by Fred P. Gusoff
She was a trailblazer whose talent and determination enabled her to hit the high note of equality, making local and national history in the process.
Edna Phillips, the first female member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first woman to hold a principal position in any major orchestra in America, gets top billing in a just-released biography that takes an inside look at the woman known as The Orchestra’s First Lady.
“I knew Edna very well. We worked together a lot. We were good friends,” said Mary Sue Welsh, a longtime Chestnut Hill resident and former English teacher whose book, “One Woman in a Hundred” (University of Illinois Press, 2013), pays tribute to Phillips, a harpist extraordinaire.
Phillips played with the orchestra from 1930 to ‘46. Her base salary was about $90 — not bad for that time. The orchestra played only 35 weeks a year, October through May.
“They had a short season,” said Welsh, who explained that orchestra players supplemented their income by performing at summer concerts at the Robin Hood Dell and other venues.
When Phillips joined the orchestra, she felt hostility directed at her by some of the men, but she persevered, Welsh said, and she “used her wits” to turn back advances from some of them, including longtime conductors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, who worked together for many years.
In the book, Phillips says she had to put a stop to rumors than she and Ormandy were having an affair while Phillips’ husband was overseas in the military, and she even refers to Ormandy as a “worm.”
As for Ormandy’s co-maestro, “he was quite a womanizer,” Welsh said of Stokowski, whom she described as “aloof,” like many conductors.
“He became a very good friend of Edna’s,” she added. “He was a great, great conductor, full of great ideas. Stokowski was a very hard taskmaster. He just expected perfection and wasn’t going to put up with anything less than that.”
Though Phillips “was not a goody two shoes,” the author said, she had been happily married during her time at the orchestra and insisted that she did not “give in” to the overtures from her male colleagues.
“She had a very professional working relationship with the players,” Welsh said. “They were musicians working together.”
Phillips, whose husband, Sam Rosenbaum, was a lawyer and member of the orchestra’s board of directors, was born in Reading, Pa., but she was no stranger to Northwest Philadelphia, having lived on School House Lane in East Falls and then Cathedral Village in Roxborough.
“She’d been all around Chestnut Hill,” Welsh said.
Welsh’s chronicle of the life and times of Edna Phillips actually did not begin as a book. She began working with Phillips on her memoirs around 1990. They had completed the first three chapters when Phillips became ill. She had a series of strokes and died in 2003 at age 96.
“After she died, I knew this was such an important story,” Welsh said. “I didn’t want to just let it go.”
So, the Chestnut Hill resident took to the orchestra’s archives to conduct more research of Phillips’ life. She also interviewed orchestra staff, then got down to the business of working on the biography. It took her seven or eight years to finally get it done.
“I’m a slowpoke,” she said, explaining that she had to sort through all of her notes and other material before completing the book — it’s her first — and then she had to find a publisher.
Welsh, who is 72, said Phillips was lively and fun, and felt free to reveal details about people because they had since passed on.
“She was very frank,” Welsh noted.
In the book, Welsh writes of Phillips’ early days: “A woman’s chances of being hired by a professional orchestra were slim, so slim that no woman other than Phillips held a principal position in any of the major U.S. orchestras in 1930.”
What was the most difficult part of putting the pieces of the book all together?
“Overcoming my own writer’s block,” said Welsh, a former English teacher at Chestnut Hill College who once worked at Lippincott publishing house and served as a reporter and copy editor at The Local in the 1990s. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University and a master’s degree at Villanova.
Welsh and Phillips both worked at the Bach Festival in Chestnut Hill; Welsh was executive director, and Phillips was chairwoman of the board of directors.
Though she plays the piano, Welsh said she is not a musician, but she has a subscription series to the orchestra and attends about eight shows a year.
While there was just one woman member of the Philadelphia Orchestra when Phillips broke in — hence the title of Welsh’s book — women fill about one-third of the slots in today’s orchestra.
Welsh said she visited Phillips during the last year of her life. “She was very brave and strong,” Welsh said. “She worked all the time.”
Mary Sue Welsh will join Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist for the orchestra, at a launch party at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Avenue, on Sunday, March 10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Committee for the Philadelphia Orchestra. More information or reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the book at www.onewomaninahundred.com