My Cousin, the Musical Star

ad dec 1 1917 for selma selingerWhen I spoke with my cousin Ellen Kleinfeld last week, she asked me whether I knew that there had been an opera singer in the family.  I said that I had not yet run across any family members who were opera singers.  She thought the cousin’s name was Sylvia, but wasn’t sure.  I told her that I would keep researching and would let her know if I found anyone that might fit that description.  I was skeptical of the claim that we had a singing star in the family, knowing how family myths can grow beyond the basic facts, but I figured I’d keep my eyes open for anyone who might be this musical “Sylvia.”

Well, it did not take long to find her, and it was not because I was looking for her specifically.  The fourth child of Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen after Augusta, Myer, and Jacob was Fannie Cohen.  As written earlier, Fannie married Alfred Selinger, the assumed relative of Julius Selinger, who had married her older sister Augusta.  Fannie and Alfred had one child, a daughter Selma.  Selma was the mysterious singer my cousin Ellen had heard about as Sylvia.

Selma, who was born in 1894, was already performing as a singer at a Fourth of July celebration in Washington, DC, by 1905, when she was only eleven years old, and she is mentioned as a singer in numerous articles in the Washington area newspapers over the next 20 years.[1]

On September 14, 1912, Selma married William Danforth, who was an actor who worked under the stage name Billy L. Wilson, according to his passport application.  Three years later they had a daughter Mildred, but the marriage did not last.  An article from the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader on April 10, 1917, told of a trip that Billy L. Wilson was making to Australia with his vaudeville partner, Joe F. Willard.  The article said that Billy and Joe had been on B.F. Keith‘s vaudeville circuit in the eastern and southern parts of the US.  (This is the same B.F. Keith who had married Ethel Chase, the sister-in-law of Ruth Cohen Chase, Selma’s first cousin, in 1913, six months before he died.  Ethel Chase later married Ruth and Selma’s other cousin, Jerome Selinger.  Perhaps Selma met Billy also through Ruth’s connection to B.F. Keith, or maybe Billy introduced Ethel to B.F. Keith.)

Apparently being on the road was not good for the marriage between Selma and Billy, and by 1920, they were divorced. She and Mildred were living with her parents, Fannie and Alfred. Alfred was working as a tailor, and Selma gave her occupation as a stenographer for a concert business. Throughout this time, however, Selma had continued to perform.[2]  I could only find one photograph of Selma, however, despite all the news coverage, and it is not a very clear photo.

Selma Selinger New York Times 1919

Selma Selinger New York Times 1919

On June 6, 1920, Selma sang at an event where a young man named Earl I. Klein was also performing and at later events he performed as her accompanist.[3]  Earl also had been a musician since an early age, performing as a pianist and a violinist at numerous events since 1907, when he was thirteen.  He had attended the Columbia Conservatory of Music.[4] What may have started as a professional relationship turned romantic, and on July 15, 1921, Selma married Earl Klein, and the two continued to perform together for some time thereafter.  Selma also sang on some radio broadcasts in the early 1920s.

Unfortunately, I could not find any coverage of Selma and Earl’s careers after 1922. By 1930, however, it seemed that both may have ended their musical careers.  On the 1930 census, Earl’s occupation is listed as the manager of a taxi company, and Selma has no occupation listed.  In 1940, Earl was selling insurance, and Selma again had no occupation listed. Selma’s parents, Fannie and Alfred Selinger, were living with them, as was Selma’s daughter Mildred.  (Fannie and Alfred must have also had a place in St. Petersburg, Florida, as they are listed in the city directories for that city in 1924 and 1934.)

Selma lost her mother, Fannie Cohen Selinger, on August 21, 1940, and her father Alfred Selinger died seven years later on October 11, 1947.   Her husband Earl died of a heart attack on June 9, 1957.  Earl was buried in Washington Hebrew Cemetery where Selma’s parents Fannie and Alfred are buried as well as her grandparents Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen.

Selinger FannieSelinger AlfreadEarl Kline

(Photos courtesy of Ira Todd Cohen and Jane and Scott Cohen)

Sometime thereafter Selma remarried a man named Theodore C. Lewis.  Selma died on January 2, 1973, in Silver Spring, MarylandThe Washington Post published the obituary below, describing some of the highlights of her musical career.

The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:

The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:

Interestingly, Selma was not buried where her long time husband Earl is buried, and I still have not found where she is buried, though I am checking with the cemetery where her third husband is buried, Fort Lincoln.

UPDATE:  I just got confirmation that Selma is buried next to her third husband, Theodore Lewis, at Fort Lincoln cemetery.  Poor Earl–buried with the Cohen family, his in-laws, while his wife is buried elsewhere.

Selma’s daughter Mildred married a musician, Maurice or Maury Hall.  They lived in Las Vegas and then in North Hollywood, California.

Thus, one family “myth” has been validated.  Although Selma did not sing in a traditional opera setting, she was a professional soprano who sang both popular and classical musical works.  In the days before radio and recordings were widespread, hiring musicians for entertainment was much more common.  I can visualize these society gatherings and charitable and patriotic events where my cousin Selma sang to the delight of her audience, sometimes accompanied by her husband Earl.

I leave you with two links to click on to hear two songs that Selma sang (not, however, sung by her in these recordings). Although Selma sang everything from “Madame Butterfly” to Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabeas”  to Kol Nidre at these performances,  I particularly enjoyed searching for these two songs that were popular during World War I, as they reminded me of a time many, many years ago I sat  with my father and a family friend as they discussed World War I songs.  I was probably about thirteen and could not for the life of me figure out why these two men were talking about (and singing) songs written before they were born.  As Mel Brooks said in The 2000 Year Old Man, we mock the things we are to be.

Cover of "The 2000 Year Old Man"

Cover of The 2000 Year Old Man

Roses of Picardy

Keep the Home Fires Burning

[1] For example, for some early performances,  see The Washington Evening Star, July 3, 1905, p. 3; “Dr. Simon Guest of Honor, Washington Evening Star, June 2, 1908, p. 9; “Eastern Star Entertainments,” April 15, 1909, Washington Evening Star, p. 15; Washington Evening Star, May 9, 1909, p. 65; “Have Lively Debate,” Washington Evening Star, April 6, 1910, p. 2; “Casino,”  Washington Evening Star, April 9, 1913.

[2] See “Jewish Women Hear their New Protégé,” Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24 (as Selma Selinger Danforth); “Grotto Will Entertain,”  Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24; “Arab Patrol Host to 1,500 Guests,” Washington Evening Star, April 29, 1916, p. 9; Washington Evening Star, December 9, 1917, p. 54 (‘…Miss Selma Selinger sang several patriotic solos which were so well received that she had to respond with several encores.”); “Liberty Loan Boosted at Patriotic Rally,” Washington Evening Star, April 7, 1918, p. 20.1  This is just a sampling; there were also mentions in the Washington Herald and the Washington Post.

[3] See Washington Evening Star, June 6, 1920, p. 53; “Florida Society,” Washington Evening Star, January 9, 1921, p. 25; Washington Evening Star, November 5, 1922, p. 63.

[4] Washington Evening Star, July 5, 1908, p. 26. Also, numerous other articles about Earl Klein’s performances can be found by searching for Earl Klein in the District of Columbia.

The Children of Augusta Cohen and Julius Selinger


Julius and Augusta Cohen Selinger passport photos 1922

Julius and Augusta Cohen Selinger passport photos 1922

Moses, Jr., and Henrietta’s daughter Augusta celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary with her husband Julius Selinger in 1909, as described in my earlier post.  Their children were all still living at home as of 1910, but the next two decades would see them all finding their own independent paths.  Julius continued to work as a jeweler in his store, Selinger’s, and in 1922, he and Augusta along with their daughter Eleanor traveled to Germany, the British Isles, and France, apparently for health reasons, according to Julius’ passport application.  That application contains photographs of both Augusta and Julius, shown above.

Sydney, their oldest son, had become an optician as early as 1906 when he was 21 years old.  Although he was still living at home in 1910, on September 3, 1917 he married a woman named Grace Bloch.  Although I have not yet found an official marriage record,  I know from other records that Grace, Sydney’s wife, was born November 20, 1895 or 1896 in Danville, Pennsylvania, and I found this newspaper announcement of  the marriage of Sidney Selinger of Washington, DC, and a Ruth Bloch, daughter of Samuel Bloch,  in Danville, Pennsylvania.

Sydney and Grace Selinger marriage announcement 1917

Sydney and Grace Selinger marriage announcement 1917

(Sunday, September 9, 1917, Evening Star (Washington (DC), DC)   Page: 27)

I am not sure why the paper gave her name as Ruth, as every census report shows that Samuel Bloch’s daughter was named Grace.  But since they also spelled Sydney’s name incorrectly, I assume it was just an error.

Sydney and Grace did not have children, and they lived in Washington, DC, at least until 1940.  They both seemed to be working in the retail jewelry business in 1940, and even in 1930 Sydney listed his occupation as in the jewelry business, no longer as an optician, presumably in the family jewelry store, Selinger’s.  By 1956 Sydney and Grace had moved to Hollywood, Florida, where they lived for the rest of their lives.  Sydney died in May, 1967, and Grace three years later in May, 1970.

Selinger ad

Harry, the second son of Augusta and Julius Selinger, was in the Selinger’s jewelry business from at least 1910 when he was 22 until at least 1935, the date of the last record I have for him.  Harry claimed an exemption from the draft for unspecified physical reasons in 1917 and was still single at that time.  He married Mary Jessop on August 22, 1924, when he was 36; it appears that he and Mary did not have children either as there were none listed as living with them on the 1930 census when Mary was 43, six years older than Harry.  I could find no record of either Mary or Harry after 1935.

Both of the next two sons, Jerome and Maurice, became doctors.  I believe these may have been the first descendants of Hart Levy and Rachel Cohen to become doctors.  Both also served in World War I, as depicted in this picture of Jerome and Maurice in the Washington Evening Star in 1919.

Selinger brothers 1919 WW 1

(Sunday, January 5, 1919,Evening Star (Washington (DC), DC), Page: 62 )

Jerome served overseas from August 7, 1917 until March 1, 1919, serving as a doctor in a mobile hospital unit overseas.  Maurice also was already a doctor when he registered for the draft in 1917 and thus also must have served in a medical role during the war.  He graduated from Georgetown Medical School in 1915. (Wednesday, June 16, 1915, Evening Star (Washington (DC), DC)   Page: 11)

Jerome married a widow named Ethel Chase Keith in 1921. Ethel was born Ethel Bird Chase in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, on November 7, 1886, the daughter of Plimpton Beverly Chase and Anna Bird and a descendant of one of the oldest families in central Ohio. (Their home, the Beverly Mansion, is now used as an event venue.)

Ethel was a 1910 graduate of Bryn Mawr College. (Register of Alumnae and Former Students By Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, 1922, p. 28)      She had married Benjamin Franklin Keith in Washington, DC, on October 19, 1913, when she was 26, and he was 67.  Benjamin F. Keith was a widower, and he died the following year on March 26, 1914, just six months after marrying the much-younger Ethel Bird Chase.   Mr. Keith was a well-known entertainer and theater owner in Boston; the B.F. Keith Opera House was named in his memory (now just known as the Boston Opera House).

So how did Jerome meet Ethel, I wondered.  I found a passenger manifest dated August 23, 1914, just over five months after Keith’s death, listing Ethel Chase Keith as a passenger on a ship sailing from Liverpool, England, to Quebec, Canada.  At first I thought she was traveling alone, but then I noticed that the entries above hers were for a Harold B. Chase, born in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, obviously Ethel’s brother, and Harold’s wife Ruth Caroline Chase.

Ship manifest dated August 23, 1914 for the Megantic from Liverpool to Quebec

Ship manifest dated August 23, 1914 for the Megantic from Liverpool to Quebec

The names seemed familiar, so I checked my family tree, and sure enough, Myer Cohen, Sr., Jerome’s uncle, had a daughter Ruth who married a man named Harold Chase just about a year before in October 29, 1913, the same month that Ethel had married Benjamin F. Keith.  So Ethel must have either known Jerome already, as he was Ruth’s first cousin, or she was introduced to him by her brother and sister-in-law.  It appears that Ethel was living with Ruth and Harold at that time as well as traveling with them.  Unlike the case with  her first husband who was more than forty years older than she, this time Ethel married a man three years her junior.

Jerome and Ethel had two daughters, born in 1923 and 1928.  They lived in Huntington on Long Island, NY, then in Manhattan, and then in Fairfield County in Connecticut.  They were active in various charitable activities, and for some time Jerome was the health director for the town of New Canaan, Connecticut.  Jerome and Ethel did a great deal of traveling, according to the numerous passenger manifests.  According to Wikipedia, Ethel died in 1971.  Jerome lived until April, 1984, and was 94 when he died.

His younger brother and fellow doctor Maurice returned to Washington DC after World War I where he practiced medicine (a general practice, according to the 1930 census).  He was living with his parents and sister in 1920 and practicing medicine.  He married a woman named Mildred ( I have not yet located a marriage record for Maurice and Mildred).  Mildred was born December 23, 1899, in Easton, Pennsylvania, according to one ship manifest.  On the 1930 census they reported that they had been married for five years, so I am assuming they were married in 1925 or so.

Maurice Selinger and family 1930 census

Maurice Selinger and family 1930 census

They had two sons, one born in 1926 and the other in 1934.  In 1940, Maurice was still in a private medical practice, and in addition to his wife Mildred and their two sons, his father Julius was living with them.  Julius was now a widower, as Augusta had died in 1936 at age seventy.  Although I cannot find a death record for Julius, he was 87 in 1940, so I imagine that he died sometime in the next decade.  Maurice died on August 26, 1965, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  His wife Mildred died March 27, 1981, and is buried beside him.

The youngest child and only daughter of Augusta and Julius was Eleanor.  Eleanor was still living at home in 1920, working as a bookkeeper at the jewelry store.  During the decade from 1910 to 1920, her comings and goings were recorded regularly in the Washington Evening Star—whether it was visiting her cousin Aimee Cohen in Baltimore or friends or other relatives, there were numerous society tidbits about her visits.  In 1922, she went with her parents to Europe, including England.  In 1924 she was still living at home and working as a bookkeeper.  In 1925 she traveled alone to England, and then I lost all evidence of her on

Washington Star, January 16, 1916

Washington Star, January 16, 1916

I finally found a marriage record for her in; she married Henry Mortimer Abbot on March 25, 1926.  But then I could not find her as Eleanor Abbot.  A little more digging, and I finally realized that she and Henry were living in London.  Their marriage record said he was born in England, and the passenger manifest dated April 14, 1926, showed Eleanor and Henry Abbot traveling to England.  But then the 1928 directory for Washington, DC, listed Eleanor Abbot as residing in Washington without any listing for Henry.  I thought perhaps she had divorced Henry or perhaps he had died, but then there were many trips by Eleanor alone almost every other year through the 1920s and 1930s between England and the US.  I was quite perplexed.

Fortunately, I was able to find another family tree on which listed both Henry Abbot and Eleanor Selinger.  What was particularly interesting to me was that this tree revealed that Henry Abbot was originally Henry Auerbach, son of Hyams Auerbach and Helen Selinger.  Another Selinger? Helen Selinger was born in 1850 in Germany, according to that tree, making her a contemporary of Julius and Frederick Selinger, who were also born in Germany in the 1850s.  Could Helen be Julius’ sister or cousin? Had she arranged for her son to meet and marry Eleanor, his cousin? I don’t know the answer to those questions just yet, but I have a lead that may help me find out.

I contacted the owner of the Auerbach tree, and she wrote back to me telling me that Henry Auerbach/Abbot was her great-uncle, her father’s brother, and that she had visited Eleanor and Henry many times at their home in London and that they never had children.  She said that her father’s family, the Auerbach/Abbot family, was in the fur business and made many trips back and forth to the United States for business.  I asked her for more information about Henry and Eleanor and am awaiting her response.  Henry died in 1965, and Eleanor died in 1979.

Thus, the five children of Augusta Cohen and Julius Selinger all thrived as adults and seem to have had comfortable lives.  Three of their four sons stayed in Washington, DC, although Sydney eventually retired to Florida.  Two sons ended up in the family jewelry business, Sydney and Harry.  Two sons ended up as doctors, one in Washington and the other in New York and then Connecticut, and their daughter, a bookkeeper, ended up marrying an Englishman and moving to London.  Of the five children, only the two sons who were doctors had children, two each, so that Augusta and Julius had four grandchildren.  Two of their children, Jerome and Eleanor,  seem to have met their spouses through a family connection. Their parents, an immigrant and the daughter of an immigrant, must have been very proud of their children and their accomplishments.