Gasoline and love – Jenny Dolly and the Speedway star Harry Knight

I recently bought a rather lovely postcard showing the Dolly Sisters early in their career, signed by them (the ‘Sisters Dolly’) to a H. C. Knight. It is most likely that the card was given to Harry Knight, the speedway driver of Indianapolis in about 1911.

The Dolly Sisters in 1912, USA

The front of the postcard to Harry Knight showing the Dolly Sisters in 1912, USA

 

The Dolly Sisters (Rosie and Jenny) appeared in a New York show called The Echo but it was short-lived running from August to October 1910 and then toured. One of the stops was Indianapolis, where, in February 1911, the Dolly Sisters met Harry Knight (1889–1913), the 21-year-old fearless motorcar driver. He already knew Bessie McCoy, who introduced them and a pretty romance developed between Harry and Jenny with McCoy unknowingly playing Cupid to the pair.

Harry Knight was one of the youngest automobile race drivers in the country. Born 6th August 1889 at Jonesboro, Indianapolis near Marlon, he started his driving career before he reached the age of fourteen. He piloted a two cycle Queen car from Indianopolis to Washington and through Virginia on a 34 day trip and then joined the automobile game with D.B. Sullivan with the Westcott Company in 1903. He had also driven in Glidden Tours and at various race courses.

After the Dolly Sisters returned East many letters were exchanged and then Jenny and her mother returned to Indianopolis on a sight seeing trip. Harry escorted them and showed them the sights. Jenny was ‘deeply impressed with his courteous manner, his apparent non interest in the glamour that surrounds the youth just at this time… when she found that Knight did not drink, smoke or chew and was devoted to his mother, she decided that he would necessarily make a good husband.’

By May 1911 there were rumours of an engagement, as Harry arranged for a private box for them to see him in the 500-mile International Sweepstakes event at an Indianapolis speedway held on 30th May 1911. This was the first recorded automobile race of such distance in history and attracted worldwide attention from American and European racing teams and manufacturers. Despite controversy surrounding the conclusion it became the premier motorsports competition in the nation, and one of the most prestigious in the world.

Postcard to Harry Knight from The Dolly Sisters

 

The reverse of the postcard to Harry Knight from The Dolly Sisters, showing the inscription 

During the race Knight, in order to avoid running into another driver (Charlie Anderson) who had been thrown from his car onto the track, swerved to avoid him and crashed into the pits. His quick thinking action was lauded and he became known as the ‘hero of Indianapolis Speedway.’ The accident was one of the causes of who actually won the race.

Jenny Dolly had allegedly promised to marry Knight provided he finished ‘in the money.’ He did not. Although love was in the air, it clearly could not compete with events in New York, and it was at this time that Florenz Ziegfeld took an interest in the Dolly Sisters as he was preparing the fifth edition of his Follies, and the first to bear his name.

The Dollies had at least four major appearances in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 which opened on 26th June 1911 at the Jardin de Paris/New York Theatre roof. The show closed its Broadway run on 2nd September and opened the regional tour in Chicago. Fanny Brice roomed with Vera Maxwell and the Dollies, and wherever possible they took a big travelling salesman’s room with two beds.

At some point they found themselves back In Indianapolis and were invited to a party in the country, where the dress was blue jeans and straw hats. One wonders whether the speedy Harry Knight was the host, eager to romance Jenny again. Vera and the Dollies found the party dull, but Fanny was enjoying herself and stayed when the other three walked back to town. When Fanny returned to the hotel in the middle of the night, she found her trunk in the hall and was not allowed in the room until she had banged on the door for half an hour. Despite this minor altercation, the Dollies were to remain friends with Fanny Brice throughout their lives. The show toured through Philadelphia at the New Year and finally came to a close outside New York on 30 March 1912.

About two years later on 4th July 1913, Knight was participating in a 200 mile automobile race given under the auspices of Columbus Automobile Association at Columbus, Ohio. He had been out of the reace for thirty minutes due to engine trouble and had just returned and was running at seveny miles an hour when his car blew a rear tire and capsized on the 110th lap. He was killed instantly and his companion, mechanic Milton Michaelis, was fatally injured. It was believed that his mother and his new sweetheart Miss Margaret Doyle of Cambridge City witnessed the accident as they were supposed to be attending the race.

The relationship between Knight and Jenny was doomed from the outset. They were of different professions and lived in different parts of the country. Also, Jenny and Rosie were an act. If one married the act ended and neither really wanted that to happen. A few years later a solution was found. They both married men in the theatrical profession, based in New York, who were well aware of the lifestyle and performed with their wives.

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

Sources:

The (Indianopolis) Day, The Indianapolis Star

The Delectable Dollies by Gary Chapman

A biography of the Dolly Sisters online

Pre-1920 auto-racing history

A history of the Inaugural 1911 Indianapolis 500

3 Responses to “Jenny Dolly and the Speedway star Harry Knight”

  1. Adore this article. Where did you uncover these details?

  2. Gary says:

    Diligent research used in my book about the Dolly SIsters, the joy of ebay where the postcard was auctioned and putting two and two together…. Glad you liked the post!

  3. ALLISON MCKAY says:

    Gary dear…Amazing you have the postcard…I sent the dresses to Cristies in London and as soon as they tell me when the auction is,Robin, my daughter and will fly to London. I will keep you posted and I will bring all the info on Ben Blue I have gathered with me.We have sold our house and rented yet another place in the country. As I told you, we were planning to move back to New York City but in the meantime, Robin has been diagnosed with cancer and we are dealing with that at the moment. Hope your book on Blue isn’t finished yet becsause I found some great stuff for you (I think) For the moment, I will remain…yours truly, Allison

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