Phyllis Fergus and Pen Women Composers at the White House

By Marian Wilson Kimber
Professor of Musicology, University of Iowa

Phyllis Fergus (1887–1964) was the first musician president of the National League of American Pen Women. Energetic and ambitious, Fergus wanted to organize concerts of music by women composers all over the country. She believed that national recognition for women’s music could be achieved through performances at governor’s mansions in every state. While she was not successful in achieving this aim, Fergus did arrange two historic concerts of music by Pen Women at the White House.

As a composer, she specialized in “story poems,” pieces combining spoken word with piano accompaniment, frequently humorous works that dealt with courtship, marriage, and children. Fergus graduated from Smith College and the American Conservatory of Music, and was active in Chicago music clubs. She became a Pen Woman in 1924.

Her husband, Thatcher Hoyt, was a Chicago steel-and-iron broker, and with their two daughters, the family spent part of each year in New Haven, Vermont, where Fergus founded the NLAPW’s Green Mountain Branch. She regularly performed her works at Pen Women events and received prizes from the League. The Chicago branch endorsed her for president in 1932, but instead she served as national music chair for four years.

The first major Pen Women event Fergus organized was in Chicago in 1933, designed to coincide with the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Five hundred people attended the concert at Hotel Stevens, which featured Ebba Sundstrom conducting a small orchestra from the Women’s Symphony in the music of 13 composers from 11 states.  The highlights of the concert were Gena Branscombe’s Youth of the World for women’s voices and excerpts from Mary Carr Moore’s opera, David Rizzio.  Fergus oversaw the countless arrangements, from writing publicity materials to ordering the drinks for the postconcert reception. The entire event cost almost $800, and she personally contributed $178 — a great deal of money during the Depression — to cover the gap after ticket sales.

This concert was merely the precursor to the 1934 April Biennial’s music festival, a “Golden Jubilee” that honored leading composer Amy Beach’s 50 years in music. Over the course of six days, 10 events with music took place across D.C. The Pen Women traditionally had tea at the White House, but Fergus wanted the visit to include a short concert. She began writing to Eleanor Roosevelt and her secretary in January. Due to her persistence, by April the First Lady had agreed that for the first time, women composers would perform in the East Room. The program featured music by Pearl Adams, Elizabeth Merz Butterfield, Frances Copthorne, Dorothy Radde Emery, and Beach herself.

The sudden death of Fergus’ husband from heart disease in 1935 must have come as a terrible shock. Although Fergus became a widow with two small children, she did not slow her activity significantly. On the success of the previous performance, Fergus arranged another concert at the White House in April 1936, again featuring Beach, but dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt. The musicale featured 14 works by 10 composers. After Beach’s performance, Mrs. Roosevelt took both her hands and expressed her delight at hearing “a musician of such distinction.”

As  president from 1936 to 1938, Fergus traveled widely to visit branches. In January 1937, she reported she had made 25 trips and that her year would include travel to 17 cities; by May she had visited 31 states. In 1938, Fergus contacted the White House to arrange a third musicale, this time featuring another notable Pen Woman, songwriter Carrie Jacobs Bond. Mrs. Roosevelt declined because it was not possible to seat 400 people in the East Room, and she felt that 30 minutes was too long for the audience to stand comfortably.

The ceaseless activity during her tenure took a personal toll. Her 1937 Christmas card, which Fergus drew herself, featured a map of the United States marked with lines to indicate her travels, next to her two daughters holding a calendar to determine when they would “get Mama back.” After her presidency, Fergus continued to be active in Chicago’s musical scene and returned to Washington to perform her compositions.

Fellow Pen Women deeply appreciated the efforts she had made on their behalf. Pearl Adams summarized their feelings, writing about the White House concert, “There are some things, thank God, one cannot place a money value upon — and this lovely thing you did for the composers is one of those lovely things.”

Editor’s note: According to daughter Thallis Hoyt Drake, Phyllis Fergus’ mother, Mary Electa Fergus, was identified in a Washington Post photo as “the newest member of the League,” at age 90, on April 24, 1938. The photo was part of a full-page article titled “Pen Women Gathered Here for Convention Hear Mrs. Roosevelt at Breakfast.”

Learn more about Phyllis Fergus’ career and music in Marian Wilson Kimber’s recently released book, “The Elocutionists: Women, Music and the Spoken Word.”

Notes from The Pen Woman magazine Summer 2017 article about Phyllis Fergus: Watermark: “Spring Rain” by Fergus, from “Four Child Fancies,” an unpublished song cycle ca. 1940, transcribed from the manuscript by her granddaughter, NYC harpist Victoria Drake. (See the composition here: FOUR CHILD FANCIES.)

Copy of a review in the Chicago Daily News by famous Chicago reviewer Amy Leslie: