As remembered by Henry Rust
Clarissa Walton Fleming and Harriot Downman Fleming at Green Mont July 4, 1936.
I first remember meeting Clarissa and Harriot at Homewood in 1959 or 60, around the time my father bought Green Mont. We saw them whenever we came down to Virginia after that. When I moved to the Plains full-time in the summer of 1965, I saw a lot of them. But they were always Clarissa and Harriot; some sort of 2 part compound. They went together like milk and cookies, yin and yang.
I don’t pretend to have really known them; all that they were. I never really hung out with Clarissa. I was never the beneficiary of her stories. I never saw Harriot at work in her Dress Shop. I never gardened with her. I just got to see them in their later years as this endearing odd couple reigning over the town of The Plains from their perch on the hill with its unbelievable trees.
My earliest picture of Clarissa and Harriot
This is an enlargement of a very faded photo from early 1903?. The full picture shows the house after the last remodel with the construction crew standing on the porch. When I first started to dig into this picture I found what at first appeared to be 2 children and a dog. I thought this might be Harriot carrying a doll. Looking closer, I now believe that this is Clarissa (9) standing behind Harriot (4) . I have no idea who the African American child is; whether it is a child from the farm or a child of one of the construction workers. The dog may or may not be a family dog, although it certainly seems at home with the children. I love that it’s looking at the camera, and Harriot isn’t.
So many Fleming pictures have been taken on those steps.
The following is a rather random collection of memories and photographs. It’s a bit scattered. I will continue to tinker with this.
Clarissa Walton Fleming
Clarissa was a bit of a tom-boy. At least that was certainly the lifestyle she seemed to lead palling around with her buddy Uncle Rob. She would ride on the running board of his model T Ford and open the various gates as she accompanied him on his farm chores. That would probably not have been considered a very lady like thing to do at the dawn of the century in “proper” society. Also, I think Clarissa lived and breathed horses, and I don’t recall her ever mentioning riding side saddle, although that custom may have already have been a falling away by her time.
She was independent and adventurous. She traveled widely over the course of her life, starting with volunteering and shipping off to France at the tail end of World War 1 as a member of the Red Cross Bureau of Canteens. She had several photo albums filled with her Red Cross experience. Marloe Woollett tells me that she has copies of some of Clarissa’s letters home from the war. Clarissa loved to write, and she was good at it. I’ll try to get Marloe to send me a letter or two to post.
Harriot Downman Fleming
I love this picture. It’s too bad that it’s in quite poor condition. I have so few pictures of Harriot (or Lee) in their early years. This one is particularly rare, showing all four of the younger children together. (None of these pictures are noted or dated. I just make a best guess.)
I’ve always heard Harriot referred to as a very glamorous and attractive woman with a sweet nature. Like Mike Harris, I was also puzzled that she never married. I came up with my own theories. The best of which, I felt, was that the middle Flemings came of age in a transitional time; a time between a very socially conservative Victorian age and the new broader post war world. The rules all changed and I think they might have gotten lost in the passage.
My father told me a story about an intent young man, a love interest of Harriot’s from the town of The Plains, who would walk out from town to court her. Unfortunately, he was not deemed of a suitable social background by the Flemings. I heard he came to a very tragic end, and that Harriot was devastated. This rumor is unsubstantiated and my father didn’t know, or remember, the suitor’s name. I never heard of any other romances although I did meet a few interested parties, and that was when Harriot was in her 60’s
In Harriot Jane Downman Fleming’s will (which is included in an earlier entry on Richard Bland Lee Jr.), her mother stated her desire that both Harriot and Lee would marry: “I am most anxious that my dear son Lee, and my daughter Harriot, should both marry, and soon, as I think they are both eminently domestic and need the safeguard that comes from a happy marriage, to complete their life.”
She apparently did not feel the same with regard to Roberta and Clarissa: “For Roberta and Clarissa, I leave my dearest love and blessing, and thanks for their unfailing kindness an care.”
Among Harriot’s possessions was a small box of photos filled with photos of all her nieces and nephews. Marloe Woollett was one of the larger contributors to this collection but there were lots of Carter and Harris offspring, and a few Rusts and Brundages sprinkled in. This was clearly a treasured and well handled collection. (I got a kick out of how Marloe would rank her photos on the back; …this one’s alright…not a particularly good day….fairly typical…. I didn’t pose this…. this is a good one…)
Clarissa had a favorite old hunter; a dappled gray called “Old Man River” (not the horse pictured). She had a painting of him over her library mantle. I understand that Susan (Jeffries) Tenney has that portrait now. There is a well crafted story of Old Man River, (by an unidentified young author) included in these posts.
Clarissa inherited her uncle Robert Fleming’s farm, West Hope, in 1929. She managed the farm herself with the help of a tenant farmer. (I think she was basically managing Green Mont at the same time.) Inside the cover of her farm accounts book are found the following words. Pure Clarissa.
Clarissa lived on the third floor at Green Mont all through the 1930’s and most of the 1940’s even though she had inherited a farm of her own from her uncle Rob. Robert Fleming, a life long bachelor, had lived at Green Mont as well and, therefore, never had any reason to have anything other than a house for the tenant farmer at West Hope.
This is a picture of Clarissa’s dog,“ Sandy”, at Green Mont (1930’s). According to Mike Harris, Sandy was the first dog allowed to sleep in the house. The back door and the porch connecting the main house to the kitchen is visible heading off to the left. Those are “cold frames” (for starting plants) to the right of the door.
In 1937, Clarissa decided to build a little “get-away” at West Hope. A place where she could entertain, and spend an occasional night away. It was a pretty little one bedroom log cabin. I discovered an itemization of the costs of constructing and furnishing this cabin. You certainly got a lot more for your dollar in 1937.
Harriot and her partner Agnes Shands owned and operated a ladies’ dress shop on Florida Avenue; Shands and Fleming. Agnes was the tailor/fitter and Harriot was the buyer. I never saw this shop first hand, but as I understand it, one would arrive at the appointed hour, perhaps be offered a cup of tea, and then be given a showing of what the shop had to offer that the Harriot and Agnes felt might suit that particular customer, all in total privacy
During the Second World War, when gas and tires were hard to come by, Harriot would share rides back and forth to Washington, DC with Green Mont’s next door neighbor, Walter Munster. Walter worked somewhere in the civilian war effort. He was a Nuclear Physicist and apparently always had tires and gas.
Clarissa purchased Homewood from her sister Frances sometime in 1948. Two years later, In 1950, she sold West Hope.
Harriot Fleming then started spending her weekends at Homewood. By the time I moved to the Plains in 1965, Harriot was retired and living full time with Clarissa.
Clarissa suffered quite badly from arthritis in her hips and had been forced to stop riding by the time I met her, but she stayed socially involved with the hunt crowd. She was also very active with the Fauquier County chapter of the Virginia Garden Club and various charitable and community organizations
This photo must be from the day of Jane’s wedding to Billy Cox in the summer of 1962. It was taken at Mary Rust’s house at 15 N. Wirt St. in Leesburg. A wedding cake is on a side table. Clarissa would have been 68; Bob Brundage, 43. (I was 9 at the time). Jane and Billy were married right there. Jane was shaking like a leaf during the ceremony. Billy just smiled that wonderful smile of his. I should know who the guy over the mantle is, but I don’t. He looks like somebody important
Clarissa loved to entertain. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, no occasion was complete without egg nog; her own special recipe, and heavily spiked. The rest of the year, her drink seemed to be Dubonnet. There was always plenty of iced tea and lemonade to be enjoyed on that wonderful Homewood porch. Marloe Woollett reminds me there was often a ham.
Marloe Woollett: The “thing” about Aunt Clarissa’s famous buffets, is the ham was ALWAYS a “Virginia Ham,” one of those hard, salty things that you were supposed to put inside a buttered roll or onto one of those ubiquitous HARD Beaten Biscuits, whose blandness helped absorb the salt!!! I have never met a ham like those VA. ones, anywhere else!! And her famous iced tea was made with regular tea and then she threw in a can of undiluted lemonade! That added just the right amount of lemon flavor and sugar, always kept in refrigerator in that giant, brown ceramic pitcher.
Staying overnight with the Aunts was not my idea of a good time, but it was ok if it didn’t happen TOO often. The sheets were hard and scratchy, the bed was too short, and their TV was small and only got one channel. These two maidens really didn’t know what to do with me, then 12 or 13. I remember Harriot being horrified when I told her I was playing the electric guitar. I wonder what part of it she imagined was electrified.
And then there was Winkie. Winkie was Clarissa’s second and last dog; a little white terrier of some sort (maybe a west highland). The aging Winkie always had abscesses. I know now, from my own experience, that little dogs are prone to problems with their teeth as they age. My dog had actually been to the dentist. I don’t think dog dentistry was common in The Plains at that time.
Clarissa preferred big powerful cars like the Olds Cutlass she had in my day. She had to have one garage bay extended with a little box built out into the wood shed to handle the prow of this boat. She drove way too fast as she meandered her way down the road.
Harriot drove a Mercury Comet, very slowly. There would be a traffic jam on Main St. every time Harriot went out; a long line of cars backed up behind her. I think they chose to drove separately, whenever possible, even if they both going to the same place. Both were pretty scary to ride with. I avoided that whenever possible.
When they got too old to drive, a family member would pick them up and take them to family events. They did love going to parties.
Clarissa’s arthritis eventually got so bad that she could no longer get up and down the stairs so a bed was set up in the Library. I was back living in the Plains at this time, and Lee and Wendy were camping out in Green Mont while they were building their house. Wendy and Cindy (Max and Emily’s mom) were up there fairly often helping around the house and occasionally shopping. I remember one night Clarissa had fallen between her bed and the fireplace and they couldn’t get her back up (the little room was very crowded with the single bed in the middle of the floor). I was called in to help. These were old fashioned women. It had to be a dire emergency to allow a man into a ladies bedroom. I entered, respectfully, and gently lifted her back into bed, doing my best to avert my eyes. I didn’t speak a word. I bet she didn’t weigh more than 90 pounds, and Clarissa had been a solid woman in her prime. I guess she was 88 or so at that time.
Marloe Woollett related a story recently about her grandmother, Frances (Mamere), need ing to be carried into the house and up to her bedroom on a return to Homewood from the hospital. The driver, an African American man named Norris, wearing white gloves, held her in his arms very respectfully and carried her upstairs to her bedroom. I felt kind of like that the evening I lifted Clarissa back into her bed after her fall, although I didn’t happen to bring my white gloves
Clarissa died within the next year; Harriot a little before that. They stayed together at Homewood as along as Harriot’s health permitted.
I’m not sure what Clarissa died of, she was just pretty well coming apart. Harriot, a lifelong smoker, had a number of respiratory issues. I remember her using an oxygen tank towards the end.
Harriot left her few special treasures to her nieces and grand nieces. In the last months before she died she would invite her heirs to select the items that they wanted. The interesting thing, which I heard from my sister-in-law Wendy, was that there were different things laid out when different people would come by. Harriot knew who she wanted to have what, so she would bring out the different things for different people. Why Harriot didn’t just give everyone what she wanted them to have, I don’t know. I guess this way Harriot would be able to be sure that they were interested. She didn’t want someone to get something that they didn’t want and wouldn’t care about. She wanted her special things to be with someone who truly appreciated them.
Clarissa was boots on the ground, yet was well off and a woman of leisure; She worked at farming and was a true horsewoman; yet a world traveler, a writer and historian. Harriot on the other hand, had worked hard to make her own way, doing something she loved. Harriot’s world was fashion, art and style.
They were both in a care facility at the very ends of their lives, but they managed to stay together at Homewood until almost their last months.
I rented and eventually purchased Homewood from Mike Harris in 1986. The storeroom above the garage still contained a few treasures. I kept turning up little bits and pieces of Harriot’s. She had several rather risque nudes tucked away up there. I also found an Italian seascape that she had painted, in oils. I’d never knew she’d ever painted. This is the only one I’ve ever seen. It’s quite nice. It hangs with my treasures.
I remember a funny wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom; something with slightly mischievous cartoon characters in various bathroom vignettes. One character was in the shower trying to hide behind shower curtain while a little antennaed alien in a flying saucer peeked in at the window. I saved a bit of it when that bathroom was redone. I’m saddened to say that I have absolutely no idea where it is.
I wish I’d had a chance to share an egg nog with these two when they were in their prime.
2 thoughts on “Clarissa and Harriot Fleming”
from Marloe Woolett: I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that A. Harriot could paint! That looks to be a fabulous painting. The dynamics in such a large family must have been truly difficult. I can’t even imagine. I don’t think A. Harriot ever received the recognition for her accomplishments that she should have!
In the inflation-adjusted dollars of 2021, Clarissa’s West Hope cabin would have cost about $67,000. Still a pretty good deal.