May 25, 1915 - November 5, 1993
Pelham Resident c.1925 - 1940, PMHS Class of 1934
As the PMHS Pelican yearbook board assembled at the start of the 1933-34 school year, the country was in dire straits. After the stock market crash of 1929, the policies of President Hoover to impose new tariffs on foreign imports, more than double the top federal income tax rate and maintain -- and in some cases, increase -- wage levels, had pushed the unemployment rate to 25 percent. Across the mid-west, dust storms had started blowing millions of tons of topsoil off farms in the heartland, creating what would be called “the dust bowl.” Yet in spite of these circumstances, a petite young woman in her senior year at Pelham Memorial High School produced an incredible series of images that conveyed nothing but a sense of forceful optimism for the future.
Each print has some forward action: a charging football player, dramatists reaching to the sky, a torch-wielding figure blazing a new path and a pair of hopeful faces, peering upwards. These became the cover pages for different sections of the Pelican. Repeated at the bottom of each page of the yearbook, a horizontal scene of modern buildings with the latest forms of travel (a tramway, airplanes and a dirigible) combine with references to ancient Asian architecture. Art Deco in composition with a strong, underlying geometric structure, the designs are not unlike the WPA murals in the PMHS library that were begun at about the same time in March 1934.
The images appear to be “block prints,” a technique that began in ancient China and, according to experts at Christie's Auction House, was revived and popularized as a print-making technique in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries. It is no surprise that this art medium would be used by Mitsu Nakayama; she was one of three children of Takeo and Ituyo Nakayama who were born in Japan and moved to the United States in 1903. Mr. Nakayama worked for the firm of Morimura Brothers, which imported china from Japan to the United States. By 1920, they were residing at 550 West 157th Street in New York with three children: Mitsu and her sister Yoshi, both born in the United States, and a younger brother Yoneo, born in Japan. Just a few years later, they purchased the home at 472 Manor Lane, Pelham Manor and became fully ensconced in the Pelham community.
Above: Page border image designed by Mitsu Nakayama in the 1934 Pelican yearbook
The three children attended Siwanoy Elementary School, where in 1927, students performed an operetta called “Yanki San,” with Mrs. Nakayama designing the costumes. The family became members of Huguenot Presbyterian Church where Mr. Nakayama served as a trustee and Mrs. Nakayama was active in the Women’s Society. At the church’s annual holiday bazaar, she oversaw a “Japan Table” stocked with merchandise (likely donated from her husband’s employer). After the conclusion of a four-week vacation bible school, the 84 attending children performed a Japanese play, “Alice Through the Postal Card.” The Pelham Sun reported that “the faculty acknowledged with gratitude the cooperation of Mrs. Takeo Nakayama who loaned many Japanese curios and costumes, in connection with the Japanese project.” Mrs. Nakayama also presented the church with a custom-made, 800-piece set of china and the church recognized her donation by making her the guest of honor at a dessert and bridge party for 80 guests. She also belonged to the Manor Club and was active in the Garden Section, giving a talk on Japanese floral arrangements and participating in the club’s “Hobby Show,” where she displayed a model of a 16th-century Japanese court scene of miniature dolls.
Above: Pelican Board Members in 1934 from the Pelican Yearbook
The three Nakayama children excelled at Pelham Memorial High School. Mitsu and her sister Yoshi were just fourteen months apart in age and in the same 1934 graduating class. Both were inducted into the Knight & Lamp Honor Society and were members of the French Club. Mitsu played a couple of years of intramural baseball and was (not surprisingly) in the Art's League. She was noted in the Pelican as “Famed For... her paint brush”; Yoshi was on the Student Council and was “Famed For ... her meticulous work.” While Mitsu was artistic, Yoshi was studious. Yoshi received the senior scholarship medal at graduation, sharing with another student the distinction of achieving the highest Regents exam average. She received a partial scholarship to attend Mount Holyoke College and then went on to do graduate work at Columbia University. Their younger brother, Yoneo, was also inducted into Knight & Lamp, served as Treasurer of the student General Organization, co-managed the varsity baseball team and, after graduating from PMHS, went on to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mitsu pursued her obvious artistic talent and attended the Art Students League and the Grand Central School of Art in New York and the Phoenix Art School in Arizona, but the Great Depression kept her from finding her dream job as an illustrator.
As the dark clouds of war began forming in 1940, Marimura Brothers closed their New York Office and recalled Mr. Nakayama to Japan. A headline of the Pelham Sun read, “Women’s Church Group Arranges Farewell Party – Mrs. Nakayama and Her Daughters to be Honored at Tea and Reception by Huguenot Women’s Society.” Mrs. Nakayama was also honored at a farewell bridge party with 30 guests at a home on Fowler Avenue. The Pelham Sun reported their departure from New York to the West Coast where they would sail from San Francisco aboard the “Kamakura Maru” for Yokohama where they would make a temporary home. “The Nakayamas … have won a place in the affection of many residents here,” the paper said.
In February of 1942, Mitsu Nakayama wrote to friends in Pelham. “I am supposed to be a special teacher in a girl’s school,” she said, noting that her salary was good, but “there is nothing to spend it on.” She looked forward to saving the money in the hope of someday returning to the United States. In a later letter in October, she explained that: “According to the newspapers, our outgoing mail is going to be censored on the 22nd of October. A short while ago Yoshi and I got a letter from the American Consulate asking whether we intended to stay in Japan or not. We said we would be more than delighted to leave at once, but that we couldn’t very well live on nothing. It isn’t very likely anyone in America would employ us.” She lamented that, while many of her contemporaries had been educated in America, upon returning to Japan were “made to wear a ‘disgrace card’” if they emulated American ways. Her brother, Yoneo, once a boy scout in Pelham, was now drafted into the Japanese Army. Pearl Harbor was bombed two months later and a few months after that, President Roosevelt issued executive order no. 9066 authorizing and directing the Secretary of War to designate military areas that would become internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent.
The Nakayama Family remained in Japan through the war; they never would return to live in Pelham. However, at the end of the war, Mitsu worked for the U.S. Occupation Army in Yokohama and in 1947, she and her sister (both natural born U.S. citizens) returned to the United States.
Yoshi settled in Ithaca and became a research librarian at the Cornell School of Nutrition. Mitsu joined her and became the staff scientific illustrator at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium. She remained there for 30 years from 1950-1980, illustrating several books. She passed away in 1993 at the Oak Hill Manor Nursing Home in Ithaca. At her request, there was no memorial service at the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca where she was an active member and her remains were interred in Kyoto, Japan.
Mitsu’s work was exhibited after her death in “Cornell Botanical Illustrations of the 20th Century” at the university’s Mann Library in 2013 to celebrate the Department of Plant Biology’s centennial where she was recognized for her important and lasting contribution to the department’s educational and scientific mission.
Her many drawings remain in the collection of the Bailey Hortorium and can be seen in a recent blog post by the Cornell University Mann Library.*
* The author extends thanks and appreciation to Eveline Ferretti, Public Programs and Communication Administrator at the Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, for sharing the above later photo of Mitsu Nakayama and the linked recent blog post about her work at the Bailey Hortorium.
Sources: Pelican (Yearbook of Pelham Memorial High School), 1934; United States Census, 1920, 1930, 1940; Pelham Sun: April 17, 1936 (Hobby Show at Manor Club), July 31, 1936 July 31, 1936, November 29, 1935 (Japanese Table at Huguenot Bazaar), May 10, 1935 (800-piece china set), March 1, 1935 (Yoshi to attend Mt. Holyoke College), September 7, 1934 (Mitsu & Yoshi graduation honors), July 31, 1936 (“Alice Through the Postal Card”), June 14, 1941 (Women’s Church Group organizes farewell) and February 28, 1942 (letters from Mitsu to Pelham); Mitsu Nakayama Obituary, Ithaca Journal, November 9, 1993.