From the Historical Society of Easton’s Year of the Woman Series.
Leonore Vonderlieth went by the stage name Vaughn De Leath. Born in 1894 in Mount Pulaski, Illinois, De Leath was certainly one of the earliest singers to appear on radio when she went on the air in January of 1920 singing “Swanee River” during a broadcast from New York City’s World Tower Station. She thereafter claimed to have been the first female singer to perform on live radio, thus adopting the title of “The Original Radio Girl.” From page 27 of the February 1923 edition of Wireless Age: “Thus far no one has come forward to dispute Vaughn De Leath’s claim of being “the original radio girl.” Probably no one will, for the letters she has from her invisible audience are dated months before radio entertainment became everybody’s job. Her first radio appearance was in the early days of 1920, in the World Tower Station, New York City. Even then she sensed radio’s impending popularity, and she stoutly defended the latest of arts and sciences against those who contended it would not last.”
She was one of the most popular recording artists of the early 20th century. In 1924, she married artist Livingston Geer, and sometime around 1926, they purchased 910 Sport Hill Road as their summer residence. She commuted once a week to perform and host the “Voice of Firestone” on NBC radio in New York City. Her original 1927 recording “Are You Lonesome Tonight” would be sung 33 years later by Elvis Presley.
Vaughn De Leath sang in a low, reedy voice and often favored sentimental material. De Leath claimed to have created the vocal style of crooning, as it registered better on early radio sets than did the high soprano voice in which she had been trained. In more than one interview she claimed that some of the notes she hit while singing soprano “blew radio tubes in listeners’ sets” – perhaps a bit of a stretch but amusing none-the-less.
During the 1920’s, she was a singer, songwriter and musician, as well as an occasional stage actress. In 1923, she became the first woman to manage a radio station, WDT in New York. She also has a star in her honor on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. De Leath played the guitar, banjo, ukulele, and piano and she would entertain her radio audiences with almost no pre-scripted material. She began singing in scat at least ten years before that style of vocalization even had a name. Over her career, De Leath’s wrote over 500 songs, including “Drowsy Head” in a collaborative effort with Irving Berlin, and “Now They Called it Swing,” a hit song sung by Billy Holiday and Louis Prima. In addition to her radio and recording work, De Leath was among the first to be part of a television broadcast when that medium was still in its experimental stages. Her performance of “Ukulele Lady” was used in the 1999 Academy Award-winning film “The Cider House Rules.”
During her career, she recorded for the Edison, Columbia, Victor, Brunswick, and Crown labels, among others. She was accompanied by 1920’s jazz figures such as Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Dick McDonough, Eddie Lang and Paul Whiteman. She also recorded and composed songs for several silent films.
De Leath was an avid cook and loved living on her Easton “farm” – all 7 acres of it. The farm was named “The Hitching Post”, and she and Livingston Geer enjoyed the country life. She was quoted in 1937: “I like small-town life. I like being neighborly – swapping jelly and home-made bread across the back fence.” An interesting observation given that her nearest neighbor via her backyard would have been about a half-mile through the woods over on North Park Avenue. De Leath had a beloved Collie named Nell, who more than once wandered off the farm, prompting De Leath, on each occasion, to offer a reward for her return. That seemed to be effective, as the dog was always found and returned to her mistress shortly thereafter.
Livingston Geer was a very successful artist and illustrator. Well known for his cover work for Photoplay and other various publications, he worked steadily during his time in Easton. His portrait and landscape work occasionally come up at auction and can usually be had for a very reasonable price. The painting below, in its original frame, sold for only $30 at a rural Maine auction in 2006. Geer and De Leath were divorced in late 1934, with De Leath retaining the ownership of the Easton property.
De Leath was a devout Catholic, and in the 1930’s, divorce often meant excommunication from the Church. When that happened to Vaughn, she wasn’t about to abandon the Church even though it had abandoned her. Determined to still practice her religion, she had a small chapel, complete with a stained-glass window, built in the basement of her Sport Hill Road home. While it has since been mostly dismantled – the stained glass has been removed and the window boarded over, and the religious statues that sat in the specially constructed alcoves in the brick side wall are now missing, recognizable remnants of the little chapel remain in basement.
Another interesting aspect of her Easton home is the fact that it was originally built for the first minister of the Baptist Church that sat at the northern end of Union Cemetery. The house was built in 1829. The minister also doubled as the tombstone carver for the Union Cemetery. A stack of his stones, likely rejects that cracked as he carved them, can be found in the basement, where they serve as a support for the floor above. One basement – two religions – no waiting. How many other homes in Easton share that distinction?
De Leath remarried in 1937. This time to musician Irwin Rosenbloom. That union lasted 4 years, with De Leath divorcing him, claiming “unusual cruelty” on his part. Again, she retained ownership of the Easton home. Also, in 1937, De Leath sued singer Kate Smith and won an injunction prohibiting Smith from using the title “First Lady in Radio,” a term De Leath had often used to describe herself after she was no longer calling herself “The Original Radio Girl.” Coincidently, Smith’s sister Helena Steene also lived in Easton for a while, residing on Flat Rock Road.
While I could find no direct correspondence between them, it can be assumed that Vaughn De Leath had become friendly with fellow Easton resident and author Edna Ferber at some point when the two women resided in town. Ferber lived on Maple Road about two miles from De Leath’s residence. In Ferber’s 1945 novel “The Great Son,” she named one of her main characters Vaughan Melendy who fathers a child by dancer Pansy DeLeath – perhaps just a coincidental choice of names, but seemingly unlikely. It would appear more probable to have been a tribute to a friend who had passed away too early.
Vaughn De Leath died on May 28, 1943 at the age of only 49. A weight problem along with financial difficulties led to bouts of depression and illness in the early 1940’s. Her early demise has been blamed at least in part on her heavy consumption of alcohol in her battle against depression.
Easton has been the home to many influential women, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. One thing they all seemed to have in common was their fierce sense of independence and their ability to succeed in what was then, almost exclusively, a world run by men. Somehow, that makes their achievements even greater. Power, fame, self-made wealth, along with world-wide political and social influence, all from women who born before the United States allowed women the right to vote. Bravo ladies! We salute you!