Monday, August 31, 2020

Lois Bannerman: 
Harpist With A Kick

Lois Bannerman had an unusually interesting life, starting off when she was 10 and used her skates to fight off two male attackers, and ending with the elegance of antique Savannah townhouse.

In between she was one of the nation’s top harpists.

Lois Tiffany Bannerman was born in New York City in 1920 and grew up on Long Island, where at the age of seven, her harpist mother began teaching her the instrument. By the time she was 15, she was winning major awards in New York City and at 16, was invited to play at the White House.

But it was when she was 10 years old that she first made headlines. And what headlines!

TWO FAIL IN ATTEMPT TO KIDNAP HEMPSTEAD GIRL: TALENTED CHILD ESCAPES CLUTCHES OF KIDNAPERS declared the headline on a story that occupied the complete front page of the Nassau Daily Review on Sept. 3, 1931.

GIRL SKATER, 10, BATTLES 2 KIDNAPERS said the five column headline in the New York Daily News.

According to the accounts, “two swarthy-complexioned men” pulled up alongside Bannerman as she was roller-skating along a sidewalk near her home. One man hopped out of the car, grabbed the girl and covered her mouth with his hand. When she began fighting, the second man got out of the car and tried to hold her.

“Kicking and struggling, she used her steel-shod feet to such good advantage that the men dropped her, leaped back in their car and fled as another machine approached the scene,” said the Nassau County newspaper.

The Daily News put it this way: “She put up such a stiff struggle that the driver of the car was forced to come to his companion’s aid. He had a length of rope in his hands, and when he stooped in an

attempt to bind the girl’s legs, she felled him with a blow from her skate-clad foot.

“‘Look out! I hear a car!’ cried the fallen man and both leaped into their car and sped away.” They were never caught.

By the time she was 15, Bannerman was winning awards — including a scholarship to Juilliard — and performing in major concert venues in New York City. She went on to have a long career as a harpist, appearing with many major orchestras, on Broadway and frequently on early television. (A video of her in her 20s, performing in a light-hearted version of “In the Gloaming” in 1944, can be found on YouTube.)

In 1947, she married Harold Henrick, a 27-year-old Marine trainee, and the couple had a son, Mark. However, the marriage ended tragically in 1955 when Captain Henrick was piloting a private plane from his base in New Bern, N.C., to Long Island to spend Christmas with his wife and son. Almost within sight of his destination, the plane crashed into the Atlantic. A week later, his body washed ashore at the Rockaways.

Ten years later, Bannerman married John L. Senior Jr., a wealthy Harvard and MIT-graduate businessman, who had a “gentleman’s farm” in Ridgebury. The farm spread across the towns of

Ridgefield, Danbury and North Salem, N.Y., off Turner and Saw Mill Roads. While the main house may have been in Danbury, the couple always gave their address as Ridgefield. (The Senior farm is now a mix of pastures for horses, multifamily and single-family housing, and the corporate headquarters of Belimo — a maker of heating and air conditioning devices.)

In the late 1960s the couple moved to a house on the shore at Southport but soon after, they divorced.

In the 1960s and 70s, Bannerman continued performing, but spent part of her time working on supporting the Berkshire Music Center, home of the Tanglewood summer concerts, as well as teaching the harp. One of her students was her own son, John L. Senior III, who, like his mother and grandmother, became a professional harpist.

Bannerman eventually married Howard Crawford, a Connecticut architect and builder, and the two retired in the mid-1980s to a four-story 1854 Greek Revival townhouse in the city of Savannah, Ga. where they operated a bed-and-breakfast. Bannerman died in 1992 at the age of 71.

In the 1960s, composer John Downey was commissioned to compose a harp concerto for Lois Bannerman, but for reasons that are unclear, she was never able to premiere it. The work lay unplayed for years until her harpist son, John Senior, began championing its performance in memory of his mother.

In 1998, with Senior on the harp and John Downey conducting, the   Concerto for Harp was recorded by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and is today available from MMC Recordings.

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