Florence Kelley Worgan

Florence Kelley Worgan

1912 – 1997

Florence Kelley Worgan. Courtesy of the Kelley family.

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to write something about my aunt Florence Kelley Worgan for the Historical Society’s project on Little Compton women. Somehow my brief expanded to include write-ups about my great-grandmother, the original Florence Kelley, aka ”Granny,” for whom Aunt Florie was named, and my grandmother, Augusta Maverick Kelley. I tried unsuccessfully to fob all of this onto others – either Lucy O’Connor or my sister Debby Kelley would have made a much better choice, but neither was available. Mike and Heather Steers did a fair amount of digging and composed an early draft, but they obviously couldn’t fill in a lot of the blanks without knowing the family stories. But I didn’t know an awful lot about these three women for purposes of this project. For example, I had found a suffragist medal in my grandmother’s things while cleaning out her house, but I had no idea she had been as active in the movement as she was. The more time I spent on the project, the more I realized how little I knew about them, even with the contributions of my sisters Debby and Susie, cousins Steve O’Connor and Lloyd Macdonald, and the Steerses. I regret so much not asking more questions when I had the chance.

A friend thought perhaps I should lead off with Aunt Florie as there are still many people in Little Compton who knew her.  But the chronological approach seemed best as Granny Florence and my grandmother had to have been important models for Florie in helping explain Florie’s remarkable career.  

One more introductory word. I understand this exhibition is presented in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and focuses on women with Little Compton connections. For those keeping score at home, we believe Granny rarely visited Little Compton, but she was a leader in the national suffragist movement. Grandmother met her future husband in Little Compton and spent every summer of her life here after they married. As a suffragist she protested at the White House and was arrested several times! Aunt Florie grew up spending summers in Little Compton and commuted here from New York almost every summer weekend for decades until she and her husband retired here. She wasn’t a suffragist as far as we can tell. When the 19th Amendment became law in 1920, Florie was only 8 years old.

My aunt Florie was born in New York in 1912. She went to school there and in Washington, D.C. (when my Granddad, and her father, Nicholas Kelley served in the Government) before heading off to boarding school outside Philadelphia. I have no idea whether she saw Granny (Florence Kelley) or any of Granny’s Philadelphia relatives while she was away at school. I know nothing, in fact, about what kind of relationship Florie had with her grandmother. She worked one summer later on for the National Consumer League in its Providence office, but I don’t know if Granny arranged it. I have wondered, though, whether she felt things were expected of her because she was named after her grandmother whom she knew and must have seen often: Florie was 20 when Granny died. Was Granny the reason Florie devoted most of her life to public service?

Florie spent her summers growing up in her parents’ (Augusta Maverick Kelley and Nicholas Kelley’s) house on Sakonnet Point. She had lots of friends, including several Lloyd cousins, went to the beach, loved to sun-bathe and was keen on golf. She also liked parties.

She graduated from Smith in 1934. She must have done very well academically because she was admitted to Yale Law School in 1934. (I used to wonder why she hadn’t gone to Harvard Law School as her father and older brother had done, but assuming she might have wanted to go to Harvard, the reason she didn’t was simple: Harvard wasn’t yet accepting women.) I got the impression college was easy for her. She told us years later she spent a lot of time in her dorm during class hours playing bridge with Julia Child.

I never heard anything about why she wanted to go to law school, but she excelled at Yale. The family has long understood she graduated first in her class although I was unable to confirm it as fact for this note. She told my sister Susie that she loved the law, especially digging into cases to find the right answer to a legal problem. She also made many friends at Yale with whom she later worked or saw in New York. She loved Yale and participated regularly in alumni functions for the rest of her life. She was honored by the Law School with its annual Award of Merit in 1972. (Smith also awarded Florie an honorary degree in 1960.)

Following graduation, Florie went to work as a prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, which hired few women at the time. She met and married another Manhattan assistant D.A. but that marriage ended in divorce a few years later.  (Interestingly for the story, Florie’s first husband, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, was chairman of the board at East Side House Settlement, another settlement house in New York, for years.)

She left the D.A.’s office for private practice with Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett where she spent a few years before becoming chief of the criminal division of New York’s Legal Aid Society representing indigent defendants.

Florie had a great laugh and a good sense of humor. A favorite story was included in her Times obituary: When she was defending at Legal Aid, she went to see a new client in lockup. Asking the first prisoner she encountered if he was the man charged with robbing the delicatessen, he demurred, offering, helpfully, “No, ma’am, I’m the fellow who pushed the lady out of the 13th-story window.” When Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were preparing to film “Adam’s Rib,” their movie about a lawyer couple, the New York papers reported that Hepburn had come to the courthouse to observe Florie in action. I believe Florie had married David Worgan by this time. Uncle David was the first executive assistant in the D.A.’s office, a position he held for years, which made them an actual lawyer couple.

My earliest memories of Florie dated from her years at Legal Aid. She and Uncle David would arrive in Sakonnet late Friday nights and return to New York late Sunday afternoons. They stayed with my grandparents in the house on the Point. She was complicated. Attractive, lively and stylish, she could be incredibly charming but also prickly, so I learned to be careful with her and pick my spots. When she was at her best, though, visits with her were fun. And Florie and Uncle David gave my cousin Kathleen O’Connor the coolest birthday present I’d seen anyone ever be given: a spear-gun!

She always got right to it, whatever the issue, and gave it her full attention, always listening hard before speaking. As noted above, she was a wonderful storyteller, her delivery near-operatic, and she knew everyone in the law.  One time I mentioned to her I was reading a biography of Judge Learned Hand, the renowned Second Circuit judge from New York. She told me she and Granddad were attending a bar function in the City and saw Judge Hand across the room. Granddad encouraged her to say hello to the judge but to make sure to introduce herself first – it was the polite thing to do when greeting older people. Dutifully, Florie approached the judge and said, “Hello, Judge Hand, I’m Florie Kelley,” to which the judge replied, ”Who the hell did you think I thought you were?”

In 1960 Florie was appointed as the first woman chief judge of the Domestic Relations Court of New York City. In 1962 she was appointed to become the first administrative chief judge of the Domestic Relations Court’s successor, the Family Court of the State New York, within New York City. This was a huge job with enormous responsibility for sorting out of all kinds of problems involving families and children. The Court was overwhelmed with cases and Florie fought hard for her vision of what the Court could and should be that included more judges, psychiatric evaluations of parties, and probation services for juveniles.

After 8 years with the Family Court, Florie was appointed to serve as a New York Supreme Court judge. (The New York Supreme Court is not an appellate court but New York’s highest trial court of general jurisdiction.) Florie presided over many criminal trials, several having to do with drug charges.

When she wasn’t working, Florie was active in several non-profit organizations in New York, including the Women’s City Club, which she served as president. She was also frequently invited to speak to groups around the city.

In 1980 Florie retired, and she and Uncle David very happily settled full-time in Little Compton, splitting their time between the new winter house they had built on Quicksand Pond and the house on the Point where they spent the summers. They often started their days with an early breakfast at the Commons Lunch, borrowed books from the Redwood Library in Newport and socialized often. Florie also jumped into Little Compton matters with both feet. She was a member and officer of the Garden Club, helped launch the Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse which she served as secretary for years, funded a scholarship for students in Town and helped the cause in lots of other ways.

Nick Kelley, Nephew

May 2020

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