From Hebron to New York, and Back Again: Grace Rathbun Grubert Recalls Her Remarkable Life
Hebron residents have grown accustomed to seeing the shiny Cadillac drive through town bearing its well-dressed occupants, Grace Rathbun Grubert and her longtime companion, Milton Porter, on their way to another social event. Yet not everyone knows Grace’s story. It’s the intriguing tale of a spirited woman who left Hebron in 1933 for the city life of West Hartford, New York and Baltimore, only to return to her roots 60 years later.
It is not known exactly how long the Rathbone family has been in Hebron. Isaac Pinney’s famous 1744 map does not mention any Rathbones. The first mention of the family comes from John Sibun’s Our Town Heritage; he states that Rufus Rathbone was living in Hebron by the time of the Civil War. But there is no doubt that by 1900, the Rathbone family was well-known in town. According to Grace, the family name was changed to “Rathbun” by her grandmother, Jane Austin, who had married Isaiah Rathbone. The strong-willed Jane convinced her husband to formally change the family name to “Rathbun.” Other Rathbones, like Probate Judge Leon Rathbone, decided not to follow suit.
Grace was born in 1916 to Frederick Austin Rathbun and Sarah Julia Gray, the sister of Harold Gray. (Harold was Lloyd Gray’s father, making Grace and Lloyd first cousins.) Fred, who had graduated from Yale with a degree in Education, eventually left his job as Headmaster at Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts. He returned to Hebron and became a “gentleman” farmer, buying a dairy farm on Marjorie Circle. Fred also served as Hebron’s postmaster from 1907 until 1910. The Rathbuns employed several well-known Hebronians on their farm, including Ernest Nye and Sherwood Griffin.
Grace’s skills in fashion design were noted early in her life, which may have been inherited from her three aunts. Her mother taught her to sew at the age of 10; by 12, Grace had joined the Hebron Girls 4-H Sewing Club. Tolland County had a contest for designing and sewing clothes, and Grace entered her first competition. She worked tirelessly on the summer dress that ultimately won first place in Tolland County, and second in the state competition. The following year, she entered the contest again, this time creating an elegant fall dress with a ¾ length long-sleeved jacket. Easily sailing past the other designs, Grace’s dress and jacket went on to the state competition held at the Durham Fair. After modeling her creation, not only did Grace win first place, she also won a trip to the national 4-H competition in Chicago!
By now, Grace was only 15 years old, and a trip from Hebron all the way to Chicago had the town abuzz. Obviously, she made the trip with a chaperone, Estelle Grover from Storrs. Once in Chicago, the 48 state winners – Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states then – met daily with fashion designers. Finally the big day came, but with a new feature: the judges would also vote on the girls’ homemade lingerie! Grace’s slip and underwear had been carefully hand sewn with crepe de shine and lots of lace. When asked, “And when did they judge these garments?” her answer is quick and witty: “Well, not on me!”
The small town Connecticut girl walked away with the First Runner Up prize – second in the entire nation. Winning such a prestigious award only accelerated Grace’s desire to enter the fashion world. She would soon have help.
Upon returning from Chicago, Grace’s aunt, Mary McDonald, an executive at G. Fox in Hartford, offered a sales job to her young niece. Obviously, the daily trip from Hebron to Hartford was untenable, so Grace moved in with Aunt Mary at her West Hartford home, and commuted with her daily to work. Grace loved her job so much that, after intense discussions with her parents, decided to complete her senior year at Hall High School in West Hartford – and continue to work nights and weekends at G. Fox.
Upon finishing high school, Grace went straight to New York with her friend, Anne Burr. [Anne ultimately became a Broadway phenomenon and a pioneer in the soap opera As The World Turns.] The two girls stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women; Grace soon signed up with the Harry Conover Modeling Agency. Every day, she would show up for work at 8:30 a.m. and wait for an assignment. It wasn’t a long wait. Primarily a photographic model, Grace was in high demand. She would get her assignment, grab a cab, be photographed, and then return to Conover for her next assignment. “It was hard work,” she says. But at the time, many Connecticut residents were earning only $18 per week; some weeks, Grace earned $1200.
With her earnings, she went to the University of Connecticut for two years, and then took a job with Connecticut General Insurance in Hartford. She again lived in West Hartford with Aunt Mary, who by now, secretly married, was pregnant. “In those days, a pregnant married woman was automatically fired. But Mary was tall, and was able to cover up the pregnancy. My mother raised her child, Elaine, until age 6, and Mary was able to keep her job at Fox’s.”
One day, walking out of the Mark Twain Library, Grace ran into William Grubert, a young man she had previously met at a Wethersfield Country Club dance. He insisted they go to the movies and dinner; they dated steadily for the next year and married in August 1942.
Bill, who had Masters Degrees from both MIT and Harvard, was an up and coming insurance executive at FIA (Factory Insurance Association) in Hartford. He was transferred to New York, but soon entered the Army Air Corps. Whenever Officer Grubert was sent on assignment to Baltimore, Grace temporarily went to work at the well-known department store, Hoschild-Kohn’s. After the war, Bill took a job with Royal Globe Insurance, and Grace opened up her own specialty shop, called “Grayce Fashions.”
The couple lived near the intersections of West 16th Street and 7th Avenue, close to Bill’s office and Grace’s shop. However, after being robbed at knife point three times in one year, Bill insisted his wife close the store, even though she had successfully operated the business for nine years. She did, and took a job as Showroom Manager for Rees and Orr Associates, a position she held for 30 years. Grace’s most memorable event during that time was her first trip to California. She and Bill started out in San Francisco, but over the course of three weeks saw most of the state. “Why can’t you get transferred here?” she teased him. Bill passed away in 1979; Grace continued to live in the penthouse, even after her retirement.
In 1991, Grace returned to Hebron to take care of her cousin, Lloyd Gray, following his knee replacement surgery. The following year, Lloyd and Milton convinced her to return to Hebron. In September 1992, Grace made the final move back to her roots.
“There are lots of things I miss about New York. But I’m content here.”
Hebron. No matter how far life takes us, there’s no place like home.