Mary Venable Blythe (1871–1951)
Mary Venable Blythe, always known by that trio of names, entered the world February 3, 1871, in her grandparents’ home in Gonzales, Texas. Life began some years later, the moment she sat down at the piano and made music.
Music informed every aspect of her life: She would not marry; instead, she studied music and educated others. Her love of music would determine not only how she spent her time, but also where she lived and with whom. Even on her deathbed, she was among musicians.
It’s unclear who set Mary on her musical path, but that she came from a line of high achievers is clear. Her great-grandfather, the Rev. James Ebenezer Blythe, received his doctorate of divinity from Princeton University and served as president of two colleges: Kentucky’s Transylvania University and Indiana’s Hanover College, from which Vice President Mike Pence graduated in 1981.
In 1840, the Rev. Blythe’s namesake son, an Indiana attorney, wed Kentucky-born Mary Craig Venable. This is the grandmother for whom Mary Venable Blythe was named.
Was this paternal line the source of Mary’s musicality? Or did it come from her mother’s side? Her maternal great-grandparents were Quakers from Philadelphia’s Germantown. Their son, Ezra Keyser, fled to Texas, where he repudiated his parents’ pacifism by joining the Confederate Army. Ezra spent four years fighting the Union, a cause about which he expressed himself passionately in a letter sent home from Galveston in 1862:
“The feds have made a demand for an unconditional Surrender of the City, troops, arms, ammunition, Cannon, Stores, etc. Don’t grieve or give yourself any uneasiness about me… If I fall it will be in front of the thieving, plundering, double and twisted d — d black hearted abolitionists… God & Liberty first, you all second, myself last.”
In August 1865, Ezra signed an application for a presidential pardon for the role he played in the Civil War, something that surely chafed. At that point, he was home in Gonzales with his wife and daughter, Sarah “Sallie” Katherine “Kit” Keyser, the mother of Mary Venable Blythe.
On the day Mary was born in 1871, her grandfather was in his third decade as a successful hotel keeper. Ezra and Sophia Keyser were able to offer their grandchildren — Mary and brother Keyser — a stable home throughout the 1870s and 1880s, when their father, Edward William Blythe, was on the road. Edward’s mother’s family had long been in the lumber business in Memphis, and it’s likely he represented them as a traveling salesman. In 1884, he started a land and timber business in Cass County in east Texas, with his mother’s brother.
Mary’s family clearly had the means — and the will — to invest in her education. She traveled 33 miles from Gonzales to Seguin to earn a diploma from Montgomery Institute, a private girls’ school that would merge with St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio. At one point, she studied with Harold Von Mickwitz, the dean of music at Southern Methodist University (1916–1918) who became a principal piano teacher at Juilliard. She studied harmony with Harry Redman, a professor at the New England Conservatory, and took special courses in “musical science” at the University of Colorado and the University of Southern California.
Some of these studies may have taken place after her parents re-located to Dallas. Edward Blythe was by then manager of the lumber department for Kniffin Coal, Grain and Lumber Company. The 1900 census shows Mary, 29, sharing her parents’ home at 383 Worth Street; she is listed as having no occupation.
By 1910, Mary’s parents had moved to Angelina County in southeast Texas, where Edward owned a sawmill. That year’s census places Mary in her parents’ household and on Garrett Avenue in Dallas. She was then teaching music at St. Mary’s (Episcopal) College, living among other teachers and staff on campus. St. Mary’s was Dallas’s first post-secondary school for women, founded in 1889 and dissolved by 1930. A young Claudia Alta Taylor (Lady Bird Johnson) studied writing there. The school’s chapel is still in use as St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
Mary left Dallas in about 1917 to accept a teaching position at Nashville’s Ward-Belmont, a private school providing secondary and higher education to young women from 1913 to 1951. The school was comprised of a junior college, preparatory school, conservatory of music, as well as schools of music, art and dancing, for both boarding and day students.
For the next 25 years, Mary’s life was filled with teaching — piano, sight-playing, theory — and organizing recitals for her students, some of them reviewed in the Nashville newspapers. (A “pretty program,” said one.) Mary routinely gave teas in her “studio” to honor her graduating students. And, she sponsored Ward-Belmont’s Texas Club, making her responsible for organizing an annual entertainment. Mary out-did herself in 1924, rating many column inches in the Nashville Banner. Singled out for praise were the miniature Mexican sombrero souvenirs handed out by cowboys during the grand march to the tune of The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.
Mary returned to Dallas-Fort Worth from time to time. Presumably, she came home to bury her parents. Only a year after she moved to Nashville, her mother died; she lost her father in 1927. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery. A happier occasion occurred in the summer of 1933: Mary won a prize for bridge when she traveled to Fort Worth for the Ward-Belmont Club luncheon at the Hotel Texas.
Later that year, when the school dismissed all students for two weeks at Christmas, trains departed Nashville for 37 states, some equipped with special Ward-Belmont Pullmans. The unique “Texas Special” held 166 students and a contingent of chaperones supervised by Mary Venable Blythe. It’s not clear where she spent Christmas that year, but Mary’s brother and four nieces and nephews were living in Cass County, Texas.
When she was 72, Mary moved to Philadelphia to reside in the Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers. Theodore Presser, a music publisher, built the retirement home, the first of its kind, in 1914 to show his appreciation for the music teachers who had enriched him. During the dedication, Presser said:
In this home the music teacher will find a haven of rest, for there will be no caste or sect distinctions. The humble teacher who has labored faithfully in a village is as welcome as the metropolitan teacher who once thrilled thousands in the concert room.
There, accustomed to living communally for most of her adult life, Mary undoubtedly enjoyed the company of other musicians. And, at first, she returned to Nashville on occasion to visit old friends. By 1950, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and, on March 5, 1951, she died. Clarence Foy, superintendent of the Presser Home, was the informant named on her death certificate.
Mary Venable Blythe’s body was removed to Dallas and buried near her parents in section 8 of Oakland Cemetery.