Not So Wild About Harry, Part 1

Portion of a book cover from 1899 with the word 'poetry' and a decorative flourish.
The Glendale Park Theatre will be opened for the summer season by Messrs. Smith & Trunelle on Monday, March 31st, when a comedy in three acts entitled, "The Happy Family; or, the Nashville Model Boardinghouse," written by Capt. Harry M. Smyth, of London, England, will be presented.
- The Nashville Banner, March 11, 1890.

Estelle's first husband appears to have been a very traditional choice. Her second husband was far less traditional, and perhaps far more of a problem.

Listen to the episode or access the transcript below.

Next: Not So Wild About Harry, Part 2

Transcript for Not So Wild About Harry, Part 1

[00:00:04] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad. I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] Narrator: Estelle's first husband, Luke Van Arsdale, appears to have been a serious-minded, church-going, fairly typical Kentucky farmer in the 1870s and 1880s. Ultimately, the couple divorced, with their children spending time with their father, mother, and grandparents at different points.

[00:00:43] Narrator: By 1887, Estelle had moved to Chicago. By late 1889, all 5 of the kids were with her, and she was operating a boarding house at 1334 Wabash Avenue. One of the residents of that boarding house would also become a big part of Estelle's life. I'm talking about Captain Harry Maurice Smyth (that's S M Y T H). He became Estelle's second husband.

[00:01:10] Narrator: I think it's safe to say that Smyth was a character. He came to Estelle's boarding house to recover from a concussion he sustained after falling from a train. According to both Estelle and Harry, she nursed him back to health. Although he couldn't pay for lodging, he promised to repay her soon, as he expected to receive a large inheritance from a family member in England.

[00:01:32] Narrator: Harry definitely brought a spirit of adventure into Estelle's life. He claimed to have been an officer in the British Army during the Abyssinian war. He said he was formerly a journalist for major newspapers in London. He told tales of thrilling adventures in the service of the Pinkerton and Mooney & Boland detective agencies.

[00:01:52] Narrator: He also claimed to have business and management skills. He told people he'd been an accountant for the Pullman Palace Car company. There was some proof that Harry might have managed or worked as a steward at places like the Imperial Hotel in Kansas City and the Indian Springs Hotel in Indiana. Captain Smyth claimed to have been an officer of the Commissariat Department of the British Army, providing Her Majesty's troops with food and supplies.

[00:02:19] Narrator: Most important to our story today is that Harry claimed to be a playwright. He told the press he had written a military drama based on European wars and a comedy based on life in a boarding house (that sounds familiar). Later, he wrote a play called "The Wronged Wife and the Gypsy's Revenge" and one called "The Trials and Troubles of a Dramatic Author." That should give you some clues as to how things with Harry turned out.

[00:02:46] Narrator: Capt. Harry Smyth connected with Estelle's entrepreneurial and theatrical spirit. In December 1889, they put the kids on stage in a Vaudeville act, and in January 1890, they started making plans to open a summer theater at Glendale Park, just outside Nashville. Their Anglo-American Comedy Company was to perform a play Harry had written called "The Happy Family, or The Nashville Model Boarding-House."

[00:03:12] Narrator: Harry went ahead to Nashville to handle the business side of things, which, confusingly, involved a second man who also happened to be named Harry Smith, although he spelled his last name S M I T H. While he was there, Captain Harry Smyth represented himself to business owners as Estelle's husband. I'm not sure whether he thought that was an easier way to get business done, or whether he was trying to manifest the relationship he wanted. Either way, he drew up paperwork in Estelle's name, listing her as Estelle Trunelle Smyth.

[00:03:46] Narrator: By March, the rest of the troupe, including Estelle, her daughters Lillie, Pearl, and Ella, her sons Charles and Oceola, and Pearl's husband, Charles Young, all moved to Nashville. When Estelle arrived and learned about Harry's deception with her name and the contracts for the theater, she was in an awkward position, but she decided to go ahead with their plans so she could support herself and her family.

[00:04:09] Narrator: There was a lot of optimism surrounding those plans. They advertised regularly in the Nashville papers, listing Estelle Trunelle and the other Harry Smith as the head of the effort, with Capt. Harry M. Smyth as the Stage Director, someone named Professor Vanarsdale as the Musical Director, Mr. Charles Young, Estelle's son-in-law, as Electrician, and Mr. Ed Smyth, Capt. Harry's son, as the Property Superintendent.

[00:04:37] Narrator: They were supposed to begin performances on March 31, 1890, but the production was plagued with many issues. The person they had contracted to do their advance work, the other Harry, had not completed the work by that date. Without scenery, lights, seats, and virtually everything else they needed, they were forced to postpone the opening night.

[00:04:59] Narrator: March 31 was also a momentous date for another reason. Captain Harry broke the news to Estelle that the authorities were about to arrest her because she had signed her stage name to an instrument of writing. She was represented in the document by the name of Estelle Trunelle Smyth, but it wasn't her proper name.

[00:05:20] Narrator: With an arrest imminent, Harry proposed a solution. Estelle could marry him, and her name then would legally be "Smyth." As one of the papers reported it later,

[00:05:31] Newspaper: "He proposed immediate marriage and the dating back of the marriage certificate, to avoid the impending calamity."

[00:05:37] Narrator: Estelle was reluctant, and she told Harry that she would not be a wife to him. Harry agreed to this, and Estelle eventually consented "to avoid the impending calamity." The couple were married by a justice of the peace on March 31, with Estelle's daughter Pearl and her son-in-law Charles as witnesses.

[00:05:56] Narrator: It may be true that all's fair in love and war, but Harry's strategy did not create the romantic comedy he hoped for. According to the papers,

[00:06:05] Newspaper: "He broke his promise and insisted that she occupy his room, which she refused to do. Scenes followed and there was no end of trouble."

[00:06:13] Narrator: A few days later, the partnership with Harry S M I T H was ended, and there was some legal wrangling which included the arrest of that Smith and a lawsuit alleging that he had taken money Estelle had advanced to him to set up the production.

[00:06:27] Narrator: Captain Harry's play was postponed until April 21st, and the Captain took over as Manager and Stage Director.

[00:06:34] Narrator: Despite their struggles, when April 21st arrived, there was optimism in the air. The Nashville Tennessean reported that streetcars going to Glendale Park were packed, and the grounds were thronged with people. Charlie's band played, adding to the festive scene. The Tennessean reported,

[00:06:51] Newspaper: For the first time since it has been built, the hotel is now to be run as such. The building has been leased by Mr. William Shoemaker, and is rapidly being fitted up as a first-class hotel. In connection with the hotel, there will be a café, lunch counter and a news stand. Another adjunct will be a bar; also billiard rooms.

[00:07:10] Newspaper: The theatre, which is in the hotel building, has been leased by Mr. Harry M. Smyth. He has a fine company of nine people and first-class attractions can be expected. They are busily engaged with the arrangement of the scenery and seats, preparatory to giving their first performance, which is to be presented tonight.

[00:07:28] Narrator: They planned nightly performances, including Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday matinees, with Estelle, Madam Trunelle-Smyth, in the leading role. I'll tell you how opening night went next time.

[00:07:40] Narrator: For now, what have we learned from Estelle and family? I think she would say, "When he tells you the authorities are on their way to arrest you, call an attorney, not the Justice of the Peace." It was a hard lesson, and we'll find out what happened next, next time on How to Be Estelle.

Next: Not So Wild About Harry, Part 2