The High and Lows of Reeves Brace (1898-1932): A Tragic Tale of the Woodstock Art Colony, Part 2
Peggy Bacon (1895-1987)
Ernest and Reeves Brace, c. 1925
Woodstock Artists Association and Museum
In late 1932, Reeves and Ernest Brace separated. The artist Florence Ballin Cramer alluded to the couple’s marital difficulties in a diary entry of early December.(1) The Kingston Daily Freeman reported that on December 7th “Mr. Brace visited a real estate office asking that that his home [on Ohayo Mountain Road] be advertised for sale or for rent. He gave a complete list of the furnishings, and a forwarding address of 354 West 12th Street, New York City”(2) The newspaper also mentioned that it was in early December that close friends first “learned of a rift between the artist and her husband.”(3)
Children and Cousin of
Ernest and Eleanor Muller
on Steps of Former House of
Reeves and Ernest Brace
at 145 Ohayo Mountain Road, 1933
Courtesy of E. Harrison Sohmer
Brace rented the house to Ernest and Eleanor Muller. The photograph above pictures their daughter Winsley, cousin Ruth Murphy, daughter Mara (later the wife of Woodstock artist and teacher Robert H. Angeloch), and son Harrison on the steps of the property.(4)
In mid-November, Reeves travelled to her parent’s home in Washington, D.C. She spent part of her stay in the area in a local hospital where she was operated on for an unknown ailment. On December 15th she took the train to Manhattan, and registered at the Governor Clinton Hotel opposite Penn Station. Reeves informed the front desk she was tired from her long trip, and requested she not be disturbed. Over the next several hours she wrote a number of letters, and deposited them in the mail chute outside her room.
Around 11 o’clock the next morning Reeves fashioned a noose from a silk stocking and knotted it around her neck. She knotted the other end of the stocking over the top of the bathroom door and then closed it. Reeves stood on a chair, adjusted the noose, and kicked the chair away. For several hours previous to her body being discovered the hotel received frantic telephone calls from Washington, D.C. which the Brooklyn Times reported were “the result, it is believed, of some disturbing letter Mrs. Brace had written her mother. To each of these telephone calls, the hotel operator gave the same reply – ‘she is out.’”(5)
Winged Insignia of Air Corps, Pin, c. 1930
At about 9 p.m. on Friday night the assistant manager of the hotel finally sent attendants to Reeves’ room. They forced the door open, and found Reeve’s hanging from the bathroom door dressed in a filmy undergarment. The police found notes and envelopes scattered about the room. An envelope addressed to the police department purported that its contents would “explain everything ”(6) A note that was addressed to Reeves’ mother read “This is what you told me to do.”(7). Atop a table was a photograph of Reeves attired in an evening gown. Scribbled in white ink across the bottom of the photograph was the name Albert B. Moore and the words “Dear Al-This is a happy landing, Reeves.”(8) Pinned to the photograph was a winged metal insignia of the United States Air Corps.
Accounts of Reeves’ suicide appeared in newspapers across the United States, and reporters in Washington as well as New York sought to discover an explanation. The Washington Herald reported that Reeves had recently been unsuccessful in her attempt to show at Gallery 144 13th Street in Manhattan, where she sent gallery director Manfred Schwartz “a study of a cat, a landscape and an impression of flowers in a vase [and] suggested he exhibit them if he thought the work worthy.”(9) The Washington Evening Star revealed that Brace recently completed a children’s book, which she wrote and illustrated herself. The newspaper related that the book was scheduled to be published by Brewer, Warren & Putnam, Inc., but as a result of the firm’s closing it would not appear.(10) The Washington Herald surmised Brace was heartbroken “at the failure of her marriage, disappointed in efforts to arrange an exhibition of her paintings in New York, [and] further discouraged by failure of a publishing house, which had bought a children’s book she had written, [all of which] left her disconsolate.”(11)
Elmira Star Gazette,
January 8, 1929, p. 11
Newspaper reporters reached out to Albert B. Moore for an explanation of his relationship with Reeves Brace. Moore lived in Troy, New York, where he was a captain in the police force, and ran the state police training school. He informed the press that he was puzzled by the note, and remarked that he “knew Mrs. Brace, but only casually. I met the family at Woodstock last summer at a dinner given by a playwright friend of mine. I only saw them once or twice after that. I was never assigned to Woodstock [as a police officer] and I think the fact that the picture was addressed in that place indicates better than anything else that Mrs. Brace knew me only slightly. I am at a complete loss to understand why Mrs. [Brace] should have inscribed a picture to me.”(12) The Washington Evening Star further reported that Moore “believed that the note had been inscribed impetuously some time ago and had nothing to do with the suicide.”(13)
Interestingly, nine months after Reeve’s suicide, a divorce was granted to Moore’s wife Elizabeth. The Saratogian related the details of the divorce, and mentioned Moore’s link to Reeves Brace’s death: “[Moore’s wife’s] complaint, which was not contested, involved a ‘red headed woman,’ whose name was not disclosed. Capt. Moore was alleged to have been with her at a Schenectady hotel, July 21. . . . Captain Moore must pay $50 monthly alimony. He may not marry again within the lifetime of his wife. She will resume her maiden name, Elizabeth Loeffler. Last year Capt. Moore’s picture was found in the room of a woman who committed suicide in New York.”(14)
Ernest Brace proved difficult to reach following the discovery of his wife’s suicide. His brother Donald informed the New York Daily News that he was “somewhere in the South motoring on a vacation trip to Sante Fe, N.M., and his exact whereabouts are unknown.”(15) His brother offered that he “could not guess the motive for the suicide, and knew nothing of the [police] inspector’s relation to the self-slain woman.”(16)
On December 18th, the New York Daily News published an article bearing the headline “Illness Caused Brace Suicide, Mother Avers”(17) In the article Reeves’ mother denied there was anything mysterious about the suicide of her daughter, and attributed the tragedy to ill health: “‘My daughter had been ill for a long time. In fact, she had been in a hospital in Washington until very recently . . . . I am sure that her illness had brought her to a state of mind where she took her own life. There is no other explanation that I know.”(18). On December 19th, The New York Times reported that “Mrs. Brace, who was 34 years old, had been in bad health for some time and recently underwent an operation”(19)
“Mrs. Brace Suicide Laid to Bad Health,”Saugerties Telegraph,
December 23,1932, p. 8.
News of Reeves Brace’s suicide appeared in the Ulster County newspapers the Kingston Daily Freeman and the Saugerties Telegraph.(20) Local police reached out to the artistic and literary set in Woodstock and learned the community was “shocked by news of the suicide. Friends of the family pictured Mrs. Brace and her husband . . . as ‘very devoted,’ quiet and conservative. The Braces made their home in Woodstock for several years, and in addition to her [recent] literary work [as a children’s book author], Mrs. Brace devoted herself to painting and charity.”(21)
Woodstock artist Wendell Jones wrote a letter to his parents in which he mentioned the suicide and commented “Poor kid-how terribly pathetic.”(22) At the conclusion of the letter he added “Everyone is horrified at Reeves suicide. We only know what was in the paper. It was announced over the radio & Arnold [Blanch] heard it carrying it to Carl [Walters].”(23)
In 2003, Aileen Cramer, the daughter of Konrad and Florence Ballin Cramer, related in a phone conversation with researcher Stephanie Boris that “she remembered Reeves as being highly spirited and unpredictable”(24) She further indicated that Reeves was up and down mentally, that her “suicide was a ‘big shock,’” and that “‘nobody knew’ she was in such a state.”(25)
In January 1934, Ernest Brace purchased a house in Mt. Airy in Westchester County, New York. In May he married the writer Marjorie Johnson. Born in Manhattan in 1900, Johnson spent most of her early years living outside the city. She related that because of family connections with an unnamed university, she was “surrounded with instructors and post-graduate students, in full cry after Ph.D’s, and consequently acquired a strong contempt for formal education with which I bolstered up an instinctive hatred of discipline. The result was I never finished high school but devoted my adolescence to making an attempt to read all the books in the university library and almost succeeded.”(26)
In 1926, Johnson began a long series of jobs in New York City, from writing copy for shoe companies, clerking at Macy’s, and modelling for wholesale dress and coat firms. From 1928-1930 she was a regular book reviewer for the New York Evening Post and the New York Herald Tribune, and published poetry in newspapers and magazines. In 1934, Johnson reported that she “stopped all work except for very occasionally reviewing for the Post and trying to earn money by writing trash because of a grim illness which lasted three years. It is only in the last year that I have been writing seriously.”(27) In later life Johnson worked as a teacher.
Marjorie Johnson Issue, Cover,
The Plowshare, May 1934
Historical Society of Woodstock
In May 1934, the couple rented the cottage of James A. Shultis on Wittenberg Road in Bearsville.(26) Simultaneous to this time Johnson’s short stories were the subject of an entire issue of the literary journal The Plowshare, which was recently resuscitated by Hervey White after an absence of more than 15 years. White asked his neighbor, the novelist Henry Morton Robinson, to help with the magazine, and also called on Brace, whom he later wrote had “spent a year on the Maverick and [later] lived on the Wittenberg road. Both had published books and were writing articles and stories. . . . It was Brace who had the first inspiration. ‘Give an entire issue to one writer and let him see what he can do’ . . . . We introduced seven unknown good writers [including] Marjorie Johnson [who authored] stories of wise sophistication . . . .”(28) The Plowshare folded after a year as a result of the expense of production, and having only 18 renewals.(29)
Ernest Brace (1893-1960)
Chair, c. 1940
In 1925, Brace took up woodworking as a hobby. The Kingston Daily Freeman wrote that at first he “fitted out his own home, almost completely with furniture designed and made in his own shop so cleverly that it became famous in a community of fine craftsmen.“(30) In 1939, Brace became a charter member of the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. He served on the original board of directors, and displayed his furniture at guild exhibitions.
Woodworking Shop, National
Youth Administration Center, c. 1940
Tables and Chairs, Produced by Woodworking Shop,
National Youth Administration
Work Center, Woodstock, c. 1940,
Woodstock Artists Association Archives
In 1940, Brace was hired as the woodworking instructor at the National Youth Administration Work Center, located close to the village on route 212 (now the home of the Woodstock School of Art).(31) Brace’s fellow instructors included Eugene V. Caille (wool), Elliot Fatum (metalwork), and Tomas Penning (stone cutting). The Woodstock periodical The Overlook congratulated the NYA for hiring Brace, who had “long been noted for his talent in woodworking, and had made many fine articles for Woodstock people.”(32) The Kingston Daily Freeman felt that it “would be hard to find a person better equipped to combine a fine feeling for craftsmanship, and at the same time to give the youth a practical knowledge of the use of tools and materials which will fit them for real jobs later on.”(33) During his time at the center, Brace oversaw the creation of nearly 400 pieces of furniture of his own design for NYA resident centers in New York State, including Woodstock.(34)
Ernest Brace of the Woodworking Faculty
and a Pupil Work Together, 1945
“School for American Craftsman, New England Division,
Hanover , New Hampshire,” Craft Horizons 5 (August 1945): 7.
The National Youth Administration Work Center in Woodstock closed in early 1942 following the entry of the United States into World War II. Three years later Brace accepted a position as instructor of woodworking at the School for American Craftsmen at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The school had been established that year by the American Craftsmen’s Educational Council. The art patron and philanthropist Aileen Osborn Webb was the driving force behind the school, whose goal was to promote and strengthen the burgeoning craft movement, and provide professional training on the same level as painting and sculpture. The school provided classes in ceramics, metal crafts, jewelry, weaving, textile design, woodworking, and furniture design.
Gravestone of Ernest Frank Brace
Prescott National Cemetery,
Yarapai County, Arizona
Brace continued to teach at the School of American Craftsmen following its move to Alfred University in 1946, and to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1950. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Brace occasionally wrote for Craft Horizons, including an article on the master woodcarver Edgar Keen in November 1948. Brace retired from teaching in 1958, and was honored for his longtime service at a banquet that year.(35) Brace and his wife Marjorie moved to Prescott, Arizona, where Ernest passed away in 1960 at the age of 67.
Gravestone of Virginia Blair Reeves Brace
Woodbine Cemetery,Harrisonburg, Virginia
Following her death in 1932, Reeves Brace was buried in the Harris family plot in the Woodbine Cemetery, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The epitaph on her tombstone, “Oh Hadst Thou Waited,” is a line from the 19th century British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Frederick Keats. The stanza cries out for what might have been had Keats lived beyond the age of 25, and come to maturity as an artist and a man:
- O’ gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,/ Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men/ Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart/ Dare the unpastur'd dragon in his den?/ Defenseless as thou wert, oh, where was then/ Wisdom the mirror'd shield, or scorn the spear?/ Oh hadst thou waited the full cycle, when/ Thy spirit should have fill'd its crescent sphere,/ The monsters of life's waste had fled from thee like deer.
The second lecture in the series Seeing in Three Dimensions:
Sculptors of the Historic Woodstock Art Colony
Occurs on Wednesday August 4th at 7 p.m
The Modern Wave, Part 1 will also be available for viewing
from Monday August 9th through Wednesday August 8th.
To acquire tickets click:
Many people have assisted in the research and writing of this piece. I would especially like to thank John Ed Bradley for relating his thoughts about the art and life of Reeves Brace, and for sharing his file on the artist, which include a valuable material gathered by his former research assistant Stepanie Boris, including notes from her conversation with the late Aileen Cramer. Ronald Van de Lieu also offered valuable thoughts about the artist and her work, and provided an introduction to Mr. Bradley. Other people who provided assistance Include Jason and Karen King; Kim Apolant, Librarian, Woodstock Public Library; JoAnn Margolis, Archivist, Historical Society of Woodstock; John Kleinhans; Paula Nelson; Fred R. Martell; Deborah S. Tankard; Arthur A. Anderson; James Cox; Bunny McBride: Mikhail Horowitz; Emily Jones, Archivist, Woodstock Artists Association; Hilliard MacDonald; and E. Harrison Sohmer.
1- Undated diary entry of about December 7, 1932. Florence Ballin Cramer Diaries, typescript, summary by pages, p. 11. The page number on my personal copy is handmarked.
2-“Woodstock Artist Found Hanging by Stocking in Hotel,” Kingston Daily Freeman, December 17, 1932, p. 11.
3-Ibid., p. 11.
4-“Note to Police Holds Secret to Suicide of Society Beauty,” Brooklyn Times, December 17, 1932, p. 1
5-“Brace Suicide Laid to Defeat in Love and Art,” Washington Herald, December 18, 1932, p. 8-A..
6-Ibid., p. 8-A.
7-Ibid., p. 8-A.
8-Ibid, p. 8-A.
9-“Mrs Reeves Brace Ends Life in Hotel,” Washington Evening Star, December 17, 1932, p. 2.
10- Brace Suicide Laid to Defeat in Love and Art,” p. 8-A.
11-Ibid., p. 8-A.
12-“Mrs. Brace Suicide Secret in Letter,” Washington Evening Star, December 18, 1932, p. A15.
13-“Wife Divorces Captain Moore of State Police,” The Saratogian, September 12 1933, p. 1.
14-“Illness Caused Brace Suicide, Mother Avers,” New York Daily News, December 18, 1932, p. 297.
15-“Brace Suicide Laid to Defeat in Love and Art,” p. 8-A. The Ohayo Mountain Road property was sold in 1934 to the artist Christine Walters Martin and her husband George Martin. I would like to thank Janis Staggs and Erik Swanson for locating the deed of sale of August 4, 1934. The Martin's grandaughter Bunny McBride was also helpful regarding the property.
16-“Illness Caused Brace Suicide, Mother Avers,” p. 297.
17-I would like to thank E. Harrison Sohmer and Hilliard MacDonald for making me aware of this photograph and the Muller connection to the Brace house on Ohayo Mountain Road. Paula Nelson kindly assisted in making the connection. As noted, the Mullers daughter Mara later married the Woodstock Artist Robert H. Angeloch, with whom she studied at the Art Students League summer headquarters in the town. Among other things, the two were key figures in the founding of the Woodstock School of Art following the League's closing in 1979.
18-Ibid., p. 297.
19- “Mrs, Brace’s Suicide Laid to Ill Health,” The New York Times, December 19, 1932, p. 19.
20-“Woodstock artist Found Hanging by Stocking in Hotel,” Kingston Daily Freeman, December 21, 1932, p. 11; “Mrs. Brace Suicide Laid to Ill Health,” The Saugerties Telegraph, December 23,1932, p. 8.
21-”Note to Police Holds Secret to Suicide of Society Beauty,” Brooklyn Times, December 17, 1932, p. 61.
22-The contents of this letter are referred to in an email of Emily Jones to J. Ed Bradley, August 11, 2006. I would like to thank Mr. Bradley for supplying this email, as well as the email cited in footnote 24, and the notes of Stephanie Boris’s cited in footnote 25. The artist couple Wendell
and Jane Jones were also friendly with Ernest and Eleanor Muller, who rented the Brace property on Ohayo Mountain Road in 1933. Email of Paula Nelson to Bruce Weber, July 27, 2021.
24- Aileen Cramer’s comment is noted in an email of John Ed Bradley to James Cox,
November 12, 2004.
25-“Notes of Stephanie Boris of Conversation with Aileen Cramer of February 2003.”
66- Johnson is quoted in “Concerning the Author,” The Plowshare 10 (May 1934): 83.
26-Ibid., pp. 83-84.
27-“Wittenberg,” Kingston Daily Freeman, May 19, 1934, p. 5.
28- Hervey White, “Autobiography,” manuscript in the Papers of Hervey White, Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, p. 289.
29-Ibid., p. 189.
30-“Work Center at Woodstock Gets Big Furniture Order,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 19, 1940, p. 11.
31-“Ernest Brace To Be Craft Instructor at N.Y.A. Center,” The Overlook 7 (May 3, 1940): 1.
32-Ibid, p. 1.
33-“Work Center at Woodstock Gets Big Furniture Order,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 19, 1940, p. 11.
34-Ibid., p. 11.
35-“RIT Faculty, Staff to Hold Banquet,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 3, 1958, p. 10.