Masters Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Three)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.]

Late in 1909, Charles Roberts received fifteen thousand dollars for the family’s old farm in Kansas and was able to pay off a number of debts. But his financial situation remained precarious, and a year later it took a sharp turn for the worse. On October 30, 1910, Clifford, who was sixteen, went to Sunday school at the Presbyterian church and then escorted his mother to the regular service. On the way, he realized he had left his gloves at home and ran back to get them. He lit a kerosene lamp in his and John’s dark room—which the two boys had just begun to set up for themselves in the attic of the family’s small house—and dropped a match on the floor, starting a fire that consumed the house. The twins sounded the alarm. “We got back to see its finish,” Rebecca wrote in her diary, which someone had the foresight to rescue. Charles dragged the family’s cherished player piano out of the house by himself. Almost everything else was destroyed, and there was no insurance. The local dentist, who had been doing dental work for Rebecca and Dorothy, “made us a Christmas present” of his fee.

The fire marks the beginning of Clifford’s life as an adult. He promised his mother he would try to make up for his negligence by doing as much as he could to help out. He was sixteen years old and had left school for good the previous spring. He continued to work on the family’s farm—which was failing—and to help his father with various business ventures. He began to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store in Blessing, a town several miles to the north. (“He actually sold more goods during their 10 days sale than any other clerk or the two owners themselves,” his mother noted with pride.) In July, he went to Galveston for a three-week course in business skills. He talked about teaming up with an acquaintance to run a meat company in Blessing. His name began to appear less often in his mother’s diary—which she continued to keep for another year and then abandoned—because he was now spending more time away from the rented house that had become the family’s home.

In that house, not quite three years after the fire, Rebecca Roberts rose quietly from her bed at four o’clock one morning, crept downstairs without waking her husband or her children, walked behind the house to a spot near the garage, and shot herself in the chest with a shotgun. It was three days after her forty-fourth birthday. No one in the family heard. Charles found her body when he awoke, at five. “The coroner’s verdict was that the deceased came to her death by her own hand,” an article on the front page of the Palacios Beacon said. “Letters afterward found written by Mrs. Roberts addressed to each member of the family showed that the act was premeditated. Each of the letters was an expression of affectionate farewell.” The letters, which were brief, were written in pencil in steady script on small sheets of lined notepaper.

Dear Dorothy —
Mama’s love goes on just
the same & you must be a
good girl & do as Papa
says. Stay with friends
I chose for you in life.
            Love Mama

The tone seems chilling, especially when compared with the tender informality of Rebecca’s diary: “Dorothy often draws me to rocking chair & when she’s in my arms—then she takes up my fingers in left hand & taps end of one with her small one—meaning that she wants me to sing.”

Rebecca’s note to Clifford was equally restrained:

Dear Clifford
I write to beg you to
not grieve but be a
man in time of trial.
Papa will need you.
 Be a sober upright
son & all will be well.
I know Ma wants you
to come to her.
         Love Mama

“Ma,” in the last sentence, is Maria Lyman Key, Rebecca’s mother, with whom Clifford had lived during much of the family’s seven-month stay in California nine years before. Clifford must have been considering a move or a visit, but there is no indication in the family’s records that he ever went. Charles, with Rebecca gone, would have needed him close at hand. Maria Key died in early 1915, a little less than a year and a half after her daughter’s suicide.

What a desolate experience it must have been to read those flat, emotionless notes on the morning of Rebecca’s death. Since the fire, Clifford had felt a disproportionate share of responsibility for the family’s misfortunes; Rebecca’s brief note would not have lightened his burden. Late in his life, he commissioned a portrait of his mother based on an old photograph and hung it in his apartment in the Bahamas. In 1904, when he was ten, he had made her a small paper heart and inscribed it to his “dear Mama.” Dorothy found the heart among their mother’s things one day and sent it to him. “What a sweet person Mother was!” Roberts wrote back in wistful acknowledgment. “I’m glad to be reminded that at least on one occasion I let her know how I felt about her.” The years in Palacios had become a void in his memory. Once he left, he never went back.

[to be continued]

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