Big-Timers From Boston: The Grace And James Madden Story

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

"What a beautiful art skating can be." - James Lester Madden, "Skating" magazine, 1935

The stars of today's blog - James 'Jimmie' Lester Madden and Grace Elizabeth Madden - were born December 13, 1909 and July 30, 1911. They were the children of Michael and Grace (Farrell) Madden and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, the same Greater Boston town that Theresa Weld Blanchard hailed from. Their father was the President of the Hollingsworth and Whitney Paper Company.

The Boston Twelve: Olivia Stone Holmes and Teddy Goodridge, Polly Blodgett and Richard L. Hapgood, Leslie Eustis and Bernard Fox, Grace and James Madden, Joan Tozzer and Geddy Hill, Bunty McKaig and William Penn Gaskell-Hall. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

In their teenage years, Grace and James began skating at the Skating Club Of Boston and the Cambridge Skating Club. In the dead of winter, it was nothing for them both to be up at five o'clock in the morning to arrive at the rink to practice school figures before attending school, only to return to practice free skating, pairs and ice dances with coach Willie Frick after school.

Grace Madden, Theresa Weld Blanchard, Olivia Stone, Peggy Stuart, Leslie Eustis and Joan Tozzer

Grace and James made their first big splash at the 1928 U.S. Championships in New Haven, Connecticut, where they claimed the junior pairs title. James also won the junior men's title and finished second in the Fourteenstep with Maribel Vinson that year. Writing in "Skating" magazine, Richard L. Hapgood raved that Maribel and James skated in a "manner that should be a warning in all future competitions that Boston skaters are improving... and will begin to figure in a few years in the titles."

James and Grace Madden, Frederick Goodridge, Maribel Vinson and George 'Geddy' Hill

Over the course of the next decade, Grace and James went on to become two of America's most decorated and versatile champions. In pairs skating, they amassed six medals at the U.S. Championships - including the gold in 1934 - and a bronze medal at the North American Championships.

As ice dancers, they won the Fourteenstep at the 1933 North American Championships in New York City and a slew of medals at the U.S. Championships, both together and with a revolving door of partners.

At the Cambridge Skating Club's annual Championships, they were five-time pairs champions and won their respective singles free skating competitions three times and won Waltz and Fourteenstep titles with different partners. James, the more successful of the siblings in singles skating, won six medals at the U.S. Championships and three at the North American Championships in the men's division. James also competed at both the 1930 and 1932 World Championships and 1932 Winter Olympic Games as a soloist. 

James Madden, Frederick Goodridge and Roger Turner at the 1929 U.S. Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Unfortunately, Grace and James' worst showings as a pair were at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games and World Championships, where they placed eleventh and sixth. James was competing with an ankle injury suffered prior to the Olympic Trials for the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games and he and Gracie had earned their berth by applying to the USFSA for consideration on the basis of their previous competition record. Their selection was one of the first examples of a skater's 'body of work' being considered in an Olympic figure skating team selection in America.

How Grace and James found time to skate at the level they did - or as prolifically - was anyone's guess. After preparing at Newton Country Day School, James attended Harvard University. In addition to a full course load and skating, he was on the football, baseball and hockey squads, track and field team and the Glee and Dramatic Clubs. He graduated from the School Of Business in 1931.

James served on the USFSA's Board Of Directors for pretty much he and Grace's entire career and both were certified as high level test judges by the late thirties. They were in extremely high demand to perform in club carnivals and as devout Roman Catholics, no doubt didn't miss a Mass. 

James and his competitor/training mate - Maribel Vinson's partner George 'Geddy' Hill - even found time to develop a comedy act as 'Pansy the Russian skating pony' and spent a summer together in England in 1933 wowing audiences in Southampton, Hammersmith, Bournemouth and Streatham with their skating horsepower. They also found time to take some lessons from two of Europe's top trainers - Jacques Gerschwiler and Howard Nicholson - and write about their travels in "Skating" magazine. James later served on the magazine's editorial board alongside Theresa Weld Blanchard.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Grace and James, whom Arthur M. Goodridge described as a "beautiful, brilliant pair", retired in 1938 after winning the Eastern pairs and Fourteenstep titles and a silver medal at the U.S. Championships in Philadelphia. 

That same year, James came up with the idea for the 'goon ski' later used for ski ballet - essentially figure skating on skis. The idea apparently came about after he injured his foot giving a figure skating exhibition in North Conway. The March 2002 issue of "Skiing Heritage Journal" noted, "He still wanted to go skiing the next day but to ease the strain on his weakened foot, he decided to try kids' skis. Once on the mountain, Madden found that these little skis turned so easily he could execute his figure skating routines on them, all but the going-backward part when the tail of the skis would dig in. But he was not discouraged. He was so delighted at being able to do 'figure skiing', he designed the first modern double-ended ski. Then he persuaded Boston's pioneer ski shop owner Asa Osborn to have the skis made by Thor Groswold in Denver. Madden used his new 'ski skates' to create the first ski ballet routines in America." He later trained a group of trick skiers and took them to Sun Valley.

Left: Grace and James Madden with Geddy Hill. Right: Grace and James Madden with Roger Turner.

Both Grace and James also got engaged in 1938; she to Bronxville businessman Stevenson E. Ward, Jr. and he to the Baroness von Vietinghoff-Scheel, whom he'd met two years prior in Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the Olympics. Grace got married to Stevenson the following year, and James ultimately married Pauline McKean in October of 1946. James and Pauline had three sons and a daughter and Grace and Stevenson had one son and one daughter.

James Madden and Melville Rogers inspecting a bracket. 

After the death of he and Grace's parents, James took over as President of the Hollingsworth and Whitney Paper Company. During World War II, he served as the Deputy Director of the Pulp and Paper division of War Production board. After his company merged with Scott Paper Co. in 1954, he became Scott's Vice-President and served on their board of directors until his retirement in 1964. He also served on the boards of the Sea Educational Association in Woods Hole, the Keyes Fibre Co., Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Co., Liberty Mutual Life Insurance and the Boston and Maine Railroad.
Passionate about all things nautical, he raced his fifty-seven foot sloop Gesture in international regattas. His sea travels took him to Halifax, Bermuda, Greenland, Labrador, Fiji... and even the Galapagos and Easter Islands. Incredibly, James still laced up his skates and took to the ice regularly until he was in his mid-sixties. He passed away of heart failure on September 15, 1984 at the age of seventy-four in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

A devoted mother, Grace lived for much of her post-competitive skating life in the small town of Darien in Fairfield County, Connecticut. She was a member of the St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, Wee Burn Country Club, Children's Aid Association and Southern Connecticut Figure Skating Association. She kept one foot in the rink door as a high-level USFSA test judge and passed away on June 14, 1987 at the age of seventy-five.

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