To her public she was Utah's Silver Queen. She was elegant, romantic - a jet-setter before jets were invented. She was easily defined in the society pages of the day. She wore beautiful clothes and jewelry, gave fancy parties, traveled the world. She married four times. She danced with the Prince of Wales. She was fabulously rich. She was a symbol of the Gilded Age.
To her family she was Aunt Susie. Although she died in 1942, there are still nieces and nephews who refer to her just that way - not as a queen, but as an aunt.Yet somehow the name Aunt Susie, such a simple and familiar name, belies the complexity of the woman and of her relationships.
Judy Dykman has studied The Silver Queen, studied her to the point of obsession. And Dykman figures the only name that comes close to doing Susie justice is her full name: Her Royal Highness Susanna Egeria Bransford Emery Holmes Delitch Engalitcheff.
Last summer, Dykman visited Colorado. She toured Molly Brown's mansion in Denver and Baby Doe Tabor's museum in Leadville. Driving back to Utah, Dykman decided Utah's first lady of mining was being overlooked.
As a history teacher, Dykman was familiar with Susanna Bransford. She'd enticed more than one reluctant junior high school student with the legend of Susanna's coffin. The story was vivid enough: When Susanna died, her friends were said to have filled her coffin with silver dollars by way of tribute.
Dykman told her students that the coffin story and other Silver Queen legends might not be true. Then last summer, impressed with how much Coloradans seemed to know about their mining queens, Dykman decided she wanted to better tell the story of a prominent woman in Utah history. She wanted to separate fact from fiction, if she could, and give her students a vivid but less frivolous version of Susanna Bransford's life.
What began as a short research project eventually absorbed her whole summer and every spare minute of the school year. "Research is intoxicating," says Dykman, explaining why she ended up traveling to California, joining the Missouri Historical Society and spending more than $1,000 on long-distance phone calls as she attempted to find out more about Susanna's parents, husbands and financial affairs. "Everything I found out seemed to raise more questions. I knew I was onto stuff that was new."
Pretty soon, turning up new facts wasn't enough. Dykman wanted to understand what made the woman tick. She began talking to Susanna's relatives.
Susanna's personality seemed more and more complex. Each example of her generosity - and there were many - could be countered with disturbing examples of what appeared to be ruthlessness. The defining mystery of Susanna's life could well have been the lawsuit she filed against her nephew Wallace, a lawsuit that caused a permanent family rift. Wallace's descendants are well aware of the lawsuit and of the rift, Dykman soon learned. Other of Aunt Susie's great-nieces and nephews didn't even know there had been a public family fight. And even though she read the court records, Dykman was still mystified as to Susanna's motivation - in filing the lawsuit and in other dramatic moments of her life. "I needed to know more about how she developed, why she needed to have wealth and success later in life."
Her questions aroused the interest of Susanna's relatives. Dykman convinced nearly 30 members of Susanna's family to come to a reunion in Salt Lake City last week. They came from California, Colorado, even as far away as England. They came, some of them, not knowing each other well. They knew bits and pieces of Aunt Susie's story, and they were curious to know more about her, and about Judy Dykman, the woman who had made them curious in the first place.
At the reunion, Dykman put on a slide show. What follows is a condensed version of her script.
Susie was born in Richmond, Mo., on May 6, 1859, the second of four children of Milford and Sara Bransford. Her parents were relatively prominent and prosperous. They owned 70 acres, slaves and a general store. When the Civil War broke out, her father enlisted.
Milford became a captain. And (something Susanna's descendants learned for the first time) he was captured by Union soldiers and sent to prison camp. When he returned home to his wife and youngsters, the family was impoverished.
Hoping for a fresh start, the Bransfords joined a wagon train headed for Northern California. They settled in the mining community of Crescent Mill when Susie was 5 years old. She and her older brother, John, attended the town's grammar school. When they were teenagers they went to boarding school in San Francisco.
It was on one of her trips between Crescent Mill and San Francisco that 16-year-old Susie became the victim of a stagecoach robbery. When the masked bandits recognized her among the passengers they called her by name and assured her they wouldn't harm her. Still, Susie never forgot the ordeal.
Susie had flawless skin, a trim figure, long brown hair and stood 5 feet 7 (a fact Dykman deduced from measuring her dresses on display at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum). By all accounts, she had a sparkling, self-confident personality.
During the 20 years the Bransfords lived in California, Milford invested in two general stores, at least two mining companies, a toll road and a stage line. His dream of rich ore didn't materialize and he overextended his credit. In 1880, he was sued for indebtedness. He was forced to sell everything to pay his creditors. (Some family members were unaware of the indebtedness and of the desperation the Bransfords must have felt.) Dykman believes Susanna was marked by her parent's struggle - and failure - to recover their pre-Civil War standard of living.
Visiting friends in Park City, Utah, in 1884, 25-year-old Susie met a popular young postmaster, Albion Emery. Albion loved to read the classics and relished political debate. It must have seemed to Susie he was destined for prominence. After a brief courtship, the two married. (Some have suggested their home is still standing in Park City, but Dykman says not. The Emery's home burned in the big fire of 1898 and the house that took its place was built in 1915, many years after the Emerys had moved away.) Albion left the post office to work as a bookkeeper for the Daly Mining Co. He also became Summit County's representative in the territorial legislature.
During the first years of their marriage, by procuring loans from family friends, Susie helped Albion raise $8,000 to invest in the Mayflower Mine.
At about the same time, the childless Emerys agreed to raise Susie's motherless nephew, Harold Lamb. They also adopted a 2-year-old girl from a Boston orphanage, Louise Grace. (Another popular legend holds that Louise Grace was actually Albion's illegitimate daughter. Dykman thinks otherwise. She says a Boston policeman found the abandoned child in May of 1886 and, when he took her to the orphanage, gave her name as Louise Radford, which was his own surname.) Susie never attempted to adopt Harold Lamb because his father was still living - but she was always generous with him.
And by 1893, the Emerys could afford to be generous. The Mayflower Mine, later renamed the Silver King, began to pay. The Emerys' new wealth allowed them to travel and enjoy life. They found a large new home on First South in Salt Lake City. Albion's political career took off. He was elected speaker of the Utah House of Representatives and grand master of Salt Lake's Masonic Lodge. In early 1894, Susie's life was a fairy tale come true.
Then her father died. And three weeks later, 48-year-old Albion died, too, of heart and liver problems. Susie was, by many acounts, extremely depressed. Albion died without a will and Susie was drawn into a bitter battle with one of his business partners. Eventually, the case was resolved in her favor.
Within a few years, newspapers were calling her one of America's wealthiest women - estimating her worth at between $50 million and $100 million.
Dykman is not sure the estimates were right. Albion had four partners in the mine and one of the partner's descendants speculated the entire mine may have been worth that much, but the individual partners had much less. Dykman offered another clue as to Susie's actual worth: "At one point she had to split Albion's assets with Grace and Grace got $1 million." However, Susie did nothing to discourage the spiraling speculations about her wealth.
Meanwhile, Grace, deeply mourning her father's death, hated being separated from her mother. Left with a nanny or sent to boarding school, Grace developed nervous and emotional illnesses. Outgoing Susie had little understanding of the child's insecurities. In the midst of 12-year-old Grace's troubles, while she was at boarding school in California, she met her 17-year-old first cousin, Wallace, a student at Berkeley. He was very concerned for Grace, as was his father, Susie's brother John. They invited the child to their family home in Quincy, Calif., to help her recover. Susie was glad to let Grace make the visit, absorbed as she was by her new suitor, Col. Edwin Holmes.
Holmes was a mining millionaire himself, and a widower, introduced to Susie by their mutual friend, Tom Kearns. The Colonel was entranced with her beauty and witty conversation. He pursued her from coast to coast with lavish presents. In 1899, she finally consented to marry him. When they returned from their world-tour honeymoon, they came to Salt Lake City. For $46,000 Holmes bought Susie one of the town's most beautiful mansions: The Gardo House, or Amelia's Palace as it was called when Brigham Young owned it and used it for entertaining. They spent $75,000 remodeling the home.
There followed the days when Utah thrilled to Susanna's social life. The Holmes' evening parties, Friday "at homes" - when several hundred people regularly came to call - and Sunday teas were the talk of the town.
When Susanna's younger sister, Nellie, had a daughter, she named her Susanna. That namesake niece, Susanna Hartman, is 86 now, living in California. Hartman came to Salt Lake for the family reunion, and talked with much fondness of her Aunt Susie.
When she was little, Hartman and her parents and brother lived in the house on 100 South, and she regularly dressed in lace and patent leather and came to Aunt Susie's Sunday teas. There was always music at the Gardo House, she recalls. And orchids - Susie loved orchids. And at the evening parties, a clairvoyant or palm reader. Once when little Susanna was sliding down the bannister at the Gardo House (as she recalls, she asked Aunt Susie's permission first) she hit the bottom post so hard that she knocked a lovely lamp off the post and it shattered.
She recalls Aunt Susie's reaction. "First she asked if I was hurt and then she said, `I never liked that lamp anyway.' " And the subject was never mentioned again. To her niece, the incident sums up Aunt Susie: She was proud and restrained and she had a a wry, understated way of speaking - but most of all she was kind.
It was perhaps valuable for the others at the reunion - the great-nieces, the great-great-nephews - to hear more about the kindness of this aunt they never knew. Some of them had already heard the story of Grace and Wallace.
It seems when Susie's daughter, Grace, turned 18, she announced she was going to be handling her own money and would be marrying her cousin Wallace Bransford. Susie, who was thinking more along the lines of a Swedish prince as a suitable mate for her only child, expected her brother John to put an end to the foolish idea of their two children marrying. John thought it was fine and gave Wallace several thousand dollars as a wedding gift.
Susie must have been angry. She and her brother had been close. She'd set him up in several real estate ventures and supported his political aspirations and been glad to see him serve as Salt Lake's mayor. She may have felt betrayed, yet she gave Grace a wedding. A small wedding.
On their honeymoon, Wallace told Grace she was adopted. Susie and Grace had a strained relationship from that time forward. Following the wedding, Susie divided her holdings with Grace. Throughout the 13 years of their marriage, Wallace capably managed Grace's money, mining properties and apartment houses.
But Grace died, childless, when she was 31. Her mother didn't come to her funeral. Later, when she learned Grace had left everything to Wallace, Susie took him to court to try to get Grace's money.
Dykman has thought about these two events, which cast Susie in a horrible light. She believes Susie was afraid of funerals, afraid of pain, afraid of a crack appearing in her veneer of composure. She went to her father's funeral, Albion's funeral, and later, her mother's funeral. But never another one.
As for the lawsuit, Susie said at the time she had helped Albion come up with the seed money for the family fortune and it rightfully belonged to her, not Wallace. In those days, no one believed she actually needed the money. But Dykman thinks she may actually have been terrified of being destitute again.
The value of her stock was down. Her lavish style of travel, dressing and entertaining was becoming ever more costly to maintain.
Susanna might not have been as rich as everyone supposed. At any rate, the trial lasted five months. Susie's attorney said Grace had subnormal intelligence and couldn't make her own decisions. Wallace's attorney said Susie had mishandled the funds. Susie's side said Wallace drove a wedge between mother and daughter. Wallace said Susie was a poor mother.
The judge decided in Wallace's favor. He remarried and had children with his second wife. Susie and the Colonel moved to California, vowing never to live in Utah again.
Dykman found evidence, however, to show Susie supported some charities while she was in Utah - such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. And Susie always continued to be generous with her relatives.
She had supported her mother and sister, paying for a lovely wedding for Nellie. She paid for Harold's schooling and, when he married, gave him a large Frank Lloyd Wright home in Salt Lake City. When her niece Susanna graduated from Rowland Hall, Aunt Susie asked to be allowed to take her on a world tour. Hartman's parents wanted their daughter to be a little more down-to-earth than her socialite aunt. They declined.
Susie and Col. Holmes eventually came to a parting of the ways. Her spending habits probably had something to do with the fact that he moved to Chicago to live with his daughters. She hadn't seen him for two years before he died, and once again was traveling and didn't come home for the funeral.
Still pretty, still wealthy, Susanna was once again a widow.
To be closer to her friends, Susanna moved into New York's Plaza Hotel. In 1928, she met a Russian prince, Nicholas Engalitcheff. He was looking for a wealthy wife. She was looking for a title. He had been seeing Oscar Hammerstein's widow, but he dropped everything for Susie and the two became engaged. However, the state of New York refused to give them a marriage license because the prince's second wife (who had turned out not to be as rich as he had hoped) had mysteriously disappeared while on a trip to Canada six years earlier and had not been missing long enough to be declared legally dead.
The society pages didn't report this angle to the nonmarriage of the Silver Queen and her prince. They made it seem like Susie had eyes for no one else - once she had met the dashing young Dr. Radovan Delitch.
He was dark, mysterious, a World War I hero decorated by both the Serbians and the French. And he was 30 years younger than Susie. "Romance has no age," she was quoted as saying, when she married him in 1930. Their marriage shocked society and her family.
In 1935, writing of her life, the San Francisco Chronicle deemed him "The Sadly Slavic Dr. Radovan Delitch." And it seems he was unhappy. They moved to California where Susie insisted he give up his medical career. He was bored. He stopped speaking English. As the Depression deepened, her servants reported hearing frequent arguments about money. After 15 months of marriage, Susie told Rada they were getting a divorce. He begged for a reconciliation. She sent him on a European tour, telling him when he returned the divorce would be final.
He hung himself onboard a ship on Christmas Eve 1932. Aunt Susie was dining with niece Susie when she got a telegram informing her of Rada's death. She quietly folded the note and put it in her purse. Her restraint, her niece has always believed, came about because she didn't want to ruin the meal and create a sad scene for her niece. At any rate, Susanna, always one to put the best possible light on an unpleasant situation, later told reporters that Rada's death was not a suicide and that they would have never have divorced.
Now 74 years old, Susanna sold her California home and many of her possessions - saying their memories were too sad. (Dykman believes she also needed the money.) She moved back to New York and married her prince.
They both had strong personalities, and although they appeared to dote on each other in public, Susie was separated from her husband when he died. Despite the fact that the New York Times reported Engalitcheff's death as occurring in a New York hotel, Susie later told her relatives a different story.
For years her family and local historians believed the more colorful version, that they were on a cruise when Nicki died and since Susie didn't want to interrupt the trip, she arranged to put his body in cold storage in a warehouse. The Russian government wouldn't hear of such sacrilege, the story goes, so Susie hired a battleship, and hired a woman to dress in black and impersonate her. Thus Nicki was buried at sea, while his widow continued merrily on her way.
The last man in Susie's life was her business manager, Culver Sherrill. He was an odd little man, but a devoted friend who cared for her tirelessly. She was almost out of money, and probably quite lonely, when she died at the age of 83. She had told her family she wouldn't be leaving them anything in her will because she had done much for them during her life. Dykman believes she was also hurt by some of them, those who were openly critical of her marrying Rada and the prince.
Rumors circulated that Culver killed her for her money. But once again, Dykman says the colorful version just isn't true. Susie died of arteriosclerosis. All she had left to give Culver was $65,000 and an apartment building in Salt Lake City, which he later sold to the LDS Church for $660,000. (Today, the Church Office Building stands on that site.)
In the process of sorting the myths from the facts about Susie, Dykman says it is important to put her in historical context. She had little in common with the average Utah woman of her time. But compare her to the wealthy, prominent people she associated with, and her behavior becomes more understandable.
To be accepted, to return the Bransford family name to its old prominence, Susanna had to play by the rules. She had to travel to Europe, to absorb the reflected glory of that society, and she had to be rich.
If Susie was an absentee parent, she was only doing what all the wealthy people did, consigning the raising of their children to nannies and boarding schools. "We are all victims of our times and circumstances," Dykman says. Susie was an aristocrat, Dykman concludes, and she carried off the role with more good humor and flair than most of her contemporaries.
As for her relatives, those who gathered in Salt Lake City last week, Susanna Hartman was the one who knew Aunt Susie best. The others tended to talk more of John Bransford, who was the mayor, or of happy family times they remember with his descendants. Her relatives today remember her by her clothes, her scrapbook, by the beautiful piece of jewelry or furniture which once belonged to her and now reside in a London or San Francisco apartment.
"I'd heard she was a witch," says her 14-year-old great-great-great-nephew, Scott Kuhlke, from Denver. Like the junior high school students Dykman teaches, he found the presentation on Susanna pretty interesting, considering it was historical and "slow."
"I'd heard she was a witch and now I hear she was glamorous. I guess I have mixed feelings about her."