Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Robert Husted Chambers / Robert E. S. Chambers

Robert Husted Chambers in 1922
Robert Husted Chambers (b. Broadalbin, New York, 3 October 1899; d. Washington, D.C., 1 January 1955)

Robert Husted Chambers was the only child of the famous popular novelist, Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933), and his wife Elsa Vaughn Moller (1878?-1939), who were married in Washington, D.C., on 12 July 1898.

There is some confusion in many sources about his name. Early records (censuses, draft registration, passports, publications) all give his name as Robert Husted Chambers, but after a divorce in 1926 he apparently started using the name of Robert E. S. Chambers or Robert Edward Stuart Chambers, which from then on appeared as his byline and in official records and newspaper accounts. The sole exception I have encountered is on his gravestone, which reverts to Robert Husted Chambers.

The Chambers family lived in Brooklyn but spent long summers each year at their family estate in Broadalbin, northwest of Albany and in the Adirondack region. Elsie Chambers had many relatives--uncles, aunt and cousins--in the Washington D.C. area, where most were members of society, and many of the males were officers in various branches of the armed services. 

Robert Husted Chambers matriculated at Harvard University in 1917. After his eighteenth birthday, he reportedly went to serve in a machine gun corps. He was about to receive a commission when the Armistice was signed. In November 1920, in his junior year at Harvard, his engagement to Miss Grace Talbot (1901-1971), who became a noted sculptress, was announced in New York newspapers, but the betrothal was broken by mutual consent several months later. 

At Harvard, Chambers was on the editorial staff of The Harvard Magazine, and planned to follow his father as an author. His first short story, "The Throwback," appeared in McClure's Magazine for December 1920; a second, "A Matter of Medicine," appeared in the same magazine in June-July 1921. Chambers finished his education in 1924 after two years at Christ Church College at Oxford, England (though his degree came from Harvard). He had another story,"Captain Sebastian," in Everybody's Magazine for December 1922, and "Snows of Yesteryear" appeared in The English Review for October 1923. 

Chambers returned from England with a bride, Olive Irene Victoria Gain (1900-1967), whom he had married in the summer of 1924. Chamber's parents were not happy, and apparently made his young wife so miserable that she by mid-September she had returned to London, a trip paid for by the parents. She told newspapers that she intended to sue his father for $500,000 for the alienation of her husband's affections, and that the parents were insistent that their son marry a wealthy society girl after divorcing her. Chambers spent part of 1925 in Algiers, and filed for a divorce in late 1925 based on his wife's desertion; it was granted in May 1926. 

Whatever happened seems to have created real family tensions between Chambers and his parents. Around this time, Chambers began using Robert Edward Stuart Chambers (or Robert E.S. Chambers) as his full name. He would use it as his name for the rest of his life.

On 29 June 1932, in Washington D.C., he married Barendina Gardener (1903-1961), the daughter of late Colonel Cornelius Gardener of the United States Army. This marriage was evidently approved of by Chambers's parents, who attended the wedding. It produced at least one child, an unnamed son buried in the family plot at Broadalbin in 1938, and possibly also a short-lived daughter (the family plot has a gravestone for an otherwise unknown Margery Gale Chambers who died in 1941). 

The novelist Robert W. Chambers died in 1933, and after that Robert E.S. Chambers based himself in Broadalbin. He ran for the New York State legislature in the election of 1934, and again in 1937, but was unsuccessful both times. In 1936 he arranged a local Chamber of Commerce and was elected its president, though his resignation was soon demanded by businessmen who objected to his environmental concerns. 

His first and only book, a collection of twelve short stories (four of which are known to have appeared in magazines), was John Tom Alligator and Others (New York:  E.P. Dutton, [May] 1937). A few stories concern the title character who takes as a wife in Florida the daughter of a Seminole medicine man. Other stories concern the Arabs of northern Africa. Many of the tales are slightly macabre. One review noted that "the collection is pervaded with an artificial flavor of Kismet, and there is too much reliance on irony to turn the trick and make a story out of an incident" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 30 May 1937). Howard Baker noted that "Chambers' work is immature and much marred by class-room acrobatics" (Sewanee Review, 1938). It was evidently quite apparent, as George Currie noted in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, his short stories had "little in common with the work associated with his famous father" (20 May 1937). And modern sensibilities find the tales very dated, with many regrettable attitudes from the past.

His mother, Elsie Chambers, died in November 1939, and Robert E.S. Chambers was the only heir to the large estate. Chambers rejoined the U.S. military for World War II, and after that details of his life become uncertain, with prevailing amount of poorly-documented gossip. Evidently his wife took control of the estate because of her husband was discharged from the Army for being a "psychopathic personality." The marriage broke up, and by 1946 his wife had moved away (reportedly taking truckloads of furniture with her, which she sold at auction). The couple is reported to have divorced (though her obituary in the 14 August 1961 Lexington Herald, calls her the "widow of Robert Edward Stuart Chambers" and notes she had lived in Lexington, Kentucky, for the past fifteen years). 

Chambers evidently next sold the estate to an antique dealer, who auctioned off its remaining contents and then defaulted on payment, after which the ownership reverted back to Chambers. What remained in the house was vandalized or stolen (his father's books, manuscripts, and paintings had all disappeared). Chambers litigated to get the Army to reverse his discharge, and after various appeals he was successful. In 1954 Chambers sold the estate to the Albany Catholic Diocese. Chambers died in Washington, D.C., on 1 January 1955. His will was contested by his nearest relatives, three cousins (all sons of his father's only sibling, a brother), who accepted a settlement. (Apparently his cousins were responsible for burying him.)

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