I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about Aunt Gladys.

I thought a lot about her, what was she like, how did she look, what were her favorite things. I wrote about her, or how I imagined her, long before I started researching her connection to my family.

Everyone I knew called her that, Aunt Gladys, which I guess makes sense as everyone I knew were either her nieces (my grandmother and her sisters) or her grand nephews and nieces (my Dad, his siblings and cousins).

No one I knew really seemed to like her. They called her a “free spirit” and a “mooch.” A “slick talker;” “talented” but someone who would “just pick up and leave” whenever, wherever, and sometimes for whomever. She was a smoker, the life of the party, but never seemed to quite make it on her own. I think a lot of people — the “unfree spirits” and “non-moochers” — found her pathetic.

Gladys, born around 1901, was the youngest of six children born to Sam Houston and Lillie (née Dillingham) Dellinger.

Her oldest brother, Gordon (born around 1887), died as a child after being kicked in the stomach by a horse, possibly while they were living off land Sam Houston acquired during the Oklahoma Land Rush (not sure which one).

Her only sister, Nelle (born 1890), was my great-grandmother (mother of Evelyn).

Then came Earl (born 1892), who would later send at least one letter home to his sister, Nelle, while serving in World War 1. He and Nelle were considered the “stable ones” of the family; I’ll get into that later.

Charles (aka Charlie or Chuck) was born in 1895 and Raymond in 1898; from what I understand, Gladys and these two were thick as thieves as young people in the 1920s and 30s, rip-roaring through big city life, making and losing fortunes in the oil boom.

From my great-aunt Charlene, daughter of Nelle, in a letter from 1997:

{…} Gladys, Raymond, and Charlie were part of the high-living young who were making big money in the 30’s off the oil boom. How much money they made, I have no idea, but I gather they spent everything they made and lived high on the hog. It was probably a very exciting time for people who had never been prosperous before who could eat and drink in the best places. I remember Gladys acting as if she belonged in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd in LA. And they were beautiful people — dressed well, made a good impression and apparently got in with the rich.

But I jump ahead of myself.

Gladys must’ve been beautiful as a child and as a young woman. At 72 ½ years old (pictured above) she was still quite striking.

My great-aunt Lily (Charlene and grandma’s sister) often described Gladys in more romantic or titillating terms. I think she either thought of Gladys as interesting or exciting, or as fodder for her grand stories, or all of the above.

I believe Lily is the one who told me that Gladys was a fantastic pianist and could play by ear. Apparently, she was so talented that she played in the Chautauqua Festivals (in Oklahoma, probably). Nelle was also a talented pianist. Both sisters went to “finishing school” (Baylor College in Belton, Texas). Lily also said that their father’s farm proceeds paid for their education.

When my brother and I were visiting Lily in Arizona after she had retired, she intimated that Gladys was a woman of loose morals and might have turned prostitute once her oil money had run out. I asked Charlene about it and she said she highly doubted that Gladys was a prostitute; she was a partier, but that is quite different.

My aunt and great aunts described Gladys as a fashion plate; she often gave them her old clothes, which reeked of tobacco.

Charlene wrote (1997):

Gladys was a classy dresser and had wonderful jobs because she was a first-rate stenographer. But she wouldn’t stay with the same job very long. She’d take off for wherever Grandma Dellinger was living and stay with her. She visited us in Kearney for about a week once. She was the first woman I ever knew who smoked. Women just didn’t smoke in public, so we kids were intrigued. We’d sit around and watch her smoke. I guess I was about 12 at the time. (That is pretty silly, isn’t it?)

{…} I can remember being impressed with her beautiful clothes during the depression when I was in high school because she would send me her suits from I Magnin, Bullocks, and Saks.

My aunt Katie (Dad’s sister) also remembered receiving Gladys’s hand-me-downs, still reeking of tobacco in the 1960s. Katie also viewed Gladys in a more romantic light; I believe she may have envied Gladys’s magnetism and ability to be at home anywhere and with everyone.

Charlene also said (1997),

No, I don’t think Gladys was interesting. She was pathetic. She had a wonderful opportunity that she blew. She dropped out of the University of Nebraska before she graduated. Mom {Nelle} was teaching school and unmarried, so she sent Gladys money and clothes so that she could stay in school. It was rare for a poor girl to be able to go to a state University in those days (probably the late 1910s). In fact, I’d have given my eye teeth to have been able to do it, 35 years later.

I believe that it was Lily who told me that Grandma Lillie was to blame for Gladys’s failed marriage. Charlene thought differently (1997):

{…} She was generous with me, helping me to get a job in the aircraft industry when I went to San Diego {1943}.

{Her brother} Earl worked on the railroad and lived in Tucumcari, New Mexico. He never married, but Grandma and Grandpa Dellinger lived with him after Grandpa Dellinger retired as a railroad brakeman. Gladys used to visit them in Tucumcari because Earl had a little guest house on his property where she could stay, even when she was married to Geary.

{…} Gladys married Geary, who worked on the railroad, after Joe {Charlene’s first husband} and I left California. I don’t think you can blame Grandma Dellinger for breaking up her marriage. Gladys was a free spirit who loved parties. Tucumcari had a hotel that was very popular, so I think she spent a lot of time there drinking and partying. She was probably bored living in a small apartment with Geary.

Dad doesn’t have a lot to say about Aunt Gladys, but I know he didn’t like her much. He thought she was “obnoxious and loud.” Aunt Charlene said that her father (Henry) didn’t trust her. He was afraid that if he died first, Gladys would swoop in and use up all of Nelle’s money because she was a big spender.

My grandfather, Evie’s husband, also didn’t trust Gladys. I think he was glad to leave her in California when they moved to Kansas in the early 1970s. I know he thought she was a “nice mooch,” but a mooch all the same. As he was quite frugal, I’m sure he wanted as much space between them as possible. I never knew what my grandmother thought of her, only impressions from what Grandpa would say Grandma had said. I got the feeling that Grandma didn’t really have patience for her, but was gracious to her as she was family.

Like Charlene, I was curious why so many Dellinger children turned out so badly. When I wrote to her and asked, she responded with (1997):

Mom {Nelle} said it was Grandma Dellinger’s fault because she spoiled them. That may have been part of it, but why were Mom and Earl so conservative if that is the case?

Evie and I conjectured that Gladys died an alcoholic, alone in Los Angeles. Evie saw her after I did when she and Dick lived in California. I guess Gladys was quite torn up when Evie and Dick moved to Kansas because, as she told Evie, “I don’t have anyone.” She was very unrealistic because she thought she would always have someone to take care of her. Because of that weakness, she didn’t save her money, so she could take care of herself. She had a rich friend whose husband promised Gladys that he would always take care of her. The problem was that he died, and his family weren’t about to let his money go to pay for someone who was no family. So she lost her best friends and any hope of financial security. (I suspect they were all drunk when they made these promises).

In 1943…{Joe and I} went to visit Chuck in LA when he was married to Jean. They were probably in their fifties and alcoholics. They lived in a grubby upstairs apartment and were spending all their money on liquor. Jean had been married to a rich man before she married Chuck, but I can’t remember his name. {Mom} came to visit me, Chuck, Jean, when Joe and I were in LA one weekend. {Mom} decided that she would cure them of their alcoholism by pouring all their alcohol down the toilet. Of course, that only made matters worse because they had to spend their money on more liquor.

Right now, it seems likely that Charles died in 1956, but I’m not exactly sure. There are a lot of people named “Charles Dellinger” born around 1895. I’m trying to narrow this down and determine his cause of death.

{…} We don’t know what happened to Raymond. He just disappeared, leaving his wife and children. I think Mom tried to find him, but to no avail. He was married to a Hispanic woman and they had two or three children, but we never met them. I think Gladys used to see them.

It is possible that Raymond disappeared in South America. That is what I heard from Lily and I think Grandpa confirmed it, but I can’t remember exactly. I stupidly didn’t write things down after we talked genealogy. Shame on me.

Earl died of kidney cancer in Tucumcari in 1958.

Nelle outlived her siblings and husband, though she suffered through Alzheimer’s for many years. Due to her illness, she lived in an assisted living facility since before her husband died in 1975. Nelle passed away in 1980.