In conversation with ... Leighton Coleman
Written for her son by an American heiress whose family survived the 1912 sinking of the "Titanic", this account of the Edwardian life and of the disaster is told through the eyes of the young boy's teddy bear. Illustrated with watercolors and family photographs, this book makes an ideal read-aloud.
Since July is focused on Titanic passengers, our team member Terri Bey offered to interview Leighton Coleman, editor of the book, Polar, The Titanic Bear, originally penned by Daisy Corning Stone Spedden. Daisy penned the manuscript for Polar for her son, Douglas, after the family survived the Titanic disaster in 1912.
Mr. Coleman, I want to thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview. It is an honor and a privilege to interview you for our July Newsletter!
1. Leighton, can you please introduce yourself to our readers, including your familial connection to the RMS Titanic?
I’m Leighton H Coleman III, my grandmother who was born in 1904, & she was Douglas Spedden’s cousin and since they were the almost same age, they spent a lot of time together as children. Douglas Spedden was born in 1905 and he shares his birthday with his mother, November 19th!
2. Prior to your discovery of being related to Daisy Spedden, who was a cousin on the Corning side of your family tree, did you have any interest in the RMS Titanic?
No, not really, I was more interested in the genealogical side of the story, The connection is not as complicated as it sounds, but here it goes, my grandmother’s grandmother was Anna Maria Corning [Mrs. George Smith Fraser] and Anna Maria Corning Fraser was the sister to Margaretta Carll Corning [Mrs. George Frederick Stone ], who was Daisy Corning Stone Spedden’s mother. So that is how my grandmother Jane Fraser Coleman was cousin to Robert Douglas Spedden.
The aforementioned above sisters had a brother, Ephraim Corning who was married to Nancy Rhinelander Robert, a cousin of Titanic victim, James Clinch Smith. That is the connection that Daisy Spedden enjoyed with James Clinch Smith on board the Titanic. Interesting fact, Ephraim Corning was a First Class passenger on the Olympic’s maiden voyage the year previously. So the Cornings were Ocean Liner mavericks...
3. When you went through the various diaries and other items in the Spedden Truck, did you become more interested in learning about the disaster?
The thing about the Spedden family that initially absorbed me was that fact that they were a very close family and were extremely devoted to their son Douglas, who by-by-way was NEVER called /nor referred to by his first name, Robert. So frustrating that others do... Titanic historians please take notice!!
Like me, Daisy Spedden lost her mother as a child, but UNLIKE me, her father remarried a really lovely lady named Georgianna Colgate ( yes of that Colgate soap family! ) Georgianna Colgate Stone was a remarkably generous stepmother who poured her heart in to the welfare of her adoptive family.
Unfortunately for me, my father didn’t make such wise choices... any way, Daisy Spedden became very interested in photography, most likely induced by the brilliant marketing strategy of George Eastman, founder of Kodak and in particular via the debut of his “Brownie” cameras that made it very easy for women consumers, to be involved in this pursuit with out the fuss of chemicals and developing the film, since as all you had to do, in those days, was to send the camera back to Kodak and they will print your images and reload the film for you.
Daisy Spedden, created over 35 photograph albums, documenting her “soon-to-be-lost” Gilded Age world and her privileged Edwardian life style. But what she mostly focused on was on her relationships with her extended family and friends. And what still marvels me the most, to this very day, is that these albums show was how devoted she and her stepmother were to each other.
Georgianna Colgate Stone paid for her step daughter’s lavish wedding & European honeymoon; so naturally Georgianna went with them and she seen, beaming with happiness, in practically every third photo of their honeymoon trip. Also, Helen Alice Wilson, Daisy’s “lady’s maid" who would also famously survive the Titanic, is also featured in these albums too!
Then by 1905, the Spedden family albums focuses on their child, Douglas Spedden, along with his nurse Elizabeth Burns, AKA “Muddie Boons”, and on the burgeoning family’s numerous trips. In short, these albums document a cosseted world of beautiful fashions, country homes, custom hand built motor cars, yacht cruises, ocean liner travel & foreign destinations, so even if they had never boarded the Titanic, I would have found the Speddens and their world enthralling.
I would like to add that Daisy Spedden had a sister Emma Dorrance Stone Kemys, who out of jealous frustration of her older sister’s Titanic adventure, & according to family lore, felt that she too needed to bit of “daring excitement”. So to that end, she hired an open cock-pit aeroplane around 1914, to fly her and her doctor, (as she feared air-sickness), from the Morristown NJ golf club to Massachusetts and thus become the first passenger to fly commercial between those states. Is a funny example of sibling rivalry gone awry. Emma Kemys died childless at 89, a few years before I was born, and left her entire estate to the Seeing Eye Dog Foundation, and so every time I see a service dog, I think of her generous spirit.
4. From reading Daisy Spedden's account, she doesn't blame anyone for the Titanic accident. Do you blame anyone in particular?
From what I can recall is that Daisy Spedden never seemed to blame any one associated with the Titanic or The White Star Line, but Daisy Spedden strongly believed that she saw the mast lights of the Californian, the Californian SAW their flares, and should have come and rendered aid. She wrote about it and in particular noted this thought on the back of the photo of the iceberg from a set of photos given to her by the Ogdens, her Tuxedo Park neighbours that she coincidentally encountered on the rescue ship, Carpathia.
5. Three years after the Titanic Tragedy, in 1915, the Speddens' only child Douglas died after being hit by a delivery truck while they were in Maine. The Speddens dealt with both tragedies by traveling and spending time with friends. Why was traveling the way the Speddens dealt with that terrible grief? Do either or both tragedies have an impact on your family today?
From what I have heard from family councillors & grief therapists, is that a death of child is a tremendous unbearable loss for a couple as it involves a lot of recrimination, second guessing and reliving various scenarios of the tragedy, analysing each sequence of the event in search of meaning. Most couples would simply implode under this type of self induced stress, but the Speddens didn’t and that in it self was remarkable....
The custom of the time dictated that in “polite Society” one did not talk about these things, so the Speddens really did NOT get much opportunity to express their feelings with their loved ones. Daisy sadly remarked in her diary that the only people who inquired about the Titanic or her son, were shop keepers or trades people, and from what I was told, she relished those impromptu moments to reminisce... She kept the key’s of her trunks lost on the Titanic in her purse to show the curious... I now have them along with the diary and other artefacts that she saved from that fateful journey.
My father told me that his mother forbade him, when he was a kid, to ask Aunt Daisy any thing to do with the Titanic during their visits for tea and when he was in his 20s, he finally learned that Aunt Daisy actually one had a son... now, that’s an example of WASP sang froid!
I think that Daisy Spedden being a devoted Christian gave her the faith that provided her a tremendous amount of comfort and solace. The Speddens could have grown apart, but they found consolation in each other and the excessive traveling made their pain easier as they did not have to run into familiar faces and reexamine the past.
This was made clear to me by the reminiscence of a close childhood friend of Douglas Spedden, Earle Stevens who was the same age as Douglas. There are several photos of these childhood playmates, enjoying their brief time together, in the Spedden albums. When I met Mr. Stevens in 1995, in Tuxedo Park, he was a youthful 90 year old gent, and he recalled how uncomfortable he felt every time he ran into the Speddens, for he sensed they would stare at him in order to imagine what their son would look like at 15, 21, 35 and so on... He then told me he felt as if he was living two lives one for him self and one for his lost childhood friend, and he certainly did... living to 105!
Daisy & Frederic kept Douglas Spedden’s room in their home in Tuxedo Park just as he left it in August of 1915 before they went up to Winter Harbor. The Spedden’s time in Tuxedo Park after the Titanic disaster & little Douglas’ untimely death wasn’t always easy... Albert Foster Winslow, the late Tuxedo Park Historian, once gleefully wrote me, in a 1994 letter, that it was he who thew iced snow balls at the Spedden’s windows every winter, as he felt that Frederic Spedden disgraced himself by surviving the tragedy. Isn’t that letter crazy; especially since Albert was born several years after little Douglas died ?!?!?
This reminds me that, I only had two letters of complaint about the book being published, one from the aforementioned Albert Foster Winslow and another scolding one from a distant elderly cousin of Daisy Spedden on her Stone side of the family, who peevishly felt the book was an “invasion of her privacy” especially since Daisy never allowed any one out side the family call her “Daisy”. Totally untrue! We used Daisy instead of Margareta because that is how she signed her poems, letters & book!
6. What surprised you the most about the Speddens while doing your research, and from reading Daisy Spedden's diary?
What charmed me about the Spedden’s was the love that Daisy had for her family and by the way she obsessively tended her photo albums, I feel she subconsciously knew these happy days she was documenting were numbered.
BUT, Frederic O. Spedden is a glamorous mystery, he was incredibly handsome and very socially active, a yacht designer and a racer of sail boats who wore white gloves whilst yachting to avoid calluses from handling the lines. And if he were French, he would have been the epitome of a fin-de-siècle, boulevardier....
He came from a Louisiana branch of a Maryland family that lost everything after the Civil War. His father moved to New York to rebuild the family fortune and what lifted the family out of social obscurity was Frederic’s beautiful sister, Blanche, whose beauty & musical talent caught the eye of Gilded Age hostess Mrs. Louis Hamersley, who in 1888 became Duchess of Marlborough. Through the patronage of the Duchess of Marlborough, Blanche’s daughter went on to marry Rodman Wanamaker, who was then one of the world’s wealthiest men... Also young Frederic was befriend by Ward McAllister who roped him in to his “Patriarch's Ball”, the precursor to his “Astor 400” list .
In addition to being a well known ball room dancer and figure skater, Frederic helped to design the Winter Harbor 21s racing sloop with Burgess and their creation is oldest one-design sailboat fleet in the U.S. Seven of the nine-boat fleet has been sailing since 1907 for the Winter Harbor Yacht Club! Frederic was a racing judge for the New York Yacht Club and an author on a book of racing rules. I long suspect that he being a well known yachtsman allowed him entry to Lifeboat #3. Also Frederic’s brother in-law was Frederic Tams, the yacht designer of J.P. Morgan’s legendary Corsair.
So the Speddens defiantly were not dullards...even with the Titanic episode aside.
7. When did you get the idea to create a book from Daisy Spedden's diary?
I have friends who knew of my ever increasing obsession with the Speddens, and they suggested that I either go in to therapy or take all the material and make it into a book. It helped that Daisy already wrote one, for her son, which was originally entitled “My Story”, so all I had to do as an archivist, was to marry up the text with photos that she took as well as ephemera that she collected. And that was the beginning of the literary snowball that became a best selling phenomenon.
8. After the book, "Polar the Titanic Bear" was published, what was the general reception?
I don’t think any one was expecting the book to become the hit it became, the initial run was expected to be 15,000 copies but went on to sell more than a million copies in five languages. So I began to receive media requests from all over the world, which stunned me. It was like that Daisy Spedden knew her son’s short life would touch so many others. One of the best experiences was when a delegation from Japanese TV came to the house to interview me and the see the Spedden artefacts. That episode aired August 30th 1998 in Japan on Asahi T.V.
Also let’s not forget the IMPORTANT fact that the super talented illustrator, Laurie McGaw, won the 1995 Governor General’s Award for her amazing renditions in Polar The Titanic Bear which put the book on the world stage.
9. How did you start getting invited to give lectures at schools, museums, etc.?
In addition to media requests, I was getting requests from school teachers, to do readings and presentations on the Titanic. Eventually I developed a school presentation with accredited educators and was enrolled in to BOCES Arts-In-Education program that brought authors in to schools as speakers, but in this case I was a relative of the author...
I think I did around two hundred such programs. By the early 2010s my 1972 Kodak slide projector was deemed a distraction to the children as they never seen such antiquated technology before. I was forced to move my program in to “Smart Board” technology by the school system, but the draw back was that every school district used different software/tech resulting in several hours of set up time, causing me to make two trips to the school, one day just for set ups and the next day to the lecture... So lecturing was no longer fun for me, as it lost its spontaneity, so regretfully I retried the program...
Here are a few questions from Titanic Book Club Members:
10. Question from Book Club Owner Jill Carlier: I love the story that you put on yours website about saving material from the dump!! I was wondering if you tried to keep Daisy's journal as close to her writing as possible, or did he have to do much editing?
Yes, one summer in the early 1980s I was helping my grandfather clear out part of his barn, were the abandoned house hold items that my grandmother was storing but had become damaged by the heat and or by the racoons. There were several steamer trunks filled with old clothes & linens that no one wanted which were destined for the town dump, and some how the Spedden trunks were put on the truck too!! Luckily I was there to save them, but what I should have done was to rescue the other Louis Vuitton trunks as well, but who knew how collectable those old trunks would be...
I asked my grandfather for the Spedden trunk as a birthday present, as I always felt that the Spedden’s steamer trunk full of photo albums, diaries and related ephemera was like a time capsule to a forgotten glamorous age and I wanted to share it as book with the public, luckily for us all, Daisy Spedden had penned a manuscript, and with a bit of editing, it became the book we know today as Polar The Titanic Bear. The parts we cut out were the sections where Daisy mentions esoteric relatives and “off screen” family events that were superfluous to the narrative.
11. Question from Book Club Member Mary Tyrone: What do you think the Spedden's would think if they could know how popular the Titanic tragedy story is, and the fact that many people still remember them and what they did over 100 years later?
I’m absolutely positive that I did what Daisy Spedden had wanted, and that was to publish her long lost children’s manuscript and family photos. Little Douglas Spedden, even though his life was every so brief, has gone on to touch millions of others and his poignant story has meaning, which I think is a form of closure that evaded the Speddens during their life time.
12. Question from Book Club Administrator: Alicia Brinkofski: Do we know what happened to polar the bear? In other words, she wants to know what has happened to the original polar bear through the years, and where the bear is today.
Some say that Polar was buried with Douglas and others like to believe he is still traveling the world...
13. Last question: Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know, and how can readers contact you? Can you include your website and a way to buy your book?
Polar fans can visit us at PolarTheTitanicBear.com or email me at Leighton@PolarTheTitanicBear.com
THANK YOU FOR THIS MOST DELIGHTFUL OPPORTUNITY TO SPEAK TO YOUR READERS!!! -Leighton