Great Lady of a Grand Era
When the new Madison Square Garden opens this winter on the site of New York’s old Pennsylvania station, it will have a Hall of Fame honoring 88 outstanding competitors – two from every sport performed in the present Garden.
Of the two names entered to represent the National Horse show, an annual event at the Garden, one is as familiar to Kansas Citians as to those who have heard it heralded in show rings of the U. S. and Canada – Loula Long Combs.
When the renowned competitor was announced, the audience was ready. Hers was the name they had come to hear and belonged to the person they’d come to see. The crowd was always with her – not just because she drove champion horses, but because she was, is and always will be a great lady.
Rigs as Regal as Her Hats
She was a master at the reins and much more than that. She showed the crowd a personality as spirited as her champion hackneys. Her rigs were fashioned with flawless appointments and her clothes were different with every event. Men and women, alike, remember her famous hats – usually large with egret plumes and feathers.
“A good big hat helps add to the general movement of the rig,” Mrs. Combs once said.
Her hats were one of several colorful characteristics touched on recently, as Mrs. Combs reminisced at her home, Longview farm in Lee’s Summit. In her strong, clear voice she related anecdotes of her personal life and the life in the show ring leading to Madison Square Garden’s Hall of Fame. Her name will be inscribed along with that of Maj. Gen. Guy V. Henry, former chief of Cavalry, U. S. Army. Gen. Henry, 93, lives in Chevy Chase, Md.
“When I appeared for the first time at the National in 1913,” she said, “women weren’t known to enter open competition. I was in the roadster class. It seemed like the horses were driven so slowly. At home we always went into the ring fast. I said to my father, ‘Do I have to drive like I was going to a funeral?’
“Well, when the gates opened I shot into the ring (Mrs. Combs made a cracking sound with her hands). I guess the men were scared of me. The crowd got excited. I remember an Englishman shouting, ‘Go on Miss Long! Go on!’ ”
Star Gets a Circus Bid
The winner, in spite of two fingers in a splint, was Loula Long. The papers the next morning acclaimed the young woman from Kansas City. She was a sensation – so much so, that a representative from Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth came to see her about joining the circus.
“I said to my niece, Martha Ellis: I could get you tickets to all the performances. ‘Oh, Aunt Loula,’ she cried, ‘please go with the show!’ ”
Overnight, the Missourian became famous and the Waldorf-Astoria named a cocktail after her.
“Herbert Woolf was in New York at the time and said to me: ‘Of all people to name a cocktail after.’ My father (Robert A. Long) didn’t believe in having liquor in the house so there never has been and never will be. He was a great Christian man with strong ideals.”
It was after the Long family came back from Europe in 1911 that they moved into the 72-room French Renaissance mansion overlooking Cliff drive. It is now the Kansas City Museum of History and Science. The trip abroad was taken so Loula could enter The King, a brown gelding, in London’s Olympia horse show.
“Dave Smith (Mrs. Combs’s long-lime trainer along with the late Johnny Haffey) was to drive him,” she related. “The night before the show, some of the English trainers took Dave out for a night on the town and made sure he was in no shape to drive the next day.
“There was no one to drive but me. King was lined up first. We shot into the ring. The horse pulled terribly and I thought, ‘I can’t do it.’ I used all my strength and oh, my arms ached. Sallie (her sister, Mrs. Hayne Ellis) always had stronger arms than I. My strength was in my tongue.
“King took the crowd right away and as we left the ring with his blue ribbon, I heard someone beating on a tin can, shouting: ‘Hurray for Missouri!’ ”
Unimpressed by Society Rival
Seated in a box next to the Missourians was a very condescending member of English society. “She looked down upon us,” said Mrs. Combs. “She thought her (rig) appointments were so important but I thought they would get the gate in New York. And her footman was much taller than her coachman which wasn’t proper at all.”
Victorious in London, the Longs traveled to Paris and other spots before returning home.
“We had our first motor car delivered in Paris and I met my first count while we were in Europe,” Mrs. Combs continued. “We couldn’t speak each other’s language but after I got home I heard from him every day. And then a letter arrived saying be was coming to Kansas City. Admiral Ellis (her late brother-in-law, Rear Admiral Hayne Ellis) and I drove a carriage down to the Union Station to meet him. I remember I had hurriedly put on kid gloves which were a little soiled. When we met the count he leaned over and kissed my dirty glove.
“Every morning he would kiss mother’s hand at breakfast. Sometimes, the night before, she would help make the wine for church and her hands would get stained with grape juice. She would have to scrub so hard to get them clean for the count by morning.
“When he arrived, we thought he was touring the U. S. and would only stay a few days but he stayed and stayed. We took him to horse shows in Sedalia and St. Louis.
“In St. Louis, some friends of mine tried to weaken him with all-night entertaining but the next morning he was the only one who could get out of bed. All he said was: ‘I feel a bit teepsy.’ ”
Mrs. Combs found it amazing to return from Europe and walk into the new home at 3218 Gladstone Boulevard. Designed by the late Kansas City architect, Henry Hoit, who also shaped Longview farm, the Gladstone residence was designed on the interior by “four or five decorators from the East.”
“They did the house from the walls out,” said Mrs. Combs. “Most all the furnishings were purchased through Baumgartner in New York. Once we went East to discuss furnishings and I can remember a pompous little man showing us around an elegant New York home – I believe it was the Whitneys’s – and pointing out a bathtub that belonged to, I don’t know what, king. I remarked it would make a wonderful trough for our horses.
“Did you know there were three sets of draperies for the drawing room (to the left of the museum’s front entrance) and the Austrian rugs had to be sent to Chicago to be cleaned?
“Father always loved music so there were three organs installed in the house. A large one in the basement would echo on the third floor. My parents started Sis and me taking music lessons from the church organist when we lived in Columbus, Kansas. Then we moved to Kansas City (first to 2814 Independence Avenue) when I was 10 years old and Sally was 12. We started taking from a teacher named Mrs. Lily.
“Sally was very good but Mrs. Lily told mother and father they were wasting their time with me. I guess my talents were in the stable, instead.”
On June 30, 1917, the organs in the home on Gladstone sounded for a special occasion – the wedding of Loula Long to Robert Pryor Combs. The bridegroom’s father, The Rev. George Hamilton Combs, then pastor of the Independence Boulevard Christian Church and later organizer and pastor of the Country Club Christian Church, officiated at the marriage.
The ceremony took place in the large front entrance hall. The next morning The Star carried this account:
“Master” Ellis, now an executive with the Long-Bell division of the International Paper company, was born in the home on Gladstone.
“Rob can tell people he was born in the museum,” said Mrs. Combs. “Four of Sis’s five children were born there. Babies were born all over the house.”
Mrs. Combs, who celebrated her 86th birthday January 30, was 36 years old when she was married.
Recalls Her Romance
“If I had it all to do over again, I’d wait just as long and marry the same man,” she said. “Pryor was such a wonderful man in every way. (He died in 1961, following a long Illness.) I was six years older than he but I was so fickle. We never had an engagement because I could never make up my mind far enough ahead.
“Well, I went to Chicago for a horse show. My chaperone – in those days, even though a woman was 36, she still had to have a chaperone – and I stayed at the Blackstone Hotel. One morning, while she was asleep, I slipped out and looked at wedding rings. I told the sales clerk I was looking for a friend. I decided to go ahead with the wedding and wrote a letter home with my decision.
“I held that letter in my hand and thought: ‘Should I mail it or shouldn’t I?’ I did and have never been sorry. Pryor and I were married a week after I got home. When I first arrived, he said: ‘Lou, are you sure you won’t change your mind?”
“I told him, no, I wouldn’t. He went home and told his brothers and they said: ‘O. K., now tell us another one.’ Then he went upstairs to tell his mother, ‘Mother, Lou and I are going to be married.’ She burst out crying because she knew my nature. But I didn’t change my mind and am so glad I didn’t.
“Pryor volunteered for the Army after we were married. He was so slender I thought they’d never take him. After the war was over we came to Longview to live during the summer of 1919. We loved it so much we stayed through the winter. Our friends thought we’d never live through it, being so far from everything. But we stayed the next year and the next and never went back to the city. (The Gladstone mansion was given to the public and opened as the museum in 1940.)
R. A. Long spent the last years of his life at Longview. He became blind before he died but would sit for hours listening to his son-in-law play the organ installed at the farm.
“Being a minister’s son, Pryor knew so many hymns,” said Mrs. Combs. “He would play as father named hymn after hymn.”
Mrs. Combs worshipped her father even though “he could never see the price in hats,” which she loved to buy for those spectacular performances in the ring.
“I was 18 years old when I saw a hat marked $30 in the window of Emery Bird Thayer. I went in and talked to Miss Jean Coventry and told her I had to have the hat.
“I took it home and wore it to church one Sunday. My parents didn’t say a thing until we got home. Then my father said: Loula – everyone called me Lou except my parents – that’s a very pretty hat ... how much was it?
“Just then I saw a horse run by the conservatory window – he was loose. I cried ‘Oh!’ and went running to the window but fell and hurt my arm on the way. Mother and father were so concerned about my arm they forgot about the hat.”
Another arm injury occurred the first night of the American Royal in 1898. The event was held in a tent. The horse driven by 17-year-old Loula Long was startled when someone at the railing leaned over and clapped in his ear.
“I felt the carriage going over to the side and tried to pull it back,” said Mrs. Combs, leaning against her living room chair and gesturing, “but it went over. My arm was broken in eight places. Doctors had to cut off the sleeve of my new suit, which concerned me much more than the injury.”
To go with another suit selected for the National Horse show, Mrs. Combs bought a hat Miss Coventry found in Paris.
“It had three Birds of Paradise on it, the most beautiful shade of henna,” Mrs. Combs related. “It cost $350. When Miss Coventry showed it to me, I told her: ‘I’d he afraid for Daddy to see the bill.’ She said: ‘I will bill each bird separately so it won’t be such a shock.’
“So I wore the hat in Madison Square Garden where it was applauded. I still have it but the birds are getting smaller and smaller.”
Mrs. Combs got up from her chair and walked through the spacious rooms to the front door. She opened it, revealing a view that stretched across green fields where former champions grazed.
“I always named my animals with names ending in ‘ion’ because I wanted to fill our stables with champion horses,” said the woman whose fame spans almost 70 years in the show ring.
And many connect the name Loula Long Combs with that of her great horse, Revelation, and others such as Captivation, Recollection, Consideration, Constellation and so on.
“I’ve been blessed with so
much in my life,” said Mrs. Combs … “especially with a wonderful
husband, parents and sister (who lives with her at Longview) … that
if I haven’t lived it half decently I ought to be shot like a lame
horse or an old dog.”