Friday, November 4, 2011

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, nee Marion Anthon, a.k.a. Mamie

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish (seated at right), with Stanford White (center with powdered hair) and friends. Museum of the City of New York.
by John Foreman

I'm publishing a book at the end of this year, titled Old Houses in Millbrook. This may provoke little interest among my blog followers, unless you've either been reading my column in The Millbrook Independent or know (or care) anything about real estate here in horsey Millbrook. The book is a compilation of two years' worth of articles, enlivened by lavish vintage and contemporary images chosen by photo editor, Laurie Platt Winfrey. I've seen page proofs and they look fantastically good. Old Houses marks for me a logical end to column writing. Casting about for new directions, I came across a fat box of notes on society types, amassed 20 years ago while researching my book on the Vanderbilts. One of my favorites among these vanished swells was Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, nee Marion Anthon, a.k.a. Mamie.

Here's Mamie's husband (below right), Stuyvesant Fish, as elegant and pedigreed an Edwardian era American as ever strolled into the Newport Casino. Fish wasn't hugely rich – Mamie used to say they had "only a few" millions – but in combination with his family's background those millions were enough to put the Fishes in the top drawer of New York society. Fish's father had been both governor of, and senator from, New York, and eventually became U.S. Secretary of State. In an age of rich parvenus, his was a better class of families than the norm. Fish even had a job, as the extremely effective president of the Illinois Central Railway.
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, nee Marion Anthon, a.k.a. Mamie. Mamie's husband, Stuyvesant Fish.
Mamie grew thicker and grimmer with age, but she maintained to the end a bracing sense of humor that terrorized those who knew her, and amused later researchers like myself. She had a foil named Harry Lehr, the closeted gay man (pictured below) who looks at us appraisingly across the years. Harry and Mamie collaborated on outrageous stunts, creative parties, and rapid fire badinage of which, alas, little of record remains. When Harry cracked that Mamie's favorite flower was the climbing rose, she shot back that his was the marigold. Some of Mamie's cheeky talk appears in annals from the period.

When a pompous visitor to Newport wondered where that great big new bridge had come from, Mamie growled, "I had it myself, and it was extremely painful." At huge parties at her place in Newport, she was wont to greet guests with lines like, "Oh it's you. I completely forgot I'd invited you." It takes a certain kind of mind to absorb a question like, "Has anyone seen cousin Alice?" consider the missing lady's good looking male assistant, and within a heartbeat chime in, "Have you looked under the secretary?"
Harry Lehr, Mamie's "walker." Harry and pal Charlie Greenough.
Here's Harry and pal Charlie Greenough (above, right) in Newport in 1909, at the height of the former's career as a social lion. Harry married a rich widow, a woman innocent to the point of dumbness but sufficiently rich to support them both in the company of a social set known in the columns as the "Ultra-Exclusives." Harry played the devoted husband in public, which fooled no one, and when he wasn't cracking jokes or playing pranks with Mamie – like covering a dashund with flour and sending it scampering into the tearoom at the Newport Casino with a smack on its butt – he chased boys.
Stuyvesant Fish residence, 25 East 78th St.
Stuyvesant Fish residence bedroom with raised gothic bed.
Mamie had a happy marriage to Stuyvie, as she called him, and raised well adjusted children who seemed unscathed by the limited access they had to their mother. The Fishes were Gramercy Park people initially, but like many of their friends they were inexorably dragged uptown by the tide of fashion.

Stanford White, who had overseen alterations to the Fishes' Gramercy Park house, provided the design in 1898 for this new house at 25 East 78th St., notable for its particularly elaborate ballroom.
Here's the house today, still standing but gutted entirely by new commercial users. Inside it's now all stainless steel, metal cables and industrial lighting, although the exterior elevations remain an ornament to the neighborhood. 78th Street was – and I guess still is – a particularly grand block, but a number of its houses have had clumsy extra floors tacked on top, and just as many have had sweeping marble staircases replaced by mean metal-railed straight runs.
The front door of 25 East 78th St. today. There was nothing I could do about that tacky truck parked out front. I had to get to work.
Here's a detail of Stanford White's iron railing, yet one more good reason to love big old houses. Not many people today would bother with this sort of detail, leave alone notice if it were missing.
Here's Crossways, Mamie's house in Newport, also designed by Stanford White. At first glance, it seems to have survived pretty well. I don't like that modern fenestration in the pediment over the porch, however. Some architect thought it complimented White's erudite Colonial Revival design, but I think it distracts. Worse are the ill proportioned screw-on shutters, for which someone should be taken out and soundly beaten. I know, I know, it's a condo now and no one wants to maintain shutters which actually close to cover the windows they flank. But hey, if I had my way, those ridiculous plastic shutters would be thrown in a dumpster before you could say, "and it was extremely painful!"
Originally published in John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
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