I have an ugly Fannie


Fannie Potter abt 1884

It’s nice to know we’ve come a long way in my mother’s family and we have developed into caring, loving people. Our ancestor, Fannie Potter Willett, had none of those qualities, unfortunately. 


By all accounts, Fannie was a spoiled, self centered woman with a keen sense of entitlement. Her looks matched her soul, apparently. 

Homely. Man-ish, Mean looking. Hideous. Selfish. Down right Ugly. Those are just a few of the words my family has used in describing dear great-grandmother Fannie. 

In a previous blog I told you I liked to explore Buba’s house in Swampscott when we would go up and visit. And how nearly everything in that house seemed mysterious and frequently scary to me. 

Fannie Potter Willett abt 1887

Buba’s basement was number one scary place in the whole whole house. It was partially finished but smelled like wet dog and old wood. Buba had her washer and dryer down there and a finished room that was weirdly bright and sunny for a basement. It was completely furnished. I keep meaning to ask my mother more specifically about it, but I believe it was used as a more informal family room. I do remember seeing photos of my mother’s wedding presents all displayed out beautifully in that room. 


Also in that room were photos on the wood paneled walls. Of really old people. Scary looking people with big eyes. Large portraits and photographs in beautiful ornate frames. I remember them so well because they all looked so serious and stern. Fannie was the one who stuck in my head the most. In one, she had a white, frilly dress and an enormous bow in her hair. I could see parts of my grandfather and mother in her looks…but she had a cold, mean stare that definitely set her apart from anyone in my family that I knew. 

Fannie and her wedding dress

My cousins, Leigh and Beth, have these portraits that hung in Buba’s basement and I was delighted to see one of them hanging in Leigh’s bathroom in her Vermont home of our Great-grandfather, John Howard Willett.  John was Fannie’s husband.  It just cracked me up to see him hanging there in the bathroom. Leigh has a great sense of humor. 


We’ve inherited other photos of Fannie that are similar to the ones hanging in the living room that I’m sharing with you here. They give you a sense of her. As a child I was scared of her because the portraits were so enormous in that room that they were intimidating. Her eyes seemed to follow you around the room. But I wonder about her life and why she was the way she was. 

This is what I know.

My Aunt Jean remembered her and said the family really didn’t see Fannie and her husband John much growing up. Maybe certain holidays. They lived in Boston for a long while, but then moved to New York City for the last years of their life. She and my mother and their parents were closer to Mark and Luta Shrum, who were kind and loving people. 

The Willett family on a picnic about 1905

Frances Estelle Potter (she would tell people her name was not Frances, but really Fannie. But her official birth records show differently.) was born to the prominent Potter family of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Her father was in the shoe business. She and her two sisters were raised in the best manner with no worries about money. She and John Howard Willett would marry in 1887 . One year later she would give birth to a stillborn son. He was never given a name. My grandfather, Harold Potter Willett,  was born in 1894. One year later, John Howard Willett, Jr.  as was born. He was called Jack. 


Fannie Willett in 1939 in NYC

Fannie was not a tiny, delicate woman. She was a large, brash woman who liked nice things. In a photo from 1905 you see the family out at a picnic–dressed up like it was Sunday church. 


Fannie was also not the maternal kind. She relied on their servant, Carrie, to take care of the children almost exclusively. My grandfather would say she was not an affectionate or loving mother. On Thursdays, Carrie’s night off, she insisted on going out to eat so that she did not have to cook. She couldn’t cook anyhow. On those nights the children were left to fend for themselves. They were not included in the dinner plans. Carrie, the housekeeper, took it upon herself to teach the boys some basic cooking skills so that on Thursdays they could make supper for themselves and their younger sister. 

I wonder how Fannie reacted in 1916 when John Howard telegrammed Harold who was a college sophomore at Indiana University and told Harold there was no more money left. John Howard’s partner had embezzled all the money from their company. John later got a job selling shoes. Most likely with Fannie’s father’s influence. He got a job in New Rochelle. Fannie must have experienced a real change in her lifestyle. 

Fannie had three children, all who were very different as most children tend to be. Jack was reportedly a laid back man who worked with his father and went along his life with little fanfare. He did not go to college, as was expected of him. He married a woman named Mildred who was vivacious and outgoing. They stayed married for their life, but it was not a very happy marriage. She was frustrated with his mild manner. Although he and Harold were close in age and did things together when they were growing up, as adults they were not particularly close. They were cordial. 

Fannie’s daughter, Jeanette, had a good life in NYC and a boyfriend. The family says that Fannie ruined Jeanette’s young life by being demanding and guilting her into coming home and taking care of her. Fannie played sick and liked being waited on and Jeanette was the one to do it. Jeanette developed a “nervous condition” and then a pituitary gland tumor which my great grandfather, Mark Shrum, diagnosed. She died unmarried in 1945. My mother remembers her as being a very nice woman and thought it was sad that she died at only 44. 

There are many photos of Fannie. She loved having her photo taken. My cousin Leigh is the keeper of those photos and has shared them with me. I’d like to think there is a reason she was the way she was. We may never know for sure. 

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