Nelson’s official MGM biography made much of his paternal New England roots, but little has been known about his maternal line. To start with, how did an Atlanta beauty meet and marry a Yankee? Researcher Elsa Dik Glass answers this question and chronicles Nelson’s gifted maternal ancestry, which undoubtedly was the major contributor to his musicality:
Steady employment wasn’t the strong suit of [Nelson’s father] William Eddy, the somewhat gray sheep in a venerable New England family that has produced many politicians and scientists. Three years [before Nelson’s birth], when twenty-four-year-old William had enlisted for the Spanish-American War, he listed his occupation as “stage mechanic,” rarely regarded as a steady career. He joined the First Rhode Island Regiment on April 29, 1898, and a month later was appointed Sergeant-at-Arms-Drummer in a military band. However, he never saw action because he soon became ill. He was on sick leave off and on through July 1898 when he had surgery for an “inguinal right bubo” (hernia). He continued on medical disability status until November when he was granted a four-day furlough to stay with his aunt, Mrs. Daniel Kendrick in Philadelphia. It would be a most fortuitous visit for Nelson Eddy fans, because there he met his future wife, a Southern belle named Caroline Isabel Kendrick.
Isabel, as she was more commonly called, was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 7, 1879, daughter of Caroline Ackerman and Edward Stillman Kendrick. Caroline’s father, Joseph Ackerman, was a Jew of Russian descent born in New York City while her mother, Belinda, was a New Jersey-born Methodist. Joseph’s father (Nelson’s great-grandfather) had emigrated to America from Holland, and his grandfather (Nelson’s great-great-grandfather) originated in Russia. This Russian heritage may explain Nelson’s exceptional skill in the Russian repertoire.
Isabel’s grandfather Joseph worked as a tailor in the cloth factories of Newburgh, New York. Just before the Civil War, he moved his wife and two children to Mobile, Alabama. There his wife, Belinda, taught piano, directed a choir, and gave birth to two more children. The younger was Caroline, Nelson’s maternal grandmother.
Caroline Ackerman grew up to be a headstrong and determined young lady. Charmed by a handsome traveling salesman, Edward Stillman Kendrick, she followed him to Atlanta and married him there on Christmas Day, 1877. They had three children: Clark, Isabel (Nelson’s mother), and Edward Jr. Edward Sr continued his travels, moving his family from Atlanta to New York City, back to Atlanta, and finally to Philadelphia, where he hoped his brother, William, would help him obtain employment. Whether Edward Sr found a job or not is uncertain, but his penchant for the ladies and gambling interfered with his home life. He pawned Caroline’s beloved piano and then deserted his family in 1897.
The loss of the piano was both an emotional and financial blow because Caroline, inheriting her mother’s musical ability, had been supplementing the family finances by teaching piano and singing. Fortunately, her eldest child, Clark, was working at the Mott Iron Works in Philadelphia, where his uncle was a foreman. The eighteen-year-old Clark managed to reclaim the pawned piano so his mother could continue earning a living. (Clark, in turn, would later provide a job at Mott for his struggling nephew, Nelson.)
Seventeen-year-old Isabel had also been working as a clerk at the Iron Works for a year….
In the winter of 1898/9, William Darius Eddy, on medical furlough, visited his aunt in Philadelphia. There, he met young Isabel, a distant relative by marriage. A year later, on December 23, 1899, they were married at the Naval Home in Philadelphia, with her mother as attendant. The young couple then left for Rhode Island where they lived for two years at five different locations.
© 2001, Elsa Dik Glass