Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Nancy Andrews talks about the fascinating life of Alice Damrosch Kaier, an Olympic skier and mountaineer who summered on MDI.

Oral History:

Oral History Transcription:

August 6, 2020 Interview with Nancy Andrews about Alice Damrosch Kaier

This is Rick Wheeler, it is August 6th 2020 and I’m at the home of Nancy Andrews and Dru Colbert. This interview will be about Alice Damrosch Kiaer. Maybe just to start off Nancy, why don’t you give us a quick background of who you are and how you became interested in Alice.

Nancy: I’m an artist and I teach at the College of the Atlantic. In March 2020 while I was preparing for a course that we teach at the college called The Core course, which is taken by all first-year students. It is taught by a team, including Heather Lakey, who is a philosopher professor, and myself. We were doing a unit on death, fear and uncertainty. One of the projects involved students visiting a graveyard to observe the different stone monuments and markers and to make rubbings, if possible, of the stones.

While at Ledgelawn Cemetery in Bar Harbor showing students how to do rubbings with different kinds of materials, we came across an unusual stone near the entrance of the cemetery with an interesting image on it. I thought it was military because at first glance it looked like guns. So we did a rubbing of it and I took a picture of the stone and jotted down the name of the individual. Then, while preparing a video for the students, I did some research on the insignia and the name on the stone which was Alice Damrosch Wolff Kiaer.

I was still thinking the insignia was military, but when I looked closer, I realized that it was actually an image of skis, ski poles and a rifle. Using the ‘find-a-grave’ database, I learned that Alice was the eldest daughter of Walter Damrosch, who was the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. I later learned that she was the first American woman to scale the Matterhorn from the North Face. She also organized and managed the first United States women’s Olympic ski team in 1936, and later managed the team in 1948. She served in the American Red Cross to provide relief to prisoners of war. It just blew my mind that she had led such an interesting life and I wouldn’t have known anything about it had I not chosen this stone to make a rubbing..

Alice summered here on Mount Desert Island, I think, throughout her life. She was born in 1893 and died in 1967. She was inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1969, two years after her death. She was married I think three times. Her first husband Dudley Wolff was an experienced mountain climber, who (after their divorce) died in India attempting to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain.

Rick: do you have any sense of what her life was like up here? On Mount Desert?

Nancy: I only read her obituary and things that were available on the internet. I think she lived in California part of her life and stayed involved in the skiing competition at Olympic levels. Her siblings were Gretchen Blaine, Leopold Blaine, Edith Blaine Damrosch. I don’t really know that much about MDI families to go a whole lot deeper.

Rick: I know a Jamie Blaine here in Northeast Harbor so I emailed him. He didn’t know Alice but he had heard of her. Jamie is a descendant of James G Blaine, the Republican nominee for President in 1884. He also confirmed that Alice was a James G. Blaine descendant. We at least established that there are Blaine connections still on the island.

Nancy: And do you know what her life was like here?

Rick: I don’t. I know she was the sister of Gretchen Damrosch. I know from my parents that the Damrosches were always considered extremely well-read, culturally oriented, and there was a connection to Thomas Finletter, a diplomat and Secretary of the Air Force. I believe that Finletter married Gretchen.

Rick: Besides what you have recounted, are there stories, unusual things or people with whom she interacted worth noting?

Nancy: I think she was a real booster for professional skiing and enjoyment of the sport. She actively encouraged women to get involved with skiing and provided a lot of guidance. I found a picture of her with a couple of women at a resort or a professional ski slope. I just got the sense that she had a big influence in helping skiing become a women’s Olympic sport.

Rick: Do you know when she was most active doing all this managing?

Nancy: I think it was during the thirties and forties. A Hall of Fame article recounts that in 1930 Alice visited Switzerland on a mountain climbing expedition.While there, she learned to ski for the first time. That’s 1930 and she won her first medal in 1931. Since the Swiss tend to be good skiers, it is utterly amazing that within a year she was at a level where she would win a medal. She helped to organize the 1936 Olympic team and managed women’s teams in the 1930’s. She became chairman of the 1952 Olympic selection committee for women. It just goes on and on. She represented the National Ski Association to Congress and was involved in the 1948 Winter Olympics in Norway. She also helped with the men’s team. She hired a coach for the women’s teams because they didn’t have a coach. At that time, women’s teams weren’t using coaches,but Alice felt they should have a coach so she hired a coach for them. She maintained a close association with the World Games Committee of 1954 and the 1956 Olympic Games committee. She was involved in skiing starting with the Amateur Ski Association all the way up to the highest levels of the sport.

Rick: Did you happen to find any photographs of her?

Nancy: There is one in the Hall of Fame where they have a portrait of her and there’s also another one of her in ski gear. There was a big obituary in the New York Times, but since I’m not a subscriber, I wasn’t able to fully access that obituary. In this picture she looks very intense, very young and vivacious, full of life. She’s dressed very assertively, wearing a jacket and a feminine version of a scarf-tie kind of thing.

Rick: She clearly was an amazing woman. I wish I could have met her.

Nancy: Yeah, no kidding. The Gershwin connection is just crazy. ‘Find a grave’ says that she worked as an assistant to her father, and that she suggested that he commission George Gershwin to write a piece for the New York Symphony Orchestra. As a result, Gershwin composed his Concerto in F, which was first performed in 1925. Gershwin played the piano for the performance with Walter Damorosch, her father, conducting.

Rick: I’m wondering if a New York Symphony Orchestra is the same as the New York Philharmonic, or if they are two separate organizations? (FN: The New York Symphony was a precursor of the New York Philharmonic. The New York Symphony was founded in 1878 by Leopold Damrosch, father of Walter and grandfather of Alice)

Nancy: I don’t know.

Rick: It begs the question – which we’ll never know – how did Alice find George Gershwin? What prompted her to ask her father to commission Gershwin?

Nancy: I’m guessing that she liked George Gershwin a lot. I could imagine that she was acting as an informal assistant to her father. It would be as if a young woman today, whose father happened to conduct a symphony orchestra, making a suggestion: ‘I really like Beyonce, why don’t you have Beyonce do a piece for your orchestra?’ In 1925 when Concerto in F was first performed, Alice would have been roughly 32.

Rick: The fact that Alice appreciated a musician/composer as avant garde as Gershwin to the point where she felt comfortable asking her father to commission Gershwin to write an orchestral piece says a lot about her self-confidence and her appreciation of music.

Nancy: I feel a little guilty that I didn’t ask permission of the Historical Society to make rubbings in the graveyard. I probably should have, but the rubbings we were making, and also encouraging the students to make, were not strictly to reproduce the stone as is, but rather to use it as collage material.We made them on white gardening cloth. It’s quite sturdy versus paper. We used a wax crayon and chose the words “Born, Died, and then the image of the the skis and the gun”

Rick: Any final thoughts before we finish?

Nancy: No, I can’t really think of anything else, thank you Rick. It was fun.