Alice Arden Hodge And Family
of Craig-E-Claire

by Stuart D. Root

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The atmosphere in Liberty and the surrounding communities was no doubt super charged the week after Christmas in 1936. The local men’s basketball team, the Liberty Emeralds, captained by Russ Hodge, was to play the Long Island Ducklings. The latter was a name for a team of women led by Alice Arden, the only New York female Olympian who had performed just a few months earlier in Berlin, Germany before Adolph Hitler and his Nazi entourage. Alice was a high jumper extraordinaire. A Bernarr McFadden magazine featured her with a photo taken at the Olympic trials in Providence, R. I. in 1936. This full page photo shows her clearing the bar handily with a scissors jump, then in vogue, and it is boldly captioned: “The Body Beautiful.”

The venue for this basketball matchup was the Laurels Country Club near Monticello. It had been arranged by a sporting agent in New York City for its obvious appeal of incongruity. Both teams, in their respective spheres, were outstanding. Russ Hodge was not the usual center for the Emeralds; but on this night during that Christmas week he used his captain’s prerogative to face off as center against the celebrated “Fraulein Arden” - as Dr. Julius Goebbels had addressed her on an elaborate reception invitation only a few months earlier.

By today’s standards the Emeralds-Ducklings game was a low scoring one, 27 to 24. As Alice explains, the emphasis was on defense. In this early team version of the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs matchup, with all the attendant hype, the Emeralds prevailed. And not only did Russ Hodge save his honor that evening, he also eventually captured the heart of Alice and her hand in marriage in 1937, giving rise to an athletic dynasty.

The credentials for this dynasty were confirmed when their decathlon son Rusty eclipsed the legendary Jesse Owens’ 100 meter dash world record. Later, in 1964, Rusty became the only son of an Olympian mother to compete in those quadrennial games. To show that Rusty is mindful of the proverb “Pride goeth before the fall,” he is dismissive of his running feat by pointing out that the conditions when he competed were much improved over those faced in the 1936 Olympics by the Cleveland (Ohio) Flash – the man who stunned the incredulous and sputtering Hitler in Berlin with his four gold medals and one world’s record. The Master Race had been compromised. Owens had turned Hitler into a Chaplinesque caricature of himself. But Rusty insists that comparing his time vs. Owens’ is like “apples and oranges.”

Alice knew Owens , and later his wife and children, and knew them well. One of her mementos is a booklet which contains the signatures of most, if not all, of the 1936 United States Olympic Team, and Owens’ is prominent among them. There is also a revealing tribute to her by Bill Kelly, later to be a New York Athletic Club maven, who wrote: “120,000 people, and I only see you.”

One irony of the Hodge-Arden face-off in December of 1936 is that Alice did not relish coming to the Catskills. Indeed, she came reluctantly. Alice knew that it was an area where there were many TB patients, and respiratory infections were what she needed a bit less than a broken leg. But setting her anxieties aside, Alice did show up to play, and play hard against the Liberty challengers.

This was a rather high risk game for the Emeralds. After all, the Emeralds could have been remembered as having lost to the Ducklings in spite of whatever triumphs they had thereafter. So it goes with reputations. And the risk was accentuated by the Ducklings having at least one player, Alice Arden, who a few months earlier had been feted in New York City with a ticker tape parade and a reception by Mayor LaGuardia. For the parade she sat high on the back seat of a convertible as the procession made its way up Broadway, past Trinity Church, to City Hall. (Not one of the Emeralds could match that.) The United States team had amassed 59 medals for second place overall; the German team garnered 89 medals, aided by anabolic steroids and testosterone injections which would disqualify the German athletes today. So the City, and the nation, had reason to celebrate.

Today women in sports are very much taken for granted. Hence we have little conception of how unusual it was for a woman to take up sports seriously in the 1920s and ’30s when Alice was maturing. For example, Alice recalls that the culture was so opposed to women competitors that it fostered an old-wives’ tale that girls who focused on sports could not have babies! With her characteristic insight and disdain for suffering fools, Alice still laughs when she tells of it. This shibboleth did not deter her from training for state championships in her native Baldwin, Long Island, or after high school, and while working a day job for American Express, from continuing training in New York City – from the Bronx to St. George’s Hotel in Brooklyn .

During these post-high school years Alice captured the national championships in the High Jump three years in succession, in 1933, ‘34 and ‘35. In so doing Alice bettered the record then held by Babe Didricksen [Zaharias], with a height that went unsurpassed for 20 years. And as an Olympian she came in fifth in the world. All of this was a prelude to her Catskill appearance where her team came in second – but Alice was number one for Russ Hodge.

After their marriage in 1937 the Hodges lived in Liberty where Russ worked on radios and appliances. He had befriended David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC, and hence in the early 1940s Sarnoff gave him one of the first television sets in Sullivan County. Russ had to build tall towers to receive signals, and these he shared with neighbors.

In 1945 the Hodges moved to Rockland where they owned and operated a furniture store out of the familiar green barn at the intersection of the Rockland and Craig-E-Claire Roads. The barn is now, of course, the physical fitness emporium run by their son Rusty.

The furniture business was a link to the families living in the Upper Beaverkill. Foremost among them were the Irving Berlins. This was deja vu for Alice. The Long Island Ardens had followed the romance of Ellin Mackay, the ingenue from one of New York’s weathiest families, with an impoverished Lower East Side boy, Irving Berlin. She was Roman Catholic; he was not. So the newpapers Alice grew up with tracked the courtship closely, and when Ellin accepted the Berlin proposal it was headlines on Long Island. The tenement lad won the heart of a woman whose family had homes in New York City, London and Paris, as well as silver mines in the western U.S. Indeed, Ellin’s paternal grandfather was a principal owner of the famed Comstock Lode. Still, it was not exactly a Social Register matchup even though her family could have bought and sold most of those in the book. The close friendship between the Berlins and Hodges is revealed by an inscribed copy of Ellin’s biographical book about her family, “Silver Platter.” This account of her family’s ascendancy to fame and fortune ironically describes in detail the extent of the humiliation, ridicule and slights visited on her MacKay grandparents by New York City society, forcing them to find refuge in London and Paris. Ellin gave it to Russ Hodge for his birthday in 1957.

Hodges Furniture, which had begun in Liberty, was active in Rockland in serving local families and Catskill resorts. But it did not take long for Russ Hodge to cease doing business with the resorts. As Alice explains they purchased volumes of furniture on installments – three months equal payments – and then neglected to pay the third installment. This sent Russ into the bowels of some of the great hotels (coal bins, kitchens) tracking down the owners for payment. Simply not selling to them was easier and less hazardous.

In addition to the Berlins, the Hodges had an active social life in the Valley. Notable friends were the Osborns, the Loizeauxs and Mrs. Foote. As to the latter, Alice recalls how she was a regal woman who never quite ceased being an actress as evidenced by the various apparel she wore. And near the end of her days Rusty and wife Pam spent many hours visiting with her.

The Hodges also were close to their nearer neighbors, the Hardenberghs (Burr and Cameron), the Schwaningers, the Renners, and Emory Campbell – all denizens of the Iron Bridge community, and to whom they supplied TV cable feeds.

While living in Rockland Alice and Russ also nurtured three children, Laura Lee, Rusty and Jim. And as he matured it was clear that Rusty was to wear the mantle woven for his mother. At the age of 13 Rusty was captivated and emboldened by the movie “The Jim Thorpe Story.” By the time of his late teens-early twenties, Rusty was training for the most demanding of all athletic challenges, the decathlon. As noted earlier, in the course of this Rusty was setting records. His “track record” qualified him for the 1963 Pan American Games held in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and based on his qualifying performances, he was the odds-on favorite to win. At the age of 27, after all, he had broken the world decathlon record. But tragically, during the second day of competition in the pole vault, Rusty’s pole flung him wide of the pit. He landed on the “standard” which held the cross bar, severely injuring his leg, and effectively removing him from competition. Alice watched with horror as the medical team carried Rusty off the field on a stretcher.

Thus the great promise of countless competitions leading up to the international games in Brazil was not realized. In spite of his injury Rusty was still able to compete in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 but the Sao Paolo mishap had taken its toll and denied Rusty a medal. Rusty continues his active participation with Olympic activities as Chaplain for the former Olympians and for the U.S. teams as they evolve.

But the Grande Dame of Craig-E-Claire has much for which to be thankful: a loving marriage that endured for 64 years, a son as worthy successor to her Olympic accolades, a granddaughter-in-law who joined the elite of mountain climbers by ascending the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, and a granddaughter, April, honored as a Scholar-Athlete of Roscoe High School from which she was graduated in June of 2005.

The memories of the 1936 Olympic Games are kept alive by Alice’s archives. These include the Opening Ceremony program with its fanatical detail, down to half-minutes, of when the processions would take place, when Hitler would do his various duties as host of the games, and how the participants would array themselves before the German Chancellor in the stadium.

They also inspire memories of how athletes in 1936 had to pay their own way to Berlin. In her case, as the only female competitor from New York, Alice received a gift of $750 from a group of New York lawyers for her trip. The Olympic Committee, true to its rigors, made her return $250 as surplus and hence forbidden funding. Then there are recollections of the ship Manhattan that carried the team, and of the Olympic Committee’s banning the famed swimmer Eleanor Holmes from competing because she had had an alcoholic drink enroute while sharing a stateroom with her big-band leader husband, Artie Shaw.

Finally, we must recall that there was intense international pressure to cancel the Berlin Olympics. The Olympic Committee had awarded the venue to Germany before the Nazi party had ruthlessly taken over, and many nations seriously considered withdrawing in protest. But the idea that the games were for the athletes and not for the politicians prevailed.

So today the Beaverkill Valley hosts not only the “body beautiful” of 1936, but more pertinently the “mind, smile and personality beautiful” of 2005.


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