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Joan Tozzer, Pre-War Ladies and Pairs Champion

by Alexandra Stevenson


A gallery of photos of from the Tozzer family, including from her skating days, can be found here.

The first in an Occasional Series on Skating Champions of the Past

It was a very different world in 1921 when two talented females were born on opposite coasts of the United States and into far different financial strata. Both made a considerable impact as athletes, even though their Olympic hopes were thwarted by war.

Joan Tozzer, who liked her first name pronounced with two syllables (Jo-Ann), was born into a privileged society in a well-to-do section of Boston, MA, on September 19, that year. Her father, Alfred Tozzer, was a renowned Harvard anthropologist, archaeologist, explorer and linguist, specializing in the Maya. Her mother, Margaret Castle, was a child of one of the early missionary families who settled in Honolulu.

Tozzer discovered her talent early. Although no one in her family had pursued the sport of figure skating, her father hosed down a part of their garden one winter and set up a temporary ice rink for fun. The three-year-old took to the ice like the proverbial duck to water.

It was soon obvious this was what the child enjoyed doing and she was signed up for lessons at the very prestigious and exclusive The Skating Club of Boston, which some sources call the third oldest in USFSA.  Based on dates of incorporation, however, it is actually the fourth oldest, behind the New Haven Skating Club, both of which were incorporated in 1912 -- with The Skating Club of Boston beginning informal operations at the then Boston Arena in 1911.  [Dates courtesy of Ben Wright]

Tozzer would dominate the U.S. Nationals Championship for three years, 1938-40, winning both the singles division and, with partner, M Bernard Fox (M for Matthew which he did not use), the pairs. She retired at the advanced age of 18.

Esther Williams had surfaced six weeks earlier than Tozzer in Los Angeles, the fifth and last child of a sign painter. She was discarded by her mother and initially brought up by her oldest brother, Stanton, a child actor not much older than her, who died at 16 of a twisted intestine.

When she decided she wanted to swim, at 8, she one said in an interview, “I took a job at the pool in order to earn the five cents a day it cost to swim. I collected and counted wet towels, and spent my lunch break in the water.” The immense fame Williams would earn acting in a string of swimsuits appeared never to really compensate for the disappointments of her early life.

Tozzer and Williams grew up when there was no Social Security and were aware of the ravages which came about when the Depression started in the United States in 1929.

NAÏVE HOPE

The population’s massive joy and relief at the end of World War 1, which concluded in 1918, produced an era full of hope for the future. Charlie Chaplin’s first silent full length movie, The Kid, was released in 1921 and became a huge success.

Henry Ford’s Model T took 60% of the new car sales. The shocking Charleston dance was devised and took the country by storm. The decade gained the moniker, “Roaring Twenties”, with “Flapper Girls” flouncing around with shockingly short hair AND short skirts.

American women had gained an enormous victory with the right to vote in 1920.  Airplanes were beginning to be seen occasionally, but jets, which would double the speed of flight, would not emerge into passenger service till the late 1940s.

NO OLYMPICS

Both Tozzer and Williams had terrific talent and succeeded in their sports, but their Olympic dreams evaporated with World War II. Williams earned three gold medals swimming in the Amateur Athletic Championships of 1939.  She was aiming for the Summer Games in Tokyo, planned to be held September 21-October 6 of 1940.

Tozzer was vivacious, talented and so popular, that, in April 1939, she was chosen as Team Captain for the U.S. Figure Skating team for the 1940 fifth Winter Olympic Games, which was initially scheduled for Sapporo, Japan in February 3-12, 1940.  

Throughout her long career, strutting around in brief outfits, in movies which were hugely popular flippant entertainment, Williams would claim, “I regarded my career on the celluloid screen as a consolation prize for not going to the Olympics.”

Tozzer’s children reported that she never spoke of her disappointment at not having the wonderful Olympic experience. One daughter said, “She never assumed she would have medaled. If pressed, she would say there were a lot of very talented skaters, so who knows what would have happened?”

WAR

In July 1938, Japan gave the fifth Winter Olympic Games back to the International Olympic Committee because of their involvement in the 2nd Sino-Japan war. The IOC reassigned the event to St. Moritz in Switzerland, but they, too, returned it.  In a very unrealistic move, they rescheduled the event to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, before abandoning all hope of holding the events. The 1940 Summer Games, scheduled for Toyko, was also returned to the IOC.

The final straw came when Adolf Hitler led Germany to invade Poland, on September 1, 1939, sparking the terrible darkness of six years of World War II.  That included Canada. The United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. 

TIME MAGAZINE CALLS TOZZER, “BLONDE, NAÏVE AND NONCHANLANT”

Like Williams, Tozzer could have turned her success on the ice into a successful movie career. She was attractive and skilled, and producers of the time were looking for possible skating stars because of Sonja Henie’s huge success. Henie, the three time Olympic and ten time world champion, had made an enormous impact with her movies.

By the time Tozzer had won three straight U.S. Ladies and Pairs championships (1938-40), six of Henie’s 12 movies had been released. Other studios wanted to compete with the success of Twentieth Century Fox, with a home grown star. But Tozzer, who completed her competitive career in 1940, had marriage not fame in mind when she gave up the sport.

In this heady atmosphere, the entertainment industry responded by expanding the dates of existing ice shows, and creating many new outlets including installing ice “stages” in night clubs.

Interest in the sport also flourished and the 16-year-old Tozzer was given a lot of publicity when she unexpectedly, in March 1938, in Ardmore, Pa., pulled off quite an upset. Not only did Tozzer & Fox win the Senior pair title, but she beat the two favorites for the Senior Ladies crown, which had been claimed for nine of the previous ten years by Maribel Vinson, who had placed fifth in the 1936 Winter Olympics.

Vinson had also earned the pairs title, four times with George Hill (1933, 1935-37) and twice with Thornton Coolidge (1928 & 1929). Vinson would explain in her book, Advanced Figure Skating, she had decided to turn professional in 1937, “to star in my own touring show”. She would be performing with her to-be husband, Guy Owen. She subsequently began coaching, first in St. Paul, then in Berkeley, CA, and then in Boston.

 She was in the 1961 plane crash, which killed the U.S. team on route to the 1961 World Championships in which her two daughters were to compete, Lawrence Owen as the U.S. Ladies champion, and Maribel Owen & Dudley Richards as the U.S. Pairs champions.

In addition to her skating achievements, Vinson wrote books on the sport and covered events for the New York Times, their first female sports writer.

Polly Blodgett, who had been second to Vinson in the veteran’s last Senior championship (1937), was expected to step up to take the 1938 vacant title, although strong opposition was anticipated to come from Audrey Peppe, a New Yorker who had competed in the 1936 Olympic Games, placing 12th. But Plodgett finished third.

Peppe, a New Yorker, also competed in both the 1936 & 1937 World Championships, finishing 13th & 12th, and was 11th in the 1937 European championships.   Because of the difficulty getting to Europe, and the amount of time needed to travel from the United States, few Americans were able to compete in the international and U.S. Championships on both continents the same year.

Time magazine wrote about the 1938 U.S. championships, where Tozzer established a lead by 521.6 points to Peppe’s 517.5:

On the navy-blue ice of the Philadelphia Skating Club’s elegant new rink in Ardmore, Pa., the five ladies, all under 21, traced their school figures with such hairline accuracy that the five solemn judges almost required the services of a Philadelphia lawyer to decide which performance was best.

The Time report continued:

School figures count two-thirds in the championship. With the terror and tension of school figures behind them, the five little pretenders were more relaxed the next night when they competed in the free-skating competition, a spirited four-minute exhibition of varied steps skated to music. Free skating is Audrey Peppe's forte. To the tune of the Hungarian Rhapsody, she delighted the crowd with flaring spins, jumps and dance steps. But Joan Tozzer so impressed the judges with the simplicity and smoothness of her free-skating repertory that they gave her performance almost as many points as Miss Peppe's. When the two-day totals were tallied, Joan Tozzer was awarded the crown by the slim margin of one-tenth of a point.

The new U.S. champion is blonde, naïve and nonchalant. Unlike petite Audrey Peppe, who at 6 learned the rudiments of figure skating under the tutelage of her famed aunt, Beatrix Loughran, who held this title 1925-26-27, and won Olympic silver in 1924 and bronze in 1928, Tozzer is the only figure skater in her family. She learned her figures from Boston's Willie Frick, tutor of Maribel Vinson. Once a year, on Christmas Day, Joan Tozzer goes skating at the Boston Arena with her father, who cannot so much as cut a three turn.

Time magazine revealed that Peppe had also travelled to Europe the previous summer, to train with the man who had coached Sonja Henie to her three Olympic golds, Howard Nicholson. Nicholson was an American, who went to Europe in the 1920s. He returned to the United States after World War 11 to teach in Lake Placid.

Not mentioned in the report was the fact that Tozzer also won the Senior Pairs title.

The following year, Tozzer defended both her titles successfully, and Peppe again took silver. Peppe, who was born in 1917, turned professional soon after that 1939 championship to join an ice show and subsequently had a career teaching in Sun Valley and in New York City. She died in 1992. Those 1939 National Championships were held in Minneapolis, only the second time they had been held outside of the Eastern states.

Tozzer also retained both titles in 1940, before retiring. Her only international was the 1939 North American Championships, which were held every two years 1923-1971, alternating between the U.S. and Canada.

The judging panel in those days had to comprise an uneven number. Whichever country hosted the event got the advantage of having the extra judge. Since the majority always prevailed, sometimes suspicion arose concerning the home country advantage.

In 1939 in Toronto, Tozzer and Fox won the North American Pairs event but Tozzer placed second to Canada’s Mary Rose Thatcher. The 1973-76 President of the USFSA, Bostonian Ben Wright, termed the Canadian’s win “unexpected” in his huge, unmatched opus, “Skating in America”, which the USFSA published to celebrate its 75th Anniversary (1921-1996)

BACKGROUND

The depth of Wright’s research of this era is unmatched. Photographs were not then as available as they are now, but Wright included many shots which are fascinating not only because they are so rare, but also because they are so delightfully old-fashioned.

Wright fully details how the U.S. started a “National Amateur Skating Association” in 1886, which shut down in 1905, and other facts up to the year of the anniversary, 1996, which simply are not available elsewhere.

A “new” version of the USFSA was created in 1921 with seven clubs recognized for membership.

Theresa Weld Blanchard had won the first U.S. “Ladies” skating championship in the “international style”, which took place in 1914, in New Haven, Conn. But World War 1 closed down competition.

When the championships were held again, in 1918, Blanchard came second to Rosemary Beresford. The event was not held the following year but would become an annual event in 1920, when Blanchard would win five consecutive titles.

In 1923, the USFSA applied to become a member of the International Skating Union. One of the existing conditions was that an applicant organization have jurisdiction in their own country over both speed and figure skating. However, the USFSA was able to get accepted and that requirement was eventually changed.

Blanchard would later contribute much to the development of the sport through her editorship of “Skating Magazine”, 1923-63. 1920 also witnessed the start of an annual championship for Men, and for Pairs.

TALENT SHINES     

In 1932, figure skating in the U.S. received a big surge of publicity when the Winter Olympic Games were staged in Lake Placid February 4-13. Most of the skaters stayed in North America, travelling to Montreal to take part in that year’s World championships taking place the following week, February 17-20. That was the first time “Worlds” had been held in Canada. (The first World Figure Skating Championships in the U.S. took place in Madison Square Garden, in New York in 1930.)

That year, 1932, the USFSA created the U.S. Novice Ladies and Novice Mens championships. (The Novice Pairs event was not created until 1991.) Tozzer claimed that Novice title in 1934, succeeding Blodgett, another SC of Boston member, who was two years older and would become a life-long friend.

Blodgett remembers they had great fun putting together a Mickey Mouse exhibition. “She was Minnie and I was Mickey because I was bigger than her. We got rave reviews!”

Blodgett won the 1934 U.S. Junior Pairs title with Roger Turner, who won his seventh straight Senior Mens title that year. The following year, Turner, who was 34, was dethroned by a 15-year-old Midwesterner, Robin Lee, who would earn the Senior title five times 1935-1939. (Blodgett & Turner placed second in the 1936 U.S. Pairs championship behind Maribel Vinson & George Hill.)

Tozzer, as was the custom of that time, had also decided she wished to do both singles and pairs. With her partner, Bernard Fox, then attending Harvard University (class of ’38), they won the 1936 U.S. Junior championship, and Fox pulled a back-to-back achievement by taking the Junior Mens title the year after he claimed the Novice national gold in 1935.  

REACHING THE TOP 

Fox’s success was noted in the Harvard Crimson paper:

Skating on Saturday night, Fox made his debut before the college audience at the (Boston) Garden, when he went through jumps, spins, and several dance steps between the periods of the Yale game. Although he has only been figure skating for three years, Fox has skated all his life, being, as he puts it, “a reformed hockey captain from Rivers School.”

Miss Tozzer and Fox went to England last summer (1935) where they gave many pair and individual exhibitions in London. The trip ended abruptly when Miss Tozzer turned up with a broken leg and Fox with a wrenched knee. 

No further information was available on those injuries! The skaters obviously took them in stride. While they were in London, they were taught by Willie Frick, the name taken by Werner Groebli. “Frick”, and his partner, “Frack” (Hans Rudolph Mauch) grew up in Switzerland. They put together routines as ice comedians, and were signed up by an impresario who brought them to England and then later to the United States, where they became very famous entertainers.

But, when they first began in Basel, Groebli and Mauch’s parents did not fully approve of such goings-on, and insisted they skate under “stage names”.  In addition to their long career with ice shows, Frick & Frack appeared in two movies, Silver Skates (1943) and Lady, Let’s Dance (1944).

Frick was to teach Tozzer his unique move, a cantilever spread-eagle in which he bent backwards from the knees with his head almost touching the ice. Tozzer was the first woman ever to do that move.  

Wright would later characterize Tozzer as “a feisty person with a positive personality, one of the early glamorous women skaters.”

Blodgett was a disappointed third in the U.S. Senior Championship in 1938, having been second to Vinson the year before, and with Vinson now a professional, but she didn’t let it show. When asked if she hadn’t thought about staying in the sport longer, Blodgett once admitted that competing was, “a lot of work and I had to give up a lot of other things to be competitive. But the memories – the cities you visited, the people you met – stay with you all your life.

“I sometimes wondered if I stayed in the sport (perhaps coaching, perhaps judging), would I have been on that plane in 1961 that killed all the team going to the Worlds. Who knows?

“I enjoyed a lot of other sports. I did tennis. I rode horses. I swam and dived. At school I played field hockey. And I skied.” Blodgett, who would later get a degree of fame for her dress shop in Boston, started early designing and making her own skating outfits.

Blodgett married the late Robert Watson in 1942. He would become the dean of students and athletic director at Harvard University. Their best man was the President’s son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., who was her husband’s classmate at Harvard and shipmate in the Navy.

Blodgett named one of her five children after Tozzer. Both were made honorary members of the Boston Skating Club and attended the 100th Anniversary in 2012. Blodgett is the longest living member; Tozzer was the second oldest.

A SHORT CAREER

In those days, the U.S. Championships were held after the World Championships. Tozzer successfully defended both her singles and pairs title in 1939 and 1940, but never competed in the World Championship.

In 1939 the last World Championship was held until 1947 two years after World War 11 was over. The mens and pairs events were held in Budapest, February 17-19 while the Ladies championship was held in Prague, February 11-12. February. The only American competitor taking part in any of the three divisions was Hedy Stenuf, who gained the silver behind Megan Taylor of Britain.

At the 1938 Worlds, Stenuf had gained bronze, behind two Britons, Taylor and Cecilia Colledge. She also had been the only representative from North America. She had previously represented France in 1937 and prior to that, in 1935, Austria. She competed for Austria in the 1936 Olympic Games, placing sixth, very close behind Maribel Vinson, who finished fifth.

Stenuf migrated to the United States but, although she had represented the United States in international championships, she first competed in the U.S. Championships in 1940, which was staged in Cleveland. She won silver behind Tozzer who received the votes of three judges, while the other two officials voted for Stenuf.

Stenuf also competed in the 1940 U.S. Senior Pairs event, and won silver with her partner Lloyd “Skippy” Baxter. Stenuf died in Florida aged 88 on November 7, 2010. Baxter, who became famous as Sonja Henie’s partner in her touring shows, and then taught at Charlie Schultz’s rink in Santa Rosa in California. He died aged 93 on December 2012.

When Tozzer pulled off a major upset in her debut at Senior level, becoming the sixth person to win the U.S. Ladies Figure Skating championship, she was the first to claim Senior success the year after becoming Junior champion, a feat most recently matched by Mirai Nagasu, 2007 & 2008.

Tozzer won that U.S. Junior title in 1937 in Chicago, in the first U.S. National Figure Skating championships held away from the Atlantic coast.

FAME

Both Tozzer and Williams made a significant impact on the world, Williams with her swimsuit appearances, and Tozzer, not only by her skating achievements but by her life-long, behind the scenes charitable work. Among many of her unstinting efforts, she was a trustee of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, serving as co-chair of the development committee, and a member of the hospital's Heritage Society.

Tozzer was living in Honolulu when Pearl Habour was bombed, which brought the U.S. into the war. Her son, Philip Spalding, remembers being told later their home was so close to the action, he and his nanny had to take refuge under a bed! 

With the men being shipped off to the war, women like Tozzer, who would normally never have worked outside the home, found employment contributing to the war efforts.

Tozzer became part of a team staffing a secret project where, in an underground room, she spend her time shifting images of ships and aircraft on a huge map so the military could always have up to date visuals of where their resources lay.

In retrospect, it is definitely conceivable both Tozzer and Williams could have medaled in those cancelled 1940 Games.

LONG LIVES

Tozzer settled for domesticity. Although they did learn to skate, Tozzer never pushed her children into figure skating competition, in part because her first marriage took her back to mother’s roots in Honolulu, which was not a hot bed for the sport.  And, at one point, she badly injured her leg in a serious car accident, which limited her athletic activities.

They played a lot of sports, while she enjoyed cribbage and bridge.

Tozzer was to have three husbands, the first at 18. She produced seven children, one of whom died of influenza when she was seven. She had 14 grand-children and, at the time of her death, the same number of great-grand children.

Williams married four times, the first when she was 17. She had three children by her second husband. The swimsuit clad Williams became a world-wide, legendary film star.

Williams had an incredibly long career flirting for the camera with many of the most famous and physically attractive men in the film industry. But she refused to name her favorite co-star.

Instead, when the topic came up, she would unfailingly smile and say, “As I got more famous, I found I was competing for attention with the swimming pools! They got larger and larger and the producers crowded me with more elaborate and amazing special effects, and dozens of supporting swimmers!” It wasn’t all fun. Pushing her to do more and more spectacular tricks, she ended up breaking her ear drums on at least seven occasions with dangerous diving stunts. 

REST IN PEACE

Williams died, aged 91, on June 6 this year. Although she had a stroke in 2007, she was still swimming daily until shortly before her death.

Tozzer died of heart failure on April 15, 2012, aged 90, in the NewBridge-on- the-Charles senior community in Dedham. One of her children explained that Tozzer was very aware of her privileged situation, and received great satisfaction from the considerable time she spent on notable charitable works, which she saw achieve significant goals.

She set aside skating competition to marry Philip Spalding Jr. When that ended in divorce, she remarried in 1952, William Ames Lincoln, and moved back to Massachusetts, to Chestnut Hill. He died in 1969. Tozzer subsequently married Dr. Edwin Cave, an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, who died in 1976.

Tozzer served on the boards of many of the beneficiaries of her philanthropy. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she was a trustee emeritus and worked with its legacy society, which recognizes those who support the hospital through bequests or planned gifts. She also worked with Massachusetts General Hospital, the Museum of Science, Boston, and several private schools.

Her daughter, Anne Mock from New Hampshire, said, “What stands out most in my mother is her generosity, her interest and curiosity in everyone’s life, her ability in helping where you could. There are many examples where she bought cars for people who needed them to get around and educated children, other than her own. She believed in education and made sure that all her children and grandchildren received the best.

“She would use any connection she had to get someone’s needs met, whether this was connecting them to a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital or Massachusetts General Hospital or to a skating coach at The Skating Club of Boston, to an internship, or job. To quote a condolence letter, ‘She was always a brighter than the sun person, full of spunk and joy. She had a spirit that was all throttle, and she was infinitely kind.’ ’’

William Lincoln of Newburyport said his mother, “was wonderfully generous, funny, and irreverent. Her storytelling entertained and enthralled all, opening everyone to the fullness of her life. One of the biggest lessons she taught us was not to pity yourself. She had had some hardships, herself.’’

Many admired Tozzer’s outspokenness, especially on behalf of hospital patients or for a cause. “Joan could be incredibly patient, but would also speak her mind,’’ said Dr. Thomas Thornhill, a physician at Brigham and Women’s. “She would tell you what was on her mind and do it in a gracious way.’’

At Tozzer’s memorial service in Boston, Dr. Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic champion, noted, “When I was 11, I won the Joan Tozzer Award for being the child who most improved in skating that year! I remember her (at the SC of Boston Club’s 100th Anniversary) and she “was just as spunky as ever with her wonderful sense of humor, and loving every minute.”

Tozzer was inducted into the U.S. Hall of fame in 1997.

Paragraph four revised 15 August 2013 with dates provided by Ben Wright.