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There was however one strong female influence on Norvell throughout his formative years. It was his mother’s sister, Susan, or Aunt Susie, as he called her. Susan had married a rich businessman, Charles Francis Love, and lived as a carefree society woman in Atlanta. She was a frequent visitor to her sister Emmie, and Norvell savoured every moment of her visits. She was given to florid, extravagant, dainty and not-so-dainty gestures of the kind Norvell used later in the Laurel and Hardy films. This even extended to the “tie twiddle”, which supposedly evolved from Susie’s habit of twiddling her silk neckscarves. The boy doted on her and made every precious minute count when she visited.

Oliver and Emmie worked well as a team, but the business was not the most efficient ever run. In 1892 Oliver was summoned by Morgan County Court to appear on October 1 regarding an unpaid electricity bill. He settled the matter by order of the court, but to balance the bad publicity, he also arranged to be interviewed by The Madisonian, and an article about the hotel, published on October 28 1892, included: “Captain Oliver Hardy has made a name for himself as a host.”

Emmie and family had to leave the Turnell-Butler Hotel after the sudden death of Oliver on November 22 1892, two weeks before his 51st birthday. The hotel management contract specified a married couple, and the owners invoked this clause, probably because of insurance implications. It is believed Oliver suffered a heart attack in the hotel and died quickly. He had neglected to make a Will or let his wishes be known. Norvell was just 10 months old. Legal proceedings were started in the Ordinary Court to obtain financial support to nurture Norvell in the absence of a father, and notices in the press were issued at the beginning of December 1892. A settlement of $628 was reached in February 1893. Emmie took the award in goods. Norvell was left $1,000 in insurance money, a large sum at the time.

During the court proceedings, Emmie took on another hotel in Madison, which she called The Hardy House. This stood on West Jefferson Street, a block away from the Madison railroad depot, and was leased from Mrs. Allie Carroll Atkinson.

Naming the hotel after her husband is significant, despite the brevity of the marriage. She was clearly devoted to him and her respect for his Confederate credentials was reinforced by the service of her father, who was also a Confederate veteran.

The Hardy House prospered and Emmie became respected as a successful businesswoman. There are no accounts of Norvell’s life as a baby and toddler in the environment of a public building, with its day-to-day bustle, but these factors could have been instrumental in the otherwise inexplicable decision by Emmie to give up the hotel in 1897. Only two years earlier she had spent $435 – a substantial sum – on a new piano for the hotel, and looked set for the long haul. But in September of 1897 the family was living in a cottage on West Washington Street, also owned by Mrs. Atkinson. Norvell was five years old. The fact that Emmie did not move to her own house in Harlem could be significant – it may have been occupied by her mother and/or other members of the Norvell family.

In 1898 Emmie sold the house in Harlem and took over management of The Pitts House Hotel, in Covington, but on January 1 1899 returned to The Hardy House as manager. This time young Norvell was quickly enrolled in the residential Madison Grammar School, at the age of seven years, along with his older half-brother Henry Lafayette, always known as Bardy. Their teacher was Mr. L.P. Glanton.