10-Year-Old Girl Enters Central High School

Sylvia Altman (Washington Post)
Sylvia Altman (Washington Post)

This is an interesting article that we came across, published in the Washington Post on February 10th, 1924.

A 10-year-old student in high school! She is Sylvia Altman, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. Altman, 612 Otis place northwest. The girl will not be 11 years old until June, and she entered Central high school February 1.

Besides being able to enter high school she is an accomplished musician and expects to make her debut in this art the latter part of this month also at Central High school.

When she graduated from the Park View school January 31, her report card showed that she stood “excellent” in every subject.

She was born in Buffalo and came to this city with her parents several years ago. When 12 months old Sylvia had shown no inclination to walk, but one day while her mother was in the kitchen the baby pulled herself up on her feet and without trouble of any kind, walked into the kitchen, almost throwing her mother into a panic.

When 14 months old she began to talk and soon had a vocabulary of nearly 100 words. At 18 1/2 months she expressed her thoughts in full sentences, using a vocabulary of about 300 words. Her school education began when she was 3 years old, in the kindergarten. At the age of 3 1/2 years Sylvia was able to read the first and second readers used in the public schools.

From early childhood she has been fond of reading. Fairy tales were fer favorites at first, but as years went on she changed her reading to more serious literature. At the age of 7 years she had read nearly 700 books. Her favorite authors at present are Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Booth Tarkington. “They present so much of real life that one can’t help liking them,” she declared.

Sylvia Altman in 1926 (Washington Post)
Sylvia Altman in 1926 (Washington Post)

The mental strength of the young lady seems to grow with her years. At the age of 9 years she took an intelligence test, which showed that she had the mental ability of high school students entering the third year of their course.

In music she has shown unusual ability. She is attending Washington College of Music five times a week for piano instruction, harmony, composition, ear training and history of music. She intends going to college when her high school course is complete.

Though busy with her studies, she finds time to help her mother in house work and to play. She assists her two younger brothers, Julius, aged 8 years, who, having skipped the 1 B and 2 B grades, is in the 4 B grade and who has completed a year’s course in violin study in three months, and Elmer, 6 years old, who is in the second grade. She is fond of the “movies” and plays with dolls. She weighs five and one-quarters pounds over normal.

Young Sylvia ended up graduating from Central High School in 1926 at the age of 13. Pretty impressive.

She went on to New York University and graduated in 1930 at the age of 17, at the time, the youngest graduate ever from the school.

Sylvia and her brothers went on to musical success as a trio. The Post wrote about the family on July 19th, 1931.

Genius is the word to apply to a 17-year-old girl and her two young brothers, originally of Washington, who are earning fame on the radio and in the New York musical world.

The three, Sylvia Altman, 17 years old, pianist; Julian [sic], 15 years old, violinist, and Elmer, 13 1/2 years old, are visiting Mrs. Sophie Simon, of 1116 Seventh street northwest.

Sylvia graduated from the Park View School at the age of 10 and from Central at 13 and graduated from New York University last June with honors. She is the youngest person to graduate from the university. She was one of the first children ever to broadcast, starting at the age of 10, making her debut over Station WCAP here. At the university she directed her studies toward a bachelor of science degree and majored in psychology, music and English. She recently was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Her musical education has covered eight years. During this time she has won a number of scholarships. She is studying music at present with Ernest Hutcheson, dean of the Julliard Musical Foundation. She is well known to audiences who tune in on “The Children’s Hour,” “Toddy Party,” “Empire Builders” and “Universal Series.” She played the part of Tilly Toddy for 39 weeks and was a piano soloist in the Gold Medal Trio in “The Children’s Hour.”

She has been received by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover and has been a congressional guest of honor at a luncheon in the National Capital. She has a large number of medals and trophies and a Steinway grand piano as a gift.

Julian, who has the distinction of being the youngest high school graduate in New York City, completed the four-year course at Haaren High School this year, with a gold medal for excellent in music. He has won six gold medals as first prize for his musical ability. He is an outstanding athlete, having won medals in swimming, running, jumping and boxing. He also won a prize for his work in amateur photography.

Julian, a member of the WJZ Gold Medal Trio, has been broadcasting with his sister for several years, as well as filling musical arrangements in company with Milton J. Gross, of the National Broadcasting Co. Sylvia and Julian appeared in Keith’s vaudeville.

Elmer, who is studying the cello, takes part in the following radio programs: “The Lady Next Door,” The Children’s Hour,” “Uncle Don” and “The Adventures of Helen and Mary.”

The children live in New York with their mother, Mrs. Jeanette Altman, at Gainsborough Studios, 222 Central Park South.

These have to be some of the most accomplished children you’ve ever read about. Makes you feel like you haven’t really done that much with your life.

Julian, Sylvia and Elmer Altman in 1931 (Washington Post)
Julian, Sylvia and Elmer Altman in 1931 (Washington Post)

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  • I wonder what happened to them as adults.

    • miscelena

      Oh, I did too, so I did a little digging. Here’s what I found:

      1915: NY Census – Buffalo: Joseph and Jeanette Altman and their daughter Sylvia. Jeanette’s brother William Gussin (giving us her maiden name) is living with them.

      1917: Joseph registers for the WWI draft from Rochester. He lists a wife and three children as dependents.

      1920: Joseph, Jeanette, Sylvia, Julian, and Elmer are living in DC; William Gussin is still with them (he’s a student.) Joseph works as an upholsterer. He and Jeanette, both born in Russia, are both noted as naturalized citizens.

      1930: The family (minus William now) lives at 50 W 55th St, NYC. I can’t read Joseph’s occupation, but Jeanette is listed as “pageant (illegible)” and the ‘industry’ is listed as Radio. None of the children, by now 16, 14 and 13, have occupations listed, but newspaper articles from this time period (esp 1931-33) in NY list “The Young Artist’s Trio” as Sylvia Altman, pianist, Julian Altman, violinist, and Urban Intondi, cellist (no Elmer in sight.)

      In 1937, the Pomona, CA directory lists a Joseph Altman as an upholsterer with a wife named Jeanette. Whether or not this is them, I cannot prove, but in the same year, an Elmer Jay Altman graduated from Stanford with a degree in Political Science. I can’t confirm it’s the same man either, but I did find an Elmer Altman whose mother’s maiden name was Gussin who passed away in LA 26 Jul 1983; that is definitely “our” Elmer.

      In 1940, Sylvia and Jeanette (the latter of whom is listed as ‘divorced’) are living in NYC again, on the corner of 54th St and 7th Ave. (This is relevant later) Jeanette does not have an occupation listed… Sylvia is a “Magazine Writer.”

      I found this newspaper clipping from 1950 mentioning a Miss Sylvia Altman, which I find intriguing… but cannot prove is the same woman: http://imgur.com/Uxh778B (Note that they are fundraising for the National Symphony)

      After striking out on finding any more about Sylvia (perhaps she married and her name changed?) I started looking for info about Julian.

      Julian Leon Altman remained a violinist, albeit an infamous and criminal one. I found this article first: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/10/29/1067233249858.html

      Here’s another article about the crime: http://imgur.com/BLPosqn

      It gets his mother’s name wrong, but does note that she “moved the family to apartments close to Carnegie Hall” – which sits at 57th and 7th.

      Here’s another, more complete, telling of the Red Violin (and Julian Altman)’s story: http://kleinomics.typepad.com/kleinomics101/2010/12/the-amazing-story-of-the-red-violin.html Here’s a relevant exerpt:

      “Altman, who had studied at Juilliard, in the late 1930s had moved from his native New York City to Washington, D.C. From 1940 to 1944 he was a member of the National Symphony, but later made his money more as a strolling musician, gaining popularity as an entertainer for political events. After a failed marriage and never able to generate a lot of savings, Altman continued to live in the Washington area. There he met Marcelle Hall, a divorcee from Bethel with two grown children, who was working for a social service department in Maryland. They lived together from 1970 on. Then in 1982 they moved to a home Marcelle owned in Bethel, a residue from her previous marriage.”

      It goes on. It’s worth reading…. very interesting, if bizarre. I have to stop this research and actually get some work done today, but I hope others will add on, especially if anyone can figure out what happened to Sylvia! : )

      • miscelena

        Also found this, which muddles the facts a bit… according to Census records, Joseph Altman didn’t die until mid-1930 at the very earliest; this was published in 1931:


        The Washington Jewish Mirror
        By HILLEL, the Observer
        When you “tune in” next time on the celebrated Gold Medal Trio over the National Broadcasting Company network, try to imagine for yourself that two of the trio are Jewish children fifteen and seventeen years old. They are Julian and Sylvia Altman, violinist and pianist respectively, and they hail from Washington.
        Julian and Sylvia have a history that sounds like an Horatio Alger story. Children of a widow, Mrs. Jeanette Altman, they somehow struggled through the preliminary stages of their musical education. Their talent soon aroused the interest of a patroness, Mrs. Chas. A. Goldsmith, whose name is a household by-word in the Nation’s Capital. Funds were raised through one means or another, particularly at a public performance of the Washington Jewish Center so that their musical education might be completed in New York. Their performance attracted the attention of the Washington representative of the Keith Circuit. An engagement soon followed on the stage. But no such attraction could divert the desire of the mother to complete their education. The money was poured in to that one channel. A few weeks ago Sylvia graduated with high honors from New York University at the age of 17 and a Phi Beta Kappa Key dangling from her belt.
        Meanwhile the broadcasting engagement was being filled and studies were going on all the time under the Juillard Musical Foundation. The children were busy, and how! But they preserve still their normal outlook on life and lack the artificial conceit of so many young professional artists. This week the Altmans appear at the famous Sylvan Theatre in the Nation’s Capitol in conjunction with the Denishawn Dancers. The Sylvan Theatre is the beautiful woodland natural stadium in Potomac Park. Mrs. Hoover frequents these delightful outdoor performances as well as the diplomatic set.
        What a home-coming for the Altmans! Yet it is richly deserved. They constitute a veritable “Gold Medal” trio, this widowed mother and her two children who overcame every vicissitude to reach success. *