Vera Jean Cassel – Bold Lady

Vera Jean Cassel in WWII WAC Uniform

Vera Jean Cassel in WWII WAC Uniform

My aunt, Vera Jean Cassel, led an interesting life. It is captured quite well in two letters, one from my sister Kallie Foutz Parker to Bernice Peck, Beauty Editor of Mademoiselle Magazine, dated August 18, 1971 and one from Vera Jean Cassel to Bernice Peck, dated September 10, 1971. At the end I have included some of my memories of her and have added some corrections and additional information about the letters based on some genealogy research.

From Kallie’s August 18, 1971 letter.

You asked about my “Tante” and I have the feeling you pictured her as a little old grey-haired lady sitting in a rocking chair and attending Ladies’ Aid Meetings. T’aint so. I think Aunt Vera was the original Auntie Mame. She was the post-humous child of Brigham Young, Jr. He had married my Grandmother Young when he was a ripe 55 and she a nubile and gorgeous 17. But his drab little previous wives in Salt Lake were frightfully jealous, so he had to keep his last family stashed away down in New Mexico, and when he died, they got practically none of his ample estate. Even when they moved to Salt Lake, they were poor as church mice, and Vera had to quit school at 14 to work as an apprentice beauty operator at the Mormon Dept. store at twelve bucks a month.

From there she went to California and opened her own shop (some seven years later) and finally went into a new face peeling business with a Dr. Brown in Beverly Hills. They made scads and scads of dough which enabled her to have a posh apartment and fur coats and diamond rings and foreign cars and an Irish Wolfhound and trips all over the world. I remember her telling about the time she was kidnapped in Honolulu and hauled off to another Island because the King there had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her, but she didn’t dig him and escaped. I always thought she was the most glamorous thing afoot with her slinky satin gowns and steel-buckled pumps and sheer black hose and flaming red tresses and always trailing wafts of French perfume.

She married and divorced…joined the WACS in WW II and when Grandma Young took ill, she returned to Salt Lake and took care of her until she died in 1959…and still lives in the old fashioned 14 room house alone…the flaming red tresses have given way to iron gray locks and the slinky satin gowns to printed Mu Mus, but she still has a jillion projects going all the time…she gardens…plays the piano and guitar…paints…studies languages…roots for the Green Bay Packers and reads copiously and is anti-social. I think Pat and I are the only people she gives two beets about.

For several years, she was in New York and had a Hair Dressing Salon with another woman called SATTLERS..I think it was on 55th just off Fifth Avenue. You may even have met her. I had her in tow on many occasions when I was undergoing my metamorphosis…and she was intrigued as hell over the whole thing.

I think she would be terribly thrilled and flattered by a dollop of fragrance. I suspect she is rather lonely but would never admit it. Address:

Mrs. Vera Jean Cassel
374 Sixth Avenue
Salt Lake City, Utah 84103

From Vera Cassel to Bernice Peck dated September 10, 1971.

My dear and so Friendly Bernice Peck:

Well, thank you bushels and bushels for the Arpege by Lanvin, a long-time favorite of mine, and the delightful fragrance of Mme Rochas. Such generosity on your part amounts to lots and lots of dollops in my book. It’s enough to bring lumps to me larynx. I shall enjoy them down to the last — as Kallie’s brother Jay used to say to me when he was a wee lad, “Gee, you stink pretty. Whatcha been stepping in?” — drop of “stink pretty” in both containers.

You are one hundred per cent right on that farmer bit, except I am not a wife, just the farmer. How I love to dig in the good earth. Since my retirement, organic gardening has been my bag. My yard is the size of a postage stamp, Eisenhower not commemorative, but even a Japanese couldn’t get more production out of every square inch than I do. To the pedestrian passersby, on their way to the large shopping center in the next block, I am know as “the flower lady.” My front yard is all flowers and the back gets planted with vegetables. This summer, production has not been too good as I had to get other people to do the planting for me and they just didn’t say the right words. Extreme heat and more and more air pollution hasn’t helped either. Up to date my efforts have paid off very well in the grocery department. Makes me sad, but I just can’t cut the lifting and digging any more. I shall keep my herbs, grapes, and can still scratch in a few cucumber seeds so I can make pickles. With me, gardening is a labor of love, although that “green thumb” business runs more to a weak mind and a strong back, me thinks. Maybe I’ll speculate with a couple of dwarf fruit trees.

Parchment Stationery with Embedded Flower by Vera Jean Casel

Parchment Stationery with Embedded Flower by Vera Jean Cassel

I am really thrilled that you have enjoyed some of the parchment stationery I made via my beloved Kallie. Would you believe I’m fixing to build some for your very own firsthand? Yeah, will do at my earliest possible moment. For the rest of this month, I shall be busy getting my canning done. Still have peaches, pears, apples and grapes to get under glass. Sometimes it is on the discouraging side to have my degree of fatigue and accomplishments end up in reverse ratio to what they should be, but then I remember that the tortoise did win the race, and stalagmites and stalactites are made with only a drop at a time, so I carry on.

There are many wonderful memories of my years in N.Y.C. which I cherish. How we loved weekends and vacations on Fire Island, long before Con Ed. and the gay boys every found it. There was one tumble-down hotel and otherwise a few cottages. We stayed with a friend in her cottage as she took in paying guests. What fun to go treading for clams in Great South Bay. We always took along lemons, salt and strong pocket knives. Ate dozens of cherrystones before collecting a big bucketful to take back with us as chowder clams and snails. The latter — Yuk! I never tried them unless or until I was in a good festive mood, but they always tasted to me like a gob of mud swimming in butter and garlic.

Such wonderful swimming when the ocean wasn’t too rough and the Bay when the red flag was up. The other couple who always went with us were both fanny dunkers, but my husband and I were strong swimmers and we loved those big long swells on the ocean side. Early mornings we could go out and pick a huge bowl of the most luscious blueberries for our breakfasts. And the fresh fish were always a gourmet treat. I always brought back a bouquet of bayberries. I had an old black and white Aztec bowl in which they looked so wonderfully well. They are so frightfully delicate, it was a job to get them home, but I always loaded Raymond down with the luggage and I carried the berries. I always wanted to make a bayberry candle but never got around to doing it. We always burned one on New Year’s Eve — in fact — still do.

I could go on and on until I’d bore you to tears. Maybe you already are, eh?

Again, a million thanks for your kindness fro lit’l ole quainty, dainty, sweetsmelling me.

I interacted with Vera Jean Cassel at two different times in my life. First was before I was ten years old and lived in Salt Lake City. Second was December 1954 when I was 22 and and I traveled to Salt Lake City with my brother Stuart to represent the California branch of the family at my Grandmother’s funeral. Below are my memories of those interactions, but first let’s clear up a few things that might give the wrong impression in the above letters.

Vera Jean was not a posthumous baby, she was born 5 Nov 1902 and her father, Brigham Young, Jr., died 11 Apr 1903 at age 66.

Brigham Young, Jr. supported six wives and 31 children. Polygamy was illegal and he had indictments against him. He lived “underground” either at the homes of his “stashed” wives or in Europe until the indictments against him were dismissed in 1893. By 1900 he had moved my grandmother Abigail into a home on 6th Avenue in Salt Lake City which he bought for her and in which she died in December 1954. She lived a simple life and from all I could tell, she never wanted for anything.

Very Jean married Ray Wesley Cassel, a traveling musician, and eventually divorced him. I don’t know the details, but I believe it was on friendly terms and they remained friends. She lived in the house on 6th Avenue and took care of her mother until Abigail died.

Now to my memories.

My memories are tied to the house on 6th Avenue and are a mixture of both my grandmother, Abigail Stevens Young, and my aunt, Vera Jean Young Cassel, so the following narrative is a mix of memories of both.

I used to visit my grandmother before I left Salt Lake City when I was about 9 years old.

My first memory of my grandmother is of digging dandelions for her. She would pay me ten cents for grocery bag full of dandelions including the full root. Since my allowance was five cents a week for watering the lawn and pulling weeds, including dandelions, this was a huge financial bonanza at the time. She use to dry venison in a rack over a steam heater in her upstairs front room kitchen, and I always got a piece of venison jerky when I vistited her. She would make dandelion tea and other herbal medicines from the dandilions.

The back room of the upstairs was where she spent most of her time. Her favorite pastime with visitors was to play Chinese checkers with them. Both my cousin Gordon Knight and I would play with her when we visited. I was not very good at it and she preferred playing with Gordon who was more of a challenge.

At the head of the stairs was her quilting room, which consisted of a large frame for quilting surrounded by chairs. Her church friends would gather once a week for a quilting bee and all of her children had quilts she made for them.

She pretty much lived on the second floor and her youngest child who took care of her, Vera Jean Young Cassel, lived on the first floor. I only saw her come down the stairs once in all the time I knew her.

Vera Jean lived on the first floor. She collected both books and antiques, including antique nick knacks. The front room contained a huge book case on one wall that contained the books and the antiques were scattered through out the house. The front room also contained a piano, which she played. The back of the house looked over her beautiful garden and I remember spending many a summer afternoon watching a thunderstorm move over Salt Lake, dumping its rain on the garden, and then clearing for the sun.

Vera Jean in her teens thought she was rather dumpy looking and would not be attractive to the boys so she determined to become an excellent dancer, which she did, and was quite popular as a dancing partner. She had mulitple talents and dancing was one of them. I remember when she went to Hawaii she mastered the Hula and gave a demonstration to the family on her return when I was about 8 years old. She had an authentic grass skirt and other accessories which she donned and danced for the family, explaining the meaning of all the movements including the hand movements. As an eight year old I had never seen anything the likes of it and was impressed.

My second interaction with Vera Jean Castle was when I returned from my tour of duty in Korea and we got word of the death of my Grandmother, Abigail Stevens Young. My brother Stuart and myself represented family members from California and acted as two of grandmother pall bearers, me in my uniform since I had no other clothes. The open casket lay in the front room of he house on 6th Avenue, and hundreds came by to pay respects.

Compendium Carried by Brigham Young, Jr. on His Missions

Compendium Carried by Brigham Young, Jr. on His Missions

After the funeral, Vera Jean gave me A Compendium of the Gospel by Franklin D. Richards (1884) that Brigham Young, Jr. carried on his missions along with a calling card of his father Brigham Young.

According to my niece, Patricia Parker Weise, who knew Vera Jean Cassel quite well, she rarely parted with her books or antiques, so she must of thought highly of me to make this present. The feeling was mutual, I thought very highly of her.

Another conversation over coffee and biscotti.

Sources
{1] Letter to Bernice Peck, Beauty Editor, Mademoiselle Magazine from Kallie Foutz Parker, August 18 1971.
[2] Letter to Bernice Peck, Beauty Editor, Mademoiselle Magazine from Vera Jean Cassel, September 10, 1971