Society As He Found It

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Table for ... Photo: JH.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020. The Weekend’s holiday is over. The end of Summer. The normal expectation is that the city is coming back. This year has been so “irregular” and people have left the city for their summer residences and many are not coming back. Thanks to the Covid and its punishments for all of us.  

At a birthday dinner last night here in town, another friend of mine told me she was leaving New York. She lives in the mid-60s on Park Avenue where she’s lived for the past 30 years. Now there are homeless New Yorkers living outside her building’s front door, as well as along the block between Park and Lex. Plus there is a quarter of the block turned over to the Citi Bikes, and now there are electric bikes which many riders drive as if it were a car, taking all kinds of chances with everyone’s safety. Hello? No, good-bye is my friend’s word.  

She going out West where she has another residence and that will have to suffice (and not be as scary) as the shutdown city. She has the financial wherewithal to make the move that many others will only dream of making. It is a legitimate choice.

So that’s life in New York right now. Not for everyone but for many of us. Those who can (afford to) leave are leaving. The rest of us cannot. That is not a bad thing. New York is a great great city in the human experiment, and we are quite capable of living together in (relative) peace. That has been proven over and over again. In fact we are possibly the greatest experiment in living together on the planet. And it has been achieved mainly successfully over the centuries.

Harry Lehr in 1908.

Meanwhile, as the “social” situation slumbers, we found a Diary I wrote seven or eight years ago on a subject I had stumbled upon in a book in a used book store: Harry Lehr.

I knew a little about him from my ventures into (social) history. He was in his glory in New York at the beginning of the 20th century when he was a young man from out of town (Baltimore) making his way in burgeoning Manhattan. He was a kid with personality which he obviously visited on others to get what he wanted.  He was a type of male who still exists today with similar issues having to do with sex and identity. He also had personality and knew that it was that which could carry him through.

I had heard (read) about him in passing many times. But several years ago I found a memoir, written by his wife, that told me the story. He was not a happy man, but he made a happy life for himself as well as for his wife whom he rejected on their wedding night. His greatest strength was that he knew, as a man, women were always the key to one’s success in life. He had no choice (he thought) and he followed that diction. It was a life as a movie.

Society As He Found It; Harry Lehr and Notes from the End of the Gilded Age

They met one night at the Met. The opera was “Lohengrin.” She had heard it many times before but it had already been two years since her young husband died, and she was glad to have the opportunity to get out of her widow’s weeds. She was Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren, a young mother and widow at 32, and heiress to a Philadelphia banking fortune.

The year was 1900. It was a Monday night when all New York society was in attendance, the Met’s Diamond Horseshoe, resplendent with the ladies’ diamonds and emeralds sparkling. She was a guest that night of Mrs. George Gould who had first hosted da dinner that evening at the Gould mansion on Fifth Avenue at 62nd Street. The dinner was long, as was often the fashion, and Mrs. Gould and party arrived at the Met on 39th Street and Broadway during the second act.

Left: The Gould mansion on Fifth Avenue at 62nd Street where Edith Gould held a dinner before the opening of the Opera at the Met.
Right: Mrs. George Gould wearing her famous pearls said to have cost $500,000.
The old Metropolitan Opera House, the scene of that fateful meeting in 1900.

With everyone quietly taking their seats in the Gould box, the young widow noticed a man she didn’t recognize who was sitting in the shadows. She couldn’t see his face but could tell that he was tall and “powerfully built.”

When the lights came up, Edith Gould said to Elizabeth, “I want you to meet the most amusing man in New York …”

It was the man in the shadows. Elizabeth was struck by his “vivid blue eyes” and “the very spirit of gaiety” in them. In the light she could now see the big man was blond with a winning smile and a “pleasant lazy voice, curiously high pitched.”

Young Elizabeth Drexel Dahlgren. She was an innocent young woman like all young women of society in those days, entirely sheltered and bound by rules and manner (and money) that supported that innocence.

The first five minutes of conversation with him confirmed what Edith Gould had said. He was the most amusing man. “Conversation rippled around him,” Elizabeth wrote many years later of that night. “It was impossible for anyone to be bored in his company.”

His name was Harry Lehr. A young man from a “good family” in Baltimore, a community that prized the decorum of society that he belonged to. However, Harry’s father had suffered a reversal of fortune when Harry was still a teenager, and that had changed everything for the boy’s future ambitions.

When Elizabeth later asked about him, Edith Gould told her that he had “hardly any money, but he goes everywhere,” and that it was “impossible to have a party without him.”

Mrs. Gould also said that the men didn’t like him very much. “They call him one of ‘the little brothers of the rich,’ but that’s just because they are jealous of his popularity.”

The very next day, Harry Lehr came to call, Elizabeth recalled in a memoir “King Lehr and the Gilded Age” published 34 years later in 1935.

“After that he came many times. I was falling under the spell of his charm …. He filled my somber house in West Fifty-sixth Street with gaiety and laughter … bringing people to see me, arranging parties on the spur of the moment, inviting me out to dine at the house of one or other of his friends,” telling her “you are far too young and pretty to remain a disconsolate widow … I am going to wake you up and teach you how to enjoy life again.”

Ava Astor and Harry Lehr, 1902. The first automotive machines as cars were then known, were basically toys for the rich to parade around in for their own amusement. They were not regarded as necessities, and in the early days of manufacturing, until Henry Ford came along, they were like a Hermes handbag: pure luxury, and very modern.

Soon she was seeing Harry Lehr very often. One day in late March, several months after their first meeting, returning from a stay with the George Goulds at their Lakewood, New Jersey estate, he invited Elizabeth to lunch at Sherry’s – then the most popular restaurant in New York among the wealthy and the celebrated, and the first restaurant where society women ever went out to lunch.

On their way to Sherry’s he told her: “you cannot imagine how important this luncheon party is going to be to me.”

She was surprised to see there were other guests: four women – Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and Mrs. Oliver Belmont (the former Alva Vanderbilt), and no men. They were known in New York social circles as The Big Four, the most powerful women in New York Society, and women whose “power” was taken very seriously.

The dining room at Sherry’s where (clockwise from top left) Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and Mrs. Oliver Belmont (the former Alva Vanderbilt), were formally introduced to Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren by Harry Lehr.

Before the lunch was over, Elizabeth overheard Mrs. Oelrichs say to Harry Lehr, “I think she is delightful, Harry. We four are going to take her up. We will make her the fashion. You need have no fear …”

On their way home, Harry asked Elizabeth to marry him. “You must have guessed I have been in love with you ever since that first evening. I know you don’t love me, but you are lonely, you need someone to take care of you. I believe I can make you very happy …”

Three years before he met Elizabeth, Harry Lehr had been introduced to Caroline Astor — the Mrs. Astor — and she was charmed too. She had ruled society for decades with her crowning achievement of the “400” ball given in her famous ballroom with the assistance and advice of another man obsessed with society – Ward McAllister — first at the house on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, and later at the massive double mansion she shared with her son and his wife and children at 65th and Fifth where Temple Emanu-El stands today.

Caroline Astor’s double residence on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue, which she shared with her only son John Jacob IV and his wife Ava and their son and daughter, Vincent and Alice, where the guestlist often grew to a thousand; now the site of Temple Emanu-El.
Mamie Fish’s house in Manhattan on 78th and Madison before completion, designed by Stanford White, now the property of Mayor Bloomberg for offices for his philanthropic foundation.

Harry Lehr’s charm was his talent to amuse. Although he bore many of the personality traits of Mrs. Astor’s late emanuensis, McAllister, Harry was much younger, better looking, and his highly clever ability to amuse, he was fun. Bored older rich women gave him much greater reach, making him far more desirable to have around, since he also “knew” everybody.

It would be difficult to find a comparable personality in today’s social circles because in those ancient times, only a century ago, all women lived in a kind of isolation of rules and mores unknown today.

Harry Lehr “knew” everybody, including (from top to bottom) Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.; Birdie Fair Vanderbilt; Mamie Fish and Lola Robinson.

Women of wealth did have more mobility than their less fortunate sisters because they ruled the social roost. But they nevertheless lived in a gilded cocoon of wealth and ennui, in a world quite separate from their husbands’ lives outside the home.

Mrs. Astor’s power was formidable, however, and both male and female bowed and sometimes even quaked to it. By the time she met Harry Lehr, she was almost seventy and had begun to withdraw from the social scene. So the just-on-the-edge irreverence of Harry Lehr was like a breeze of fresh air for the aging dowager. She took him up and everyone followed, especially the aforementioned Mesdames Oelrichs, Gould, Fish and Belmont, as well as many more.

Until he met Elizabeth Drexel, the man earned his living selling champagne to his adoring hostesses. He soon learned that these social connections gave him opportunity to gain greater favors from tailors, hotels, restaurateurs, and other merchants with their eye on promoting their wares. It was understood that wherever he might go, he could let drop just where and from whom he acquired his suits, shoes, shirts, ties, coats, hats, watches, rings and everything else he possessed, all of which was gratis … for him.

Society was his business. Restaurants such as Sherry’s were only too happy to let him entertain with dinners and dances that brought in a good number of Mrs. Astor’s “400.” Mrs. Fish saw to it through her husband who was head of the Illinois Central Railroad, that he was given free passes (first class of course) to travel. One friend, Tom Wanamaker gave him rooms in his large apartment. Doors opened, carpets rolled out and the best champagne flowed in Harry Lehr’s life. All he really needed was a lifetime annuity.

The secret of his charm is difficult to imagine in today’s sensibilities but basically his métier was not unique, even today. He would be classified in popular parlance as a “walker.” He had the ability to “make ’em laugh,” to amuse, to be “one of the girls.” And for women and men of leisure and fortune, that was possibly even rarer than for the common man.

Left: Harry Lehr and Charles Greenough at Newport. The two men were said to have had a long intimate relationship unknown to Elizabeth, and later to the woman Greenough married.
Right: Harry Lehr with Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia. The time was also during the last years of the Romanov dynasty as the Bolsheviks were gathering the storms of revolution. The Gilded Age New Yorkers loved the company of royals and titled foreigners.

“Samson’s strength lay in his hair. Mine lies in the favor of women,” he used to say when congratulating himself on some fresh social conquest. “All I have to do is to keep in their good graces and everything comes to me.”

To this end he spent all his time in their company, listened to their confidences, gave them (whenever they sought it) his advice with the same careful consideration, whether the problem was planning a dinner or luring an erring husband back to the fold.

Lehr in drag for an amateur theatrical performance.

He chose their dresses for them, planned their house parties, taught them how to manage their love affairs and found them husbands. He had a natural ability to insinuate himself flawlessly into their lives. He also related to them as if it he were one of them. He loved getting up in drag and camping the female roles in plays. More than once or twice he expressed his great disappointment that he wasn’t a woman so that he could wear women’s clothes all the time since they were beautiful and a great variety. None of this presumably was something his affianced was aware of, or understood the implications of his sexual politics.

It seems incredible today that Harry Lehr’s personal likes and fetishes could be kept from the widow Dahlgren since he performed in his campy style and costume habits before the Big Four and others often enough, and with great acceptance and appreciation. But women of society in those days had no awareness of anything about anything or anybody outside their own constricted social worlds.

Elizabeth Drexel did not immediately give Harry Lehr an answer
to his proposal. First, she went back to Philadelphia to stay with her widowed mother, and invited Harry to come to visit to meet her. Mother was charmed also. Elizabeth was in love, as she recorded in her diary. On her birthday he sent her a rosary of coral and gold in a heart-shaped box with the message: “Every good wish to you today from my heart.”

Soon after, she accepted his proposal although she recorded in her diary that she was “rather hurt and disappointed to find that Harry was infinitely more interested in the precise details of the fortune my father had left me more than anything else.”

Mrs. and Mr. Harry Lehr on their wedding trip, 1901.

She repeated what must have been the magic words for him: “My dear, you won’t have to worry over money; you know I will give you everything, as much as ever you want,” including financial arrangements to take care of his beloved mother.

It was then he made clear (with a laugh), “I live not on my wits but on my wit. I make a career of being popular.”

Elizabeth remained deeply impressed by the power of his compelling charm. They were married in the Cathedral in Philadelphia with all of fashionable New Yorkers in attendance. The bride, however, noticed a change in the air on that day. The “gaiety,” she later wrote, “seemed to have gone out of the vivid blue eyes, leaving the spirit of mockery that had once so fascinated me.” She felt a “vague sense of foreboding, as though a cold hand had been laid on me.” He was nervous.

After the wedding, the couple traveled to he Stafford Hotel in Baltimore for their wedding night. There, in her suite, she dressed in a rose brocade gown, pinned with a diamond brooch, awaited her groom to appear from his room.

The dining room of their suite had been laid with “sheaves of crimson roses,” filling the room with their fragrance. “Caviar, quails in aspic, his favorite brand of champagne, the cabinet of cigars I had bought for him, along with the gold and enamel watch set besides his plate.”

The maid came in, “flushed, eyes downcast … Madame the maitre d’hotel tells me that Mr. Lehr has just given orders to serve him dinner in his own room. He says that you will dine alone.”

Elizabeth Drexel Lehr in her official court dress for her presentation to the Kaiser in Berlin. It was Harry’s “fame” that brought them this opportunity to rub elbows with the German emperor, grandson of Queen Victoria — a very great experience for a New York society woman, and no different from a comparable contemporary today hobnobbing with the British royals.

A few minutes later Harry appeared. Face pale, laughter gone from his eyes, he sat down, facing his wife …

“There are some things I must say to you and it is better that I should say them now at the very beginning so that there an be no misunderstandings between us. You have heard my orders to the servants, I presume?

“Well I intend that they shall be carried out for the rest of our life together. In public I will be to you everything that a most devoted husband should be to his wife. You shall never complain of my conduct in this respect. I will give you courtesy, respect and apparently devotion. But you must expect nothing more from me. When we are alone I do not intend to keep up the miserable pretense, the farce of love and sentiment.

“Our marriage will never be a marriage in anything but in name. I do not love you. I can never love you. I can school myself to be polite to you but that is all. The less we see of one another except in the presence of others, the better.”

“But why did you marry me?” the bride asked.

The groomed laughed. “Dear lady, do you really know so little of the world that you have never heard of people being married for their money, or did you imagine that your charms placed you above such a fate? I must tell you the unflattering truth that your money is your only asset in my eyes. I married you because the only person on earth I love is my mother. I want above everything to keep her in comfort. Your father’s fortune will enable me to do so. But there is a limit to sacrifice. I cannot condemn myself to the misery of playing the role of adoring lover for the rest of my life.”

He added: “After all, at least I am being honest with you. How many men in New York, how many among our own friends have entered their wives rooms on their wedding night with exactly my state of mind but they prefer hypocrisy to the truth. If I am never your lover when we are alone, at least I will not neglect and humiliate you in public. What is more, you will actually gain by marrying me. You will have a wonderful position in society. As my wife, all doors will be open to you.

“If you will try to accustom yourself to the position, and realize from the start that there is no romance and never can be any between us, I believe that we shall get along quite well together. But for God’s sake leave me alone. Do not come near me except when we are in public, or you will force me to repeat to you the brutal truth that you are actually repulsive to me …”

Newport Casino Tennis Club.
Tennis at Newport Casino.

And so began the life of Elizabeth Drexel and Harry Lehr. The bride was crushed by the humiliation her husband passed on to her on her bridal night. She suddenly felt trapped because her mother, to whom she was devoted, so highly disapproved of divorce that anyone who did divorce in her circle was then eternally banned from her company. Furthermore Elizabeth had no outlet, nothing, no one to confide in. His secret was now her secret, although she still had no idea what his secret was except that women were “repulsive” to him.

On signing he was given an allowance of $25,000 a year ($750,000 in today’s dollars) and all living, traveling, real estate and additional expenses paid by his wife. Their first summer together they rented a house in Newport where they were feted by all the society queens.

Newport was the most important social location in America at the time. For although New York was the center, Newport was small enough to make the social restrictions apparent to everyone including the aspiring newcomers.

Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island. The mansion on the far right is Miramar, designed by Horace Trumbauer, commissioned by George Elkins Widener in 1911. Mr. Widener and his son went down on the RMS Titanic and never saw the house which was completed in 1915. His widow, Eleanor Widener, later married Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, and the family occupied the house until 1956 when it was sold for $156,000. That owners family sold the house again at auction for $17.5 million. The wood frame house to the left of Miramar was built in 1866 for a New York merchant Charles Anthony. It was sold in 1889 to Ogden Mills who renovated and expanded the house extensively. Next to that is the “Ames Villa” built in 1869 for Boston financier Thomas F. Cushing in the Stick Style and known as “New Lodge.” In 1916 the house was sold to Frederick Ames, who with his wife transformed it into its present Classical Revival style. In 1931 Jessie Woolworth Donahue bought it and renamed it “Rock Cliff. The brick mansion known as “Rough Point” on the point was built for Frederick Vanderbilt, a brother of Willie K. Sr. (who built Marble House), and Cornelius II (who built The Breakers), and later acquired by James B. Duke, who left it to his daughter Doris who kept it all her life.
Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House, completed in 1893-4. After she divorced Willie K. Vanderbilt and married OHP Belmont, she moved to his Belcourt Castle down the avenue, but kept Marble House which she resumed using after Belmont’s untimely death in 1908.
Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs’ Rosecliff. The house used as Gatsby’s in the Robert Redford version of the Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Mrs. Oelrichs was the eldest daughter of a prospector who hit the big time with a share of the Comstock Lode, the greatest North American silver mine ever. Her younger sister Birdie married Alva Vanderbilt’s older son, William K., Jr.

Harry Lehr soon became the social arbiter as well as the court jester to all who entered. He was generous with his advice to those who wished to enter (and were, in his mind, eligible). He was generous also to young men and women who wanted to marry outside their social stations, assisting them with advice and mediating between them with the parents to make their unions possible. Everything that Harry Lehr did in these relationships only strengthened his position as an arbiter, and friend to all.

The marriage provided him with the means to live like a rich man but also provided his wife the social connections – which she probably could have cultivated herself with her family background and fortune – that she appreciated. She abided by his rules and eventually found freedom in them – she was free to come and go as she pleased, and the great variety of relationships that he made both in the United States and in Europe seemed to have enhanced her life also.

Mrs. Henry Lehr (nee Elizabeth Drexel), later Lady Decies; by Giovanni Boldini, 1905.

There was a love affair of hers that emerged during the early years with a man she identified only as Mr. X in her memoir. When her mother died, twelve years after she and Harry married, she made the initial moves to divorce him, but unfortunately Mr. X died shortly thereafter. After Mr. X’s death, Elizabeth decided to divorce anyway but Harry’s pleading with her not to somehow affected her decision and she remained.

It was, by her account, the way he had explained it on the wedding night. In public he was caring and solicitous, but when they were alone, he was separate. He played the piano, however, and loved playing in the near dark. His music, she recalled, belied the harsh side that she had been exposed to.

By the second decade of their marriage, the couple began spending more time in Paris where Elizabeth acquired a beautiful house in the Seventh. The First World War intruded and Elizabeth became an active volunteer nurse and subsidized an ambulance in her friend Anne Morgan’s ambulance corps.

After the war, the couple spent more and more time away from America and Newport. In the mid-1920s Harry, then in his mid-50s fell ill with a brain tumor. His affliction changed everything for him including his ability to amuse. All pretenses of joie de vivre were gone. When his wife made attempts to cheer him up, to draw that old sense of humor out of him, he responded “no no Bessie, La commedia e finita.” Those were the last coherent words he ever uttered to her.

After more than one surgery, in the late 1920, he traveled back to Baltimore to Johns-Hopkins for medical care. On the third of January, 1929, three months before his sixtieth birthday, Harry Lehr died in Baltimore.

His wife was thousands of miles away in France at the time, staying with Alva Belmont’s daughter Consuelo and her husband Jacques Balsan. After his death, she found his diaries which had always been locked away. In them she found his truth. “‘I can never love any woman,’ he often said to me. ‘Women are actually repulsive to me …’ It had been true.”

Left: Lord and Lady Decies after their civil marriage, May 25, 1936.
Right: Elizabeth, Lady Decies in the robes she wore at the coronation of George VI, 1937.

To anyone today, it would be apparent from the beginning that Harry Lehr was gay, in fact what used to be called before the days of liberation, a “screaming queen.” In the Gilded Age, his behavior was revealing to many men but the clinical designation of “homosexual” was not known, especially to women who were used to the masculine pose that excluded women from everything but the sex act and domestic activity.

The Big Four, those powerful women who adored Harry Lehr, liked him because he shared their interests and took them seriously. Except for what the men in their lives could bring them in the way of material goods, Harry’s male contribution was far more interesting and engaging than the macho attitude they had to live with. Harry Lehr knew this. It was, in a very real way, his saving grace, and grace it was. Although somewhere in there it was his sadness too.

Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, despite her protestations in her volume on life with Harry Lehr, seemed to be comfortable accommodating her husband’s rules and behavior. Her life was interesting and as it turns out, she was a remarkable social documentarian and writer. Her portraits of that time and the players, describe the world precisely, leaving her a kind of Saint-Simon of her era. In 1936, she remarried to a Lord Decies who was the widower coincidentally, of Vivien, Lady Decies, nee Vivien Gould, daughter of Edith Gould – the lady who introduced Elizabeth Drexel to Harry Lehr, all those years before at the Metropolitan Opera House on that fateful night in 1900.

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