Oil Swells: The Standard Oil Crowd in Palm Beach
“Money-mad, money-mad! Sane in every other way, but money-mad.” — Senator Marcus A. Hanna’s 1904 characterization of John D. Rockefeller from The History of Standard Oil, by Ida Minerva Tarbell.
As much today as it was yesterday, Palm Beach is an incomparable offshore social conglomerate where bluebloods, barons and tycoons alike take refuge from the mainland’s more accountable and less luxuriant ambiance.
And, just as the island’s secretive private clubs bask in the allure of being as impregnable to outsiders as they were when Old Guard cliques created them, there was, perhaps, no more eminent or scrutinized Gilded Age social set that found refuge within Henry Flagler’s Florida resort empire than his own Standard Oil Company’s trustees. More than a century later, descendants of Standard Oil’s inner circle can still be found behind the walls of Palm Beach’s ficus hedges.
The Standard crowd
During the winter of 1888, as private Pullman cars pulled out of New York heading to St. Augustine for the opening of Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel, Albany legislators and Washington congressional committees launched investigations into the Standard Oil Trust, eventually resulting more than a decade later in the Supreme Court’s directive breaking up and reforming the company. Despite pesky subpoenas and warrants, annoying court and congressional hearings, the Standard Oil cartel’s most prominent trustees escaped the glare from headlines and indictments within several socially-exclusive Gibraltars — Thomasville’s plantations, the Jekyll Island Club’s hunting preserves, St. Augustine’s tea dances and Palm Beach’s jungle trails. Rather than being probed and questioned about the inner sanctum of the world’s most powerful syndicate or denounced by muckrakers, Euclid Avenue and Fifth Avenue moguls engaged in quail hunts and golf games.
In January 1903, McClure’s Magazine hit the newsstands with the latest installment of Ida Tarbell’s “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” As one of the era’s most influential writers, her series created the model for the type of journalism McClure’s became known. Based on the chronological history of Standard Oil, her indictment of the oil industry claimed Rockefeller and his associates regulated the price of crude and refined oil. Miss Tarbell detailed how Standard Oil controlled the refineries’ output, manipulated the pricing, and dictated the means of distribution. Her articles sought to prove that Rockefeller made every effort to destroy all of his competitors, thus monopolizing the industry.
As yesterday’s tightfisted corporate villains transformed themselves into charitable philanthropists and reviled robber barons were newly-christened as revered patrons, Henry Flagler reinvented himself from one of the nation’s oil slicks into Florida’s patron saint. With no experience as a real estate developer but with a Ph.D. in creating oil and railroad monopolies, Flagler converted Florida’s East Coast into a packaged resort network while turning Palm Beach’s jungled lakefront into an international destination.
Henry Flagler remains the island’s iconic historical personage although other Standard associates and their scions anchored at Palm Beach. Among them, the Oil Trust’s major stockholders who divided more than $700 million in dividends after the trust was dissolved in 1911. Some like Rockefeller and Flagler’s original partner Samuel Andrews only took brief stays at the Royal Poinciana; others, like the O. B. Jennings and Benjamin Brewster families came to Palm Beach but made the Jekyll Island Club their primary retreat.
Here is a selective panorama of scenes from the lives of some of the original Standard Oil Trust families who became a part of Palm Beach’s history, including Henry Flagler, John D. & William Rockefeller, Oliver Hazard Payne & the Charles W. Bingham family, Jabez Bostwick, John D. Archbold, Henry H. Rogers, William G. Warden, and Henry Morgan Tilford.
Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913)
Henry Flagler developed Florida’s East Coast from Jacksonville to Key West utilizing the same organizational model that he implemented to insure Standard Oil’s domination of the oil industry. After turning St. Augustine into a historical showcase, Flagler pursued his own Fountain of Youth, transforming Palm Beach’s exotic settings into high-hat settings where wealth and extravagance became the standard. Flagler’s vision re-shaped Palm Beach, making it into an exclusive playground for the leisure class.
Harry Harkness Flagler (above, right) remained at odds with his father. “I don’t think father and son ever spoke during the last twenty years of his father’s life,” said James Augustine Ponce, historian for the Town of Palm Beach.
In 1894, as Henry Flagler celebrated the opening of The Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach his alienated son, 24-year-old Harry Harkness Flagler married heiress Annie Lamont in New York without his father’s presence. Harry and Annie Flagler were a socially popular Fifth Avenue couple, hosting musicales and supporting the New York Symphony, later becoming the New York Philharmonic.
The cause of the father-son divide still remains convincingly unanswered. Was it disinterest in his father’s empire-building, as most often mentioned? Or, was it the second marriage to his mother’s nurse, the unrefined Alice Shourds? The third marriage to North Carolina belle Mary Lilly Kenan? When his father fell ill, Harry’s step-stepmother did not notify him to visit his father until the senior Flagler had lapsed into a coma. Harry Flagler accompanied his step-mother, Mary Lilly Kenan and her family to St. Augustine for the funeral. “Harry did not stay at Kirkside, the Flagler home, but with Dr. Anderson, his father’s lifelong friend,” recalled Jim Ponce. “Interestingly, Harry’s wife’s family, the Lamonts, owned the house across the street from Kirkside,” Ponce added. Harry Flagler returned to New York immediately afterwards where he continued his philanthropic interests, having inherited his father’s Standard Oil stock. Other than the bedside visit, there are no available records of Harry and Annie Flagler ever visiting Palm Beach. Harry and Annie’s daughter Jean Louise Flagler made Palm Beach a large part of her life.
“For the longest time, I could not imagine why Jean would save Whitehall,” said Mr. Ponce. “Especially since her father would have never stepped foot in the house. But, the Royal Poinciana was razed and Kirkside, the Flagler house in St. Augustine, had been demolished. She might have thought, if Whitehall goes, there will be nothing left to remember her grandfather,” Ponce added.
Before establishing the company that undertook Whitehall’s restoration as a museum dedicated to the memory of her grandfather, Jean Flagler Matthews was involved in a series of court proceedings. Because of a litany of tax issues, a detailed account of Jean Flagler Matthews’ various trust agreements became part of the court record as Matthews’ accountant made certain claims the IRS had challenged. The subsequent record documented the extent of the Flagler heir’s estate.
The court records show that when her grandfather Henry M. Flagler died in 1913, she, and her sister Mary, were left their first $1 million, as part of the 8,000 shares of Standard Oil stock that they had inherited. Thirty years later, the trust was worth more than $9 million; by 1952, the year her father Harry Harkness Flagler died, the trust had appreciated to about $17 million. At that time, she came into another trust under his will and two other trusts from her mother, Annie Lamont Flagler. Although these trusts produced more than $1.5 million income annually, Jean Flagler was “sometimes unable to stay within her budget.”
Jean Flagler made generous charitable donations to Stetson University, Flagler Hall, and in Palm Beach, including gifts to Palm Beach Private School and the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. But she had accumulated extraordinary living expenses that included her yacht, The Flagler, a 3-acre oceanfront Palm Beach house, Vita Serena, a Lake Placid camp, Fairhaven, and Brookside, her 93-acre estate in Rye, NY. Brookside featured an 18-room main house employing 16 full-time domestic servants and gardeners. In Flagler’s 1956 federal income tax return, she reported operating expenses for Brookside as $146,301.97. Also, by the mid-1950s, Jean Flagler Matthews had three minor children: George Gregory Matthews, the oldest, from her marriage to Mark Stanley Matthews, and two adopted children, William Morrison Matthews and George Frederick Robert Hanke. Trusts were established for each of them.
When Mrs. Flagler Matthews’ trust was terminated in November 1957, her $42 million trust had reached its highest value, consisting of oil securities valued at $32.4 million in addition to real estate and tax-exempt municipal bonds.
Jean Flagler Matthews died in 1979 while vacationing in Hawaii. She died the same year that Palm Beach established its Landmark Preservation Commission, twenty years after she had taken the initiative to save one of the town’s most architecturally significant buildings.
John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937) & William A. Rockefeller (1841-1922)
A 16 February 1901 NYT story headlined “New Yorkers in Florida,” makes for the only reported mention of JDR Sr. ever visiting Palm Beach. It states that J. D. and William Rockefeller, accompanied by family members, arrived at the Royal Poinciana Hotel in their private rail car. According to the report, JDR remained overnight in the private car before proceeding North. Whether Rockefeller and Flagler met or spoke, the Whitehall mansion was well under construction at the time, remains undocumented.
JDR Sr.’s winters were most often spent at the Hotel Bon Air, Augusta, Ga. After Flagler’s death, he moved from the Ormond Hotel to The Casements, a nearby estate. A familiar and accessible local figure, he enjoyed being photographed giving nickels-and-dimes to strangers during his walks along the Halifax River. In 1937 JDR Sr. died in Florida and was buried in Cleveland.
In 1882, William Rockefeller became president of Standard Oil of New York. Although he spent several weeks at The Royal Poinciana Hotel, WR preferred the Jekyll Island Club where he maintained a cottage, Indian Mound. William Rockefeller’s estate was estimated at $50 million in 1922. WR and fellow Standard Oil trustee Oliver Burr Jennings were married to sisters, thus Jennings became one of the company’s 1882 trustees. While the Jennings family was also more closely-associated with the Jekyll Island Club, Walter Jennings was president for many years, a grandson, Lawrence K. Jennings, had a presence in Palm Beach for many years.
While the Rockefeller patriarchs may have never taken to the Palm Beach vibe, their descendants indulged in the island’s pleasures. According to published reports, when patriarch John D. Rockefeller died in 1937, he left 26 direct descendants, among them, Muriel McCormick Hubbard, Winthrop Rockefeller, Marguerite Strong Cuevas de Larrain, and Spelman Prentice, who made headlines in Palm Beach.
Following Muriel Hubbard’s death in 1959, Lincoln Center claimed her portion of the Rockefeller trust, claiming her children were never legally adopted. No one was more surprised then the Hubbard children who stood to lose their Rockefeller trust funds. It seems that when JDR Sr. set up a trust for his daughter, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, the onetime “social dictator of Chicago,” in 1917, the trust stipulated that should any of her heirs die childless, their share would revert to Lincoln Center.
Never paying too much attention to details, Lincoln Center stated in court filings that Muriel Hubbard never completed the paperwork that would have legalized the adoptions. Earlier, in 1948, she had lost custody of her two oldest children when her brother, Fowler McCormick, successfully challenged her parenting skills. With her children testifying against her, the court found she was an abusive alcoholic. After five years of litigation, Lincoln Center won. Muriel’s “adopted” children were cut out of larger share of their inheritance by Lincoln Center and were left with the crumbs from their father’s estate and McCormick family trusts.
Oliver Hazard Payne (1839-1917)
Mary Payne Bingham (1854-1898) & Charles W. Bingham (1846-1929)
In 1865, Oliver H. Payne established Clark, Payne & Company, a Cleveland-based oil refinery. Seven years later, he sold to John D. Rockefeller, becoming a stockholder and treasurer of Standard Oil of Ohio. When Payne died in 1917, Standard Oil’s only bachelor trustee left a large share of his estimated $70 million fortune to his nieces and nephews, the children of his sister, Mary Payne Bingham. The Bingham children, Henry Payne Bingham, Frances Payne Bolton, William Bingham II, and Elizabeth Bingham Blossom inheritance allowed them to cultivate their philanthropic interests and social concerns.
In Cleveland, the Binghams were engaged in politics, manufacturing, oil and philanthropy; in Palm Beach, the family pursued the carefree euphoric pleasures of sunrise swims and sunset sails at Figulus, their 160-acre ocean-to-lake estate in the town’s South End. At the same time the Binghams were building their elaborate Shingle-style retreat designed by Cleveland architect Forrest Coburn, their Cleveland Euclid Avenue neighbor and fellow Standard Oil trustee, Henry Flagler, was constructing the Royal Poinciana Hotel and completing his railroad extension to Palm Beach. Just as other Standard Oil trustees had previously followed Flagler to St. Augustine, the Bingham family made Palm Beach their home.
Figulus was an architectural and botanical showcase where stands of towering hardwoods, many imported by renowned botanist Dr. David Fairchild, were surrounded by vegetable and ornamental gardens, fruit orchards and wild orchids. The Bingham family retreat once extended from an oceanfront sweep of Australian pines, coconut palms and seagrapes to a chain of mangrove islands, known as Audubon Island, framed by a stately lakefront alee of royal palms.
Jabez Bostwick (1830-1892)
When Jabez Bostwick was mortally overcome with “excitement” at his Mamaroneck estate following a nearby stable fire, his neighbor and Standard Oil co-trustee, William Rockefeller, was among the first to extend condolences to his longtime friend and business partner. Twenty years earlier, Standard Oil had acquired Bostwick and Tilford, a company that owned barges, lighters and a large refinery on the East River. Mr. Bostwick was Standard Oil’s first treasurer.
John Dustin Archbold (1848-1916)
President of Standard Oil when it dissolved in 1911, John D. Archbold began his career in western Pennsylvania’s oil fields as a critic of Rockefeller’s company before becoming a leading part of it.
Archbold’s $25 million estate or was it $100 million, which $15 million was believed made up of Standard Oil of New Jersey stock, was equally divided between his wife and their three children, Annie, John F., and Mary Archbold Van Beuren. After Mr. Archbold’s death, his widow married her late husband’s first cousin Judge Charles Dustin; in 1918, the couple moved to Thomasville where they lived next door to her son’s several thousand-acre plantation.
While Mr. Archbold lived in Tarrytown near the Rockefeller’s Pocantico estate, his children and grandchildren became part of the Thomasville – Palm Beach set.
His son John Foster Archbold built Chinquapin, a hunting preserve in Thomasville; there, he donated the funds for the Archbold Medical Center, named for the family’s patriarch.
To the south in Lake Placid, his grandson Richard Archbold established the Archbold Biological Station featured in a previous New York Social Diary column. In Palm Beach, granddaughter Frances Archbold Hufty was an island presence for more than seven decades.
Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909)
Associated with Charles Pratt’s Astral Oil Company that was merged in 1874 as part of Standard Oil, Henry Huttleston Rogers, “the Mastermind of Standard Oil,” is often credited with organizing the company’s pipe-line system. At the time of his death in 1909 from apoplexy, Mr. Rogers left an estimated estate of more than $50 million including more than 16,000 shares of Standard Oil stock. Along with a close personal friendship with Mark Twain,H. H. Rogers was survived by four children, one son, Henry H. Rogers Jr.,and three daughters, Mrs. William E. Benjamin, Mrs. Urban Broughton andMrs. William Coe.
Mr. Rogers’ son, H.H. Jr. and his children became well-known Palm Beach personalities. His great-grandson William “Bill” E. Benjamin II purchased the Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsam estate during the mid-1950s and developed The Manalapan Club during the same era when Spelman Prentice, JDR’s great-grandson, opened The La Coquille Club.
But, it was probably Millicent Rogers, Rogers’ granddaughter, who garnered the most headlines when she arrived in Palm Beach during the 1920s as Countess Salm van Hoogstraten.
In 1925, Countess Salm fled Europe and came to Palm Beach where her parents were spending the winter. Within days of her front-page arrival, she claimed there had been an attempted kidnapping of her 16-months-old son at Waikiki cottage, her Sunrise Avenue house. Tabloid headlines screamed, Salm baby woos, Grandma Cries, Pa and Cops Row.
Then, as Count Salm arrived in Palm Beach to contest the divorce, the Countess moved to La Chosa, the Pillsbury mansion, hiring private detectives and security guards to surround the South End estate in fear her husband would kidnap her son. Servants reported a mysterious car circling La Chosa; the police were called, as the household help, three detectives, a nurse and a chauffeur said they thought they heard gunshots.
Nonetheless, Count Salm checked into the Royal Poinciana Hotel. In court filings, he made 67 different allegations against his wife. Publicity reached such a fever that the island’s real estate firms offered to hire Count Salm and pay him to represent their firm whether he ever sold anything or not. The rumors and innuendoes were enough to keep Palm Beach in the national headlines for weeks. The local newspaper claimed the town’s “aristocratic quietude” had been shattered $325,000 later, the Count left Palm Beach and the couple was divorced in Paris.
In 1928, the former Countess Salm married Argentinian Arturo Peralta-Ramos.
William Gray Warden (1832-1895)
When Pennsylvania oilman and Standard trustee William G. Warden died, he left an estate of $10 million and more than ten children to divide it. Not only did Warden follow his associate and friend Henry Flagler to St. Augustine but also was among the founders of the St. Augustine Improvement Association and headed up the local oil and gas utility company. Years later, his son, William G. Warden II and his granddaughter Elizabeth Donnell Kay made Palm Beach their winter residence.
Palm Beach residents for 64 years, Elizabeth and Alfred Kay were among the island’s most active residents, one of the founders of St. Mary’s Hospital and the Palm Beach Day School. A former stockbroker, Mr. Kay served as president of the Civic Association, The Society of the Four Arts and the Everglades Club. For more than two decades, Elizabeth Kay was editor for the Garden Club of America’s national journal. Following the well-received publication of The Plant World in Florida in 1933, Elizabeth and Alfred Kay co-wrote botanist David Fairchild’s autobiography “The World Was My Garden, Travels of a Plant Explorer” and edited Mary Baker’s book “Florida Wildflowers.” Though best known for the artful design of their Palm Beach houses, Audita and Ananda, the couple established their own experimental 100-acre “experimental garden,” that became known as the Pine Jog Environmental Center.
Today, Pine Jog, often supported by Mrs. Kay’s close friend, Frances Archbold Hufty, granddaughter of Standard Oil president John D. Archbold, is under the auspices of Florida Atlantic University and is among the nation’s leading environmental educational research sites.
Henry Morgan Tilford (1857- 1919)
During the two decades H. M. Tilford was associated with Standard Oil he was believed to have accumulated an estimated estate of $20 million. Immortalized in the film There Will be Blood, after Mr. Tilford and his partner Jabez Bostwick merged with Standard Oil, he headed up Standard’s west coast operation, later known as Chevron. Following his return to the east coast, where the Tilfords were primarily settled in the Poor Mansion at Tuxedo Park, he served as president and vice- president of various Standard Oil companies. Upon John Archbold’s death in 1917, he succeeded him on the company’s board of directors. Two years later, Tilford was succeeded by Walter C. Teagle who served a s president of Standard Oil of New Jersey from 1917 until 1937.
After spending several seasons at the Royal Poinciana Hotel, the Tilfords became familiar residents along The Breakers’ oceanfront cottage row. The Tilford daughters married within their social orbit: Katharine married Stanley Mortimer, Isabelle married David Wagstaff, and Annette married Amory Haskell. When their father died in 1919, he provided a trust for each of them where they received income from the trust until age 48; then, they received the principal.