The two Mrs. Vanderbilts

Looking south along Broadway from Union Square South. 12/30/07, 7:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday’s posting on the social life of New York in the 1930s (Social History, 12.28.07) drew a tremendous response from readers, including some historians who kindly added information. What emerged was an enduring interest in the Vanderbilts and mainly the Vanderbilt women. Two of those women, related by marriage stand out as a comparison of generations and their differences.

Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly was notable at the end of her life (she died in 1952) for being the last surviving granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who started the financial dynasty in the second quarter of the 19th century. Mrs. Twombly who was born in 1854 was 23 when her grandfather died and left what was then the largest fortune in America – more than $100 million (when the greenback had about 35 times the value of today’s dollar).

The octogenarian Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly alighting from her limousine to attend an opening night at the old Metropolitan Opera on 39th Street and Seventh Avenue, circa 1930.
Throughout her long adult life, Mrs. Twombly presided over a world that was regarded as true New York aristocracy. Her death, at 98, marked for some the final curtain for “real society” in New York.

The Commodore and his first wife Sophia had 13 children, nine of whom were living at the time of his death. He also had 37 grandchildren and  27 great-grandchildren. However, he left the bulk – about $90 million to his son William H. with half of the remaining to his other four sons and about $2.5 million divided between his eight daughters, and a smaller amount to his namesake who was also the black sheep of the family.

William H. Vanderbilt had been a plodding son who very slowly ingratiated himself into his father’s favorable opinion – mainly because he turned out to be his father’s kind of businessman. This was the reason for leaving him the bulk of the estate – to maintain the Vanderbilt railroads into the distant future.

Among the things that William H. did after inheriting was to build a double mansion which occupied the western block of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street. He and his two sons William K. and Cornelius II all announced building plans for their Fifth Avenue mansions on the same day in 1879. Willie K’s house was just across 52nd Street on the same side of the avenue, and Cornelius’ eventually took up the entire block from 57th to 58th where Bergdorf Goodman stands today.
The William H. Vanderbilt Family at home (oil on canvas, 1873) pictured in the Vanderbilt house on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue (now part of The New York Public Library). Florence Vanderbilt (later Twombly), then age 19, is fifth from the left, wearing yellow.
William H. Vanderbilt died suddenly in December 1885, only eight years after his father, the Commodore. The world was astounded to learn that he had more than doubled the family fortune in that short time, leaving him the richest man in the world.

Vanderbilt and his wife Maria Kissam had nine children – five sons and four daughters. The two eldest sons – Cornelius II and William K. were left about half the estate, divided in half. The rest of the siblings divided most of the rest, leaving them all very rich by 19th century standards.

Florence Vanderbilt, the sixth born child of William H. and Maria Kissam Vanderbilt, married her husband, Mr. Twombly, the same year as her grandfather’s passing.  Within a few years, in 1882, she was given a house halfway up the next block from her parents at 684 Fifth. By then, that part of Fifth Avenue had become known as Vanderbilt row. The Twomblys were also given a “cottage” in Newport just a few doors from brother Cornelius’ The Breakers.
Florham Farm, the Madison, New Jersey estate of Florence Vanderbilt and Hamilton McK. Twombly. Situationed on more than 1,000 acres, the house was designed by McKim, Mead and White. With more than 100 rooms, it is not considered one of the firm's great creations. The house is now part of the campus of the Madison division of Fairleigh-Dickinson University.
However, the most famous Twombly residence was “Florham” (a combination of their two first names) built by McKim, Mead and White between 1890 and 1900 in Madison, New Jersey. The estate was made up of more than 1,000 acres, only 25 miles from Manhattan. The main house, Georgian in style, had more than 100 rooms, with an entrance hall containing carved marble busts of the 12 Caesars.

In the house’s Great Drawing Room were a set of 10 tapestries telling the story of Rinaldo and Armida which had originally been a gift of Louis XIII of France to Cardinal Barberini of Rome. On the  property was also an indoor swimming pool as well as a working farm, an orangery and a railroad siding for their private railroad cars (like private jets today, private railroad cars were a must amongst the very rich). Even at the end of her life, Mrs. Twombly had a staff of 126 including 30 gardeners. The Twomblys commuted to Florham on weekends by rail.

Hamilton Twombly was charged with managing many of the Vanderbilt family interests. The Twomblys had four children, two of whom – a son and a daughter -- died young; one of whom – a daughter, Ruth – never married, and another daughter, Florence who married William A. M. Burden. (The Burdens had two sons – William A. M., and Shirley Carter. S. Carter later married the sister of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and had two children, Carter Jr. and Muffie Childs).
The double mansions of William H. Vanderbilt and family between 51st and 52nd Streets on the west side of Fifth Avenue, completed in 1881. On the next block is the limestone mansion of William K. and Alva Vanderbilt. The brownstones beyond were soon replaced with three more Vanderbilt houses.

After the passing of Mrs. William H., the house on the left (number 640) was rented by Henry Clay Frick who later built himself a mansion on 70th Street (now The Frick Collection). In 1914, it was inherited by Cornelius Vanderbilt III who moved in with his wife Grace and their two children.
Florence Twombly presided for almost 75 years over her court. Mrs. Twombly was the apotheosis of society in New York. Cleveland Amory, in his best-seller “Who Killed Society” recounts the report of one of Mrs. Twombly’s weekend guests, John Mason Brown, who told of one Sunday morning when Mrs. Twombly returned from church with the guests assembled in the great foyer to greet her. Mrs. Twombly returned in her violet Rolls-Royce and swept inside. She wore a violet hat and carried, in violet gloves, a bunch of violets. Brown recalled, “I even remember where I was standing” (amongst the bust of the 12 Caesars), “It was inviolate too, right beside aligula.” 

The young Grace Graham Wilson, one of the most popular women in international society when she became engaged to young Vanderbilt, much to the unrelenting disapproval of his parents.
The Second World War changed things even for Mrs. Twombly as many of her staff were called to serve. One night at a dinner during the latter part of the war, an ambassador observed that the war must have had an effect on staff, to which Mrs. T was said to have sighed, “This week we lost four – and from the pantry alone.”

The “frosty” Mrs. Twombly was considered a “real” Vanderbilt in contrast to the wife of one of her nephews, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt. 

Grace Vanderbilt came into this world, one of three daughters of Melissa and Richard Wilson, Southerners who migrated to Manhattan (as many did) during the Civil War. Mr. Wilson came from a somewhat sketchy background financially, rumored to having made his fortune in cotton trading and Confederate bonds. Some believe that his character was the model Margaret Mitchell used to create Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind.”

The Wilsons were arriviste according to the old New York families but their children married up and married well. Their only son, Marshall Orme Wilson married Mrs. Astor’s daughter Caroline (known as Carrie), another daughter married a Goelet from the real estate family (and their daughter married the Duke of Roxburghe). Another daughter married Michael Henry Herbert, son of the Earl of Pembroke, and their daughter Grace became the fiancée of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the eldest surviving son of Cornelius II and Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt of 1 West 57th Street and The Breakers in Newport.
The Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion on 57th and 58th Street, circa 1925. When Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt sold the house (where her children all grew up, and where her husband had died 26 years before), she donated the front gates (bordering 58th Street) to Central Park where they reside today at 104th Street and the Park's botanical garden.
Grace Graham Wilson, despite his father’s fortune and her siblings “good” marriages, for some reason did not rate with the elder Vanderbilts. The couple had met in 1895 in Newport at the coming out party of Neily’s sister Gertrude at the Breakers. Two years older than her fiancé, known as Neily, (she was 25, he was 23), she had already been a popular member of the “Marlborough Set” of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in London.

However, she was regarded by the young Vanderbilt’s family as an “adventuress” which meant a variety of things, all of which translated into something wanton, sexual and/or greedy. The Vanderbilts preferred to think of her as a “much older” woman than their son and not only frowned on the alliance but warned their son that if he married her, he would be disinherited.

The contretemps grew in impact. In June, 1896, the couple announced their engagement. In July, 1896, Cornelius Vanderbilt II had a stroke. The family blamed it on young Neily’s relationship with Grace. His sister Gertrude felt so strongly about it, she never spoke to him again. Nevertheless, in true spirit of youth, son defied the wishes of his mother and father and on August 3, 1896, he married Grace Wilson in her father’s house farther down the avenue with not a Vanderbilt in sight. Three weeks later, at the Breakers, Neily’s sister Gertrude married Harry Payne Whitney in a grand wedding. Neily and Grace were not invited.
Grace Vanderbilt (upper right turned in her chair to talk with the man on the right) at a small dinner for 40 in her 640 Fifth Avenue dining room in the early 1940s. Mrs. V never drank but she loved candy and desserts (her favorite: raspberry and vanilla ices smothered in mint flavored chocolate sauce and surrounded by candies).
The couple moved to Europe to avoid the pressures but returned in 1898 when the young man’s father allowed him to return to work in the family railroad.

The following year, Cornelius Vanderbilt II died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his house on Fifth Avenue. He left an estate in excess of $70 million but only $500,000 and the income from a trust of $1 million for his son Neily. Shortly thereafter, his main heir, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (father of Alfred Gwynne Jr., and grandfather of Wendy Vanderbilt, etc.), gave part of his inheritance to his brother, amounting to something over $6 million.

The great disinheritance had no affect on the social ambitions of Grace Vanderbilt. Although there were those who would always point out that she wasn’t a “real” Vanderbilt (like Florence Twombly), but had merely “married” a Vanderbilt, she nevertheless eventually acquired the title of the Mrs. Vanderbilt with her entertainments.
Grace Vanderbilt, circa 1910, wearing her famous diamond necklace (left) which she wore all her life, including at the opening of the Met in 1939 (right).
Grace and Cornelius lived in New York at several addresses,  and in Newport (in a much smaller house than his father’s). Then in 1914, after the death of George Vanderbilt, an uncle of Neily’s, they inherited the William H. mansion on 52nd Street and Fifth. Grace was not happy with the state of the mansion (now more than 30 years old) which she referred to as “The Black Hole of Calcutta. She had it lightened up and spiffed up by architect Horace Trombauer and filled it with 18th century French furniture and tapestries, a staff of 30 with an English butler and six footman (wearing the Vanderbilt maroon livery). 

In 1917, they moved in. After that Grace Vanderbilt gave at least two dinner parties a a week and at least one ball a month for the next 20 years. Although Mrs. Twombly never darkened the door (nor mentioned or acknowledged her nephew’s wife), tout New York of the Social Register came to dine again and again.

The magnificent diamond necklace with pear-shaped and round diamonds made by Cartier in 1908 and worn all her life.
She was so “into” her role as social hostess of New York, proud of the fact that royals, such as the King of the Belgians, came to dine, that it took priority over everything and everyone, including her two children and her husband. Christmastime was the penultimate of her entertaining schedule. With a gigantic tree in her living room, it was estimated that as many as 1,000 came by to dine or take tea during the month leading up to the holiday.

Mr. Vanderbilt, however, had long before tired of his wife’s indefatigable social activity. He found solace in his work (for the railroad and his inventions) and on his yacht (he eventually had more than one). His first, The North Star (name for his great-grandfather’s first pleasure boat), was 233 feet long with a drawing room 26 feet in length. With that, an additional sailing yacht, the Atlantic, he sailed and cruised the world mainly without his wife who had distinctly landlubber’s legs.

Grace Vanderbilt’s entertaining ran about $250,000. One year she entertained 30,000 guests. By the 1930s, Fifth Avenue was changing all around them. Rockefeller Center had gone up right across the street from 640 Fifth. Most of the Vanderbilts had already deserted that part of the avenue. The mansion of Neily’s father and mother, 1 West 57th had been sold and razed in 1927 and replaced with Bergdorf’s building. 

By 1940, the house at 640 was costing almost $60,000 a year in taxes. Neily Vanderbilt sold it with the provision that his wife could live there until three years after his death (he and she had long since lived apart – he on his yacht, she in the Fifth Avenue house). He died in 1942 in Miami, on a chartered yacht (he’d given his big boat to the government to use as a war vessel). He left $4 million to be divided between his wife and his son and daughter. In 1944, after almost 30 years, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt moved out of 640 Fifth and up the avenue to 1048 at 86th Street. The house was sold to Lord Astor of Hever who immediately tore it down.

Grace Wilson Vanderbilt died in 1953, a year after Florence Twombly, at age 83.
The week before last we were down in Palm Beach for an overnight to do a “book breakfast” conducted by Parker Ladd at the Brazilian Court Hotel. I and photographer Patrick McMullan shared the hour interview.

Patrick discussed his latest book “Glamour Girls” (published by Harry Abrams), and his now long career as the premiere photographer of social events in New York, starting in his teenage years working for Andy Warhol on the original Interview Magazine.
Click to play video of DPC's take on Debbie Reynolds.
My part of the interview was about the business of social reporting and particularly, the process of writing the memoir I collaborated on with Debbie Reynolds, published in 1988 by William Morrow.  

In a vid-clip taken by JH, I was asked by Parker Ladd how I thought I achieved writing the book so that it seemed as if Debbie had written it herself, without a trace of the collaborator’s voice.
Lining up for DPC and Patrick McMullan.
DPC and Patrick McMullan signing away.
After the breakfast, and some book signings in the hotel’s courtyard, our friend Ann Downey took us over to see her new house. Longtime NYSD readers may remember our visiting Ann at the house she shared on Everglades Island with her late husband Morton Downey.

She sold that house a couple of years ago and acquired another house not far from the hotel. Mrs. Downey who is an interior decorator with clients all over the country, is famous for her signature bold, bright bold colors that light up anyone’s day and anyone’s party.
One of Ann Downey's bronze cats dressed for the holidays.
The door of Mrs. D's Lexus. The toy soldier guarding the Downey doorway.
Ann Downey in the living room of her Palm Beach house with Apple.
Charitable pups had a chance to give back to the canine community while getting into the holiday spirit at this year's “Toys for Dogs” benefit at Touch Nightclub.

“Toys for Dogs” is an event in which The Humane Society of New York encourages people to visit their local shelter and adopt a homeless animal. Dogs that brought a new toy for a homeless dog to the event had the opportunity to take a memorable holiday photo with one of the celebrity Santa’s and Elves.

In attendance were Neil Bhatia, ABC’s The Bachelor Lorenzo Borghese, Fox President Bill Abernethy, Therese Evans, Mark Smith, Emma Snowden Jones, Camilla Webster, Kerima Greene, Peter Baer, Cyndi Blank, James Daves, Wendy & Lucky Diamond, CBS’s The Early Show weatherman Dave Price, Fox’s Early Show Jodi Applegate and Rachel Covey, child star of the Disney’s hit holiday film Enchanted.

“Toys for Dogs” brought awareness to the amount of dogs in shelters and provided toys for the abandoned animals this holiday. All proceeds benefited The Humane Society of New York, an organization serving New York City residents, animals and humans alike, since it’s founding in 1904.
Rachel Covey and Lucky Diamond
Jodi Appelgate
Therese Evans
Cindy Blank and Wendy Diamond
Todd and Megan Diciurcio with Blanco
Wendy Diamond and Jack Abernathy
Wendy Diamond, Lucky Diamond, and Mark Smith

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