Golf is their legacy, thanks to a trophy handcrafted into the shape of a bowl.
Truth be told, however, the game was perhaps the least significant of Harriot and Margaret Curtis’ accomplishments, thanks to a sense of social obligation shaped by their family upbringing.
Chances are, no matter who embraces the Curtis Cup on June 13 – be it U.S. captain Noreen Mohler or her counterpart from Great Britain & Ireland, Mary McKenna – thoughts will not resonate about health care, social causes, injured soldiers or victims of disasters.
But those are the sorts of agendas that defined Harriot and Margaret Curtis, sisters of impeccable breed and deep civic concern.
When: June 11-13
Where: Essex County Club, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.
2008 champions: United States (13-7 at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland)
Series: U.S. leads, 26-6-3
Television: Golf Channel, Friday-Saturday (11 a.m.-1 p.m.), Sunday (2-4 p.m.)
The youngest of 10 children born to Greely Stevenson Curtis and Harriot Sumner Appleton, Harriot Curtis (born in 1881) and Margaret Curtis (1883) donated in 1932 a Paul Revere design silver bowl to the U.S. Golf Association.
“To stimulate friendly rivalry among the women golfers of many lands” was inscribed, and it would go to the winning team in a competition between amateur women golfers from the U.S. and Great Britain & Ireland.
While it was an idea born out of their trip in 1905 to compete against British women, Harriot and Margaret waited many years for fruition. Having prospered, the Curtis Cup will have special meaning June 11-13 when its 36th meeting is held at Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., where the Curtis girls learned to play the game.
Essex was only nine holes when opened by Donald Ross in 1893. Since it was in the shadows of the Curtis summer estate – a magnificent Victorian-Gothic castle – the club was a natural playground for Greely and Harriot’s children.
A cousin, Laurence Curtis, who would go on to become the second president of the U.S. Golf Association, encouraged golf and while most of the Curtis children took part, Harriot and Margaret excelled.
Certainly, victories at the U.S. Women’s Amateur (Harriot at 25 in 1906; Margaret at 23 in 1907, then in 1911 and ’12) speak to their talents, but they possessed so much more depth.
“My mother used to tell us, ‘You don’t need women’s liberation. Look at my aunts,’ ” Bella Halsted said.
A great-niece to the Curtis sisters, Halsted, who lives in Amherst, Mass., is using the
occasion of the Curtis Cup to update and re-edit a book that her late mother, Isabella Halsted, wrote in her 80s as a memoir to her four aunts, called appropriately, “The Aunts.”
Born the middle of five children to Elinor, the only one of the five Curtis sisters to marry, Isabella Halsted spent much of her life marveling at her aunts’ social commitments.
“It probably wasn’t accurate about the ‘women’s liberation’ thing,” Bella Halsted said, “because the aunts had lots of money and didn’t marry. They had liberties. They had the opportunity to do a lot of good things.”
You also, of course, could say that about today’s professional athletes, only how many of them put social causes ahead of their sporting passion the way the Curtis sisters did?
Consider a passage in “The Aunts,” from a letter written by Harriot Curtis to her daughter Harriot, who was on one of her many trips to Europe: “(Margaret) goes faithfully to Boston every day and gets epileptic wives committed to (hospitals) or somewhere after chasing husbands over wharves and ships to secure (their) signature.”
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There hardly was a sport the Curtis girls didn’t take on, be it baseball, swimming, tennis or skiing. But golf was their favorite.
“The sisters played golf for all it was worth,” wrote Isabella Halsted. And while Greely and Harriot stressed college for the boys (three went to Harvard, one to Yale) and read Shakespeare to the girls, they were not above being highly interested in the youngest girls’ golf endeavors.
From 1900 to 1905, Margaret twice reached the finals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur and three times was medalist; Harriot played each year and was medalist once. But not a championship between them.
“Tell Peg, for heaven’s sakes, to putt the ball and hole the putts in the finals,” Harriot Curtis wrote to daughter Harriot during one national championship.
In 1906 at Brae Burn Country Club near Boston, Harriot defeated Mary Adams, 2 and 1, for the championship. Her bid to repeat a year later was thwarted in the final – by younger sister Margaret, her first of three.
Four titles in seven years. The girls’ talents had been realized, but never had they been diverted from their true passion – exercising a social conscience. Greely and Harriot Curtis had let their children know they were born into privilege, but what came with that was a social obligation.
The oldest aunt, Frances, served on the Boston School Committee and actually ran for mayor of Boston in 1925.
Harriot, considered by Isabella Halsted to be the most selfless of the sisters – “a doer, not a talker” – founded the Maverick Dispensary, an outpatient health-care center in the Italian section of Boston. When an historic fire destroyed the town of Chelsea, which abuts Boston, Harriot helped arrange housing for victims. Years later, she became dean of Hampton Institute
For Negroes in Virginia.
Margaret, arguably the most competitive of the sisters and certainly the more accomplished athletically (she teamed with Evelyn Sears to win the national tennis doubles) transferred her energies into worldwide causes. She aided Harriot with the Maverick Dispensary but made her greatest mark with the Red Cross. During World War I, she worked in Paris and became bureau chief. When the war was over and Europe needed rebuilding, Margaret stayed to establish Red Cross help in Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the early 1920s, she helped form what now is called International Social Services.
All of it could serve as their legacy – if not for what Harriot and Margaret accomplished in golf.
By the time the women’s international match between America and Great Britain & Ireland debuted in 1932, neither of the Curtis sisters was playing competitively. Yet the highlight match between two legends (Joyce Wethered defeated Glenna Collett Vare, 6 and 4) was proof that the game had come of age, thanks to the Curtis sisters’ help.
They were front and center in 1938 when the fourth renewal of the Curtis Cup was staged at Essex, but that won’t be the case this time around, Margaret having died in 1965 at age 82, Harriot in 1974 at 93, the last survivor of Greely and Harriot’s 10 children.
But in spirit, they certainly will serve as hosts for the international affair.
“They loved life and they loved golf,” said great-nephew Thomas Halsted, Bella’s brother. “They tried to teach me golf,” Bella Halsted said with a laugh, “but they completely gave up on me. But I remember sitting with Aunt Pedge (Margaret), having tea, and she’d be on the sofa, surrounded by golf balls. She would tell stories, over and over, endless stories.”
Stories born of lives well lived and a game well played.