Who was Lorraine?

Submitted by libbairdca on
Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections

An archival detective has gotten to the bottom of a mysterious photo album acquired by Mills Library nearly a year ago.
The album, which arrived at the Library last fall, contains eight, eight by ten sepia portraits of a young woman with the name Lorraine and the dates 1914 - 1932 stamped in gold on their borders.

One of the three men credited on the photos is Charles A. Aylett, responsible for immortalizing Canadian Boston Marathon winner Tom Longboat in a 1907 post-race photograph.

"They were undoubtedly commissioned by a wealthy individual," said Kim Kerr, the archives assistant who, despite the lack of details surrounding the photographs took on the task of digging into their history. "Average families in the 1930s could not possibly afford photos of this quality."

Tucked into the album is a poem by McMaster alumnus Wilson MacDonald, dedicated to Percy Gardiner, with no apparent explanation for its presence.

With nothing but the name and dates to go on, Kerr dug into the Globe and Mail heritage database, searching for news stories containing the name Lorraine that ran during the years printed on the photos. She discovered that a Toronto socialite named Miss Lorraine Phelan was mentioned several times between 1927 and 1932 in the "What Women Are Doing" column.

"It wasn't exactly a 'eureka!' moment, given the number of women named Lorraine living in Toronto during that time, but it was a start," said Kerr.

After more searching, Kerr came across a photo of Lorraine Phelan attending an event at the Woodbine racetrack in May of 1932. After taking the photo to a dozen Library coworkers for corroboration, Kerr was sure it was the same woman.

Phelan's name did not appear in the newspaper any later than 1932, however, leading Kerr to believe that she died shortly after the photo was taken at the track. This was confirmed when, with some more digging, Kerr obtained a full certificate of death. The documentation showed Phelan had died in 1932 of appendicitis.

"I had accomplished what I set out to do, which was to identify the woman in the photo," said Kerr. "But I couldn't stand not knowing more. Curiosity really got the best of me."

Kerr found that Percy Gardiner, for whom the poem included with the album was written, was one of Toronto's best-known financiers. In 1942 his daughter Helen married a man named Paul Phelan, whose family founded the Phelan Family Group, which eventually became Cara Operations Ltd. The company currently controls restaurants such as Milestones, Swiss Chalet and Harvey's.

Kerr's suspicion that Lorraine and Paul were siblings was given some weight after Lindsey Bannister, an archives co-op student, discovered an obituary for Lorraine's mother which mentions a son named Paul.

"The social status of the Phelan family explains Lorraine's repeated appearance in the paper," said Kerr. "She came from one of the wealthiest families in the area."

The photos remain unverified by family members, but Kerr believes her research is accurate. The mystery remains, however, as to how the photo album left the family in the first place.

"We get mysteries like this all the time in the archives," said Kerr. "It's great to be able to track some information down and get an idea of just what we have in our collection."


<p>Fantastic detective work. Let's hope you have time to solve some of the other archival mysteries at McMaster.</p>