Friday, March 02, 2018

The Crocker Family:
A Dynasty on Stage and Screen
A Ridgefield harness-maker and a Ridgefield farmer’s widow joined in marriage nearly 200 years ago and wound up beginning what was to be a small dynasty of 19th and 20th Century actors and actresses.
But just who was William Crocker and how did he and his wife Anna manage to create two of the 19th Century’s better-known actresses — one of whom became the mother and grandmother of more actors, including a movie star knighted by the King of England?
What we know of William and Anna Crocker is based on old and sometimes confusing and conflicting records. William was baptized in 1790 in New Haven, a twin son of Daniel and Anna Crocker. His father was a Presbyterian minister who later served congregations in Pound Ridge, Redding and New Fairfield.
In 1814, when he was 23, and living in Ridgefield, William Crocker married Maria or Almira (records use both names) Dauchy, a member of an old Ridgefield family. Historian Silvio Bedini describes him as a harness-maker who worked at the Big Shop, a factory on West Lane where the First Congregational Church is today. He belonged to St. Stephen’s Parish, and served on a committee that led repairs to the aging church building then in use.
However, various sources, including obituaries of his daughter Elizabeth, describe him as a clergyman. He never served in that capacity in Ridgefield, and  no record of his being a minister elsewhere in the area could be found. In the index to his “History of Ridgefield,” George L. Rockwell lists three references to “Crocker, Rev. William,” but none has anything to do with religion. 
William had a son named William Austin Crocker. A William A. Crocker was serving as a minister in New Fairfield in the 1850s, long after our William had died. Perhaps the son was confused with the father.
William Sr. lived in Ridgefield most, if not all of his adult life, died in Ridgefield in 1835 at the age of 45, and is buried in Ridgefield.
He and Almira/Maria had four children. She died in March 1824 and by that August, William had married the widow Anna Smith of Ridgefield. He was 33, she 31. The minister who performed the ceremony was the Rev. Daniel Crocker, William’s father. 
Anna or Ann Seymour was born in Ridgefield and had first married Czar Smith, a Ridgefield farmer. He died in 1817, aged 28 — “his death was caused by a severe cold taken while hunting foxes,” says a genealogy.
William and Anna had five children together, including daughters Elizabeth, born in 1830, and Sarah, born in 1833.
Some accounts say Elizabeth was born in Ridgefield, others say Stamford. Most accounts say Sarah was born in Ridgefield.
Both became well-known, professional actresses in New York and London.
Elizabeth Crocker made her acting debut at the age of 15, performing in New York City’s Park Theatre as Amanthis in a play called “The Child of Nature.” She went on as a teenager to do many roles on the stage.
In 1847, at the age of 17, she married David P. Bowers, a popular actor from Philadelphia, and throughout nearly a half century on the stage, she was usually known as “Mrs. D. P. Bowers.”  David died 10 years after they were married. A few years later, Elizabeth married a Dr. Brown of Philadelphia, and he, too, died. Late in life she married actor J. C. McCullom, with whom she had  performed for many years. He died five years before her.
Mrs. Bowers appeared chiefly on stages in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and was also involved in managing several theaters. Her roles in the 1850s were described by The New York Times as “the high-born, sympathetic ladies of the romantic drama, the tearful heroines of tragedy, and the coquettes of old comedy.”
In 1861 she appeared in London at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre and later at the Lyceum.
“Mrs. Bowers acquired a good deal of money and retained her vogue for many years,” The Times said in her obituary. “In the winter of 1879-80, she and Edwin Booth toured and starred together. She continued to appear on the New York stage until her death in 1895 at the age of 65. 
Her younger sister, Sarah, was also an acclaimed and popular actress. She made her debut in Baltimore  in 1849, at the age of 16, and went on to play several leading parts as a teenager. 
In May 1852, she married the actor Frederick B. Conway, and thereafter, the two often  appeared together in plays. Like her sister, she performed for a while in England, including at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. After she and her husband returned to America, they went on an extensive — and The Times said “profitable” — tour of American stages. 
In 1864 Sarah acquired and managed the new Brooklyn Theatre, where for nine years her husband played leading parts; some have called the operation the first stock company in America. 
“Sarah Conway possessed a tall and graceful figure and an expressive countenance, and was a versatile actress and a popular theatre manager,” said one theater historian.
She died in 1875.
Sarah was the mother of actress Marianne "Minnie" Conway, born around 1852, who has become better known as the mother of two major actors than as a stage personality. Minnie died in 1896, leaving behind sons, Frederick Conway Tearle and Godfrey Seymour Tearle. 
Born in 1878 in New York, Conway Tearle, as he was known, started his career in the 1890s on the stages of America and Great Britain. “His big break came at the age of 21 when in Manchester, England, without any preparation, he was called upon to play Hamlet after the lead actor took ill just prior to the first act,” said a 1916 biography.
In 1910, he began playing in silent movies and by the 1920s, “he became the highest paid male film actor for several years,” The Times said in his obituary. He played alongside such stars as Mary Pickford in silent films and then moved into “talkies.” In all he appeared in more than 100 movies.
He continued to perform on both stage and screen until his death in 1938 at the age of 60.
Though born in New York City, Conway’s brother, Godfrey Tearle, grew up in England, and wound up specialized in portraying what a biographer called “the quintessential British gentleman” on the stage and in both English and American films. 
He started out a Shakespearean actor. “He has been described as the greatest Othello of our time,” The Times said.
After four years  in the Royal Artillery in World War I, he resumed his stage career but also started making motion pictures. He appeared in more than three dozen silent and sound movies, including portraying Professor Jordan in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” in 1935. 
He was also active in the profession, helping found the British Actors Equity Association and serving as its president for 10 years.
In 1951, King George VI knighted Sir Godfrey Tearle for his contributions to the British theatre.
His last film role, playing a bishop in “The Titfield Thunderbolt,” was in 1953, the year of his death at the age of 68.

Godfrey’s middle name was Seymour, which no doubt harkened back to his great grandmother, born Anna Seymour, the Ridgefield woman who began this dynasty in the 1830s. One wonders whether the family held her in some sort of special regard as an inspiration for her two daughters who went into the theater. Certainly, there was some magic somewhere in the Crocker-Seymour clan of Ridgefield.

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