Mabel Grosvenor, a granddaughter of famed telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and likely the last person who had personal memories of him, died Monday at Baddeck. She was 101. Born at Beinn Bhreagh, the Bells’ Cape Breton summer home, on July 28, 1905, she was the third child of Elsie Bell Grosvenor and Gilbert Grosvenor, longtime editor of National Geographic magazine.
While her parents travelled, writing and photographing faraway places for the publication, Mabel spent many summers with her grandparents at Beinn Bhreagh. In her late teens, she acted as secretary and note taker for Mr. Bell, quickly taking down dictation as he explored genetics, genealogy and hydrofoil boats.
She marched with her mother and grandmother in Washington, D.C., in 1913 for women to get the right to vote and was a witness to a number of Mr. Bell’s experiments, including the flight of the Cygnet, an early kite experiment of Mr. Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association. In December 1907, her grandfather wrote: “I almost forgot to mention the witness who will probably live the longest after this event (and remember least about it) – my little granddaughter Miss Mabel Grosvenor – 2 years of age.”[see archive photo here, statement is at bottom of page.]
In the early 1920s, as Mr. Bell neared the end of his life, Ms. Grosvenor travelled with her grandparents to Scotland, where Mr. Bell searched for long-lost ancestors. “He called it a farewell visit,” Ms. Grosvenor said during an interview in 1994.
“He didn’t really get interested in genealogy until his father died and one reason he went back was to try and look for more information. We went to parish offices to look through records and visited cemeteries. He found several cousins he didn’t know existed.”
She was one of five women to graduate from Johns Hopkins University in 1931 with medical degrees. She became a pediatrician and practised in Washington, D.C., for 35 years. During a Bell Club meeting in the early 1990s, Ms. Grosvenor was asked by a nurse what the greatest medical advancement had been during the span of her career. “Antibiotics,” she said without hesitation.
Well into her 80s she was often seen driving her convertible around the streets of Baddeck. “She was the leader of the family, a matriarch for sure,” said Juanita MacAulay, a Baddeck resident who grew up on the estate where both her father and grandfather were caretakers.
In 1966, after her retirement, Dr. Mabel, as she is known locally, set about to operate the Beinn Bhreagh estate, which included a 37-room mansion built by her grandparents in the 1890s and several other homes, many of them dating back to her grandparents’ time. “She didn’t like the spotlight, but in her quiet manner, she got things done,” said Mrs. MacAulay.
For many close to the Bell story, Ms. Grosvenor’s death is the end of an amazing period in the history of Baddeck. “It’s the end of an era for sure,” said Sharon Bartlett, a guide at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and member of the Alexander Graham Bell Club, of which Ms. Grosvenor was honorary president. “Who else in this world remembers Dr. or Mrs. Bell? And even if there were someone, they certainly wouldn’t have had such an intimate relationship with them,” Ms. Bartlett said. Ms. Grosvenor was a very quiet and unassuming person, who would “sit in on a lecture (at the Bell museum) and no one would ever say who she was and she liked it that way. She was a very private person.”
Her ability to recall names and connections, even into her 90s, was a source of amazement, said Ms. Bartlett, who played piano at Ms. Grosvenor’s 90th birthday party in 1995. “When Dr. Mabel came back the next year, she thanked me for playing.”
Elsie Alexandra Carol Grosvenor Myers, Mabel’s sister, passed away a year and a half ago. This was the Washington Post article about her back then:
February 6, 2005
Telling the Best Stories For a Storied D.C. Family
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Elsie Alexandra Carol Grosvenor Myers, better known as Carol, was “very, very outgoing,” said her youngest son. “Definitely an extrovert,” said her only daughter. “My father said she couldn’t go to the corner to mail a letter without having an adventure,” said her 99-year-old sister.
The enthusiastic, irrepressible, energetic Myers, who died Dec. 30 at age 93, lived her life with zest and sparked similar engagement of those she met. In return, she offered a fierce loyalty, unselfish assistance and a large share of her joie de vivre. “She’d walk into a room and just command attention from people,” said her daughter, Elsie Myers Martin. “She was really very vivacious, and she’d smile and draw people out. Sometimes that would embarrass me, but it was so much a part of her. She enjoyed life and she challenged other people to do the same.”
A native Washingtonian, Myers was born into a large family on what her six siblings called the “night of the cats.” Behind the family home, on18th Street NW near Dupont Circle, there were “whole families of what we called alley cats,” said Myers’s sister, Mabel Grosvenor. “That night, we thought they were making an awful row. We ran [downstairs] to Father, and said please throw something at the cats. He told us to be quiet and go back upstairs. The next morning, we found out we had a new sister.”
From that point on, Myers was rarely silent. But she also had a way of paying attention to acquaintances that made them feel as if they were the most important people in the world, her children said.
She grew up in privileged circumstances. One of her grandfathers, with whom she shared a March 3 birthday, was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. She spent summers and one winter at his home in Baddeck, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and he was the one who would comfort her when she awoke in the night. Her grandmother, Mabel Hubbard Bell, was deaf but so adept at lip reading that Myers didn’t realize until she was almost an adolescent that her grandmother couldn’t hear.
Myers’s father was Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the longtime president of the National Geographic Society and editor of its magazine, who was sometimes known as the father of photojournalism. Although she was proud of her ancestors, she took greatest delight in her own five offspring, who all developed careers in science. Even when she lost the ability to speak a year or so before her death, she lit up when her son Gardiner mentioned that one of his children was about to get married. “A wedding? When? She was a party girl. She loved stimulus of any sort,” he said. Her favorite restaurant in old age was McDonald’s, where she could sit and watch children at play.
As a young woman, Myers attended two years of college but wasn’t much of a student. Her sister now suspects that she had dyslexia. Her children say it was attention deficit disorder, but discovery of those conditions was decades away. She had a boyfriend of whom her parents did not approve, so they sent her to Japan to visit a sister, who was married to a man in the Foreign Service. After spending some time in Tokyo, she then took a train through China to Harbin. She caught dysentery and returned home, where her sister Mabel, a medical student at Johns Hopkins, told her to go see a physician she knew. Walter K. Myers successfully treated her and formally discharged her as a patient. Thirty seconds after that conversation, he rang back to invite her on a date. They married in 1936.
She did serious volunteer work, teaching in the District’s settlement houses, leading the Girl Scouts at an orphanage, supporting Planned Parenthood and the Volta Bureau, which aids the deaf and hard of hearing, and serving on many charity boards. She was one of the founders of the National Presbyterian School and an elder at National Presbyterian Church, as was her husband, from the time before it moved to its current Nebraska Avenue NW location.
Myers also would be the person in the extended family who found “the rebel or the people in trouble,” said her son Kendall. “Those nephews, those cousins always had an ally in her. After my father died [in 1964], she was really hurting and vulnerable and developed an almost intuitive sense for someone in that condition. She really provided a level of protection for them.” In fact, she suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown, Gardiner said. What pulled her out of it was sailing.
She inherited the Elsie, a small, two-masted yacht built in 1916 for her parents and named after her mother. It was on the decks of the yawl, with its red sails, slim white hull and low varnished deckhouses, where the Cruising Club of America was founded in 1921. Wearing a jacket with her self-imposed nickname “Wily Old Woman,” she sailed the Bras d’Or Lakes in Nova Scotia and taught all her children how to skipper the wooden craft.
She believed in a right way and a wrong way to do things, and the choices she offered her children were sometimes tests. “In Nova Scotia, the young men had too much to drink one night,” Elsie Martin said. “The next morning there was a race, and one of the guys was supposed to be crewing. He came to breakfast and said he couldn’t go. She lit into him: ‘If you’re going to act like a man at night, you act like a man in the day. You go sail.’ And he did.”
Many families have a storyteller, and Myers filled that role in her home. “She could tell a tale,” said her youngest son, Aleck. “We have a family term, ‘Carol-izing,’ which meant you make a story a little bit better each time you tell it.” “She could take a routine event and it would be a wonderful tale,” agreed her son Martin. “Sometimes they weren’t completely accurate, but they were always entertaining. She just found everything fascinating.”