Nothing screams elegance more than a string orchestra tucked behind the potted palms in the library.
The year 1907 was probably the last that Mattie Oates was so active in Santa Rosa’s elite society circle, hosting at least four gatherings at (what would become known as) Comstock House. The first was the grandest of all; a reception for two young women where a “stringed orchestra conceal from view by palms and other greenery, discoursed sweet music all afternoon, as the guests crowded the spacious rooms to be welcomed.” The “orchestra” was most likely a string quartet, given the size of the library, but it was a big step up from a record on the Victrola or a local girl whistling, which was the musical entertainment during the Oates’ 1905 housewarming.
This afternoon reception in mid May was to welcome two young women in town to visit relatives. The accounts of the party mention that Mattie had the help of a number of young women (a “bevy of pretty girls will also assist in the dining room,” wrote the Press Democrat’s society columnist), which were mostly the same 10-12 unmarried ladies that were regulars at parties for Anna May Bell, who was something of a godchild to the Oates.
Both of the young women honored at the party had families that were much in the newspapers at the time. Nineteen year-old Helen Chaffee was the daughter of Major General Adna Chaffee, who had retired the year before as Army Chief of Staff, having led troops in every U.S. military campaign in the latter half of the 19th century. A few years after the party, Helen became active in the Christian Science church, becoming President of The Mother Church for a year in 1947. She married at least twice, her last husband being Captain Alcott Farrar Elwell, son of renowned American sculptor Francis Edwin Elwell. (Her husband’s unusual first name was in tribute to his grandmother, Louisa May Alcott.)
Just a few days after this party, the other woman would be newsworthy for a more sordid reason, as her family landed center stage of one of the great scandals of that year. Dorothy (“Dot”) Pond was 31 and had married into a prestigious San Francisco family; her father-in-law was mayor of the city from 1887 to 1891 and ran for governor. But even while Dot was listening to the “sweet music all afternoon” at Comstock House, her brother-in-law, Edward – invariably described by the newspapers as a “prominent clubman” – had just gone missing, leaving $75,000 in debts (about $2 million today). Dot’s husband, a realtor, was left responsible to sort out the mess. “My brother is not a strong man,” he told the San Francisco Call in a front-page story a couple of weeks after the Santa Rosa party, vowing all creditors would be paid “although it may take a little time.” Edward was not heard from again (as far as I can tell), although there was a report that he later committed suicide in Los Angeles, which the family denied.
Thanks to Kurt Morris, researcher at The Mary Baker Eddy Library for details on Helen Chaffee’s role in The First Church of Christ, Scientist
WILL ENTERTAIN FOR TWO POPULAR GIRLS
Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will entertain at her pretty home on Healdsburg avenue next Wednesday afternoon in honor of Mrs. Samuel Pond and Miss Helen Chaffee. The latter is the daughter of General Adna R. Chaffee, and is visiting her relatives, Mr. and Mrs. James R. Edwards. Mrs. Pond was formerly Miss Dot Ames.
– Santa Rosa Republican, May 8, 1907
… Mrs. James Wyatt Oates has issued cards for a large reception to be given Wednesday afternoon between the hours of three and six, in honor of Mrs. Samuel Pond (nee Dorothy Ames) of San Francisco and Miss Chaffee of Los Angeles…A bevy of pretty girls will also assist in the dining room.
– Society Gossip by Dorothy Anne, Press Democrat, May 12, 1907
…The beautiful Oates residence was the scene of a brilliant reception last Wednesday afternoon upon which occasion Mrs. James Wyatt Oates charmingly entertained in honor of Mrs. Samuel Pond of San Francisco and Miss Helen Chaffee of Los Angeles. Under the supervision of Miss Blanche Hoffer the reception room had been effectively decorated with great bunches of pink hawthorne for the occasion, which made an artistic setting for the receiving party. In the library La France roses combined with delicate greenery formed the pretty decorative features, while in the dining room old-fashioned single yellow roses, used in great profusion, added to the splendor of the scene. The spacious hall, lighted by the soft colors cast by the sunshine though the large stained glass cathedral window, and had beautifully decorated with Shasta daisies, delicate bamboo, and large, red amaryllis lilies. After having met the guest of honor and spent an enjoyable time in social conversation and in listening to the music of a stringed orchestra, the guests were invited to the spacious dining room where elaborate refreshments were served. Receiving with Mrs. Oates were Mrs. S. S. Pond of San Francisco, Miss Helen Chaffee of Los Angeles, Mrs. S. S. Solomon, Mrs. James R. Edwards, Mrs. M. L. McDonald Jr., Mrs. Henry G. Hahman, Mrs. S. K. Dougherty, Mrs. William Martin, Mrs. Mary B. Marshall, Mrs. Charles Dwinell, Mrs. John P. Overton, Mrs. B. W. Paxton, Mrs. Julia Jordan, Mrs. Leslie Johnson, Mrs. Park Cunningham, Miss Helen Overton. Assisting Mrs. Oates were Miss Edith McDonald, Miss Bessie Woodward, Miss Irma Woodward, Miss Beatrice Overton, Miss Rena Edwards, Miss Zana Taylor, Miss Adelaide Parsons, Miss Nelly Hall, Miss Blanche Hoffer and Miss Jean Geary.
– Society Gossip by Dorothy Anne, Press Democrat, May 19, 1907
The reception given by Mrs. James Wyatt Oates at her beautiful home on Mendocino avenue last Wednesday afternoon between the hours of three to six, in honor of Miss Helen Chaffee of Los Angeles, and Mrs. Samuel Pond of San Francisco, was a large and brilliant social affair. The rooms were made to look very attractive by being beautifully decorated for the occasion, and noticeable among the flowers used in carrying out the decorative scheme were a number of Burbank’s most exquisite creations, that had been sent as gifts to Miss Chaffee, one of the fair guests of honor. A stringed orchestra conceal from view by palms and other greenery, discoursed sweet music all afternoon, as the guests crowded the spacious rooms to be welcomed by the receiving party, given an opportunity of meeting the guests of honor, and later being served to delicious refreshments in the dining room by a bevy of charming young ladies. The gowns of the hostess, guests of honor and the ladies assisting in receiving were elegant in texture, color and design, and the most elaborate to be worn here at any social function given this season. Mrs. Oates, who is one of our most charming society women, was assisted in receiving by the following ladies…
– Our Social Affairs by Madame Trice, Santa Rosa Republican, May 18, 1907