8/30/2012

Young Love Cut Short by America's Fiercest Hurricane




Bascom Grooms and his sister, Rosalind
(NOTE: This story was first posted on Drye Goods for the Labor Day weekend of 2007)

On this date 77 years ago, Rosalind Grooms Palmer sat down at her typewriter in Key West, Florida and banged out a teasing, affectionate note to her 12-year-old kid brother, Bascom Grooms, who was visiting friends up the islands in the village of Tavernier.

She apologized for the brevity of the note and, perhaps to ease the guilt she felt at not writing more, enclosed 50 cents so Bascom could buy an ice cream sundae for himself and a young friend named Elizabeth. She told her brother that she’d like to be with him on Key Largo “enjoying the ‘squitoes and other varmints such as sand fleas,” but added that she wouldn’t be taking any trips for a while.

That wasn’t entirely true, but her travel plans weren’t exactly the kind she wanted to reveal to her little brother or to the family he was visiting. She would be joining her boyfriend, 19-year-old George Pepper, at the Matecumbe Hotel in Islamorada for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

That note from Rosalind was the last communication Bascom would ever have from his sister. Five days later, she and George were killed when the most powerful hurricane in U.S. history came ashore in the Upper Keys.

Rosalind's note to her brother a few days before her death

I interviewed Bascom at his home in Key West in December 2002, when he allowed me to copy photos of him, his sister and George Pepper. The old sepia-toned photos tell a tragic story of young love that was cut short by the fiercest hurricane to ever make landfall in the U.S.

Rosalind was only 21 in August 1935, but she had already been through a brief, unhappy marriage to George Palmer, a U.S. Navy officer she’d met when Palmer’s ship docked in Key West. Rosalind – young, impulsive, fun-loving and beautiful – had fallen for the Navy officer, and they were married in Key West in 1933. They moved to San Diego, where Palmer’s ship, the destroyer USS Perry, was based.

But less than two years later, Rosalind suddenly appeared in Key West and said her marriage was over. Bascom recalled that she didn’t say much about her reasons for leaving her husband and filing for divorce.

Rosalind got her old job back as a court clerk. She was considered one of Key West’s most beautiful young women, and as soon as word got out that she was no longer married, lots of eager young men sought her attention.

Rosalind didn’t take her looks too seriously, however. She thought her legs were too skinny for her to be really attractive. She loved to dress well, and white high-heel pumps became a trademark of her wardrobe.

In early 1935, she met George Pepper, and soon she was again in love. Her new boyfriend was the nephew of Claude Pepper, who was just beginning his legendary career in Florida politics.

George had gotten a job as a mess hall steward at one of the work camps that housed World War I veterans working on a New Deal construction project in the Keys. The vets were building a highway from Miami to Key West.

Rosalind and George were gaa-gaa over each other. In July 1935 they went to a photographer’s studio in Miami and posed with various props for charmingly cheesy photos.


Rosalind Grooms Palmer and George Pepper, 1935
A day or so after Rosalind wrote the note to her brother she went up to Islamorada to meet George. They shot more pictures of each other on a pier, Rosalind in a knit dress and her ubiquitous white high-heel pumps, George in a white shirt and tie and summer slacks.

Rosalind Grooms Palmer and her white
high-heel pumps
But while George and Rosalind were enjoying each other's company on that long-ago Labor Day weekend of 1935, a tropical storm crossed the Bahamas into the Florida Straits. As it crawled slowly across the bathtub-warm water of the Straits, it began rapidly intensifying. By September 2 – Labor Day Monday – it had mushroomed into a seagoing monster with sustained winds of about 185 mph and gusts that may have exceeded 200 mph. By late Monday afternoon, the worst of the storm’s winds were starting to claw at the Upper Keys.

At a veterans’ labor camp at the foot of Lower Matecumbe Key, George Pepper was instructed to use his boss’s car – a big, heavy 1934 Dodge – to take some of the veterans’ wives to safety in Miami. Sometime around 5 p.m., George and Rosalind climbed into the big automobile and set out for the short drive to the Matecumbe Hotel to pick up the women.

They never reached the hotel. For weeks, survivors and rescue workers wondered what had become of them.

They finally got a clue to the grim fates of Rosalind and George on September 18, when rescue workers found the 1934 Dodge submerged in Florida Bay, about 100 feet from shore. The storm's rising winds may have literally blown the car off the causeway. After the storm, another man who'd been driving the same road at the same time as George said a gust of wind had shoved his car into a ditch.


That same powerful gust may have pushed the Dodge into the bay.

A diver found a pair of white high-heel pumps in the submerged car, but no other sign of the young couple.
On September 19, rescue workers found Rosalind's body. The storm had hurled her onto Raccoon Key, one of the small, soggy islands that dot Florida Bay.

George’s body was found several weeks later. The storm’s ferocious winds had carried him across Florida Bay to Cape Sable at the tip of the Florida peninsula. The body was about 30 miles away from the car he'd been driving.