For this UMBC-trained historian, a walk in the park led her on a 10-year journey to publishing her book Finding Kate.
Driven by her passion for history with support from her family, Meryl Carmel, M.A. ’94, history, dedicated 10 years of her life on a mission to Finding Kate. Her journey, which led her to write a book about philanthropist Kate Macy Ladd, was something full of unexpected moments ultimately connecting her and her future book subject.
On an inauspicious Sunday, Carmel decided to take a stroll in a park, a former grand estate located several miles from her home. On her walk, she came across a kiosk which held pamphlets about the woman who built the estate—called Natirar—and opened a convalescent home for working women there in the early 1900s.
This information reignited an early flame of interest for Carmel. The story of an affluent heiress who experienced great loss and still chose to use her life to help others spoke to a childhood question Carmel had never quite let go of.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Carmel discovered her love of history early on and spent much time as she could reading historical biographies. Even at the age of seven, she quickly realized that there weren’t many biographies written about women. One book in particular stood out to her, a biography of Betsy Ross. As Carmel learned more about Betsy, her curiosity led her to wonder why it seemed that only men did great things that were written about in books.
Decades later, her graduate work in women’s studies and history would focus on the accomplishments and contributions of our nation’s women, helping to answer the questions she had when she was younger.
For Carmel, publishing her book Finding Kate, was the culmination of a decade of research that took her to three different countries. Along the way, she discovered that her life was more tangled with Ladd’s story than she could have ever imagined.
When Carmel moved from Maryland to New Jersey, she was intrigued to learn that the nearby estate, Natirar, was owned by the King of Morocco. That surprising piece of trivia was only the tip of the iceberg of what she would soon learn.
Who exactly was the woman whose house was eventually bought by royalty? Ladd was raised in a Quaker family, her values steeped in charity and doing good for others. As an outpouring of her generosity, she opened a convalescent home for women called Maple Cottage on her 1,000-acre estate.This home was established in a comfortable setting where working women could stay for free for up to three weeks, to recover from an illness, surgery, or work-a-day weariness. Ladd saw a need to give women an opportunity to restore their health in a time when there were few similar options. What had inspired this act of philanthropy?
To answer this question, Carmel used typical historical methodology, such as consulting census records and secondary sources. But she also came up with a back door approach: tracking down some of distant descendants and descendants of her past employees. Carmel successfully located about 10 individuals with a connection to Ladd all over the country and even in Ireland, so she began traveling and gathering more information.
While many of the living relatives knew they had a very wealthy and generous ancestor, Carmel met one 92-year-old woman who actually knew Ladd. This connection allowed Carmel to borrow many primary sources such as old photographs and boxes of random things, including old journals, diaries, and memorabilia. What Carmel didn’t expect to find along the way was her own personal tie to Ladd.
Along the way, Carmel discovered the name of the nurse who managed Maple Cottage. The long deceased nurse was buried in Meridian, New York, a place where Carmel and her husband had once spent a summer. It was the home of an old friend from her days as a student in Wisconsin.
It hit Carmel that the nurse and her friend—one buried in Meridian, one alive in Meridian—shared the same last name: Dudley. With a bit of investigating, Carmel discovered that Kate Macy Ladd’s nursing supervisor, Estelle Dudley, was actually the great-great aunt of Carmel’s friend Milli Dudley Lake. This came as a complete surprise to Lake.
This fortuitous coincidence was an exciting breakthrough for Carmel. Her luck increased even more when her former roommate uncovered a ledger book that belonged to her great-great aunt. It was filled with recipes for the food prepared for the guests at Maple Cottage. In that moment of human connection, Carmel knew that no matter what, she was determined to write her book.
Along the way, she learned that Ladd also created a foundation dedicated to health, the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, which still operates in New York City. In addition, a greatly enlarged version of her convalescent home operated in her mansion house for 34 years after her death. More than 22,000 women received free state-of-the-art care at what was called the Kate Macy Ladd Convalescent Home.
Carmel was able to tell Ladd’s story, she says, because she followed through with her childhood curiosity of the role America’s women have played since the country’s founding by earning a master’s degree in history from UMBC. During her time at UMBC, Carmel continued to be a full time mom to two little boys while her husband was a professor at University of Maryland, College Park. She found time to work as a teaching assistant, and often sought guidance from her advisor Dr. Jean R. Soderlund, one of her very few female professors. Carmel remembers Professor Soderlund as a meticulous researcher and an inspiring woman, who helped guide her through her graduate program with excellent grades, fond memories, and ultimately the ability to see her research through to publishing a book.
To find out more about Carmel’s journey and the little known story of Kate Macy Ladd, please check out her website.
All photos, including the header image, courtesy of Meryl Carmel.