If John Albury Bryan was the father of the resurrection of Lafayette Square, it might be fair to ask who the mother was. I’ve pondered this a bit and rediscovered a fascinating lady that lived about 100 feet away from Bryan on Benton Place. She died eight weeks before Bryan, and the passing of these two must have resonated in the neighborhood. Let’s take a time trip back and look in on Henrietta “Retta” Strantz Reed.
Retta Strantz Reed was born in 1895, and eighty-one years later her obituary referred to her as the ‘Mayor’ of Benton Place. Her funeral procession led through Lafayette Square and past her longtime home at 35 Benton Place. A woman who served as a private in the US Army in World War I, she is buried at Jefferson Barracks.
To tell you Retta’s story, I need to first introduce Carrie Jacobs Bond. She was a prolific songwriter, responsible for this memorable nugget, sung by the original Bert and Ernie in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life”.
Carrie wrote 200 songs and designed the cover art for most of her sheet music. She was the first person to sell over a million copies of sheet music. By virtue of self-publishing, every word of every song was the property of Carrie Jacobs Bond. She was a surprisingly tough and ambitious widow from Chicago who had once survived by selling painted plates, while slowly selling off everything but her piano. When success came and money was no longer a fantasy, she moved to Hollywood and took the young and recently widowed Retta on as a traveling companion.
In Hollywood, Retta found work where Carrie was scoring film, at the Fairbanks-PIckford-Chaplin United Artists Studios. In 1922, she had a small (and uncredited) role in the first big production of “Robin Hood”. She was paid above scale due to her ability to ride both a horse and a motorcycle.
Returning to St Louis several years later, with a self-confidence perhaps influenced by her association with Carrie (and Robin Hood?), she became a special deputy with the State Fish And Game department and held that post until 1936, when the department was restructured as the Conservation Commission.
By 1930, with a new political fire in her belly, Retta ran for 7th Ward committee person in South St Louis. Unsuccessful, but undeterred, she instead became a notary and bail bondsperson. Her bonding business specialized in dealing with trucking companies whose employees incurred driving violations. She became and remained a familiar presence in the municipal courts for decades.
In 1942 she ran for justice of the peace, again unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, over in Benton Place, the state of once-exclusive homes had descended from palatial to downright affordable. Property values trended downward with each sale. In the earliest days of 35 Benton Place, Montgomery Blair had sold the undeveloped lot to William Maurice. He proceeded to design the house there as well as the (no longer existing) Ludlow Mansion across the street. The great tornado of 1896 ruined the park and Lafayette Square in general. In 1900, with many betting against a full recovery for Lafayette Square, ownership of #35 passed to Dr. A.H. Lewis, the man behind Natures Remedy laxative. That’s Lewis below:
The omnipresent amateur historian William Swekosky pointed out in his personal notes that Dr. Lewis was, among other things, a collector of string and possessed “an immense ball on his desk, saved over a period of years, that he intended to reuse”. Five home sales later, 35 Benton Place found a buyer in the dauntless Retta Reed who, against the grain of neighborhood decline, moved there in 1940 and stayed for the next 36 years.
With the property, Retta assumed ownership of the 30-foot high wall that separates Benton Place from Hickory Street below. It was originally built in 1887 to isolate the affluent residential area from the hustle and flow of Schnaiders Garden. By 1903, the beer garden was cleared for development of Roberts Johnson and Rand Shoe Company (now the Lofts At Lafayette Square). To this day, half the wall remains the property of 35 Benton Place. Swekosky referred to the budding real estate investor Reed as “small but very active”.
In 1946, she bought and had the 10 room red brick Ludlow Mansion at 40 Benton Place razed. It had been vacant and vandalized over the preceding five years. Benton Place seemed to be slowly falling apart. In the same year, a city ordinance was passed, making the street there a public thoroughfare. By 1948, with newly repaired streets, Benton Place residents began contesting the street status again. Retta led the effort to formalize city control, claiming that “holes in the street became canyons” under private management. Expressing concern for her two daughters, she wanted the city to install and maintain streetlights as well. Proponents of repeal held that free public use of their street was a violation of their privacy. Alderman Joe Slay requested the city to hold a public meeting for residents, to “let them fight it out”.
A compromise was struck, and as part of that, St Louis City agreed to furnish streetlights (still there today), to be turned off at 10 o’clock pm by a switch Retta controlled at 35 Benton Place. In his notes, Swekosky alleges that she cheated when her daughters would stay out late, keeping the lights on until they returned. He noted, “the rest of the place would kick, as they did not like to help her pay the light bill.” Swekosky, often a source of colorful anecdote, wrote that Retta “raises bees on her lot, and tropical fishes, takes care of a blinded vet of the Japanese area and raises hell when other property owners do not kick in with their share of the light bill.” He incongruously adds that one of Reed’s daughters, Mary, “is a dancer for KSD television, and her other daughter, Lola, is married to a boat builder on Lake Of The Ozarks and flies to the foot of Market Street in a water plane and rides to #35 after calling her mother almost every week”.
In 1949, she ran for 7th Ward Alderperson, losing to first-time candidate Ray Leisure. In June of that year, she was mentioned in the Post Dispatch when a nail keg she improvised as housing for some squirrels was taken over by a colony of her bees. She kept seventeen hives on her now spacious property at the north end of Benton Place. A queen bee and her entourage moved into this new residence “designed to hold 100 pounds of nails or eight squirrels”. Retta stated that she could “no more count the number of bees than I could the number of beans in a fishbowl”. The squirrels moved to another empty nail keg Retta attached to a tree, joining a menagerie consisting of “three dogs, about fifty chickens, a number of pigeons and Minnie The Moocher, a cat that had created a furor by having successive litters in the Municipal Courts building two years earlier”.
Retta was married and widowed three times. Her first marriage, to John Heggi resulted in four children. Her second husband was William Strantz, whom she met in Los Angeles in 1922. Lola and Mary were the children from this marriage. After his death in 1937, she met and married Earl Reed. Earl was able to keep up with Retta for many years and passed away in 1964. By this time Retta was seventy, and slowing a bit herself. She continued to be a force on Benton Place but was winding down operations.
Her home at 35 Benton Place was a haven for policemen looking for a break, an early model for the substation concept. This proved a welcoming place for coffee, lunches, and conversation. Retta always had doughnuts and hot coffee available for the police, firemen, and needy neighbors.
By the early 1970’s, Retta had moved to assisted living. She was quoted as saying, “This place is nice, but it’s sad that I can’t see my coppers anymore”.
When she passed away in 1976, both the police district commander and the St Louis Chief of Police attended the funeral. Chief Eugene Camp eulogized her as “ a great asset to her neighborhood. She has helped poor people”. A longtime court veteran commented that “at the time she was the only woman professional bondsman. I never knew anybody to say a bad word about her, even other bondsmen, and THAT is unusual, She did the business right”.
Who among us can squeeze that much from the time we get? I admire this gal, and researching Retta began to feel like hanging out at #35, sipping coffee and brushing away the occasional bee while listening to some old tune from the Carrie Jacobs Bond songbook.
Deliberate Foreshadowing Note: Digging into the history of the abandoned house Retta razed at 40 Benton Place resulted in a wild tale. Stay tuned.
Thanks to research sources including:
National Public Radio – https://www.npr.org/2009/08/29/…/remembering-composer-carrie-jacobs-bond
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_Jacobs-Bond
The St Louis Post Dispatch – June 8 1942, November 17 1946, January 29th 1948, March 9 1949, June 1 1949, August 27 1964, October 20 1976,
The History Bucket for the photo of Carrie Jacobs Bond
eBay for the Natures Remedy tin photo