By virtually unanimous suggestion, Cam and Frank Rosengren were chosen as our first interviewees. Not only do they reside in the oldest residence in River Road (1780’s!) but Frank grew up here and Cam’s mother and grandmother lived at River Road and Magnolia Ave. When Anne Larme and I went to interview them last month we soon realized a single interview couldn’t possibly encompass their larger-than-life personal narratives. A new plan was devised; Anne would write about the history of their amazing homestead and its impact on River Road, and I would write about the amazing Rosengrens and their impact on the rest of us! (This first brief summarization for the RRNA Newsletter/Website is but a hint of their fascinating lives—a “Rosengren Highlights Tour,” so to speak. Enjoy.)
No, neither Frank nor Cam were born in Texas, but as the saying goes, they got here darn quick. Frank (nicknamed “Figgi”) was born in Chicago in 1926 and drove cross-country with his parents to San Antonio in 1935. Harry Hertzberg, prominent Texas attorney and State Senator (and progenitor of the “Hertzberg Circus Collection”) had asked the senior Rosengrens to relocate their Chicago bookstore to San Antonio. Father, Knut “Frank” and mother, Florence (Kednay), soon began operating, what was at the time, the city’s premier bookstore, the renowned “Rosengrens”. For over five decades the artistic and intellectual soul of San Antonio resonated from within its cosmopolitan walls. Located originally on the sixth floor of the downtown Milam Bldg., Rosengrens made a vertical move in 1938 to the first floor of the same building. Then during the 40’s they moved once again to across Travis Park from the St. Anthony Hotel, in the rehabilitated site of the first downtown bus station. And ultimately, in 1952, to the ground floor of the Crockett Hotel, behind the Alamo. There the store stayed for thirty years, until the Hotel was sold and renovated. For its final five years, from 1982 to 1987, the store was located upstairs from the River Walk, on Losoya.
Frank, an only child, attended the River Road Country Day School, operated by Hetty Browne and a group of energetic and dedicated women. Hetty Browne originally owned five acres of land surrounding the school, the main building of which is presently Jim Cullum’s home on Anastascia Pl. A “progressive” academy for its time (first through sixth grade) Frank relates how the teachers let his fourth grade class listen to the World Series on the radio as a way of incorporating math and statistical skills.
In 1936, during the middle of The Depression, Frank’s parents signed a three-year-note and bought the (then) 156 year old Zambrano house on the school property for $600. The house was being used at the time as the student’s arts and crafts studio. Along with the sale came a stable with two horses (Frank’s favorite was “Chiquita”) and that stable eventually evolved into the Guest House where Frank and Cam’s daughter, Emily, stays on her visits from Los Angeles.
Frank remembers that River Road was a great neighborhood to be a kid in—the Zoo was free, the Witte Museum was free, the Golf Course was free and there was even swimming in the river at “Lambert’s Beach” in Brackenridge Park (next to the Joske Pavilion.) Back then, River Road ran all the way through the Golf Course and connected up with Josephine St. The Hurricane of 1937 (“The Big Wind”) blew down virtually all the trees in River Road—at the time mostly chinaberry, mulberry and scrub oak. George Brackenridge had planted some of River Road’s oldest pecan trees previously and Hetty Browne, who hailed originally from Alabama, wanted to plant more southern pecans on her property after the storm. Together, she and the Rosengrens collaborated and brought in 25 to 30 large trees and planted them up and down Anastascia—thus belying the myth that this part of River Road was once an ancient pecan grove. (Frank says there were virtually no pecan trees on the property when he was a boy.) Still, those leafy legacies of the “Big Wind” can still be seen towering today over many of our homes. Another feature of River Road that Frank recalls as being exceptional for the time was just how integrated the neighborhood was. As a child Frank’s immediate neighbors included three Anglo families, three Black families and four Hispanic families, all just a stroll from his front door.
Notable River Road neighbors of the Rosengrens have been: Dwight Allison, former Managing Editor of the San Antonio Light newspaper, who lived across from their property. (Allison met and married a dancer in the Folies Bergere, Tomi Charpentier, during WWI in Paris. Together they made River Road their home for many years.) Caroline Shelton, noted watercolorist (Illustrator, “San Antonio; The Wayward River” & “Caroline Shelton Paints King William Street”, etc.) was a next door neighbor of the Rosengrens. San Antonio Conservation Society founders Rena Maverick Green, Mary Maverick Green and Ethel Wilson Harris were all River Road residents at one time or another. Rowllings “Rolly” Hamilton, noted area theatre director and co-worker at Rosengrens Bookstore lived on Craig Pl. as well as next to Cam and Frank. Famed CBS news correspondent (now NPR commentator) Daniel Schorr was a frequent visitor to the Rosengren home during World War II. As he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, STAYING TUNED, “What, more than anything else, made San Antonio bearable was the presence of a couple, Frank and Florence Rosengren, who ran the best bookshop in town and made their rambling house a salon away from home for those who liked books and music.” Poet Robert Frost spent a winter in San Antonio in 1936-37 and the Rosengrens hosted his sixty-third birthday party. Author J. Frank Dobie was a frequent caller as well as Hollywood screenwriters Robert Ardrey and Garson Kanin (“Born Yesterday”).
Cam, also an only child, was born Camille Sweeney in New York. Her family moved back to Texas while she was still very young. Father, Emmett Sweeney, was a Cornell graduate who started a career in banking. He migrated to Texas as a young man (in a rather colorful fashion, I might add, but I’ll leave the details to Cam!). Meeting Cam’s mother, Camille Lodovic, in San Antonio, they married and drove back to New York, staying long enough to have Cam, and then returned to Texas. Emmett, by this time had detoured into landscape design and he partnered with the developer of Olmos Park, H. C. Thorman, in landscaping some of the grandest homes in Olmos Park. Eventually he went back to Law School, became an attorney, and ultimately the founder of Guaranty Abstract and Title Co. (Located in the downtown Milam Building—next to Rosengren’s Book Store! Kismet?)
In Cam we have our very own “Eloise, of the Plaza”—only it was The Menger Hotel, followed by the St. Anthony. Cam spent the bulk of her growing-up years living with her family in a series of suites at both hotels. (Her mother could always tell when Cam had disobeyed her wishes and been snooping around the attics of the Menger—her hair would be filigreed in cobwebs!) And sorry to disillusion anyone, but Cam says she never once encountered a ghost of any kind in all her childhood forays into the various Menger nooks and crannies. (Author’s note: what would it take to convince Cam Rosengren to write a short children’s book about a little girl who grows up in one of the oldest hotels in Texas? If I were an Editor I’d wine and dine her—and dine her some more till she signed on the dotted line!)
Cam and Frank met as a result of a book-signing party at Rosengrens in 1950. Frank had been living for a year in Cuernavaca, Mexico (becoming fast friends with another Cuernavaca writer on sabbatical, Algonquin roundtable wit Dorothy Parker!) Cam was working on her Masters at Our Lady of the Lake Univ. (and eventual Ph.D.) in Library Science and Archival Work. They married on Jan. 13, 1951 and lived in Cam’s suite at the St. Anthony for six months before moving to Dallas where Frank’s play Walls Rise Up was being produced by Tennessee William’s mentor, Margo Jones. In October of ’52 they moved again, this time to New York City where they stayed until returning to work to help launch Hemisfair in 1967. (Incidentally, Frank’s nom-de-plume in the theatre-world is Frank Duane, a family name as well. Frank Rosengren Sr. was already a published author of children’s books and Frank decided to carve out a moniker of his own.)
At Hemisfair Cam became the first Museum Registrar and Librarian for the Institute of Texan Cultures and Frank did P.R. for the Fair and helped launch KLRN. After the Fair, Cam managed Rosengrens Books until its closing. Upon their return from New York, Frank, Cam and Emmy settled in the house Cam’s mother had bought when she moved from the St. Anthony, 715 River Road (more Kismet?) They stayed there briefly then bought a place in Terrell Hills and eventually, in the mid-90’s, after the death of Frank’s mother, relocated back to the original River Road house purchased by the senior Rosengrens in the 1930’s, where they continue to reside today.
A very special thanks to Cam and Frank for sharing a small part of their unique and wonderful stories with us. (Please leave your comments, suggestions or ideas about who to interview next in the space below.)
July 30, 2008