Gertrude Taylor, 92; matriarch of Taylor singing clan
For Trudy Taylor, no aspirations were beyond reach, and she made sure her children shared her view of life’s expansive opportunities.
“The thing that stands out most to me about Trudy Taylor was that she took any vision you had about yourself completely seriously,” her son Livingston said by phone. “I remember at the age of 6 telling her that I wanted to dig a swimming pool in the front yard. And I studied her face as only a child can study a mother’s face, looking for signs of incredulity. I did not see the slightest trace then or ever. She supported her children’s visions without reservation. It was a remarkable trait.”
As four of her five children — Alex, James, Livingston, and Kate — turned to music, achieving renown and fame, Mrs. Taylor charted her own path artistically as a painter and a weaver, a photographer and gardener. A world traveler, she trekked in the Himalayas and visited China several times, at one point photographing and cataloging the architecture and kitchens of rural homes. The daughter of a fisherman, “she sailed across the Atlantic a couple of times, up and down the Caribbean, to Newfoundland and among the ice floes up there,” her son James said in an interview. “That was in her blood, too. She was a sailor.”
Mrs. Taylor died Saturday in her Martha’s Vineyard home overlooking Stonewall Pond in Chilmark. She was 92.
“She was quite an artistic person, really,” said her son Hugh. “She was an avid photographer for a period of her life and then moved on once she mastered that. That was a fairly common part of her practice: She would get good at something and then move on to something else, and not frivolously.”
Among Mrs. Taylor’s talents was spinning wool with friends, using material from the Vineyard and elsewhere. The designs on apparel she created often were inspired by “landscapes she could see out her windows, the different colors in different seasons,” Hugh said.
“There wasn’t anything that she tried that she didn’t master,” Mrs. Taylor’s daughter, Kate, wrote in a tribute. “Her artistic flair was manifest in her home — the furnishings, the table she set, the food she served, the art she surrounded herself with.”
To her children, Mrs. Taylor passed along her sense that all things were possible. “She made sure to expose us to all kinds of things,” James said. “She was constantly signing us up for a trip abroad, or an environmental camp, or a French immersion course, or a study the university was doing.”
In the mid-1950s, while the children were young, her husband, Dr. Isaac M. Taylor, served for two years as chief medical officer at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. When he returned, Mrs. Taylor took the five children to Europe. “She was simply fierce in her desire to give her kids as broad an experience of the world as possible,” James said. “She really took that to heart.”
Born Gertrude Woodard, she was the second oldest of five children, and was a teenager when her older sister, Ruth, died.
Mrs. Taylor grew up in Newburyport, where her father “was a fisherman and a boat builder and the unofficial mayor of Ring’s Island,” Kate wrote. “Her mother was a sweet whistling songstress who created a beautiful home for her family, with braided rugs made from their old woolen clothes and colorful and cheerful hooked rugs for every surface of their floors.”
She attended high school in Newburyport and studied voice at New England Conservatory, and met Ike Taylor in Boston. They married and had “four boys and a girl, all born in the span of six years between 1947 and 1953,” James noted on his webpage.
The family moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where Dr. Taylor was dean of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. In an interview, James recalled that his mother “walked the picket line” protesting segregation in the South.
“She was politically astute,” Kate wrote. “She had a fierce sense of the need for fairness and justice.”
In the early 1970s, Mrs. Taylor and her husband divorced. Dr. Taylor died in 1996.
“I always had the feeling that if she had been born 20 years later, she would have been a fully emancipated woman,” James said, and instead she lived in a time when women were expected to take a secondary role in marriages.
“She knew too much to be comfortable with that, yet she wasn’t born late enough to have the support from the culture to do differently,” he added in the interview. “It was as if she was caught between two worlds, my mom. I think honestly if she had been born later, she would have been independent her entire life.”
Nevertheless, Mrs. Taylor crafted a life of steady adventures, creatively and geographically, once she moved full time to the Vineyard, where her gardens always brought “lots of traffic through her place,” Hugh said. “She was also a really great cook.”
Her kitchen talents “were celebrated by anyone fortunate enough to sit at her table,” James wrote on his webpage. “This included the illustrious James Beard, who introduced the world to her ‘Chilmark Bouillabaisse.’ ”
Kate added in her tribute: “Pity the poor soul who tried to make her a clam chowder! Man could she cook!”
A service will be announced for Mrs. Taylor, who in addition to her children James, Livingston, Hugh, and Kate leaves her brother, Henry Woodard; two sisters, May Atkinson and Jean Woodard; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
In 1993, Mrs. Taylor’s oldest child, Alex, died of a heart attack at 47. “At the death of our beautiful brother Alex I watched as she bent, and I was very concerned that she would break,” Livingston said. “But she did not break. She bent, and then accommodated that pain and continued with her life of adventure and discovery.”
Indeed, to be in the presence of Trudy Taylor at any point in her life “required always that your thoughts be in hyperdrive,” Livingston added, “because no part of your vision was going to go unchallenged.”