Well, at least she did before she came to the public’s attention.
Her name appears as both “Mildred” and “Ellen” in newspaper accounts. My (educated) guess is that her real first name was Mildred, but that she often went by Ellen. (Or it may be that her real first name was Ellen, same as her grandmother, and her middle name was Mildred, the same as her mother’s, and she used that sometimes.)
Her mother was a fairly well-known painter, Mildred Olive Bigelow Pell, who went by her middle name, “Olive” (hence my guess on Ellen’s name). Olive was first married to Newell Tilton (about whom not much is known), having two daughters, Mildred (Ellen) and Pyrma. After a divorce, Olive married diplomat Herbert Claiborne Pell, Jr., who was the father of (extremely) long-time Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell. Claiborne Pell is the person that “Pell Grants” are named after.
That second marriage (for both Olive and Herbert) made Ellen and Claiborne step-brother and step-sister.
We first hear about Ellen when she got married, to Nicolas Holmsen, on September 17, 1927. He was the son of the Norwegian-born Russian general of the Imperial Guard, Ivan Holmsen.
Alas, the marriage was not to last. We next hear from Ellen in Reno, where she is trying to get a divorce. Back then, divorces were quite difficult to get, but Reno was the divorce capital because all you had to do was establish a 6-week residency to get one there. And when Ellen went to Reno to do so, she popped a few eyes.
It seems she had a predilection for going around barefoot.
This is from the September 19, 1934 issue of the Nevada State Journal, by a local columnist called “Washoe Pete”.
Who is the barefoot girl in shorts who goes bicycling around Reno on two wheels?
She has all the neighbors guessing and the radio engineers gaga. The fair cyclist went into a radio jernt and asked them if they could install a radio on her bike.
Ask her what her name is for us next time you see her.
Well, they found out. In fact, they found out the very next day, when she got kicked out of a local cafe for being barefoot and wearing shorts (and a men’s shirt!).
She wasn’t actually kicked out, but the waiter simply refused to serve her. It’s also not clear whether he was offended more by the shorts or by the bare feet.
After all this was before women’s lib, and women were supposed to dress like, well, women. And shorts exposed way too much skin. And a man’s shirt? Heaven forbid.
I should note that she may have gotten at least a bit of this from her mother (that, and being raised in high society with a feeling of privilege), who had worked for women’s suffrage.
So, why was she barefoot? She explained, “I don’t wear shoes because I think they are outrageous and barbaric.” She even went so far to call high-heeled shoes, “miniature medieval tortures”. A woman after my own heart.
Ellen did a bit of an interview with Washoe Pete. We can get a feel for the attitudes of the times (even in Nevada!).
More people were a-talkin’ about Mrs. Mildred Tilton Holmsen’s barefoot bicycling yesterday than were talking about the Lindbergh case. So I decided to go over and see her.
From some of the goofy things I had heard about her since I put the first blast in this column two days ago I half way expected to go over and find a social registerite hanging from the chandelier in the hotel singing the Marseillaise.
I reminded the boss that I am a family man before I started.
By the time I arrived at the hotel I had the jits, like I was going to get initiated into the Knights of Pythias, or anything.
Interviewing barefoot ladies in shorts ain’t exactly in my line, but I steeled myself and dug my fingers into my collar uncomfortably as Mrs. Tilton Holmsen tripped lightly downstairs.
She didn’t have on her shorts!
Instead, I was confronted by a tall, slender, brown-haired girl whose sole protection from a cruel world was a sort of canvas wrapper, trimmed in red.
She explained that her shorts were drying upstairs, so they would be clean for tomorrow’s bicycling.
“Let’s go out and sit in the sun,” she waved, and I followed her to the curb, where we sat down, with her in her wrapper and me trying to act dapper.
And then Washoe Pete asked about dancing (as in, what if bare feet get stepped on?)
“Well, I went barefoot to three dances on Long Island before I came out here and didn’t get stepped on once.” She tossed her head, swatted a fly that lit on her bronzed leg and looked at me like I was a dunce.
And here is his write-up about the cafe incident:
Mrs. Holmsen is still burnt up at her treatment at a local cafe.
“If you don’t paint your face and toenails and wear a feather on your head and a lot of cumbersome clothes to try and impress the world with your importance and the fact that you are good enough to make some man work his head off buying you a lot of unnecessary clothes you get treated like a waif.” The little rebel dug her toes deep into the earth.
“I didn’t come here with the idea, of taking off my clothes and shocking people. It was hot, so took off my shoes. One thing seemed to lead to another, and here I am,” she sighed.
Ellen really seemed to get it, though, as a barefooter. She does a pretty good job of nailing one of the problems we deal with, too, when asked how people are treating her in Reno.
“People seem to like me, but they are a bit ashamed to be seen with me. You know, it’s like in the animal kingdom: If a creature varies from the established rules the rest of them, will kill him—like a sow will kill a deformed or unusual pig in her litter.”
* * *
“Society is a glorified outgrowth of the middle class. It is a menagerie where people put looks before health and run around trying to impress each other with rings in their noses, painted bodies and crests from slaughtered birds in their hair.”
Preach it, sister!
Here’s another of the pictures that was taken of her during her stay in Reno. [Sorry, this is the best one of this shot I could find.]
But was that the end of her troubles in Reno? Of course not. You see, six weeks later when she went to court to get her divorce, the judge was not pleased.
Can you guess why?
No, she actually did not try to appear before the judge barefoot. I suppose that would have been even worse.
“That barefoot bicycle rider is coming to court wearing a man’s shirt, a pair of man’s pants, and tennis shoes,” Judge Curler’s bailiff whispered apprehensively when he sighted Mrs. Holmsen tripping down the corridor.
“Tell her to go home and put on a dress,” the judge, a stickler for decorum, said curtly.
The bailiff met the comely young woman and her attorney at the court-room door and delivered the judge’s order.
That’s right. Her problem was that she was wearing slacks, and a man’s shirt.
She went back to her hotel, switched into a plain black dress (but kept the tennis shoes). That was sufficient for the judge and the divorce was granted.
You really have to admire her. She was ahead of her time (of course, these days even women attorneys often wear slacks), and she fought her way through it the best she could.
But that’s not the end.
We’ll continue to follow Ellen’s exploits in Part 2.