Bad Behavior

The Three Wives of Alfred du Pont: Jessie (Part III)

*If you missed the previous posts in the series be sure to check out part I and part II.



Third Time Is the Charm

After Alicia’s death Alfred wanted to be alone. Until Jessie suggested a visit. Jessie’s visit lasted eight months and it was clear to everyone what would follow but Alfred insisted on waiting the “proper time” (a year) before they were married. While the marriage began much happier than his previous one to Alicia, some lingering tax problems and the post-war economic slump put him at the brink of bankruptcy. He would need to start all over again. It seemed possible now that the youthful and energetic Jessie was at his side.

Jessie was unlike Alfred’s previous two wives. She was not highly refined or overly educated, she had worked all her life and had nothing handed to her. While she lacked the born privilege of his first two wives, she was still smart and tough and much more determined than Bessie and Alicia had been. Plus she really did love Alfred. They were a good match.

Most importantly, Jessie began to heal old family rifts as best she could and brought her own large family to visit all the time. Little by little Alfred reconciled with the children he had left behind and the isolation that his marriage to Alicia had brought began to melt away.



At Jessie’s request they spent a few months every year in Florida which fortuitously led to the second fortune Alfred would make during Florida’s reconstruction. Back home in Delaware Alfred was busy building schools and creating the first pension plan available to all citizens of Delaware (which he personally funded until the state took over).

Alfred’s relationship with his son remained the most cool. He had hired him to complete work on the gardens and pool at Nemours but the memory of his son’s mistreatment hung heavy in the air for the both of them. Even after Alfred’s death Jessie would give Alfred Victor affection as easily as she would slight him.

But it was Alfred’s relationship with his favorite, Madeline, that was the most like a roller coaster. While he hadn’t abandoned her, she had briefly abandoned him and seemed to be the cause of unending grief. She was, perhaps, a bit too much like her father.



Madeline was the only child of Alfred’s to not side with her mother. But her young marriage to a man her father hadn’t approved of meant that after the marriage broke up she had distanced herself from her father, probably to avoid hearing the inevitable, “I told you so.”

The problems had initially begun on her extended honeymoon to Germany. Madeline had met a handsome young German man named Max Hiebler who was acting as her tour guide. Rumors that their relationship went a bit too far crept into her new husband’s ears when Madeline gave birth nine months later after their German stay; her husband seriously questioned the child’s paternity.

Instead of sensibly moving on Madeline seemed intent on proving her infidelity. She returned to Germany for a trip the next year without her husband and returned pregnant. There were no questions this time.



Madeline’s husband filed for divorce and won custody of “their” first child. The press had a field day with the divorce proceedings. Despite his own bad behavior in the past, Alfred was scandalized. Madeline moved to Germany to marry her lover and they had two more sons. Her sad letters from Germany during the First World War touched her father and helped heal their rift a little. Alfred sent money, food and clothing until delivery lines to Germany were cut off.

Detached from her family, Madeline soon discovered that her sensitive German lover was actually an abusive cheat. He had believed she was rich in her own right, not dependent on a small allowance from her father. When she asked for a divorce he hesitated. Maybe one day he would inherit a fortune when she was dead. A dangerous line of thinking. Alfred was finally able to visit his daughter again after the war and paid her husband off in order to obtain the divorce.



Like Father, Like Daughter

Madeline surprised her father again in 1930 when he received a letter from a familiar name. It was familiar, the same last name as Madeline’s closet friend in Germany; a friend who had recently passed away. Except this letter was from that friend’s youngest son, Hermann. In the letter he told Alfred that he wanted permission to marry Madeline. Luckily for Madeline, like her father, marriage number three would be her lucky number.

Meanwhile things in Germany were beginning to stir up again. Madeline’s youngest son, named for her father Alfred, was very taken when Adolf Hitler took over the Chancellor’s chair in Germany in 1933. His mother called him an “ardent Hitlerite” in letters to Alfred. Little Alfred wrote his grandfather a letter too, filled with excitement about the changes in Germany: “We have now in Germany a very excited[sic] time, since Adolf Hitler is the German Chancellor. But, I do not know how you think about him. I am so happy he got Chancellor.”

Alfred replied: “We don’t get all the facts here, but I was so disappointed in his attitude towards the poor Jews.” To his daughter he wrote a much more scathing take down of Hitler and his ideas.



Worse, Madeline’s second son Bayard was desperate to come to America. Unlike his brother he was no Hitler fan. He pleaded with his family to send him to America to claim American citizenship but Bayard was told he was not wanted there; Jessie feared his return might resurrect the scandal of his illegitimate birth. So she wrote to Madeline begging her to keep him in Germany.

Madeline did as she was told but Jessie’s fears about old scandals would cost the family a terrible price.

At first, Bayard was forced into the Hitler Youth Works Corps and then drafted into the German army. He was killed in February 1945 fighting for the Nazis whom he deeply despised. Ironically, his younger brother, the “ardent Hitlerite” would come to America with his parents after the war to settle in New Jersey and claim American citizenship.



In The End

Alfred’s adopted daughter Denise was also causing alarm for her father. Jessie received a letter from Denise’s chaperone while Denise and her chaperone were on a trip to France. While over there Denise had met, of all people, one of Madeline’s sons. And they were acting like they would one day be married! With some maneuvering by Jessie it was assured that the two would barely meet again and never unsupervised.

On April 25, 1935 Alfred suffered a fatal heart attack while at his home in Florida. He was 70-years old. He was buried at Nemours in the du Pont family tower his son had built to honor the family past. Alfred’s old friend/nemesis, cousin Pierre, slipped into the funeral and stood at the back.


Alfred’s greatest legacy in education reform, the state pension and the renowned children’s hospital which Jessie built with the Nemours Foundation trust (it’s on the estate grounds still) live on.

Jessie continued to live in Nemours until her death in 1970. You can visit the home which is now an stunning museum and gardens open to the public.


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