Bad Behavior Dark Secrets Scandals

The Three Wives of Alfred du Pont: Bessie (Part I)

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While writing about Alfred I. du Pont things got a little long (I know, I say that every time but if you read here regularly you know it’s true). There are so many interesting details typically glossed over, and of course I couldn’t let any of those details go! So I decided to split up this post into a few more digestible sizes. And the easiest way to do so for me was by Alfred’s three marriages. Each life with each wife was markedly different. I don’t mean to define Alfred only by his personal life, though that’s what I’ll be focusing on in this post series. (If you’d like to read in much more detail about his professional life too I highly recommend the book: Alfred I. du Pont: The Man and His Family by Joseph Frazier Wall. It had just as many ups, downs, twists and turns as his personal life). Alfred’s work left lasting effects on the state of Delaware, the country, the DuPont Company and many children through the schools and the hospital his trust built. You can read about those in detail in the book I mentioned or probably any book about him, they are after all the highlights. I’ll touch on all those briefly here in these posts too but first we should talk about the first woman in his life: his mother.

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Just for scale, there I am!

DEFINE NORMAL

On the 12th of May in 1864, during the Civil War and six years after his parents marriage, Alfred Irénée du Pont was born to Irénée and Charlotte du Pont. After two daughters they finally had their male heir. But another child was not exactly good news for the family. Charlotte’s father, the esteemed General Archibald Henderson, had a temper and eccentricities which everyone viewed with amusement and humor. But when his daughter began to display some of the same tendencies, Charlotte’s inherited and increasing mental instability wasn’t seen in the same amusing light…especially by the du Pont family.

Once cheerful and lighthearted Charlotte was now erratic with an explosive temperament. The du Ponts were convinced the Henderson’s had done them wrong by not revealing their little family secret. It was only Charlotte’s husband, Irénée du Pont, who did not see it this way. He believed that Charlotte had been fine before their marriage. Her mental instability must derive from his family. They were staunch Unionists who had harassed her for being sympathetic to the Confederacy (two of her brothers served in the Confederate army and she considered herself a Virginian). It was his family who had driven her to madness.

After Alfred’s birth Charlotte failed to show the deep postpartum depression she had experienced with her first two daughters. Perhaps her mental instabilities had been only passing. The family was cautiously hopeful.

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Two years after Alfred, his brother Maurice was born. Again, Charlotte held up well. The year after that another son, Louis. But this would be the final straw. Not only did Charlotte’s depression return but it stayed with her and she directed all of her fury at her unsuspecting husband. Her tantrums were frighteningly difficult to control and worst of all she developed a physical repulsion to even being near Irénée.

The du Ponts could fight about it all they want. Wherever it came from, by 1870, Charlotte was in mental anguish and the family environment was deeply stressful. She was reluctantly committed to an asylum by her husband.

A few months after her committal Charlotte convinced doctors to release her. She promptly went home and moved out with her children the week after New Year’s. Because there was no divorce option available to her she would spend the rest of her days traveling away from the Brandywine with brief whirlwind visits back home to see her children whom Irénée had regained custody of. Irénée had named the family home Swamp Hall, half as a joke but also bitterly, half as the truth.

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In 1871 Charlotte left for France and was gone from her children’s lives for two years. Back at home, Alfred and his siblings noticed their father’s lingering illness was now the tell-tale symptoms of tuberculosis. Between his sickness, Charlotte’s anger and the DuPont Company disputes Irénée suffered greatly over the next five years. His only joy was his children and somehow he kept the home feeling normal despite all the stress around it. They were happy and Alfred looked back on his childhood as a pleasant one.

Alfred preferred to spend his time carousing with the mill-workers sons anyway rather than with his du Pont cousins in high society. Despite their wild adventures he only suffered one serious injury while playing with them. Diving into the Brandywine River he hit his head on a submerged rock. What appeared to be a broken nose which quickly healed up would cause him complete deafness later on his life.

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When their mother did visit them she brought back exotic stories and enough presents to make it feel like Christmas several times a year. The only unsettling aspect in their sheltered childhood was their nurse Emma who would beat them red and deprive them of meals as punishment. Her treatment of them, which their sick father did not particularly notice, banded them together into a tight bond for the rest of their lives.

In 1877 it was clear to everyone, including the children, that their father was dying. Charlotte returned (and fired Emma when she discovered Alfred’s beaten back). Charlotte detested the Brandywine, now her commitments keeping here there left her feeling trapped and suffocated. She paced the halls of Swamp Hall endlessly like a caged animal. Then on a hot night in August the children found their mother screaming hysterically as two servants struggled to restrain her. As she convulsed a physician rushed in to administer a heavy sedative. The next morning when the sedative wore off the episode began all over again, more screaming, more convulsions, more terror for the children. After a few days of the same episodes, Alfred’s grandmother sent Charlotte to an asylum in Philadelphia. She lived only another week. Four weeks later Alfred’s father would die too. He was buried beside Charlotte.

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Alfred and his wives’ cars are some of the most rare and expensive in the world. There were only 5 of his Rolls Royce made, one is owned by the Queen of England. All of the cars still work but are driven around the estate only.

OFF TO WORK

Irénée’s last conversation with his eldest son Alfred is the stuff of legend amongst du Ponts (I can hear it too echoing in my head in that documentary narrator’s voice while I type it…which will happen if you visit Nemours too many times!): “Son, I am not going to be with you long. I doubt if your mother will. You must get an education and then come back, take off your coat and go ask your Uncle Henry for a job. I think the old company may need you sometime.”

After Alfred’s parents’ deaths the extended du Pont family decided that the five children would be sent to various boarding schools and passed around to different relatives during the holidays. When Uncle Fred went to deliver the news, he was met with 13-year old Alfred and his shotgun. Their Uncle Fred waved a white handkerchief and agreed to let them keep Swamp Hall as their base. They would still have to go off to school they all agreed.

Once done with school Alfred began work at the powder yards. From the bottom rung he worked his way up. Unlike the other workers he would be working his way up much higher than anyone else and his social calendar was quite full and elegant too.

Except for a brief flirtation with Alice du Pont (his cousin Pierre’s {of Longwood} future wife) Alfred hadn’t seriously thought of settling down. Then in 1886 all the siblings met up before traveling for a family wedding. His youngest brother Louis brought home a woman he liked; she was named Bessie Gardner. Alfred was taken. Later that year Alfred proposed marriage to Bessie and she accepted.

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LIFE WITH BESSIE

Bessie and Alfred made their home at Swamp Hall. Eight months after their wedding, a baby girl, Madeleine, was born. His brother Louis, who had been after Bessie first, drank heavily with disappointment. Everything in life had come easily to him, but Bessie had not. Though he was a known for carousing, drinking and womanizing already, not to mention prone to some depression like his mother.

Alfred invited his melancholic brother to Swamp Hall for a visit in November of 1892. On the 2nd of December (not to interject myself into stories, but yikes that’s my birthday) Louis stopped by to tell a friend at the Wilmington Club that he couldn’t serve on the Christmas Ball committee this year, he was going “a long distance away.” Louis then went to the club library to write a letter to another friend but he never even finished the letter. A servant heard a shot and discovered Louis slumped at the desk. He had shot himself.

The tragedy, and public nature of the scandal, rocked the family. The du Pont family’s lives would be shaken even further five months later when their Uncle Fred, the kind Uncle who had been in charge of the children since their parents’ deaths, suddenly died. The initial story reported in newspapers was that Fred had been stricken ill suddenly and died at his brother’s house. The real story soon emerged.

Fred had been shot through the heart while visiting Maggie Payne’s house, the most expensive bordello in Louisville. One of Maggie’s “employees” demanded child support from Fred for her baby which she claimed was his. He refused and she murdered him. Uncle Fred intended to leave his three nephews Alfred, Pierre, and Coleman his fortune but his unexpected death meant there was no finalized will. In the end Alfred received the largest share.

In 1902 the head of the company, Eugene du Pont, died with no apparent successor. The family discussed selling the company, possibly outside of the family. Alfred met with Pierre and Coleman to pool their resources together and take over leadership of the company. They had modern ideas to revive the ailing family business.

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Till Death Do Us Part…Or Not

While everything with the business was turning around and going well home-life with Bessie was heading in the opposite direction. Bessie had a cruel streak, she ridiculed and often ignored Alfred in front of company. She found his increasing deafness embarrassing and annoying during her intellectual salons. She was supposed to be the Queen of society, Alfred wasn’t helping matters she thought. Worst of all she no longer readily welcomed his siblings there, treating them rudely until they cut ties to Swamp Hall. She had succeeded in isolating him. His only bright spot at home was their children.

The first few years of marriage had been happy. But as Bessie cultivated friends among the elite of the literary, art and theater worlds Alfred became unwelcome at her gatherings. In turn she stayed away from his big passion: his music club…when she wasn’t criticizing them.

There was a brief respite in 1902 while Bessie enjoyed her new position after Alfred bought the company with his cousins. Alfred had already found an escape though, he had met Alicia Heyward Bradford. Twenty years his junior and a distant cousin he had scarcely seen at family weddings and funerals her independent streak had made the du Pont’s talk and Alfred had taken notice. They began to exchange friendly, supportive letters.

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There was a slight obstacle to what Alfred believed would make him happy. Alicia was already married, someone her father so objected to that he banned the family from the wedding and Alfred had to walk his dear friend Alicia down the aisle instead.  It probably didn’t much matter though, both their marriages were unraveling. Bessie, always cold towards Alfred, had grown even more hostile in 1904 after the birth of their daughter Victorine. She packed up the children and left for an extended stay in Europe without Alfred. He was devastated, lonely, and his deafness had progressed so fully that it now kept him from enjoying his one escape, music.

To add insult to injury, Alfred was involved in a grave hunting accident. The accident brought back Bessie and his oldest daughter Madeline who visited him. His daughter would later write of her mother during that visit: “But not one word of sympathy escaped Mrs. B.G.’s lips-not a kiss-no demonstration of pity or sympathy. From that moment on I had decided where my natural affections & sympathy belonged.” With Bessie’s return Alfred who had been recovering nicely suffered a relapse. His right eye had to be removed.* Bessie and Madeline were told by the doctors it would be best if they returned to Europe.

*You can see the glass eyes on display at the Nemours museum’s welcome center now.

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In March, Pierre du Pont visited Bessie in Europe which somehow led to her telling the children they were immediately returning home as “Cousin Pierre and the family wish it.” But Bessie was not changed because of Alfred’s accident. Instead her behavior continued and Alfred finally told her that he wanted a divorce. He would set up a trust fund for her and each child. If or when she remarried her income would revert to him to eventually be divided up among the children.

Alfred’s partner and cousin, Pierre, was shocked by how little he thought Alfred was providing Bessie and the children (for the record it was $600,000 or $24,000 a year; a little over 10% of Alfred’s total income). Even the family members who despised Bessie’s past behavior now felt sympathy for her. Bessie enjoyed playing the injured party and claimed Alfred was insane to anyone who would listen, a cruel reminder of his mother’s misfortune. The divorce from Bessie was granted on grounds of “barbarous and inhuman treatment” and “grievous mental suffering” in 1906. But Alfred’s chance to reunite with Alicia would be anything but smooth.

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Read Part II & Part III!

To see the inside and more of Nemours check out previous posts about the mansion here.

Source: 1 and “Alfred I. du Pont: The Man and His Family” by Joseph Frazier Wall