I’ve been spending a fair bit of time lately perusing the scrapbook of Erich Funke d’Egnuff that was donated to the Archive by Marc LeRoux some time back. It’s mostly comprised of news clippings dating from about 1937 to 1947. With as seldom as fencing makes the newspaper these days for basics like tournament results and the like, it’s surprising to see just how often the local papers in the Bay Area devoted page space to our sport. Nowadays it almost seems that you have to read about the shuttering of an Olympian and Olympic medal producing collegiate program to see news of our sport in the local or national news. I’m looking at you, Stanford &%$#*@’ University.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the Funke scrapbook. Paging through the book at different times, I’ve taken different topics in turn as some storyline or person captures my attention. I’ll go page by page looking for the repeat mention of a name or event to try and trace an outline of interest that I can turn into a story. Today’s offering came about this way, but it took me several go-rounds to recognize the significance of the subject matter. There are a number of stories among the news clippings pasted into the scrapbook pages about an elderly woman learning how to fence. These days, with so many veteran fencers competing for prizes on the local, national and international levels, age and fencing go hand in hand without much notice. But back in the 1930s, pursuing fencing as a hobby at an advanced age was sufficient fodder for a feel-good news article. So let’s take a look at Adeline de Walt Reynolds, a 77 year old grandmother who took up foils for a hobby and didn’t let age define her ability or ambition.
This news article from 1939 is the first mention of Adeline de Walt Reynolds to be found in the Funke scrapbook. Arthur Lane was a well-known and well-liked fencing master in the Bay Area for decades, founding the Berkeley Fencers Club in the 1950s, as well as teaching at UC Berkeley. In later years, he taught at the Pacific Fencing Club in Alameda, CA, the long-standing club run by fencing master Harold Hayes.
Adeline de Walt Reynolds was born in 1862 – 158 years ago – near Vinton, Iowa, one of ten children born into a farming family. She expressed interest in the performing arts as a child, but her father had no means to support a child actress. At 18 years of age she became a teacher, but quit when she learned that her male counterparts were paid more than she. When her complaints went unanswered, she left teaching behind. Marrying at 23 to Frank Reynolds, the two moved to several different cities in the midwest for business opportunities, tried Philadelphia for a time, and eventually came west and settled in San Francsico, where the last two of their four children were born. Frank passed away young in the 20th year of their marriage in 1905. To support her family, Adeline attended secretarial school and then founded her own business to supply stenographers to other companies. Along with most of her city, her business was destroyed in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire. She struggled after – as so many did – but eventually was able to re-establish her secretarial business. She put her four children through school at UC Berkeley, and when the youngest daughter finished, Adeline began to think about next steps for her own self.
In 1926, at the age of 64, she enrolled at UC Berkeley. She studied French, joined a sorority, and graduated with honors in 1930.
Adeline’s graduation photo from UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold annual, 1930.
Somewhere along the line, which could have been before or after her time at UC Berkeley, she took up foil fencing. There were a couple of possible teachers at UC Berkeley that could have instructed her: Frederica Bernhard or Boris Von Arnold. I can only find a record of Von Arnold teaching the men, and he seems to have moved to New York around 1930 or so, and Miss Bernhard first shows up in UCB records in 1931. Or, and based on the articles and therefore the more likely scenario, she took up fencing at Erich Funke’s private club in San Francisco.
The oldest and the youngest students from the Funke salle.
On the heels of her graduation, she, like the rest of the planet, got to experience the Great Depression, which wiped out Adeline’s savings. Diploma in hand, she began tutoring in French and worked her way back to a stable situation. She took a variety of post-graduate courses, with a particular focus on acting. At one of her stage performances, a working professional actress, one Blanche Yurka, former opera start turned stage and screen actress, was so impressed with Adeline that she offered to help her turn professional. She encouraged Adeline to follow her instincts in acting and went so far as to assist with landing a Hollywood agent. That all took place in 1939. Soon after, Adeline de Walt Reynolds, age 77, found herself in Hollywood with a contract for $500 a week with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Her first on screen appearance was in the film “Come Live With Me”, starring Jimmy Stewart and Hedy Lamarr. According to Hollywood lore, she was so worried about the health of the highly stressed director of the film, Clarence Brown, that she packed him a lunch every day and sat with him to make sure he ate it. Then, she’d have him lie down for a nap before going back to work. By the end of the film, he was much more chipper. On set, everyone called her ‘Grammaw,’ a nickname that stayed with her for the rest of her acting life. Down to earth and eager to be a part of every aspect of filmmaking, she had to be told that it wasn’t her job to help with carrying set pieces or moving furniture. After her first day of filming, she was asked if she was tired. She replied, “If you’d waited 70 years to do something, you wouldn’t be tired.”
Adeline de Walt Reynolds on the set of the Bing Crosby action/thriller “Going My Way” with Risë Stevens. Adeline plays mother to Barry Fitzgerald’s character, Father Fitzgibbons, coming in right near the end of the picture. Ok, “Going My Way” wasn’t really and action/thriller. More musical/comedy, but without Bob Hope. Grammaw’s character has come all the way from the Emerald Isle to make sure her son is eating proper and getting enough rest. Something like that.
That photo above, along with the one now below, were the reasons I couldn’t get this story together in time for publication last Monday. I’d found a number of publicity stills on Ebay that featured Adeline, but felt they needed to be included in the story. So we all had to wait until now.
Alexis Smith and Adeline de Walt Reynolds together on the set of Frank Capra’s “Here Comes the Groom,” released in 1951. Interestingly, this still is dated 1946. Don’t know why the discrepancy in the dates. I can’t imagine a Frank Capra movie being made and shelved for 5 years. Perhaps it’s a typo.
Adeline de Walt Reynolds was frequently photographed doing fitness regimens like yoga and fencing. I have yet to find a Hollywood press photo of her in fencing gear, but I’m going to keep looking. She was in dozens of films, transitioned to television in the early 1950s and continued to work into her 97th year. She passed away at 98 in 1961. Her final credit in 1960 was for a television film where she got second billing behind Charles Bronson. The film also featured performances by Van Heflin, Peter Lorre and Cliff Robertson. Pretty fair company.
She never won a championship as a fencer. Heck, I doubt if she ever entered a tournament. But Adeline de Walt Reynolds, survivor of wars, earthquakes and financial ruin, teacher, mother, business woman, college graduate, actress and grandmother – on stage and off – was a determined and accomplished individual. If she’d ever been a competitor, I’d imagine she would have made you fight for every touch.
Just for fun, here’s a clip of her at work. It’s the only short bit I can find of her on YouTube. I wanted to find a snippet of her playing Madame Zimba in “Son of Dracula” with Lon Chaney Jr., but no such luck. In this short bit from “The Human Comedy” starring Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan, she shows up at about the one minute mark. Enjoy!