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FRONTLINE: Retrospect on Henry Drinker of Merion

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The Sound of Drinker
Where would Julie Andrews be now if Henry Drinker hadn’t loved to sing?

Americans today are less likely to be joiners than Americans of 50 years ago. Rather than join bowling leagues, for instance, we are “bowling alone”—as well as volunteering less, voting less and socializing less with our fellow citizens.

As an example of what’s lost when interaction declines, consider Henry S. Drinker Jr. of Merion. By day, Drinker was a heavyweight Philadelphia lawyer who argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. But his evenings were devoted to music. Drinker’s weekly singing parties attracted crowds to his home for dinner and Bach cantatas. These gatherings also helped give the world the singing Von Trapp family, whose Sound of Music story was told in a 1965 film and is still seen onstage by 600,000 people annually.

When the Von Trapps arrived at Ellis Island with $4 in 1939, Drinker helped the family through immigration red tape and lent them a house across Merion Road from his own. Baron Georg Von Trapp, Maria, his “singing nun” second wife, and their 10 children lived in Merion until the mid-1940s.

“The entire success of their eventual singing achievements was based upon the solid foundation of their Philadelphia years,” wrote Victoria Donohue, a local historian.

Born in Philadelphia, Drinker was the eldest son of a renaissance man who was a mining engineer, a lawyer and, beginning in 1905, president of Lehigh University. The Lehigh job required Henry Sr. to move his family to Bethlehem. But when he retired, they promptly returned home to Merion.

The Drinkers were what the 19th century called an “interesting” family. Henry Jr.’s sister, Catherine Drinker Bowen, wrote biographies of Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Adams, plus Miracle at Philadelphia, the inside story of the Constitutional Convention. His brothers, Cecil and Philip, were professors at Harvard Medical School. A maternal aunt, Cecilia Beaux, painted Edith (Mrs. Teddy) Roosevelt’s White House portrait and, as an artist, was considered the equal of John Singer Sargent. A daughter, Ernesta Drinker Ballard, was a founding member of the National Organization for Women and a horticulturist who helped make the Philadelphia Flower Show an international event.

All Drinker children took music lessons. But only Henry, who played piano, and Catherine, violin, became passionate about it. A family story has Henry practicing in summer beside an open window as his friends hit baseballs outside until—in “misery,” wrote Bowen—he put his hands over his face and cried, “Oh, Ma! I wish I didn’t love music so much!”

Beaux painted 9-year-old Henry at the piano, legs dangling. Music led the siblings to attend church twice on Sundays. In Bethlehem, after sitting through a Presbyterian service—with its “awful, sentimental” music—the two rushed up the hill to hear the choir sing the Episcopal offertory. “This was expensive; it meant two collections in one day,” wrote Bowen.

Man of Words
Drinker doesn’t seem to have entertained any silly ideas about a music career. He graduated from Haverford College and studied law at Harvard and Penn before joining the Philadelphia firm of Dickson, McCouch & Glasgow in 1904. Founded in 1849, the firm still exists as Drinker, Biddle & Reath—renamed, in part, for the man who would be a dominant force there for 50 years.

Drinker built his reputation representing management in labor disputes, which he usually won. However, he lost his most famous case, United Mine Workers v. Coronado Coal Co., in which he’d argued that a labor union should be treated as an illegal trust. Drinker also vehemently disapproved of the New Deal, “the blight of the Sherman [Anti-Trust] Act and the unnecessary and irrational attacks on great enterprise in the United States.”

Bowen recalled that he was “ashen” on Election Day 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected. In the McCarthy era, though, Drinker threw his firm into the defense of men and women suspected of Communist leanings. Drinker lawyers working pro bono won several victories, including United States v. Deutch, in which the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Penn graduate student who refused to name his political associates.

But even as Drinker worked 80-hour weeks, he found another 20 hours for music. He had built his Merion house around a room large enough for two grand pianos, a Hammond organ and 150 people. He rose daily at 7 a.m. to give his children music lessons before taking the train into town; in the evening, he began pounding the piano almost as soon as he walked in the door.

But the truth was that—passion aside—Drinker lacked the talent to play Brahms or Schumann piano quintets as he knew they should be played. A guest suggested choral singing as an alternative. As an experiment, Drinker invited 20 or so musical friends to dinner without their instruments. The events eventually grew to 150 people, who gathered for a few hours every Sunday.

Drinker realized that many classics had never been properly translated. In Bach’s cantatas, available translations clumsily replaced multi-syllable German words with single-syllable English equivalents, causing singers to lose the flow. So, with a German scholar at his elbow, Drinker re-arranged the text so every English syllable was printed with the corresponding note. For this work, he later received an honorary doctorate from Penn.

Singing for their Lives
Drinker met the Von Trapps when the Austrian refugees came through Phila-delphia on their first U.S. tour. They had fled Austria in the fall of 1938 after Germany annexed the country. Despite what’s shown in the movie, they didn’t hike out over the mountains. Instead, they left by train on what was to be a permanent tour based in Norway. Drinker heard of their talent and invited them to dine and to sing.

The Von Trapps had only a three-month visa, but were impressed by the vast U.S. market. Back in Scandinavia, they applied for a visa extension. Thinking it granted, they returned in October 1939. But they were stopped at Ellis Island by officials who charged “that we are not temporary visitors but that we want to veil our real intention to hide somewhere in the country, never to go back,” Baron Von Trapp wrote to Drinker.

Drinker got the Von Trapps a six-month visa extension. When it expired, the Germans were in Norway, making return impossible. Drinker also lent them his late parents’ house at 252 Merion Road in which to get established. Later, when their bus broke down on a West Coast tour, he used a connection at the Budd Co., a client, to procure a replacement.

“Instead of paying me in cash, pay me in music,” Drinker told the family. “And so it happened,” Maria Von Trapp continued. “A most perfect exchange of goods. Each one gave what he had; and we sang for him and with him the master works of the 16th and 17th centuries which he hadn’t discovered yet, and both parties were truly happy.”

At school, the Von Trapp kids were teased for their lederhosen (breeches) and dirndls (dresses) but, for a while, those were the only clothes they owned. And the Main Line was not conducive to the long hikes the Von Trapps loved. “Every other car stopped and asked whether we didn’t want a lift,” wrote Maria. “When we wanted to sit down somewhere for a picnic, a sign on a tree invariably said, ‘Private—Keep Out—No Trespassing.’”

The hardest lesson may have come when the family was dropped by its manager. They weren’t booking enough concerts. Their music, the Von Trapps were told, was too long, and American audiences preferred songs in English. And Maria and the girls—with their long skirts, braids and serious expressions—lacked sex appeal. “Can’t you get decent store clothes,” asked one agent, “so one can see your legs in nylon stockings?”

In the end, an agent did agree to represent them—if the Von Trapps paid $5,000 for publicity and advertising, which Drinker helped them with. The Von Trapps tweaked their act a bit and changed their name. The Trapp Family Choir (“too church-y,” said the agent) became the Trapp Family Singers. Maria wrote a book, The Sound of Music, for publicity. By 1942, they were doing well enough to get a mortgage on a farm in rural, Austria-like Stowe, Vt., and return Drinker’s house keys.

You know the rest. Now go join something, would you?

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at mark.dixon@att.net.

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