Mrs. Trumbull Comes Home

Posted on July 28, 2021 by Lisa Thomas under Uncategorized

It was Monday, February 14, 1966—Valentine’s Day, if you’re paying attention, a fact that has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but something that just occurred to me when I typed the first part of this sentence.  Dad had just arrived home for supper, carrying a box the likes of which I had not seen before.  Of course, I was only 9 at the time, so there was a lot I hadn’t seen.  He gently set it down on the piano bench and told us he wasn’t comfortable leaving it at the funeral home overnight.  Why, you may ask?  Because in that box were the ashes of Mary Elizabeth Patterson, world renown actress and Savannah, Tennessee native.

In 1966 we didn’t have cremations in Savannah, or much of anywhere in the South for that matter, so being charged with the safety of her ashes was an unusual responsibility, one my father felt better about fulfilling by having her as an overnight “guest” in our home.  Although born and raised in Savannah, Miss Patterson had only been a visitor over the decades of her career, having left to pursue her chosen profession, despite her parents’ best efforts to persuade her otherwise, including sending her to Europe as a distraction.  Unfortunately for them . . . but great for the rest of the world . . . it only strengthened her desire to perform; upon returning she took her leave of Savannah, moving to Chicago where she joined a small Shakespearean troupe known as the Ben Greet Players.  That leap of faith led to her Broadway debut in 1913 in the play Everyman.  Her talents drew the attention of writer Booth Tarkington who personally requested that she perform in his Broadway production of The Intimate Strangers in 1921—and novelist William Faulkner who chose her to play the elderly female lead in the movie version of his book Intruder in the Dust.

She continued performing on Broadway until the mid-1950s; however, she also chose to pursue parts on the big screen, accepting her first role in 1926 at the age of 51.  It was a silent movie called The Boy Friend, a role that was rapidly followed by a multitude of others.  As a character actress she was able to transition from silent films to “talkies”, eventually performing in over 100 films with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, John Barrymore, and Bob Hope, just to name a few.  But it wasn’t until she reached the ripe old age of 77 that she accepted the role which would make her a household name—although it didn’t start out as Mrs. Trumbull.  Elizabeth’s first appearance on the I Love Lucy Show was as Mrs. Willoughby, the wife of the justice of the peace who married Lucy and Ricky the second time around.  Fans of the show may not remember Elizabeth in that part, but they most assuredly will recall her horribly off-key rendition of I Love You Truly during the ceremony.  The next year she was cast as Mrs. Trumbull and the rest, as they say, is history.  At least where her career is concerned.

Elizabeth Patterson was 91 when she contracted pneumonia, an illness that eventually took her life.  At the time she was living in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, her home for the previous 35 years.  Her body was cremated and placed on a train, scheduled to make the trip cross-country and arrive in time for her service at the First United Methodist Church in Savannah on Sunday, February 13, 1966.  That was why my father made his first trip to the train station the day before . . . and returned empty-handed.  The trains might run on time, but Mary Elizabeth did not.  She missed her memorial service (which went on without her), arrived the day after, and spent the night on our piano bench before being interred in Savannah Cemetery on Tuesday.

So, for those of you who didn’t know, Miss Mary Elizabeth Patterson is only one of several celebrities we have buried in our midst.  If you’d like to pay your respects, her grave is easily found nestled among her other family members in the McDougal plots of Savannah Cemetery.  If you’re turning onto Cherry Street (that runs through the middle of the cemetery) off of Water Street, take the first road to the right in the cemetery.  If you’re turning onto Cherry Street off of Pickwick, take the second road to the left.  You’ll pass the Shackelford family monument on your left and next to that, the Fariss family monument.  Stop there by the ginormous oak tree and look straight across to your right.  You’ll see the McDougal family’s section with their monuments reaching up toward the sky.  Hers is the first one in the fence, nestled in the corner, made of the whitest marble and bearing the inscription “In Memory of Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Mildred McDougal and Edmund Dewitt Patterson.  1874 – 1966”.

“She walked with Kings, nor lost the common touch”.


About the author:  Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926.  She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there.  Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.



2 thoughts on “Mrs. Trumbull Comes Home

  1. Charles T. Jeter says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have been thinking of her in recent days. Very informative. Thank you!

  2. Shari Green says:

    Thank you for sharing, Lisa. What an amazing story. Not only Ms Patterson but your father. I can imagine the stories he could tell. ❤

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