Page 81 of The Gambit, March 1928 reproduced the following from an unidentified publication:
The caption reads:
‘“Birdie” Reeve, Chicago, 17, considered the world’s cleverest girl of her age, has just played simultaneously 10 of the leading chess players of the West and claims championship of her sex. She has a record of 190 words a minute on the typewriter and is the author of three volumes on the science of words.’
We quoted this feature back in the mid-1990s (see page 305 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves) but have never obtained further information about her or how such claims came to be made.
Jerry Spinrad (Nashville, TN, USA) provides us with a large number of newspaper quotations about her typing exploits (which made her a vaudeville star) and family background, although he has found only one reference to chess. This was a report on page 12 of the Washington Post, 11 November 1928 entitled ‘Masters at Chess Draw with London’, which ended as follows:
‘Miss Birdie Reeves [sic], one of the best women chess players in America, was also on the scene during the major part of the performance and furnished excellent entertainment for the gathering of fans.’
This event, a Washington v London cable match on 10 November featuring such players as Mlotkowski, Whitaker, Yates and Michell, was the subject of reports on page 182 of the December 1928 American Chess Bulletin and pages 441-443 of the December 1928 BCM, but they made no mention of Birdie Reeve.
The other quotations provided by Mr Spinrad are, despite their lack of chess content, of much interest, and we therefore present them in full, as a supplement to the present item.
We have acquired a promotional leaflet (no year indicated) for one of Birdie Reeve’s exhibitions. It includes a photograph of her ostensibly giving a simultaneous display:
Larger versions of side one and side two of the leaflet are provided for perusal.
Jerry Spinrad has now discovered that Birdie Reeve died of a heart attack on 31 May 1996 at the age of 89, and that her obituary was published on page 53 of the Chicago Sun Times, 3 June 1996. The newspaper referred to ‘her ability to type 200 words a minute with just two fingers on each hand, spread out in a V formation’ and noted that George Burns mentioned her ‘great act’ in his autobiography All My Best Friends. The obituary also stated that ‘her vaudeville career ended in 1931 with the birth of her daughter, Hope Hirschman of Lincolnwood’. There was no mention of chess.
We now add the exact reference about Birdie Reeve by George Burns (who did not, however, mention her by name) on page 58 of his memoirs All My Best Friends (New York, 1989):
‘If you could do anything better, faster, longer, more often, higher, worse or differently than anyone else, you could work in vaudeville. For example, “The World’s Fastest Typist” had a great act. She’d type 200 words a minute, then pass the perfectly typed pages out to the audience to be inspected. For her finish she’d put a piece of tin in her typewriter and imitate a drum roll or the clackety-clack of a train picking up speed.’
‘Sunday, July 25’ indicates that the year was 1926. Birdie Reeve is described as a ‘16-year-old’, just as she had been in a newspaper report three years previously (see the supplement to C.N. 3612), but that discrepancy may be passed over. Showfolk age at their own pace.
Our collection includes a typescript of an unpublished novel, The Deeper Soil by I. Baumgartl (copyright 1938) which was typed by Birdie Reeve (144 pages):
Three further photographs of Birdie Reeve:
(6326 & 6586)
The best chess-related photograph of Birdie Reeve which we possess is the following:
Our search for information about her chess activities continues. Does the reference to ‘A.J. Quigley, President of the Chicago Chess and Bridge Club’ provide a clue? ‘A.J. Quigley, president Chicago Chess and Checker Club’ was mentioned on pages 109-110 of the September-October 1926 American Chess Bulletin.
Claims, as opposed to facts, about Birdie Reeve continue to come to light. We have now found that the photograph given in C.N. 6847 was published on page 16 of the Mid-Week Pictorial, 3 March 1928. Its caption asserted that she was aged 17, could type at the rate of 20 strokes a second, was the author of three books and claimed to be the women’s world chess champion:
As mentioned in C.N. 7501, the following three photographs are recent additions to our collection:
Ulrich Schimke (Cologne, Germany) mentions that the Trove website has a number of newspaper reports about Birdie Reeve, including the following:
‘Miss Birdie Reeve, Chicago’s memory prodigy, competed successfully in a simultaneous chess match with 20 players at the City Club. The girl played blindfolded, directing her moves after the plays of the opponents had been read to her. Unfailingly she visualized each situation she had to meet. Miss Reeve also claims honors as the world’s speediest typist.’
Source: Richmond River Herald, 20 April 1928, page 2.
We add from other sources a sequence of cuttings about Birdie Reeve, who, it was reported in the late 1920s, ‘claims the women’s chess championship of the world’:
Salem News, 1 March 1922, page 1
New Castle Herald, 28 March 1923, page 7
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 29 May 1923, page 2
Oakland Tribune, 30 July 1923, page 19
Courier-Gazette, 17 November 1923, page 2
Altoona Tribune, 14 June 1924, page 12
Vaudeville News and New York Star, 13 August 1926, page 7
Harrisburg Telegraph, 21 February 1928, second section, page 1
Philadelphia Inquirer, magazine section, 11 August 1935
Ulrich Schimke provides further newspaper reports on Birdie Reeve:
‘Little Birdie Reeve is back again, playing chess with the aplomb and confidence of an old chessplayer, and giving some of our best players a real tussle, though the young lady is only 16 years old. It is a treat to watch her on the mezzanine floor of the NVA Club.’
‘Birdie Reeve defeated Theodore Roberts at chess on Sunday evening, 17 April at the NVA Club, NYC. Little Miss Reeve is a wonder child. She is not only a renowned chess and checker player, but a lexicographer and champion typist also.’
Under the heading ‘Planning Chess Tournament During Chicago World Fair; Federation Has Election’, Hermann Helms reported:
‘Directors of the National Federation of the ensuing year were elected at the annual business meeting held at the City Club of Chicago ... Immediately after the directors’ meeting Edward Lasker played 20 games simultaneously, including one blindfold. He won 15, drew four and lost one to Birdie Reeve.’
‘Miss Birdie Reeve[s], of the NVA Chess Club, has achieved some fame and received considerable publicity recently because of her ability at chess. Immediately after the National Chess Federation annual meeting in Chicago recently, Edward Lasker, one of America’s best chessplayers, played 20 games simultaneously. He won 15, drew four and lost one. The only game he lost was with Birdie Reeve[s], who is now playing vaudeville in the Chicago territory.’
‘Miss Virginia Sheffield, woman champion of the Illinois State Chess Association, ... gained her title only recently in a tournament at the City Club in which she scored 2½-½. Mrs H.E. Redding of Oak Park was placed second with 2-1, ahead of Birdie Reeve, 1½-1½. Miss Lambissi was a contender.’
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