Duchess of Bay State
In the late 1890s, my Grandma Donahue was only fourteen years old when she stowed away on a boat all by herself to come to America from Ireland. She soon met and married an immigrant from Scotland who had been hired as the first crane operator for the C.F. & I steel mill in Pueblo, Colorado. A few years later as a young mother, she was left with four children to raise when her husband died after being run over by a crane.
Sad but undaunted, Grandma used the company’s settlement to establish a number of businesses on Bay State Avenue, a street adjacent to the mill where her husband suffered that fatal accident. Those businesses included a hotel, a bar called Donahue’s Cosmopolitan Club, and a pool hall. Of course, in days of yore, two of those establishments were not generally under the management of a woman. The entire Donahue family became involved in helping to make these undertakings survive and succeed. But Grandma was the boss.
Surviving Prohibition and the Great Depression, Josephine Bridget Donahue became known as the “Duchess of Bay State.” No one messed with her. Maybe it was that charming brogue – but, more likely, her brave approach to dealing with the problems at hand that kept enemies at bay and friends so close.
While growing up, I lived part of the time with Grandma at the Cosmopolitan Club. There were lots of rooms at the back of the building, so I had one of the bedrooms. And Grandma assigned her most trusted bartender to watch over me. Fortunately, I had lots of time to watch Grandma in her business mode. She was equally firm with customers, employees, and family members. This was a woman who knew how to handle most of the problems that came up – or which person to call on for help, if needed.
I remember how calm Grandma was during a robbery. I witnessed this first hand as a young child sitting at one of the tables in the bar area. The thief, who had a gun, walked right behind me on his way to escape. I was terrified. But not Grandma. Later, I found out she pressed a buzzer under the bar, and it was like an alarm for security. Imagine how surprised the criminal was at being caught outside the Club before he could make his getaway!
Running a business wasn’t the only accomplishment credited to Grandma Donahue. During a severe flu epidemic, she helped many of her customers recuperate by giving them a potion from the old country. It was so successful many people claimed she was a good witch.
Grandma also had her fun side. She loved the weekly bank night giveaways at Pueblo’s Uptown movie theater. And she frequently visited Ojo Caliente in New Mexico to take advantage of the mineral springs there. When she returned after one trip, she talked about a fascinating night dancing with Hollywood star Cesar Romero.
When I was learning to tap dance at a very young age, Grandma encouraged me to rehearse on the Cosmopolitan Club’s huge dance floor. She always smiled when she let me do my time step and shuffle-off-to-Buffalo steps for her customers, who threw pennies at me as they applauded my Shirley Temple routines.
After I graduated from Central High School, Grandma accompanied me on a train trip from Pueblo to New York City. She wanted to stay in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for a couple of days while making sure I was getting settled in at Barnard College. When we arrived at the Waldorf registration desk, the clerk told Grandma, “Go to the servant’s entrance!”– probably because of her thick Irish brogue.
How well I remember her flashing blue eyes and quick correction of the poor man’s error! But we cheered up a couple of hours later, for we had no difficulty getting into the Radio City Music Hall and enjoying the fabulous Rockettes as well as Tony Martin singing “Toot-Toot Tootsie” and Ingrid Bergman giving one of her compelling performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn.
Her grandchildren and great grandchildren remained in fearful awe of Grandma Donahue. But we loved to hear her sing songs from the old country. My daughter Susan enjoyed listening to her belt out “Oh, my little black-eyed Susan and the Yankee Men of War” whenever she saw her.
Although Grandma Donahue lived to be 80 plus, she never had a gray hair. And she washed her coal-black mane just once a year. But each night she used a fine-tooth comb on every strand. Like so many other things, this probably worked only for the Duchess of Bay State.
(Originally published in the SENIOR BEACON issue of March, 2019)