The bright blue eyes that have seen so much are faded now, their vision dimmed by an unsuccessful “free cataract operation” back in 1983. And the graceful limbs whose contortions once thrilled a generation of circus-goers are gnarled and arthritic; a walker stands “parked” nearby in mute testimony to the failing powers of old age. But the mind is still there, just as alert as ever. In a way it’s just like Sarasota itself, the city where she was born and bred. Sharp. Practical. Humid.
“Tell me something,” she says, and we lean forward so as not to miss a word. “You’re not driving out by the mall, are you? I gotta pick me up some Metamucil.”
Anna Bird Schooncraft. Remember that name. It’s not famous now, but it will be. Anna’s scandalous memoirs, “Sarasota Seen,” are soon to be published by New York’s prestigious Vantage Press. We had a look at the galleys, so we can tell you this book is hot! It names the names. It tells the stories. Insiders predict it will “blow the lid” off our sleepy little city by the bay.
We caught up with Anna at her present home, the Rod N’ Reel Retirement Estate and Marina. For an avid fisherman like Anna, the Rod N’ Reel seems to offer the perfect “lifestyle.” Every day the residents are bused up to the New Pass Bridge where they can while away a pleasant eight or 10 hours angling for snook and mullet in the healthy bright sunshine.
Today, though, it was we who were doing the “angling.” Anna had graciously consented to an interview, and over a pleasant lunch of stuffed grouper in the “million-dollar clubhouse” (“We sure have fish a lot around here”) she regaled us with tales of her extraordinary life and of the town that did so much to shape her character.
Anna’s parents, Fred and Myrtle Bird, were among the original Scottish settlers lured here by ads in a Glasgow newspaper (“Homesites from the low $100s!”) Life was difficult at the beginning. It snowed the very first winter, wiping out their orange crop. Then a bigger tragedy struck. Fred became Sarasota’s first traffic fatality when his horse and buggy was “rear-ended” by a retired printer from Indianapolis. With her family suddenly destitute, Anna was forced to quit school and look for a job.
Fortunately, an employment opportunity immediately presented itself. Mrs. Potter Palmer, the famed Chicago millionairess, had just moved into The Oaks, her lavish estate down in Osprey, and was advertising for domestic servants. Although Anna felt being a maid was “way beneath” her, she leapt at the opportunity. Who knows? She might meet a rich man and “get out of this place.”
At first, life at The Oaks surpassed Anna’s wildest dreams. We can still feel the tingle of excitement in her voice as she described one of Mrs. Palmer’s elaborate turn-of-the-century soirees at which wealthy visitors from the North mingled with the creme de la creme of local society: “Everybody who was anybody was there! John Philip Sousa played. Houdini did card tricks. And a woman named Helen Griffith was walking around taking notes for her column.”
Best of all, the job proved undemanding. Mrs. Palmer, an early “bleeding heart” liberal, often helped polish the silver and would serve the staff finger sandwiches she made herself as they mopped the floors and dusted the objets. She was particularly democratic with the young footmen and gardeners, Anna reported.
Anna was also making friends. She was at the age where she was beginning to notice boys, and vice versa. Her first big “crush” was Ramon, Mrs. Palmer’s personal masseur and tennis instructor. In spite of his reputation as a notorious “ladies’ man,” she felt strangely drawn to him. He treated her cruelly—at one point telling her point blank, “Ai haf many vimins”—but she kept coming back for more.
Mrs. Palmer’s only rule was No Fraternization Among Servants of the Opposite Sex, so Anna and Ramon were forced to conduct their relationship with the utmost discretion. One night, however, at a roadhouse up near Palmetto where they had slipped away for a quiet evening of innocent dancing followed by the cockfights, who should appear in the doorway but Mrs. Palmer. “She was livid with rage,” Anna remembered, “quivering from head to toe like an overbred French poodle.” In no uncertain terms, she informed Anna that her services were no longer required and that she was being replaced by a Mennonite.
Never one to brood, Anna immediately obtained employment at the snack bar over at Kozy Kabins and Campground in Fruitville, an early R.V. resort catering mainly to Canadians. It was an experience which left her with considerable bitterness.
“What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe?” she asked, grimly chewing her grouper.
“Sometimes a canoe tips.”
But life was not at all hard work for Anna. Always artistically inclined, she put together a little dance routine which she would occasionally present to interested parties and groups. One evening, while working a smoker over at the Sahib Temple, she met the man who would forever change her life. “When I first peeked out at him through my fans,” she recalled, “he seemed rather homely, with prominent jowls and a rather florid complexion. Then I noticed his kindly manner, his fatherly eyes, his two-carat diamond stickpin. ‘Who’s that?’ I whispered to a waiter. ‘John Ringling, the circus king,’ came the reply. Well, that night I danced my little heart out.”
Immediately after the performance, Ringling invited Anna for a weekend down at Boca Grande in order to discuss her career. Back in those days the circus did not employ dancers but “Mr. Ringling said that given what he’d seen of my talents, he felt sure I would make a first-rate female contortionist.”
Thus began Anna’s fabulous career “under the Big Top” that spanned two decades of headliner status and landed her on the cover of Life, Oct. 5, 1934: “Yvonne the Rubber Lady Performs Her Famous Double Pretzel.”
Anna loved the circus, with its traveling and camaraderie. “We were all one big family. The roustabouts, the animal trainers, the aerialists. Although I must admit I always felt most at home with the freaks.” Her best chum was “Alice from Dallas,” the fat lady who gobbled down Milk Bone Dog Biscuits night and day to keep her weight up to its contractually specified 550 pounds. She also doted on the Doll family—Gracie, Harry, Tiny and LaVerne—so small they could all play poker in the same upper berth with room left over for a case of beer and their favorite Kay Kyser records.
But even the circus had its political side. “A certain element” was jealous of her “special” relationship with Mr. Ringling. “We were just good friends,” she maintained. But when he deeded over an island to her (Bird Key—she renamed it in honor of her beloved father) and then built a causeway so he could journey out on weekends to check on any refinements she may have made in her act, tongues really began to wag.
“All the clowns hated me, but Emmett Kelly was the worst. Weary Willie, they used to call him. Envious Emmett would be more like it. Mr. Ringling once told him that while his act was funny, mine was truly hilarious. After that he was consumed with jealousy.”
A snapped knee joint in 1939 put an end to Anna’s performing career. She worked several subsequent seasons as a wardrobe mistress, but the thrill was gone. So was Ringling, and she retired to Sarasota on her small pension. Time wore heavy on her hands.
“Thank God for World War II,” she recalled. “I know it caused its share of death, pestilence and injury, but as far as Sarasota real estate values go, it was a real shot in the arm.” Thousands of soldiers and sailors were pouring into town. Longboat Key had been transformed into an artillery range. And down in Venice, a big Army air base was opened. And not a moment too soon. With its unprotected coastline, Florida was a “sitting duck.” Documents that remained classified until recently prove that a German submarine actually came ashore on Siesta Key on Easter weekend of 1943, but the traffic conditions at the Stickney Point bridge prevented the operatives, disguised as college students from the University of Indiana, from ever reaching the mainland.
Anna was eager to do her bit for our boys in uniform. She turned Bird Key into a trailer park to provide housing for servicemen’s families, but after several misunderstandings with the War Profiteering Board the place was finally closed under court order. Next, inspired by a famous Hollywood movie of a similar name, she opened the “Sawdust Canteen,” where GIs could dance with retired circus performers, gorge on hot dogs and cotton candy, and even visit a petting zoo.
“It was such a wholesome change from the other places around town, with their B-girls, watered drinks and gambling in the back room. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, ‘they stayed away in droves.’ I remember one awful evening when nobody showed up. I was so depressed, just me and Alice from Dallas, alone in an enormous tent, tears in our eyes. Then a figure appeared in the doorway—a short figure.”
Wilbur “Shorty” Schooncraft was a local boy. His family had lived in Cortez for generations, where they were in the fishing and importing business. He was a genius at procuring war-rationed items, and soon he and Anna were an “item” themselves. They were married right after V-J Day, when Shorty joined the Sheriff’s department. Anna, a thrifty homemaker if there ever was one, managed to stretch Shorty’s meager paycheck so successfully that they were soon the owners of a waterfront home in Whitfield Estates, a chain of citrus stands, a motel in Holmes Beach, a dog-grooming business in Nokomis, plus various other properties throughout the area, including the historic train station downtown.
“Shorty and I more or less invented the concept of acquiring real estate with ‘OPM’—Other People’s Money,” she proudly stated.
Sarasota was booming and so were the Schooncrafts. For the best picture of Anna at this time, let us turn to the work of John D. MacDonald. It took the threat of a lawsuit to persuade Sarasota’s best-selling writer to drop the following passage from his mystery thriller about seasonal rentals on Siesta Key, “The Dirty Orange Carpet.” Anna claimed the character of Mavis was based a little too closely on herself.
She stood at the opposite end of the room against a plate glass window overlooking the bright blue water of the Gulf. She was small, the way a pit bull is small, with her hair dyed a harsh shade of gold not found in the natural order of such things. And her skin—it was the tough brown skin of a middle-aged woman who takes her golf seriously. Another 18 holes and you could use it to upholster a couch. The facade was intact, though. It spoke of lunch with the girls at the Field Club, of boards served on, of concerts attended, of opening night at the opera. But the mouth gave her away. It was tiny, clenched and crooked. It was a mouth I’d seen a million times on a hundred wanted posters from Steenhatchie to Apalachicola. It was the mouth of the high school tramp who’d made the Big Score. The Debbie or Darlene or Dawn who’d latch on to a hulking brute who raped the land and cut down whatever and whoever got in his way while she stood at his side, grinning.
“Travis,” she said, sucking greedily on her Kool. “It’s been a long time.”
After lunch, we took a stroll around the grounds, a pleasant interlude marred only by the slow progress of Anna and her walker. Scores of seagulls flocked around us, attracted by the dinner rolls she had taken for “later.” Sailboats dotted the glistening water. The water was superb.
A faraway look came into her eyes as she surveyed the condos that dot the opposite side of the bay, condos built on land she once owned. “It all came tumbling down so fast. First there was Shorty’s arrest and conviction. How was he to know that concrete he sold the DOT was full of worms? I was devastated. We lost everything.”
Finally the strain became too much. “I woke up one morning unable to go on. Why should I? I had no money. I had no babies to live for. My ankles swelled up in the heat. And there was nothing good on television.”
Anna was too proud to end it all dressed in a soiled housecoat, though. Clutching the remains of her Social Security check, she proceeded over to the Woman’s Exchange to make the very last purchase of her life.
“As I was searching through the clothes for something I could afford, I suddenly heard a great swell of music. A brilliant shaft of sunlight poured in through the window and focused on a green and white Jerry Silverman with ecru detailing at the collar and a dolman sleeve. I had just passed it by as a little ‘busy’ for such a portentous occasion. Then I looked at it again and reeled in shock. I had once owned that dress! I got it at Jeanette’s the day Shorty bought the train station.
“’Look in the pocket,’” a Voice commanded me. I did so and pulled out a crumbled sheet of paper. The deed to the train station! From then on I knew I was in His hands. It was He who was guiding me. I was here to serve Him. Yes, that afternoon I found God at the Woman’s Exchange.”
It was hard to believe we had been talking for six hours. But the sun dipping toward the copper-colored bay confirmed the fact. The time had come to take our leave. Anna, as loquacious and full of anecdotes as ever, seemed reluctant to let us go. She hobbled along beside as we headed for the parking lot.
“Of course, I wanted to see the train station preserved for posterity,” she said. “So many important moments of my life occurred there. Setting off each spring with the circus, then returning each fall. Leaving on my honeymoon with Shorty. And then all those trips up to Starke to visit him in prison. It was like a part of my heart. ‘It must be preserved,’ I told my lawyer.”
We reached our car. “So what happened?”
“He offered me a certified check for $25,000 and I thought to myself, well, the roof does leak…”
“Thank you, Anna. It’s been a pleasure.”
“Have I mentioned how I was the first queen of the Sara de Soto Pageant?”
“We’ll be in touch.”
“Wanna stay for dinner?”
We drove away feeling just a little warmer inside. It was hot for the first day of April, so we turned on the air conditioning. It was the first time we’d had it on all year.