Hohenwald's Connection to the Gilded Age:
A picker’s hunt turns up a treasure revealing more than just silver and gold
April 23, 2020
I recently had the opportunity to write a story about a Bible found in a Hohenwald thrift shop by Hohenwald resident and picker extraordinaire, Melissa Willis McCann. This article contains a wealth of knowledge about one of my favorite eras in history, the Guilded Age, and a chance discovery that reunited a special Bible to its previous owners. Enjoy!
Copyright, Boyish Grin
Publishing February 2019
“Picking” has become a sport in America. With television shows like American Pickers, Antiques Roadshow, and Pawn Stars, the fun and adventure of finding lost treasure have become contagious. And there’s no place to find a lost treasure like Hohenwald, Tennessee. Known as the junk capital of the world, I hope the word keeps getting out that it’s just “junk.” I can assure you, the local treasure hunters know better.
Enter Melissa McCann, Hohenwald resident, and prolific picker. Melissa and I used to cross paths often in junk stores around town. She was doing the same thing I was doing; looking for something old and unusual that told a story about its former owner. For people like Melissa and I, there’s genuinely nothing more fun and exciting than a treasure hunt.
Melissa’s quest to fulfill her oddities collection took a historic turn when she stumbled across an old Hungarian Bible in one of Hohenwald’s many local junk stores. Unsure of its origin, she purchased the Bible and immediately began researching the names inside, in hopes of finding the descendants of her incredible find.
The Bible’s original owners, Charles and Magda Goodheart, had a profound connection to a fascinating life in early twentieth century America, and the famous families for whom they worked.
Employed by the scions of the most elite social class in America, Charles and Magda Goodheart had an incredible front row seat only shared by a few. The Gilded Age had come to a close, but America’s aristocracy was still living the lives of their ancestors in the most exclusive stretch of sand in America.
Each year, America’s wealthiest families arrived at their summer playground in Newport - Rhode Island’s City By the Sea. Enormous cottages filled with the sounds of opulent parties, weddings, sporting events, and high society. Immigrants and locals received free uniforms and titles, but most of all, the opportunity to provide for their families.
One such “domestic” was Charles Goodheart, a dashingly handsome young man, and Newport native, born in 1904. Ambitious, hard-working, and determined to make his place in the world, Charles did what many other children of servants did; he followed in his mother’s footsteps.
As a domestic servant, you were afforded luxuries you would otherwise never have. And the higher your position in the household, the more you were provided.
Bailey’s Beach was a hub of elite Newport society, and Charles stayed on throughout the twenties and thirties, working his way up through several positions. Charles began as a maintenance man, then an alley boy (also known as a bathhouse attendant), then a lifeguard: “The season at the beach opened each year officially on the 4th of July, although families began arriving around the middle or end of June when the children were getting home from school and ended following Labor Day.
Charles added: “I think you might like to know what bathing suits the ladies wore in the 1920s and early thirties period. They got undressed, to get dressed, to go bathing. They wore a one-piece garment called an Annette Kellerman. As an undergarment, a corset, bloomers, stockings, bathing shoes, another undergarment over this and finally an outer garment with long sleeves with a high neck, gloves, and a bathing cap so they wouldn’t get sunburned. They didn’t swim but dunked up and down in the water. Every bathhouse had a pail of fresh water outside the door, so they could rinse the sand off their shoes. The suits they took off were rinsed in fresh water to get the salt out so when they were dried, there would be no white salt stains visible the next time they put them on.”
It wasn’t long before an immigrant beauty began making the social scene at the beach where Charles worked. When he first laid eyes on Hungarian-born Mary Magda Csicay, he knew he had to meet her.
Charles tirelessly pursued Mary, enchanted with her beauty and kindness, even though Mary was advised never to talk to American men. Born in Budapest in 1905, her first brush with American Royalty came as a teenager after the death of her parents.
Because Mary’s mother had worked as a laundress for Count and Countess László Széchényi in Hungary, the Countess asked Mary if she would like to help look after her young daughters and help perfect their Hungarian speaking skills. Mary and her younger siblings all went to live with the Countess and her family, building a loving relationship with Gladys Vanderbilt that would last decades.
Count László was Hungary’s first Minister to the United States and the first Minister to the Court of Saint James, United Kingdom. Gladys Vanderbilt was the youngest daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President of the New York Central Railroad and builder of the most impressive and influential mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The Breakers is an impressive and remarkable estate, designed in the Italian Renaissance-style by famed architect, Richard Morris Hunt.
Constructed between 1893 and 1895, the 70 room mansion consists of 62,482 square feet of living space, in a gross area of 125,339 square feet. Five floors of incredible wealth, the mansion’s footprint covers approximately one acre of a 14-acre estate.
The Count and Countess László split their time between their homes in Hungary, Washington, D.C., and one month each summer at The Breakers. Charles recalls: “The family returned from Europe in the Fall to live in Washinton, D.C. for the diplomatic season, as Magda’s employer was the Hungarian Minister to the U. S. during the administration of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.”
Magda made good use of her time in D.C., attending night school to learn English, and soon found herself working at The Breakers.
Around this time, domestic servants made up approximately 10 percent of the population in Newport. Charles recalled that staff would have “kitchen ratchets” — parties in the kitchens of the different mansions, with food galore.
It took only four years and many seasons spent oceans apart, for Charles to convince Magda that they were right for one another, and the couple married in 1926. Charles recalls: “I went and got another job as a footman in the household of the American Minister to Greece, Mr. Irwin Laughlin, associated with the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. In April of 1926, we were married in St. Mathews Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue.”
After marrying, Charles took a job as a footman with wealthy American banker and diplomat, Andrew Mellon, who served as U. S. Secretary of the Treasury during the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover administration and United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Remembering his station, Charles describes the types of footmen: “There are three types of footmen. One who sits on the horse-drawn carriage with the coachman. One who sits with the chauffeur in the limousine and one who is an assistant to the butler. In the meantime, I was learning to work as a private waiter at dinner parties and other social affairs while working at the beach. Mr. Mellon’s fifth-floor apartment was located at 1783 Mass. Ave., N. W., near Dupont Circle. This was the nicest job I ever had, and Mr. Mellon, who lived alone, was the nicest gentleman I ever worked for. While in his employ, I had the honor, pleasure, and privilege of waiting on President and Mrs. Coolidge, President and Mrs. Hoover, members of The Cabinet and Diplomatic Corp., high-ranking members of the United States Senate and Congress, Lindberg’s father-in-law, Mr. Morrow, who was our Minister to Mexico, and other VIPs who Mr. Mellon entertained at his formal dinners.”
“I also had the opportunity to see and appreciate some of the worlds most famous paintings done by old masters that were being sold by their owners. Mr. Mellon’s apartment was the first place they were brought to by the Duvenn and Knoedler Art Galleries. They were hung in various rooms in the apartment, beautifully framed and lighted to show them off to their best advantage. They would be left hanging for two or three months. If Mr. Mellon liked any of them, he might consider buying them. If not, they were taken away and replaced by others.”