Miss Cook at Play

Every community has a Cast of Characters from generations past, whose memory lingers outside the confines of the officially sanctioned local history.  These are the ones whose time on the planet was remarkable not for accomplishments or newsworthy notoriety, but simply because they were so extraordinary, so different from the others of their time.  They survive in memory long after they’re gone because people just couldn’t forget them: they stood out.

The word we use is “eccentric,” a euphemism that implies not only someone’s variable oddity, but also imputes a gently humorous reputation and a forbearing community affection.

I guess that’s why Josephine Cook—though often labeled eccentric—is seldom spoken of today because back then there weren’t a lot of people in town who liked her much.  And she was quick to let anyone know that she didn’t give a damn what they thought of her.

Her Role

She made a life of defying convention.  In ordinary circumstances this would have marginalized her as a malcontent or a common oddball, but there was nothing common about Jo Cook.  She was spoiled young, inherited a fortune in mid life, and did everything she could her entire life to be the center of attention.

Here’s an example: every year she sponsored the Ballet, and paid to bring a troupe from Butler College to dance with the Mansfield Symphony.  Each fall in the 1960s and 70s, there she was in the front row, and the Conductor made her stand up in the spotlight to do a little-girl curtsy with a smirk on her face while everyone applauded politely.  Later that night after the show she threw a huge party for the boys from the ballet, the men from the Symphony, and men from local society.  None of the wives were invited.  She wanted to be the only woman at the party…it guaranteed she was the center of attention.

It did not improve the way women in town thought of her.

Miss Cook had a room of her Woodland Road home made over into a paneled speakeasy with an impresssive oak bar, seating for more than a dozen, and a studio grand piano.

She had this portrait made into postcards.

The Play

Most people gain perspective in life through the struggles they face while finding their place in the world.  Josephine Cook was born at the top of the totem pole, and the view was very different up there.  Her father left her a lot of money and she never knew a day when she couldn’t have anything she wanted.  At his funeral she waited until the benediction was pronounced and then danced around the room singing Happy Days are Here Again.

She came from pioneer stock and a long line of historical characters, and her impeccable pedigree insured that the Mansfield elite respected her.  Miss Cook was raised in proper society and she knew perfectly well how to behave like a young lady.  She just didn’t want to.

She was at Warren Harding’s house in 1920 when he was running for President, and during one of his front porch speeches she climbed up on the porch railing just to make sure the newsreel cameras distinguished her from the crowd.

Josephine Cook (1903-1979) was wild and abandoned, full of grace and courage and pride.

This photograph, taken in Marion, Ohio in 1920 during the Presidential campaign of Warren Harding, captures perfectly her confidence and spirit.

Seated next to her is her father, James M. Cook, whose business wit in banking and insurance built the fortune upon which she thrived.

She had the faith and innocence of a child and she was a little girl her whole life.

A doctor told her once that she would be fifty years old before she realized that she had grown up. She told me this, and said that on her fiftieth birthday she looked in the mirror and remembered what he had said all those years ago.
“And what do you know,” she said, “the old guy was right.”

Here she is swimming in the pool at Kingwood around 1928.

Josephine Cook was sent East to be educated at Emerson and chose to study whistling. She told me once that whistling was a lost art and I thought she was joking, but long after she was gone I found her college textbooks in the attic, books filled with chirps and trills
She actually became a well known whistler. During the war she traveled the USO circuit. In later years she performed bird calls for garden clubs.

Her debut in Mansfield was at the Ohio Theater in 1928 where she performed between reels. When the spotlight hit her, and Daddy and all his cronies gave her such an rousing ovation, she was fated forever to be the center of attention.

Her whole life, Miss Cook wore her hair in the style she adopted as a child, with bobbed bangs. After she was gone, we found this paper cutout doll pressed into a volume of family lore, as not only a memento, but an iconic template for her appearance as well.

The Plot

There was a childlike frankness about her that was alternately refreshing and horrifying depending on what sort of assumptions you cherished.  Her whole life she cut her hair in a little girl’s bobbed bangs, and painted a little round red dot on each cheek like a paper doll.  That was, in fact, her pet name: Paper Doll.  It didn’t derive from any childhood plaything, however, that was simply the way it sounds when you get some very drunken person to say Baby Doll. That very drunken person was her companion, Putty.

Jo met her somewhere down South where they talk with a lilt, and brought her back on the train with the rest of her souvenirs.  For three decades they were inseparable, and they tried—for the most part—to behave, but they loved to laugh and Jo’s laugh was more like a bray and not very ladylike. When Putty died Jo put her on the train and sent her back down South.

The stories of Jo and Putty are sketchy at best because no one around here wanted to talk about it.  Suffice it to say that her union brought forth no issue and Miss Cook was free to abandon herself with no thought for tomorrow.  And that, like the rare blooms which come when a plant is pruned away from its seed, she had the freedom to be colorful.  And that the long line of historical characters who grew her family tree all came at last to rest on the old lady’s couch. 

Curtain Call

Josephine Cook bowed out of this life very quietly, but the Fates understood that after a lifetime of being center stage it couldn’t all end without some drama.  And comedy.

She had a nurse who looked after her in the last days, a man named Gene, who could see very plainly that the end was near because for the first time in her life Jo refused a drink.   The more her life ebbed away the more nervous he got, so he went downtown to a bar to find some courage, and when he returned to her house that night he didn’t want to face the Great Mystery alone so he brought Lloyd with him.

When they came through the door it was so quiet Gene couldn’t bear to look so Lloyd walked to the couch, and when he saw she wasn’t breathing he threw his hands in the air and screamed She’s Dead! She’s Dead!

Keening loudly he staggered back a step, and when his legs encountered a coffee table it made him sit suddenly down.  The coffee table was a delicate piece of furniture made of glass and pretty wood, so naturally it splintered beneath him, and as Lloyd scrambled to stay afloat he reached and grabbed the only thing nearby—a wall-length curtain whose rods snapped from the window to let cascade down volumes of satin taking out an end table lamp and a floor lamp at the same time as it billowed atop the wreckage.

When the police arrived a half hour later the living room looked like the scene of a terrible crime.  Wherever she was at that moment, Josephine Cook was having the laugh of a lifetime.

The Credits

Miss Cook was a major benefactor of the Angell Refuge animal shelter, and the Pine Valley Zoo.  To this day the estate of Josephine Cook supports the Mansfield Symphony and the Mansfield Playhouse.

Postscript: An Artifact

Christmas flowers 1940.  

After Miss Cook graduated from Mansfield Senior in 1922, she went to college in the east and started running with a crowd that included Anne Roosevelt. The girls took a train trip around the country one Christmas vacation, and when Jo’s mother died in 1930 one of the floral arrangements came from Eleanor Roosevelt.

Thereafter, Mrs. Roosevelt was a mother figure for Jo, as she was for millions of Americans. Unlike most Americans, however, Miss Cook got flowers from the White House every Christmas for three and a quarter terms.

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