Accidents

A World Gilded in Gold: The Story of Henry Francis du Pont

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In this post we’ll be forgoing our usual shocking scandals and bizarre mysteries (OK, fine, I snuck one in at the end). Instead we’ll be entering the estate of Winterthur and meeting its owner, Henry Francis du Pont, who was neither scandalous nor shocking. While he lacked drama he did live in a decadently wealthy world which is surely worth visiting, even if there are 175-rooms of it. It was never a display of wealth or power that Henry was interested in but a display of taste and history.

But first, like his money, Henry Francis came into Winterthur through inheritance and we should talk about the “humble beginnings” of the mansion when it belonged to his father and was only 12-rooms. Then the transformation will be even more dazzling.

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THE GIFT HOUSE

In 1874 the estate of Winterthur was gifted to Henry Algernon du Pont for his wedding to Pauline Foster. Pauline was an orphan but she had high social standing and money which made her a good catch. Henry charmed her with his exemplary U.S. Civil War service (he earned the Medal of Honor) and his tight-knit large family. On their wedding day Henry wore his army uniform. Pauline wore a white silken dress laced with silk jasmine blossoms. She received so many expensive gifts newspapers voyeuristically printed a list of them in astonishment.

Their biggest wedding gift, Winterthur, did not look as it does in these photos. The Winterthur Henry Algernon and Pauline were given was indeed a large house, but considerably smaller than the 175 rooms it is today. Their 1839 Greek revival mansion was simple, elegant, had 12-rooms and came with 445 acres of farm and woodland attached.

The estate had originally been formed by Colonel Henry’s aunt, Evelina and her husband Jacques Antoine. They had surrounded their home with a formal rose garden, orchards and even more gardens, filled with fragrant European flowers. When Evelina died there in 1863, and her husband two years after that, their son sold the estate to his uncle Colonel Henry who always intended to give it to his firstborn son.

After the Colonel and Pauline’s marriage the couple honeymooned in Europe and spent most of their time purchasing furnishings, decorations and even sideboards for their home back in Delaware. Unlike many of the du Ponts who kept numerous estates, Colonel Henry Algernon and his family only lived at Winterthur and they wanted to make it magnificent; and of course, very French in honor of their du Pont ancestors.

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DEATH OVER AND OVER

The lengthy honeymoon was so long that their first child was born while they were still on it. In April of 1875, Catherine (nicknamed “Paulinette”) was born in Paris. In October of that year they finally returned home to Delaware. A month before her first birthday, Paulinette suddenly fell ill and passed away. It would become a sad, familiar story for Pauline.

Constantly bereaved and helpless Pauline wrote to her sister while pregnant, “If only I could be good for something.” In ten years Pauline would birth a son Antoine who died the day he was born; twin boys named Pierre and Paul who died after two days and six months respectively; and a robustly healthy daughter named Anna who caught croup at seven months old and died too. Of the seven children she had given birth to only two would survive: the healthy Louise Eveline and the more fragile, sensitive Henry Francis.

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Pauline with her two children, Louise and Henry.

At 13, Henry Francis was sent to boarding school. He was used to speaking in French at home, not English, and was terribly homesick. His sister Louise was educated by governesses at home until she debuted into society at 16-years old. She spent that season with her mother in Manhattan attending some of the most lavish private balls ever held in New York City including the infamous Bradley-Martin Costume Ball. It is quite a famous party already because of its extravagance, but maybe it is worth recounting here again if only quickly.

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A PARTY FOR THE AGES

Details of the party leaked out quickly even though the Bradley-Martins had sent the invitations on short notice to force their guests to buy locally instead of sending for gowns from Paris (this was their idea of charity). Newspaper articles picked up the story and covered every last detail to the location (the Waldorf-Astoria), the costumes (guests had to wear 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries), and the luxuries (the actual crown jewels from France’s King Louis XIV would be there as the wealthy Americans in attendance had snapped them up at auctions).

An extravagant and sumptuous feast, maybe even considered sinful, was served with 28 courses including caviar-stuffed oysters and duck stuffed with truffles. 1884 Moët champagne flowed and twinkling electric lights glittered off the millions of dollars worth of jewels that decorated the party, and of course the guests. Overflowing flower arrangements and hothouse flowers perfumed the air but just in case that was not enough pink roses hung delicately above the crowd wrapped around crystal chandeliers. Fittingly for the Gilded Age, gilded gold encased everything from decorations to costumes to serviceware. In total the party cost (in today’s money) well over 8 million dollars.

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Public resentment whipped up into such a stir that Assistant Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the future president) sent 10 squadrons of police to surround and protect the hotel. The horse drawn carriages and impressive display astonished the crowd instead and they cheered and clapped with excitement rather than demonstrating against it.

The delight was short-lived. The tide once again turned against the Bradley-Martins, their name dragged through the press. Though they rarely stayed in New York much longer than the social season anyway they left for England and returned to America only once more 15 years later.

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GROWING UP

At 22, Henry’s sister Louise became engaged to the fencing champion J. Langdon Erving. When the engagement was called off soon after it filled the gossip pages, much to her embarrassment. A year later she would be much more successfully engaged to Francis B. Crowninshield from Boston. One of her cousin’s wrote in a letter: “Aunt Vic was here this a.m. Said she had a note from Aunt Pauline announcing the engagement and in precisely the same words she did the first one!”

In 1901 the Colonel and Pauline finally returned to Europe for the first time since their honeymoon. The trip filled them to the brim with ideas and inspiration for a sophisticated makeover of Winterthur and its gardens. But before renovations could begin they needed to recover a bit; the Colonel suffered through back pain while Pauline complained of a nagging pain in her side.

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Despite their illnesses the Colonel kept busy with the DuPont Company and Pauline went to visit her married daughter in New England. The nagging pain in her side turned serious and Pauline died there a few months later in September of 1902. Her death devastated everyone in her family. Henry Francis abandoned graduate school plans and came back home to Winterthur. He took on the task of managing the house’s renovation and decoration. Under his guidance the house became a grand mansion and the perfect place for entertaining when the Colonel became a Senator for Delaware in 1906.

Because of his father’s new position Henry happened to meet the niece of Senator Elihu Root of New York, the pretty Ruth Wales. She was funny, musically talented and balanced Henry’s serious side. In 1916 they were married. The evening before the wedding Harry and his father spent the night at his old friend and schoolmate’s home: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then secretary of the Navy. Most of the guests took a private train to Hyde Park for the ceremony but Roosevelt showed up on the Hudson River in a government torpedo boat.

After their marriage Ruth became mistress of Winterthur which had now grown into a large estate with over 1,000 acres, a post office (still there), a railway stop, a farm, a butcher shop, a dairy, a sawmill and a tannery. The property had 90 workers’ cottages and about 200-300 people employees. It was, after all, nearly a small village. (*A post on the servants will follow soon!)

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WILL 175 ROOMS BE ENOUGH?

Henry and Ruth would have two daughters: Pauline and Ruth Ellen. While the Colonel was still living at Winterthur, Henry and his family divided their time between their Delaware estate, a New York apartment, a Southampton summerhouse and a Florida home. But Winterthur remained the center of their lives and their movements. They even had meat from their farm at Winterthur specially packed and sent to them by train.

On December 31, 1926 the Colonel died and Winterthur passed into Henry’s hands. He immediately began redecorating (he’d been storing all his antique treasures and entire historical rooms in various barns around the estate). He drew up plans for an additional 130 rooms to be added on as soon as possible. Henry’s idea for a house that could store all his historical preservation projects would keep hundreds of men and women securely employed during the Great Depression, but also it would severely strain him financially.

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THE CONSTANT PARTY PLANNER

In June of 1935 Pauline’s coming out party was held at Winterthur, all planned by her father who had worked out every detail and possibility himself. In case of rain he had decorated a tent and 500 umbrellas with balloons and fresh flowers. (It didn’t rain so the tent and decorations went unused to Henry’s dismay).

Two years later the pretty Pauline would marry a Philadelphia lawyer named Alfred Craven Harrison. Once again her father planned it all…for 835 guests.

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Guests at Pauline’s wedding at Winterthur. You’ll notice the wallpaper is still intact  from the previous photos of the Chinese room towards the beginning of the post.

In 1939 it was time for Ruth Ellen’s coming out party. War was looming which changed the scale of her party but Henry still went all out for her smaller do. He wrote about his plans in a letter: “The dancing tent was a pale pink. The walk from the conservatory to the dancing tent was lined with pale blue silk and I had about twenty peach trees along the walk, with the most colossal peaches on them you ever saw in your life. It was really quite ravishing.”

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After America entered WWII everything changed at Winterthur, just as everything changed in America too. All young men left for service, food and gasoline became rationed and many rooms were shuttered away until peace returned.

The cost of building Winterthur into such a grand scale and the war had taken a further toll on Henry’s finances. While he had planned to turn Winterthur into a museum after his death, for tax reasons, he would need to do so much sooner. In 1947 his daughter Ruth was married at the house and over 1,000 people attended, many because they wanted one last peek at the estate before it would become a museum.

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DOWNSIZING TO A 50 ROOM COTTAGE

Henry had the cottage rebuilt directly across from the mansion where he and his wife would live (it’s a stone’s throw away, or to be more accurate maybe around 100 feet). In January of 1951 he held his last party at Winterthur with drinks on the porch, an enchanting meal served by footmen and so many flowers decorating the table you couldn’t see the person across from you. While everyone enjoyed themselves, Henry smoked his monogrammed gold-tipped cigarettes and had his suitcases packed. They left the house forever at midnight.

You can read all about their time in “The Cottage” in this previous post here but I will add a little about their guests in this post too.

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HIGH SOCIETY

Henry’s extravagant dinner parties continued despite moving into their smaller home. Besides hosting Jacqueline Kennedy he also entertained the crème of high society. That included Elsie Woodward, of the wealthy banking and thoroughbred horse family, in 1954. Little did they realize that soon Elsie and her family would make scandalous national headlines.

Elsie’s son Billy had married Ann, a woman Elsie never took to. Not just because Ann had little shame and was a bit wild but because Elsie’s husband had taken to Ann first. Her husband had set his son up with the charismatic girl, whether she was initially William Sr.’s mistress or a gold digger as Elsie suspected wasn’t clear.

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Elsie Woodward over for dinner at “The Cottage” (you’ll recognize the room if you check the Cottage post, here, it’s emerald colored now).

Ann and Billy had a tumultuous relationship. They bedded whomever they wanted, and for Billy that meant both men and women, and they abused drink and prescription drugs too. After a boozy night spent with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in New York (Ann was friends with fellow ostracized woman, Wallis Simpson) Ann and Billy went to sleep in separate bedrooms. Ann said they brought weapons to bed because there had been reports of a prowler in the area.

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By the morning Billy was dead from two shotgun blasts. Ann claimed she had shot at a shadowy figure not realizing it was Billy. Few in high society believed her but her jury did. They only took 30 minutes to declare her innocent of any crime. Elsie stood by her for appearances sake only.

Her two sons could never forgive Ann and led troubled adult lives themselves. They both eventually jumped from windows to commit suicide. In the 1970s Ann learned that Truman Capote’s famous unfinished gossip novel “Answered Prayers” would feature the killing and implicate Ann as the murderess. He had even given her character the crass nickname of “Bang Bang.”

Instead of reliving the murder and media circus Ann swallowed a cyanide pill, laid down on her bed and died. She was 57-years old. Elsie remarked: “Well, that’s that. She shot my son and Truman murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t how to worry about that anymore.”

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Read more about Henry Francis du Pont and his guests after he moved from Winterthur in the post: “Downsizing To A 50-Room Cottage And Decorating The White House For Jackie“.

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, “Henry F. Du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter’s Portrait” by Ruth Lord, “The du Ponts of Winterthur” by Maggie Lidz

Older photos from the Winterthur blog.