Nowadays in America, if you are a professional classical music critic who is also a woman, your name is probably Anne Midgette. Despite the important work done by women like Midgette, Claudia Cassidy, Nora Douglas Holt, Olga Samaroff, and others, classical music criticism in this country has traditionally been dominated by the voices of men.
St. Paul journalist Frances Corning Boardman was one of the exceptions. She stumbled into criticism – indeed, journalism itself – by accident, and relatively late in her life. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any kind of systematic assessment of her thirty years’ worth of contributions to the St. Paul Dispatch, much less a full biography. But the relatively little we do know about her paints a striking portrait.
Frances Corning Boardman was born on 17 November 1879 in St. Paul. She was the fourth child of Henry Augustus Boardman, Jr., and Ellen Rice Boardman. The family was well-off and well-connected. In fact, her mother was a niece of pioneer Henry Rice, after whom downtown St. Paul’s stately Rice Park is named.
Frances’s childhood can’t have been a very happy one; the Boardmans suffered one tragedy after another. An infant sibling died in 1887. A toddler brother drowned in White Bear Lake in 1886. (She would later remember being confused why everyone was so sad at his funeral; as she later told her niece, “He looked so nice as he lay in his little coffin and [I] thought they could just keep him there and look at him any time they wished.”) Her mother died in 1890, when Frances was ten, and an older sister died in 1891.
In addition to the string of tragedies, there are indications that her father was overly strict, or maybe even abusive. An older brother actually ran away from home, and Frances spent years as an adult trying to find him.
Her father remarried in 1894 to a widow named Cornelia Dayton Marshall, and the following August they had a baby boy named Lawrence. Henry and Cornelia weren’t particularly interested in parenting, and a 16-year-old Frances became a de-facto surrogate mother to her half-brother.
The St. Paul Globe noted in late August 1897 that Frances and her older sister Jessie would be attending the normal school in St. Cloud, Minnesota, during the 1897/98 school year. However, it’s unknown how long they stayed there, or how seriously either of them considered pursuing teaching careers.
Almost exactly two years later, in September 1899, the Globe reported that Frances had been officially introduced into St. Paul society:
The beautiful summer home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Boardman at Dellwood, White Bear Lake, was the scene of a very pretty gathering last evening as the occasion of the formal introduction of Miss Frances Boardman. Colored lanterns of the Japanese and Chinese pattern were strung around the house, and the wide veranda was aglow with light. A special car attached to the 7:30 train for White Bear carried about fifty people to Dellwood, returning at 10:30… The house was handsomely decorated with American beauty roses.
Frances, the paper noted, wore a gown of “figured organdie.”
Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t get married after her social debut. Instead, she went to work at St. Paul’s State Hospital for Indigent, Crippled, and Deformed Children, founded in 1897 by surgeon Dr. Arthur Gillette. The Hospital was meant especially for “children with orthopedic disorders whose parents could not afford treatment,” in the words of the Minnesota Historical Society. Frances taught the patients there, and praise for her work appeared several times in the St. Paul Globe. Her passion for music and drama was obvious even then:
She has done excellent work among the children. She not only gives practical and useful instruction but with the aid of a piano she does much to enable the children to pass away pleasantly what might otherwise be dreary days of confinement in the hospital. – 13 February 1901
Before the distribution of the [Christmas] gifts there was a programme of songs and recitations by the children under the direction of Miss Frances Boardman, directress of the kindergarten at the hospital. – 26 December 1902
By late November 1903, the month she turned twenty-four, she had decided to go east to train as a nurse. Sources differ as to whether she ended up in Baltimore or Philadelphia, but according to her niece, she stayed for six months. When she returned, she had a mysterious breakdown; she spent two months in bed. “I had to come home,” she later told her niece. “I thought my life was over.” When the 1905 state census was taken, she was living at home and listed as unemployed.
She was nearing thirty and had no idea what she’d be doing with the rest of her life. Luckily fate and her privilege intervened, and in 1909 she was offered a job that would blossom into a full-blown career. Charles Graskey, a friend of a maternal uncle, bought the St. Paul Dispatch, and for whatever reason, he wanted the quick-witted former nurse and teacher to write for him.
“I’d never touched a typewriter,” she later told her niece. “I didn’t know how you went about getting news or doing anything about a newspaper. It was unknown, completely unknown to me.”
A co-worker (also a woman, identity unknown) learned that Frances loved music and was a pianist. “She found out I was terribly interested in music and she used to let me go to the lesser events, to see what I could do about reporting them. Finally she gave up the department and I remember her saying that she hadn’t minded doing it except that she didn’t like music. So I did it.” (x) So it was that Frances found herself on the Twin Cities music beat. By the time the 1910 federal census rolled around, she was listed as a newspaperwoman.
Interestingly, it appears that she moved to Winnipeg in 1912 to work as the press agent for the Orpheum Theater. She only spent two years there, but she clearly left quite an impression. After she came back home to Minnesota in August 1914, the Manitoba Free Press ran a long glowing article raving over her talents:
Possessed of a personality which cannot be put in a nutshell, or squeezed to the dimensions of a neat epigram, Miss Frances Corning Boardman, Orpheum press representative for the last two years, suggests by antithesis everything that a bore is not.
…Miss Boardman came to Winnipeg from St. Paul, her home and the home of her family for three generations. To St. Paul she returned this week to continue her interrupted career of an out and out newspaper woman.
That it will really be a career, and not merely an occupation, there can be no doubt in the minds of those who have followed her work in Winnipeg. She has already had several years hard and thorough experience as musical and dramatic critic for a St. Paul daily.
But interviews were her especial joy and pride. And small wonder; for she has the gift of easy conversation with all sorts of people “from a chambermaid to a pope,” to use an expression of her own… So much so that it would scarcely seem a miracle to behold her draw forth interesting ideas from the very stones of the street…
And she did it – all of it, not merely satisfactorily, but brilliantly. Women press agents have been rare in the United States, and still more so in Canada. But Canada has now for two years had at least one abundantly successful one, to demonstrate what may be done by women in that grippingly fascinating profession.
The article also noted that she was a polyglot: “Another great advantage lay in her linguistic accomplishments which enabled her to gladden the homesick heart of many a ‘circuit rider’ from France, Germany, Holland, Italy, or even Japan, with some intercourse in his mother tongue.” Later, her fluency in French charmed no less than Sarah Bernhardt. (Frances instantly became a favorite of the French actress; she called Frances the “lovely lady who speaks French and has beautiful hands.”)
Despite the high regard in which she was held in Winnipeg, back in St. Paul, Frances was still working her way up the ranks at the Dispatch. Despite the fact that she was a Presbyterian with little knowledge of the Catholic Church, in 1918 she was assigned one of the most memorable stories of her career: the death of Archbishop John Ireland. “The two facts that my grandfather had known him and that I was on my feet were enough to qualify me. That was all the recommendation you needed in those days. If you could walk under your own steam, you were a good reporter.” (x)
She threw herself into the story. “For about two weeks I worked sixteen-hour days. He finally died and I thought I was going to beat him to the cemetery.” She later recounted that at the funeral, “I was so far gone with fatigue that I think I broke down completely at that point. An old nun, thinking I was grief-stricken, kissed me and said ‘I know, dear, it’s hard to lose him, but we mustn’t wish him back.’ I felt like saying, ‘I’m the last person in the world who would wish him back’… I went to bed with my shoes on.” (x)
Thanks to her tireless work on that assignment, Frances became the Dispatch’s in-house Catholic Church expert. “On a newspaper, you are type-cast very much as you are in a movie,” she once said wryly. “I was assigned Catholic Church stories for the next twenty-five years.” Although she never converted, she ended up becoming a specialist in the liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church and befriending a wide variety of Catholic leaders.
In 1921 she took on more work, this time with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. For the 1921/22 season (and maybe longer) she was their publicity agent. She became a friend of the Minneapolis Symphony’s first conductor Emil Oberhoffer, and even hosted a 1928 dinner party with Mr. and Mrs. Oberhoffer as guests.
She also began embracing a career as a public speaker. Although she’d never gone to journalism school, she spoke at the 1922 convention for Theta Sigma Phi, a national sorority for women in journalism. In 1927 the Star Tribune mentioned that she’d be giving “a humorous talk on her experiences” at a Sigma Delta Chi alumnae dinner.
In addition to these humorous talks about her life as a journalist, she also spoke specifically about music. Her style was affable and approachable. “Relax and let the music come to you,” the St. Cloud Times quoted her as saying in February 1930. “If you are just going to be a listener, which is what most people are, you need not know anything of the skeleton of the composition. That quality which makes music great makes it appeal to the unlettered and unlearned as well as to the intellectual.” She also was on the cutting edge of technology, hauling along a huge variety of records to her talks to illustrate her various points.
In the 1930 federal census, her occupation was listed as “none.” It is possible the census taker was mistaken, or else she had taken a break, perhaps to care for her elderly father. He died in October 1931 at the age of 88.
Frances never got married or had children (she once described herself as “too busy” to date). But her younger step-brother Lawrence married a woman named Margaret, and they had two little girls named Alexandra and Evelyn, making Frances a delighted aunt. But tragically, in 1936 Margaret died in a scarlet fever epidemic, leaving Lawrence a widower and thrusting Frances into a surrogate mother role yet again.
As children Alexandra and Evelyn spent a great deal of time in Frances’s quirky, elegant apartment. Alexandra wrote down her warm memories of her aunt in a 2005 Ramsey County Historical Society publication:
Every weekend in the summer [my father] would take us to my aunt’s home for the day. By then she had moved to 235 Summit Avenue. It was a three-floor apartment building next to the Cathedral parking lot. Her cousin, Rachel Sanborn, a social worker and also single, lived on the second floor. I never knew who lived on the third floor, but I used to climb all those stairs so I could slide down the banister. Aunt Frances’s apartment included a front room with tall windows that faced Summit Avenue, two Victorian sofas flanked the fireplace; there was an upright piano, a marvelous ‘petticoat-style’ buffet next to the front door (a great place to hide), a rather worn Oriental rug, and everywhere, it seemed, BOOKS and BOOKS, plus periodicals from numerous countries (I remember Punch and Judy), lots of reading lamps, places to put things on, paintings and English prints on the walls, plants on the window sills, stacks of records. Every Saturday the record companies would send her a new record to review.
Behind the front room was sort of an ‘all purpose room.’ It had an enormous four poster bed in which she and all her siblings had been born; a large dresser full of lovely gloves, handkerchiefs, broaches and rings – things she wore when she went out to review an event. There also was a work table with her typewriter, more books, more magazines, and piles of copy paper and big green pencils that were staples for newspaper reporters. She also had a little bed in there covered with more of the above. Next to her kitchen door was a large breakfront housing her tablecloths, bed sheets, dishes, and silverware. There was another worn Oriental rug, lamps, pictures and again, places to put things on.
Off to one side and overlooking the Cathedral parking lot was a screen porch where during the summer she drank her morning coffee. The porch was concealed from the Cathedral by thick grape vines. She used to joke that she could sit out there naked and never be seen by the unending parade of clergy walking back and forth from the Cathedral to the James J. Hill house, including Archbishop Murray, a close friend of hers.
Alexandra remembered how Frances provided her introduction to all sorts of music. They would often go to Northrup Auditorium together to see Frances’s former employer, the Minneapolis Symphony, in concert. Frances also brought her to her first opera, Aida. On her sixteenth birthday, she took Alexandra to the Lowry Hotel to see Ted Weems and his orchestra. Weems performed “Happy Birthday” especially for the occasion. Alexandra remembered being surprised. “Up until then, I’d heard only classical music with my aunt, but she said, ‘Honey, all music is important.’”
After their various dazzling musical experiences, Frances would bring her charges with her back to the Dispatch building and she would get to work. “I would sit there quietly and listen to the clack of her typewriter,” Alexandra remembered. “It was kind of fun, especially when I was old enough to attend evening events. I would watch the nightside staff put out the St. Paul Pioneer Press.”
During the social and political upheaval of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Frances took several important stands. In 1939 she resigned her Daughters of the American Revolution membership after that organization refused to allow contralto Marian Anderson to perform in front of an integrated audience in Washington, DC. A furious column in support of Anderson soon appeared. She also worked to support artistic refugees who were fleeing war-torn Europe, helping to establish them in their new American lives.
Frances retired in 1947 at the age of 68. Once her health began deteriorating, Alexandra moved into her Summit Avenue apartment so she wouldn’t be alone at night. But even in retirement, she was continually entertaining great musicians and artists in her Summit Avenue apartment.
Frances Corning Boardman died on 26 November 1953 in St. Paul. Thanks to her affinity with Catholicism, her funeral services were conducted by a monsignor.
Upon her death, Professor James Gray, who taught at the University of Minnesota, wrote an admiring tribute to this extraordinary woman. She was, he wrote, “the very embodiment of the idea of a gentlewoman, superb in dignity, never shaken out of poise, yet capable of a vivid passion for values, brightened by a gamin love of the grotesque, inspired by a loyalty to people and principles the likes of which I have never known. She was a creature of myriad insights and the little candle of her wit lightened up everyone.”
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Here’s a list of sources:
“I Remember My Aunt: Frances Boardman – Music Critic, Who Covered an Archbishop’s Funeral” by Alexandra (Sandy) Klas, Ramsey County History, Summer 2005
Find-A-Grave entry for Frances C. Boardman
Find-A-Grave entry for Henry A. Boardman
Find-A-Grave entry for Lawrence Boardman
St. Paul Globe, 29 August 1897
St. Paul Globe, 15 September 1899
“Born to Poor Children: State Hospital for Crippled and Deformed Did Good Work”, St. Paul Globe, 13 February 1901
“Peace and Good Will Hold Sway: Santa Claus Brings Cheer and Sunshine to Many Unfortunates,” St. Paul Globe, 26 December 1902
St. Paul Globe, 24 November 1903
Minnesota State Census, 1905
United States Census, 1910
“Popular Press Woman Returns to Old Home,” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 August 1914
“Organization Work Started by Symphony”, Star Tribune, 14 August 1921
“Three Women Elected Associate Members of Journalism Sorority Which Convenes Here June 21”, Star Tribune, 12 June 1927
Star Tribune, 30 July 1928
United States Census, 1930
“Miss Boardman Urges Natural Attitude for Concert Goers,” St. Cloud Times, 19 February 1930