“Through That Cold Closed Door”: Debunking Another of Diana Nyad’s Bad Granny Tales

According to Diana Nyad in her 2015 memoir Find A Way, her mother, Lucy, returns from Paris in 1941, then goes to her mother Jeannette’s apartment “on the east side of Manhattan somewhere,” only to have Jeannette turn her away forever. But that never happened. Here’s why.

Diana Nyad’s great-grandmother’s business card, circa 1917.

We need to go back one more generation, to Diana’s great-grandmother, Mrs. Charles Wilder Glass, born Kate Elizabeth Perkins in 1869. A spiritualist minister and a medium, she wrote three volumes of Mars-based science fiction:

Ruth’s Marriage in Mars and Romance in Starland include a photo of the author and “my only child, Jennie May Glass” (as per the dedication).

Mrs. C. W. Glass and Jennie May Glass. From Ruth’s Marriage in Mars.

Jennie was born in Healdsburg, California, in 1894. Shortly after her birth, the Glass family made its way south to Los Angeles. By 1901, Jennie’s father, Charles Wilder Glass, had begun working as a streetcar conductor with the Los Angeles Railway.

By 1916, Jennie’s family lived at the address on her mother’s business card, 6185 Pasadena Avenue. Her father moved out by the following year, eventually leaving town to work for New Orleans Railway and Light. Jennie and her mother remained in the Pasadena Avenue home.

In 1919, choreographer Marion Morgan relocated to southern California and began teaching classes from which she recruited for her traveling company, the Marion Morgan Dancers. By 1920, Jennie Glass had joined up.

The Morgan Dancers mainly worked the vaudeville circuit. However, on August 5, 1922, they entertained at a private party hosted by George Warrington Curtis on his Southampton, New York, estate.

George W. Curtis is the grandson of Jeremiah Curtis, the Maine druggist who invented[1] and began marketing Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup in the mid-1800s. The elder Curtis’s morphine-laced brew brought him and his family unimaginable wealth. In addition to the Southampton property, George also maintained a residence in Manhattan — one large enough to house at least five servants and a pipe organ. His brother Atherton became a respected art collector and patron. Aunt Laura Curtis Bullard took over Susan B. Anthony’s struggling newspaper, The Revolution, in 1870 and edited it for a time.

Pool on the George Warrington Curtis estate in Southhampton, New York, circa 1914-1915. Via the Library of Congress.

On September 27, 1924, George and Jennie—as “Jeannette”—married at the Curtis estate. A little less than seven months later, she gave birth to Lucy Winslow Curtis, their only child.

George died on September 11, 1927. Within a year, Jeannette sent Lucy to live with uncle Atherton and his wife, Ingeborg, in Paris.

In 1933, Jeannette remarried, becoming Mrs. Arthur Cernitz and establishing a pattern that her daughter would follow: choosing colorful Greek-born grifters for second husbands.

A few tidbits about Arthur Cernitz
  • He came to Hollywood claiming to be “heir to the throne of the principality of Burkovina [sic] in the former kingdom of Austria Hungary.”
  • For at least a few months in 1936, he sold Mazadyne, a patent medicine that may have been an early version of vaporware.
  • He may have done well with Mazadyne or some other venture because, by 1938, he owned a sleek, architecturally significant home in the Pacific Palisades. More likely, though: Jeannette owned the home (and the car) since her first husband left her the bulk of his estate.
  • In 1950, while working as a cook in Imperial Beach, California, Arthur Cernitz told a reporter a rococo tale about his world travels, most of which sounds like rubbish. (See “Worked Way Around Globe By Cooking,” page 1 / page 2.)
Detail from a photo taken outside the Cernitz residence in Pacific Palisades, California, circa 1938. That’s probably Jeannette Curtis Cernitz beside that Cord 810, the first commercially available automobile to sport retractable headlights. Operating them required cranking two handles, one on either side of the dashboard. Original photo at the Huntington Library.

Mr. and Mrs. Cernitz settled in Los Angeles, possibly to be close to Jeannette’s mother.  Jeannette and Arthur divorced by 1940, but Jeannette remained in southern California for the rest of her life.

Lucy left Paris and returned to the U.S. in February 1941, a few months after Germany invaded France. In 1948, she married William (Bill) Lent Sneed Jr. in New York. They had two children: Diana Winslow Sneed (1949) and William Lent Sneed III (1952).

In July 1953, Lucy filed for divorce from Bill. At around the same time, she met a charismatic and stunningly handsome Greek con artist/smuggler/career criminal named Aristotle Z. Nyad. Enough of the Soothing Syrup inheritance remained to grab Aris’s attention and pull him into orbit around Lucy.

In short order, they eloped to Arizona, where they married on November 29, 1953. About six-and-a-half months later, Lucy gave birth to their only child, Eliza.

But that didn’t mean Lucy’s other children would not reap the benefits of their mother’s new surname. In particular, once Diana Sneed became Diana Nyad, the sport of marathon swimming would never be the same.

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And now the question that began this scramble up Diana’s family tree: Where did Jeannette Glass Curtis Cernitz live when her daughter, Lucy Curtis, tried to reconnect? According to Diana Nyad in Find A Way, Lucy went to see her mom after she (Lucy) returned to New York from Paris — so, 1941 or shortly afterward. Lucy goes to her mother’s apartment “on the East Side of Manhattan somewhere” and knocks, after which

her mother, through that cold closed door, told her she gave her up a long time ago, there was a reason she had never answered any of her letters all these years, and she didn’t want to have anything to do with her. (p. 38)

But Jeannette didn’t live in an “apartment on the East Side of Manhattan somewhere.” In fact, she didn’t live anywhere near the east side of the continent. When Lucy returned to the United States, her mother lived in Los Angeles, where she had lived since at least 1933, and where she would remain until her death 40 years later.

Lucy may not even have known her mother’s new surname, much less her address. That’s a sad story, but one that bears no resemblance to the tall tale Diana tells.

Jeannette’s headstone, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California. Via Find a Grave. Note that, depending on the source, Jeannette’s birth year oscillates between 1894 and 1897. I stick with 1894, the year Jeannette’s father gave in a sworn deposition.


  1. Most sources give Jeremiah Curtis’s mother-in-law, Charlotte Winslow, partial or complete credit for inventing Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Much more likely, however, is that Jeremiah cooked it up, then used his mother-in-law’s name as part of a brilliant marketing strategy. For further explanation, see “No Syrup, No Swimmer.”


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