On Memorial Day, it’s customary to remember fallen soldiers, but this year, I’ll think of Marsha Snyder, of Pittsfield, Mass. Recently, while looking her up to renew acquaintances, I discovered she had passed away in the summer of 2010.
Marsha Manley Reeves Snyder, mother of award-winning Hollywood director Zack Snyder, was also the author of a biographical novel, "Speedwell," published in 2007. I reviewed the book for several newspapers, as well as her son’s blockbuster hit from that same year, "300."
Marsha and I often talked about getting together for lunch, maybe in Williamstown. But something always seemed get in the way. More than anything, I wanted to tap her mind further on "Speedwell," a book that gave me a unique window into the societal emancipation of women in the U.S.
It was a story perhaps made for one of Zack’s movies.
The American women’s movement, which took root in the 1840s, reached a critical point in the 1920s when securing the right to vote. Even in rural states like Vermont, woman found small tastes of freedom palatable. They earned progress in increments, many which had nothing to do with politics or equal rights, but rather with everyday living.
In 1994, Marsha learned this when inheriting her mother Helen’s possessions. In them, she found a picture of Brattleboro heiress Helen Danforth Manley, taken seven decades earlier during a mercurial summer and fall which changed her fortunes forever. Included was a collage of personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, brief reminiscences, and Helen’s diaries. Marsha then recalled Helen lamenting a lost love from her youth.
She set out to research Helen’s memories of this past yearning, a Mr. Patrick Patton. Beginning the trail at Morningside Cemetery in Brattleboro, Snyder found Patton’s forgotten, unmarked grave not far from where her mother is buried. For the next several years she accessed records, combed libraries and haunted historical societies. Marsha reconstructed her mother’s early life, a previously unknown family history.
It began with real estate. Helen’s father, J.R. Manley, was Vermont’s first automobile king. His risky car dealership investment in the early 20th century, when car-worthy roads didn’t exist, banked him a fortune by the time Helen was 21. Manley considered acquiring Speedwell Farms in Lyndonville, the estate of telecommunications pioneer Theodore Vail.
A investment group headed by Patton, a 46-year-old Canadian speculator, approached J.R. Manley’s vision for Speedwell included a golf course, fishing, horseback riding, and converting its mansion to a hotel, complete with restaurant, spa, and a speakeasy through which illegal alcohol would flow from Canada.
J.R. hoped to draw urbanites by rail, and become the destination resort for anyone who wanted to be seen and noticed in the Northeast. After several fact-finding trips to Lyndonville and back, a flirtation sparked between Patrick and Helen.
However, the status of Patrick’s previous marriage complicated matters. J.R. took a liking to the suitor but also put a detective on his tail. It concluded with all parties reconciled, but on the eve of his engagement to Helen, Patrick fell ill with malaria, and died on Thanksgiving Day, 1924.
Her mother’s unveiled past left Marsha Snyder in a reflective mood.
What she discovered wasn’t just personal, but historically relevant to the changing times. In 1920, the 19th Amendment had granted voting rights to American women, and Helen was very much a product of the era. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she was feisty and brash, yet equally diplomatic and deferential.
Helen, though madly in love with Patrick, showed good sense to pay homage to J.R. as it suited her purpose, yet didn’t cow-tow to him. Given the era, her élan may seem a bit shocking to us until reminded such self-discovery was heralding the future for women, even in the Green Mountains.
And seven decades later, Marsha discovered something about her mother: In 1924, after a dreadful loss, Helen Danforth Manley was a young American woman finding her voice for the first time.
In 2007, I came upon the story and was grateful Marsha Snyder had taken the time to write it. My summary here can’t do it justice, but it can serve as a memorial to a kind, generous woman with Vermont roots who called the Berkshires home. Many in her extensive circle of family and friends still believe she left us far too soon.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.