Friday, August 29, 2014

The Doubtful History of Mrs. Stoner

The mysterious Mrs. Stoner
I’ve written previously about Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., the early Esperantist whose skill at languages was held up by her mother (also Winifed Sackville Stoner) as proof of the older Stoner’s educational theories. The younger Stoner (hereafter “Cherie,” her nickname) was the subject of a profile piece in the San Francisco Call on August 29, 1910. The Stoners had taken part in the first American Esperanto congress in 1908, and Mrs. Stoner was the head of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Esperanto Association of North America, but they were not able to attend the 1910 Universala Kongreso in Washington, D.C.

The Stoners, alas, seem to have a casual relationship with truth. As I noted before, some of Mrs. Stoner’s claims of her daughter’s educational attainments are simply incredible. Indeed, some of their contemporaries also held her achievements in doubt. A 1915 letter to the New York Times asked “has it occurred to any one to test the child Winifred Stoner, for whom her mother makes such remarkable claims?“ But the remarkable claims were not only for the daughter.

Here’s what the Call says of Mrs. Stoner’s life:
The mother is a daughter of Lord Sackville-West, British ambassador to the United States during one of Cleveland’s administrations. Mrs. Stoner is president of the Women’s Esperanto association of North America and is an authority on the subject of the proposed international language. She has written a play in Esperanto and has contributed many articles on the subject to periodical literature.
So who was Mrs. Stoner? Damned if I know. The claim made in the Call undoubtably came from Mrs. Stoner herself. It would be really interesting if Mrs. Stoner had been the daughter of Lord Sackville-West, since that would have made her aunt to Vita Sackville-West, the British writer. Vita Sackville-West had thwarted her mother’s ambitions by marrying Harold Nicolson, instead of another cousin.[1]

Lionel Sackville-West had been dead for about two years when the article in the Call came out, and perhaps his actual descendants were busy with other matters (squabbling over the estate) to pay any attention to this ersatz relation. Though it’s not clear why anyone would want to claim descent from Lord Sackville; all of his children were illegitimate. None of his daughters were named Winifred. His youngest acknowledged child was born in 1869. The mother of most of his children died in 1871. None of this seems to add up for Winifred, who was born about 1882.

Her daughter (Cherie), does further the Sackville-West connection in 1955 for her sixth marriage.[2] She names her parents as James Buchanan Stoner and Winifred Sackville-West. Her mother had died in 1931, and wasn’t there to correct the record, although by that time, a connection to the second Baron Sackville might have become part of the family lore. But it was no more true than the age the younger Stoner listed on her marriage license. In 1955, she claimed to be 44 years of age, but that doesn’t square with her being 8 in 1910, or even alive (and there are the newspaper articles to verify her existence and age). She might not have wanted her husband-to-be to realize that she was three years older than he was (though after four marriages himself, he might have not cared)

Although Mrs. Stoner was probably not descended from nobility, her daughter did get to be briefly associated with a noble title. Among her many adventures, she did marry a supposed count. In the end, one thing was consistent: Winifred Stoner didn't attribute her daughter's accomplishments to Cherie's skills; they were a product of Winifred's understanding of how to teach children. She took her daughter's successes as her own, so a spurious connection with nobility isn't too surprising.

Update: Mrs. Stoner's family history has been found! The family relations she told the newspapers were not her own.

  1. The El Paso Herald showed some delight about this on October 19, 1913.  ↩
  2. See. The Stoners are perfect subjects for a book.  ↩

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