The Last of the Belles

Frances Jackson died on June 22, 2012.

According to her granddaughter, Claire Carpenter, “while death is never welcome, it was not unexpected by her, and she was ready.”

Being ready would have pleased her; Frances liked being prepared and she had told me years before that “personally and selfishly, I would most like to die a quiet, healthy death. Of nothing very serious, just something that takes place while not much else is happening at the moment. But, having said that, I would first want to reserve a twirl around the world with the incomparable Fred Astaire, all to the tune of ‘New York, New York’ as belted out, nonstop, by the equally incomparable Frank Sinatra. Now that would be truly heaven!”

A great fan of this website, the beautiful Frances Hoard Glasier Jackson was born on October 4, 1916, in Charleston, South Carolina, but moved with her family to El Paso, Texas, early on. Her father was president of the Mexican-Northwestern Railway and she was one of five daughters who were regarded as the great beauties of their set.

“There was a family story,” Frances recalled when I interviewed her some years ago, “that during the Mexican Revolution, my father was staying in a little village that had been overrun by Pancho Villa and his men. He was taken to Villa’s headquarters by two burly bodyguards. Fortunately, my father spoke excellent Spanish and he was a born diplomat. Anyway, when he saw Villa, he started talking very rapidly in Spanish—telling all the reasons he shouldn’t be killed. Villa seemed to enjoy this—he apparently regarded it as a cat and mouse game. But finally he decided to let my father go although he kept most of the others he’d rounded up and had them shot. It was reported that Villa said, ‘I would have killed the little son-of-a-bitch, but he kept talking and I couldn’t shut him up long enough to do it.’”

Frances delighted in talking about her childhood and particularly enjoyed describing small details and pointing out why they were special to her.

“There were so many children running around through our house—a large two-story Spanish-type home with thick walls which muted the noise and heavy carved furniture which stood up to all those children. We would spend three months of the summer out of El Paso, leaving the day after school let out and coming back the day before it opened. This was much to my father’s delight—it gave him three months when he did not have to hear five girls racing up and down those tile steps!

“In the early twenties, I remember I would go with my sisters to spend the summer months in our house in Madera, Chihuahua, Mexico. One of the perks of my father’s position was having a private railroad car staffed with eight or ten Chinese and we traveled that way. The bridges were dynamited on a regular basis by the friendly neighborhood bandits but no one seemed to notice until it was time to cross one. Then there were regular slowdowns as repairs were made. But the trips were always great fun and we learned a lot about Mexico’s wildflowers since the train chugged along so slowly that we could leap out, pick bunches, and climb back in.

“As teenagers we spent the summers on the California coast. My mother loved to drive, so that was that. To get to California we took one of our maids with us and drove for miles across the desert, across New Mexico and Arizona. There was no air conditioning, so we put a block of ice in the window and let the air blow around it. There were no real roads for many, many miles—just wooden tracks, three or four feet wide, with sand in the middle. Your car would just straddle those tracks while you fervently prayed that there would be no flat tires.

“We must have made quite a sight driving across what looked like miles of uncharted moonscape, my very feminine mother behind the wheel of that big car with five daughters and Emma, the maid, who was dressed in a pristine white uniform complete with a scalloped headband laced with black satin ribbon. It was probably real silk back then. Emma loved wearing her headband. We thought maybe she was covering up a bald spot!”

Frances almost always spoke lovingly of her mother, even when she was gently censorious: “Our mother was something of a drill sergeant. When she did let us date we had to report in at ten o’clock. She’d be at the head of the steps, checking us.”

More often her reminiscences were free of any criticism.

“My mother was an inspired cook in that she took the ‘art’ of cooking seriously. I remember the real reverence she showed when preparing and cutting vegetables. She would slice a carrot and call us into the kitchen, hold it up to the sunlight, and point out the radiantly beautiful patterns. Many years later, in the Rheims Cathedral, I was reminded of my mother and her carrot slices when I looked up at the exquisite stained glass windows. I remembered the thrill I had  experienced the first time she showed me how to appreciate nature’s configurations in vegetables—carrots, tomatoes, and glistening white onions.”

And then there was this evocative snapshot of a Christmas long past.

“Each Christmas was—and still is—enchanting. Of course then there was a fresh tree and long pine boughs brought down from the mountains of Cloudcroft, New Mexico. The house was filled with wonderful fragrances, of pine and apples and proper tangerines. I still have a flash of Christmas when I peel a tangerine!

“Many weeks before, we would all start hoping for enough snow so that we could make a whole snowman. We always ran out of snow before we got to his head. You know, El Paso is not snow country. Or even rain country. But when it does either, magic happens.

“I was always self appointed to organize the gifts—for the family, for the teachers. I usually lost money because my little pals would ‘forget’ to pay me back, but I thought my choice would be better than anyone else’s. One year I picked out this beautiful antique lace fan for our mother. It had belonged to Henry Wallace’s mother. ‘I never did like Henry Wallace,’ she said when she opened the box, but then, after a minute, she smiled and added, ‘but maybe I would have liked his mother.’”

From all our conversations, two adjectives come to mind which describe Frances. The first, “stylish,” pops up when you initially picture her. Even well into her seventies, she exuded a special kind of chic that is hard to describe and indeed she may have summed it up herself: “The word style cannot be defined. It is just something that is.”

In any case, one story she told, a personal favorite of mine, certainly goes a long way toward a definition of that elusive quality.

“In the forties, I could buy a pair of shoes in any shoe store. The sample size was then four, and since that was my size, I could buy almost anything I wanted. In those days all the smart labels—I. Miller, Delman, David Evins come to mind—would have trunk shows in El Paso and often they’d ask me to model their shoes.

“Later getting my size was more difficult and the salesmen would look down and then walk away from me to a more probable sale. Fortunately, when we were living in Madrid, my husband and I were often in Paris.

“I had always loved Chanel (before Lagerfield!) and I particularly loved her shoes. In the late sixties, she only had her classic color combination of black and beige and at that time they were being shown with a square toe and a block heel.

“Being in Paris, I found out where her shoemaker was: Mr. Massaro, 2, rue de la Paix.

“I raced to the tiny, almost hidden store, and told Mr. Massaro I wanted eighteen pairs of Chanel’s bespoke shoes but with a slightly oval toe and a graduated, shaped heel. Since I intended to wear them forever, it seemed to me that this combination would be less likely to go out of style through the years.

“I then told him that although I wanted four or five pairs in the classic black and beige, I also wanted other color combinations. 

This is when Mr. Massaro started to grow pale.

“My list included white with lavender toe, white with pink, white with yellow, and white with red. I also asked for a vinyl body with black satin toe and black satin with a rhinestone trimmed toe and a few others.

“After he took a really, really deep breath (and maybe even shuddered slightly), Mr. Massaro said he would have to clear all the color and fabric combinations with Madame Chanel.

“It took weeks of negotiation, but I got the eighteen pairs.’”

Along with “stylish,” the other adjective that comes to mind when remembering Frances is “romantic,” and this trait, although perhaps less initially obvious, was most apparent when she spoke of the great love of her life, Roy Jackson.

“Roy and I first met at a mutual friend’s birthday party in El Paso. I think we were seniors in high school. He was quiet and shy that evening, but I rather hoped he would call and ask me out. He didn’t.

“A year or so later, I’d gone to the College of Mines and Metallurgy there and was strolling on the campus. I saw him sitting alone in his car. He was writing something.

“I walked over, he looked up, opened the door, and I got in and sat down. Not a word was spoken. I’d never done anything like that in my whole life and I’ve thought about that moment many times. It was as if his magnetic field just drew me in. And that was that.

“We then started dating. In those days, ‘dating’ was such innocent fun. We would go to a small club and dance a bit and talk a lot. He was incredibly articulate and had such a keen sense of wit. He would order a rum and Coca Cola and since I couldn’t stand the taste of alcohol, I’d always ask for a coke and a small dish of black olives. I’ve never been sure why the black olives. I guess I just liked the taste.

“Well, after dating for a while, Roy asked me to marry him. But he was going to law school the following year and the family asked me to wait because we—my sisters and I—had led such sheltered existences. They suggested I go to a university of my choice for two more years and then come home and get married if I still wanted to. Actually that idea was OK with me and, predictably, I chose the University of Texas since Roy was already working on his law degree there.

“What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was the sense of freedom I felt after leaving the strict rules of family life. I decided I was suddenly the belle of the ball! At university, I was just so excited to be out of parental control.

“I joined Kappa Alpha Theta and was voted best pledge of the year, made president of the house and, finally told that the sorority wanted me to run for ‘Sweetheart of the University.’ Now that meant that I had to go out with the presidents of all the fraternities in the hope that they would pressure their members to vote for me. Needless to say, I saw less and less of Roy. Our paths went in different directions.

“After two years, I returned to El Paso and met William Glasier, the brother of my older sister’s husband. He was blond, had green eyes, and a marvelous sense of humor. He had just started his medical practice and soon spoke of marriage. In 1947, eight years, two children and one war later, he was killed when a small plane he was piloting crashed into the Guadalupe Mountains.

“Years later, at exactly 10 AM on a Monday morning, the doorbell rang. My maid was on vacation and I opened the door myself, wondering who on earth could be ringing my bell at 10 in the morning. Roy was standing there.

“I think I went into shock. I just stared and stared and was literally speechless.

“’Well, aren’t you going to invite me in?’

“Except for a brief encounter after his father died, we had not spoken for some thirty years. He had married a girl from Dallas, had four children, and, as an international lawyer, had lived most of those years in Europe. He asked me for dinner that night.

“When we arrived at the restaurant and were seated, the waiter immediately came over and brought Roy a rum and coke and me a plain coke and a dish of black olives. He’d remembered the olives after all those years! I looked at Roy and he reached over and touched my hand and this electric shock just ripped through me. It was magic.

“A year or so later, after a long illness, Roy’s wife died. Six months afterwards, he called from Madrid and said ‘Let’s get married.’

“Almost every day of our married life, Roy would leave me a note. Some were long; others simply said ‘Te’ for ‘te amo.’

“Later on he went to the hospital and did not come back. And I treasure beyond words one of the last notes he wrote. It was written on the night of our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

‘Mi Amor:
I have never felt more inadequate. Many greeting cards, profound quotations, nostalgic photos, all fail utterly to express, or even partially reflect, my indescribable love and boundless respect for my girl. So, fortified, if not inspired, by a heavy shot of rum, I selected this one. I will always remember the numbing joy of our first visit to London, including the bunch of your favorite tulips I handed you in Hanover Square. And so, as I near the end of the trail, these other thoughts: 1) Although your Christmas extravaganza tonight will be an exceptionally elegant affair, I would prefer, once more, an informal meal—just the two of us on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean coast. 2) I loved you profoundly when, 30 years ago, I finally accomplished what should have occurred 60+ years ago. And 3) I love you even more today.
Te, Roy.’”

And now, perhaps, Frances and Roy are together again.

Issue Twenty Two