The Adventures of Adelaide Cummings
Cape Cod Life / April 2014 / Art & Entertainment, History, People & Businesses
Writer: Matthew J. Gill
In 1938, Tennessee native, Adelaide Cummings, resigned her post as a reporter for Life magazine to travel the world for a year with her mother, Martha. The pair visited Adelaide’s twin brother, Joe, who was stationed with the U.S. Army in Manila. They met John Foster Dulles and his wife Janet aboard a cruise liner and Adelaide played Ping Pong with the future secretary of state. Along the way, she wrote a series of travel articles that were published back in the states; one of these brought the mother-daughter duo to Jaipur, a desert city in Northern India, and an interview with the region’s maharaja, or king. Adelaide was writing a piece about the maharaja and his beloved polo team for Spur, a popular coffee-table magazine of the time.
Falmouth’s poet laureate reflects on 100 years of memories and achievement
Following the interview, the maharaja arranged a tiger hunt in Adelaide’s honor. Though she participated in the outing, Adelaide asked the maharaja—whose authority at the time included power of life and death over his subjects—to spare the large cat’s life. Many miles from Memphis, Manhattan, or any magazine headquarters, the maharaja honored her request. Reflecting on that moment—more than seven decades hence—Adelaide is proud of what she accomplished. “I saved,” she says, “that tiger’s life.”
On June 6, 2014, Adelaide Cummings of Falmouth celebrates her 100th birthday, and friends and family are preparing a party to write home about. For some perspective, Adelaide’s birth in 1914 came about six weeks prior to the opening of the Cape Cod Canal and the start, in Europe, of World War I.
In a recent interview at her home in West Falmouth, Adelaide discussed one of her life’s great passions—writing—and shared some fascinating adventures from her journalism career and travels as well as some of her exploits in the game of tennis.
“Seems to me I always wrote,” Adelaide says, “[I was] always scribbling something. I didn’t have any other talent. It had to be that.”
At a spry 99, Adelaide still writes today. Her niche is light verse: short, humorous, or poignant poems offering a unique perspective on a wide variety of topics. She writes for a few hours each day and is very productive. In the past two decades, she has completed hundreds of poems and self-published six collections of her work. Her nephew, Jeff Anderson, designs all of her book covers, and her titles, such as Pastiche, Reprise, Curtain Call, and 2012’s Encore!, are available at the West Falmouth Library, the Falmouth Public Library, and at amazon.com.
From whence do her ideas come? “They just descend upon me,” Adelaide says in a southern drawl. “Something will strike me as funny.” Perhaps her most famous poem, “Domicile,” is a favorite of many and has been reprinted in several publications.
The 12-line poem about seaside living begins: “I live in a house beside the sea/and sea sounds are a part of me. . .” Another beauty she wrapped up following a visit to a local nude beach includes the revelatory closing line: “folks look better when they’re clad.”
Adelaide’s work ethic and productivity—and her witty turns of phrase—have not gone unnoticed. In 2012, she was appointed Falmouth’s resident poet laureate, the first in the seaside town’s history.
Gina White, a Falmouth resident and a longtime friend of Adelaide’s, recommended her for the honor. Inspired by a similar appointment she learned had taken place on Martha’s Vineyard, White contacted the Falmouth Public Library, she recalls, “and away we went.” The process required several steps including approval from the town’s board of selectmen and an interview with Adelaide. “We had a lot of people that supported the idea,” says White. “Adelaide is the most positive person I have ever known, and I’ve never heard her complain about anybody or anything.”
White enjoys Adelaide’s poetry and noted that she has written a number of poems for friends over the years. “She captures the spirit, just like a portrait painter might,” says White. “And just as lovely.”
In her role as poet laureate, Adelaide has received several requests for poems to commemorate various local events. She views the honor as something akin to being knighted. “It’s going to sound nice,” she adds, “in my obit.”
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1914, Adelaide says she knew she wanted to be a writer even when she was just a young girl and remembers penning jingles for friends’ birthday parties. A few years later, she sold her first article while studying English at Radcliffe College in Cambridge. “I became the heroine of the dormitory,” she says.
When she graduated, Adelaide moved to New York City and landed her first job as a reporter for a new publication—Life magazine. “It had just started,” Adelaide says of Life, which purchased its name from an existing humor and lifestyle magazine, and started anew in 1936 as a newsweekly with lots of photography. “It didn’t have any advertising,” Adelaide says of the magazine’s early days. “Would it survive or would it not?”
She recalls that her assignments were interesting—and random. One week she wrote about the Dionne quintuplets of Ontario, Canada, who, after the five identical sisters’ birth in May of 1934, had become the first such five-some to ever survive infancy. Another assignment had her covering a contentious coal miners’ strike. “Just whatever came along,” Adelaide says.
What came along one evening in the spring of 1937 was the LZ 129 Hindenburg and the massive German airship’s horrific destruction at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. One of Adelaide’s regular beats was covering the Hindenburg’s arrivals from Germany, and this particular assignment was nothing unusual. “I went out to cover this routine landing,” she says, “nobody special aboard. It was the world’s most average event.”
As the world would soon learn, however, the Hindenburg’s journey would end that day in tragedy. With Adelaide and others awaiting the airship’s arrival from Hamburg on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames, just before landing. A total of 35 passengers and crewmembers were killed, as was one member of the air station’s ground crew. Adelaide recalls that when the airship was just a few feet off the ground, she saw a woman on board through a window, and she was holding a child in her arms. When the airship touched down, three or four people who had been leaning against an exit door fell out to safety. “I remember standing there, just speechless,” she says. “You couldn’t believe it. I have often seen that woman and her child in my dreams.”
Adelaide also crossed paths with history a decade earlier, when she and her family were among the large crowd on hand in Paris for the arrival of record-setting aviator, Charles Lindbergh. In the spring of 1926, Adelaide’s family was traveling in France to visit the homeland of their French governess, and on May 21 they headed to Le Bourget Field for a special event. When Lindbergh touched down at the airfield that day in his Spirit of St. Louis, he had completed the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. It had taken Adelaide’s family 10 days to sail to France; Lindbergh completed the 3,600-mile journey from Long Island, New York, in 33 and one-half hours. “I was as close to him as I am to you when he stepped out of the plane,” Adelaide says. “I can still see him in my mind’s eye,” She added that Lucky Lindy was also blessed with some very long legs. “It was hard to believe,” she adds, “that he was going to become world hero number one overnight.”
In her days as a journalist, Adelaide also wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, Country Life, and other magazines, served as editor of Child Life magazine, and wrote a satirical political cartoon that was nationally syndicated. She has also written two books—Mystery on Cape Cod and Adventure on the Cloud 9—about experiences with her children on the Cape and at her winter getaway, the Bahamas.
Adelaide and her husband, the late Donald Field, had three children: Dr. Hartry Field, who works as a professor of philosophy at New York University; Deborah Field Washburn, a psychiatrist; and Martha “Marty” Field, a professor of law at Harvard University who taught, in their graduate studies, both Barack and Michelle Obama. During the 1960s, Adelaide and her family lived in Brookline, but visited the Cape often on weekends; in 1970, they moved to Falmouth to stay.
Here on the Cape, Adelaide shared and participated in another lifelong passion for many years. “Tennis,” she says, “has played a major part in my life.” Adelaide first learned how to serve, volley, and drop shot growing up, playing with friends and her three brothers—Harry, Joe, and Seneca—and continued to play throughout her life.
Jean Anderson of Grafton, Massachusetts came to know Adelaide through tennis. “Adelaide is a great gal,” says Jean. “She’s been one of my closest friends for years.” When Jean and her husband, Dick, rented a home in Falmouth during the early 1960s, Adelaide heard that they played tennis and invited them to play at her home court. “We’d go over and play every single day,” Jean recalls. Adelaide also gave the couple’s sons tennis lessons.
And Adelaide was no slouch on the court. “Her tennis game was very good,” Jean says. “She always lobbed in the back, left-hand corner. She always liked to win. She was very strategic in her placement of the ball.”
Adelaide continued to play in her 70s, traveling to France and Germany as a member of the United States Tennis Association’s senior tour. In her 80s, Adelaide met fellow Falmouth residents, Gerry and Gina White, and she and Gerry would compete together as a mixed doubles team in the U.S.
Senior Olympics in Pittsburgh during the early 2000s. A fan of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Maria Sharapova, Adelaide commented on her own performance at the tournament. “I had good form,” she says. Indeed, she and Gerry took home the gold medal.
Susannah Washburn—the daughter of Adelaide’s daughter, Deborah, and her husband John Washburn—enjoyed lots of quality time with her grandmother growing up. “I spent every summer of my life at her home in West Falmouth,” Susannah says. “She was a role model for me in terms of sports. She taught me how to play tennis.”
A professor at American University in Washington, D.C., Susannah says her grandmother’s active lifestyle, including swimming in the ocean at the age of 99, is quite an inspiration. “She is kind of fearless,” Susannah says. After all, Adelaide still writes, she still enjoys gin and tonics with friends, and she continues to travel; this year, Adelaide spent her 57th winter in Hope Town, her adopted, warm-weather home away from home in the Bahamas.
Susannah also described her grandmother as a lifelong learner. “She’s very intellectually curious. She often says she can’t die yet because she has to see what happens next.” One interesting side note is that Adelaide, who once shipped hand-written articles to her editors via trans-Atlantic flights in the 1930s, introduced her granddaughter to the space-saving Kindle reader. “It just made sense to her,” Susannah says.
Though many of Adelaide’s poems are humorous, some address serious themes such as aging, or mortality and loss. These are experiences Adelaide knows well. Her father, Harry Bennett Anderson, died when she was just 19. Her second husband, William Leverett Cummings, and twin brother, Joe, both passed away in 1989, within three weeks of each other. “They were my two favorite men,” she says. “It’s a sad fact that women outlive men. I lost my mom when she was 92, but that was still a long time ago. I’ve outlived everybody. I’m the last leaf on the tree.”
Does she have any advice for prospective writers? “Don’t wait for someday,” Adelaide says. “If [you] want to be a writer, [you] should get out and write.” Does she have any goals she wants to accomplish, any bucket list items to check off? Well, Adelaide is currently working on Swan Song, her seventh book of short verse. “I’m hoping to get it finished for my 100th birthday in June,” she says, “but I’m not sure I will. I’m having fun with it.”
Writing. Having fun. Enjoying friends and the occasional cocktail. Is that her secret? “I have something I want to do every day,” Adelaide says, “because I’m never bored you see.” Another thing that drives her is her six grandchildren and five great grandchildren; she wants to see them grow into the people they are to become. And what of her health? “I’m in perfect health,” she says. “I don’t really know what’s going to take me off.”
Asked yet another in a long list of questions, Adelaide paused for a moment, considering her reply. “Let me just see,” she says. “You’re talking to a mighty old lady.”