Ellen McClung Berry  

Copyright 2008 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

 

Ellen McClung Berry

(1894-1992)  

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)  

Ellen McClung was born to privilege on Nov. 14, 1894.  She was the great-great granddaughter of Knoxville founder James White and the great-granddaughter of Charles McClung who platted Knoxville’s streets and helped write Tennessee’s first constitution. 

During her early years, the family home was at fashionable 1111 Circle Park contiguous to the University of Tennessee campus.  In the 1890s Circle Park was lined with fine houses, trees, shrubs and flowers.  Her father was a Trustee of the University, as were his father and grandfather before him.  

She went to Prof. Charles Coffin Ross’ school locally and in 1913 entered Ogantz School for Girls, a Philadelphia finishing school which Amelia Earhart attended four years later.  Thereafter, for many years, she remained friends with her classmate, Louise Freeman, and visited her regularly, staying in Louise’s suite in New York’s Plaza Hotel.  The friends took tea at the Plaza and attended the theater and glittering parties while Ellen was there.                     

She remembered what fun it was to visit Market Square with her mother during her early teen years.  They first visited Peter Kern’s second-floor soda shop and then the seven-story M.B. Arnstein Department Store.  They had wonderful laces, silk fabrics, stylish gowns, gloves from Paris and other accessories.  Arnstein’s clever dressmaker, a Mrs. Rogers, did custom dresses for $75 each.  To go away to school Ellen acquired a black velvet suit, a red crepe dinner dress bordered with cream lace and a blue satin dress with silver lace for evening events.  

Ellen Berry in Her Debutante Gown

(Artist Lloyd Branson, Courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art)

With her cousins, Isabella Tyson and Jean McNutt, and friends from other “old Knoxville” families, Margaret Briscoe, Marguerite McClure and Isabel Knaffl, she was presented to society as a debutante in 1914.  The famous local portrait artist, Lloyd Branson, painted her in her elegant “coming out” gown. 

She traveled abroad extensively with her parents and probably knew more about Italian arts and architecture than any other Knoxvillian.  She also studied European fashion and wore gowns from the couturiers of Rome and Paris.  

When interviewed by Knoxville author Barbara Aston-Wash years later, Ellen recalled a memorable event on one trip to Paris.  They stayed at the Seville, a quaint little hotel back of the Ritz.  The bell captain told her that Coco Chanel, whom she greatly admired, often walked by at a certain hour on her way to her shop.  He promised to alert Ellen when he saw her and did so.  When she rushed out, it was too late and all she saw was Coco’s back.  However, Chanel’s perfume still lingered in the air to provide a lasting memory.  

Belcaro, the elegant Italianate villa her parents built on Black Oak Ridge in 1922-23, had its genesis in her observations during her many trips to Italy.  The house, formal gardens and grounds were described in last month’s column.  

Berry-McClung Wedding Party

(Photo courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection)

On Oct. 18, 1928, Ellen Lawson McClung married coal magnate Thomas Huntingdon Berry of Rome, Ga.  He was the nephew of Martha Berry of Berry College fame and the brother-in-law of Italian Prince Sigismondo Chigi.

(Prince Chigi [1894-1982] was no “ordinary” Italian prince.  He held the key to the Sistine Chapel during the elections of both Pope John [1958-1963] and Pope Paul [1963-1978] as Hereditary Marshal of the Holy Roman Church.  It had been decreed in 1274 that the electors should be locked in seclusion and not permitted to leave until a new Pope was elected.  The Berrys had no communication from the Chigi family during World War II and were glad to hear they were safe when the war ended, although they had several narrow escapes.  The Prince’s father, Prince Ludovico Chigi, was head of the Knights of Malta, the Italian equivalent of the American Red Cross.)

Rev. Clifford Barbour of Second Presbyterian Church officiated at the 4:30 p.m. wedding in the formal garden at Belcaro with only relatives of the two families invited.  Judge Hugh L. McClung gave his daughter away, Princess Marian Chigi was the matron of honor and Frank Berry, brother of the groom, was best man.  

The oval garden was framed in a semi-circular arrangement of mountain laurel and white lilies to resemble natural growth.  The popular Wilburn-Clark Orchestra was given a position back of the greenery to give the strains of music the effect of distance.  

Ellen’s bridal gown in Fifteenth Century style, of cream velvet, hand-painted in gold and silver was created by Gallenga, one of Italy’s most famous designers.

The bride wore gold slippers and a Juliet cap of gold and silver, with a tulle veil to complete the costume.  The bridal bouquet of white lilies was tied with a gold cord and tassel.  

A buffet dinner followed the wedding ceremony with the nuptial colors of green and white used in the dining room.  The table was overlaid with lace and a floral arrangement of white lilies and maidenhair ferns.  Green and white baskets of spun candy held mints and nuts.  The three-tiered wedding cake, decorated with a candy basket and flowers, was placed on the buffet.

Another family member attending the wedding was Maj. Gen. Henry Gibbins (1877-1941), the bride’s uncle, who was later the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army from 1936 to 1940.  Gen. Gibbins was assistant quartermaster in Hawaii at the time of the wedding.

The couple left for a western honeymoon planning to make their home in various parts of the country wherever the groom’s mining interests took him.

When Ellen Berry was 38 years old, on Dec. 17, 1932, she and Thomas became parents of their only child, Hugh Lawson McClung Berry.  He was educated in exclusive private schools, including Groton preparatory school in Connecticut.

In 1934, Thomas and Ellen Berry built a smaller classic revival temple-form house on a corner of the Belcaro property facing Ridgecrest Drive.  That architectural gem, which she felt was perfect within and without, was planned to prove her theory that a small home did not need to be a bungalow, or an English cottage or one of their variants.  To prevent a too informal setting for so formal a house, fine old boxwoods were properly spaced at its entrance and kept symmetrically trimmed.

It was during this period of her long life that a prominent local merchant said of Ellen, “She is to my mind the most elegant woman who has ever lived in Knoxville.  She has more style, flair (and) savoir faire, than anyone I know.  She lived and entertained in the grand style few ever achieve.  I remember at one of her ‘little’ luncheons there were two titled Italians, a wealthy New York divorcee and an artist.  She brought together such interesting people.”

Truly, to borrow a line from Dickens’ famous book to describe her early life, “It was the best of times …” But her life would change, beginning with the death of her beloved father in 1936. 

Part II

In high contrast to her early life, which seemed to be “the best of times;” Ellen McClung Berry’s later years seemed to represent “the worst of times.”  

In 1936, with the death of her father, Judge Hugh L. McClung, Ellen M. Berry, her husband Thomas and their son Hugh, now four years old, moved into Belcaro to care for her mother, Ella Gibbins McClung. They attempted to go on with their life--the parties, the travel and the visits with their extended McClung and Berry families.  

Hugh’s early schooling seemed to proceed normally and, finally, he attended Groton, the swank Connecticut preparatory school.  

Just before Thanksgiving,1950, Thomas, Ellen, Hugh and his grandmother Ella departed for their usual stay of several months at their winter home in West Palm Beach, Fla. At about 8:00 p.m. on February 28, 1951, 18-year old Hugh used 7.5 birdshot in a 410-gauge shotgun he had bought the day before to shoot his grandmother in the right arm, chest and abdomen. He then turned the gun on his father and wounded him in the face, left arm and chest.  

Neighbors called the police and a motorcycle patrolman spotted the escaping 220-pound, six-foot-two inch youth and chased him onto the Palm Beach Country Club golf course. Young Berry turned and fired, striking the patrolman in the left leg though not severely.  

The shootings touched off the biggest manhunt in the island city’s history with more than 50 police and sheriff’s deputies involved. Aided by fire engines with their searchlights, the hunt moved across the golf course and southward toward the large luxury hotels. Harbor patrol boats guarded the Lake Worth inlet on the western and northern end of the beach.  

Some time later the youth was captured as he strode along a road with the shotgun dangling by his side. An empty shell had jammed in the chamber. He was taken to police headquarters to be held prior to mental examination. The police chief reported he had stated, “You’d do the same thing if you were being gypped out of $600,000. They’re trying to disinherit me.”  

A committee consisting of two physicians and a representative of the sheriff’s department was appointed to examine him and declared he had dementia praecox and should be committed to the Florida State Hospital. His mother said that his difficulty began with a head injury in an accident three years ago and that he had undergone a recent psychiatric examination in Chicago. They were awaiting accommodations at an Illinois hospital before taking him back there for treatment.  

Ella Gibbins McClung passed away on March 9, 1951 at a West Palm Beach hospital and her body was returned to Knoxville for services preceding her burial in Greenwood Cemetery.  

Thomas and Ellen Berry immersed themselves in historic preservation causes. In late 1951, Ellen was appointed organizing chairman of the Upper East Tennessee Division of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. In February, 1952, she and six other Knoxville women met and formed the Jefferson County (later Glenmore) Chapter of the APTA. She continued to work with other groups across East Tennessee and then served as president of the state association for the 1955-56 year.  

It was in 1952 that she also assisted the Knoxville Chapter of the APTA to purchase Ramsey House for $8000 with funds cobbled together by the state, the city and the county. For several months, Thomas Berry personally accompanied two capable Fountain City carpenters and craftsmen to the site--Charlie Davis, who had worked as a mason at Savage Garden for 17 years and built its many structures, and Dave Price. They replaced the roof, shored up the walls, removed plaster and restored missing mantelpieces in the dining and drawing rooms.  

In October 1954, it was announced that T.C. Wilburn, a retired Southern Railway conductor, purchased Belcaro and its six-acre gardens and grounds for $33,000. The remaining 81 acres were divided into lots and sold at auction.   

Fairfax

(Photo courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection)

Thomas and Ellen Berry had purchased Fairfax, the Maj. Lawson Franklin place built about 1840 near White Pine on Douglas Lake. They brought James Reynolds, the famous Irish artist himself, to supervise the restoration of the historic home and commissioned him to paint a large mural of Belcaro and its surrounding Italian gardens for Fairfax. They lived there for more than 20 years and hosted many parties for their “rich and famous” friends.  

On December 31, 1963, 31-year old Hugh Lawson McClung passed away from pneumonia and complications in Guadalajara, Mexico.  

The January 21, 1965, Knoxville News Sentinel announced a very significant grant to the University of Tennessee. Ellen Berry had given seven downtown properties, valued in excess of $300,000, to be managed by UT, the proceeds to provide a life-income to the Berrys. She wanted the gift to be used to build “a large and beautiful plaza” with a fountain and statuary. The complex included a 12-story tower and President Andrew Holt announced it would be named McClung Tower and Plaza in honor of her parents.  

Berrymount

(Courtesy of University of Tennessee Special Collections)

By 1977, the Berrys had had their fill of “great houses” and Ellen Berry designed what she called a “Palladian Pavilion” also in White Pine. Architect James Reynolds had stated, “… the small or medium-size house with all rooms on one floor has been much admired. If one wants a house with high ceilings, large windows, rooms with elegance in which to display antique treasures, the Palladian Pavilion is the ticket.”   

They named their new home Berrymount and filled the spacious rooms with their rare furnishings, antiques and art collections. The 11-foot ceilings and the mountain top setting made summer cooling unnecessary. As at Belcaro, they had a stunning vista--this time of English Mountain, Mount LeConte and Douglas Lake.

Part III

Ellen McClung Berry’s beloved father, Judge Hugh L. McClung, died in 1936 and her mother, Ella Gibbins McClung, in 1951. Her only child, Hugh McClung Berry, passed away in 1963 and only she and her husband Thomas Berry remained.  

On March 13, 1978, while he was engaged in the restoration of Glenmore, a 27 room Victorian mansion in Jefferson City, Thomas H. Berry passed away at age 83.  

Ellen continued to live at Berrymount with her female housekeeper and companion and Dan Tondevold, a mysterious man with a European accent supposedly from Denmark.  

Some years before Ellen and Thomas Berry had seen him in a San Francisco department store and were struck by his remarkable resemblance to their son with the same 6’2”, 210-pound athletic build.  They befriended him and he visited them frequently. Then he came to live in Berrymount’s guest house after Thomas’ death, ostensibly to “write a book.”  

 

Berrymount's Panorama

(Note Fairfax, Top Center)

(Photo courtesy of the University of Tennessee Special Collections)

Tondevold further ingratiated himself to Ellen by leaving poignant notes for her like one found with her magazine and newspaper clippings of Italian villas and gardens. Among those papers in the University of Tennessee Special Collections, dated Dec. 5, 1979, and signed, “D.T. for Ellen,” the free verse note read:  

“Berrymout/Winter Flows/Slopes, Swells, of frosted summer green/Fairfax silent/Grey fledgings, of barren bough/Sketches, of season lake, skate on time, mirrored, passing skies/Bound, grasped, by darken barren the dormant mounts/Declaring: this is earth/This is beyond/Broken, by mist, for yet another tomorrow.”  

Ellen Berry at Berrymount

(Note Giant Catawba Rhododendron)

(Photo courtesy of the University of Tennessee Special Collections)

Gradually, Ellen gained even more confidence in him and eventually seemed to consider him a godson. He took over management of the estate, managed her accounts and made large purchases (a $20,000 race horse, for instance). Eventually, in April, 1982, he suggested she give him power of attorney which she did in a weak moment.  

In 1985, Ellen, her companion and Tondevold went to Charleston on vacation. When it came time to return to Berrymount, he suggested they fly home and he would bring her Mercedes in a few days. It would be easier on them, he said. He also suggested Ellen allow him to bring her jewelry and furs in the car “since they would be safer with him than on a plane.”  

When they reached home, they found the lights and telephone disconnected, many valuable antiques missing, her checking and savings accounts liquidated and she even learned that there was an $85,000 mortgage on the house. She was not only almost penniless but also in debt.  

An episode of Robert Stack’s “Unsolved Mysteries” shown on NBC, December 4, 1991, revealed some other details of the story. The program reported that some weeks later a body washed up on a remote Fripp Island beach 100 miles south of Charleston with a bullet wound to the head and an antique pistol that had belonged to Ellen nearby.  

There was no identification on the body but a wallet was found containing Ellen’s credit cards. Too badly decomposed for positive identification, the body was immediately cremated according to instructions found in the suicide note in his living quarters.  

Suspicion grew when it was discovered later that he had placed an ad in a Charleston paper, “Wanted houseman-chauffeur for East Tennessee country estate (valid non-accident license). Non-smoker, single, non-fat and must like privacy in the country. Write with personal details and include picture if possible.”  

And, in a stroke of intense irony, his resume’ was found among Ellen’s papers indicating that Tondevold had resided in Las Vegas during his teen years. Investigators for “Unsolved Mysteries” located his 1951 high school annual with a recognizable likeness of him in the senior class which listed as his major accomplishment, “President, Thespian Society.”  

Some think that Tondevold still lives in Europe, the Caribbean or South America with the fortune that was estimated as high as $5 million dollars to support him in the style to which he had become accustomed.  

Ellen Berry moved into a small Jefferson City apartment living off the proceeds of the $300,000 grant she had given to the university to honor her parents.

She was interviewed later, at 92 years of age, defrauded of her home and her fortune by a man she considered a godson; but with her dignity, her consummate style and sense of humor intact. She reported beginning a letter to a dear friend with these words, “Greetings from the nouveau poor ….”

Ellen Lawson McClung Berry passed away on April 18, 1992 at 98 years of age. She is buried with her parents, her husband and her son in Greenwood Cemetery.

I. Author's Note: Thanks to the Knoxville Museum of Art for permission to use the oil portrait of Ellen Berry.  Also to the Knoxville News Sentinel and the C.M. McClung Historical Collection.

II. Author’s Note: Thanks to the C.M. McClung Historical Collection and Jenny Ball for their assistance.

III. Author’s Note: Thanks to Nick Wyman, Bill Eigelsbach and Elizabeth Dunham of the University of Tennessee Special Collections. Also to landscape architect, Dr. Garry Menendez. Robert Stack’s “Unsolved Mysteries” episodes on the Dan Tondevold mystery can be found by entering “Ellen McClung Berry and YouTube” in the Google search bar.

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