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History of La Causerie Française

  In 1910 or 1911 (accounts vary), Mrs. Halbert White invited the other members of her French class to her home one Friday for tea, with the intent of augmenting their study of the French Language. The second meeting also included their Instructor, who suggested that the group be called "La Causerie Intime". The five founders were Madame Alice Millet Ayers of Paris, and four of her students: Mrs. White, Mrs. Edwin P. Helmers, Mrs. William Beebe, and Miss Ellen Josephine Green. The meetings were held in private homes and proved popular, attracting others of like interests. Among those joining the group was a French scholar, Mrs. J.J. Vineyard, who began giving lectures on French history and related subjects, while Mme. Ayers taught the lessons in the language.

In 1913 it was decided to formally organize as a bona fide club, so the name was changed to "La Causerie Française". Mrs. Vineyard became the first president. Regular meetings were held at the Athenaeum Club. Luncheons following the classes were an important part of the program, with assigned topics for discussion, in French. The staging of plays in the French language became a major cause celebre for La Causerie, and dramatic performances were given at Annual Fetes. The club also claims the distinction of being the first organization in Kansas City to screen French Language movies.

Mrs. Vineyard served as president for five years, which included World War I, then again from 1920 to 1922. During the war years the club rendered various patriotic services to include participation in Liberty Loan and Red Cross drives. Also, arrangements were made for the adoption of several war orphans. In the post World War I years, La Causerie's membership included many "War Brides" from France who were happy to have the opportunity to converse in their native language. In those early years the club moved frequently, first to the Hotel Baltimore, then the Kansas City Club, then Ambassador Hotel, and by 1930, meetings were at the Hotel Riviera.

From 1923 to 1926, during the presidency of Mrs. Halbert White (née Harriette Dorn), the founder who hosted that first Friday Tea in 1910, membership rose from 25 to 45 and lectures in French by distinguished guest speakers became more common. Among those who gave presentations to La Causerie during this period was Count Leo Tolstoy. The first yearbooks (Livrets) were published during this time, and the club became affiliated with L’Alliance Française. The decision was made to establish a French language lending library, and the books were initially brought to meetings in a suitcase. Eventually a mahogany bookcase was purchased to house the library. This bookcase is now in a class room at Second Presbyterian Church and contains Lacauserie scrapbooks and past livrets.

For the 1931-32 academic year membership reached a high of 126 actives, 30 associates, and eight honorary members due to the diligence of the club president, Mrs. Claude McFarland (née Anne Rice Brown). Also, the club moved to Rockhill Manor. But 1931 also had its tragedy in the passing of Mme. Ayers, the founding spirit of the organization. She was greatly missed.

One of the measures that Mrs. McFarland adopted that has continued to the present was the publication of a monthly bulletin. Mrs. McFarland’s efforts were noticed, and in 1932 the French government named her "Officier d’Académie" for "services rendus à l’influence française". In 1986 Mrs. W.L. Craine, teacher for La Causerie, received a similar award, "L’Ordre des Palmes Academiques" in recognition of her efforts in encouraging the teaching of French in the Johnson County Public Schools.

The Great Depression proved to be difficult for the club. The worst problem was a rapid decline in membership. However, the club managed to survive, although membership reached a low of 33 actives and 12 associates in 1933. That year classes were moved from Rockhill Manor to the Brookside Hotel where it remained for nine years, except the academic year 1938-1939, when the classes were held at the Hyde Park Hotel. It is notable that many current classrooms at Second Presbyterian Church afford an excellent view of our former home, the old Brookside Hotel (now the Crestwood Condominiums) located at 54th and Brookside.

As the Depression came to an end, membership began to rise. It stood at 56 actives, 11 associates, and 10 honorary members by 1941. That year the club supported Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America by establishing a Spanish Department and starting Spanish classes. It proved popular, with more members taking Spanish that year than French. The first Spanish teacher, Señora Maria Riggs-Miller from Barcelona, a former opera singer, taught for eight years before leaving for South America.

The American entry into World War II brought many problems to the club. There were numerous other demands on people’s time, causing another decline in enrollment, but as in the previous war, the members still found time for patriotic services. They organized a war relief society, meeting in pnvate homes, this time to make clothing for those in need overseas. The club did survive those war years, although it was difficult to find an adquate but inexpensive meeting place. In 1942 the club moved to the Bellerive Hotel, then the next year to the Kansas City Young Matrons Club, where it remained until 1958. In 1944 rising costs required an increase in the dues from $10.00 to $12.50 for those in one language, and to $15.00 for those in two. Instead of publishing a Livret annually, for several years membership rosters were distributed to the members with instructions to insert them into the previous years Livret. Membership had declined to 38 active, 12 associate, and six honorary members by 1946. The decline continued so that by 1950 there were only 34 actives and 12 associates.

Conditions improved in the 1950's, so that by 1962 there were 106 active, 10 associate, and nine honorary members. In 1958 the club moved onto the campus of the University of Kansas City, meeting for one year at the University House and then for four years at the Epperson House. During those years a close relationship was developed with the Foreign Language Department of the university.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of La Causerie Française in 1963, a special celebration was held in the Terrace Room of the Ward Parkway Shopping Center at which time the club president delivered an interesting address, reviewing the club’s 50 year history. It is not recorded how many participated in that historic event, but fifteen past presidents were in attendance. In May of the next year, a gala dinner and reception were held to bid adieu to M. Josef Lodewych, the Belgian Consul and his wife who had been very active in Causerie affairs, giving numerous lectures during their five years in Kansas City. Mm.. Lodewyck was listed as an honorary member that year.

The early 1960’s were also memorable in that Causerie changed its status as an all ladies club, by the recruitment of male members, with Mr. Don Miller being the first in 1961. Now it was not only multilingual but coeducational, but the change occurred rather casually. There was no mention of it in the minutes of any meeting. It was also at this time, in 1963, that classes were moved to the YMCA on Wornall Road. Then, in 1969 the club moved again, to its quarters in the First Lutheran Church on State Line Road, where it remained for 37 years. 1967 also marked the passing of the last founding member of La Causerie, Harriette White. She suffered a heart attack in Hawaii while returning from a cruise to the South Pacific. She was eighty years old.

For its Diamond Jubilee, a gala dinner was held at the Indian Hills Country Club on the evening of May 6,1988. The celebration was well attended with some participants traveling from great distances, such as Texas and Kentucky, to attend. To begin its fourth quarter century the club offered four classes in Spanish and six in French, while the membership stood at 68 active and 33 associate members. In the spring of 1988, the club was incorporated in the State of Kansas as a not-for-profit institution. This required a slight change in name. It was changed to the "Institut de La Causerie Française."

The spring of 1989, the bicentennial year of the French Revolution, saw the club shatter another longstanding tradition. The members of the club elected a male president, Mr. Harold Ellis. Also, in July of that year, a large contingent of the club participated in the local celebration of the Bicentennial by attending the reception given by the Honorary French Consul at the Pershing Memorial.

In 1996, in its 85th year, the club expanded its classes with the addition of Beginning Italian.

In the 2007-2008 school year, La Causerie has a new home at the Second Presbyterian Church in Brookside, and we have registered 191 active and 10 associate members, which is the largest membership recorded to date.


Download a PDF of Harriette White's "Early History of La Causerie Francaise" handwritten in 1957. (2.6 Meg)