Jaeger and then Mrs. Gregory Williamson, even at her place of work for 26 years, Hazeltine & Perkins Drug Company of Grand Rapids. She got a New York Times obit for three breezy books she wrote as Ellen Douglas Williamson, but the article fails to note that she was a patent medicine, Quaker Oats, and refined corn products heiress. The article does mention that she was a patron of the Metropolitan Opera and a trustee of Coe College, but not that she was a philanthropist who gave away millions, including an even million to her alma mater, Vassar College.
Photos of her suggest a dark and somber mien, but books with titles like Wall Street Made Easy, Spend Yourself Rich, and When We Went First Class suggest otherwise. They read like they were written by Nick and Nora Charles, the crime-solving, Manhattan café-society tipplers in The Thin Man movies of the 1930s. And she seems to be having a fabulous life, though one would need a very large grubstake to follow her investment advice. Aside from the story of her Uncle Walter’s death on Titanic in her memoir about travel, her life sounds like one a person might trade for.
Ellen’s Scottish grandfather, George Douglas, was a founding partner in the cereal company that became Quaker Oats. Two of his sons, also got into linseed oil and then cornstarch, with Walter moving to Minneapolis and George staying in Cedar Rapids. George married Irene Hazeltine, whose physician father got into the patent medicine business with Wahoo Bitters, expanded to soda fountain supplies, and made big. Money flowed into the Douglas family from many directions.
Irene bound books for a hobby, and their three daughters roller-skated down hallways in their 21-room mansion. Ellen, the middle child, was always a writer; while Margaret sculpted; and baby Barbara, the beauty, entertained everyone at the harp, piano, and organ. Of course, there was the Titanic tragedy when Ellen was nearly seven, and Uncle Walter’s was the first body retrieved by CS Mackay-Bennett seven days after the sinking. Then, in 1919, the largest cornstarch factory in the world blew up when grain dust ignited, killing 43. Ellen leaves that out of her books along with fact that her dad stayed depressed for the next three years and then died of a stroke. His widow and daughters persevered with the help of a vast inheritance.
Perhaps it was Ellen’s small town divorce scandal and remarriage to Gregory Williamson of California that sent the couple to Manhattan and the Stork Club. Certainly, there the good life flourished, aside from his military stint taking him into the Normandy Invasion. Gregory Williamson enjoyed careers as president of the International Electronics Corporation, head of NBC radio, television director, and song lyricist who collaborated on lyrics to such hits as “More Than You Know,” which has been covered by more than 100 famous singers since it came out in 1929. Ellen’s stamp collecting may have been common knowledge, but we never encountered mention of it. So what? She was fabulous.