August 16, 1914|
Bayonne, New Jersey
|Died||October 27, 1965
Point Pleasant, New Jersey
|Genres||Big Band, Swing, Jazz|
|Associated acts||Tommy Dorsey|
Edythe Wright was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, the youngest child of Harrison Burr Wright and Hanna(h) Heffernan. Her siblings were Ethel (b. 1900), James (b. 1902), Estelle (b. 1904), Kathryn (b. 1908), Thomas (b. 1910) and Helen (b. 1912). Harrison was a second cousin to the Barrymore acting family of Philadelphia. It is not clear whether he was related to the Maurice Barrymore (born Blythe) side of the family or the Georgiana Drew side. He was also an actor with the troupe of Harrigan and Hart which was a popular act in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In 1900, Edythe's parents Harry Wright and Hannah Wright were living in Ward 2 of Bayonne, New Jersey (Hudson County). Harry was born in Florida in 1861 to Scottish emigrants and has no occupation cited. Hannah (née Heffernan) was born in 1879 in New York to Irish emigrants. A daughter, Ethel, is also listed, her birth year given as 1899 with an age of eight months. This is the only census where Harry is mentioned. In future censuses Hannah is listed as married or widowed and her children have the surname Wright but no listing of Harry has been found.
In the 1910 census Hannah and her children are listed as living in Leonia (Bergen County, New Jersey at the home of Harold Chase who is married to Hannah's sister Helen. Chase was a baseball player for the New York Yankees who eventually was scarred by allegations of throwing games and illegal betting. In addition to Harold (born in California in 1883), Helen and Hannah (who now is listed as being born in 1882 instead of 1879), the household contains the children Harold E. Chase (age 2), Ethel Wright (age 10), James Wright (age 3), Katherine Wright (age 3), Thomas Wright (age 8 months) as well as Hannah and Helen's parents Thomas Heffernan (age 58), Anna Heffernan (age 56) and sister-in law Mary Nieran (age 36).
Somewhere between 1910 and 1920 Hannah and her children moved to Ward 1 of Bayonne where they rented a home. Edythe Wright is listed as being born in 1915 and the 1920 census lists Hannah as a widow so presumably Harry has died. Since we know Edythe was born in August 1916 and not 1915, he would have expired somewhere between August 1916 (unless he died while Hannah was pregnant assuming conception of December 1915) and whenever the census was taken in 1920. Thomas Heffernan has apparently died between 1910 and 1920 as he is absent in this census.
The 1920 census lists Hanna Wright as the head of household, age 38 the 1882 birthdate has carried over and widowed. Her children are listed as Ethel Wright (age 20), James Wright (age 18), Estelle Wright (age 16), Kathryn Wright (different spelling, age 12), Thomas Wright (age 10), Helen Wright (age 8) and Edith Wright (age 5). Hannah's mother Anna Heffernan (age 72) is also listed as living with the family. No occupation for Hanna is listed.
According to the 1930 census the family has moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey and Hanna has married Patrick Bradshaw (who like Harrison is about twenty years older than she). The residents of the Bradshaw/Wright household were Patrick Bradshaw (age 62, Irish immigrant), head of household, Hanna, wife (now born in 1885, the third birth year change in four censuses), children John Bradshaw (age 7), Thomas Wright (age 19), Helen A. Wright (age 16) and Edythe M. Wright (age 14). Anna Heffernan has apparently died since the last census. Ethel has apparently married and moved out. It is not clear if John Bradshaw is the child of Patrick and Hannah. As Edythe stated in Bandstand in 1939 that she had seven siblings, it would seem that he was her half-brother. The birthdates of the other children have also shifted by a year or so.
The census information conflicts with information provided by Edythe herself in Bandstand (a short-lived Tommy Dorsey publication from 1939). The Bandstand article says she was born in Bayonne (correct) but moved to Highland Park at the age of 2 months (possible if Harry died forcing Hannah to move in with relatives but the census of 1920 lists a residence of Bayonne). The 1930 census lists her as Edith M. Wright when her Christian name was Edythe H. Wright. Both Bandstand and the reminiscences of Pee Wee Erwin (Dorsey's trumpet player) speak of residences in Highland Park but the census states New Brunswick as the place of residence.
Further research is needed to document Edythe's activities between 1930 and 1935 and determine exactly how she became known to Tommy Dorsey. A February 8, 1938 article in MIT's newspaper The Tech says, "She hails from New Brunswick, New Jersey, where, prior to graduation, she was a leader in high school amateur theatricals and athletics." In Bandstand Edythe states that she went to St. Peter's Parochial School and St. Peter's High School (closed 2007) in New Brunswick before transferring to New Brunswick High School where she graduated in 1933. From there she spent time running a coffee shop with her sister (which one is unstated), studied drama at the New Jersey College for Women at New Brunswick (now a part of Rutgers) and spent her summers at Sea Girt, New Jersey. During the summer of 1935 she was asked by bandleader Frank Dailey to fill in for his vocalist Nancy Flake during an engagement at the Asbury Park Casino. She was heard by Tommy Dorsey's agent and despite her supposed dislike of being a band vocalist and lack of formal musical training, accepted a permanent job with Dorsey. She was twenty-one years old.
Big Band era
Edythe Wright's career spanned from September 1935 through September 1939. She made 121 studio recordings (of which 120 were issued on 87 discs) with Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra/Clambake Seven/California Ramblers, several recordings under a pseudonym for transcription purposes, was a fixture on radio (Jack Pearl Show, Raleigh-Kool), contributed arrangements to the Dorsey band. However, in September 1939 she left the Dorsey band and was immediately replaced by Anita Boyer and then Connie Haines.
Evidence exists that Edythe did at least one broadcast for the Ellery Queen radio series (#148 "The Frightened Star") broadcast on July 14, 1940 with a rebroadcast in October 1943. She apparently spent the war years in California and returned to New York/New Jersey in 1950 to manage Sy Oliver (advertised in Variety). Oliver at that time was affiliated with Decca Records.
Somewhere along the way she married John T. Smith. The date of the wedding is unknown. According to the U.S. Census of 1920 Smith was born in 1919 and resided in Milburn Township. The 1930 census lists his residence as Sea Girt. According to his U.S. Army file, he enlisted in the Army on October 6, 1941 and was assigned to Fort Dix with the rank of private. His civilian occupation(s) are listed as "Motorcycle Mechanic or Packer, High Explosives (Munitions worker, ammunition) or Toolroom Keeper or Stock Clerk or Stock Control Clerk". He served as a combat engineer in Alaska during World War II. Smith died in June 1981.
During the 1950s she was apparently a Democratic Committeewoman from Wall Township, New Jersey and according to Rose Shiffman directed amateur theatricals at the Chadwick Beach Club in the early 1960s. Her residence was 10 Pershing Avenue in Manasquan, New Jersey. She died from pancreatic cancer at the Point Pleasant Hospital on October 27, 1965. She left behind her husband and son as well as three brothers and three sisters. She was 51 years old.
According to her obituary she was laid out at the Meehan Funeral Home in Spring Lake Heights, a Mass of Christian Burial was held at St. Denis Roman Catholic Church in Manasquan with burial taking place at St. Catherine's Cemetery in Spring Lake Heights.
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- U.S. Census 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
- Rose Shiffman, "The Edythe Wright Story" AfterBeat Summer 1972
- Peter Levinson, Tommy Dorsey: Livin' In A Great Big Way
- "Solid! Edythe Wright". Parabrisas. 1996-2005.