Thursday, April 3, 2008
Bird in a Gilded Cage
In this 1906 photo of my aunt Rose, she is posed with her oldest brother, Charlie Sitzler. She is dressed in her wedding finery, bought for her by her soon-to-be husband, “Doc” Rudolph, physician and surgeon, a rich man in his forties. Rose is sixteen years old. Her brother will walk her down the aisle, since her father died many years ago.
This photo is one of the saddest I have ever seen. Look at the expression on Rose’s face. Does she look like a happy bride? It is probably the most miserable day of her young life.
Her mother, my usually wise Grandmother Sitzler but raised in a different culture in 19th century Germany, has told Rose that this marriage is a wonderful opportunity for her. How else could she get the musical training that her lovely voice deserves?
My grandmother, with her seven children, was barely making ends meet on the family dairy farm near Baldwin, Kansas. The oldest two, Charlie and Ida, had to leave school to help. But Grandma is determined that the younger ones, at least, will have better opportunities. Dr. Rudolph has promised to see that Rose has excellent voice teachers and that she can go to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he lived and had his practice.
Dr. Rudolph obviously adored his young wife. He showered her with jewelry and every other luxury. They took trips to Europe, bringing home works of art and antique furniture. She did, indeed, complete a degree in musicology at K.U. Uncle Doc arranged recitals to show off her talents.
She had maids, and the means to send spectacular gifts to her relatives, most of whom eventually moved to California. I remember one Christmas when my gift from Aunt Rose was a beautiful German doll with bisque head and eyes that opened and closed. That year she sent my mother a tortoise-shell vanity set.
I don’t know how much older Uncle Doc was than Aunt Rose, but it wasn’t surprising that he died while she was still in her forties. And suddenly she was free! She could move to California to join her mother and siblings. She admitted that, on the train to the west coast, she flirted with a handsome younger man, flashing her expensive diamonds to dazzle him. Before they reached the west coast he proposed to her, and they were married even before she joined her family.
This time it was true love for Rose, but it was a disastrous marriage. He rapidly went through her fortune. When her family attempted to intervene, she vociferously defended him. Eventually he simply abandoned her. The easy life of a rich man’s wife had not prepared her for the real world. She settled down miserably to wait for his return. Maybe she died of a broken heart, although the official cause was pneumonia.
My grandmother confessed to me that she had made a mistake by urging Rose to marry a man she didn’t love. By that time, in the 1930s, Grandma was thoroughly American, having even forgotten the German language (although she never lost her German accent).
I inherited boxes of sheet music from Aunt Rose. I was the only one who was interested in the old “art songs” that had been a large part of her repertoire.
And among them was the song I will always associate with that sad photo: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage...”.