A journey to Paris and back: Uncovering Margaret Abbott’s unwitting legacy

by by Sara Wright, USA GOLF

Margaret Abbott (playing golf above) became the first U.S. Women's Olympic Champion and would never know. (Photo by an unknown source - circa 1900s)

When the XXXIII Olympic Games kick off on July 26, 2024, Paris will go down in history as the second city to have hosted three Olympiads (1900, 1924 and 2024.) The other is London, which hosted the 1908, 1948 and 2012 Olympic Games. No city has hosted more Games in the modern Olympic era.

While the Olympics are now generally considered the world’s ultimate sporting event – showcasing the world’s best athletes on the world’s largest stage – and often marks the crowning athletic achievement for those who qualify, the Games of old didn’t always carry the same weight as they do today.

The inaugural Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896, with the fanfare expected from the birthplace of the original Olympic competition. The second Games - and Paris’ first - in 1900, didn’t hold the same level of significance to its country, and were ultimately held simultaneously with the 1900 Paris Exposition, commonly referred to as the World’s Fair, with 28 nations participating in 95 events.

Although this same strategy was used in 1904, as St. Louis hosted the Olympic Games to coincide with its Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, it was not ideal, and the Games took somewhat of a back seat to the festivities. The Games that coincided with these massive events suffered from a lack of organization across all levels, and many athletes, especially at the 1900 Games, were unaware they were even participating in the Olympics. 

One such athlete was Margaret Abbott. Abbott was a wealthy young socialite from America, who was living in Paris with her mother, studying art, exploring the sights, and playing the occasional game of golf. Margaret and her family had spent the past several years living in Wheaton, Illinois, playing golf at the Chicago Golf Club and learning from seasoned players like Charles Blair (C.B.) Macdonald, Henry James (Jim) Whigham and James and David Foulis.

Macdonald and Whigham were among the earliest U.S. Amateur champions, Macdonald winning the first, while Whigham, a native of Scotland, won the second and third. James Foulis was a native from St. Andrews and won the second U.S. Open championship. Foulis was the professional at Chicago Golf Club and both he and his brother David would have also tutored Margaret during her time in Illinois.

Even though in the late nineteenth century, women were restricted from competing in most sports, golf clubs allowed women to join only if they were sponsored by a man. Margaret’s golf pedigree and skills had been honed during her teenage years, due to a mix of natural talent and effort along with her mother’s social connections through the club. Margaret’s mother, Mary, was a force herself, and had moved the family to the Midwest to work as the literary editor of the Chicago Herald.

It wasn’t until late 1899, when Mary and Margaret, who was now in her early 20s, traveled to Paris. Mary was researching and writing a travel guide, A Woman’s Paris: A Handbook of Every-day Living in the French Capital, while Margaret was studying art alongside Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas. After reading about a golf tournament in the local newspaper, both mother and daughter decided to sign up to play in the Prix de la ville de Compiègne, a competition held about 50 miles north of Paris at the Compiègne Golf Club, on October 4, 1900. Little did they know, they were about to make Olympic history.

The Games were originally planned just for men. In fact, in the ancient Olympic Games, women were not even allowed to watch, much less participate. But by 1900, golf was one of a handful of events in which women were allowed to compete – a first for the Olympic movement.  

The women’s golf competition consisted of nine holes that ranged in distance from 68 to 230 yards and included 10 participants, all dressed in long skirts and hats, as was customary for female golfers back then. At 22 years old, Margaret was a fierce competitor and shot 47 to win, while her mother Mary finished with a 65, tying for seventh place. Two other Americans, Polly Whittier and Daria Pratt, came in second and third place, respectively. Whittier finished with a 49, while Pratt shot a 53 en route to the first female American sweep.

According to stories she’d tell later, Abbott said she won "because all the French girls apparently misunderstood the nature of the game scheduled that day and turned up to play in high heels and tight skirts." But regardless of the reasons, Abbott would win by two strokes and was awarded an antique porcelain bowl embellished with gold. She would later write to her relatives back in America that she had won an “exhibition” and was never made aware that she was even competing in the Olympic Games, much less that she had just become the USA’s first female Olympic champion, or that she and her mother were the first and - to this day - only mother/daughter pair to compete in the same Olympic event and Games.

In fact, it wasn’t until approximately 70 years later when Dr. Paula Welch, a professor at the University of Florida, first discovered Abbott’s misspelled name (Abbot) on a plaque at the United States Olympic Committee’s headquarters in New York City, that anyone made that connection. As a faculty member at UF’s College of Health and Human Performance, Welch was heavily invested in Olympic history and was writing her doctoral dissertation on American women in the Olympic Games.

“I couldn’t find much information on her at the time, and I had to finish my dissertation,” Welch remembered. “But I knew I was going to get back to it. It took me 10 years of research, but I felt it was a very significant first and her story needed to be told.

“It took a lot of work and it felt shrouded in mystery,” Welch continued. “But don’t tell me I can’t find something. I was determined. Any time I’d go to a conference, I’d also find my way to a library. I knew she was from Chicago, so I started reading old newspapers.”

There was no microfilm for the Chicago Record, so Welch would order several bound volumes at a time through the University of Florida’s inter-library loan system to take home for research.

“I’d find mentions of women’s golf in the ‘society’ columns,” she explained. “There wasn’t much reporting of women’s sports back in those days, so they were chronicling things happening at country clubs, and I just gathered as much info as possible.”

The research didn’t stop with newspapers. Welch also tracked down Abbott’s family. At this point, Margaret had passed away decades prior, on June 10, 1955, at age 76. Her husband, Finley Dunne, was also deceased, but they were survived by four children, Finley Jr., Phillip and twins Leonard and Peggy.

Philip, the second eldest son, was a screenwriter. Welch found out that he attended Harvard, and after requesting his contact information from the University, she was able to finally share what she had learned with Margaret’s kin.

“When I told Phillip his mother was an Olympic Champion, he was amazed,” Welch recalled. “She had never once mentioned the Olympics to anyone. I ended up having several conversations with him and in 1984, he published an article in Golf Digest titled, ‘My Mother the Olympian.’ I was very pleased.”

The article appearing in the August, 1984 issue of Golf Digest, titled, 'My mother, the golf Olympian.' (Photo by John Moran, Chicago Golf Club historian)

“It’s not every day that you learn your mother was an Olympic champion, 80-odd years after the fact,” Philip Dunne wrote in the article. “The champion herself had told us only that she had won the golf championship of Paris.”

Welch reasoned, “I think golf was a perfect fit for Margaret. She was tall (5’11’’) and from what I learned about her, she was a bit shy. I think it must have built her confidence and helped her feel more socially accepted. The game definitely had a big impact on her. She continued to play golf when she returned to the States. After marriage, kids and even with an old knee injury, she often impressed her son’s Harvard friends with her skills.”

Welch, who is now 81 years old, has long been associated with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and is currently serving on the Board of the USOPC Endowment, a 501(c)3 that provides grants to support America’s athletes. Among her many accolades, the professor emerita was also the first varsity women’s basketball coach at the University of Florida and authored, A History of Women’s Athletics in the Ivy League.

“I’ve done some interesting research projects,” she said. “But this was one of my favorites. I think finding the story of something so obscure and during an era in sport that didn’t have many women role models means a lot. To uncover a story of this significance felt very rewarding. Today’s sports are built upon these women who did all this to pave the way for others. It’s a legacy I’m proud to be a part of.”

And it’s a legacy that without Welch would have never been told.


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