Frank Gumm, son of William Tucumseh and Clementine (Baugh) Gumm was born on March 20, 1886 in Rutherford County, Tennessee. His father, William Gumm, was the first of seven children born to the Gumm family. He married Frank’s mother, Clemmie, in 1877 but instead of taking her away to a home of their own, like most husbands do, he moved into the Baugh’s large and handsome house in Murfreesboro, on East Main Street. Built in the Federal style, with thick brick walls, a fourteen-foot- wide central hall, and ceilings twelve feet high, the Baugh house on Main Street had enough room for Clemmie and her new husband, as well as for the three boarders Mary Baugh was forced to take in after John Baugh died in 1870. During the years to come, it was also to be home to the five Gumm children. Invalid though she was, Clemmie gave birth once every three years. Mary, the only girl, came first in 1880; then Robert in 1883; Frank in 1886 (March 20, to be exact); William in 1889; and finally Allie in 1892. Although money was scarce, life on East Main Street seems to have been pleasant enough. The five children were apparently close, and one relative remembered a parlor that reverberated with song. Money was admired but not venerated, and the Gumms remained people of respectable standing even as their financial situation descended from bad to desperate. Two years after Mary Baugh's death in 1892, her big house was sold, and Will and Clemmie had to move their brood into a cramped brick cottage nearby, one of three or four dwellings Clemmie had been left by her mother.
Worse followed. Frank’s mother, Clemmie, died on October 29, 1895, when she was only thirty-eight years old. William Tucumseh Gumm, left with several small children to raise, suffered financial hardship. Then, three months later, fire partially destroyed the overcrowded brick cottage. With no home, no money and no prospects, Will asked the Rutherford County Chancery Court to give him permission to use most of his children's slim inheritance to buy another house, a larger and more comfortable one four blocks away on Maney's Avenue. It was only one of several trips Will made to the court, which officially pronounced him insolvent. His children's sole support was the tiny income that Clemmie's properties brought in. No mention is made of an illness or a handicap that would explain Will's inability to hold a job—he testified only that he could not find one—and it seems likely that he had been dependent on his wife's family from the day they were married. Whatever the reason for his recklessness, it caused hardship for his children. He did not have money to educate them beyond public school, and after using up most of their legacy to give them more space in the new house, he was forced to crowd them together again to make room for a paying boarder, a young doctor from Mississippi.
"For Frank, rescue came, as if by divine intervention, from the richest man in town, George M. Darrow. Darrow and his wife, Tempe lived in Murfreesboro’s finest house, Oak Manor (now called Oakland Mansion) a graceful Italianate villa in which they entertained with lavish seven-course dinners. Tempe, whose family owned plantations in Alabama and Mississippi, had always been rich; it was her money that had bought Oak Manor. Aunt Elisabeth Howse Ridley wrote in her books of the Darrows and all the fancy dinners that were held in Oakland Mansion and one instance when ice-cream had been made and shaped to look like watermelon.
Very much like Frank, George Darrow had grown up poor in Nebraska, and he liked helping young people who were in the position he himself had been in. Armed with his Tempe's money, and his own determination, Darrow, whose nickname was "the Boss," always got what he went after. When he could not find American workmen who could restore Oak Manor the way he wanted, he imported craftsmen from Europe. When he could not find a church of his own Episcopal faith in Murfreesboro, he proceeded to establish one. Its modest frame building on South Spring Street looked downright puny by comparison with the stately structures of the long-dominant Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, but St. Paul's had something the others could envy: it had Frank Gumm, whose voice had so captured the Boss's ear that he had recruited him to sing in his choir. Darrow's church could not match the numbers of its bigger rivals; but with Frank singing solo, his boy's soprano as pure and sweet as childhood itself, it surpassed them all in its musical devotions.
Just two years younger than William Tucumseh Gumm, Darrow became Frank's godfather. In June 1899, three months after Frank's thirteenth birthday, Darrow plucked him out of poor Will's beleaguered household and sent him off to an Episcopalian boys' school, the junior adjunct of the University of the South, or Sewanee, as it was usually called. Frank's voice had been his deliverance, and Darrow had procured him a scholarship to sing in the Sewanee choir. "I am sure neither you, or any of those interested will ever have cause to regret helping this bright boy along," Darrow wrote the school's head, Lawton Wiggins. "He knows that he is taken for his services in the choir, and that he must be ever anxious to render service to his benefactors." On the morning of June 13, a few days before the start of the summer term, godfather and godson journeyed by train to Sewanee, which was about sixty miles southeast of Murfreesboro. Darrow personally presented his young charge to his new benefactors, thus beginning what Frank was later to call "six of the happiest, the most beautiful years of my life." Along with a rigorous dose of the classics, Sewanee taught manners and style, how a gentleman behaves. Sewanee suited Frank exactly, and he suited it exactly, doing what Darrow had promised he would do—he filled the chapel with glorious song, a voice that eventually
matured into a brilliant tenor. Writing of the Easter services of 1900, the student newspaper, the Purple, said that such beautiful music had never before been heard at Sewanee, and it singled out Frank's solo for its purity of tone. "Hurrah! Hurrah! Sewanee boys are we," went the words to the college song. "Away with melancholy and let care and trouble flee, while we are at Sewanee...."
At the end of 1904, his second year in college, Frank's carefree youth ended abruptly. With two years left to go before graduation, he ended his academic career and returned to Murfreesboro, probably to help support his impoverished family. Frank’s father, Will Gumm, died in 1906, and for the next four years Frank worked as a stenographer and court reporter by day and at night performed at a theater owned by an uncle, Walter D. Fox.
In 1909 Frank left those familiar surroundings for the town of Tullahoma, a resort and health spa about forty miles to the southeast. His Uncle Walter, who was the state secretary of a fraternal organization called the Knights of Pythias, was building a home there for the widows and orphans of deceased Knights. Ovoca he named it, and he took Frank along as his secretary. Joining Frank in Tullahoma were his sister Mary, who was still unmarried at twenty-nine, and his sixteen-year-old brother Allie. All three lived in a small frame house on East Lincoln Street, half a block from St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church. In this new setting Frank's voice once again opened doors. He sang in the church choir, he joined a quartet that was much in demand for parties and weddings, and before long he was associating, as one prominent Tullahomian said, "with our best people." Universally admired, he seemed to have as bright a future as any young man in Tennessee.
By the end of 1910, Frank Gumm left Tennessee for good and never to return to the south. Frank traveled from stage to stage, along a third- string vaudeville circuit. By September 1911, the date of his next documented appearance, he knew the business well enough, in any event, to buy his own small theaters. In the most unlikely of spots, the logging town of Cloquet, Minnesota, he became a show business entrepreneur, purchasing both the Bijou and the Diamond. Yet within weeks after he had taking them over, he handed over his Cloquet theaters to his older brother Bob and moved twenty miles to the east—to Superior, Wisconsin, where he met pretty Miss Ethel Milne playing the theater piano. Not long afterward, he married her. And billing themselves as Jack and Virginia Lee, Sweet Southern Singers. Upon the pending arrival of their first child, they cancelled their bookings, and purchased a Grand Theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The couple had three children, all girls. Frank, getting tired of waiting for a son, named his third child after himself, Frances Gumm. We all know Francis Jr. as Judy Garland, of Wizard of Oz fame.
Judy Garland, in a New York Times article, described her father as having "a funny sense of humor and he laughed all the time--good and loud, like I do. He was a gay Irish gentleman and very good looking."
1. Source: http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/6943/judy.html
2. Source: http://www.geraldclarke.com/preview2.htm
3. New York Times; June 23, 1969.