May 29, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Edith Minturn, Chicago’s Golden Lady, and her husband Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who served as Bertha Palmer’s foreign emissary for the World’s Fair of 1893, were wed in 1895, far from the Gilded Age ballrooms of New York, where the couple inhabited the highest echelons of society. Instead, the golden couple chose the tiny Quebec village of Murray Bay on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, where Newton not only pursued Edith, but also where he chose to propose marriage.
On her rainy wedding day, Edith rode the short distance in a two-wheeled caliche to the tiny Protestant church from the McKim, Mead, and White house that her mother Susanna commissioned, overlooking the wide St. Lawrence. Though Charles McKim was already familiar with the area as the designer of the house and suitor of Edith’s sister, May, McKim’s partner, Stanford White, wouldn’t arrive in Murray Bay until sometime later, to build another Beaux Arts house on the same beautiful bluff. Susanna would boast that she was the first woman to build a house in Murray Bay, but William Howard Taft, a guest at the August 21st wedding, would have arrived there first.
Along with the Tafts, the small church was filled with other summer residents of the area, including Vanderbilts, Sedgwicks, and Tiffanys.
Details of Edith’s and Newton’s wedding were revealed in the New York society pages of the time, including details on the guests who travelled from Lenox (where the castle-like summer home of the Phelps Stokes family stood), Newport, and Bar Harbor.
Edith, who like Newton was 28 at the time of her wedding, was considered very fashion-forward. Her going-away attire was detailed in a fashion magazine of the day, noting that she had selected a “dull green dress dotted with warm reds for crossing the continent.”
Following a tour of Italy and a visit to Edith’s grandmother’s Paris apartment, the couple departed for London to claim a wedding present from a close friend, James A. Scrimser. The wedding gift has been adored by millions of people who have viewed it for the past 120 years: a portrait by John Singer Sargent.
Edith began her poses in the elaborate silk ball gowns that characterized a Sargent’s famed portraits of society matrons. Each dress was rejected in turn by the painter. It was not until Edith arrived breathlessly at his atelier in a casual dress and straw hat, did the artist realize how to portray her. Edith became known henceforth as one of the most irreverent and modern women of the Gilded Age.
In his autobiography, Random Recollections of a Happy Life, which reveals his self-deprecating humor, Newton wrote about posing for the iconic portrait.
“I remember Mr. Sargent as a delightful companion and we shall never forget the pleasant mornings in his attractive studios. Mr. Sargent wanted Edith to pose with a Great Dane, but when she was ready to pose he discovered that his friend who owned the dog had left town and had taken the dog with him. He painted me in the painting in three standings, really I was an accessory.”
Even though it was huge in size, measuring 84.25 inches by 39.75 inches, the Stokes hung it in several of their residences over time, following a cross-country tour of museums and other venues, as was the custom for significant paintings of the day. Late in her life, Edith gave the painting to the Metropolitan Museum, where it hangs today in Salon 771, in a gallery devoted to Sargent paintings. It is located across from an 1898 portrait of Newton’s parents, Anson and Helen Louisa, painted in a similarly informal manner.
Back in New York, following their extended European honeymoon, Edith and Newton were often reported in the New York Times column “What’s Going on in Society,” with one piece detailing a wedding quite different than theirs along the banks of the St. Lawrence.
“At the wedding of Harold Herman Baring to Miss Marie Churchill at the fashionable St. James Church, Newton and his brother-in-law Robert Shaw Minturn were among the groomsmen wearing diamond safety pins that glittered on their white ascot scarves, while Mrs. Phelps Stokes was exquisite in shrimp pink satin and a black hat.”
Though they were known for their great style, the couple’s focus was primarily on social reform. With Edith’s encouragement, Newton authored the Settlement House Law of 1901. Newton Merrill, son of their daughter Helen, spoke of them with much pride:
“They lived a very different life then, but my grandparents were very dedicated to improving housing conditions, insuring proper plumbing and heat for the settlement houses.”
His architectural works stand today as testaments to his abilities. St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University and the Union Settlement House were built with beauty and functionality in mind, a rare but wonderful duality. The Sherman Hoyt House at Park Avenue and 79th street, which he built in 1917, unfortunately was torn down in 1971.
In 2012, New York Times critic Christopher Gray wrote:
“If it had been enlarged 40 times it could have been a rival for Downton Abbey. It seemed so permanent, what millionaire would not have wanted to live there?”
Their Murray Bay home, known as the second Minturn House that was designed in the form of an L, stands today as another noteworthy (and decidedly more rural) testament of his skills as a modern architect, with a wonderful view, to boot.
But Newton was perhaps most famous for his Iconography of Manhattan Island, the research for which depleted his energy and finances (along with some bad real estate investments). All the while, Edith stood beside him, supporting him with great love and devotion. Together, they adopted a little girl Helen in England, who adored her parents.
Throughout their lives together, Edith and Newton never lost their love for each other or their shared love for beauty and adventure. Although the exact reason for Edith’s physical decline is unknown, it was thought to be a type of hypertension, easily cured today. In her sixties, Edith suffered a series of strokes that left her almost paralyzed. Newton rarely left her side, reading novels and histories to her. Edith died in 1937 at the age of 70. Newton died in 1944.
Edith and Newton live on in the legends of the World’s Fair of 1893 and within the hallowed walls of the Metropolitan Museum. And you can sense their presence in the the tiny church in Murray Bay, Quebec (which he clad in stone 15 years following their wedding there, to save the tiny wooden structure from fire), and in the summer home on the banks of the St. Lawrence, just next door to the church, where they spent many golden summer days.