As she returned to the Cocoanut Grove’s Melody Lounge on Nov. 28, 1942, after dancing in another part of the supper club, Christian Gerhard happened to glance across the room and witness a historic tragedy unfold when a busboy was replacing a light bulb.
“I saw a boy stand up in the corner and strike a match,” Dr. Gerhard, who then was Christian Murray-Allen, testified in a court proceeding the following March, though a state investigation later absolved the busboy of blame. “Immediately, a large flame started in a palm tree in the corner. It spread across the ceiling.”
Seeing the room catch fire, she and her date hurried up the flight of stairs from the lounge and out of the building, escaping what became one the nation’s worst fire disasters. In the second-highest single-building fire death toll in US history, 492 people died.
A Radcliffe College student at the time, Dr. Gerhard was a musician before focusing on literacy and crafting innovative ways to teach reading. She was 97 and her health was failing when she died Oct. 10 in her Bethesda, Md., home.
One of only three known survivors of the fire at the time of her death, Dr. Gerhard had rarely spoken of that night with anyone other than her relatives. In keeping with her reticence, her October death notice in The Washington Post didn’t mention the fire.
Last week, a member of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, which honors those who perished and those who survived, saw Dr. Gerhard’s death listing during a routine online search to update information about the fire’s survivors.
“She was somebody who was a bit shy and was not what would typically be regarded as a gregarious type,” said her husband, Hans Gerhard, a retired economist with the International Monetary Fund.
Nevertheless, he added, “she was always very much the center of any parties we had in our house.”
By the time she began her studies at Radcliffe, Dr. Gerhard had lived in Scotland, Switzerland, and England before her family moved to the United States at the outset of World War II.
In college she focused on music, studied with composer Irving Fine, and took cello lessons.
“She was a dedicated musician,” said her husband, who formerly was a Duke University economics professor. “She originally wanted to make her whole career in music.”
At Texas Christian University, Dr. Gerhard wrote her master’s thesis on British composer Gustav Holst and taught for a time at the college level.
Dr. Gerhard later graduated from George Washington University with a doctorate in education.
Encounters with women who worked in low-wage jobs because of illiteracy had prompted Dr. Gerhard to switch professions and “got her started on a very long search for better methods of teaching people reading and writing,” her husband said.
“She made a break from her music life,” he added, “and pursued the reading specialist profession.”
Dr. Gerhard published “Making Sense: Reading Comprehension Improved through Categorizing” in 1975 and lectured in the United States and abroad. She also taught in Maryland.
“Christian believed that if you taught children how to break down what they were reading into categories,” her husband said, “that would greatly enhance their ability to know what was going on.”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on April 28, 1924, Christian Murray-Allen was a daughter of Christine Wilson Murray-Allen and John Murray-Allen.
Her mother had attended Cambridge University in England, which she left to teach French to British officers in France during World War I. Afterward, she traveled through countries that were part of the British Empire and met John while visiting Mombasa, Kenya.
He had trained Black soldiers from Kenya during the war and subsequently tried his hand at coffee-growing, an enterprise that foundered.
The family lived for a time in the British Isles, where Christian was born, and then in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she spent nine of her childhood years.
Her father died in 1938 and her mother took Christian and her two sisters to England before leaving for the United States the following year. They arrived in New York City on Sept. 1, 1939, the day World War II began in Europe.
Through contacts with extended family and friends that Christine Murray-Allen and her daughters had never met, they settled in Cambridge, where Christian began her studies at Radcliffe after graduating from the Northampton School for Girls.
Upon graduating from Radcliffe, she served as a coder in the British Women’s Royal Naval Service during the end of World War II, and then married Samuel Mayne, a US Army veteran.
They lived in Connecticut and California during his college studies before moving to Texas, where he was a professor. The couple had one child when he died at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 1949.
Dr. Gerhard initially moved with her daughter to England to live near family before returning to Fort Worth, Texas, where she met Hans when he taught for a semester at Texas Christian University. They married in 1952.
The family relocated to North Carolina where Hans taught at Duke and Dr. Gerhard performed in the university’s orchestra while raising their children.
His job with the International Monetary Fund brought them to Washington, D.C., and his work later took them to Egypt. She finished her doctorate and taught at George Washington University as an adjunct professor until retiring.
Dr. Gerhard “had a very strong commitment to social issues from her childhood on,” her husband said.
“She was a serious person in everything she did,” he said, adding with a laugh that “she also enjoyed the good side of life in a Scottish, refrained manner.”
Among the couple’s regular travel destinations was Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales, where her father’s family was from. “We went there practically every year for a couple of weeks,” her husband said. “She loved it there.”
A private service will be held for Dr. Gerhard, who in addition to her husband leaves two daughters, Lynn of Spring, Texas, and Suzanne Tubis of Annapolis, Md.; a son, John of Jarna, Sweden; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
With Dr. Gerhard’s death, the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee knows of only two survivors of the tragedy, Joyce Spector Mekelburg and Robert Shumway.
The night of the fire was Dr. Gerhard’s first visit to the establishment, she testified the following year, according to a Boston Post article in the committee’s archives.
After navigating a Melody Lounge crowd she estimated at 250 to 300 to find and share a table with strangers, she and her date left for one dance before returning. That’s when she saw the busboy light a match near the ceiling, though the following year, the state fire marshal announced that his match wasn’t the cause of the fire.
“A flame shot out,” Dr. Gerhard testified. “No one did anything about it at first. Evidently no one thought it was going to be a serious fire.”
As she saw the fire spread, “I went right for the stairs leading to the dining room above. Mr. Lee, my friend, was with me,” she recalled.
“We were the first people up the stairs from that lounge and we hurried right for the revolving door in the foyer of the club. Many people were there. Some were already pushing through. Then we got out.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.