A stenographer, an
doctor and the world's most perfect Brunhilde
Marie Johnson (c1880-1923) lived
with her foster parents, Alexander Newman Stevens
and Minnie Saltzman Stevens (1873-1950), in Aurora,
Illinois, a town of about twenty-five thousand, forty miles west of Chicago. Marie's
birth year is a mystery. Between 1900 and 1913 she
grew increasingly younger, in 1900 reporting her
birth year as 1878, in 1910 as1885 and in 1913 as
1888. Thus far I've found no information
regarding her birth parents or how she came to be
involved with Alexander and Minnie Stevens.
The only evidence I found of foster parenting is
that in a 1903 newspaper interview Alex referred to
her as his daughter and in a eulogy at his death she
was referenced as his foster daughter.
Stevens had operated a drugstore in Bloomington, IL in 1900
and would later take up farming but in 1902-4
described himself a doctor. Minnie gave vocal
lessons on Hawthorn Court in Aurora. Marie worked as a
stenographer at the Western Wheeled Scraper Company.*
A theater excursion to
On Dec 30, 1903 Marie
escorted two Aurora girls to an afternoon theater
matinee of Mr. Bluebeard at Chicago's newest luxury playhouse, the
Iroquois Theater. The girls were
fourteen-year-old Helena E. Berrien (1889-1950),
named after her maternal grandmother, and her
nine-year-old sister, Ottilie "Tillie" Berrien (1894-1979),
named after her maternal aunt.
They were two of three children born to George L.
Berrien (1858-1912) and Louise Reinig Berrien
(1858-1947). (Younger brother Harry Berrien
wasn't included in this girls trip.)
Nothing was reported about
where Marie and the Berrien girls were seated in the
theater. They escaped without injury but
Marie's coat and boa were singed and they were
separated, coincidentally seeking refuge at two
different cash register offices. At the National Cash
Register office at 50 State street Marie persuaded an H. E.
Osborne to look for the Berrien sisters. He
eventually ran in the door at the
Hallwood Cash Register at 41 Dearborn and
learned the girls were among fifty or so that had
passed through there, and that they'd been taken to a
depot and sent to Aurora on a train. They may
have reached their home before their parents learned
of the Iroquois fire.
Maria's foster father,
Alexander Stevens, was not so fortunate. He was
traveling away from home when he heard about the
fire. He sent a telegram to Maria in Aurora
but since she wasn't yet home, she did not receive
it and did not know his location so could not
contact him to let him know she was safe until the
day after the fire.
George Berrien was a
district agent for the Standard Oil Company.
That name, Standard Oil, will come up again in this
story. Nothing was reported to explain the
connection between Marie Johnson and the Berrien
girls. They could have been patients of
Dr. Alexander Stevens or vocal students of Minnie Saltzman-Stevens.
The Berrien family was from Iowa and lived in Aurora
for only a few years before returning to Iowa.
In the years after the fire
In 1904 Marie
moved to Europe with her foster mother, Minnie Saltzsman Stevens,
who went to
study classical opera. Over the next five
years Marie would find a husband and Minnie
became a student of famed Polish tenor,
Jean de Reszke, who trained her to sing soprano
rather than contralto, and to stretch her mastery to
four octaves. The reward for her effort came
in 1908 when she signed a contract to to sing
Brunhilde in Wagner Ring performances at the Royal
Opera House in Covent Garden in London. Minnie
went on to enjoy about five years of stardom, no
doubt a shorter career than she wished but a high
climb for the daughter of a janitress. As a
child she and her mother, Mena Saltzman, had lived
in the basement of the Bloomington, IL high
school.** Anti-German sentiment during World
War I reduced interest in Wagner operas until the
mid 1920s. Minnie relocated to Italy to
study Italian opera but suffered vocal damage that ended her career
by 1920. Except for retrospectives, most in
her hometown newspaper, her name disappeared from
Marie Johnson became Marie
In 1910, living in Paris, Marie
met and married Arthur W. Taylor, a Standard Oil
executive. Her husband had left America in
1898 and lived in Europe and Asia for the next
fifteen years. Following a tour in the Philippines
with the Third Artillery Corps he spent two years in
Japan and China, then five years in Russia, four
years in Romania, eighteen months in Paris, where he
married Maria, then on to Argentinia. Their
son, Arthur jr., was born in 1913. What
are the odds that a girl from a small town in
Illinois would have a harrowing experience with the children of a regional
Standard Oil manager, then go to Europe, meet and
marry a Standard Oil executive?
During World War I Arthur
worked in Russia while Marie and their boy
lived in London. They returned to America
around 1919 and settled in Los Angeles. In 1921
Marie came to the bedside of her dying foster father,
Alex N. Stevens,
in Bloomington, Illinois. Paralyzed from
strokes, he was living with and being cared for by his
mother-in-law, the former janitress, Mena Saltzman.***
Marie died two years later.
Berrien girls married
Helene worked as an
apprentice milliner for a time, eventually becoming
the second wife of a railroader, Archie Godenrath,
and moving to Florida. She had no children.
Tillie married George Shiffer in 1919 and three
years later they had their only child, George E.
Shiffer jr., who died in 1945 at Okinawa during
World War II. He was an army private first
class in a medical corp.
I found no evidence that
Helene or Ottlie spoke publicly of their Iroquois
Discrepancies and addendum
Manufacturer of dumping carts, crushers, graders,
plows, road rollers, sprinkling wagons and ditchers,
headquartered in Aurora.
**The story went that Minnie
Saltzman-Stevens originally went to study in Europe
at her husband Alex's recommendation and that her
family members scraped together money for her
passage. Her ambition was fueled by
recollections of her late father's interest in her
response to her singing in Bloomington, IL churches. Once in Europe,
persuading Reszke to take her on as a student took
longer than expected and she worked as a waitress to
support herself. Presumably Marie Johnson went
to work as well. For Alexander Stevens, it
turned into a long-distance marriage. He
visited her in London in 1908 and she returned to
the U.S. for a visit in 1909 and to sing for the
Chicago Opera 1911-1914. Reportedly some critics proclaimed her voice as too small for the
Metropolitan Opera House. Perhaps but it was
loud enough that in March, 1914, Helen Keller was
convinced Minnie's voice broke through her deafness.
Minnie waited out WWI in Florence, studying five
Italian and three French operas, including Madame
Butterfly, Aida and Tosca.
Alex moved to Manistee, Michigan and took up
farming. In 1920 Minnie joined him there for a
time, then returned to Italy before his death the
following year. There was no mention in
Manistee of an opera star in the area so perhaps
Minnie's voice had already begun to fade.
Minnie inherited Alex's $1,500 estate.
***Arthur Taylor remarried two years
after Marie's death in 1923 and a year after that,
in 1926, co-founded the
Western Oil and Refining Company with four other Standard Oil executives.
Going into business to compete with their employer
took courage. At that time S.O. operated three
refineries in California where Taylor lived then,
with a daily capacity of 160 barrels. Arthur and Marie's grandson,
Arthur Worth Taylor, born over a decade after Marie's death,
became an award-winning advertising man during the era
made famous by the Mad Men television series.