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Source File: cat.bohlke.i.27.xml
Cover of L. Brent Bohlke's Willa Cather                             in Person

from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke
Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

Return to Interviews Table of Contents


1928: SUPERIOR

Introduction by L. Brent Bohlke

The life of Evelyn Brodstone parallels in many ways that of Willa Cather. Born in Wisconsin in 1875, she moved with her parents and her brother Louis to a farm near Superior, Nebraska, in 1878. After graduating from the Superior High School, she was employed briefly at a local milling company. While taking a business course in Burlington, Iowa, she visited friends in Chicago and answered a "stenographer wanted" advertisement placed in the Chicago paper by Vestey Brothers, a British-based international meat-packing firm. She got the job and left Superior in 1895. From her position as a $45 a month stenographer in the Chicago offices of the firm she was promoted to auditor, then manager of the American branch, and finally to traveling auditor for the entire firm. She became famous as the world's highest paid woman executive, reputedly earning a salary in excess of $250, 000 a year.

She took an active part in expanding the business and building new packing houses. During World War I she was in charge of the Vestey interests in South America and Australia, and on one occasion she visited the uncharted interior of Australia with only a native guide, becoming the first white woman to enter the area. She purchased six million acres of land there for cattle raising and visited Russia, China, and Africa to establish new business for the company.

At the age of forty-nine in 1924, she married her employer, Lord William Vestey of Kingswood, London, and became Lady Vestey. Although she traveled widely and was known around the world, she always remained fond of her hometown of Superior. She visited there often, frequently to see her mother until the latter's death in 1924 and her brother Louis until his death in 1936. She brought with her many artifacts, several of which are now in the Nuckolls County Museum. She sent gifts to the local children at Christmas, established a scholarship fund for students, donated money and land for a children's playground and a bird sanctuary, and purchased land for a home for the elderly. After her mother's death she and her brother donated to the community the Brodstone Memorial Hospital, which was later renamed the Nuckolls County Hospital.

She continued to reside in London, and the beginning years of the Second World War caused her much grief. When a number of passenger ships of the Vestey Blue Star Line, of which she was an executive officer, were torpedoed and sunk, many of her friends and longtime employees were lost. Her husband, Lord Vestey, died in December 1940. The following 23 May, Evelyn Brodstone, Lady Vestey, affectionately known as the "Cinderella Lady" of Superior, died near London as she was attempting to find refuge from Nazi bombs.

The Brodstone family of Superior had quite early become friends with the Miner family of Red Cloud, and it was through her friends, the Miner girls, that Willa Cather first met Evelyn Brodstone and her mother and brother. She visited the family with the Miners during her high school and early college years and maintained some contact with Evelyn after that, but as Cather admits in this interview, she had not been in Superior between 1893 and 1928. When the Brodstone Hospital was constructed, Willa Cather was asked to write the inscription for the dedicatory tablet in memory of Lady Vestey's mother, Matilda Emelia Larson Brodstone (see "Letters" section). When Louis Brodstone died in 1936, Cather wrote a letter of condolence to Mary Miner Creighton saying that he would be greatly missed, that he was a great fellow with a kind heart, but that like Peter Pan, he had never quite grown up. She thought that he was probably happier because of that. (ALS, 6 December 1936, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois).

FAMOUS NEBRASKA AUTHORESS VISITS NEW SUPERIOR HOSPITAL

Accompanied by two of her intimate friends, Mrs. Creighton and Mrs. W. A. Sherwood, Miss Willa Cather, noted Nebraska Authoress motored down from Red Cloud Wednesday afternoon and inspected the new hospital donated to the people of Superior and vicinity by her old friends The Lady Evelyn Vestey and Lewis T. Brodstone. The ladies also visited a short time in the home of Mr. Brodstone. Enroute home the party stopped at the plant of the Superior Floral Company where the proprietor, Victor Ryhd, universally known as the "Rose King of Nebraska," presented the famed writer with a bouquet of beautiful roses.

The visit of Miss Cather had not been given publicity and only a few of her Superior friends were at the hospital to greet her. Several other friends, not knowing of her contemplated visit, were in Lincoln Wednesday, for which fact they were much disappointed upon their return to the city when they learned of Miss Cather's visit.

Conducted through the hospital "from cellar to garret" by the Superintendent, Miss Grandy, and the staff surgeon, Dr. McMahon, Miss Cather found much in the institution over which to enthuse. She remarked particularly over the beautiful steel furniture, saying that she had never realized that furniture of such beauty, color and warmth could be constructed out of such a cold and repelling substance as steel. The window drapes, the beautiful furniture in reception rooms and parlors and the many attractive pictures also called forth exclamations of pleasure from her. Visiting the operating room she stated that her experiences in such places would not permit her to enthuse very much over them, but that she thought it was as pleasant as a room of its kind possibly could be.

Miss Cather has a right to feel an air of proprietorship over the hospital for it was she who wrote the inscription for the dedicatory bronze tablet which is to appear at the doorway of the hospital. It was much regretted by the management of the hospital that this tablet, as well as the accompanying picture of Mrs. Brodstone were not in their places. The tablet and the bronze frame of the picture are in the hands of a bronze manufacturing company in the east and their manufacture and delivery have been unavoidably delayed.

Miss Cather, who, for the past several years, has maintained a residence in New York where the bulk of her writing has been done, returned to the home of her parents in Red Cloud early in the winter to attend their wedding anniversary. Later she was again recalled to Red Cloud by the serious illness of her father, and, upon his improvement remained in Red Cloud to spend the holidays in her old home. It is the longest visit she has paid Red Cloud in many years and her pleasure in her home stay has been equalled only by the pleasure of her family and friends in her extended visit. It was her first visit to Superior since 1893.

The distinguished authoress, during her Red Cloud visit has decided to surrender her New York apartment, at least temporarily, and will make an extended tour of the Pacific Southwest, the scene of several of her novels. She expects also, to make a tour of Europe before returning to New York.

It is not difficult to understand, after meeting her, why Miss Cather is so popular and beloved by her friends and acquaintances. Despite her literary successes her personal charm is augmented by her democracy, and her easy and gracious commonness. In her presence one realizes that the greatest source of the charm in her delightful novels and sketches lies in her pleasant and versatile personality.

After spending fourteen years in industrial surgery in the mining centers of America, Dr. McMahon has become convinced of the large and almost undeveloped field of romance and novelty in the life of the American miner. To Miss Cather he spoke of this field and stated that he felt that no American Author was better equipped to enter this field than herself. "But Doctor," she said, "I know nothing of this life. A novel is not the result of a mere interest and the realization that in a field lies the basis for a novel. One must live the life, without thought of a novel until suddenly in its living there comes to a person the understanding that here is a story worth writing down." "I can easily understand that about your epics on Nebraska," returned the doctor, "but what of your tales of the southwest, as Death Comes to the Archbishop?" "Doctor," replied Miss Cather, "I spent a large part of fifteen years in the southwest, living the life of the southwestern people. I have ridden thousands of miles on ranch ponies, and the experiences I have related in the stories to which you refer are not based upon fancies or upon reading of that territory and those people, but upon my own life and experiences there."

There is little doubt that many of the experiences mentioned by Miss Cather were undergone without the present realization that in them lay the basis for a great novel. But later, in connection with other related events she has woven them into her novels with dexterity and effect. And who knows but that in her future and greater novels—for each of her novels seems successively finer than those that have come before—there will some time be a place for the authoress' visit to the beautiful House of Mercy donated to Superior by her girlhood friends?

Superior Express, 12 January 1928.