Above: Jane Hall at Poplar Springs the summer after her graduation from high school in New York.
Casanova’s Jane Hall Cutler: literary prodigy, artist, and debutante
The village of Casanova has long been noted for its uniqueness.
Among its historic treasures are Melrose Castle, built for Dr. James Murray in 1857; Weston, the eighteenth-century home of Giles Fitzhugh, now the property of the Warrenton Antiquarian Society; Grace Episcopal Church, founded in 1865; and nineteenth-century Rockhill Academy.
In addition to the old families who lived in the area for generations before the Civil War, what became Casanova grew with the arrival of the families of railroad workers in the 1850s, and others attracted to the fertile land and rolling hills.
Like the village, some of those who lived there were also unique.
One person intimately associated with Casanova in the twentieth century was Jane Hall Cutler (1915-1987), who along with her brother Dick Wick “Dickie” Hall Jr. spent much of their adolescence at Poplar Springs, ancestral home of their uncle, R. Randolph (d. 1951), an attorney, and aunt Rose Sutton Hicks (d. 1958).
Although she has been gone for 30 years now, Jane Cutler is fondly remembered as the mistress of Poplar Springs for her love of animals that resulted in the donation of 11.6 acres of her farm to the Fauquier SPCA for their fine shelter facility after her passing, and for the glamorous stories of her younger life in Hollywood and beyond, which she shared with friends, neighbors, and sometimes acquaintances.
And by the way, those stories were true – as revealed in Such Mad Fun, subtitled Ambition and Glamour in Hollywood’s Golden Age, the biography written by her daughter, Robin R. Cutler, in 2016.
Early life and Poplar Springs
Jane and Dickie Hall hailed from Salome, a mining town in Arizona. Their parents were DeForest “Dick Wick” Hall (1877-1926) and Daysie Mae Sutton Hall (1882-1930). From the town he co-founded in the desert, Dick Wick Hall published the Salome Sun, a newsletter containing tall tales, anecdotes, and humorous stories.
His work was soon noticed, and starting in 1922, he was a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post – earning him widespread recognition and the title, “Arizona’s Favorite Humorist.” Later, his writings were syndicated, and just before his untimely death in 1926, he was hired as a screenwriter for Universal Studios in California.
The next four years were tough. In 1927, Daysie and the children moved from Salome to Manhattan Beach, California, so her children could attend Redondo Union High School, one of the best public schools available.
Before she was 15 years old, Jane had written poetry that was published in the Los Angeles Times, as well as other articles and editorials, and was called “a literary prodigy who had inherited her father’s genius” in the press.
Following Daysie’s death in May 1930 after a two-year struggle with breast cancer, her devastated children came east to live with Daysie’s sister Rose and Randy Hicks. Jane and Dickie travelled by ship from Los Angeles to New York, passing through the Panama Canal. The Hickses divided their time between an apartment in New York City, where Randolph worked, and his ancestral farm at Poplar Springs.
The Hickses had built the 10,000-square-foot fieldstone manor house at Poplar Springs in 1928, “…just before the Depression decimated their savings,” according to Robin Cutler. “This new home, modeled after those Rose had seen in England, was her modest version of Haddon Hall.”
America was slipping deeper into the Great Depression, and although the Hickses were in better shape than most, it was a big strain to move to a larger apartment near the Nightingale-Bamford School for girls, where Jane would finish high school. Dickie matriculated at the University of Virginia, where he was a brilliant student and would ultimately earn a PhD in mathematics.
Jane excelled at Nightingale-Bamford, serving as the assistant editor of the school literary magazine and editor of the yearbook. After graduating in 1932, Jane was admitted to the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union in New York. There she met different classes of people (which fascinated her), and studied freehand drawing, modeling in clay, elementary design, composition, and lettering.
From June to October, Jane returned to Poplar Springs, where she made friends (which she called “the gang”) and enjoyed country life. “On evenings and weekends through these hot, humid summers, the gang swam at Daniel’s Mill and private pools; shared picnics and hayrides; drove to fairs, horse shows and steeplechase races; canoed on the Rappahannock River; and saw every film that was shown in Warrenton,” according to the account in Such Mad Fun.
The year 1933 marked a “coming of age” for Jane Hall. As the Hickses were part of New York society as well as prominent in Fauquier, Jane would have a formal debut in late December, along with Miss Margaret “Muggy” Gregory, one of her classmates at Nightingale.
Worried about their depleted savings, by joining forces with the Gregorys, the Hickses could provide two tea dances – one at Poplar Springs preceded by a mock foxhunt, and the primary tea dance in New York – rather than one expensive dinner dance.
In addition to being “presented to society,” her debut changed Jane’s focus for a while, as well as providing her with insights into the “glamour girls” that she encountered. This would serve her well as she commenced her professional career.
The debutante events at Poplar Springs were successful and memorable. The tea dance was held late Saturday afternoon in the great room at Poplar Springs, with mellow jazz provided by Warrenton’s own Chauncy Brown. Although Prohibition was still in effect, drinking lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
Sunday was spent relaxing at Poplar Springs, and after supper, members of the debutante party headed to Calverton, where they boarded the overnight train to New York. The formal tea dance was held on Dec. 23, 1933, at The Pierre, attended by “385 elegantly dressed men and women,” according to Such Mad Fun.
The Hickses returned to Virginia later that evening, leaving the debutantes to party in the city with others their ages. The fun lasted until 6 a.m.; after the holidays, it was back to school – and reality.
Young Jane Cutler’s talent as an artist flourished at Cooper Union, and returning to Poplar Springs in May 1934, she fell into “… a routine of writing, painting, and going out with her Virginia pals as much as possible.”
In early July, Jane completed a fictional story entitled “Out a Year,” based on her experiences as a debutante, which she later submitted to a New York literary agency run by Elsie McKeogh.
She also painted a large mural depicting the Casanova Hunt in front of the Poplar Springs manor house.
Part 2 will describe Jane Hall’s growth as an artist, her rise in the literary and film industries, and the many famous people she met and worked with, and, years later, her return to Poplar Springs.
Contact John Toler at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more about Such Mad Fun, visit robincutler.com