The 1939 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Robin Lee and Joan Tozzer. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just met with Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini seeking assurances that Adolf Hitler wouldn't make any warlike moves. In what now seems obviously petty by comparison, the U.S. press was absorbed in a debate over the decision to cast a British actress as the lead in the new film "Gone With The Wind". While tensions mounted overseas, Americans oblivious to the War that loomed on the horizon cut a rug to Benny Goodman's "Don't Be That Way".

The year was 1939 and from January 19 to 21, a charming crew of American figure skaters gathered at the Municipal Auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota for the second U.S. Championships in history to be held in the Midwest. The first U.S. Championships in the Midwest in 1937 marked the final time Maribel Vinson Owen had won a national title. Incidentally, she was coaching at the six hundred member St. Paul Figure Skating Club in 1939 and played an important role in convincing the USFSA - then governed by a New Yorker - to host the Nationals in the Saintly City.

Top: Joan Tozzer with former U.S. Champions Suzanne Davis King, Maribel Vinson Owen and Theresa Weld Blanchard in St. Paul. Bottom: Judges evaluating the senior women's school figures. Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Though at the time school figures counted for sixty percent of a skater's overall score, the free skating competitions were of course what drew in audiences. Music for free skating was played on records, which was a novelty to visiting skaters from the Skating Club of New York, who were accustomed to being accompanied by a live orchestra.

M. Bernard Fox, Joan Tozzer and Robin Lee with their trophies

Though the Skating Club of New York won the Bedell H. Harned Trophy that year for accumulating the most points through all disciplines, skaters from coast to coast excelled in their respective categories. Let's take a look back at the stories and skaters that shaped the final U.S. Championships held before World War II began.


Betsy Nichols, Joan Tozzer and Gretchen Merrill in St. Paul. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Only expanding upon her lead in the figures with a superb free skating performance, Betsy Nichols of the Skating Club of Boston glided to victory in the novice women's competition, besting her Boston training mate Roberta Jenks, Britta Lundequist of Seattle, Caroline Brandt of Cleveland, Joan Mitchell of Chicago and Ramona Allen of Oakland. In the novice men's event, the Galbraith brothers (Sheldon and Murray) from the San Francisco Skating and Ski Club were separated by only half a point after the school figures, with St. Paul's Robert Uppgren third. Rallying from behind with an outstanding free skate, Bobby Specht of the Superior Figure Skating Club made an unprecedented leap from outside the top three to first overall. Murray and Sheldon Galbraith, separated by only 0.3 overall, finished second and third overall, ahead of William Grimditch, Jr. and Uppgren. PJ Kwong and Mel Matthews' article "Sheldon Galbraith: The Early Years" recalled, "When competing 'back East' in the 1939 US Novice class held in St. Paul, Minnesota [Sheldon and Murray] wore Eton jackets and a cravat secured with a special pin resembling a figure eight crafted for them by a jeweller in San Francisco. They also wore heavy wool tights, used in stage performances, but useless against the temperatures they were being exposed to. Sheldon remembers trying to decide between cutting the foot out of the tights, and securing them by a strap under the arch of the boot, or leaving them as is, with the big seam at the back of them, which caused cramping in his feet. Never getting used to performing in their costumes was just another obstacle to be overcome in their rise in the competitive ranks."

Left: Dorothy Snell. Photo courtesy Minnesota State Archives. Right: Gretchen Merrill.

In the junior women's event, thirteen year old Gretchen Merrill of Boston defeated Baltimore's Dorothy Snell by a single point. St. Paul's Shirley Bowman finished third. After the junior men's school figures, Bud Brennan of Minneapolis and Arthur Vaughn, Jr. of Philadelphia were almost in a deadlock. However, the fourteen year old from the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society emerged the victor in the free skate, with Brennan dropping to third overall behind St. Paul's Arthur Preusch. Vaughn and Merrill became the first man and woman to claim novice and junior titles in successive years at the same time. Besting Chicago's Ruth English and L.D. Pitts in junior pairs, Betty Lee Bennett and John Kinney of the Seattle Skating Club became the first pair - junior or senior - from the West Coast ever to claim a U.S. pairs title.


In the fours competition, Nettie Prantel, Marjorie Parker, Joseph K. Savage and George Boltres of the Skating Club of New York emerged victorious over a four from Philadelphia. In the pairs event it was Boston's Joan Tozzer and M. Bernard Fox who took home top honours, repeating their success from a year prior at the Nationals in Philadelphia. The silver and bronze medals went to married couples from the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society and Bear Mountain Figure Skating Club, the Penn-Gaskell Hall's and the Bruns'.

Joan Tozzer and M. Bernard Fox. Photo courtesy "Skating Through The Years".

The ice dancers in St. Paul performed Silver Dances, which in 1939 were the Continental Waltz, Reverse Waltz, Three-Lobed-Eight Waltz, Fourteenstep, Foxtrot and Tango. After an elimination round that whittled the number of teams down to four, Sandy MacDonald and Harold Hartshorne emerged victorious, ahead of Nettie Prantel and Joseph K. Savage, Marjorie Parker and George Boltres and Edith and Arthur Preusch. For the second year in a row, the top three teams all hailed from the Skating Club of New York. In fact, Joseph K. Savage was the USFSA's President at the time. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "The top two couples were close, but Sandy and Harold added a lovely lilting quality for the win. Tee Blanchard had noticed their improved technique at Easterns."


Joan Tozzer. Photo courtesy "Skating Through The Years".

Interestingly, there were fewer competitors in the senior singles competitions than the Silver Dance event. After the senior women skated their figures, eighteen year old Joan Tozzer of the Skating Club of Boston had a sixteen point lead over Charlotte Walther, the 1938 U.S. Junior Champion who was making her debut in the senior ranks.

Joan Tozzer

Audrey Peppe (the niece of Olympic Medallist Beatrix Loughran), Boston's Polly Blodgett and Philadelphia's Jane Vaughn occupied the final three places in the standings. Expanding on her lead in the figures by over ten points, Tozzer successfully defended the women's crown she'd won the year prior in Philadelphia. Walther dropped to third behind Peppe and Vaughn moved ahead of Blodgett to finish fourth.


Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

At the Midwestern Championships in Cleveland just prior, four time U.S. Champion Robin Lee had only managed to defeat Ollie Haupt, Jr. of St. Louis by a fraction of a point. The battle for supremacy between the two talented young Minnesota skaters in their home state was expected to be every bit as riveting at Nationals, but when nineteen year old Lee scored a commanding sixty five point lead in the figures, the competition was all but over before the free skate.

Lee won his fifth and final U.S. title in his home city by over ninety two points, with Haupt second and California's Eugene Turner (making his senior debut) third. As was the case in practically every event he entered, William Nagle of the Manhattan Figure Skating Club finished a distant last.

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