When last we left Ellen Tilton Holsmen, she had just finished scandalizing Reno while waiting for her quickie divorce. After all, shorts and bare feet on a pretty lady going about town (in 1934) just weren’t normal. And she wore slacks to a courtroom.
But she wasn’t finished.
But first let me quote a bit from a commentary from the time, that really rather shows us the problem. The commenter is somebody named Helen Welshimer, in the Ironwood Daily Globe. She starts off okay:
This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. At least, we all stand up and sing songs about its being that way whenever we get excited thinking about Gettysburg and Chateau Thierry and how much water goes over the Hoover Dam and how high the Empire State Building is.
Since things are that way, if Mrs. Mildred Tilton Holmsen, social beauty from New York, wanted to go barefooted and wearing men’s shorts and shirt, into a public eating place at Reno the other day, it seems absurd for people to make such a to-do about it. Considering the geometric computations of feminine garments worn on bathing beaches and in ballrooms, the scantiness of the attire isn’t so interesting.
No, it’s not that big of a deal . . . and shouldn’t be. But then the commentator goes off the rails. After all, “Custom Holds Sway.” Let me put that more succinctly: “Conform!”
It is that way with clothing, too. The old adage which teaches us that there is a time and a place for everything is the outgrowth of a need. Life, when lived according to the precedents which have been established by those who desired to make it a gracious, happy, easy art, is a lovelier thing than when beset by bizarre innovations.
The objectors to the shorts and shirt costumes lift their complaining voices because they consider the costume a violation of certain accepted tastes that society has decided, through an unwritten law, must be sponsored if the social rhythm is to be harmonious.
* * *
Comfort is essentially important. There are occasions when the shorts and shirt are a wise choice. But comfort must be within the bounds of accepted good taste.
* * *
Whenever we attempt to step aside from the prescribed routine we must expect criticism. After all, the rules which surround us have grown up as a protection. They have developed because they are necessary to preserve the greatest good for the largest number ot people. They have come to us as a result of good taste, pretty much.
Good taste, after all, is synonymous with wise perception. And a knowing woman, whoever she may be, will perceive what she should or shouldn’t wear.
Back to Ellen Tilton Holmsen. After leaving Reno, she headed out to Hollywood for a while. Her habits didn’t change, as shown by this picture (caption from the newspaper).
While she was there, she also visited “Peter the Hermit”. Peter was also well-known for going barefooted, and was really into nature. However, she somehow managed to surprise him and found him shod (!). His excuse was that he wore shoes around his burros. But Mrs. Holmsen still had kind words.
“Shoes are barbaric.” Mrs. Holmsen observed. “It is sad that bare feet are regarded as ridiculous or eccentric or unladylike. It is a pity that society has come to such a pass as to regard them so. You can mention bare feet in conversation with perfect equanimity—but you cannot wear them. I admire your courage Mr Peter.”
Could Mrs. Holmsen stay out of trouble? Of course not. First, she got dropped from the Social Register. (She was in good company, though. So was Elliott Roosevelt, the son of FDR, who had also gotten a divorce.)
Then, the police were called to her Hollywood home. It seems she was taking “sun baths”, and a neighbor objected.
[A] neighbor with an 18-year-old son complained to police that Mrs. Holmsen could be seen taking sun baths, in the sun and nothing else.
(You can be sure the “boy” was sorely disappointed by the intervention of his mother.)
However, the situation was resolved.
When police arrived, Mrs. Holmsen was found wearing enough clothing to satisfy the law. The officers suggested, however, that she put up a muslin screen to preserve the neighbor’s sense of propriety. The screen was up today, and Mrs. Holmsen was taking her daily sun bath behind it.
Mrs. Holmsen did have an interesting take on the situation, though:
“People wear too many clothes. My father told me to go to Reno and get a divorce, because I shocked the people in Southampton, Long land, where I lived, by wearing shirts and shorts. Here in Hollywood, nobody bothers me, except some narrow-minded people who put a disgusting interpretation on everything I do and say.”
Yup. It’s always the narrow-minded people who put disgusting interpretations on things (talking about both going barefooted and a bit of skin exposure). But, as we learned early on, it’s all about people trying to enforce their own particular prejudices.
Mrs. Holmsen did still enjoy herself in Hollywood. Her bike had been stolen in Reno, so she got herself a scooter to replace it!
There are lots of pictures in the papers; after all, a picture of a scantily clad, barefooted woman is guaranteed to sell papers, right?
She did move back to the east coast (remember, she was originally from Southampton on Long Island; you know, the ritzy “Hamptons”). And got into trouble again.
This time she got escorted out of New Jersey (really). This is from March of 1939.
Socialite Ellen Tilton Holmsen, who was once presented at the British royal court, has been “deported” from New Jersey, police Chief William E. Powell of Rochelle Park said today, because she attracted too much attention going about clad only in woolen pajamas and sandals.
* * *
The young matron, Powell said, was politely but firmly told that it was the desire of the New Jersey authorities that she remain on the east side of the Hudson river.
It was March after all, so we really cannot demand that she be barefooted then. (Actually, we can’t “demand” anything—it’s her life to live as she wishes, just as our lives are ours to live as we wish.) Anyways, she was driven by the police to the George Washington Bridge and told to take a bus to the other side.
Here is the outfit that got her removed.
That’s right. The police removed her from New Jersey for wearing slacks . . . and sandals with socks.
After that, she took up residence in New York, around Flushing.
The next thing I could find about Mrs. Holmsen was from 1945. At this point she was living just outside Southampton.
As the article says:
Everywhere she went she still felt the cold shoulder of reproach. Even before her arrest, her old neighbors were cold to her and the real estate men wouldn’t do anything for her.
They told her there was no room for her in all Southampton and she had to set up housekeeping in a little place six miles out of town.
All that was bad enough. But what really chilled her back into her forgotten skirts was the presence of Police Chief Lane. Ellen already had one brush with him and she wasn’t looking for another. The nature-loving stepdaughter of Herbert Claiborne Pell, former Ambassador to Portugal, was doing the town in skimpy shorts and narrow top piece when she first met with this strong arm of the law two years ago.
The chief ordered her off the streets, but Ellen outsmarted him by ducking behind a bush and pulling on a jacket and pants. But the chief had the last laugh.
Now there’s a standing order for her to stay in clothes or stay out of Southampton and the outdoor panty-and-bra girl has lost most of her earlier air of independence.
In this case, her arrest was for an expired driver’s license, but it was also clear that the cops were keeping an eye out for her.
How can this (both New Jersey and Southampton) be legal, you ask? Back then there were laws saying you could not appear in clothes meant for the other sex, and, for instance, Yonkers had an ordinance saying you could not appear on the streets in anything other than “customary street attire.” The Yonkers ordinance was tossed in People v. O’Gorman in 1937, but even as late at 1990 (!!!!), the conviction of Matthew Duyck for walking in Southampton without a shirt was upheld. See People v. Duyck, 146 Misc. 2d 629.
I’ve written before about How Judges Cheat, and this was a case of the judges quoting one tiny bit of the O’Gormon opinion that really had nothing to do with the essential issue of the case (whether Duyck was “indecent”). That’s how it happens.
Anyways, from here I don’t know what happened to Ellen Tilton Holmsen. In the early 1950s her daughter Tatiana had a debutante ball, hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Holmsen. However, since he had remarried, the latter may (probably?) refer to his second wife. (There are those conventions again—the wife was just an extension of the husband and could not have their own name until/unless divorced.) I also found a comment in 1966 from an “Ellen Holmsen” of New York, so if was her we know she was still alive then.
But in the end I guess this is a bit of a morality tale of what can happen to the unconventional. You can only beat your head against it for so long, and eventually there is a good chance of being beaten down. I doubt any of us (including me) could have stood up to that sort of pressure.
I just hope that Mrs. Ellen Tilton Holmsen was able in the end to keep living her life the way she wanted, in bare feet and shorts, and was able to keep her head down.