Friday, April 27, 2012

The last of Lee Veirs

A large portrait of Lee Veirs was slipped loose into his scrapbook. It may have been taken as a publicity shot during the years he was on the road or it may have been taken later, at Bates Studio perhaps, after he returned home to Chariton.

Lee Veirs left Chariton soon after high school graduation in 1920 to make his mark as a  musician. A talented pianist, he spent several years on the road with small orchestras --- Summy's Southern Syncopators, Paul Carey's Jailbirds and the Atlas Beer Special Orchestra among them  --- traveling the Midwest by train and beat up automobile.

Then he came home. Perhaps it had something to do with the death of his father, Edwin, during December of 1935. Lee was the only child of fairly affluent parents and his mother, Effa, may have prevailed upon him --- there was property to manage and her feelings to consider.

Lee really never left again, except during the 1940s when --- in his 40s himself --- he went to Des Moines to do his part for the war effort by working in an ordnance plant.

The end, when it came 20 years later, was hard --- in 1965, three years after Effa's death --- at the business end of a .38 caliber revolver, self-inflicted.

That might have been that. Cousins were the only survivors. There was no one left to tell his story.


But then a battered old scrapbook surfaced several weeks ago as the basement of the Ensley-Crocker Block was being cleared to make way for new owners. The scrapbook had had a hard life and no one knows why it was there --- with water-stained, warped and moldy covers that had protected the photos and memorabilia inside.

After passing from hand to hand, the scrapbook ended up at the Lucas County Historical Society museum and I've been spending some time this week conserving it --- disposing of the hopelessly damaged cover and slipping pages into clear archival sleeves so that their contents can come into the light again.

It's been an evocative trip through young Lee's years on the road --- programs and posters, dozens of snapshots, newspaper clippings, publicity photos, match book covers, dance cards, hotel room receipts and blotters, even a dried boutonniere or two.

At first I thought this must have been Effa's project --- but now I think it was Lee's. The focus is on friends and fellow musicians, objects that had personal meaning. Who knows what memories they brought back as he turned pages in later years.

I think these are Summy's Southern Syncopators, but can't be sure of that. Lee is at far left, holding the baton.

I learned from the scrapbook that Lee was a part of Boyd Summy's Hotel Maytag Orchestra DeLuxe in 1926 when Newton's grandest hotel opened its doors for the first time; and that his longest gig may have been with Paul Carey's Jailbirds. He was playing for the Atlas Special Beer Orchestra when, according to an undated clipping, his mother made a trip from Chariton to Ottumwa to watch him perform. There are items picked up in hotels in Chicago, Peoria, Indiana and elsewhere.

This caricature of Lee at the piano was drawn by Woody Hull when Lee was playing with the Atlas Special Beer Orchestra. Four of Hull's caricatures are pasted into the scrapbook.

Finally, slipped loose into the scrapbook, are programs from Des Moines theatrical performances that Lee must have attended after he retired from the road --- Helen Hayes in "Mary of Scotland," Kathryn Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," the dramatization of Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road," the Ziegfield Follies, and more.

The last item pasted into the scrapbook, like a period, is a copy of his funeral folder, neatly centered on a page of its own. I wonder who went to the trouble to do that.

Working with those pages, I felt like I was getting to know Lee a little. Those years on the road obviously were important to him, he was happy, heck --- he even may have been in love; there are signs of that --- and he told the story himself. Miraculously, it survived.

Considering the end, I hope many more happy days came along later. But that, I guess, we'll never know.

Lee William Veirs, only child of Edwin and Effa (Brown) Veirs, was born in Chariton on Oct. 13, 1901. A 1920 graduate of Chariton High School, he traveled with orchestras as a young man and worked at an ordnance plant in Des Moines during World War II. His parents had owned considerable real estate in Chariton, which he managed after their deaths. He never married.  Lee died at his home, the family apartment at 105 S. Main, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on Jan. 28, 1965, age 63. A member of St. Andrew's Church, Fr. Colin Keys conducted last rites at Beardsley Funeral home on Feb. 1 and he was buried with his parents in the Chariton Cemetery.


Brenda said...

Thanks for sharing the story of Lee and his scrapbook. I am fascinated by scrapbooks and all the ephemera that their owners chose to save within their pages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update on Summy's ..Iwish my father in law was still alive to fill in even more blanks -( also one of the members of Summy's). I will look forward to seeing the scrap book.
b. gode