Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crazy Cat Lady

As a cat owner, I get a lot of flack from other people - most of whom are dog owners. So when I found out about this particular person I am related to, I couldn't help but laugh. Doris Bryant was something of a (crazy) cat lady.  Perhaps more than that though, she was THE cat lady.  And I just happen to be related to her. As a divorc√©e living in New York City, she was one of the world's leading cat experts in the mid-Twentieth Century. 
Doris from her 1915 yearbook at Franklin High School in Seattle. And one of her prize-winning Siamese cats, Mee Zee, from a 1932 newspaper article. 

Doris was the second cousin of my maternal grandfather.  (Her grandmother, Lucinda Merriman Prather, was the sister of my great-great-grandfather, George Merriman).  Doris was born in 1896 in Ohio.  She was raised in Montana. After her mother died when she was 9, she moved to Seattle to live with relatives.  She attended Annie Wright School in Tacoma and then Franklin High School in Seattle.   After high school, she continued living by herself in Seattle (she lived in an apartment at Olive and Harvard on Capitol Hill) and worked as a stenographer.  Eventually though, she grew tired of Seattle and decided to move on to a bigger city. 
In about 1920, Doris moved by herself to Manhattan, New York.  There, she married Willard McHargue in 1921.  Doris and Willard lived together in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.  Throughout the 1920s, they were quite wealthy.  Willard was a vice president of an advertising agency in New York.  It was during that time as a wealthy housewife that Doris became involved with her hobby that developed into her passion: cats.  She quickly became a breeder of Siamese cats.    

As Doris became more and more obsessed with her cats, she realized that although there were plenty of dog toys and supplies, there were none specifically for cats.  So she set about making her own cats toys.  Eventually, there became a demand for her cat toys and she decided to open a cat shop.  It was while this was happening that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 hit and the Great Depression began.  Her husband quickly lost his lucrative job and Doris’ cat shop began supporting their family.  (In addition, her husband began creating small pastry cups filled with hamburger meat that he sold to speakeasies during Prohibition). The financial issues must have put a strain on their marriage and they were soon divorced.

One of the editions (1953) of one of her books. 
After her divorce (when she was about 36), Doris reverted to her maiden name.  She continued living by herself (with her cats) in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.  Luckily, her cat business became very successful.  She first began selling cats toys and supplies (including imitation snakes, balls made out of cellophane wrap, scratching posts, catnip balls, litter pans, etc.).  Eventually though, she also realized that the market was also woefully lacking in cat medicines.  She worked with a local veterinarian, Dr. Louis Camuti, to develop the world’s first known cat medicines.  Doris sold all of Dr. Camuti’s medicines in her store.  They had a symbiotic relationship where they referred customers to each other’s businesses.  He was apparently the only cats-only veterinarian in the country and she had the only cat drug store in the country.  Others suggested she had the only cat shop in the world. 

Doris’ shop – called Doris Bryant’s Emporium – in Greenwich Village was very successful.  Because it was so unique, she apparently had customers across the world.  She did much of her business by mail.  Eventually, Doris put her self-promoted expertise to use and decided to write books about cat care.  Her first book was published in 1936.  She eventually wrote and published at least three more books; all of which went through several revisions. 

Doris operated her cat shop in Greenwich Village for over 30 years.  By the 1960s, Doris was acknowledged as a veterinarian herself, even though she had never been educated as a veterinarian. 

Over the years of her cat business, Doris had many famous customers.  They included Clare Luce (US congresswoman and writer), Selena Royale (actress), Beth Merrill (actress), Sophie Kerr (writer), and Doris Duke (socialite/heiress). Perhaps her most famous customer though was Ernest Hemingway, who was a noted cat lover. Apparently Ernest kept one of Doris' cat care books next to his bed and read from it every night. 
Excerpt from a 1935 newspaper article discussing
Doris' shop and cat advice
In 1936, Doris had 5 cats of her own (in her apartment in Greenwich Village) - coincidentally the same amount of cats I've had before.  She died in 1978. 

In 1980, her old colleague Dr. Camuti wrote the following description of her:
Doris was always very pale. Her skin had the look of alabaster to it. She seemed like a delicate statue come to life. In fact, she resembled - at least, to me - the large ceramic Siamese cat that stood in her pet-supply shop window. But there was nothing of the cold statute about Doris Bryant. She was a warm, outgoing person and a bit of a character. Cat lovers came to her from all over the city, and she usually was very helpful to a customer. But if someone came in that she didn't take to, Doris had no hesitation throwing him out. "That's not for you," she'd say, or more bluntly, "You don't like cats well enough, get out!"
Some excerpts from Doris' 1944 book The Care and Handling of Cats, A Manual for Modern Cat Owners (the same book kept on Hemingway's nightstand):
"Getting a certain kind of pet because it is pedigreed or is a smart breed at the moment is the worst possible reason; we should get our pets because we love them - not to exploit them."

"A cat refuses to flatter and he is never servile. He is capable of deep devotion, but his devotion depends upon his approval; his utter lack of flattery makes his devotion something worth cherishing."

"Some cats have become so vicious that it was necessary to have them put to sleep. This is deplorable, since it was not their fault that they developed as they did, but rather the fault of the people who mismanaged them."

"Cats are not suitable pets for children and most cats are not happy in households where they are children."

"When a woman has a well-loved cat, there is no reason for disposing of it just because she has a baby."

"Any two cats living together will have their little quarrels, or one may temporarily be annoyed with the other. People have their differences of opinion too, and cats are little people."

"If your cat "will not do a single thing you want him to" you should be ashamed to admit it; the fault lies in the way the cat has been handled - by you, or by previous owners."
 

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