Kim Spence: Hattie Bishop Speed and the Hand of a Musician

Deep within the art-storage rooms of the Speed Art Museum stands a cabinet with a drawer filled curious objects. Strange wooden blocks with protruding pegs (according to legend, fragments from the log home of Thomas Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s father). A tourist’s figure of Venus made from bone or ivory. And two rows of sculpted hands. These hands have always reminded me of Thing from The Addams Family—strangely disembodied, palms lifted slightly so that the hands are perched on their fingertips, and eerily lifelike with their carefully articulated fingernails and veins.

Although these hands may be creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, they are some of my favorite pieces in the collection. Not because they’re extraordinary works of art, but rather because they tell a story of tragedy and perseverance, of grace and generosity, and of one woman’s quiet respect for her fellow man.

The sculptures are casts of the right hand of French pianist Isidor Philipp (1863–1958). As works of art, they are a holdout of Victorian tastes. Of a time when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert commissioned carvings of the hands and feet of their children, and music lovers collected casts of the hands of Beethoven and Chopin. During his lifetime, Philipp was a well-respected French composer, musician, and teacher. Born in Budapest of Jewish descent, he had been a student of composer Aaron Copeland and performed to great acclaim across Europe.

Philipp’s successful career came to an abrupt halt in May 1940 when—at the age of 77—he was forced to flee his Parisian home as the Nazi army prepared to lay siege to the city. With just 10 minutes notice, he quickly packed a couple of bags and escaped in a car belonging to one of his students, setting out on what must surely have been an adrenaline-fueled, five-day journey across France to Oloron near the Spanish border.

Eventually making his way to America, Philipp worked to rebuild his life, teaching and lecturing when he could to earn a living. In late 1941, Dwight Anderson—then dean of the UofL School of Music and a former pupil—invited Isidor Philipp to Louisville to lecture at the university and to give a few private lessons. During his visit, Hattie Bishop Speed asked him to speak to members of the Alliance Française in the Music Room at her home on West Ormsby Avenue. The gathering must have been a special treat for Hattie, who had studied music in Europe and taught piano before her marriage to James Breckinridge Speed. She also must have been aware that these lectures offered much needed financial support for the man who had been forced to leave everything behind when he fled France. So Hattie devised a plan to do more.

She commissioned American sculptor Brenda Putnam to make a mold of Philipp’s right hand. From it plaster casts could be made and sold to admirers for $25 each, with all proceeds going directly to Philipp. Letters written by Mrs. Speed at the time make clear her intent—she sought a way to offer financial aid to the struggling musician without the overt appearance of charity, which might hurt his sense of pride.

The choice of Brenda Putnam as artist was no coincidence. A few years earlier, the Museum hosted an exhibition of Putnam’s work. During the show, the artist conducted a demonstration before a small audience, sculpting a portrait bust of a local boy, John Mapother. Before becoming an artist, Putnam herself had been a professional pianist, performing concerts in New York City as part of a trio with the boy’s mother. (This adds further support to my theory that everyone in Louisville is connected!)

I’m not surprised that Hattie would make such a gracious and generous gesture of support to Isidor Philipp. Letters in the Museum’s archives suggest she did things like this all the time. During the Depression, people in dire straits would often write to her, hoping to sell a treasured family portrait or odd trinket. Occasionally Mrs. Speed would write a check on her personal account, which she would send along with a letter explaining what a splendid addition to the Museum’s collection the painting or whatnot would be.

The legacy of Hattie Bishop Speed permeates the Museum. I see it in the name incised on the front of the building, in the collections she secured through the friendships and relationships she built—even in the ghost stories that pass from generation to generation of Museum employees. But nowhere do I see it more profoundly than in the handwritten correspondence she left behind that offer glimpses into her character. They reveal a woman who was not only possessed of a generous spirit, but also an inherent respect for others, regardless of their circumstances. Hattie Bishop Speed sounds like she was an amazing person. I wish I could have known her.