Part I: Dai Vernon's Family Background

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Part I: Dai Vernon's Family Background

Postby BossTweed » October 21st, 2019, 12:43 am


Vernon often claimed that his father was head of the Copyright Division at the Canadian Department of Agriculture. This was challenged in the Bart Whaley book, The Man Who Was Erdnase (page 361). More recent biographies tend to sidestep this issue. Neither I, nor the researchers I’ve employed, found any evidence that James Verner obtained a Canadian Civil Service position beyond that of Clerk, Second Class. It can be said with certainty that Mr. Verner was employed by the Canadian Department of Agriculture. In addition, a letter he wrote to the Royal Military College on April 24, 1913 was written on the stationary of the “Department of Agriculture, Office of the Registrar of Copyrights, Trade Marks, Etc.” so I have no reservations accepting that Vernon’s father worked in the Copyright Division. Further, while he may not have been the head of the Copyright Division, we don’t know his working responsibilities, which might have been substantial. I’m willing to give Vernon a pass on this claim although it fits into his tendency to exaggerate when praising. During my career, I saw more than one instance where a talented underling carried the ball for a less than stellar executive. All this leaves open, to some extent, Vernon’s speculations regarding Erdnase first coming to his attention.

Dai Vernon came from a family proud of its heritage. His uncle, Frederick Verner was a well-respected artist and a bit of a soldier of fortune. He had joined the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, helping to form the modern state of Italy. Other Vernon ancestors include James Verner, a member of the Parliament of Ireland and his son Sir William Verner, 1st Baronet. Both participated effectively in the Battle of the Diamond in Ireland and Sir William Verner fought in the Napoleonic Wars and was wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. He was also a Member of Parliament, a Knight Commander of the Hanoverian Order and Grand Master of Armagh. As we will see, Vernon’s outrage on a later issue will call up these historical figures.

On his mother’s side, Vernon was related to Thomas Coltrin Keefer, a famous Canadian civil engineer who among other accomplishments was the President of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Society of Engineers. Keefer’s work focused on railroads, canals, and water supply. His son, Charles Keefer was a renowned Canadian engineer and other well-known Canadian relatives included businessmen George and Jacob Keefer, who were instrumental in the founding of Thorold, Ontario Canada.

Vernon painted his mother as being overly concerned with social standing. This resulted in conflicts with her son who was drawn to a subject whose practitioners crossed all strata of society. She couldn’t seem to comprehend a man without a formal “position” to cement his social standing.

As will be seen, Dai Vernon’s father pushed his son toward military service. This may have been partially due to his family’s heritage as well as a means to imbue his son’s dreamy nature with a more structured lifestyle. He famously took his son to see a once famous performer who was now a destitute puddle in an alley. This was intended to show Vernon where the future lay for those who entered show business.
Like so many parents, Vernon’s wanted to see him enter an established career path where they could feel comfortable he would be able to provide for himself. Perhaps had Vernon been a starving painter or novelist, it would not have lessened their concerns but devoting one’s life to artistry with playing cards must have been totally incomprehensible to them.

Vernon’s Canadian family wasn’t wealthy, they did have social standing. Vernon observed that almost all the cadets at the Royal Military College came from families much more affluent than his. Even so, when Vernon’s brother, Charles Napier Verner, died, the Ottawa Journal of 21 June 1937 referred to him as a “…member of a well-known Ottawa family…” and his father as “… for many years a prominent official in the Department of Agriculture.” It further describes Charles as “… a kinsman of Sir Edward Wingfield Verner, 5th Baronet. The first baronet, Sir William Verner, K.C.H., was a distinguished Peninsular officer.” If one assumes at least some of this information came from the family, it is indicative of their pride in their heritage and social position.

It is helpful to note the context during which all this took place. Vernon’s father was born at the time The Dominion of Canada established itself as self-governing entity becoming relatively free from British control. This occurred in 1867. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. Vernon was born in 1894. His father died just after World War I, in 1919. Vernon’s parents grew up and lived their formative years in Victorian times. Vernon was born in Victorian times, a time very different from our own, especially in Canada.

As an example of fatherly perspective, mine once told me a story of a little boy who had climbed up on the roof of his house and was unable to get down. His father heard him crying and came outside to see what was the matter. He approached the little boy, put up his arms as close as he could get and told the little boy: “Jump my son and I will catch you.”

The little boy cried: “I am afraid, Papa, I am afraid.”

“I am your father,” said the man in a soothing voice that quieted the little boy. “Jump and I will catch you.” The little boy jumped and his father spread his arms as he backed up, allowing the little boy to fall to the ground with a splat. The boy sat stunned. Finally, he looked up at his father in disbelief.

“Papa,” cried the little boy, “I trusted you and you let me fall.”

“Let this be a lesson to you, my son,” said the father. “Never trust anyone.”

While my father never did this to me, he did make a point of telling me the story and I never forgot it. We all learn from our fathers whether we recognize it or not. When Vernon became the parent, he hurt his son’s feelings deeply when he chastised him for not winning a sporting event. Similarly, Vernon had himself felt hurt by his father, who virtually never complemented him. Vernon, it would seem, had learned this behavior from his father and thought it the proper way to behave.

Regardless, Dai Vernon was a refined person who was able to effectively relate to virtually any social class. He somewhat self-servingly, but accurately, commented on several occasions that Frances Rockefeller King, who booked vaudevillians and other performers into private settings, used him because he wasn’t a dems and dose guy – that he knew which fork to use and was at ease in the homes of New York’s wealthiest classes. I see no reason to reject this theory. Many have commented on his gentlemanly manners and his natural charm that served him well with both gamblers and royalty.

It should be noted that Vernon was very active in athletics as well. He continually placed at or near the top in citywide contests in swimming, sprinting and other sports.

Vernon attended many society functions as a youth. In 1902, 8-year-old Dai Vernon donated some of his toys to the Children’s Cheer Fund. In 1909, the Ottowa Journal related that “In the presence of a large and fashionable audience, the annual closing exercises and distribution of prizes at Ashbury College … was held in Queen’s Hall …” Here, D. Verner (Dai Vernon) was listed as 3rd in Form IV. In 1913, when Mrs. T. Ellery Lord gave a debutant ball for her niece at the Chateau Laurier, Dai Vernon was among the guests. In 1913, when Osbourne Morse was feted at a “five hundred” party, guests included Dai Vernon. When Mrs. F. C. Lightfoot held a party in honor of her daughter in 1914, Dai Vernon was again among the invited guests. In 1919, the now 25 year old Dai Vernon was reported in the newspaper as having done a “splendid silhouette business” at the ‘The “Peace Fete” … under the auspices of St. Patrick’s Literary and Scientific Society…’

So, it is easy to conclude Dai Vernon was no stranger to polite society. Beyond that, he could not have attended these events in first place, had his family not been viewed as belonging to the stratum of society exemplified by others present.

I hopefully shouldn’t have to say this, but I’m in no way implying that a person’s social status is indicative of their value or worth as a human being. I just want to provide some context of the times and family values in place when Vernon grew up in Canada during the Victorian age in a family proud of its heritage. This is from whence he came and it can’t have helped but to impact his interactions with others, including his own wife and children.

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