Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Couple of 1916 love letters lived and died apart

Anne Goodyear Walker, the subject of a stack of century-old love letters unearthed in downtown Raleigh, shown here at St. Anne’s School in Charlottesville, Va., where she lived apart from the husband who wrote them.
Anne Goodyear Walker, the subject of a stack of century-old love letters unearthed in downtown Raleigh, shown here at St. Anne’s School in Charlottesville, Va., where she lived apart from the husband who wrote them. COURTESY OF JENNY SKINNER

For decades, maybe centuries, pieces of forgotten lives stay hidden in sock drawers, tucked inside closets and stuck between the pages of books nobody reads.

If you collect enough of them, you can start to build real people from the snapshots and scraps of letters, see them wind their pocket watches and pin brooches on their collars, hear their voices on a rotary phone.

So I’m back again with J. Edwin and Annie, begging your patience.

This will mark the third and, I hope, final installment on the strange stack of century-old love letters uncovered in the walls of a downtown Raleigh building. I’m taxing your attention span today because new dope has come to light, and the lives of this formerly red-hot pair are taking shape from the tidbits we’ve collected.

A quick refresher:

This bundle of scorching prose turned up at 410 W. Davie St., dated 1916, addressed to Dearest Annie, and signed only J. Edwin:

“Oh speed the hours, Loved One of mine, when I may take your lovely self again, and hold you and press you again to my aching breast, and feel my love re-kindled as I worship at your shrine!”

Thanks to a pair of smitten readers with investigative skills, we discovered their names: J. Edwin Walker, a bookkeeper living in a Virginia YMCA, who pined for Annie Goodyear, daughter of a harness and saddle magnate.

And though they married, living for a time at Raleigh’s then-stately Sir Walter Hotel, they stayed apart for nearly all their long lives for reasons the Internet could not divine. J. Edwin died a banker and decades-long resident of the Carolina Hotel in Sanford, where friends thought him a confirmed old bachelor until Annie arrived after he died.

But here’s the biggest shocker for me: Annie didn’t arrive to arrange her estranged husband’s affairs until he’d been dead for eight or nine months!

When J. Edwin expired in 1971 at age 75, a group of friends gathered at the Lee County Hospital and scratched their heads about what to do. They knew of no family to notify, certainly not a wife in Virginia. One of the friends, Lewis Lawrence, volunteered to bury him in the family plot.

Tommy Bridges, a funeral director in Sanford, helped with the graveside service.

“Mr. Walker was a fine-looking man, always impeccably dressed, and he had a reserved, aristocratic bearing which indicated to me good blood,” he wrote in a letter to me. “I never had a conversation of any length with him, but we usually met in passing with a ‘good morning’ between us.’”

Imagine their surprise when, as Sanford’s golden-agers describe it, a fine-looking lady came to town identifying herself as J. Edwin’s wife.

“It was quite a shock,” recalled Robert Brickhouse, 91, who’d known J. Edwin since 1947.

Townsfolk took her to see J. Edwin’s hotel room, which had gone untouched since his death. She had dinner at the Brickhouse home, where J. Edwin had often visited and where Robert’s wife had often played his favorite songs on the piano, especially “Danny Boy.”

If she felt torn apart by his death, recalling those flaming letters of 1916, she didn’t show it. Fifty-five years earlier, she inspired this fantasy:

The night brought me dreams – such very sweet dreams of you. All the time you seemed to be walking down a beautiful garden path, environed by dainty and delicate flowers. Pretty birds with songs of gladness in their tender-throbbing throats fluttered busily from twig to tree-top.

But in Sanford in 1971, her sweetheart gone, she exhibited all the passion of a doily on an end table.

“She didn’t tell much about herself,” Brickhouse remembered. “Rather a quiet person.”

For all the years J. Edwin spent impressing Sanford with his good blood, his wife lived a devoted life working at St. Anne’s School in Charlottesville, where she’d been a music graduate in 1916 and teacher of the violin.

They clearly loved her there, if the biography that appears in the school’s centennial history is any guide.

“Girls of the forties, fifties and sixties might still see her seated at her desk making lists,” it reads. “Or they may recall her giving girls rides in the rumble seat of her 1936 Ford convertible presiding over teas by the fireplace in the Junior Dorm or setting up for Miss Jefferson’s Monday senior coke-and-smokes in the Cottage.”

People there guessed she was a widow. Her biography makes no mention of J. Edwin and seems to dismiss her marriage as a folly of youth. In 1918, her story explains, she was “a young war bride who had courted and filled her hope chest under the eyes of giggling teenage girls.”

The mystery of why the two parted, most likely around 1930, remains buried. But another Sanford friend, Hal Siler, the former head of the Chamber of Commerce, offered these thoughts.

“She didn’t want to leave that job,” said Siler, now 88. “They visited back and forth. He had this job. He seemed to enjoy his work. He had friends around Sanford here. Participated in the community. That seemed to be what it was. But he never told anybody about it.”

So now, having thoroughly plowed through their lives, I’ll leave these lovers in peace. May the tender-throbbing birds’ throats sing thee to thy rest.