Fountain City has been home to a lot of iconic women, such as Lucy Curtis Templeton, Nannie Lee Hicks, Josephine Stone Breeding, Mary Lou Vittetoe Horner and others.
None were more iconic than Ellen McClung Berry (1894-1992). The author only met her once at a large reception where she was honored when she endowed the McClung Tower and surrounds on Circle Park in memory of her parents. When she entered the room in her classic oversize hat, all eyes were upon her.
Barbara Aston-Wash, beloved long-time Knoxville News Sentinel writer, has told her story in her new book: “Bless Her Heart: The Life and Times of Ellen McClung Berry.”
In her recent lecture and book signing at the East Tennessee History Center auditorium, Aston-Wash shared details of the life of the Southern aristocrat and descendant of Knoxville’s founder James White. Her early life was idyllic, highlighted by her experiences at an Eastern finishing school and marked by riches, high society, world travel and connections to Italian royalty.
In her family’s Black Oak Ridge mansion, Belcaro, many local rich and famous guests joined visiting dignitaries from across the nation at indoor parties or outdoor events in the Italian gardens and around the reflecting pool. Her marriage to Thomas H. Berry on Oct. 18, 1928, was the social event of the season.
The Berry’s only child, Hugh L. McClung, was born in 1932 and Tom and Ellen built the Pavilion, their classic revival temple-form home on the extensive Belcaro acreage where Hugh could play and ride his horse quite distal from the main house.
Truly, to borrow a line from Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” “It was the best of times. …”
Her life would change beginning with the death of her father, Judge Hugh Lawson McClung in 1936. “The worst of times” began. Ellen, Tom and young Hugh moved in with her mother at Belcaro and attempted to move on with their life of travel, parties and visits to the extended McClung and Berry relatives.
Her mother’s death in 1951, young Hugh’s mental health problems, his death from pneumonia in 1963 and her husband’s death in 1978 left Ellen living with only her housekeeper at her mansion on Douglas Lake in White Pine where the family had moved after selling Belcaro.
Years earlier, the Berrys had met the mysterious Don Tondevold in a San Francisco department store and noticed his striking resemblance to their son. They had invited him to visit Tennessee on several occasions. He contacted Ellen upon Thomas’s death and asked to use her guest house “to write a book.” She agreed.
In a convoluted story that Robert Stack’s “Unsolved Mysteries” (NBC) told in 1991, Tondevold gradually ingratiated himself to Ellen, began to manage her affairs and eventually in 1985 stole her fortune, estimated at over $5 million. Ellen was left in a small apartment in Jefferson City, dependent on the interest income earned from her bequest of property to the University of Tennessee.
She lived seven more years with her dignity, her consummate style and her sense of humor intact. Ellen McClung Berry passed away on April 18, 1992, at 98 years of age.
Barbara Aston-Wash’s rich prose relates the life and times of Ellen Berry in “Bless Her Heart.” The enthralling book is available at the East Tennessee History Center (601 S. Gay) or Union Avenue Books (517 Union). To order by mail ($29.95 plus shipping) email Jack Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.