Rose Fay Thomas

On March 29, 2016, music historian Joan Bentley Hoffman will present a lecture on the life and accomplishments of Rose Fay Thomas, the first is a series of three spring lectures exploring women prominent in the advancement of classical music at the turn of the 20th century.  (Additional lectures will examine Frances Glessner on April 28 and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler on May 24.  For more information, or to reserve tickets, visit www.glessnerhouse.org/events/).   In this article, we will look briefly at the life of Rose Fay Thomas.

Rose Fay arrived in Chicago in 1878, taking up residence with her brother Charles.  She became acquainted with Frances Glessner through her sister Amy, an accomplished pianist, and one of the first women to study in Europe.  In May of 1890, Rose married Theodore Thomas, the nationally-recognized music director who had brought his celebrated orchestra to Chicago annually since 1869.  Soon after, Thomas accepted the position to establish a permanent orchestra in Chicago, the present day Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now celebrating its 125th anniversary season.

Rose Thomas became her husband’s able help mate and most ardent supporter.  In a letter to Frances Glessner dated May 3, 1892, she noted in part:

“I want to tell Mr. Glessner how much pleasure his letter gave to Mr. Thomas.  He has worked himself almost to death this winter to bring the orchestra up to the highest standard, and make the concerts as perfect as possible. . . “

Regarding the criticisms he was receiving, she went on to acknowledge the Glessners:

‘for the generous sympathy, and support of those far seeing, and noble minded men and women, like yourself and Mr. Glessner, who can grasp the situation, and understand that Mr. Thomas is here to establish a great Art Work, and to make Chicago one of the first musical centers of the world.”

During the World’s Columbian Exposition, for which Theodore Thomas was placed in charge of the extensive musical program, Rose Thomas organized the music clubs of the country into the National Federation of Musical Clubs.  She served as the first president and was later appointed honorary president, a position she held until her death.

In August 1894, the Thomases visited the Glessners at their summer estate, The Rocks, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  While driving through the surrounding countryside:

“Mrs. Thomas was in raptures over one of the views and locations and came back thoroughly in love with it . . . The Thomases went to Bethlehem and bought about fourteen acres out of Whitcomb’s farm – for which they paid $800.  They have been wild with enthusiasm and interest ever since.”

Two years later, the Thomases completed their home, Felsengarten, on the property, with Rose Thomas personally supervising much of the work.  From this point forward, they spent much of their summer at their beloved summer estate, as neighbors of John and Frances Glessner.  Rose Thomas became an accomplished gardener, frequently sharing plants with Frances Glessner, and in 1904 Rose Thomas published an account of her estate, entitled Our Mountain Garden, a copy of which she presented to Frances Glessner for Christmas.

Rose Thomas was passionate about the abolition of cruelty toward animals.  In January 1899, she convened a small group of ladies to organize what evolved into the Anti-Cruelty Society.  Two months later, by-laws were adopted, and Rose Thomas was appointed president, one of the first women to head a Humane Society in the country.

(Today, the Rose Fay Thomas Society recognizes those individuals who have made planned gifts for the ongoing support of the Anti-Cruelty Society). 

Theodore Thomas died of pneumonia on January 4, 1905, just two weeks after the official opening of Orchestra Hall.  His widow soon gave up their home at 43 Bellevue Place, moving to an apartment at 2000 S. Indiana Avenue, just a few blocks from the Glessners.  Before the move, she came to stay with the Glessners for much needed rest, Frances Glessner noting:

“Mrs. Thomas came in the afternoon to stay with us.  She brought her little dog.  She was perfectly worn out with all the hard work and anxiety she has gone through.  I gave her the big corner room with a bright fire in it – and have left her alone as much as possible.  She says it is the first rest she has had since October and has visibly improved since coming.”

She remained a champion of her husband’s work and in 1911 published Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, dedicating the volume to her brother Charles Norman Fay, “the best and truest friend of Theodore Thomas and the chief promoter of his art.” 

When she died in 1929, she was given a military funeral in recognition of her significant service assisting enlisted men as a director of the Soldiers and Sailors Club.  She was the first woman in New England and only the fourth in the United States to be accorded a military funeral up to that time.  She was interred beside her husband at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Today, the Anti-Cruelty Society and the National Federation of Music Clubs serve as the enduring legacy of this fascinating and inspiring individual.