When the Valentine isn’t the love story you thought it would be
By Louise Jones, director of research experience
Some time ago, I was asked to find an image or images that could be used in a Valentine’s Day media post. I immediately thought of the “Lilian Scrapbook” in the Hughes Family Papers. It is a beautifully illustrated volume with poems on every page or so, and the entire volume has a linen cover embroidered with the letter “H.”
The Betty Boop-like images are mostly of a pretty young woman, but the romance comes in on page 14, with a drawing of said woman in the arms of a handsome military man. I had been told that the volume was a gift from Russell Hughes to his bride to be. And on first glance, that seemed reasonable. The images of the pretty young girl and the poetry clearly show affection.
The first cloud appeared on my horizon when I went to the finding aid for this newly processed collection. This scrapbook is part of a much larger family collection spanning two centuries. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Russell Meriwether Hughes (b. 1859) married his bride Lillian Allan in 1884. Hmmm. The book’s age did not correspond with that date. A bit more research showed that Russell and Lillian had two daughters: Lillian Allan Hughes and Russell Meriwether Hughes Jr. My mind boggling at the thought of breakfast table conversations between Russell, Lillian, Lillian and Russell, I really began to wonder how this scrapbook came into being. The cover of the volume clearly titles it “Lilian” and the signature under this reads “by Russell M. Hughes Jr., 1918.”
So I threw out the whole story I had been told, and kept doing research. When in doubt, keep asking questions! This I know: Russell M. Hughes (b. 1859) and Lillian “Lilly” Belle Allan (b. 1862) married 17 December 1884 in Henry County, Kentucky. According to an account left by his daughter, Russell, “Before he married, Father became a successful vinegar manufacturer. As I remember the story, the family was so broke after the Civil War that he ‘selected’ his career because all he had to start with were the aged apple trees on the place. At first there was only the manufacturing company in Louisville, but later there was a branch in San Antonio and, briefly, in Erie, N.Y. (on the Canal).” One other minor fact rules out the elder Russell from the story: he dies in San Antonio in 1914.
Daughters Lilian Russell Hughes (b. 1892) and Russell Meriwether Hughes (b. 1898) grew up in Louisville but moved with their parents to San Antonio, Texas, due to the senior Russell’s health. And then I discovered the tidbit of information that actually made sense. Lilian Hughes married David Albert Newcomer on 20 September 1920 in San Antonio. Perhaps this scrapbook was a gift from Russell Jr. to her sister Lillian in honor of her engagement to David? David was career military. He was appointed to the United States Military Academy from Tennessee, graduating in the class of 1919. This might explain the decidedly military look to the two images in the scrapbook that depict Lilian with a man. I hope so. I can’t think of a lovelier present for a sister to give.
Sadly, David Newcomer died in Bonlieu, France, on 25 August 1944 during World War II. He earned the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal. After his death, Lillian joined her sister in New York, where they co-directed the Ethnological Dance Center in New York. Lilian Hughes died in 1964 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband David and their twin boys (died 1928).
As a fascinating side note, Russell Jr. or La Meri, as she was known in New York, was long considered the leading American authority on ethnic dance, particularly the dance of India and Spain. She received her first dance training in San Antonio, where she studied ballet and Spanish and Mexican dance. She later studied Hawaiian dancing in Hawaii and, in New York City, modern dance with Michio Ito and ballet with Aaron Tomaroff and Ivan Tarasoff. She toured the world at the height of her career, in the 1920s and ’30s, studying and performing in South and Central America, Europe, Scandinavia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Burma, Malaya, Java, the Philippines, China, Japan, Ceylon and Hawaii.
While the majority of La Meri’s dance collection was given to the New York Public Library, the family papers (MSS 94) are here at the Kentucky Historical Society and are open to the public. The entire scrapbook has been digitized and is online here.