Blog Post # 13
by Jane Van Ryan
Sarah Jane Grabeel probably knew Evelyn Hazen better than anyone. She lived in the Mabry-Hazen House with Evelyn for about 36 years, starting in 1951 when Evelyn hired her to care for an elderly uncle who had moved into the first-floor bedroom. When her uncle died a few months later, Evelyn invited Grabeel to stay.
When I met Grabeel in 1988, she was living at a personal-care home on Hiawasse Avenue in Knoxville. She was a tiny 86-year-old woman with large, round eyes and white hair brushed back at the temples. While she and I talked on the porch, she sat on a metal glider and swatted at mosquitos. It was a cool, overcast summer evening, a pleasant change from the usual oppressive heat.
Grabeel called Evelyn a “big talker.” She said Evelyn often told stories about her trips to Europe, her work at the University of Tennessee, her job as a teacher at the Old Knoxville High School, and her friend Jack McKnight, who was an “awful good-looking man” she had met in New York.
Grabeel thought Evelyn was attractive, too. She called her a “beautiful woman…[who] had the name of being the most beautiful woman in Knoxville.” Grabeel added, “She was older than me but always looked so young.”
But Evelyn never had any suitors while she was living at the Mabry-Hazen House, according to Grabeel. Instead she hosted “big suppers” for her colleagues at U.T. Laura Hill, the cook who had worked at the Mabry-Hazen House for several years, would prepare the meals. During one of the dinner parties, Grabeel said a professor admitted he was “crazy” about Evelyn. “I believe he was,” Grabeel said, but his infatuation never resulted in a relationship.
“She was a wonderful woman,” Grabeel said. “[She was] educated…she was interesting. I could learn a lot from her.”
“Miss Evelyn, she was raised up rich,” and her family “had come from England.” Grabeel added that Evelyn “acted English.” Evelyn even swore she met Queen Mary of England when she toured Europe with several other young women from Knoxville in 1930. According to Evelyn, the Queen liked her best, and said, “That is such a sweet little girl. She’s English.”
Despite her rather regal bearing, Grabeel said Evelyn could be difficult. She “could be trying with the renters,” she said. But Grabeel said she never witnessed the mood swings that some of Evelyn’s renters reported. Instead, she said “the last year of her life, [Evelyn] was very nervous…[and] easily upset…She would quarrel, [but] I overlooked that.”
Although Grabeel was complimentary toward Evelyn, she also was resentful because she was not allowed to live in the Mabry-Hazen House after Evelyn died. “I feel like I ought to be [there],” she told me. At the same time, however, she acknowledged that she could not live there alone and would require help. She said she had broken a hip 15-16 years earlier and no longer could care for herself adequately.
After Evelyn died, Grabeel considered taking legal action so she could stay in the house. “I was going to have a lawsuit,” she claimed, but an attorney told her she would have “lost every penny” she had.
According to Lucille LaBonte, the Executrix of Evelyn’s will, Grabeel could have continued living in the Mabry-Hazen House only if she were residing there when Evelyn died. Evelyn fully expected Grabeel to live there forever. But a few months prior to Evelyn’s death in June 1987, Grabeel left the house “of her own accord.” Lucille said Evelyn never forgave Grabeel for deserting her.
Lucille, who believed Grabeel was “a sweet little old woman,” tried to help Grabeel by sending her $200 a month for her living expenses. But Grabeel was bitter. Rather than blaming Evelyn, she blamed Lucille and Judge Howard Bozeman, Evelyn’s attorney, for preventing her from moving back into the Mabry-Hazen House. In her view, Evelyn never would have kept Grabeel out of the house because she was “good and kind to people…[and helped] a lot of people in money matters.”
One of the people Evelyn helped was firefighter Bill Cardwell. After he broke his thumb, he was unable to perform his duties for several weeks, so Evelyn hired him to do maintenance work and run errands for her. Grabeel liked him and said he “was good to us.” But others claimed he created a lot of the turmoil that made Evelyn angry and upset.
More on Cardwell in the next blog post.