Scandals

Pierre DuPont and the ‘Pleasant Attack of Insanity’: Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens is a place that I had never heard about before I moved to the Brandywine Valley though it’s reputation is certainly growing. During the summer it is hard to hear English being spoken there, the grounds are filled with people from all over the world who have somehow heard about this little corner and come to see it for themselves.

The grounds and the gardens of this estate turned botanical garden wonderland are the main attraction but near the edge of it, near the orchard and the meadow, is a small estate (especially compared to other du Ponts) where Longwood’s founder, Pierre, lived. It is unassuming, modest inside and has an old world charm. It draws people in but they’re never inside too long, Longwood is meant to be enjoyed outdoors and their gardens do their job of drawing you out to them skillfully.

So on an uncrowded day last winter I went back to shoot the house, you can see photos of the gardens and conservatory here from previous posts; sometimes I forget how incredible they are until I get to see them through a first-time viewers eyes again! I’ve been guilty of the same distraction starry-eyed new visitors are, skipping the house but for only a moment. I hate to shoot in cold winter light, especially when it’s taken me so long to make the time to write about the DuPont Company’s best leader anyway, that is in full bloom again. No matter, finally I’ve done my research 🙂

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

The library as it was in 1926. The house is now open for unguided tours which is why it is more sparsely decorated today.

Three Cousins Save the Day

Pierre S. du Pont was born in January 1870 at Nemours (we haven’t spoken about that house yet in detail but we will, there are some photos on the blog of it already though). He would be the oldest son of 11 children and his future as the head of the DuPont empire would be cemented when he became the head of his family at 14-years old upon his father’s death. Pierre earned a degree in chemistry from MIT and developed the first smokeless powder in America but he grew restless until he found his purpose, he had an incredible mind for business.

In 1902 Pierre and his cousins Coleman and Alfred joined forces to buy the ailing DuPont company and keep it in the family. After leader Eugene du Pont’s death the family decided they would sell the business. But the three young men had grand ideas for the old operation. Once in charge they made quick work implementing their new plans. They purchased nearly all competing powder firms (when the gunpowder yards closed in 1921 they owned 28 of the 32 in America) to form their own little monopoly. As can be expected, the Taft Administration accused the DuPont of violating the Antitrust Act. Pierre did some complicated financial juggling to preserve the company’s assets while meeting the antitrust demands. A business mastermind if not a little dodgy.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood party in the conservatory, 1925.

The DuPont company went through a period of adjustment several years later when Alfred (a man of the people, we’ll talk about him and my favorite du Pont estate in another post!) and Pierre (with an eye towards the future) butted heads. Pierre quietly maneuvered behind Alfred’s back to buyout their cousin Coleman’s shares (Coleman was ill and wished to retire anyway; though he eventually recovered, serving as a Senator twice before passing away in 1930 of cancer) making Pierre the leading shareholder. Pierre forced Alfred out of the company and the DuPont company began to take on a new more modern shape (like buying General Motors). Alfred sued Pierre for breach of contract but lost the case four years later. The two never spoke again.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Pierre in the conservatory with the banana trees, 1921.

A Pleasant Attack of Insanity

Originally built in 1730 by Quaker farmer Joshua Pierce, Joshua and his twin brother planted the arboretum which later became a small piece of Longwood Gardens. The house has been expanded several times. In 1906 Pierre heard that the trees at Pierce’s Park were going to all be cut down for lumber. He contacted his lawyer, Isabel Darlington*, and she managed to not only secure the land for him but the lumber contract so that they could put an end to the tree removal. Longwood is now world renown for its gardens and techniques but Pierre wrote this to a friend upon purchasing the house and land, ““I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity; that is, I have purchased a small farm. I expect to have a good deal of enjoyment in restoring its former condition and making it a place where I can entertain my friends.”

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

{*Isabel was the first woman admitted to practice law in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She attending the University of Pennsylvania and only had her graduation approved right before she was due to finish her degree. Her family had lost hundreds of thousands in the economic panic of 1893 so she decided to find a way to make her own wealth. There were only about 140 female lawyers and law students in all of America at the time so it was a great gamble. She practiced law right up until her death in 1950. You can stay in her mansion, it’s a bed and breakfast now!}

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Ten years after purchasing Longwood, Pierre married his first cousin Alice Belin (her father was Pierre’s maternal uncle) in 1915 when he was 45-years old. Her parents were a bit reluctant about the match due to the two being first cousins but the wedding went ahead anyway. Pennsylvania had outlawed first cousin marriage so the couple traveled to New York to wed at Alice’s brother’s home.

There are of course a few whispers about their relationship floating around. One is that they waited until they were older to avoid having children since they were first cousins. Another theory is that he married her to avoid being lonely after his mother’s passing, they were good friends years before their marriage and his marriage proposal was a great shock, even to her. The third theory is that he was really in love with his valet, Lewes Andrew Mason. At just 22, Mason contracted the Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic and lost his life in 1919. In response Pierre built a huge hospital wing in his honor. And from the photo I took, you can see that in his office hangs a very large portrait of Lewes. Whatever the case, Pierre had a great time with Alice.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Lewes’ portrait.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Alice’s class at Bryn Mawr, 1892.

Alice Belin (there’s that last name again, the name of the du Pont’s bookkeeper at the Hagley powder yard!) was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1872, a little under a three hour drive from here today. The third of nine children, she grew up relatively wealthy; her father was head of the E.I. du Pont Company in Pennsylvania after all. In 1892 Alice graduated from Bryn Mawr College then spent her time involved in charitable affairs and with the Red Cross during World War I.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Resident cat, Belin.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

The music room in the conservatory, 1934.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Wartime Profit

World War I brought many challenges for the du Ponts, the largest one to their business. The demand for gunpowder in Europe was skyrocketing, and just as in the case of the US Civil War flooding the market with black powder could be a dangerous blow to their finances at the war’s conclusion.

The French submitted an enormous order for 8 million pounds of smokeless powder. Pierre doubled the usual price and asked for half of the $8 million dollar bill up front…in cash. The French somehow agreed. The deal would mean enormous success for the DuPont Company. To put it into perspective before the war they were the 64th richest family in America. After the war they were the fourth, only behind the Rockefellers, Fords and Mellons of Pittsburgh.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

It is always summer in the foyer of Pierre’s house, heaven!

After the War, Pierre and Alice set about making improvements to their home at Longwood. They had brought many ideas back from their past European vacations (you can see the books and their own sketches at the house). In 1921 upon the completion of the conservatory Pierre began to open the grounds to the public for free on weekdays and for a small fee on Sundays.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

The large boiler room that kept the conservatory warm up until the 1960s, photo taken in 1925.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Life after DuPont

Pierre wasn’t just wringing considerable profit from the company, like all early du Ponts he believed that with money came great social responsibility. After spending millions building new schools (he built all the schools in Delaware that allowed black Americans at the time and renovated many other schools) an anonymous donor gave $50,000 in 1931 for a statue to be built in his honor. As soon as Pierre heard of this he rushed a modest letter out to the sculptor’s secretary. “I am unalterably opposed to this project and request return of any photographs that you may have obtained for the purpose of obtaining my likeness,” he wrote.

In 1928 Pierre temporarily left his post as president of General Motors to advocate repealing the 18th Amendment, or Prohibition. He attempted to resign his position but was so beloved at GM that they refused to accept his resignation. When Prohibition was passed, Pierre said he was so busy with WWI that he had barely noticed except that there seemed to be enormous support behind it. As Prohibition stretched on for years, Pierre took notice.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

There are entire academic papers as to why he decided to spend so much time fighting the amendment; so strongly did he oppose the Volstead Act that he spent $17,500 in financial contributions to campaign against it. I don’t know if there is a clear cut answer (except that it was generally a terrible “solution” that failed to consider the contributing causes of alcoholism) but the Eighteenth Amendment was finally repealed in 1933…except for Mississippi which didn’t get around to officially repealing it until 1966.

By 1940 Pierre had retired from business activities to focus on Longwood and his philanthropy causes. Alice died in June of 1944 at the age of 71 after a short illness; her death certificate lists the cause as a stroke. In April of 1954, 84-year old Pierre passed away after a stomach complaint upon finishing his dinner at his Longwood estate. He had been the oldest living family member of the du Ponts.

As with any large estate there was much legal wrangling in the courts. This time it was not the family but the states (The Brandywine Valley is on the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware). If Pierre was declared a legal resident of Pennsylvania their taxes on charitable gifts would nearly wipe the Longwood Foundation clean. If he was declared a resident of Delaware they would receive $30 million. I’m actually not clear how this case played out but I do know that Longwood is thriving today.

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Longwood Gardens Pierre du Pont house

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12