Curtis Sisters Made Mark At U.S. Women's Amateur, Charity Work
By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
Every two years, Margaret and Harriot Curtis are saluted for founding the Curtis Cup Match. Thanks to the Curtis sisters, the USA’s best women amateurs have faced a team from Great Britain and Ireland since 1932, excepting the years of World War II. Treasured as the golf experience of a lifetime by players, the match has endured for 77 years. It will be played in 2010 at Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., the Curtis sisters’ home course. It was in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, however, that the Curtis sisters first made their mark.
Rattling around France in a World War I ambulance, finding American homes for European children stranded by the war, running the Board of Refugees in Paris, Margaret “Peg” Curtis steamrolled through life. Along the way she won a national tennis championship and powered her way to three U.S. Women’s Amateur titles.
Harriot Curtis, called “Hat” by her family, set up a health clinic for the poor, shepherded female African-American students through college and was an early supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She, too, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
When the Curtis Cup is played next year, someone will no doubt point to an ancient photograph of the Boston dowagers, and Harriot and Margaret Curtis will again be remembered for their contributions to women’s golf. Founding the Curtis Cup was a great feat. Diplomatic strings were pulled. Financing was found. Travel arranged. Everything had to come together, and it’s doubtful that anyone but the Curtis sisters, with the help of the Ladies’ Golf Union, could have pulled it off.
The Curtis Cup, however, is just one achievement in the lives of two extraordinary women whose accomplishments are staggering by today’s standards. In war relief, international diplomacy, social work, charity, athletics, the arts and education, Margaret and Harriot Curtis exemplify lives well lived.
They were the ninth and 10th children among five sisters and five brothers in a bustling brood of achievers. Marked by tragedy, the Curtis family nonetheless managed to make towering contributions to American life. And, along the way, Hat and Peg captured five national sports championships, which brings us around to golf.
“They were two happy sisters,” recalled two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Barbara McIntire, who enjoyed a visit with Harriot and Margaret in 1960.
Writer Nancy Jupp, who wrote about Margaret for the USGA’s Golf Journal in 1957, was entranced by the sunny disposition of the youngest Curtis sister. “Blessed with an all-embracing and dynamic personality,” she wrote of Margaret. “…Her jovial manner is a testimony to her perpetual contentment. She has remained untainted and her company is as refreshing as a breath of fresh air to a sultry city.”
Golf was a part of their earliest lives. The game was introduced to the Curtis family in 1893. Their cousin, Laurence Curtis, second president of the USGA (1897-98), sent the children a copy of “Golf” from the Badminton Library of Sports, suggesting that they try the game.
Greely Stevenson Curtis, a cavalry colonel in the Civil War, and Harriot Appleton Curtis, daughter of industrialist Nathan Appleton, had married in 1863 and welcomed the new entertainment for their energetic family of 10 children. In 1893, Frances, 26, was an avid skater. Elinor was 24, Greely, a recent Harvard graduate, was 22. Harry Appleton Curtis, 18, attended Harvard, while Frazier, 16, James Freeman Curtis, 14, Harriot Sumner Curtis, 12, who played tennis and baseball, and Margaret, at 9 the baby of the family, became willing students of the game.
Two of the children had not fared as well. Isabella, at 20, was a semi-invalid, and William, “Billy,” 28, the eldest son, was disabled and spent time with relatives on a farm in Boise, Idaho.
In the winter, the Curtis family lived on Boston’s Beacon Hill. In summer, they packed up and moved to Manchester-by-the-Sea, where their father had once ridden his horse to a point on the river and said, “Here is where we will live.” Their house, named “Stone House,” was designed by architect Henry Van Brunt. They also maintained a farm on their property. One can imagine the Curtis children cavorting over the hills and pastures, riding horses, playing tennis and baseball, and now learning the rudiments of golf.
Of all of the children, Hat and Peg took most easily to the new game. Stone House was just a stone’s throw from the new Essex C.C., where the children soon pursued the game in earnest. Just three years later, young Peg, at 12, played in her first club championship and astounded everyone by reaching the final. One of Peg’s beaten opponents was asked, “How could you let that child beat you?”
The defeated player gazed at her chubby opponent and replied, “She’s no child; she’s a baby grand!”
Ignoring the slight, Peg plugged on in the game she loved. The following year, the “baby grand” took her game to the 1897 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Essex C.C., her home course. It was the first time either sister played in the national championship, but it was the beginning of the many encounters that would so distinguish Peg and Hat.
Stalwart little Peg carried four clubs and qualified in fourth place among the 29 contestants, with an 18-hole score of 122. She had the misfortune to run into the medalist and defending champion, Beatrix Hoyt, in the first round of match play and was trounced, 8 and 6.
But it was a start. In 1898, Hat, now 17, took her turn and qualified with a respectable 109, but fell in the first round. Margaret was sidelined with various illnesses and family emergencies and missed the championship in ’98 and ’99.
Tragedy was taking a toll on the Curtis family. Greely, their father, died in 1897, and their mother took over the running of the household. Then Billy, their disabled brother, drowned at Manchester at the age of 34. “Billy has slipped away from us...," wrote his distraught mother.
Undaunted by her sadness, Margaret returned in 1900 to play at Shinnecock Hills C.C. on Long Island. In the semifinals, Peg again faced Beatrix Hoyt, now a three-time champion, who was playing at her home club. By the 13th, Peg was 3 up with four holes to play. Golf Lawn and Tennis Magazine reported that, “…Miss Hoyt, by the grandest golf ever played by women in a match in this country, won the fifteenth hole in 5, and, halving the sixteenth in 4, squared the match by taking the last two holes in par 4’s, amid tremendous applause…” Curtis was un-rattled and won on the 20th hole with a 4 when she drew a more fortunate lie than Hoyt when they were both bunkered. It was one of the most famous upsets in women’s golf. Hoyt never again played in the Women’s Amateur.
Peg had now advanced to the final. She faced Frances Griscom, who played steadily from start to finish, while the long-hitting Curtis frequently drove into the rough. Griscom won on the 13th green. Margaret, however, had her first tantalizing whiff of the Robert Cox trophy.
In 1901, the quarterfinal between two youngsters, Bessie Anthony, 18, and Margaret Curtis, drew great interest. “Miss Anthony fairly electrified the gallery by her dashing play at the start, and on the ninth green she had the unexpected lead of three holes,” reported The New York Times. Anthony was 2 up with three holes to play when Curtis won the 16th and the 18th to square the match. Curtis won on the 19th hole, but lost her semifinal match the following day.
Harriot lost early but the girls’ brother, Greely, was on hand. He buzzed the course in his airplane and could hardly contain his excitement. Greely wired his wife:
“PEG 2 UP HIGH [presumably Harriot] ONE DOWN GREAT SPORT, CURTIS”
In 1902, Margaret and Louisa Wells became the first players to break 90 in qualifying at The Country Club in Brookline with scores of 89, despite terrible rain and the resulting wet fairways, which allowed little roll. Harriot was also improving and won the qualifying medal in the 1904 Women’s Amateur with a 93.
Of the two sisters, Peg was the stronger player, and in the 1905 championship she nearly won the trophy. At Morris County G.C. in Morristown, N.J., she advanced to the final to play fellow Bostonian Pauline Mackay.
Curtis was the favorite, having defeated Mackay in a recent tournament by the astounding margin of 9 and 7. This time, Mackay’s fine putting saved her. Curtis was hitting her tee shots in the 200-yard range and Golf, the USGA’s bulletin, reported, “…some of her second shots were such as no woman in the country could do.” Indeed, Curtis was 3 up at the turn but never won another hole. Mackay won the 11th, 12th and the 14th when Curtis took four putts. Curtis hit her brassy shot out of bounds at the 16th to lose another. One hole down, Curtis missed a 12-footer and McKay wound up winning, 1 up. Margaret was consoled by having won the qualifying medal with Georgianna Bishop when both shot 87 – a record score.
Margaret was now a student at Simmons College in the School of Social Work, and when she sailed to play in the 1905 Ladies’ British Open Amateur, she took her final examination papers with her on the ship, completing them and posting them back to the United States on her arrival in England.
Harriot’s Time To Shine
Harriot’s year was 1906. At Brae Burn C.C. in West Newton, Mass., Margaret did not compete. Harriot was said to have “a fine sweeping stroke,” and Ralph Cracknell wrote in one golf publication, “Miss H.S. Curtis always has been considered by the golfing women of Boston as good as her sister, and they ought to know, by meeting her in matches.”
Harriot had been playing golf for eight years and had never advanced beyond the third round when she made it to the final. More than 2,000 spectators followed the match. Cracknell wrote, “Miss H.S. Curtis gave a very strong exhibition of golf. Her long game was far and sure, she was not nervous, and her putting was very good…The long game of Miss Curtis, while it did not terrify Miss (Mary B.) Adams, gave her a little more than she could make up, and she did not quite play the game that she had shown during the week. Miss Curtis played better than ever.”
Hat had a 1-up lead with two holes to play. A bunker at the par-3 17th had cost many a player during the week and on her second shot Adams found that bunker, “the grave of many hopes.” Curtis then hit a perfect shot and made a routine 4 while Adams made 6, and Harriot won, 2 and 1. It would be her only national championship.
The sisters dominated in 1907 at Midlothian C.C., near Chicago, when Margaret won the medal with a 95. On the first tee of qualifying, she hit a 220-yard drive, a women’s record, and the ball went so far that it carried into a creek and cost her a 7 on the hole. “She duplicated the distance in the second tee off,” said The New York Times, “and holed out in three. Sensational golf marked the rest of her outward journey.”
Peg and Hat advanced to the final, a showdown that was the only time two sisters met for the championship.
Margaret and Harriot had played each other in the 1905 Ladies’ British Open Amateur, with Margaret winning, 3 and 2. This time, she simply overwhelmed Harriot. Despite cold, disagreeable weather, a sizeable gallery was on hand. Margaret, according to The Times, made few mistakes and played “almost unbeatable golf.” She won the first six holes before the players halved the seventh, eighth and ninth. Harriot captured the 10th, but Margaret “slashed out long drives and telling brassey [sic] shots, and utilized the regulation number of putts on all the greens.” She won the 11th and 12th, ending the match by “the overwhelming score” of 7 and 6.
If there had been a Curtis Cup team at the time, both sisters would have made the squad. As a footnote, the following year Margaret, with Evelyn Sears, won the national women’s lawn tennis doubles championship to become the only American to concurrently hold national championships in two sports.
The sisters won more medals in the next two championships. In 1908, Hat was medalist with 85. The following year, Peg joined Mrs. Caleb Fox and Anita Phipps in shooting the low qualifying score with 86, seven strokes better than the 1904 medalist score at the same course.
Devotion In Golf And Charity
By 1911, Hat, now 30, and Peg, 28, were devoted to competitive golf while their sisters and brothers rallied to causes of their own. Frances passed the Harvard Examinations for Women and attended Radcliffe and MIT. Not only did she organize a library and reading classes for African-
Harry, another brother, graduated from Harvard and was studying architecture at MIT. He would leave the university to join the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War and served in the Army Intelligence Division in World War I. Frazier and James were also Harvard graduates. Frazier became a cattle broker and lived in California. James became Assistant Secretary of the United States Treasury. The Curtis family was obviously hugely productive.
In 1911, Margaret won her second championship with a 5 and 3 victory over Lillian Hyde in the final at Baltusrol G.C. in Springfield, N.J. Curtis won a key match when she defeated two-time champion Dorothy Campbell, who was also the reigning British and Canadian Women’s Amateur Champion, in the semifinals, 4 and 3. It was the first time that Campbell had been beaten in the United States.
In the final, the Curtis-Hyde match pitted the two longest hitters in women’s golf. Hyde had the advantage off the tee, a surprising situation for the long-hitting Curtis, but Peg was generally nearer the hole on her approach shots. Hyde’s putting was abysmal, and she took 37 putts in the match compared to 31 for Curtis in 15 holes.
Margaret Curtis won her third and final championship, fittingly, at her home club, Essex C.C., in 1912. She defeated Nonna Barlow of Philadelphia in the final, 3 and 2. She was also medalist with an 88.
This was one of Curtis’s finest victories. On the morning of the semifinal, she smashed her hand through a glass door at home. She cut two fingers, and a deep gash on her right hand required five stitches. Curtis’s doctor reluctantly allowed her to play. Wearing a large bandage, she got past Katherine Mellus, 1 up, and then beat Barlow on the 16th green of the final.
Mellus and Barlow were put in the unfortunate position players have faced when encountering the ill or wounded. Had they won, they’d receive no particular acclaim. Curtis, to her credit, remarked several times during the early holes with Mellus that her injury caused no pain. “It was an obvious attempt to put Miss Mellus at her ease concerning the wound,” said an article in The American Golfer. To deaden the pain, cocaine was applied, and the bandage became more blood-soaked as the match progressed.
The Curtis-Barlow final was expected to be close, but Curtis was better at match play. While Curtis had trouble gripping the club with her injured hand, she had a lucky break at the 15th when her ball hit a fence and kicked back in bounds. Barlow then hit into a ditch at the 16th and that was the match. Only one hole was halved.
Margaret had now set herself apart from most of the other good players, having won three times and finishing as runner-up twice. An intriguing footnote is that, while the women’s national golf championship was now 18 years old, this was the first year in which women were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games.
Curtis Sisters’ Golf Reign Ends, Benevolence Begins
Harriot made the semifinals of the Women’s Amateur in 1913, losing to the young star Marion Hollins on the 20th hole, and the reign of the Curtis sisters in the U.S. Women’s Amateur had come to an end.
For the Curtis sisters, their most noteworthy achievements were ahead. Harriot and Margaret co-founded the Maverick Dispensary in East Boston, a health clinic for Italian Americans, in 1909. When World War I broke out, Harriot was appointed a director of the Associated Charities (Boston) and worked at the Center for French Wounded and the Home Service Division of Civilian Relief.
Most notably, Harriot began her relationship with Hampton Institute, an all-black college in Hampton, Va. While staying with friends in Richmond, Va., in 1903, Harriot visited the school, heard Booker T. Washington give a speech and her lifelong commitment began. “Hampton was the most exciting thing I ever saw or heard,” she wrote in a letter. “I can’t think of a greater privilege than to be allowed to teach there.”
Harriot raised funds for the school, and in 1927 was invited to be Dean of Women. “You ask about my job,” she wrote a friend after accepting the position. “I feel in everlasting confusion, so many darn little details … if you’ve never been a Dean and don’t know beans about it, what can you expect?” But Harriot was loyal to the Institute and remained Dean of Women for four years.
Margaret dedicated herself to wide-ranging social and administrative work. After graduating from the Simmons College School of Social Work in 1904, she worked for the Associated Charities of Boston (later the Family Welfare Society). In 1916, the war began and Margaret asked her mother if she could go overseas.
“I was wondering when that was coming,” her mother said in resignation.
In February of that year, Peg went to Paris to organize relief for French refugees. Hat wrote to her sister, “Don’t think about coming home…you are more useful there.” In 1918, Margaret joined the American Red Cross in Paris and served as chief of the Bureau of Refugees. Through mid-1919, she continued her relief work under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee.
One of the greatest honors of Margaret’s life came in 1919 when she was awarded the Medaille de Guerre by the French Red Cross. The following year she was awarded the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Francaise by the French government for her relief work. In January, 1921 she returned to Europe to tour child health clinics in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria for the American Red Cross (ARC). She was offered positions as head of ARC social work in Latvia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Serbia, but declined. In 1922 and ’23, she was again involved in relief work in Greece as Adviser in General Relief for the ARC.
Despite the crucial work the sisters were doing, their thoughts were often on the game. In 1932, the sisters donated the Curtis Cup and the matches began, the realization of their longtime dream of international competition for women. Margaret continued to be active in golf. She founded the Massachusetts Girls’ Junior Championship in 1930 and played in the U.S. Women’s Amateur when she was in this country. She qualified for the 1932 Women’s Amateur, shooting 89. In 1947, she said she was, “…burned a little bit,” when she shot 102 and missed the cut for match play. Peg made an appearance in the championship as late as 1949, when she was 69. Although she was no longer competitive, her presence was widely hailed by many who remembered her prowess when she was young.
During World War II, Peg faced a unique opportunity to help one of her fellow women golfers. Jessie Anderson, a Curtis Cup player for Great Britain and Ireland, was engaged to marry George Valentine, who was serving at the front. George was captured and sent to the deplorable conditions of a German prison camp. Jessie feared for his health and safety. She then contacted the only person she knew who might be able to help – Margaret Curtis.
Margaret immediately devoted herself to George’s situation and soon arranged for Red Cross packages to be sent to him in the prison camp. The small packages contained food rations and toiletries, enough to keep George going, and they were delivered throughout the war. When World War II ended, Jessie and George married and one day rode a train to London to meet Margaret and personally thank her for her intervention.
In 1960, USA Curtis Cup players Barbara McIntire and Judy Bell (who would become the first woman president of the USGA) visited the aging Curtis sisters at their home in Manchester, Mass. To their delight, Margaret joined them for a foursomes match at Myopia Hunt Club, along with Mildred Prunaret, their USA Curtis Cup captain. Barbara was Margaret’s partner and played with her clubs, a wildly mixed bag of wooden-shafted and steel-shafted implements, some with huge grips.
On one par-4 hole, McIntire, the 1958 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, hit Margaret’s 5-wood for her shot to the green. Peg looked sternly at Barbara. “I used to hit a 2-iron from this spot,” said the old champion.
Thirty-five years later, in 1995, the Boston Globe announced that “the Curtis Collection” of 57 items was to be auctioned off at Andover C.C. The family’s papers were donated to Harvard University. Odd lots of Margaret’s and Harriot’s memorabilia are in the hands of collectors. Some of their possessions found a home at the USGA Museum.
Time dulls even the brightest sheen of history. The Curtis sisters won national championships more than a century ago. Their hard work to help the less fortunate is more than six decades old. They were the granddaughters of a successful industrialist and could have lived leisurely lives, but Peg and Hat chose a higher road. The cheerful Harriot boosted great and progressive causes, slightly overshadowed by her dynamic sister Margaret, who devoted her life to helping the oppressed. When Margaret died, in 1965, and Harriot, in 1974, they left legacies more priceless than any collection a museum could house.
And yet, golf remained well-woven in the fabric of their lives. In 1958, when the USGA gave Margaret the Bob Jones Award, the Association’s highest honor given in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf, she responded with a letter that includes some of the most memorable words in the game. “Golf is my life and I love it,” Peg wrote. “I’d play it with rocks, if I had to.”
Rhonda Glenn is manager, USGA Communications. E-mail her with questions or comments at email@example.com. For more information about the Curtis Cup Match, please visit the official Web site, www.curtiscup.org.