May 22, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Edith Minturn and her husband Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes were the power couple of the Gilded Age. When John Singer Sargent completed the above portrait of the pair in 1896, it toured the US. They were proclaimed the first modern couple due to Edith’s casual attire and her air of insouciance. Edith was the darling of society reporters and was perceived as very fashion-forward, eschewing the Victorian era’s over the top leg o’mutton sleeves for a more fitted look.
Glorious to behold, they were considered part of the inner circle of society but were bohemian enough to discard many of its conventions. Together they devoted significant time to improving living conditions in the settlement houses of New York. Their wealth allowed them more extravagant efforts as well: they brought an English castle back stone by stone for their Connecticut home, where the John Singer Sargent painting hung before Edith donated it to the Metropolitan Museum.
In last week’s edition of this series, we talked about Edith’s role as the model for Daniel Chester French’s Statue of the Republic at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, her face the one remembered by the fair’s 27 million visitors. Even though they didn’t realize it at the time, the Exposition was something that Edith and Newton had in common (they weren’t married until two years later). While Edith was posing for the Fair’s iconic statue, Newton was traveling to exotic locations in the Far East with A.B. de Guerville, special emissary of the World’s Fair to foreign courts. Bertha Palmer, in her role as Chair of the Women’s Delegation, among other organizers, sought out De Guerville to help get their wish list of exotica fulfilled.
Their work would be labeled a success in that many of the 47 countries they visited would set up displays at the Fair to the marvel of the millions of its attendees over the course of its six-month run.
Newton’s own passion for exotic things – and people – was recalled by his grandson, Newt Merrill, who described his grandfather as an early bohemian:
“While studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and drifting around the world, he collected a wealth of stuff, prints and all sorts of things. Throughout his life he brought wonderful artistic friends home to meet his family.”
This sensibility led Newton to seek out a striking gift for New York’s Metropolitan Museum. He wrote in his memoirs: “Sailing up the Irrawaddy River on my way from Rangoon to Mandalay, I spied a 10 foot, one eyed idol which I brought as a gift for the Met. Unfortunately, it never arrived.”
It is a testament to Edith’s enduring and endearing love of Newton that another treasure he spotted while exploring for the World’s Fair – but did not acquire –later made it back to America. Newton wrote:
“When we travelled to Florence, I was very taken with a mantelpiece which I reluctantly did not buy. When Edith and I visited Florence on our honeymoon, Edith discovered that the mantle had been broken up into entablatures. She refused a pearl pin and said that we should spend our money on the entablature instead. It has always stood on the mantle in our library in whatever location we lived since then.”
Edith and Newton’s courtship began on a sleigh ride in 1894 at Shadow Brook, the Phelps Stokes property in Lenox, Massachusetts, which was the second largest estate in the country at that time.
He remembered many years later the little red hat she was wearing, and more importantly, that she turned him down. It was on a walk along the beach of the St. Lawrence River in Murray Bay, a fabled Gilded Age summer resort in Canada, when Edith eventually said yes.
Edith and her husband were both born into New York society in 1867. They spent their early years on Staten Island, which was considered a very fashionable setting at that time. Both families moved to the Murray Hill neighborhood close to Gramercy Park when their children were teenagers.
It is no surprise that this born-and-bred New Yorker, who grew up to be an architect and author, ended up writing the comprehensive series The Iconography of Manhattan Island, filling six volumes on the early history of the city.
Edith’s background is not as decidedly ‘New York’ as was her husband’s. Her mother, Susanna Shaw Minturn, came from a family of Boston abolitionists, the most famous being her brother, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, immortalized by perhaps the Gilded Age’s most famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (whose work also figured prominently in the World’s Fair of 1893).
The very handsome young man, Shaw, is the central figure in the monument, which shows him leading the first African American troop to fight with the Union Army during the Civil War.
Susanna’s mother had been a lifelong friend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, the writer Robert Browning. Susanna married Robert Browne Minturn, Jr., whose father was an owner of the clipper ship, The Flying Cloud, which set the record for the New York to San Francisco race around Cape Horn (and off to the Gold Rush for its passengers).
Five of Robert and Susann’s seven children were born on Staten Island. There were four sisters: May, who married Henry Dwight Sedgwick; Mildred, a confident of George Bernard Shaw; and Gertrude, wife of industrialist Amos Pinchot, and mother of the actress Rosamond Pinchot (who rivaled her cousin Edie Sedgwick in the notoriety she received); and, of course, Edith.
Their mother had encouraged a European tour for the girls, for the wisdom it would bring. While abroad, one person mistook the girls, tall and with perfect carriages, as “four Russian princesses out to explore Italy.” Each of the Minturn sisters would one day be subject to a delicious book, either about the particular brand of fascination they inspired or that of their descendants.
Susanna always encouraged her daughters to be independent thinkers and in 1914, at the age of 85, could be identified marching side by side with them in a New York suffragette rally.
Part III: Marriage in Murray Bay and posing for John Singer Sargent