I came across this clipping in February 2013, as I was doing some research for a completely different project (the history of the sommelier profession); in a search of the NYTimes archives this article popped up due to the "sommelier" theme. I read it.
I read it again. I read it out loud to my husband. I read it a fourth time the next day. I couldn't get her out of my mind. I became charmed by the fragments of Elizabeth Bird's personality that shone through the article, and I truly think she deserves a new, 21st Century article, all to herself. Elizabeth Bird was most likely New York City's first female sommelier.
I think back to some of the unique situations I have had to deal with as a 21st century female sommelier. There was the man who asked for the sommelier, then when I arrived asked for the sommelier again. "I am the sommelier." "But you are a woman?!" "Excellent observation, Sir; can I talk to you about the wine list?" "No, no! I'll just pick something out myself." Ironically, he chose a bottle made by a woman and her 8 sisters. After I poured the bottle, I told him this with a big smile. "Is it too late to return it?" he asked. "Sadly, it is," I informed him, "but cheers!" There are the men who, after I open the bottle of wine, slap their knee and say "Sit on my lap!" Sorry, Santa, I'm busy! There are the caveats: "I'll only order this bottle if I can also get your phone number," I've given out my dad's number instead- touche! There was the experienced sommelier with whom I sat on a wine marketing panel-- he suggested to the winemakers that "it doesn't matter what the shape of the bottle is, just put a monkey or little animal on the label and women will buy it." And all this in the 21st century. My work environment is not always so draconian; in fact, 99.99% of the people I work with/wait on are incredible and inspiring human beings, but once in a while a situation makes me shake my head and wonder how far have we really come since the 1940s?
The 1943 article clearly defines Elizabeth's female role at the time, and how she was expected to carefully interact with men: "She... has learned the knack-- the envy of many a wife-- of being respectful yet not obsequious; of getting her way without offending male vanity." The article went on to report her big secret about how to not offend the men she waited on: "One reason she gets along so well with the men... is that she sticks to things she knows something about." Interestingly enough, the article barely mentions her specific skills as a sommelier: what makes her selections special, what wines did she recommend? Instead, most paragraphs sensationalized the fact that a woman was performing this job. At work, she was not even allowed to have her own identity-- they had her change her name to the female version of her predecessor: Francine/Francois respectively. I cannot imagine what Elizabeth's (I mean, Francine's?) day-to-day stories must have been like in the 1940s, especially in the aftermath of the Times article.
I question myself and wonder if my own post about Elizabeth (and this title "NYC's first female sommelier") is also a sensationalism of her sex. By making a big deal out of it, am I just feeding into the same hype that I find distasteful in the 1943 article? I've thought it through, and I've come to a peace with myself. I'm writing this because it is special that she was the first woman to break into a classically male job position in Manhattan; and when you are the first of an underprivileged group to break through a career barrier, your example helps to change the rules of the game. Her unique place in history signals a change in culture-- or a willingness for culture to change. I don't think she was special simply for being a female sommelier-- there are thousands of female sommeliers in the world right now, and our jobs are no different from male sommeliers. But she was special for being the first. Because she bore the brunt of the sensationalism and was on the receiving end of press attention for being a female sommelier, those of us who have followed have not had to deal with it as much, and we've been able to focus more on our jobs, instead of on our femaleness.
I wanted to know more about Elizabeth. I wanted to paint the full picture-- a real flesh-and-blood person who contributed to her field; not merely a "Francine" who did her best to avoid offending "male vanity."
I started the research process. Every living thing leaves an imprint on the Earth in one way or another, and I was sure if I looked in the right places, I could find Elizabeth's paper trail. I culled each detail from the article and created a time line of her life. I got a birth year range, the approximate year she was married, and I knew she had worked in Bermuda. I ran these dates through census records, marriage records, and ship/plane passenger logs to Bermuda. I came up with a few possible hits, but nothing conclusive. I was missing key details that would help me identify her. I needed her maiden name, or her husband's first name. I needed a birthday-- anything that could turn up a census record. The way I saw it- if I could find her descendants, I might be able to contact them, find out more, maybe even get a photograph of her. There had to be more than just this newspaper clipping!
After a week of searching I had nothing-- not a single census record or travel record. It was as if she never legally existed on paper. When you do research like this, you have to keep an open mind. Sometimes, people creating the search data banks from the census records will type a name wrong, read the census-taker's handwriting incorrectly, scan the wrong side of certain documents-- I've found tons of clerical errors in the past, and even made a few myself. It can be pretty messy. Perhaps she was in the files somewhere, but was not turning up in any searches because of a misspelled name, or a space in the wrong place...
But you also have to keep an open mind about life's uncertainties and how these may have affected the person you are trying to find. Perhaps her husband Mr. Bird died shortly after the article was written. If she re-married, there would be no records to find for an "Elizabeth Bird," it would be under her new surname. Also, what if her given name was undesirable, and Elizabeth was actually her middle name? If Elizabeth was a middle or nickname, she would not turn up in any legal searches.
And what if she told an untruth in the article? When asked her age, the reporter notes that she replied, "Put it down as 35." Was she 35, or slightly older? If so, how slightly older? I began to check records for Elizabeths born between 1897 and 1907-- I couldn't imagine her stretching her age by more than 10 years. Several Elizabeth Birds popped up, and though none of them might be my girl, I decided to follow up on all of them.
The Times reporter mentioned she is a "native New Yorker." In all of my searches I assumed she had been born in New York, and I had disregarded other possibilities. What if she moved to New York as a baby but still considered herself a native? What if she moved to new York as a baby but her parents never told her because they didn't want her to deal with the difficulties they faced with their own immigration processes? There were so many What-Ifs.....
Research has a funny way of unfolding, though. If you are open to it, a seemingly tiny or unimportant detail can unlock endless doors. Sometimes simply re-reading your own notes will lead you to a "eureka" moment.
I started fresh the next week and re-reviewed the documents I had collected. I had found three Elizabeth Birds living in NYC during the 1940 census. When I looked closer, I realized that one of them was too old to be our Elizabeth, and one of them was a widow in 1940-- this could not be our Elizabeth Bird, since in 1942 she was still happily married and had been for 16 years.
I looked into the third Elizabeth Bird. At first I was discouraged, because on the census it stated that she had no occupation and no income. Was this a different lady? I wondered if it was common practice at that time to keep waitress jobs under-wraps to avoid paying taxes on the income... I thought back and in all my genealogy research I have never actually seen "Waitress" listed as an occupation on a census record. Perhaps it was common practice not to mention it-- kind of like how I never considered "babysitter" my occupation while in highschool. I also figured it was possible she was not working at the time of the census and got the job at the Algonquin a little bit later (the Times article appeared over two years later, in 1943, after all).
I decided to seek out her descendants, and contact them to see if I could confirm her identity. I did a little research and discovered that this particular Elizabeth Bird had a daughter and a son. Both had passed away. She also had grandchildren and great grandchildren-- If this was our Elizabeth, might one of her grandchildren have a story or photo from her days at The Algonquin?
In the meantime, I headed to her former place of work. Most of us rush as fast as we can through the hustle and bustle near Times Square and Rockefeller Center, but next time you are on 44th Street, between 5th & 6th Avenue, look up to see the Algonquin Hotel. It was here, 70 years ago, that Elizabeth worked as waitress. She had 22 years of waitress experience, and when Francois-- the Algonquin sommelier-- retired, she asked for the job.
The Algonquin is a storied hotel, and a bastion of Manhattan history. When you enter the lobby, you instantly feel it saturated with personality. The lobby cats meander around amidst the palms and ferns and snuggle with the receptionists. The long-time employees have their own profiles on the Algonquin's website. Music from the 1940s plays in the background and echoes off the dark wood paneling and marble floors. The Algonquin gained notoriety for the Round Table club of writers that met there each day for lunch in the 1920s. Dorothy Parker was one of the famous regulars and her name still drifts about the hotel, haunting many a conversation.
The Algonquin has historically been a special place for women. Not only were they the first to hire a female sommelier (our Elizabeth), but they were the first Manhattan hotel to officially welcome female guests traveling alone (i.e., without a male chaperone).
I naively approached the reception desk-- of course they would be as interested in this as I was.
"Hello, I'd like to speak to a manager."
"In regards to what?," the receptionist said as she pet a lobby cat that had curled up next to her phone.
"I'm writing an article about an employee that worked here back in the 1940s, and I wanted to see if there were any records I could take a look at."
"Let me call the manager."
She called the manager & explained what I was looking for. "What is the name of the employee?"
"Elizabeth Bird," I clarified. My heart began to beat faster-- I was sure that I would find the answers I was looking for here at The Algonquin.
"Elizabeth Bird." she echoed into the phone to the mystery manager. 1 second pause. "No, we don't have anything on her."
"But... but, this is really important!"
"I'm sorry, but I have some information on Dorothy Parker if you want?" She shrugged. The cat she pet gave me a surly look.
I was shocked. Obviously, the manager on the other end of the line hadn't gone through any records to see if there had been an Elizabeth Bird- how could they have in 1 second? I swallowed my pride. It's difficult to accept that something so important to you might be of zero consequence to someone else.
I glanced back. "This is not the last you'll hear of me, Algonquin!" I thought. I sent a flurry of query emails to the addresses listed on the Algonquin website. I am still waiting for a response.
Without the hotel's help, I saw Elizabeth's descendants as the only lead left. I got the names of her possible grandchildren and literally spent hours searching for them on social networking sites and in on-line phonebooks. I found a few phone numbers, but most of the numbers were old, out-of-service, or had changed to fax numbers. I sent a few messages through linked-in, but wasn't sure if I'd get any responses. But the sun was setting on the day, and I still hadn't made contact. There is always a point in the research process when you start to feel a bit insane and have to question the basis of your own tenacity. You must ask yourself why you care so much about someone who is long-dead and virtually unknown. As I was about to hit "send" on my last email, I thought "What am I doing? I have one day off work at the restaurant, and I'm emailing people I don't know about a woman from the 1940s!" If you can work through this point in your research and truly commit yourself to finding the answer, then, I think, it must be a story worth telling.
For me, I already saw Elizabeth as a household name (for sommeliers anyway). I truly believe that Wine is an emerging discipline, and that right now, bloggers and wine writers are drafting the founding documents that the next generation of wine writers will build upon. Elizabeth Bird will be a part of the story, and these emails and phone calls on my day off will make that happen. History isn't what happened. History is what writers say happened. Without someone to write about her, she would be left out of the story, and I could not allow her to be overlooked.
Bleary-eyed, I did one last phone search and came up with a number. "What the heck!" I thought, and dialed. Then something wild happened...
A voice answered!
I hadn't really thought about what to say. In an instant I realized how crazy it would sound to say, "Hi, I have some questions about your grandma." If someone called me and said that, I might hang up. I'd be suspicious that they were phishing or trying to steal my identity. A small eternity of panicked silence went by that was actually about 1 second. Then, I got a blow of energy and took a cue from Elizabeth herself: I boldly asked for what I wanted, as she had done for her sommelier job a lifetime ago.
"Hi, my name is Erin Scala, and I am writing a piece about your grandmother Elizabeth Bird. I'm looking for some details about her, and a photo if you have it. Elizabeth was the first woman to work as a sommelier, or wine steward, in Manhattan."
Thankfully, the Elizabeth's granddaughter gave me the time of day. I tried to be as transparent as possible; I explained my purpose for calling, and by the end of our conversation, she seemed interested in Elizabeth's possible role in history. We exchanged emails, and I sent along copies of the documents I had collected.
But as of yet, we have been unable to confirm with 100% certainty that her grandmother Elizabeth is our sommelier Elizabeth. But maybe one day a link will turn up...
I love the last few sentences of the New York Times article: "The maitre d'Hotel, Raul Viarenzo, was reluctant. He questioned her carefully and decided to give her a tryout... That was six weeks ago. Today he is wondering why he was so worried about her ability." Especially in the climate of the time, Viarenzo could have easily laughed off Elizabeth's request. Though in retrospect his reluctance seems unfair, the truth is that he gave her an unexpected chance, and, while doing so, he took a risk and broke the status quo of the time. I'm sure he had to clear his decision with the hotel owner, Frank Case, and perhaps Case-- ever the brilliant marketer-- gave her the job in hopes for a media blitz along the lines of the New York Times article-- perhaps he even arranged for the article to be written. Standing apart from the crowd had worked to get press for The Algonquin in the past; breaking the status quo is something that Algonquin owner Frank Case was not afraid to do on a regular basis!
There are hints that Elizabeth knew her stuff. When it came to food & wine pairing, she is quoted as saying, "After all, you don't serve the same wine with fish that you do with beef. It's like telling a man to wear an overcoat in July." The article mentions that Elizabeth was a great cook, and that her interest in taste and food helped to drive her interest in wine. The writer also points out that she was well versed in vintages due to her long experience in the industry.
And the dining environment of Manhattan was as dynamic as ever. Just 50 years prior to Elizabeth's tenure as sommelier at The Algonquin "the sommelier" was barely a profession in the United States. In fact, a la carte dining as we know it had not yet come to the United States, and American guests who traveled to Europe relayed horror stories about interactions with sommeliers who ripped them off-- an air of suspicion surrounded the sommelier.
In Elizabeth's day, the a la carte menu had just started to gain popularity in Manhattan due to the success of the French-owned Delmonicos: the owners had set up their menu like the a la carte French menus back home, and by doing so they revolutionized dining in Manhattan. In the early 1900s, you'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant that wasn't serving tavern-style, cafeteria-like stews and roasts. But at Delmonico's, they had a menu with numerous items on it from which you could choose your selection; Delmonico's had an entire kitchen staff ready to cook you a meal to order. The excitement of a la carte dining must have creeped a few blocks over to The Algonquin Hotel. Frank Case must have dined at the neighboring Delmonico's on occasion and been inspired to emulate the things they were doing. Perhaps he was even moved by Delmonico's to start his own wine cellar (after Prohibition, of course) and hire the sommelier, Francois.
The Great Depression also took its toll on The Algonquin. In 1929-- just 14 years before Elizabeth became the sommelier there-- a man ordered dinner, finished his coffee, took out a revolver, and shot himself in the Algonquin dining room after losing all his money. She must have heard of this incident.
As Elizabeth got her job at The Algonquin, WWII raged in Europe. Returning soldiers and those on leave must have come back exhausted, wounded, with horror stories and a taste for European wine. She must have spoken to many of them as she took their orders and opened their wine bottles, as they attempted to have a few hours of elegance before shipping out again.
During Elizabeth's lifetime, she witnessed WWI, The Great Depression, Prohibition, and WWII. She must have lost so many friends and neighbors in the wars, she must have listened to the radio with fear as news of Nazi invasions broke on the airwaves. She also must have heard the soldiers' stories about the restaurants and wines in France, she must have been entranced by tales about the great winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy.
She also had her own welfare to worry about. Perhaps Prohibition is what led her to travel to Bermuda and work at a hotel there-- I'm sure she could have made a better living selling alcohol and food in Bermuda, rather than simply selling food in the US. If a 2nd Prohibition ever came to the US and cut my pay in half, I'd probably move to the Caribbean too.
And here we are-- we've gone around the track and returned to the starting line. Despite all this searching and postulating, in a way, we are back where we started. We have a few facts, but the rest of her substance has sifted through our fingers, and Mrs. Elizabeth Bird remains a shadow. Still, I can't help but marvel that her career move back in 1943 helped pave the way for me and countless colleagues to have the jobs we do today. I feel that the best way I can pay homage to her is to shine a light on her place in history. Here are the facts about Elizabeth Bird; I will continue my search to fill in the blanks:
1900-1907 (probably 1905)
Elizabeth was born. In 1943 when the reporter asked her age, she said, "Put it down for 35," implying that she was actually a little older than 35, so I placed her birth year at some point from 1900-1907.
1921 - she became a waitress - In the 1943 article she stated that she had been a waitress for 22 years, which places her starting year close to 1921.
1922-1940 - worked in Bermuda- at some point during this time period she traveled to Bermuda and worked as a hotel waitress. While there, she studied a book about wine and was promoted to sommelier.
1927- Elizabeth married Mr. Bird. In the 1943 article she mentions that she has been married to the same man for 16 years placing their marriage at approximately 1927.
1943- Approximately April 12th, 1943, Elizabeth becomes a sommelier at the Algonquin Hotel.
1943- May 24th 1943- the New York Times publishes the article about Elizabeth.
The Act of Searching
There is only so much I can tell you about this special sommelier, because she is no longer here to tell you herself. But, for me, the process of chasing Elizabeth Bird is as important as her story. I cannot imagine the joy an archeologist must feel when they uncover the first layers of dirt on an ancient site-- what secrets will the ground give up? In a way, I felt the same way when I stumbled upon the Times article about Elizabeth-- except instead of the earth, I was mining a few quotes from an unknown woman who, in her own small way, changed the world.
By placing what little we know about Elizabeth against a backdrop of the political, cultural, and economic landscape of her time, the hazy picture of her comes into focus. By chasing Elizabeth Bird we give her moment in history a place in the timeline of the sommelier profession; in the act of searching we honor her contribution to our field.
Anonymous (1887) "The Bill at Bignon's" New York Times. 10 April 1887.
Soyle, Henry J. Enumerator (1940) "S.D. No 47; E.D. No. 24-325A; Sheet No. 3B." Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940. 6 April 1940.
Anonymous (1943) "Woman Takes Job as Wine Steward." The New York Times. 24 May 1943.
Bakas, Rick (2011) "The History of Restaurants & Dining." Wine Country Eating.
James, Margery Kirkbride. (1971) Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade. Oxford: Clarendon.
Miller, Tom. (2012) "The 1902 Algonquin Hotel -- No. 59 West 44th Street." Daytonian in Manhattan (Blog). 21 April 2012.
Parr, Rajat and Jordan Mackay. (2010) Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Professionals. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Steinberger, Michael. (2008) "A Turn of the Corkscrew." Slate. 2 January 2008.